Category Archives: Transports of Delight

The Watercress Line

Mid-Hants Railway, Ropley Station, Hampshire

You might not think that such an insubstantial commodity as watercress would generate sufficient trade to keep a railway line busy for decades from 1865 until the middle of the twentieth century.

In fact, watercress thrives best in fast-flowing chalk streams, and it remains fresh after picking for only two or three days.

The Mid-Hants Railway opened in 1865 to provide a link between two important London & South Western Railway routes at Winchester and Alton. It also enabled Alresford on the Hampshire Downs to become the centre of the watercress trade in Britain.

The line had other purposes.  It was a useful alternative route for passenger services from London to Southampton and Portsmouth and as such, with its proximity to the militarised area of Salisbury Plain, it was strategically significant in both World Wars.

The Southern Railway, successor to the L&SWR, electrified the line from London Waterloo as far as Alton in 1937, severing through passenger services by obliging passengers to change trains to travel further west.  When the entire London-to-Southampton main line was electrified thirty years later, leaving the Alton service as a lengthy branch line, the Mid-Hants Railway practically lost its remaining importance.

After British Rail closed the service from Alton to Winchester in 1973, an enthusiast group bought the section between Alton and Alresford and developed it as a heritage railway, branded by its popular name, the Watercress Line, between 1975 and 1985.

It’s a popular tourist feature in a pretty area of Hampshire, catering for a broad clientele, from children crawling over a full-size climbing-frame mock-up of a steam locomotive to devotees of fine dining, paying a three-figure sum to glide through the countryside tickling their palates. 

There’s much to interest rail enthusiasts along the ten-mile route, and casual visitors can find amusement and refreshments at each of the four beautifully restored stations. 

Alresford is the best place to park a car;  Ropley has excellent viewing facilities for passing trains and rolling stock stabled in and around the workshops;  Medstead & Four Marks has an exhibition ‘Delivering the Goods’ about freight operations in the age of steam.

Best of all, if you’re a Londoner, a seventy-minute journey, running a half-hour service most of the week, will take you from Waterloo to Alton, where you simply cross the platform from a swish South Western Railway electric multiple unit to a rake of 1950s Mark I carriages in Southern malachite green, complete with buffet car, that transports you back seventy or more years in an instant.

For everything you need to know about the Watercress Line, go to Watercress Line Enjoy A Trip At The Watercress Line.


Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, Keighley, West Yorkshire: British Railways loco 41241 (1975)

Among the locomotives to be seen at the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway in West Yorkshire a post-war British Railways tank engine, no: 41241, has a unique significance in the history of the K&WVR.

These compact, efficient and easily maintained 2-6-2T engines were designed by George Ivatt (1886-1972), Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London Midland & Scottish Railway, in 1946.  The LMS built ten before nationalisation, and British Railways produced a further 120 by 1952.  No: 41241, one of four survivors in preservation, was built in 1949.

41241 is immediately noticeable because of its red livery.  The exact shade of red is variously described – maroon, crimson lake, or carmine red derived from the early BR passenger-coach livery that was nicknamed “Blood and Custard”.

When British Railways ceased using steam traction, its managers firmly turned their backs on the past.  From 1966 to 1972, the years of the so-called “Steam Ban”, the only steam locomotive that had freedom to roam was Flying Scotsman, because of a clause in its unique sale contract.

When the nascent preservation groups bought locomotives from BR and scrap dealers they were forbidden to run them in BR identities.  This is the reason for 41241’s inauthentic livery.  Though the fleet numbers on the smokebox and the bunker are BR standard, the initials on the tank sides read “K&WVR”. 

41241 drew the Reopening Special passenger-carrying service out of Keighley in red, along with Southern Railway USA tank 72 in a different livery, on June 29th 1968, and it still bore the anomalous livery at the Shildon celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1975.

In 1980 it was repainted in the authentic lined black that it wore throughout its BR service, until it reverted to the 1968 red livery in preparation for the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Reopening Special:  55th Anniversary of Re-opening Special – Keighley & Worth Valley Railway (

There’s another less well-known story about 41241 that I owe to a sharp-eyed researcher in the compendious Preserved British Steam Locomotives website.

Apparently, 41241 was relocated from Llandudno Junction depot to Skipton specifically to work the Worth Valley branch goods trains after passenger service ended in 1961.  When the necessity of this manoeuvre was questioned by a Euston manager in a memo, someone added the comment “send in any case; will employ at least two men and use some coal”.

Fortunately, a K&WVR supporter was at school within sight of the railway and regularly observed 41241 arrive at Keighley from Skipton about noon, wait near the site of the demolished goods shed for 3½ hours and then return to Skipton.

Mr David Pearson, referring to the memo, comments,–

It did this utterly pointless exercise for at least two years, presumably employing at least two men and burning lots of coal; a remarkable comment on the objectives of a nationalised industry.

[Steam Memories: Ivatt Tank 41241 in BR days]

The current chorus of disapproval about our privatised railways is well deserved, but we must remember that British Railways was anything but streamlined.

There are accounts of 41241’s career at 41241 LMS Ivatt Class 2MT 2-6-2T – Keighley & Worth Valley Railway ( and 41241 – Preserved British Steam Locomotives.

The most perfect of all station houses 3

Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (2023)
Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (2023)

One summer’s evening in 1965 I caught a train from Wingfield Station to my home in Belper.  I’d no idea of the timetable and I was lucky that a steam-hauled passenger train showed up promptly.  It’s a long walk from South Wingfield to Belper.

The station closed to passengers in 1967, and by the time I photographed it in 1976 it looked distinctly neglected.  A succession of private owners allowed it to become a wreck until the South Wingfield Local History Group successfully campaigned to lift its listing from Grade II to Grade II* in 2015, and prompted Amber Valley Borough Council and the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust (DHBT) to plan a thorough, practical restoration.

I visited the site in 2021 when work was about to begin, and returned in late October 2023 when the Trust ran a series of public events to celebrate the completion of their work. 

The result is impressive:  the building is at last not only weatherproof and structurally sound but restored to the highest standard – a remarkable achievement on a site that stands a few feet from a busy main-line railway.

The new lessees will be grateful for the underfloor heating beneath the stone flagstones.  Visitors will be fascinated by the detailed recreation of the ladies’ waiting room based on the discovery and salvage of original wallpaper. 

When the building begins to earn its keep as office accommodation, public visits will be arranged six times a year.

The DHBT website points out that “Whilst Wingfield Station is not the earliest pioneer railway station to survive, it is one of the least altered surviving examples worldwide”. 

As such it has national and international significance, and local volunteers and historians are building a significant resource that will be useful to online visitors:  Our Project | dhbt-live (

Exciting new discoveries about the context of the station in the development of travel, coal-mining and the growth of neighbouring towns and villages and personal stories of people who worked there are already uploaded and the site has considerable potential for further development.

Already the website offers – as far as I know for the first time – images of all of Francis Thompson’s stations for the North Midland Railway at the end of the 1830s, drawn by Samuel Russell.

Without the DHBT and its partners, on the ground and online, almost all of Francis Thompson’s work for the North Midland Railway would have disappeared, and the talent of a young, pioneering architect of the early railway age could not be fully appreciated.

Derby Roundhouse

Derby Roundhouse

While the architect Francis Thompson was designing the Trijunct Station in Derby and all the other stations up the North Midland line to Normanton in the late 1830s, the engineer Robert Stephenson was laying out repair and storage facilities alongside.

This was the beginning of the “Works”, where locomotives were built and maintained, and the “Carriage & Wagon Works” (1873-76) on Litchurch Lane, a complex of which vestiges survive under the aegis of the rolling-stock manufacturer Bombardier Transportation.

The singular monument of the Works is the Derby Roundhouse, a sixteen-sided locomotive shed built around a turntable within a prestige building by Francis Thompson.  (There were other roundhouse buildings at the Works, all now demolished.)

Francis Whishaw, in The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland practically described and illustrated (2nd ed, 1840), gave this description:

The engine-house is a polygon of sixteen sides, and 190 feet in diameter, lighted from a dome-shaped roof, of the height of 50 feet.  It contains sixteen lines of rails, radiating from a single turn-table in the centre:  the engines, on their arrival, are taken in there, placed upon the turn-table, and wheeled into any stall that may be vacant.  Each of the sixteen stalls will hold two, or perhaps more, engines.

This innovative structure served its original purpose past the age of steam, but eventually became derelict and was threatened with demolition until Derby City Council acquired it in 1994.  Its Grade II listing dating from 1977 didn’t reflect its importance as the oldest surviving locomotive roundhouse in Britain.  It was subsequently regraded to Grade II*.

Maber Architects skilfully refurbished the Roundhouse as part of a flagship campus for Derby College, preserving the track layout, the elegant supporting columns and the complex roof structure. 

Opened in 2009, it now forms a well-used facility for students and conferences, referencing the significance of the rail industry in Derby’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century growth.

The earliest locomotive roundhouse is thought to have been at Curzon Street, Birmingham, dated 1837;  the better-known Camden Roundhouse in north London dates from 1847.  The Barrow Hill Roundhouse (1870), north of Chesterfield, continues to function as a heritage operation where locomotives and rolling stock are stored and repaired.

Trijunct Station

Derby Midland Station (1978)
Derby Station (2016)

Derby railway station’s three-way junction forms a hinge in the national railway network, not as extensive or complex as Crewe or York, but pivotal on the north-east/south-west axis and the route from South Yorkshire to London.

The railway came to Derby because the town was chosen as the meeting point of three independent railways, the Midland Counties Railway between Derby, Nottingham, Leicester and Rugby (opened June 4th 1839), the Birmingham & Derby Junction Railway (opened August 12th 1839) and the North Midland Railway between Derby, Chesterfield, Rotherham and Normanton (opened May 11th 1840).

Passenger services for these three companies were provided at the Trijunct Station (1839-41), owned by the North Midland, at Litchurch, just outside the Derby boundary, because the only available nearer site for a single station, at the Holmes, was prone to flooding and would have required a more complicated track layout.

In 1844 the three companies amalgamated to form the Midland Railway, which grew to become an important main-line railway with services to London, Manchester and Carlisle.

The original joint station had a single platform, 1,050 feet long, with terminal bays for trains to Birmingham southwards and for the Midland Counties trains that departed northwards and headed east towards Spondon. 

The equally long Italianate station building was designed by the North Midland Railway architect, Francis Thompson (1808-1895), behind which was a cast-iron train shed by Robert Stephenson (1803-1859). 

Both of these structures are long gone.  An island platform was installed in 1858, along with further offices and a porte-cochère on the street frontage, designed by the Midland Railway architect, John Holloway Sanders (1825-1884).  A second island platform, with a footbridge, followed in 1881.  The front buildings were largely replaced by Sanders’ successor, Charles Trubshaw (1840-1917) c1892.

Following extensive bomb damage in January 1941 which destroyed the train shed and the buildings on Platform 6, all three sets of platform buildings, together with the footbridge and main signal box, were replaced in 1952-54.

The signal box was decommissioned in 1969 when a modern power box was constructed south of the station, and the Victorian front buildings were demolished, despite objections from conservationists, in 1985. 

All that remains of these buildings is the clock and the carved coat of arms of the borough of Derby from the porte-cochère, incongruously located in the station car park.

The replacement building in red brick is uninspiring.  Behind it, the 1950s concrete was found to be weakening.  The concrete footbridge was replaced in 2005, and new platform buildings followed in 2007-2009.  An additional platform was added during 2018 along with comprehensive remodelling of track and signalling to improve freight and passenger flows and to future-proof the station for decades to come.

Peter Stanton, describing the complex construction and engineering that took place over seventy-nine days of service disruption in Rail Engineer (November 15th 2018), remarked that there was “very little heritage to concern designers who could have a free reign to produce the most modern facilities”. 

The original Trijunct Station has been remodelled so frequently – 1858, 1881, 1892, 1952-54, 2005, 2007-09, apart from being bombed in 1941 – that it’s now a 21st-century passenger station. 

But the modern trains gliding in and out of Derby follow the same tracks and routes as the early steam locos that trundled into the Trijunct Station in 1839-40.

Tram tracks revealed

Tram tracks, Fargate and Leopold Street, Sheffield (2023) © John Binns

When Sheffield City Council abandoned its first-generation tram system in the 1950s, most of the redundant trackwork was simply covered with tarmac and forgotten.  At that time there was no value in uprooting the rails for scrap.

Ever since, workmen digging holes in main roads across the city have been repeatedly confronted by heavy steel girders blocking their way.

There was a recent flurry of media interest in Sheffield when most of the delta junction which connected the tracks along Fargate, Pinstone Street and Leopold Street came to light in the course of alterations to the pedestrianised area around the Town Hall.

People queued up to take photographs of the rusting rails, and BBC Look North and the Sheffield Star ran features on this 63-year-old piece of urban archaeology. 

Interviewees were sorry to see the tracks cut up, and wondered why they couldn’t be preserved for their heritage value:  Calls to preserve heritage as historic Sheffield tram tracks torn out for Fargate development (

Actually, that’s already happened.  Tram tracks found in the course of pedestrianising The Moor at the start of the 1980s were included in the landscaping, with immediately recognisable planters representing the lower-deck fronts of two standard Sheffield double deckers:  Searching Picture Sheffield.  These have now vanished.

In Firth Park, when a roundabout was constructed in the 1950s at the bottom of Bellhouse Road and Sicey Avenue, the trams continued to run directly through the road junction for the few years that remained before buses took over.  The tram tracks still slice through the roundabout after six decades’ disuse.

Firth Park, Sheffield: roundabout and tram tracks (2023)

This isn’t simply a Sheffield eccentricity.  Stretches of recovered track, and often the associated stone setts, are preserved in such cities as Birmingham, Bristol and Chester.

The Fargate discovery is old news.  A history forum stream dated 2008-2011 reported numerous excavated tracks across the city:  Tram Tracks on the Moor – Sheffield Buses, Trams and Trains – Sheffield History – Sheffield Memories.

Sheffield was one of the last British cities to eliminate tram services, yet though you have to be pushing seventy years of age even to remember these tracks being used, the nostalgia for the city’s cream and blue four-wheelers is powerful and, it seems, inheritable by younger generations.

It’s tempting to ask why there can’t be tram-tracks in use along Fargate, Pinstone Street and The Moor, heading to the south of the city, now that city-centre bus services are diverted several hundred yards from the city’s pedestrian thoroughfares.

Castlefield Viaduct

Castlefield Viaduct, Manchester (2023)

Castlefield, the site of Manchester’s first known settlement, the Roman Mamucium, is a cat’s cradle of canals and railways.

The Cheshire Lines Committee, a consortium of three separate railway companies, ran four tracks into the city centre, leading to its Manchester Central passenger station and the vast Great Northern Warehouse, both of which were reborn, respectively as a conference centre and a leisure complex.

The southern CLC viaduct was adapted to carry Metrolink trams in 1992, but the parallel viaduct has had no practical transport function since the track was lifted in the early 1970s. 

In 2021 the National Trust announced a scheme to use the viaduct to create a sky park – an elevated green space in an urban environment, by making use of abandoned transport infrastructure.

The original linear sky park was the Coulée verte [green belt] René-Dumont (alternatively called the Promenade plantée [planted walkway] René-Dumont) in Paris, opened in 1993.  René Dumont (1904-2001) was a professor of agricultural sciences who began his career advocating the use of chemical fertilizers and eventually became an ecologist and an inspiration to the French Green Party.

The most famous sky park is the New York City High Line, a stretch of the New York Central Railroad’s abandoned West Side Line that was rescued from demolition and redevelopment by the Friends of the High Line.  It was opened in sections between 2009 and 2014.

These and other examples have demonstrated that it’s often cheaper and more profitable to make redundant rail infrastructure an amenity than to scrap it.  It’s well known that developers and property owners are attracted to inland waterways for sound commercial reasons, and it’s apparent that the effort to rejuvenate rail structures can similarly invigorate the surrounding area.

The Castlefield Viaduct is very much a temporary pilot project which is well worth visiting, a thousand-foot stretch accessible from the Deansgate/Castlefield tram stop:  A fly-though of Castlefield Viaduct – YouTube.  Funding for future development seems uncertain at present, and it would be a pity if the project had to be abandoned:  Castlefield Viaduct | Manchester | National Trust.

Other British cities have derelict railway structures that could be potential sky parks. 

Leeds has two such projects, the Monk Bridge Viaduct, built in 1846, closed in 1967 and now adapted as an urban garden, and the 1½-mile Holbeck Viaduct, built in 1882 and abandoned since 1987, for which ambitious plans exist.

Birmingham has the Duddeston Viaduct which, because of a disagreement between competing railway companies, was built and left incomplete in the late 1840s and has never carried a train.  

It would be satisfying to see it eventually find a useful purpose.

Rats desert a burning signal box

Diesel multiple unit approaching Caernarvon railway station from Menai Bridge (1963)

I came across a colour slide that I took as a teenager on holiday with my dad of a diesel multiple unit approaching Caernarfon (then spelled ‘Caernarvon’ by the railway authorities) in the summer of 1963.  DMUs were still a novelty in those days.

We didn’t travel there by rail:  my dad was by then the proud owner of a Morris Minor convertible which he called Gladys.

In the 1980s I walked down the trackbed through the cutting that led from the site of Caernarfon station beneath the town centre and into a short tunnel leading to the Slate Quay.

Later still, when the tunnel became an underpass, I drove my car through it.

Remembering this prompted me to look up Caernarfon railway station on the compendious Subterranea Britannica website:  Disused Stations: Caernarvon Station (

There I found an entertaining anecdote about Caernarvon No 1 signal box which controlled movements east of the station towards Menai Bridge.

Apparently, this box had for decades proved difficult to man because crews were intimidated by a colony of rats who liked to dine on the grease that lubricated the machinery beneath the floor.

The rats didn’t seem to mind the humans at all, but the railwaymen tired of hordes of rodents climbing all over the place.

When services south of Caernarfon ceased in 1964 the station became a terminus.  The track layout and signalling was altered and the No 1 signal box was closed and its mechanism dismantled.

There followed an unrepeatable public entertainment.

The wooden structure was soaked in paraffin and surrounded by dogs.  When the building was set on fire, hundreds of rats raced for safety and the dogs captured only a few.

The survivors spread across town and were for some time an inconvenience.

Nowadays, it seems, rats are no more a problem in Caernarfon than anywhere else:  Are you never more than 6ft away from a rat? – BBC News.

It’s once more possible to catch a train from Caernarfon, southwards over the 2ft-gauge Welsh Highland Railway, opened in 1997:  Home Page – Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways (

Great Big Trains of Wales

Llangollen Railway: Carrog Station, Denbighshire (2022)

The first time I visited Llangollen (by car), you could still catch a train there and head east to Chester or Shrewsbury.

Those days have long gone:  the Beeching Axe fell in these parts at the beginning of 1965.  Freight trains from Ruabon continued to serve Llangollen Goods Yard until 1968, after which the track was quickly lifted all the way to Barmouth on the west coast of Wales.

A group of enthusiasts leased Llangollen Station and three miles of trackbed westwards, and when the station reopened to the public in 1975 sixty feet of track had been reinstated.

Subsequent developments were not unlike saving up pocket money to buy more track for a train set:  Shell Oil offered a mile of redundant track, which enabled the Llangollen Railway Trust to lay three-quarters of mile to Pentrefelin and use the rest to construct sidings for the accumulating quantity of rolling stock.

Thereafter, once the Dee Bridge had been refurbished by the local council, the route steadily grew in length – firstly 1¾ miles to Berwyn (March 1986), then Deeside Halt (1990), Glyndyfrdwy (1993) and eventually Carrog, 7½ miles from Llangollen (1996).

Development has been slowed by a succession of misfortunes.  The Llangollen Railway PLC experienced financial difficulties, not helped by the pandemic lockdowns, and went into receivership in March 2021.  Services were taken over and resumed by the Llangollen Railway Trust from July 2021.

In recent years, the track has been reinstated to Corwen, ten miles from Llangollen, and a brand new Corwen Central station opened in June 2023 to replace the unusable original, so that services can resume to a commercially worthwhile destination: Llangollen Railway | Heritage Train Rides in the United Kingdom (

The ride up and down the beautiful Dee Valley is a restful experience, whether on a 1950s diesel railcar or on a loco-hauled train which may include an observation car.  There are refreshment rooms at Llangollen, Berwyn and Carrog.

While I savour the experience that a generation of enthusiasts has worked to recreate over decades between Llangollen and Corwen I can’t help regretting what was lost in the 1960s. 

The Ordnance Survey map shows mile after mile of “dismantled railway” stretching through beautiful Welsh countryside between Ruabon and Morfa Mawddach, the junction for Barmouth. 

Ten miles of trackbed is available to walkers on the Mawddach Trail between Dolgellau and Morfa Mawddach and the Bala Lake Railway runs narrow-gauge trains over a 4½-mile lakeside stretch but, because of the sacrifice of small sections to road improvements and building developments, the rest of the line is rendered useless and inaccessible.

It took only seven years to build this line as a commercial undertaking in the 1860s and even less time to dismantle it for scrap a century later.  Safeguarding its integrity as an amenity would have been a simple administrative matter. 

There was no way of computing social and environmental benefits in the 1960s, and we are the poorer for it.

Manx railways in the 21st century

Isle of Man Railway between Port St Mary and Port Erin: locomotive 15 ‘Caledonia’

Wheels turn slowly in the Isle of Man.  That’s why one-third of its steam railway continues to operate after 130 years, and why you can still ride on the first two cars delivered to what became the Manx Electric Railway in 1893:  Senior movers | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

Inevitably, there have been losses.  There was a cable tramway in Douglas until 1929, when it was scrapped – superannuated, unloved and unbelievably noisy.  The Isle of Man Railway lines to Peel and Ramsey were closed in 1968 and lifted. 

But each of the surviving nineteen-century transport systems – the steam railway (1874), the Douglas horse tramway (1876), the Manx Electric Railway (1893-99) and the Snaefell Mountain Railway (1895) – has more than enough rolling stock to sustain a vigorous present-day tourist trade.

There have been misfortunes:  the Manx Electric lost part of its fleet in a depot fire in 1930.  Two of the six Snaefell Mountain Railway cars have in recent years run away from the summit:  no 3 smashed to pieces, fortunately without injuries or fatalities, in 2016.  A second runaway, no 2, with crew and passengers on board, was brought to a safe halt the following year.  There was a yard sale of surplus horse trams in 2016, all of which went to good homes for sums between £1,000 and £2,800 each.

This tight little island, 32 miles long and 14 miles wide at most, is the home of a unique collection of nineteenth-century rail transport lines still in full working order.

Tynwald, the Manx government, is considering how to develop these assets in future.  The steam and electric railways are already tuned to the entertainment value of heritage transport, like their colleagues across in Blackpool, but the horse tramway has become bogged down in the vexed redevelopment of Douglas promenade.  There is an excellent transport museum at Jurby in the north of the island, but the vehicles have not yet provided a mobile tourist attraction to supplement heritage rail.

The practicality of supplementing modern street transport with heritage services is proven across the world, evident in the success of San Francisco’s cable-cars and streetcars, the Melbourne City Circle and Hong Kong’s double-deckers (which look traditional but despite their appearance are in fact modernised).

Heritage rail has the double advantage of attracting enthusiasts who appreciate its historic appeal at the same time as ordinary tourists enjoy an uncommon holiday experience.

Visitors to the Isle of Man, as well as Manx residents, are invited to give their views on how the heritage transport should develop, in a survey that closes on August 13th 2023:  Isle of Man Heritage Railways Independent Review and Economic Impact Assessment – Cabinet Office of the Isle of Man Government – Citizen Space.

This is an invitation to think imaginatively about how to make the island’s transport even more interesting and financially secure.

But bearing in mind the current lamentable state of the horse trams, it would be wise not to expect rapid change.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.