Category Archives: Transports of Delight

Waterways to West Stockwith

Chesterfield Canal: West Stockwith

Chesterfield Canal: West Stockwith

Nottinghamshire is a surprisingly large county.  It’s difficult to imagine, strolling in the East Midlands countryside that surrounds the city of Nottingham in the south, that the north-eastern corner is fenland, and feels like Lincolnshire.

The eastern boundary with Lincolnshire is the River Trent, always an important transport artery and notoriously unreliable in drought and flood.

Up to the late eighteenth century the hinterland of western Nottinghamshire, south Yorkshire and Derbyshire was badly served by roads and waterways.  Sheffield’s cutlery had to be carted by road as far as the River Don at Rotherham from 1740 and at Tinsley from 1751.  Chesterfield’s trade, including coal, iron and Derbyshire lead, had to be taken by road to Bawtry to join the nominally navigable River Idle, which joins the Trent at West Stockwith.

When a canal was proposed from Chesterfield to the Trent in the late 1760s, there were alternative proposed routes – to the Idle at Bawtry, to the Trent at Gainsborough or via Retford entering the Trent downstream of Gainsborough at West Stockwith.

The cheapest alternative – a 46-mile canal from Chesterfield to West Stockwith, recommended by James Brindley, was built.

Bawtry was cut out of the waterway traffic, but continued to prosper as a staging post on the Great North Road.  The River Idle practically ceased to be a commercial waterway, though navigation remained technically possible.

Retford gained greater importance because it was situated on both the Chesterfield Canal and the Great North Road.

West Stockwith is a quiet little place, out of the way for road-travellers, but still significant if you travel by boat.  It’s possible to walk in less than ten minutes between the canal and the River Idle, which has long been unnavigable, its tendency to flood moderated by a huge floodgate.

The canal wharf is now a marina and the original tollhouse of 1789 still overlooks the lock that leads down to the tidal Trent.

Of the eleven pubs that served this once thriving little port only two now operate.  One, the warm and welcoming White Hart [http://www.whiws.co.uk], has its own brewery:  http://www.theidlebrewery.co.uk.

Georgian transport hub

White Swan Hotel, Drakeholes, Nottinghamshire (2018)

White Swan Hotel, Drakeholes, Nottinghamshire (2018)

Chesterfield Canal: Drakeholes Tunnel

Chesterfield Canal: Drakeholes Tunnel

When my navigator Richard directed me to Drakeholes to photograph the tunnel on the Chesterfield Canal the first thing we saw was not the canal but a very large, very Gothick, very derelict building which turned out to be the former White Swan Hotel.

This marks a major transport interchange from the days when everything that moved along roads and canals was propelled by muscle power.

It sits where the junction of four roads, where the old Roman road between Bawtry and the Trent ferry at Littleborough crosses the road from Blyth to Gainsborough.  Here it coincides with the canal, which burrows under the road in a 154-yard-long tunnel as it turns north on its way to its terminus at West Stockwith.

Almost opposite the White Swan is a pair of lodges, beautifully restored after years of dereliction, flanking what used to be the gateway to Wiseton Hall.  The pair was in fact a single dwelling, one lodge for living, the other for sleeping.

It forms only part of the work of Jonathan Acklom, local landowner and the instigator of the Wiseton Enclosure in 1763, who marked the “surrounding eminences” with elegant farms, such as Pusto Hill Farm and Blaco Hill Farm, described by the late-eighteenth historian John Throsby as “ornaments to the domain,…highly creditable to the taste of the owner”.

At the time that Jonathan Acklom rebuilt his family seat at Wiseton Hall in 1771 the Chesterfield Canal was under construction.  He stipulated that it should not approach his estate nearer than two hundred yards.

He built the White Swan to serve traffic coming along the roads to reach the canal company’s wharf at the southern end of the short tunnel, which opened in 1776.

Drakeholes was the Georgian equivalent of a modern transport interchange, and it was all created within a decade.

Though the Hall has gone, replaced by a smaller neo-Georgian house in 1962, its stables survive opposite the old gateway, along with the newer avenue which crosses the canal by the ornate Lady’s Bridge, otherwise known from its decayed carving as Man’s Face Bridge.

The modern Wiseton Hall is strictly private.

For background information on the Georgian Wiseton Hall see http://www.nottshistory.org.uk/Jacks1881/wiseton.htm and http://landedfamilies.blogspot.com/2013/03/14-acklom-of-wiseton-hall.html.

Exploring Sydney: Necropolis Receiving Station

Necropolis Receiving Station, Chippendale, Sydney

Necropolis Receiving Station, Chippendale, Sydney

Just outside Sydney Central Station stands a high-quality Gothic structure which commuters pass without a second thought.

From the street, in an area called Chippendale, it’s more obvious and impressive.

It was built as the Necropolis Receiving Station, from where funerals departed by rail to the Rookwood Cemetery out at what was then Haslem’s Creek and is now called Lidcombe.

It was designed in Venetian Gothic style by the Colonial Architect, James Johnstone Barnet (1827-1904), a Scot who worked with the first generation of New South Wales architects – Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817-1883), William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899), both English, and the Canadian John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904).

The exceptionally fine carving was the work of Thomas Duckett Jnr (1839-1868) [https://www.daao.org.au/bio/thomas-duckett/biography] and Henry Apperly (1824-1887), both of them born in England.

Funeral trains began operating in April 1867.  Passengers were required to buy return tickets, but corpses travelled free.

Though rail-borne funerals practically ended in 1938 and the mortuary station became disused, a service for mourners continued from the main Central platforms through the Second World War until the cemetery railway was closed in 1948.

The station was subsequently renamed Regent Street Station and used to dispatch animals such as dogs and horses, and later as a parcel depot, until in the late 1980s it became an unlikely and ultimately unsuccessful pancake restaurant.

Subsequently it became an even less likely wedding venue.

Montecatini Alto

Monticatini Terme, Italy: Funicolare

Monticatini Terme, Italy: Funicolare

The town clustering round the Montecatini Terme spa is relatively modern:  until the eighteenth century the area on which it is built was a swamp.

The old town is a small, perfect Tuscan hill town, Montecatini Alto, strongly suggestive of the better known San Gimignano, with towers, churches and a market place perched at an altitude of 1,000 feet above the valley floor. Of the twenty-five medieval towers built in Montecatini, six survive.

The easy way to Montecatini Alto is by the Funicolare connecting the historic hill-town with the baths in the valley bottom.  This one-kilometre line opened in 1898, in the presence of local resident Giuseppe Verdi.  The track was blown up in 1944 and restored in 1949.  There was a further closure for upgrading between 1977 and 1982.

The two cars, named Gigio and Gigia (also numbered 1 and 2 for the avoidance of ambiguity) are inclined, with three compartments and external balconies front and back.  Gradient markers towards the top indicate increasing gradients from 25% to 38.5%.  The views are spectacular and the experience didn’t feel vertiginous.  The line stops for lunch between 1.00pm and 2.30pm.  A round-trip, taking less than ten minutes, costs €7:  https://www.funicolare-montecatini.it/orari-e-prezzi/timetable-and-prices.

At the top I visited the quiet little Church of St Joseph & St Philip and, next to it, the Torre dell’Orologio, a clock tower with an unusual dial showing only six instead of twelve numbers.  The Torre dell’Orologio was fitted with a dial facing northwards across the town by 1552, and the existing mechanism dates from 1695.  It chimes “alla Romana”, the Roman striking system in which a low note represents five and a high note one.

At the opposite end of the main square, the Piazza Giuseppe Giusti, I climbed another hill to visit the Church of St Peter the Apostle, which has an odd little museum, including a disconcerting relic of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of Montecatini.

There’s an authoritative account of Montecatini Alto at https://experiencedtraveller.com/journal/2016-08-21-montecatini-alto-in-tuscany-medieval-meets-modern.

Tunnel vision

Queensbury Tunnel, West Yorkshire (February 6th 2019)

When we walked the stretch of the Great Northern Railway Trail from Thornton to Queensbury, my mate Richard and I were puzzled by the undulations in the former trackbed.  There were steep sections that couldn’t possibly have carried a railway train.

It became apparent that whole stretches of the line had been infilled.  Indeed, at the site of the triangular Queensbury Station it’s impossible to work out where the railway went without recourse to the old maps on the very useful interpretation boards.

We walked a couple of hundred yards along the trackbed towards Halifax to look at the north portal of Queensbury Tunnel, where repair work is underway in preparation for filling it in (if the Historical Railways Estate has its way) or restoring it as a cycle path (if the Queensbury Tunnel Society succeeds in making its case – http://www.queensburytunnel.org.uk).

Outside the portal stands a new wooden cross commemorating the ten navvies who died during the construction of the tunnel.

Landfill in the Strines Cutting at the southern end of the tunnel has flooded it to half its length:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queensbury_Tunnel#/media/File:Queensbury_Tunnel_flooded_south_entrance.jpg.

We could only guess the location of the nearby Clayton Tunnel on the line to Bradford, because its approach has been completely obliterated by landfill.

In fact, the west portal is visible and accessible if you know where to look – http://www.lostrailwayswestyorkshire.co.uk/images/donations/Grahame%20H%20Beacher/!cid_.jpg – and almost all of the tunnel’s 1,057-yard length is intact though dangerous, but the east portal is filled in – http://www.lostrailwayswestyorkshire.co.uk/images/donations/Graeme%20Bickerdike/Clayton%20Tunnel/clayton-1.jpg – and the approach cutting has completely disappeared beneath a housing estate.

In the 1960s, when these railways lost their traffic to road transport, hardly anyone envisaged their alignments might have a future purpose.  Campaigners argued to retain the train services, and routinely lost.  The conservation argument that planning policy could safeguard miles-long continuous corridors of land by making them available only for reversible purposes simply wasn’t made in time.

Opening up abandoned railways in the Derbyshire Peak from the 1970s onwards has given millions of tourists healthy pleasure on the Tissington, High Peak and Monsal Trails.

Indeed, in Sussex the Bluebell Railway cleared a huge filled cutting as part of a successful scheme to restore services from Sheffield Park to East Grinstead, removing much of the spoil by rail.

The Great Northern Railway Trail is a laudable attempt to bring people into the West Yorkshire countryside, but the short-sighted disposal of solid Victorian infrastructure a generation ago has compromised the vision for the future.

That’s why it’s so important that the practical, economic case for the reopening of Queensbury Tunnel is sustained.

There is a well-written and well-illustrated account of the railways that met at Queensbury – Martin Bairstow, The Queensbury Lines (Amadeus 2015):  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Queensbury-Lines-Northern-Railway-Riding/dp/1871944449/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1551044322&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=Martin+Bairstow%2C+The+Queensbury+Lines+%28Amadeus+2015%29.

There is also an oddly spooky evocation in virtual world of railway simulations:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msL3L5t1uAs

A Bus Ride Round Attercliffe

Sheffield Corporation Leyland Titan 687 (RWB 67)

The first two Bus Ride Round Attercliffe trips in April and June 2019 have sold out, and we’re now taking bookings for a further follow-up trip on Sunday September 29th 2019, starting at the Penny Black pub, Pond Hill, across the road from the Sheffield Interchange at 2.00pm.

The idea came from the popular Walks Round Attercliffe that I’ve conducted as part of Heritage Open Days, which continue to be oversubscribed.

The Lower Don Valley – that is, the villages of Attercliffe, Carbrook and Darnall – was the powerhouse of Sheffield’s heavy steel industry and was where many of its workers lived.  

Even though some of the remaining historic buildings are inaccessible to visitors, and much has gone altogether, there’s still plenty to see.

Indeed, because the Heritage Open Day walk takes two hours to cover less than a mile of the Attercliffe Road, I looked for an appealing way of driving around to show people more of the valley’s rich heritage.

The star of the event is a 1954 Sheffield Corporation Leyland Titan double-deck bus – no 687 (RWB 87) – immaculately restored and part of the South Yorkshire Transport Museum fleet.

From a top-deck seat there’s a grandstand view, on and off the main roads – industrial sites, schools, pubs, places of worship and sites associated with crimes, riots and the Blitz.

There may be changes to the original itinerary for the September Bus Ride, because fresh historic sites might by then be available, but the trip will include visits to the Zion Graveyard (opened in 1805) and the English Institute of Sport (opened in 2003), along with other buildings from different periods of Attercliffe history.

Riding in the sort of vehicle that replaced the trams in the 1950s is itself an experience, because buses have changed so much in half a century.

Colin Morton, who will be the driver, says that driving 687 is much more physically demanding than its 21st-century successors.  There’s no power steering and the crash gearbox requires double-declutching, which was once normal procedure and is becoming a lost art.

Colin is a fully qualified PSV driver with decades of experience, and he tells me that the Museum is short of younger volunteers prepared to learn how to manage the heritage fleet for wedding hires and other events.

So if you have time to spare and the patience to learn the skills, driving a 1950s or 1960s bus will keep you fit as well as bring pleasure to passengers of all ages: https://sytm.co.uk/join/volunteer.html.

And if you’d like to explore Sheffield’s industrial and working-class heritage while travelling in style on September 29th, please book here.

Places are limited so that everyone can have a top-deck seat, yet people with mobility and other impairments are very welcome to use the lower deck.

For information about some of the historic buildings that survive in Attercliffe – and some that don’t – please click here.

Brief encounter

Carnforth Station, Lancashire

Carnforth station is most celebrated as “Milford Junction”, the location for the film Brief Encounter, that memorable celebration of British emotional reticence, the best record of Celia Johnson’s exceptional talent, captured by David Lean’s unique visual control.  It’s no accident that the film came to the public in 1945, at the end of a frightening war and the start of a scary peace.

In this cinematic adaptation of Noël Coward’s half-hour one-act stage play Still Life (1936), trains serve as a symbol of distance, change and urgency.

Lean needed a railway junction, so that trains could pass in the night and the characters could depart in different directions.  It had to be sufficiently far from south-east England for wartime blackout restrictions to be lifted for night-filming.

Only the shots of moving trains were actually filmed at Carnforth (where it seems that all the trains are hauled by the same locomotive – LMS no 2429).  The interior of the refreshment room and some of the platform scenes were shot at Denham Studios.

Of course, there was a refreshment room at Carnforth in the days of steam:  it was particularly heavily used by troops in the Second World War.  It’s now been lovingly recreated as a tribute to the film and as a memorable tourist experience by the Carnforth Station & Railway Trust Co Ltd.

If you visit the station nowadays it’s instantly recognisable, though the main line platforms have been cut back.  The original clock, by Joyce of Whitchurch, has been reinstated, having been rescued from an antique dealer who, so I’m told, put the price up when an ingenuous friend of Carnforth station revealed its provenance.

Film lovers can have tea and buns – or a lunch worth waiting for – at the Brief Encounter Refreshment Room, linger at the award-winning Visitor Centre exhibition and, if they’re so minded, feel wistful in the subway.

Only the trains are unromantic:  http://www.refreshmentroom.com.

Nottingham’s missing underground railway

Mansfield Road Tunnel, south portal, former Nottingham Victoria Station (1984)

My Nottingham friend Stewart alerted me to a BBC News item about “Nottingham’s ‘secret’ railway tunnel”:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-nottinghamshire-45902996/inside-nottingham-s-secret-railway-tunnel.

The “secret” tunnel is accessible – if you have the key to the right door – from the basement of Nottingham’s Victoria Centre, which is built on the site of the old Victoria Station, opened in 1900, closed in 1967 and quickly demolished.

This was Weekday Cross Tunnel (418 yards), stretching from the south end of the former Victoria Station towards Weekday Cross Junction, where nowadays the NET tram leaves its viaduct to run along the street towards the Lace Market.  The tunnel was used to carry pipework for the Victoria Centre’s heating system, and the track-bed to the south was later blocked by the Centre for Contemporary Art Nottingham art gallery, now Nottingham Contemporary (opened 2009).

In fact, the BBC’s “secret” tunnel isn’t even half of the story.

Beyond the Victoria Station site, the railway line headed northwards into Mansfield Road Tunnel (1,189 yards) which runs almost directly beneath Mansfield Road, emerging eventually just past the road-junction with Gregory Boulevard:  https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/mansfield-road-tunnel-nottingham-may13.80919.

Here in an open cutting stood Carrington Station [http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/c/carrington/index.shtml], opened in 1899 and closed as early as 1928, a commuter station that stood no chance against the competition of Nottingham’s trams.

Carrington Station cutting has been completely filled in and built over as part of an Open University campus, and the street-level building, for years occupied by Alldogs Poodle Parlour, has gone.

North of Carrington Station the railway ran into Sherwood Rise Tunnel (665 yards) [https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2388076] which is blocked by further landfill at the north portal.

Until the mid-1960s these three tunnels, all of which remain intact, were a practical direct route under Nottingham city-centre.

When Victoria Station was demolished there was apparently talk of leaving a right of way beneath the shopping centre, but in the event the basement car-park was built the full width of the station’s footprint.  (It was not unknown for 1960s/1970s shopping centres to include provision for underground rail transport [http://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=2274]).

The blocking of the railway track-bed at three locations, successively in the 1960s, late 1980s and late 2000s, means that a direct route, wide and high enough for a double-track railway and therefore feasible as a light railway if not a roadway, lies utterly unusable beneath the congested streets.

At the time of the Beeching cuts, planners and railway managers clearly believed that the Victorian infrastructure they inherited would never be needed again.

It’s a matter of opinion whether this amounted to naivety, stupidity or arrogance.

They left future generations a legacy across Britain of miles of derelict strips of land that could have been adapted to transport uses undreamed of in the 1960s, if snippets hadn’t been handed over for buildings that could easily have been located elsewhere.

The Alpine Route

Queensbury Tunnel, West Yorkshire (1979)

Anyone who’s visited the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway will be familiar with Keighley railway station, where main-line trains between Leeds, Skipton and beyond connect with the Oxenhope branch that is now the heritage railway.

Keighley branch platforms used to serve another route, spectacular to ride and difficult to operate, known formally as the Great Northern Railway’s Queensbury lines and unofficially as the “Alpine Route” for its steep gradients, sharp curves and heavy engineering works, a Y-shaped system connecting Bradford, Halifax and Keighley.

Opened in stages between 1874 and 1884, the junction between the three routes lay in the valley bottom at Queensbury, a highly unusual six-platform triangular station.  The only other true triangular station in Britain was at Ambergate, Derbyshire.

The village of Queensbury, home of the famous Black Dyke Mills, was four hundred feet higher, accessible only by a dimly-lit footpath.  By 1901 Queensbury had electric tram services to Bradford and Halifax, so most of the rail passengers used the station simply to change from one train to another.

Queensbury station has, sadly, been obliterated, but its location is the starting point for the Great Northern Railway Trail, which Sustrans and Bradford City Council have developed, firstly between Cullingworth and Wilsden in 2005, and then a separate section between Thornton and Queensbury between 2008 and 2012: https://www.sustrans.org.uk/sites/default/files/images/files/Great%20North%20Trail%202012.pdf.

The long-term aim is to provide a trail along much of the original rail routes between Bradford, Halifax and Keighley, but there is an immediate problem which needs an imminent solution.

Immediately south of Queensbury station, the line to Halifax ran through Queensbury Tunnel, 2,501 yards long, which has a constant gradient of 1 in 100, so that the north portal is seventy feet higher than the southern one.

After the track was lifted in the early 1960s, the Strines cutting to the south of the tunnel was sold as a landfill site, without adequate drainage, so that the run-off from within the notoriously wet tunnel backed up to a depth of thirty-five feet in the cutting, flooding the graded bore to almost half its length.

This accumulated water was pumped out in 2016 to enable a detailed engineering inspection, which found that though the tunnel had inevitably deteriorated and the brick lining had collapsed in two locations the tunnel itself was safe and capable of restoration.  (The lining doesn’t actually hold the rock tunnel up;  its function was to prevent loose rock falling on to the track or, worse, passing trains.)

The Queensbury Tunnel Society has mounted an energetic campaign, supported by Bradford City Council, to reopen the tunnel as a lit, paved cycle-way, using resources that the current owner, Historical Railways Estate (HRE), part of Highways England, had allocated for a short-sighted scheme to infill the bore.  Infilling for 150 metres at each end and capping the ventilation shafts was estimated to cost £5.1 million;  a cheaper scheme filling only 20 metres at each end would cost around £3 million.

The Queensbury Tunnel Society’s estimate for remediation to Network Rail standards would cost £3.3 million, and the installation of a cycle path and lighting would cost a further £1.5 million. The Society argues that taxpayers’ money would be better used for a scheme which delivers social and economic benefits, rather than one which renders the empty tunnel permanently unusable.

Detailed accounts of this controversy can be found on the Society’s website [http://www.queensburytunnel.org.uk/index.shtml] and at https://www.railengineer.uk/2018/07/12/securing-a-future-for-one-of-englands-longest-disused-railway-tunnels.

The latest development borders on farce: https://www.keighleynews.co.uk/news/17367798.flooding-adds-to-tunnel-bill.

Are these trams going anywhere?

Sheffield Cathedral tram stop:  South Yorkshire Supertram nos 206 & 113 (September 2018)

Sheffield Cathedral tram stop: South Yorkshire Supertram nos 206 & 113 (September 2018)

Photo:  John Binns

The announcement that the new Tram-Train service between Sheffield Cathedral and Rotherham Parkgate would begin service on Thursday October 25th 2019 was not before time.

It was initially planned to open in 2015, and the seven new Tram-Train vehicles have been running on the main Stagecoach Supertram network since September 2017.

The South Yorkshire Supertram network now runs two separate fleets, the original German-built Siemens-Düwag units of 1992 (numbers 101-125) and the seven new Spanish-built Vossloh vehicles (number 201-207).

Even before the new service started up, the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) initiated a consultation exercise to determine the future of the system from 2024, when the Stagecoach franchise expires:  https://www.travelsouthyorkshire.com/futuretram.

It seems that no provision has been made to finance the replacement of the original fleet, which is nearing the end of its useful life.

The consultation includes the suggestion of scrapping the whole system, which understandably has few political friends outside Sheffield:  https://www.doncasterfreepress.co.uk/news/mayor-ros-jones-no-more-cash-from-doncaster-taxpayers-for-supertram-1-9344722.

This has, predictably, greatly exercised the tram-enthusiast community –  [http://www.britishtramsonline.co.uk/news/?p=24061] – and provoked South Yorkshire taxpayers (such as me) to query whether their community charge and taxes are being wisely spent.

I wonder if this option among a range of others is actually political shroud-waving.

It’s not simply a matter of scrapping the vehicles and covering the tracks with tarmac, as happened to Sheffield’s first tram-system in the 1950s.  Not only has most of the track been relaid over the past few years, but dismantling Supertram would involve demolishing viaducts and reconfiguring road junctions and traffic signals across an eighteen-mile network.

It would also fly in the face of applying the results of the Tram-Train pilot scheme to other parts of South Yorkshire as well as the rest of the UK.

As a Sheffield resident I’ve often wondered why the South Yorkshire Supertram system has not developed, apart from Tram-Train, since it opened a quarter of a century ago.

In that time the Manchester tram-system has extended from two former rail routes with a street link into Piccadilly Station to seven routes (with an eighth, to Trafford Park, under construction) and the original 26 trams have been replaced by a fleet of 120 trams with 27 more on order.

In Nottingham, an initial service to the north of the city has grown to an X-shaped system running 37 trams over twenty miles of track, and the Birmingham tram-line to Wolverhampton, which initially stopped short of the city-centre, is now extending across the city with the intention of reaching Edgbaston by 2021.

In Edinburgh, where the tribulations of construction caused uproar, the tram service is hugely popular and likely to be extended in the next few years.

Why is there talk – even hypothetically – of shutting down Supertram when other cities are reaping the benefits of light rail?

Update:  The first day of service for TramTrain didn’t go well:  https://www.thestar.co.uk/news/sheffield-tram-train-derails-after-collision-with-lorry-causing-major-travel-disruption-1-9414192.