The Wright brothers are taking off. Michael Hickling reports on new action for old plans at a Pennine railway station.
You can't help thinking that Branwell Bront would have warmed to the idea of what's about to happen at Sowerby Bridge station.
The old Victorian ticket office, long disused, is being given a new life as the licensed Jubilee Refreshment Rooms, where one of its big attractions will be its choice of real ales.
Branwell, brother of Emily, Charlotte and Anne, worked at Sowerby Bridge station, dispensing train tickets while his sisters sat at home and focused on other matters, such as how to take the literary world by storm. It was drink that interested Branwell, not books. Or even railways for that matter. His boozing and poor accounting got him sacked within a couple of years.
Branwell would not care for the standard of hospitality here at the moment. The station is unmanned. If you want a ticket, buy it on the train. There are no creature comforts to cheer up the passengers waiting in the chilly and soulless steel-and-glass shelters on the platforms. Not even a vending machine.
Two local men, Chris Wright and his brother Andrew, are about to change this. Whatever degree of success their new enterprise brings, they already deserve an award for tenacity. It seems there's no bureaucracy quite as intricate and tricky to deal with as railway bureaucracy. It has taken 10 years of wrestling with it for the brothers to get this far.
It all began one morning at Oxenhope railway station on the Worth Valley line over a pot of tea in the refreshment room. "We said, 'wouldn't it be a fantastic idea if we could take this to Sowerby Bridge?' says Chris. "That was our Eureka moment."
In 1997, they put an idea to the British Rail Board, the property arm of BR, the last bit of it still standing after privatisation. The board responded positively, but before things could go further, it was superseded by Railtrack plc. Negotiations began again. Then Railtrack was shunted off and in steamed Network Rail. The process started once more.
In the meantime, the train operators also had to be consulted. So first came Regional Railways' representatives, followed onto the platform by Northern Spirit's men. Arriva was not far behind and now it's Northern Railways who run the trains through here from Manchester Victoria.
But at last the brothers have got what they were after, a 20-year lease on the large stone property built in 1876 and last used as a ticket office in 1983. They hope to re-open as refreshment rooms in June or July.
"It's not been for lack of wanting," says Chris. "You can call it typical Yorkshire spirit. There's business to be made here, but we're not under any illusions. It's not easy to start when you have no track record. But we've got 400-500 people getting off trains here every day. If we get five per cent of that we'll be happy."
They have in mind a traditional place where people can come for a cup of coffee and a natter. "There will be a heavy emphasis on Real Ale – I'm a life CAMRA member. We won't be tied to any brewer. We will use the micro breweries.
"We'll also find a corner for the Stamp Club or the pigeon fanciers. At the moment, if little organisations like that want to hold a meeting they have to find 75 to book a big hall."
The brothers have run six charity beer festivals. Beyond that they don't have experience in hospitality or catering. Andrew works in a dyehouse. Chris has his own painting and decorating business. They have given the refreshment room the Jubilee name after the last class of steam locomotive to operate in Calderdale. Andrew will leave his job to manage it and will be helped in procuring the locally-sourced food by Chris's wife Maxine.
They have made the assumption that the last ticket clerk to work here was a man of fixed habits. Underneath where he sat was a crack in the floor and beneath that in the cellar Chris found a pile of pipe ash almost as tall as he is.
The present interior is decrepit but sound. The half-inch thick plaster was mixed with horsehair, typical of
the time. This meant a sample had to be sent away for analysis to see if contained anthrax, the spores of which can survive for centuries.
In the foundations were bits of old clay pipes with harps embossed on them, left behind by the Irish navvies.
The station itself was a splendid mock-Tudor edifice mysteriously destroyed by fire in the 1970s.
Both brothers are involved with a local railway user group which got the nearby Brighouse station re-opened in 2000. They are keen to bring back the personal touch to the station, although they won't be selling tickets.
For all sorts of reasons, this seems a spot designed for a successful new beginning. For one thing, the volume of rail passengers has shot up since the brothers thought of the idea. One stopping train an hour has grown to three. The last one at night is the 11.30.
Estate agents marketing Sowerby Bridge now stress its rail links. These days no-one thinks the congested M62 is much of a selling point for commuters.
Open country begins at the cliff immediately behind the station. The National Cycle Route is just up the road and it's within easy striking distance of the Pennine Way and the Calderdale Way.
Maybe the ghost of a wistful Branwell Bront will come to haunt the beer pumps, but the Wrights won't be putting up a blue plaque in his
name, much as they would like to. In Branwell's time (appointed in 1840, he earned 75 a year) Sowerby Bridge station was situated a few yards further down the line to the west.
Life and times of
Branwell worked on the Leeds and Manchester Railway as the "assistant clerk-in-charge" at Sowerby Bridge. He was at his post for the grand opening of the railway on the October 5, 1840 when three trains ran daily each way along the line. His job was to log the trains and their cargoes, organise loading and unloading the wagons and look after passengers' safety. Local tradition says Branwell lodged at the Pear Tree Inn on Sowerby Street, overlooking the railway. More information about the family at the Bront Parsonage Museum, Haworth, 01535-640199, www.bronte.org.uk