Category Archives: Transports of Delight

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.

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.