The Penistone Line Partnership celebrated its 25th anniversary this autumn. It is, says Stephen McClarence, one of the great unsung scenic railways of Britain.
As train journeys go, the West Yorkshire run from Stocksmoor to Shepley – passing a wooded valley, several fields and a few bridges – may not be one of the unquestionably great ones.
But then, as train journeys go, it goes very quickly. It’s over and done with in two minutes, station to station – possibly one-and-a-half with a good following wind. And yes, people do sometimes make the journey, even if there’s hardly time to sit down.
It’s on the Penistone Line, one of the great scenic lines of Yorkshire, which has clocked up a significant anniversary this year. As it twists and turns the 37 miles from Huddersfield to Sheffield (via Barnsley and, logically enough, Penistone), it offers vast views and a couple of spectacular viaducts that wouldn’t disgrace the great Settle-Carlisle line.
Marketably, this has been called Last of the Summer Wine Country and – keep this to yourself – the line’s views easily outclass those on at least one of the region’s more celebrated “heritage” lines. Early passengers were quick to grasp the scenic beauty that trundled past the carriage windows.
As well as the views, the line, built in 1850, is famous for its pioneering “music trains”, launched in the mid-nineties. Live folk, jazz and blues are performed in the carriages and come as a bit of a surprise if you’re expecting a quiet journey communing with your mobile phone or iPad.
The music trains are less frequent these days, says Rowena Chantler, Community Rail Officer with the Penistone Line Partnership, a campaigning group which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
But a short online film from 20 years ago captures their unbuttoned atmosphere, with plenty of close-ups of banjos, washboards and clapping hands. And the odd pint of “rail ale”.
It reminds me of the blizzard-blasted February evening many years ago when I joined a “blues train” in Huddersfield. The sight of a man with a double bass heroically staggering along the platform at Honley station through swirling snow has stayed with me.
With rhythmic screeches and a steady train-on-track, train-on-track rhythm accompaniment, we mojo-ed on through Shepley. Music in motion. As Michael Williams suggests in On the Slow Train, his engaging account of a dozen memorable British railway journeys, the Penistone Line “must be the friendliest line in Britain”.
Rowena and I meet in the platform shelter at Elsecar station near Barnsley. With through trains thundering past outside, she outlines the history of the partnership, which works with local authorities and transport bodies to make the most of the line and involve its various communities.
She credits Professor Paul Salveson, rail campaigner and former Kirklees councillor, with setting up the partnership in 1993 after the line was threatened with closure – for the second time.
Back in the Sixties it had been earmarked in the Beeching cuts that scythed through Britain’s railway system. But Barbara Castle, the Labour Minister of Transport, reprieved it because she feared it would “throw thousands of commuters onto already crowded roads”.
The line offers a lulling journey as it makes its scenic way up and down hills, through tunnels and cuttings, over viaducts, past farms and distant clusters of hilltop windmills gyrating gracefully.
The train makes 15 stops over the course of an hour-and-a-half, with no station more than ten minutes from the next. To a passenger in a hurry, this might sometimes seem more like The 39 Stops – but that’s very much the point of a community line like this one.
“There are often no bus services – or infrequent ones – between some of the places we serve,” says Rowena. “For many people it’s a lifeline. It connects them with other villages and communities that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to. There’s an assumption these days that people have a car, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
That’s the practical side of things. But there are also regular guided walks starting at various stations. “If you go on one you realise you don’t need to go to the Dales or the Peak District to walk,” she says. “A few hundred yards from many of our stations you’re in beautiful countryside.”
Not that country walks come instantly to mind if you start, as I did, in Sheffield. As it pulls out of the city, the train speeds through an unlovely landscape of factories, industrial decay and trade warehouses. But after five minutes on an autumn morning, we’re surrounded by seemingly endless acres of gold, copper and bronze-leafed trees: a metallurgist’s dream landscape.
Soon Wentworth church’s sky-spearing spire dominates the view – part of a South Yorkshire landscape that can seem unexpectedly rural to strangers. We pass pretty glades, half-a-dozen pheasants, an overhead the swirl of starlings.
Penistone station – reputedly Britain’s coldest thanks to its altitude – is dominated by a great curving 29-arch viaduct, particularly impressive when the low winter sun casts its shadow on the fields far below. Two more famous viaducts – Ribblehead (on the Settle-Carlisle) and Berwick (on the East Coast Main Line) – have a credible challenger. Emley Moor transmitter shoots up rocket-like on the right.
The landscape opens ever further out, with the broad views shifting from left to right as the train meanders. It all feels utterly top-of-the-world, or at any rate top-of-Yorkshire. More viaducts and then Brockholes station, its pretty maroon and cream offices making it a Harry Potter film location in waiting. Here and there, you look down on plush homes with impressive garden furniture.
Huddersfield appears in the far distance, a tightly clustered townscape, with as many modern university buildings as old factories. Almost instantly the train is swallowed by a tunnel and then you’re at Huddersfield station, with its staggeringly grand stately-home frontage (“the most splendid station facade in England,” reckoned Sir John Betjeman) and its statue of Harold Wilson.
Back on Elsecar station, Rowena Chantler talks about meeting groups of elderly people daunted by the ticket machines introduced at many unmanned stations and the excitement of children who have never been on a train before.
“When I ask what powers the trains, they sometimes say ‘steam’,” she says – as though trains are part of history, part of the Industrial Revolution.
A large proportion of passengers are commuters travelling to work, plus students.
And Meadowhall is clearly a key destination – crowds get off and more crowds get on when the train stops there.
For the record, on my return journey no-one got on at Stocksmoor for the two-minute run to Shepley.
History of appreciation
The Penistone Line is one of the great scenic railway lines of Yorkshire, though conversely one of its lesser known gems, and early passengers were quick to grasp the scenic beauty that trundled past the carriage windows.
“As you pass by Lockwood, Berry Brow, Honley, Brockholes and other strangely named places,” wrote Thomas Normington, author of a Victorian railway guide, in 1884.
“You are taken through scenes of surpassing loveliness, some of them of almost alpine character; glen after glen, and ravine after ravine are passed, with pretty manufacturing villages nestling here and there.”
For more deatils go to the Penistone Line Partnership: www.penline.co.uk