The lines of beauty
Regardless of who runs them, trains have made a startling comeback. John Woodcock celebrates Yorkshire's railways
Where and what is the Great Yorkshire Railway? We are spoiled for choice.
Is it the Keighley & Worth Valley, or the North Yorkshire Moors line? The majestic Settle-Carlisle? The lovely branches meandering in Wensleydale and the Esk Valley, or the Route of the Flying Scotsman thundering through the county? It is none of these, or any number of other serious candidates. In the view of an overexcited marketing department, the title belongs next to a scrapyard at Murton Park, three miles east of York. This has caused much embarrassment to a handful of enthusiasts there. They have no qualms about their passion being billed as the Blackberry Line, or even Britain's longest-surviving private railway. But to publicise 900 yards of track, two stubby steam engines, half a dozen diesel shunters, three coaches, 11 wagons, one gabled waiting room and a rather short platform as the Great Yorkshire Railway... well, they admit, it could be a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. The misnomer resulted from the enthusiasm of those promoting a wider visitor attraction. Trains share the Murton site with the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, a Roman fort, and Danelaw, a Dark Age village whose wood-burning fires create almost as much smoke as the locomotives next door.
This summer, however, humility has prevailed, and in their oily hut next to the signal box there is a sense of relief among John Dunn and his colleagues. Their charming but modest slice of railway history has been redefined, factually. It is now the Derwent Valley Light Railway, or what little remains of the line which once stretched for "16 miles and one chain" between York and Cliffe Common, near Selby, and "carried country produce into the town and town folk into the country".
It opened in 1913, closed to passenger traffic 13 years later but remained as a freight link delivering potatoes, flour, cattle feed, manure, and grain for Scotch whisky, before the final section was closed in 1981.
"Great Yorkshire Railway? I know it still says that on a sign here, but we're under no illusions. In football terms, our railway is almost Sunday League," said Dunn, chairman of the DVLR Society which has 60 members and would welcome more volunteers to help maintain this tiny offshoot of Yorkshire's outstanding contribution to rail travel.
It's a struggle, he admits. "There's a scrapyard at one end of the line and we have to make sure we don't end up there."
No chance, not when so many individuals – and by no means everyone wears an anorak – are committed to keeping all Yorkshire's trains running, be it for tourists, or as a social service and antidote to congested roads.
The magnetism of heritage steam railways, such as those serving Bront-land and Heartbeat country, can overshadow equally picturesque routes which are still a part of the national network. It's much easier to plug a line where engines pant white clouds over the heather or where they filmed The Railway Children, than it is, say, the 11.13 from Huddersfield to Barnsley.
The excellent booklet, Scenic Britain By Train, published in conjunction with the industry and organisations such as the Association of Community-Rail Partnerships, seeks to rectify this by boosting the network's most impressive rural lines. It features 29 of them and, of those, seven are within Yorkshire, or stray across the border.
The most famous is, of course, Leeds to Carlisle, which has just celebrated the 130th anniversary of its opening.
It seems inconceivable now that the Settle-Carlisle section twice came close to being axed and had to be rescued by a ferocious national campaign. They have been vindicated by freight traffic alone. The route is invaluable to the environment because of the huge tonnage it keeps off the roads.
Likewise, numerous other lines which were somehow saved from Dr Beeching's axe in the 1960s are enjoying a renaissance. The country's fastest-growing route in terms of passenger numbers is that between Hull and Scarborough, an essential service for commuters, schoolchildren and shoppers, but presented as the Yorkshire Coast Line where tourism is concerned.
Despite our passion for the motor-car, nationally more people are taking the train today than at any time for more than 50 years.
On far fewer lines, too. Evidence of that is easy to find. On the stations at York, Beverley and Scarborough there are superb 16ft-square maps painted on tiles, showing the extent of the railway network in Yorkshire in 1900. Much of it survived until the Beeching era. In those days you could travel by train right along the coast from Redcar, through Sandsend and Robin Hood's Bay, to Bridlington (change at Hull for Hornsea and Withernsea).
Consider some of the other towns, and subsequent tourist spots, where the train used to call: Helmsley, Hovingham and Ampleforth, Ripon, Richmond and Pateley Bridge, Wetherby, Tadcaster and Thornton Dale, Masham, Wetwang and Sledmere.
Much of Yorkshire owed its place on the train timetable to George Hudson, the Victorian Railway King until rivalry and financial shenanigans dethroned him. Many consider that his disgrace was unjust and are campaigning to give him due credit for what he achieved. Although even his grave has been neglected, he may have stopped turning in it of late. At least three of his ventures – the now privately-run North Yorkshire Moors Railway, the Hull-Scarborough line, and York-Scarborough – are prospering for different reasons.
On the the latter, steam specials this summer will again boost its revenue and when their whistles carry across the fields to the churchyard at Scrayingham, it is just possible that "King" George will be having the last laugh.
Much of Yorkshire owed its place on the train timetable to George Hudson, the Victorian Railway King until rivalry and financial shenanigans dethroned him.
John Woodcock's rail highlights
Leeds to the Settle-Carlisle, and Morecambe lines:
Even before the star of the show emerges, the supporting cast is impressive. It includes Saltaire (for Salt's Mill), Keighley (change platforms here for a steam fiesta), and the Aire Valley to Skipton. You can branch off just before Settle and go through Giggleswick heading for the Lune Valley, Carnforth (of Brief Encounter fame), Morecambe and Lancaster, a detour with its own rewards. But that is to miss what is arguably one of the greatest railway journeys anywhere. The 72-mile Settle-Carlisle route is beyond superlatives. For those who still don't know, it cuts between Penyghent on one side, Ingleborough and Whernside on the other; the 24 arches of the Ribblehead viaduct over Batty Moss are an engineering marvel; Dent is the highest mainline station in Britain, and Aisgill, the line's summit, is 1,169ft above sea level. There's more. Delightful Appleby – Appleby in Westmorland as it will insist – and the Eden Valley where the stations are spoiled for choice for views: the Pennines or the Lakeland fells. At the end of the line a cathedral city with a castle. Was it to keep out the Scots or the English? With Carlisle you are never sure.
Websites: www.settle-carlisle.co.uk; Leeds-Lancaster-Morecambe www.llmr.co.uk. For times and ticket information, call National Rail Enquiries, 08457 48 49 50. Regular guided walks, free to rail users, will help you discover the area around both lines. Leaflets are at stations and Tourist Information Centres .
The Penistone Line:
Links Huddersfield, Barnsley and Sheffield, and a hidden gem, says the Scenic Britain booklet. Highlights include Huddersfield's Grade One-listed station, viaducts, tunnels, woodland, Pennine landscapes, and historic Penistone itself, approached across a curved viaduct with five more arches than even Ribblehead. Other stations include Denby Dale, and Holmfirth is nearby. The Penistone Line Partnership is a voluntary-based group which organises a range of events including music trains and guided walks. Excellent-value fares and service levels are set by South and West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executives. Joint rail/bus rover tickets are available.
Further information: www.penline.demon.co.uk, tel: 01226 370338
The North York Moors National Park could hardly be better served by the train, thanks to two wonderful routes.
The Esk Valley Line:
Weaves for 36 miles between Middlesbrough and Whitby, a journey that is almost as much a tribute to Captain Cook's associations with the area as the engineers who brought public transport to isolated communities like Kildale, Commondale, Lealholm, and Glaisdale. You want something quirky along the way? Visit the Old Gooseberry Fair at Egton Bridge on August 1. Grosmont is the junction with the steam trains of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which also steals into Whitby these days, encouraging those who would like to see a regular service between the port and Pickering re-established. The partnership between the two lines is evidence of how a private and public railway can work together. After all, they have a mutual interest. The NYMR is a solid tourist attraction, and, in summer, it is tourists who also help to keep the Esk Valley alive for those who need it most of the year, particularly schoolchildren from moorland communities.
Music trains, featuring jazz and folk, and steam specials also help the coffers.
For details of events on the Esk Valley, phone 01947 825885. Website: www.eskvalley railway.co.uk .
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway
Describes itself as "The country's most popular heritage railway", with 305,000 passengers using the 18-mile line last year. Apart from Pickering and Grosmont, there are stations at Levisham and Goathland and a walkers' request stop at Newton Dale Halt. This summer and autumn there is a range of special events for all the family. For details of train times, fares including all day rover tickets, on-board dining services, events, and bookings, phone 01751 472508 during office hours. Talking timetable 01751 473535 website: www.northyorkshire moorsrailway.com For information about volunteer recruitment in all areas of the railway's operations, and courses offering experience on the footplate of a steam loco, tel 01751 473799/472508.
Yorkshire Coast Line
As well as celebrating its 160th anniversary this year, the 60-mile route between Hull and Scarborough is the fastest-growing line in Britain. Over the last three years it has seen a 40 per cent increase in business – 1.3 million passenger journeys in 2005 – with 72 trains a day midweek and a growing weekend service. It's used by commuters, shoppers, school pupils, and, increasingly, for leisure and by those escaping increasing fuel and parking costs and jams on inadequate roads. The route serves obvious attractions – Hull's museums and The Deep, Beverley for history and horseracing, the seaside, and wildlife (a sudden display of RSPB carrier bags is a sure sign that the station is Bempton).
Since a community rail partnership was established, and the appointment of rail development officer David Walford, the line has been exploiting its potential in small but significant ways, and the public has responded. Driffield station, for example, is manned again, and its buffet, one of only three originals in the country, has reopened, with an adjoining restaurant. Driffield is also using the railway to help promote the Wolds through walks and cycle rides, while Bridlington station is smothered in flowers thanks to the efforts of buffet owner John Sadler. Promotions enable rail-users to save money in shops, cafs and leisure facilities in the resort. Special-event trains are also boosting the line. Forthcoming ones include "railway rambles", station galas, and a murder mystery, an idea pinched from hotels and transferred to a diesel unit. Wolds Coast Day Ranger tickets cost 12 for an adult, 6 for a child. Details on 01377 255741 or 08457 48 49 50.
Keighley & Worth Valley Railway
Marketed as Yorkshire's Favourite Branch Line. How can it fail when it offers steam rides through Bront country? And how times change. Cultural tourism and industrial heritage was still a long way down the line when Dr Beeching swung his axe and British Railways closed the route in 1962, almost a century after it opened. Locals and rail enthusiasts joined forces, a preservation society was formed, and it was revived six years later, but with a twist. Society members decided to recreate the atmosphere of a country branch line of the 1950s. It proved an inspired concept. The railway, which runs for five miles between Keighley and Oxenhope, calling at Ingrow, Damems, Oakworth and Haworth, is hugely popular, not least with filmmakers and TV producers. L ast year it carried 117,600 passengers, the third consecutive annual increase.
After being closed to passenger trains for nearly 50 years, a picturesque 17-mile section of the original line, with stations at Redmire, Leyburn, Finghall, Bedale, and Leeming Bar, has been restored and is now a part of the national network again. It is operated, without a subsidy, by a plc with seven paid staff backed by more than 300 volunteers. It's already a successful visitor attraction, with 60,000 passenger journeys last year, but the long- term aim is for the railway to fully support the dale's social and economic life. The crucial next stage is to connect another five miles of track from Leeming Bar to a planned short spur into Northallerton station, giving many Dales folk a direct rail link to the town's schools and colleges, shops, hospital, and the East Coast main line. The railway operates every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with three or four trains in each direction. From early July, and throughout the school summer holiday, trains will run every day of the week.
For details of times, fares, and special events, including days out with Thomas the Tank Engine, call 01969 623069 or www.wensleydale railway.com
Not always appreciated by those facing the daily commute to and from Leeds or York, but a line with several attractions. It takes longer, but travelling via Harrogate also offers a change of scene between the two cities. Instead of Garforth and Crossgates, take in elevated views of Wharfedale, and then cross another viaduct, this time for that classic view of the Nidd at Knaresborough, and on through village halts with flowers cascading over the platforms. One of them, Poppleton, just outside York, can claim a footnote of rail history. It's home to the last railway nursery in Britain – though for how much longer? Poppleton Nursery was established in 1940 and grew produce for dozens of wartime station buffets and railway hotels. More recently, it has provided hanging baskets and bedding plants for stations throughout the North. The nursery became a part of rail privatisation and now various organisations within the industry are discussing ways of safeguarding its future, five jobs and a wealth of horticultural expertise.
Embsay & Bolton Abbey Steam Railway
A 4.5-mile section of the former Skipton-Ilkley line closed by Beeching in 1965, and which enthusiasts began restoring a few years later. Their railway now boasts 15 steam engines, seven diesels, a fleet of carriages including a royal saloon used by Princess Alice, and last year they had nearly 110,000 passengers, plus the attentions of a Bollywood film company. Negotiations are taking place which could see the line extended into Skipton station. Stephen Walker is the business manager, but at weekends he becomes a volunteer again, working in the ticket office. The line is open every Sunday throughout the year and up to seven days a week in summer, and you can travel first or standard class. Details on 01756 710614. Talking Timetable 01756 795189 or www. embsayboltonabbeyrailway.org.uk
Derwent Valley Light Railway, Murton, near York
Hats off to the enthusiasts who thought it worth saving the remnants of a line which was always privatised. The nameplate on the waiting room/ticket office/museum says Murton Park, but 80 years ago it was the village station at Wheldrake, a few miles away, and rebuilt on its present site in 1999.
In the opposite direction, much of the original trackbed from Murton into York is now part of the national cycleway, and there are brambles galore. Hence the DVLR's nickname, the Blackberry Line. Murton Park is open daily, 10am-5pm. Diesel trains run every Sunday and on Bank Holidays until the end of September. Steam engines operate on the second and last Sunday in the month, and Bank Holidays. For details, www.dvlr.org.uk or 01904 489966.
The National Railway Museum, York
From steam engines to Japan's Bullet train, the ultimate tribute to a force that transformed economics, social life, and much of the world. More wheels than you can count, and now with a giant among them, the Yorkshire Wheel. Many other special events. Details 01904 621261, www.nrm.org.uk, 24-hour recorded information line 01904 686286.