JUNE 2021: THE MOUNTSORREL QUARRY AND RAILWAY
Our original plan for a summer visit to Lutterworth for this meeting was cancelled because of the pandemic lockdown regulations but fortunately Mark Temple’s talk on the Mountsorrel Quarry and Railway came to our notice, he willingly agreed to present it on Zoom. The meeting was attended by well over 25 members and four visitors.
The site is based on a visitor centre at Mountsorrel consisting of refurbished old quarry buildings which have been extended to consist of a café and information room. There are also two nature trails, engine sheds, workshops, a model railway and crazy golf as well as a new platform on the complex. (including ample parking).
Mark’s talk was split into two sections dealing firstly with the history of the quarry and secondly the story of the original railway serving the quarry and how it was brought back into use.
There is evidence that the local granite was worked in 500BC possibly making milling stones or querns. The granite in this area contains pink hues and was in great demand. It was used in the construction of Mountsorrel Castle in 1080 (demolished in 1217) and then in local domestic buildings. It is known that there were about 40 such dwellings in the area in Tudor times incorporating the traditional half timbering. Many of these were demolished in 1959 to enable the widening of the main A6 through the village (now bypassed). The 18th century surge in road building created new demand although the quality of the road surfaces was very poor, possibly worse than Roman roads but the onset of the use of tar macadam again increased demand in the 19th century.
In 1803 the Earl of Lanesborough bought the area from Sir John Danvers and developed various quarries with Hawcliffe and Buddon Wood opening in 1821. Subsequently the Martin family of the Brand, in Woodhouse, joined the organisation and used their business skills to expand the quarry. Nunckley Hill (the base for the Visitor Centre and railway) opened in 1854 with 200 men being employed. A lasting legacy of those early days is the 12.30pm blast which is still used today.
In the second half of the 19th century the quarry expanded as did the internal railways of many gauges depending on their use. In the 1870s a hospital was built especially for the employees who grew bushy moustaches to help prevent them breathing in the terrible dust. They drank great quantities of beer as well. The quarried stone was dressed by experts working in rows of open fronted sheds but machinery was used to crush the stone and later to add tar for road purposes.
Many quarry men joined up in WWI and 73 employees were killed. A war memorial designed by Shirley Harrison (male) who also designed the De Montfort Hall was built using local stone. After being affected by the 1920’s depression demand picked up again during WWII, the stone being used to create airfield runways.
Mountsorrel Quarries were absorbed into Redland in 1960 and at a peak of production in 1989 by Lafarge and then Tarmac. Today only 150 men are employed to produce 4m tonnes a year (but there are 160m tonnes still to be quarried). The massive holes are some 20 metres below sea level!
Having used the canals to get the stone out to customers in the early days the development of the national railway infrastructure opened up new opportunities. Firstly a north eastern link to the nearby Midland Mainline at Barrow was approved by Act of Parliament. Later a south western link was proposed to join the newly constructed Great Central Line. The engineer for this extension was the local and still practising firm of Pick Everard. The entire length of the quarry line then became 3.5 miles.
In 1964 the Mountsorrel railway closed and the track was removed. The track and the Nunckley quarry site became derelict and overgrown. A local proposal to re-establish the south western link to the GCR was initially turned down but, when the GCR itself saw this as an opportunity to expand its operation, they supported the idea and in 2007 work commenced using volunteer labour. With the help of Lafarge, which supplied and laid 3500 tonnes of stone for the track bed and other materials and equipment, free of charge, and many other donations of money and materials, the line and new station were formally opened in 2015. Meanwhile engines and rolling stock had been acquired and restored.
Work on the Heritage Centre started in April 2015 incorporating three historic quarry buildings. It was opened in April 2016 and visited by Prince Charles early the following year.
I have previously visited the site and it is well worth it even if the actual trains are not running. The exhibition is very informative and the café is brilliant. A booklet about the project gives an enormous amount of detail about the work involved and shows what can be done by a determined group of volunteers. This was a fascinating talk with a wealth of old quarry and train photographs.
Report by Colin Towell
Extra information received:
The branch to the GCR was built by Henry Lovett of Wolverhampton and overseen by W.F. Martin, and Nuncley Hill Quarry opened in c1898, and closed in 1924