Category Archives: Transports of Delight

Trains to Edale

View from Edale Station towards Cowburn Tunnel, Derbyshire

Edale is the last station for stopping westbound trains from Sheffield to Stockport and Manchester before the line plunges into Cowburn Tunnel (3,702 yards).

It serves the village of Edale (population 353) and is handy for walkers setting off on the Pennine Way.

The Hope Valley Line is notable, and rare among intercity railways in the North, because all its original stations remain open to passengers, and an hourly stopping service runs in between non-stop trains serving Norwich, Nottingham and Liverpool via Sheffield.

Edale station itself offers only basic facilities.  British Rail replaced the original timber buildings with bus shelters, and eventually provided automatic ticket machines and digital information displays.

The Dore & Chinley Railway was opened in 1894 by the Midland Railway, providing a cross-country link between Sheffield and Manchester.  It gained additional traffic when G & T Earle opened their cement works, served by a private branch railway, at Hope in 1929.

The cement works is an ambivalent factor in the economy of the Peak District National Park:  it’s ugly and dirty, yet provides jobs for the local community, and its rail connection helped to save the line in the 1960s.

Though the Woodhead route between Sheffield and Manchester via Penistone had been modernised and electrified after the Second World War, it had less social value as a passenger route, and after its coal traffic declined it closed in 1981.

The Hope Valley route offers an attractive ride through some of Derbyshire’s finest scenery, even though a quarter of the mileage is in tunnel.

Each of its stations provides access to interesting tourist sites and attractive walking country.

Hope station is isolated, but has bus services to Bradwell and CastletonBamford is within walking distance of Ladybower Reservoir and the Upper Derwent dams;  Hathersage has an open-air swimming pool and the David Mellor Factory, and Grindleford boasts the best fry-up for miles around – as long as you don’t ask for mushrooms.

In the days of steam traction and non-corridor slam-door carriages, the last train back to Sheffield was nicknamed the “Passion Special”, apparently because the length of Totley Tunnel (6,230 yards) provided opportunities not commonly found in the decades before the Swinging Sixties.

In contrast, latter-day Sprinter units are passion killers.

The above image is available as a greetings card, price £2.95 for one or £11.95 for a pack of five, or as a notelet to order. For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.

Lodekka bus

Lincolnshire Road Car Co Bristol Lodekka 2378 (OVL 473)

It’s a sign of age when you see in a museum exhibits that you’ve used in real life.

At a South Yorkshire Transport Trust open day I came across a vision of the past in the form of the Lincolnshire Vintage Vehicle Society’s beautifully restored Bristol FS5G ‘Lodekka’ 2376 (OVL 473) of 1960 – exactly the kind of vehicle that I and my school contemporaries, fresh out of sixth-form and off to university, conducted at Skegness depot in the late 1960s.

The Bristol Lodekka was the effective solution to the long-standing problem of building double-deck bus bodies that could negotiate bridges tighter than 14 feet 6 inches.

Bristol Commercial Vehicles, the chassis manufacturer, in combination with Eastern Coach Works of Lowestoft, body builders, designed a drop rear axle, which meant that there was no need for a step up into the lower deck and – more importantly – the overall height of the vehicle could be as low as 13 feet 5 or 6 inches.

The first prototype, a famously odd-looking vehicle, was launched in 1949, and by the end of the 1960s over five thousand Lodekkas had been built.

However, a legal anomaly in the arrangement of the part-nationalised British bus industry meant that this revolutionary design was unavailable to many UK operators.

Bristol Commercial Vehicles was a subsidiary of the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company, which had built its own vehicles from 1908 and increasingly sold them to other operators.  By the late 1930s Bristol customarily worked in tandem with the body manufacturers Eastern Coach Works of Lowestoft, itself an offshoot of the United Automobile Company which had originated in East Anglia but concentrated on bus services in the north-east.

Bristol, with its manufacturing subsidiary, came into the ownership of the huge Thomas Tilling transport combine in 1931.  The Tilling Group was nationalised in 1948, as was Eastern Coach Works, and the two manufacturers were tied to provide vehicles for the third of the British bus industry that was in government ownership.

So during the 1950s Tilling Group companies standardised on the Lodekka, including the Lincolnshire Road Car Company which operated no: 2376.

By a quirk of policy, however, Bristol and ECW were expressly forbidden to sell their products to the rest of the industry,– that is, the other great combine, British Electric Traction, and the many municipalities and independents that ran their own bus services.

Eventually, these operators were able to buy low-floor buses built on licence from Dennis of Guildford.

By an enjoyable irony, the one operator who gained the most practical advantage from the drop-centre axle was Barton of Chilwell.  They ordered a one-off Dennis Loline II with a Northern Counties lowbridge body to prove to the Traffic Commissioners that they could squeeze a double-decker under the railway bridge at what is now Long Eaton station. They made their practical point but the Commissioners refused to license the route for a double-decker and this unique vehicle – the seldom-spotted 861 (861 HAL) – spent its days as a star turn on the X42 Nottingham-Derby express service.

Lowbridge bus

Ipswich Transport Museum, Suffolk: Eastern Counties LK 374 (KNG 374)
Ipswich Transport Museum, Suffolk: Eastern Counties LK 374 (KNG 374)

Ipswich Transport Museum [https://www.ipswichtransportmuseum.co.uk] has a rich and relevant collection of vehicles and other transport material illustrating public transport and the emergency services from a local perspective.

There is a horse tram from Cambridge (1880), an Ipswich electric tram (1904), Ipswich trolleybuses from 1923 onwards and Eastern Counties motorbuses from 1927, together with emergency-services vehicles and a particularly fine Daimler hearse,– all housed in a well-lit former trolleybus depot at Priory Heath.

The collection covers local tram, trolleybus, motorbus and coach operators and the versatile Ipswich manufacturer Ransomes, Sims & Jeffries,– and features the Ipswich Corporation fleet, distinctive for long, narrow destination indicators and unpainted aluminium body panels. 

One vehicle resonated for me though I’d never before visited Ipswich.  Eastern Counties LK374 (KNG 374), a 1949 Bristol K double-decker, carries a lowbridge body, a feature I had as little to do with as possible in my 1960s travels in the East Midlands.

Double-deck buses up to the 1950s sat much higher on their chassis than later vehicles, because the lower-deck floor had to clear the rear axle and transmission shaft. 

The only practical way of reducing headroom to run a double-decker under bridges of restricted height was to align the upper-deck gangway with the offside windows and sink it into the lower-deck ceiling. 

This meant that the seats upstairs had to be four across, with obvious inconvenience and increased dwell-time when someone by the nearside window needed to alight.  It also meant that anyone seated downstairs against the offside window risked bumping their head when rising from their seat.

My Derbyshire schoolmates who were obliged to ride on these things called them “coffin buses”.

We hated them.

There was, eventually, a solution, but it was a long time coming to many bus operators…

Woodbridge Station Guest House

Woodbridge Station, Suffolk

The Station Guest House at Woodbridge – https://woodbridgestationguesthouse.co.uk – is an excellent example of practical reuse of a potentially redundant station building.  The station itself continues to operate as the first stop out of Ipswich on the line to Lowestoft and the building houses a high-quality café, the three-bedroom guest house, a florist’s shop and a taxi office. 

The station was built for the former East Suffolk Railway and opened in 1859.  A footbridge provides access both to the Ipswich-bound platform and also to the banks of the nearby River Deben.

I had a comfortable family room with a double bed and a single bed, with an en-suite which allowed me to watch people walking over the footbridge without them seeing me at my ablutions.  It’s a corner room, so from one window I could watch the trains arrive and depart over the level crossings and from the other I could watch the boats riding the tide on the river.

Breakfast is served promptly at 9.00am at a reserved table in the café and the service is admirable.  The only minor downside is that car-parking is £3.00 a day maximum and you have to feed the meter before the guy with the hi-vis jacket books you.  The notice by the machine warns that photographs may be taken, which I read as a threat.

There’s really no reason to bring a car to stay at the Station Guest House.  There’s a perfectly good train service that links with London and East Coast services via Ipswich.

Carla, the delightful lady who welcomed me to the Station Guest House , reeled off a list of places to have dinner as the café closes at 3.00pm.  For most of my stay, however, I happily picnicked each night with more than enough tea and coffee and the sound of the trains through the open window. 

Woodbridge itself is an attractive town.  Beside the river is the Woodbridge Tide Mill, one of two remaining tidal watermills that are restored to working order and producing wholemeal flour for sale [https://woodbridgetidemill.org.uk] and on the opposite bank is the National Trust Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre [https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo], marking the site of the enormously significant Anglo-Saxon ship burial, excavated in 1939. 

Transportation in miniature

Hiroshima, Japan: City Transportation Museum, Chōrakuji

I had a couple of hours to spare in my last afternoon in Hiroshima, so I took to the Astram, opened in 1994, a people-mover built to connect with the major sporting arena up in the hills, Edion Stadium Hiroshima. 

The people-mover is remarkable, over eleven miles long, running underground beneath the central area and then mounting a continuous viaduct that never seems to touch the ground.  I’m not convinced about this rubber-tyred concrete technology:  it’s distinctly bumpy compared with rail and the infrastructure seems to be bulky and intrusive.

The route is up a steep-sided valley that reminded me of Halifax, or Hebden Bridge, in which every piece of flat land is built on, with low-rise housing, high-rise towers and the associated suburban public and commercial development. 

I was interested to see the Hiroshima hinterland, and I took as my destination the transportation museum at Chōrakuji, two-thirds of the way along the route.

The Hiroshima City Transportation Museum [http://www.vehicle.city.hiroshima.jp/VEHICLE_HP/Contents/01_home/0104_English/ehome.html], a five-minute walk from the Astram station, is in an expensive-looking modern building, and was not what I expected.  There are only two full-size vehicles in the whole place – a sports car and one of the atom-bomb trams, identical to the two I’d seen on the streets but painted in a different livery. 

A whole floor is given to an eclectic display of a couple of thousand models of trains, cars, ships and aeroplanes, with very perfunctory labelling in Japanese and English.  I had a go at driving a train simulator but couldn’t get on with it.

Upstairs was a two-storey hall, filled with a gigantic working model of a not-far-into-the-future city to demonstrate as many modes of public transport as possible – not only trains and cars and ships and aircraft but helicopters, monorails, travellators, even a fairground.

So there, under one roof, you can examine past, present and future transportation, most of it in miniature, some of it in motion.

Moving streetcar museum

Hiroshima Electric Tramway, Japan: “Atomic bomb” tram 652

To make the most of my two days in Hiroshima, my first mission was to get my bearings.  Armed with a day pass for the streetcars, I walked to the nearest route and rode to the railway station to find my way to the Sightseeing Loop Bus.  This is a red single-decker with vestigial commentary with two overlapping routes that I did in succession.  My Japan Rail Pass gave me this for free:  the driver simply photographed the pass with a digital camera, but more recently the service has become entirely free [https://www.hiroshima-navi.or.jp/en/information/loopbus].

The red bus tour orientation enabled me to use streetcars for the rest of my day’s travels.  The streetcar system is a full-on transport facility, not by any means a heritage operation, though it’s billed as “the moving streetcar museum” because it runs up-to-date low-floor vehicles alongside earlier generations right back to two of the trams that survived the atom bomb, 651 and 652:  http://train.sakura.ne.jp/train/hiroden/carphoto/index.html.  Indeed, the streetcar company is proud that they had three of these trams back on the road three days after the bomb.

The tram and bus operator is the Hiroshima Electric Railway Co Ltd, known from the Japanese Hiroshima Dentetsu Kabushiki-gaisha as Hiroden for short.

I made use of my streetcar pass to explore the city.  I deliberately took a tram to the end of the line at Hiroshima Port, simply to gauge how big the city is.  (It has a population of around a million, equivalent to Birmingham.)  The ferry terminal provides passenger access to various outlying islands, and indicates that the harbour facility is enormous.  Otherwise there’s little to detain anyone.

The journey back in the rush hour was a farce.  The older streetcars have seats parallel to the windows, so you sit with your back to the view, gazing at the midriffs of standing passengers.  It’s impossible to see where you are;  the in-car signage is in Japanese with no indication of the stop-numbers and there was no PA system (which in Japan might be bilingual Japanese/English).  I eventually got off at a point which fitted with my mental map and took a tram in the opposite direction back to the point where I could walk back to my hotel.  I sense that the only way to deal with the Hiroshima rush-hour is to travel to the end of the line and bag the seat beside the driver.

Rush-hour is rarely fun anywhere in the world.  Hiroshima is a tram city, and though the sightseeing loop bus is useful for orientation, there’s no better way of getting around outside rush-hours than with a day pass on the streetcars.

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.