Crewe, Cheshire

Oh Mr. Porter what shall I do? I wanted to go to Birmingham But they sent me on to Crewe. Despite the jokes about delays at Crewe, despite working out anagrams of Crewe Station and coming up with ‘Wait (no secret)’ or ‘Train woes, etc.’, for me it is still a thrilling station to visit. It is a trainspotter’s paradise, it is what Dungeness is to twitchers.

Set amidst lush Cheshire dairy country, Crewe remains the most romantic and practical railway town in the world. Look at it on a map and you will see the railway lines striking across Middle England towards it from six different directions. It looks like the middle of a snowflake under a magnifying glass.

Crewe_Waiting_for_the_train,_platform_11,_Crewe_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1409390In 1837, it was nothing more than a small stop between Warrington and Birmingham. At the point where the line crossed the turnpike road linking the Trent and Mersey and the Shropshire Union Canals, the railway developers bought land from the Earl of Crewe, whose Jacobean house stood nearby, and decided to call the junction ‘Crewe’. The tiny village of Monks Coppenhall was swallowed up and, with the opening of the Grand Junction Railway on July 4th 1837, Crewe began to make world history. It was the first place to have its own railway hotel, The Crewe Arms, built in 1838. It was the first place to form a junction between more than two companies, and the first to have a completely independent railway system built around it to ease traffic congestion.

The purpose of the Grand Junction Railway was to link the four largest cities in England by joining the existing Liverpool and Manchester Railway with the projected London and Birmingham railway. The line, which was the first long- distance railway in the world, ran from Curzon Street Station in Birmingham to Dallam in Warrington. As soon as the station opened, it was seen to be a useful point to begin a branch line to the county town of Chester. A locomotive depot was built at the station to provide banking engines to assist trains southwards from Crewe up the Madeley Incline, a modest gradient which was a challenge to the small engines of the day. In 1842, the Grand Junction Railway moved its locomotive works to Crewe and more and more houses were built to accommodate the growing workforce. The very best railway engineers were employed and by 1861, the station had to be re-built to cope with the increased traffic. The town expanded still further under the leadership of John Ramsbottom, a Stockport man who was the locomotive superintendent for what had now become, through mergers, the North Western Railway Company — the largest railway company in the world. In 1871, he was succeeded by the colourful and brilliant Frank Webb, a vicar’s son, who became known as ‘the uncrowned King of Crewe’. By the 1890s, Crewe had 1,000 trains passing through it a day, and the town’s population was nearing 50,000. In 1903, another legendary railway man, George Whale, took over from Webb, but Crewe’s power and glory in the railway world could not last forever. With the passing of steam, trains did not need to stop at Crewe to change locomotives. Myriad branch railways were axed and fewer and fewer trains terminated at Crewe. In 1985, the entire track layout was modernised, simplified and reduced.

In Crewe’s heyday there was a strange and sad event. On 3rd  October 1897, 33 years after marrying the actress Lillie Le Breton, Edward Langtry arrived at the station. It was three o’clock in the morning. He was penniless, in a confused state, and could not fathom how or why he had arrived at Crewe. He shuffled along to The Crewe Arms, whose manager had him taken away to an asylum near Chester. He died a few days later.

 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Roger Cornfoot

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