They’ve been gone for more than half a century, but Chris Berry meets the group of enthusiasts determined to bring railways back to the Wolds.
Did you hear the one about the railway line where all the stations were at least half a mile away from the villages it served? Well it’s back.
The Yorkshire Wolds Railway may never be able to replicate the track of the Malton and Driffield Junction Railway that opened in 1853 and saw its last train running in 1958, but it is intended to provide a reminder of those days.
“It became known as the Malton Dodger around here,” says James Russell, the media officer amongst the all-volunteer group that is bringing back the track to the Wolds. “Its nickname came about because the line was originally intended to form part of an express route from Newcastle to Hull. Unfortunately financial problems beset it early on and continued through its entire construction. They wanted to make the line as straight as possible but that didn’t happen as the engineering costs were much greater than they had anticipated and through-trains between the North and Hull found it easier to go via Selby.
“George ‘Railway King’ Hudson had been behind the scheme but had to resign his chairmanship amid accusations of financial wrong-doing and it almost went bankrupt before completion. Because they ran out of money very quickly they had to follow the contours of the land much more than they had intended and it was single track throughout. The result of following the curves of the Wolds was that they ended up taking the line so far away from each of the villages it was intended to serve that it was said to have ‘dodged’ everywhere.”
Far from being the fast link initially envisaged it became just another branch line, but its inadequacy was exposed when road traffic gradually took away what business it had generated.
The line closed to passengers way before Dr Beeching even had an axe to wield, with its last service in 1950. The quarries at Wharram and Burdale continued the freight traffic for a further eight years.
There were seven village stations on its route – Settrington, North Grimston, Wharram, Burdale, Sledmere and Fimber, Wetwang and Garton-on-the-Wolds. The Burdale Tunnel remains a popular landmark and is testament to the engineering work that was undertaken under the supervision of author Charles Dickens’ brother, Alfred Lamert Dickens.
The group of enthusiasts who are about to bring back the line are realistic about its return and what can be achieved. They formed the Yorkshire Wolds Railway Restoration Project in October 2008, 50 years to the day after the line’s closure. Their aim is to restore a small part of the line as a tourist attraction.
A new visitor centre and 0.9 miles of track was recently given approval and work begins close to the former site of Sledmere and Fimber station this summer. The new attraction will be across the road from what is a popular stopping-off point and picnic site at the crossroads for Wetwang, Malton, Sledmere and York.
It is to be built on Sledmere Estate land and will be the first heritage railway line in the East Riding. Lines that served Market Weighton, Withernsea and Hornsea may provide future possibilities.
Philip Robson is vice chairman of the Yorkshire Wolds Railway Restoration Project and a partner in an accountancy practice based in Driffield. He became involved because of his love of railways, but sees great potential for the area.
“This started life with a number of rail enthusiasts getting together, but it has now developed into a project which we all believe will bring genuine tourism. Funnily enough when it was first mooted that we were trying to bring back the line there were many who said we would never do it. I had clients coming to me saying ‘have you heard..?’, not knowing that I was involved. I just kept quiet at the time, but now it’s time to stop hiding our light.
“People are now turning around and telling us what a good idea it is. We believe this will put the area on the map. Wetwang already has a famous fish and chip shop; some great pubs; a scarecrow festival and Paul Hudson, the BBC Look North weatherman as its mayor and Sledmere Estate is a marvellous attraction, but this should add even more business. We’ve achieved a great deal in three-and-a-half years to get to this stage, but we haven’t got anything up just yet. Now that we’ve been given the green light it’s full steam ahead.
“Stage one is to get the visitor centre in place and stage two will be the 0.9 miles of operational track. Our forecast is that the two stages will cost just under £250,000.”
Fund-raising is a priority and a full programme of activities throughout the year plus membership of the society are two of their strands. The others include funding bodies such as LEADER, which match-funds appropriate causes, and the Lottery Fund.
Once the track is up and running the Yorkshire Wolds Railway organisers will be buoyed by the fact that UK heritage railways earn around £84m annually from 6.8m visitors and that small sites can attract up to 2,500 visitors over summer weekends. For every pound spent on a heritage railway there is also evidence that a further £10 is spent in the local community, so Sledmere and Wetwang should benefit.
The other essential ingredient is volunteers; people who are prepared to assist in any way with their own individual skills. Bringing back the Malton Dodger is no mean feat and will require a constant funding stream and those who will give their time for nothing.
“Planning fees have been astronomical but we have managed to cover them,” says Philip. “One of the key things now is to get the momentum going so that people can see something physical even if there is just one coach at the other side of the hedge. Hopefully then people will say that we’re not all talk. Initial signs are very good and the volunteer pool is on the increase. Everyone now seems to be getting switched on since we received approval.
“The visitor centre and track will all be on Sledmere Estate land and Sir Tatton Sykes and his agent Stephen Greenfield have been fantastic. The station that was just across the road from here once had royal visitors when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, arrived to stay at Sledmere House.”
Every heritage railway enthusiast longs to see steam trains and the Yorkshire Wolds Railway chaps are no different, but Graham Danby of Leconfield, near Beverley, who is a full-time driver for Hull Trains between Paragon Station in Hull and King’s Cross believes diesel locomotives may be the first to run. He is operations manager for the fledgling line.
“When I found out that there was a possibility of the line reopening I jumped at the chance to be involved. It may not necessarily be steam straight away. What we are hoping is that on a weekend, when there are more tourists, you can run steam trains. We’re going to try and recreate the experience of what the Malton Dodger used to be like, so we will more than likely be using a small tank engine steam train. At other times we are looking at providing ‘driver experience’ days using a diesel shunter. To drive a train is a dream come true for lots of people and we intend to offer that opportunity. It’s also another way of attracting funds into the line.”
The Yorkshire Wolds Railway’s ultimate goal is to get to 3-5 miles of track, but that is a long way off just yet. They are starting from scratch and any thought of replicating the likes of the Wensleydale Railway and North York Moors Railway just couldn’t happen.
There’s a housing estate built across what used to be the line in Driffield; and the bacon factory in Malton has now extended over what was the line at the other end.
But who knows? Perhaps the whole line may one day be relaid and the Malton Dodger could even dodge Malton too.