Gone, but not forgotten – the railway routes that once criss-crossed Britain

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There are many treasures and a great deal of nostalgia to be enjoyed along our abandoned railways lines. Sheena Hastings reports.

IN the heyday of Britain’s railways more than 100 years ago there were 20,000 miles of routes criss-crossing the countryside – linking villages, towns and cities, carrying traffic human and otherwise and fuelling the country’s industry as well as a new enthusiasm for affordable travel. There were often competing companies running services between the same two points, with five different routes from London to Scotland alone.

Six or seven decades later the railway map of Britain was transformed by closures which left some parts of the country with no railway service at all. The main driver of this devastating change was Dr Richard Beeching’s report The Reshaping of British Railways, published in 1963. As a result of his analysis of the economics of rail transport, 2,000 stations and many thousands of miles of track were pensioned off, halving the network we had inherited from the Victorians who had embraced rail transport with such enthusiasm.

Although he is seen as the villain of the piece, Beeching was not the first to take an axe to the railways. Some closures had happened as early as the 1840s, and around 3,000 miles of line were lost in the 1920s and 30s, and more in the 50s. They were mostly minor, duplicated or remote lines, and their passing didn’t cause much of a stir. The radical proposals made by Beeching did provoke protests, but those who resisted generally lost the fight.

Because of the closures a glance at the railway timetables of the 1950s shows many journeys that would be impossible to make today and the British countryside is now littered with relics of abandoned railways. In many places the ghost of a line’s pathway is still there, punctuated by viaducts, bridges, sidings, embankments and tunnels. In other places there is no clue that a railway existed, except perhaps the odd street named Embankment Place. Younger locals know nothing, but only those with a long memory or eagle-eyed owners of an Ordnance Survey Map will realise what has been lost.

Some areas of the country were hit hard by railway closures, caused largely because of the movement of freight to the roads. The democratising effect of reasonably priced rail travel was taken away, and people who would not necessarily choose to do so were forced to use the roads or not travel at all.

Paul Atterbury, an expert on Victorian culture and regular contributor to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, has also written extensively about railway history and his latest book is a celebration of the small railways we have lost.

“I wouldn’t call myself a train buff but I enjoy railways, and where they are both in the landscape and in history,” he says. “There’s a great deal of nostalgia around railways, and older people often have very fond memories of certain journeys made as children and the features of the line they looked out for. Stations had a life of their own, and often great pride was taken in them. They were a place to meet people and observe life, and train travel meant many small places became much less insular. Although it is not a walker’s guide book, I’ve walked many of the routes, and they are enjoyable and enlightening.

“People do forget, though, that in some places the prospect of a railway being built nearby was viewed with alarm and in the early days there was huge resistance from many landowners – what we would call ‘Nimbyism’ today – who thought a railway would be a blot on the landscape.

“There were some of the same arguments then about railway lines as there are now over windfarms. Now people view railways and the features they introduced, such as viaducts and bridges, with warmth and nostalgia.”

Of the small railways Atterbury has chosen to feature are three in Yorkshire: The Alne to Easingwold line, the Skipton to Grassington line and the Derwent Valley Light Railway between York and Cliffe Common. Each has a different tale to tell.

Completed in 1891 at a cost of £17,000, the Alne to Easingwold line was an example of what the author calls “a dangerous mixture of enthusiasm and optimism”. It was a time when every town of any stature had to be part of the ever-expanding network, and the businessmen of the town (population then 2,000) believed the town could not develop properly without a railway connecting it to the outside world. The Easingwold Railway owned its own locomotives, and carriages were cast-offs from bigger companies. Later North Eastern Railways operated it, but the company remained independent, renaming itself Easingwold Light Railway in 1928.

It escaped nationalisation in 1948, but by then passenger traffic had petered out anyway and services ceased that same year. For another 10 years freight kept the line operating with British Rail locos hauling the wagons, and the last train ran along the track in December, 1957.

Today East Coast trains rush past the point where Alne station used to be, the track has been overgrown and the land ploughed in places. The Easingwold station site has been built over with housing, but at the centre of the development is Station Court, a redevelopment of the Station Hotel, built in 1892.

Yorkshire was an early adopter of the railway dream, and long before the Dales were popular with visitors minerals and freight brought railway tracks into the picturesque landscape. In 1895, the Yorkshire Dales Railway was formed to construct a line between Embsay, near Skipton, and Darlington.

By 1902 the line was open as far as Grassington, but the rest of the route was never built owing to the uneconomic expense. Branch line services were added, with coaches travelling on to Bradford, making possible journeys to London and other cities.

Regular passenger services were withdrawn in 1930 owing to lack of business, but with the increasing popularity of walking, particularly in the Dales, a few excursion services survived. Freight traffic from a limestone quarry at Swinden, near Cracoe, still used the line. Closure of the Swinden to Grassington section came in 1969, but the Skipton to Swinden stretch is still kept busy.

The 16-mile Derwent Valley Light Railway route was completed in 1913 and meant to be largely a freight line, although it had 11 stations most built in attractive cricket pavilion style. Its passenger services were rudimentary railbuses. By 1926 the passenger service had died off, but agricultural freight kept this “farmers’ line” open and in private hands until the 1960s. During the Second World War it had played an important role, transporting bombs to the RAF Bomber Command airfield at Elvington. Part of the line still ran freight trains and steam services for tourists until 1981. Many of the features along the line remain, and part of it is now a cycle route.

Exploring the routes of old railways has become a hobby for some walkers and lovers of history, and organisations like Sustrans have worked to give old railway lines a new lease of life as officially designated footpaths and cycleways. Some old railways, such as the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, have been saved as heritage lines, and in a very few instances previously closed lines have reopened as part of the national network.

You don’t have to know much about railways to appreciate their part in our past and enjoy the odd surprise as you meander along in the wake of those old tracks. As Atterbury says: “There’s something very romantic about old railway routes; they’re a wonderful relic of how life used to be.”

Paul Atterbury’s Lost Railway Journey’s – Rediscover Britain’s Forgotten Railway Routes is published by David&Charles, £15.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk

Ramblers who mapped lines

Many people have discovered the pleasures of walking old railway routes through the group Railway Ramblers, which was founded in 1978 by a group of amateur railway explorers who wanted to discover and document all abandoned railways.

Back then there were only about 250 miles of official railway paths in Britain and thousands of miles of closed lines, many in private hands, and organising walks involved seeking permission from landowners.

Each region now has its own branch, and between them they have explored all and documented many abandoned lines. It has also fundraised towards the purchase of rail routes to convert them into footpaths and cycleways. www.railwayramblers.org.uk