The Roundhouse renaissance continues

A drone picture of the Barrow Hill Roundhouse complex.

In 1989, Barrow Hill Engine Shed Action Group was formed with the intention of saving the roundhouse there – now the sole surviving working example of this type of 19th-century railway architecture – from demolition. Now, the site is about to embark on the latest chapter of its renaissance from historic ruin through working museum to technical centre and innovation hub, as Steve Brown reports.

BARROW Hill Roundhouse was completed in 1870 to house the steam locomotives which worked in the Staveley iron and steelworks. A major contributor to the local economy, it was also the location where locomotive drivers and firemen reported for duty and where the locomotives themselves were repaired, fuelled and prepared for their duties. The design of the roundhouse allowed the maximum number of individual locomotives to be stabled ready for traffic in a fully-accessible position in the smallest ground area and featured a centre-mounted turntable. The depot continued to be extremely busy until the early 1960s, when the decline of the UK steel industry and of freight haulage by  rail, plus the onset of diesel locomotives, saw a reduction in crews and locomotives based at Barrow Hill until its final closure by British Rail in February 1991. 

The historic building was then scheduled for demolition and it was only through the last-minute intervention of the Action Group that the Roundhouse was given a preservation order which saved it from the bulldozers and was later granted Grade 2-listed status by the Department of the Environment. 

A dedicated band of volunteers then commenced the long and onerous task of repairing the buildings and restoring the site to the status of a working railway museum, with the great assistance of Chesterfield Borough Council in raising the funds to carry this out. 

By 1998, sufficient work had been completed that an open day could be organised with four hired-in steam locomotives, one of which was the Johnson “half-cab” shunting loco number 41708, which had spent most of its working life at Barrow Hill. This was the first of many events to be held at Barrow Hill as the site was  further developed and the facilities improved. 

In 2001 the first of the now annual Rail Ale Festivals was held; there have been several “gatherings” of famous steam locos and in 2014 there was an inaugural music event, a concert by Jools Holland and his Orchestra and featuring former Spice Girl Mel C, was held on the site. Nowadays Barrow Hill is open to the public at weekends from March 2 onwards with lots to see and do as befits a fully operational working railway museum. The excellent cafe on site is now famous locally for its breakfasts and attracts passers-by as well as museum visitors. The exhibits in the Roundhouse include several locomotives from the National Railway Museum collection, including the Midland Railway compound 4-4-0 number 1000 and the Great Central Railway “Director class” 4-6-0 Butler Henderson. In addition, there are also several heritage diesel locomotives present, so the period of railway history at the end of the working life of the depot is also well represented. 

In 2016, the Roundhouse was awarded £1.2 million from the National Lottery  Heritage Fund for the “Moving Forward” project, which financed essential repairs and a welcome extension to improve visitor access to the site and the collections therein. However, preserving the past costs more money than grants can generate and a working site the size of Barrow Hill really needs to raise new income to secure its future. 

Mervyn Allcock, MBE, now general manager of Barrow Hill Ltd and the man who had the drive and vision to lead the campaign to save the Roundhouse, has been instrumental in generating new business from various railway engineering companies and in attracting locomotive owners to base their charges there. The central location of Barrow Hill in the UK’s railway network means it is well placed to attract such business and there are now several established engineering providers to the rail industry on site including Harry Needle, Sheaf Engineering and Schweerbau, the latter of whom base their rail milling machine here. 

East Midlands Railway have used Barrow Hill to stable and service their trains and the prestigious Belmond British Pullman is a regular visitor on trips to Chatsworth House via Chesterfield station. Very recently, Barrow Hill Ltd were pleased to bring a technology-driven weedkilling train owned by Envu, which works for Network Rail, to the site which will be with them for maintenance and systems upgrades: Envu and Schweerbau would be ideal partners for the soon-to-be-built “Rail Innovation Centre”, of which more shortly.

“DRIIVe represents Chesterfield Borough Council’s ambition to become a prominent location for rail supply and innovation.”

There is direct 24/7 access to the national rail network from the site and secure storage for rail vehicles is available and has been widely used by various operators. 

A short test track is also available to companies, whereby locomotives and other vehicles can be tested after repair or development before being released onto the national network.

An excellent example of the innovative work being carried out at the site by its tenants has been the development by Positive Traction of a battery powered shunting locomotive using a modified class 08 loco, which has been the standard shunting engine for freight operators, depots, ports and even heritage railways across the UK for many years. The loco has effectively been brought up to date for the 21st century in terms of ease of maintenance, the cab environment, safety features and a lack of harmful emissions while retaining a degree of familiarity to existing staff who drive them in terms of the control desk, thereby reducing training time. It is to be hoped that their efforts are suitably embraced by the rail industry as it moves towards reducing its carbon emissions in the future. 

The next exciting chapter in the Roundhouse’s history is about to begin with, subject to planning permission being granted: a £5 million rail research, development and innovation centre to be built on the Barrow Hill site. 

The regeneration of England’s former coal mining and heavy industrial areas has been one of the biggest social and economic challenges of the last few decades – and one of these initiatives is the Staveley Town Deal. A theme of the project is Innovation and Enterprise, which is why the Derbyshire Rail Industry Innovation Vehicle (DRIIVe) at Barrow Hill is attracting funding from the Town Deal and is being sponsored by Chesterfield Borough Council. 

DRIIVe will be a modern innovation and training centre providing nearly 1,500 sq metres  of floor space consisting of classroom and workshop training areas, specialist research and development facilities including a digital laboratory plus commercial offices and a fully equipped undercover freight vehicle workshop. 

It will serve as a base for rail-related supply chain businesses which will have access to the latest research and innovation. It will create more than 20 full-time jobs and aims to create many more opportunities for local people to access highly-skilled careers in the rail industry. 

DRIIVe represents Chesterfield Borough Council’s ambition to become a prominent location for rail supply and innovation, being in close proximity to the existing railway industries in both Derby and Doncaster. The aim is to complete the centre by May 2025 with the first tenants moving in shortly afterwards. 

What will distinguish DRIIVe from other research and innovation centres is its focus on the UK rail freight industry which has not been previously targeted for such support. Providing a “one-stop shop” for freight operators and wagon owners will mean that, for example, a company keen to introduce a new freight wagon on the national network will have all the expertise it needs to design, test and gain network acceptance for such a project. 

The rail freight sector is also increasingly employing digital skills for the monitoring of freight vehicles, for tracking and tracing while in use and for preventative maintenance: DRIIVe will have the necessary IT and digital expertise to support this continuing initiative. Working with Universities and Colleges, DRIIVe will identify priorities for rail freight research and the development of innovative product and components. Freight on rail has been one of the successes of privatisation of the railways in terms of innovation and responding to market demand and the appearance of DRIIVe will undoubtedly be welcomed by the industry as a result.

Barrow Hill Roundhouse has come a long way from those early days when its life was hanging by a thread and only  saved by the efforts of a dedicated band of volunteers. In future, though, it might be at the cutting edge of future developments in the rail industry while still conserving and protecting the past, which will surely make it a unique location.

Editor’s Note: The Barrow Hill Roundhouse and Museum is open to members of the public between March and December on Saturdays and Sundays, from 10am to 4pm each day. Further details, including times of demonstrations, can be found on their website; Sat Nav code is S43 2PR. Any enquiries re DRIIVe should be directed to Mervyn Allcock at or to Bob Burgess at