Malcolm Barker: Unbroken line from golden age of rail still casts a spell

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APPROPRIATELY for a railway driven through the hills, the Settle-Carlisle had friends in high places when they were most needed. It owes its very being to Parliament’s insistence on its construction. Trains still run on its tracks because Mr Michael Portillo, then Minister of State for Transport, reprieved the line in April 1989 when closure or privatisation threatened.

Twenty-five years on from that momentous decision, passenger journeys on the railway number more than one million a year, compared with only 90,000 in 1983. Mr Portillo, hailed as its saviour, left Parliament after being narrowly defeated in a contest for leadership of the Conservative Party in 2001, but the gods of railways still smile on him. He has metamorphosed into a television presenter, and travels around Britain and Europe with old Bradshaw guides.

The Settle-Carlisle developed from anxiety on the part of the Midland Railway to secure its own direct route into Scotland. Parliamentary approval was obtained in 1866, creating much excitement in the communities along the proposed route. At Appleby they rang the church bells. A farmer in the Eden Valley said he had only heard one voice of dissent. His own reason for rejoicing was a need to get 5,000 lbs of butter to market in Sheffield every year.

However, the Midland’s enthusiasm for the difficult and costly project subsided. The company went back to Parliament with a bill seeking the abandonment of the line, but this was rejected. Parliament, in effect, told the Midland to get on with the job instead of scrapping the plan. This ruling, according to the Midland, was “a disappointment to many shareholders”, but they accepted the decision and went ahead with construction.

It was a daunting task for the Midland’s engineer-in-chief, John Crossley. He chose a young Australian, Charles Henry Sharland, to determine the route, and he set about the work by spending a week walking the countryside between Settle and Carlisle, looking for the best way through.

This significant figure in the history of the line died aged only 25, long before the work he had envisaged was brought to completion. Ironically, the cause of his death was tuberculosis, a disease he might have evaded had he stayed in his native Tasmania.

The first sod of his chosen route was cut in November 1869, marking the commencement of a heroic engineering feat eventually accomplished by 6,000 navvies.

They cut 14 tunnels and built 20 viaducts, including the now-famous Ribblehead, which, because of its beauty, utility and wild setting, is deservedly cited as a monument to Victorian engineering

Another, Smardale, was more than four years in the building, and when it was completed John Crossley’s wife, Agnes, laid the last block of limestone, suitably inscribed, on June 8, 1875. Less than a year later, on May 1, 1876, the line carried its first passenger train.

The Settle-Carlisle had two extremely busy world wars, but even as early as 1948 the idea was being floated that it might one day be abandoned and become “a worthy monument to bygone people, a people who put their trust in steam”.

Subsequently it survived not only Beeching’s axe but further attempts to close it in the 1960s and 1980s. Keeping watch over it now and encouraging its success is the Settle-Carlisle Partnership, a triumvirate made up of the line’s Friends, a trust and a development company.

In such hands the line should continue to escape the fate of many of the routes that veined the map of Yorkshire following the “railway mania” of Victorian times. Many have disappeared, their rails ripped up, their stations and buildings abandoned, and their ballast masked by grass and hidden in woodland. There are some notable survivors, including the Worth Valley, North Yorkshire Moors and Wensleydale Railways, that owe their continued existence to enthusiastic amateurs and the voluntary skills of professional railwaymen.

There are also examples of abandoned lines being converted to other purposes. A good example is the legacy of Yorkshire’s most unlikely railway, 11 miles of track on the North York Moors which ran from 1861-1926. Its purpose was to set calcined ironstone, mined in Rosedale, to Teesside blast furnaces, and this it did in vast quantities, 560,000 tons in 1873. By this time, railheads served the Rosedale mines to the east and west of the valley.

Three engines were deployed to move the mineral to the head of the Ingleby Incline, where the laden wagons, having been uncoupled and attached to a cable, made an abrupt descent of nearly a mile to the foot of the Cleveland Hills, and thence to Middlesbrough.

It was a bleak, windswept area in winter and in early 1917 movement was halted for five weeks by snowdrifts up to 20ft deep. Seventy-five men worked for three days to clear a cutting at Blakey.

The rails were removed for scrap as soon as the railway closed, but the trackway remains and it has become one of the great assets of the National Park, offering an exhilarating walk overlooking Farndale and Rosedale.

A great might-have-been is offered by the Scarborough-Whitby coast railway, which closed in March 1965. If it could have been preserved it would surely now be one the most popular scenic routes in the country, offering a series of magnificent views for almost its entire length, and culminating at the Whitby end with a crossing of the imposing viaduct across the Esk.

Lacking a Mr Portillo, this line, like many others, was wiped out. At Ripon, where passenger services were withdrawn in 1967, station buildings have been converted into flats. The city’s line had offered a direct connection with Harrogate and Leeds, and with Northallerton on the East Coast main line, and its loss still rankles.

As recently as last March, the city Mayor, Mick Stanley, called the closure “nonsensical” and said its ill-effects had persisted for 50 years.

A curiosity in all this is the admiration afforded to old railways, even when they are long gone. However, just imagine the reaction to the suggestion of a new line, say a high speed link to Scotland by way of a route carved through the Pennines. What a hullaballoo would be set up, what screams of protest, what demonstrations, what angry letters, even perhaps from those of us who hold the old Settle-Carlisle in such affection.

• Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.