Category Archives: Transports of Delight

Barton bridges

Bridgewater Canal: Barton Aqueduct

It’s often forgotten that when James Brindley (1716-1772) surveyed his canal to carry coal from the Duke of Bridgewater’s mines at Worsley, he originally planned to build its terminus in Salford.

This was the route authorised by the first Bridgewater Canal Act of 1759.

Almost immediately, Brindley made the radical decision to take the canal across the River Irwell so that it could terminate at Castlefield in Manchester. 

This scheme made it practical to build an extension, longer than the original main line, to run parallel to the Mersey & Irwell Navigation towards Liverpool, but it depended on bridging the River Irwell with an aqueduct, carrying canal barges above an existing waterway, at Barton-upon-Irwell.

Despite the scepticism of other engineers and parliamentarians, and even though the first ingress of water nearly caused the collapse of one of the three arches, Brindley’s Barton Aqueduct proved to be practical when it opened in 1761,  and it became the wonder of the age.

All the great aqueducts the canal age stem from this modest-looking structure.

It was so solidly built that when it was demolished in 1893 to make way for the Manchester Ship Canal, it had to be dynamited:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barton_Aqueduct#/media/File:Barton_aqueduct.jpg.

Its replacement, the hydraulic Barton Swing Aqueduct (1894), is remarkable in its own way.

It was designed by the Ship Canal’s engineer, Edward Leader Williams (1828-1910), the designer of the Anderton Boat Lift (1875), and was constructed by the ironfounders Andrew Handyside & Co of Derby. 

Watertight gates block the canal and the tank that carries boats, as the bridge swings to lie parallel with the Ship Canal so that ocean-going vessels can pass.

The adjacent Barton Road Swing Bridge works in tandem with the aqueduct, and both are controlled from the four-storey brick valve house on the man-made island in the middle of the Ship Canal.

At one time the single-carriageway Barton road bridge was practically part of the Manchester ring road, and the traffic delays became notorious after the Second World War.

The traffic jams were relieved but not eliminated by the construction of the M60 Barton High Level Bridge (1960) to the west of the swing bridges.

Standing on the canal bank or the swing road bridge at Barton is a reminder of how far engineering has developed since the uneducated millwright James Brindley ventured to bridge the river with a canal in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Ferry up the Mersey

Manchester Ship Canal

The best birthday presents are inspired, and when my friend John and his family gave me a voucher for a Mersey Ferry cruise up the Manchester Ship Canal for my seventieth birthday they made possible a long-held ambition that I’d never got round to fulfilling:  https://www.merseyferries.co.uk/cruises/Manchester-Ship-Canal-Cruises/Pages/default.aspx.

The gift was enhanced by the fact that John agreed to join me.  No-one knows better how to compile a Marks & Spencer picnic.

Booking a Ferry Cruise takes persistence:  I lost count of how many times I was told, in an inimitable Scouse accent, that “it’s not on the system yet”.

Persistence pays.  I booked us on a cruise up the canal to Manchester.

I was tipped off that the smart advice was to sail from Seacombe and arrive at the terminal good and early to bag a decent seat.

John was told the exact opposite, that the boat started from Pier Head.

My source was correct, and we took a taxi to Seacombe so far ahead of time that we were treated to complimentary coffee left over from the commuters’ sailings, so that we were in position to march down the gangway, like Gracie Fields in Sing As We Go, and park ourselves on the upper deck, facing forward, with seat, a table and a window ahead.

We were advised to take a picnic because of the queues for food at the café-bars on each deck.  In fact, we took it in turns to fetch hot drinks whenever the queue was manageable.

It’s a fascinating experience to sail up the trench that was dug thirty-six miles up the Mersey valley from Eastham Locks to Salford in the early 1890s, and even more memorable to meet an ocean-going ship coming the other way.

Rising through huge locks in a sizeable boat that doesn’t touch the sides is disconcerting.  The Mersey ferries are around 150 feet long and have a beam forty feet or slightly more.  The widest MSC locks are eighty feet wide.

One of the enjoyable features of the trip was the way in which, like other canals, the Ship Canal route stitches together places that aren’t directly connected by road and rail routes.

From the start of the canal at Eastham Locks, past Ellesmere Port, the refineries at Stanlow and the Runcorn Gap with its road and rail bridges, the Ship Canal clings to the river bank.

As it approaches Warrington it dives through the town in a dead straight line that continues under the M62 Thelwall Viaduct, then weaves it way towards Irlam and beneath the M60 at Barton.

Shortly after the M60 viaduct it passes the two 1894 swing-bridges at Barton, one for the road and the other the historic replacement  for the even more historic James Brindley aqueduct (1791) that was sacrificed to make the Ship Canal possible.

Coals to Newcastle

Causey Arch, Co Durham
Causey Arch, Co Durham: reproduction wagon

I’ve known about the Causey Arch for as long as I’ve known anything about railway history.

It always appeared in the textbooks, often in unlikely-looking engravings, but was not much visited because until the 1980s it was neglected and not very accessible.

It’s an outstanding piece of industrial archaeology because it was, at the time it was built, 1725-26, easily the longest single-span bridge in Britain, 102 feet between the abutments and eighty feet above the Causey Burn.

It can also claim to be the world’s first railway bridge, carrying a wooden tramway conveying coal from Tanfield Colliery to the River Tyne 5½ miles away.

An earlier bridge had collapsed as soon as it was completed.  Indeed the stonemason of the existing arch, Ralph Wood, was so nervous about the strength of its replacement that he killed himself before it was completed.

A reproduction of one of the wagons is displayed at the site:  these wooden wagons, with wooden wheels running on wooden rails, were controlled by a disconcertingly basic wooden brake.

Friction sometimes caused the wheels and brakes to catch fire.

Wagons loaded with 2½ tons of coal rolled down the “main-way” grade by gravity, retarded by horses, which hauled them back to the pit empty up the opposite track, the “bye-way”.

Nine hundred wagons a day traversed the line – one every twenty seconds crossing this great masonry arch which seems to have had no parapet.

By the magnitude of the arch and the volume of its initial traffic we can judge how much money was to be made from Durham coal in the eighteenth century.

Its heyday was shortlived.  It declined after Tanfield Colliery caught fire in 1739.

Though it was listed grade I as early as 1950, it was neglected until the local council restored it and developed its surroundings in 1980.

Since the Tanfield Railway began regular services to the station beside the Arch in 1991, it has become an easy and popular focus for walks in the area.

The world’s oldest railway

Tanfield Railway: Andrews House Station, Co Durham

By an accident of signposting, my visit to the Tanfield Railway [https://www.tanfield-railway.co.uk]  began at East Tanfield which is perhaps not the best place.

I later discovered that Andrews House station is where the party’s at, not least because it’s within walking distance of the Marley Hill engine shed, where there’s lots to see.

The station building at East Tanfield is the very welcoming Tommy Armstrong Tea Shop, its tables impressively laid out with fine-looking china.  Coffee and pastries are in abundance, and they’ll even sell you a train ticket, written by hand.

However, there’s a noticeable lack of what the heritage industry calls “interpretation”.

Even the timetable is occult, possessed by knowledgeable old geezers squinting at sheets of A4 paper which they fold and stuff surreptitiously in the pockets of their anoraks.

You can, of course, ask the station staff.  Like freemasonry, knowledge here is acquired by degrees.

Trains appear when they’re good and ready, and they’re worth waiting for.

This is a no-nonsense coal railway, partly dating back to around 1720, which allows it to claim to be “the world’s oldest railway”.

It operates sturdy little tank engines, such as would, in times gone by, heave long trains of coal wagons out of the local collieries.

The passenger carriages are mostly four-wheelers that don’t go “diddly-dee, diddly da” but rather “clunk, clunk” – Victorian equivalents of the notorious Pacers, but much more elegant.

It’s always heartening on a volunteer-run railway to see engine crew who look not a day over twenty.

The passengers are mostly older than twenty – serious enthusiasts who know what’s going on, and couples with glum-looking dogs which would rather be chasing sticks than catching trains.

There’s a trackside footpath, useful for photographers who wait, tripods set and cameras ready, to capture the seldom-spotted tank engine.

The place is a delight.  Everyone is friendly and unrushed.  And the roast pork breadcakes are superlative.

London’s canal museum

London Canal Museum, King’s Cross: horse ramp

The area of London we now know as King’s Cross was until the early nineteenth century called Battlebridge, commemorating the tradition that it was the site of Queen Boudicea’s defeat in AD60-61.  (A more recent and tenuous tradition asserts that the queen is buried beneath platforms 9 and 10 of King’s Cross Station.)

The original “king’s cross” was a bombastic memorial to King George IV, sited at the junction of Grays Inn Road, York Way, Euston Road and Pentonville Road.  It was built in 1836 and though it lasted only nine years because it obstructed the traffic the name King’s Cross has stuck ever since.

The name Battlebridge survives at a canal basin on the Regent’s Canal, now a desirable mooring and the home of the London Canal Museum [http://www.canalmuseum.org.uk/index.html], which occupies a former ice warehouse on New Wharf Road.

The museum has two equally important themes – waterways and ice.  It’s the only dedicated waterways museum in London, and it’s probably the only place to learn about the once-important ice industry that vanished in the face of mechanised ice manufacture after the Second World War.

It was an ingenious trade, meshed with the Norwegian timber trade.  During the winter ice was cut by the loggers who chopped timber in the warmer months, and carried to London in March in the freighters than brought the timber later in the year.

The ice was brought from Limehouse on the Regent’s Canal, loaded and unloaded by metal devices called ice dogs, and stored in cavernous ice wells, much like the icehouses on country estates but rather bigger, built in 1857 and 1862.

The filled wells were insulated by sawdust, an otherwise useless by-product of the timber trade.

The enterprise on New Wharf Road was run by Carlo Gatti (1817-1878), an Italian-speaking Swiss who is credited with introducing ice cream as a popular luxury.

His carts delivered raw ice to restaurants, butchers, fishmongers, hospitals and domestic users.

He also developed a chain of ice-cream parlours and diversified into music halls before returning to Switzerland for a wealthy retirement in the early 1870s.

His warehouse continued in use until at least 1902.

The London Canal Museum, opened in 1992, is small but rich in interest.  The ground floor shows one of the two original wells, and the space above, originally stables which the horses accessed up a steep ramp, has comprehensive displays and film clips that explain and bring to life London’s waterways.

It’s a little-known gem, within five minutes’ walk of King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, and a visit will take at least an hour.

English Institute of Sport Sheffield

English Institute of Sport Sheffield: A Bus Ride Round Attercliffe visit, April 7th 2019

On the popular Bus Ride Round Attercliffe trips that I run in conjunction with South Yorkshire Transport Museum, we regularly make a stop at the English Institute of Sport Sheffield, to show that the Lower Don Valley has begun an astonishing transformation since the demise of the heavy steel industry in the early 1980s.

Designed by FaulknerBrowns Architects, the Institute opened in December 2003, funded by Sport England and managed by SIV Ltd, a Health and Well Being Charity.  It’s newer than the Arena and the demolished Don Valley Stadium which were built for the 1991 World Student Games.  It’s even newer than the nearby IceSheffield, designed by the Building Design Partnership and opened in May 2003.

It has and continues to provide training facilities for an impressive array of champions, including Sheffield-born heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, boxers Anthony Joshua and Nicola Adams and the Paralympian table-tennis player Will Bailey, as well as sixty local sports clubs and seventy thousand local school children a year.

The initial cost of the facility was £28 million, and the Institute aims to balance usage at 90% local community to 10% elite athletes.

Our guide, Ryan Ruddiforth, shows Bus Ride passengers, many of whom grew up in Attercliffe after the Second World War, the facilities for boxing, wheelchair basketball and – most impressive of all – the huge 200-metre indoor running track.

I’m looking forward to offering heritage bus-ride experiences to groups from outside Sheffield in 2020, and in the ‘Sheffield’s Industrial Heritage’ tour I plan to take people first of all to Magna, to see the hot, dark, dangerous spaces where workers spent their days in the steel industry and then, for contrast, to EISS to experience the light, clean, air-conditioned spaces in which people exercise and perfect their sport skills in the twenty-first century.

The Valley has come a long way within a lifetime, and I want to present this in as dramatic a way as possible.

The ‘Sheffield’s Industrial Heritage’ bus tours are arranged on an individual basis, and Magna and EISS may not always be available because of major events taking place.  On occasions the Bus Ride may visit other equivalent buildings in the city centre or the Lower Don Valley.  For further details please click here.

For details of the next public Bus Ride Round Attercliffe, please click here.

Nottingham London Road Low Level

Former Great Northern Railway: Nottingham London Road Low Level Station

Former Great Northern Railway: Nottingham London Road Low Level Station

Britain’s railways are notoriously ill-organised, thanks to the Major government’s privatisation process of 1994-97, in which operating companies hired trains from rolling-stock companies and ran them on track owned by a nationalised entity.  (Sir John Major himself suggested simply reviving the “Big Four” grouping of 1922, which on reflection doesn’t seem such a bad idea compared with what we’re now stuck with.)

The early railway builders quickly dismissed the idea of having independent operators running on railway lines, like the eighteenth-century turnpikes, and Gladstone’s Railway Regulation Act of 1844 provided for the possibility of nationalising the railway system even as it was being built.

But the Victorians put their faith in competition, and Britain’s railways grew willy-nilly, leading to a confusion as profound as the 21st-century British rail system.

This is evident in Nottingham, where throughout the nineteenth century two competing railway companies, the Midland and the Great Northern, ran from separate stations a short distance away from each other, on Station Street and London Road respectively.

In 1879, under the auspices of the ponderously named Great Northern & London & North Western Joint Railway, a third company, the London & North Western Railway, began running passenger services into London Road Station and delivering goods to a purpose-built station at Sneinton.

Then in 1900, a fourth company, the Great Central, built the magnificent Victoria Station, which it shared with the Great Northern, in a cutting in the centre of town.

The Great Northern built a duplicate London Road station, which they named High Level, to distinguish it from their original station, latterly Low Level, which the L&NWR continued to use for their services to Market Harborough via Saxondale Junction, Bottesford and Melton Mowbray.

This absurdity continued until 1944, when the former L&NWR trains were diverted into Nottingham Midland and the Low Level station became a goods depot.

Much of this has since been swept away.  There is now only one station in Nottingham, the former Midland, though it serves trains run by three separate modern operating companies.  The lines into Low Level were taken up in the 1970s, and after a fire in 1996 Thomas Chambers Hine’s imposing 1857 building was restored and refurbished as a health club.

But it’s a mistake to think that the way we run British railways in the 21st century is any more bizarre than the travellers’ chaos that the Victorians created.

The East to West

Former Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway: Fledborough Viaduct

Former Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway: Fledborough Viaduct

Of all the grandiose railway schemes proposed in Britain in the nineteenth century, few match the audacity of the Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway.

Its original Act of 1891 authorised a 170-mile line from Warrington in Lancashire to Sutton-on-Sea in Lincolnshire, together with extensive docks at each terminus, crossing the paths of every major main line to the North in the hope of carrying substantial traffic east and west from new collieries opening on the concealed coalfield in east Nottinghamshire.

In fact, only the section between Chesterfield and Lincoln was built.  It opened in 1897, along with a branch to Sheffield in 1900.  It was sold to the Great Central Railway in 1907 without ever paying a dividend.

Driven by Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire coal-owners’ desire to exploit their untapped mineral resources, it would have involved audacious engineering over the Peak District, including a three-hundred-foot viaduct topping the existing sixty-three-foot viaduct at Monsal Dale.

Most of what was built has disappeared – the main station at Chesterfield Market Place, the sixty-three-foot high viaduct at Horn’s Bridge on the outskirts of Chesterfield, which crossed two rivers, two roads and two railway lines within a couple of hundred yards, and the notoriously unstable 2,642-yard Bolsover Tunnel.

The line west of Langwith Junction closed in 1951 when Bolsover Tunnel became impassable, and passenger services on the remaining section ended in 1955.  Freight traffic over parts of the route continued until 2015.

The only part of the line still in use is now Network Rail’s High Marnham Test Track, reopened in 2009 between Thoresby Colliery Junction and Dukeries Junction.  Beyond that, almost all the way to the end of the LD&ECR at Pyewipe Junction, the trackbed is now part of the National Cycle Network.

And on that stretch is the only surviving substantial engineering monument of this bravura piece of railway building – Fledborough Viaduct, 59 brick arches and four girder spans, in total just over half a mile long, crossing the River Trent and its wide flood plain at no great height.

There had to be a viaduct at this point because of the Trent’s propensity to flood.  An embankment would have acted as a dam and caused serious flooding upstream.

On the west bank of the Trent High Marnham Power Station opened in 1962 and the railway supplied it with coal until a derailment in 1980 led to a temporary closure that became permanent.

The power station in turn closed in 2003 and was finally demolished in 2012.

The cycle trail is the best way to appreciate the scale of Fledborough Viaduct, which is difficult to see from any public road.

The best view of the Viaduct is from the river path at High Marnham, where the Brownlow Arms [https://www.thebrownlowarms.co.uk] marks the existence of a now-vanished ferry.

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.