Monthly Archives: March 2019

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

Bradford’s cup

Clayton Fireclay Brickworks chimney, Brow Lane, West Yorkshire

My mate Richard and I have explored the extant parts of the Great Northern Railway trail, a work-in-progress to give public access to as much as possible of the trackbed of the former Great Northern Railway’s Queensbury Lines, the so-called “Alpine Route” built in pursuit of competition and in defiance of geography between 1874 and 1884.

We walked from the spectacular Thornton Viaduct south to the former Queensbury triangle, where trains from Bradford, Keighley and Halifax met at an unusual triangular six-platform station sited four hundred feet lower than the town it was supposed to serve.

North of the line, at a place called Brow Lane, is an unusually decorative tall chimney – not, as you’d expect in the old West Riding, a woollen mill, but a brickworks.

Clayton Fireclay Brickworks was founded in 1880 by Julius Whitehead (1839-1907), at the time when the nearby railway between Queensbury and Keighley was being built. The works closed in April 1970.

According to the Grade II listing description, the chimney dates from c1890 and was erected by Julius Whitehead’s son, Claude.

The enamelled brick panels on the chimney depict an urn, and are thought to represent the FA Cup, celebrating Bradford City’s victory in the 1911 Cup Final when, following a goalless draw after extra time at Crystal Palace, the team captain Jimmy Speirs (1886-1917) headed the only goal in the replay at Old Trafford. 

The Glaswegian Jimmy Speirs went on to serve in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, was awarded a Military Medal, and was killed at the Battle of Passchendaele in August 1917, aged 31.

By a curious coincidence, the actual trophy – the same one in use today – had been manufactured by the Bradford jewellers Fattorini & Sons, a family with strong connections to Bradford City FC and its historic predecessor, Manningham Rugby Club.  The 1911 final was the cup’s first outing.

Regrettably, it has proved to be its only visit to Bradford so far.

Opera on tap

Opera House, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells was a staid and respectable spa town, not over-supplied with theatres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Mrs Sarah Baker’s Tunbridge Wells Theatre, opened in the Pantiles in 1802, was used as a theatre for about fifty years and then converted into a Corn Exchange which still exists.

In the decade when the borough became Royal Tunbridge Wells, thanks to the merry monarch, King Edward VII, the Opera House was promoted by Mr J Jarvis and opened in 1902.

It was designed by John Priestly Briggs (1869-1944) who among much else built the Grand Theatre, Doncaster (1899, with J W Chapman).

The splendid Baroque exterior includes a range of shops on three sides and a balcony above the entrance leading out of the dress circle bar.  The central dome was originally surmounted by a nude statue of Mercury which was removed after the First World War.

The intimate auditorium, originally seating 1,100, is lavishly decorated with a dress circle and  balcony , and a central saucer dome above the stalls.

The proscenium is 28 feet wide and the stage is 32 feet deep, with a grid 44 feet high.  The proscenium arch has brackets in the upper corners and is surmounted by relief figures representing Music and Drama.

The eccentric local landowner John Christie (1882-1962) reopened the Opera House as a cinema in 1925.  He had taken over the organ-builder William Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd in 1923, and installed an ambitious five-manual organ with pipework located on stage and the console in the enlarged orchestra pit.

He produced a wide range of shows, including musical comedy and Gilbert & Sullivan, before he set up his own celebrated opera house on his nearby estate at Glyndebourne:  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opera/what-to-see/glyndebourne-the-love-story-that-started-it-all.

The organ was sold to a New Zealand buyer in 1929 but the stage remained in use for annual amateur operatic performances from 1932 to 1966.

The history of the building after John Christie’s time is conventional – refurbished in 1931, bomb-damaged but repaired and reopened in 1949, taken over by Essoldo in 1954.

In 1966 the local council refused a bingo licence and listed it Grade II.  After a couple of years of controversy, the final film-show (Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons) took place on February 3rd 1968, and the Opera House reopened as a bingo club in July the same year.

The bingo club, successively operated by Essoldo, Ladbrokes, Top Rank and Cascade, eventually closed in 1995, and after a public campaign to prevent demolition, the Opera House was taken over by the J D Wetherspoon chain in 1996 and adapted as a public house that can be used for opera one day each year.

J D Wetherspoon has an outstanding reputation for transforming redundant historic buildings into enjoyable places to eat and drink.  By combining business acumen with sensitivity to the localities in which it trades, the company enables heritage structures to earn their keep and bring enjoyment to customers.

At the Tunbridge Wells Opera House the seating remains in the dress circle and, unused, in the gallery.  The boxes are practical but cramped, and the stained glass panels in the doors to each box and the vestibule at the back of the dress circle are restored.  The stage house retains its fly floors and bridge, and the original lighting board and the counterweights for the house tabs remain in situ.

Though there’s nothing scheduled in the calendar at the time of writing, it’s easy to set up an alert for the next Tunbridge Wells opera experience:  https://www.ents24.com/tunbridge-wells-events/wetherspoon-opera-house-pub.

And in the meantime, any day of the week, breakfast to suppertime, anyone can walk in and enjoy a complete Edwardian auditorium with good pub food, beverages and a wide range of drinks at very reasonable prices.