Middleton Top is the last surviving complete winding engine house built by the Cromford & High Peak Railway Co and still contains its original pair of beam engines, built by the Butterley Company in 1829, together with its boilers and imposing chimney.
The Cromford & High Peak Railway Co was created by Act of Parliament on 2nd May 1825 for the purpose of linking the Cromford Canal with the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge. This connection was intended to provide a through route from the north and east midlands to Manchester and the south Lancashire region avoiding the long Trent and Mersey Canal journey. The proposed line had been surveyed during 1824 by Josias Jessop and when it opened, in two stages, in 1830 and 1831, was 335/8 miles in length; slightly longer than the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. The one major hurdle which the engineer had to overcome was Derbyshire's bleak High Peak region which rises one thousand feet between the two canals. No locomotives then or now could climb steeply inclined rails and Jessop's answer to the problem was to use a series of powered inclined planes linking long, nearly level sections of line suitable for either locomotives or horses; in fact, the railway's gradient profile was similar to a canal.
When the line opened there were no less then nine inclined planes throughout its length, eight employing steam winding engines in distinctive gritstone engine houses to haul wagons up and down. Each incline was equipped with double track to enable wagons to be moved in both directions at the same time as well as being balanced for safety and economy of operation.
The winding engine at Middleton Top was the third one from the beginning of the line at High Peak Wharf on the Cromford Canal. The first two inclines achieved rises of 204 feet and 261 feet and Middleton lifted the line a further 253 feet to nearly 1,000 feet above sea level - and all in the distance of three and a half miles. Two more shallower inclines took the railway to its summit of 1,266 feet (990 feet above Cromford canal) before commencing its descent towards Whaley Bridge. Middleton incline was just over 700 yards long at an angle of 1 in 8¼, similar to the first two.
Of the eight winding engines along the line, two comprised pairs of 10 horse power beam engines and the other six were pairs of 20 horse power engines, Middleton being of the larger type.
Besides the remarkable pair of beam engines, Middleton Top engine house also contains a collection of railwayana, tools and miscellaneous items relating to the Cromford & High Peak line and to the winding engine and adjacent to the building is the engine keeper’s house, albeit much altered.
This incline ceased working in 1963 and, after the closure of the rest of the line by British Railways in 1967, part of the route including Middleton Top engine house was acquired by Derbyshire County Council. The engine was restored by the Middleton Engine Group and the entire scheduled ancient monument, which includes the incline and terminal wheel, also received the attention of Derbyshire Archaeological Society's Industrial Archaeological Section and the county council.