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Before we have a look at which old railways can be walked, it is interesting to consider why the country is littered with old railways in the first place ...

Why Do Railway Lines Get Closed? The answer to this is usually because they are losing money, although, in the 19th century, it was sometimes because better alternative routes had been opened. In recent years, most closures have occurred as the result of lines reduced to freight-only operation losing their last rail freight customer. Notable swathes of closures in the UK have occurred as follows:

  • In the 1930s after the Depression. This period saw the end of now fabled lines such as the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway and the Leek & Manifold Railway, although the London, Midland & Scottish Railway donated the L&MR to the local authority for use as a country path, such were its scenic splendours.
  • In the 1950s as part of the BR Modernisation Plan. The BR Modernisation Plan poured money into the nation's railways after the war years, when the system had been treated as a strategic resource run by the government (and, some might say, almost flogged to death). Despite the investment, it was recognised that many branch lines were little used and therefore losing money, as a result of which some mainly rural 'pruning' took place at this time. Closures in the 1950s included the Meon Valley line in Hampshire (Fareham to Alton) and the branch from Pulborough to Petersfield via Midhurst, mostly in West Sussex. Both of these scenic routes were closed on the same day – 7th February 1955.
  • In the 1960s as part of the 'Beeching closures'. The 1960s saw the really big round of closures, when Dr. Richard Beeching closed lines (and wayside stations) wholesale in order to streamline the system and save what was left. Even after Dr. Beeching resigned as Chairman of the British Railways Board, the closures continued under successors such as Richard Marsh, until many observers began to suspect that a closure mentality pervaded railway management. Notable losses during this period included the Somerset & Dorset Railway (Bath-Bournemouth) and the Waverley Line from Carlisle to Edinburgh. Fortunately, the closure steamroller was dealt a fatal blow in the late 1980s when a group of campaigners saw off British Rail's bid to shut the scenic Settle and Carlisle railway. Both environmentalists and railway enthusiasts hope that they will never see the like of these closures again.

The following paragraphs provide a summary of information about railway walks, but further details can be found on our new Walks page.

Which Old Railways Can I Walk? The majority of old railway lines are privately owned, so members of the public have no right to go out and 'help themselves'. However, the good news is that a substantial mileage is now open for recreational use, with the most popular routes, such as Bath-Bristol and the Taff Trail north of Cardiff, attracting considerable numbers of cycling commuters. The last time that it was surveyed, the Bath-Bristol railway path was carrying about 2½ million journeys per year, spread equally between walkers and cyclists – a figure which emphasises the 'green' credentials of such trails. When we surveyed the mileage of official walks in the mid 1990s, it came to about 1,500, but that number today is probably over 4,000. An up to date list of official railway walks can be obtained from the webmaster's book, Vinter's Railway Gazetteer, details of which can be found on our Publications page. Members also have access to an online gazetteer of railway walks, which forms part of this website.

So – how do we come to have this mileage of old trackbeds that we can walk and cycle? The majority of routes arise from the following sources:

  • Road improvement schemes that were never built. Many old railways were acquired by local authorities for new roads, but sometimes traffic levels never increased sufficiently to justify the cost of building them. As a result, local authorities often turned these old lines into official walking and cycling routes.
  • Freight-only branch lines that closed after about 1980. Right up until the 1970s, when a railway closed, it was usually lost forever as a public resource. The railway's property board would sell off small parcels of trackbed in a piecemeal fashion to the highest bidder, resulting in a patchwork of local owners. Nowadays, however, the railway usually offers 'first refusal' to the local authority when a line is closed. Government initiatives such as Planning Policy Guidance 9 (PPG9) have had an impact on this process, by giving local authorities a responsibility to provide good quality facilities for walkers and cyclists. PPG9 has been replaced in recent years, but its principles remain in more recent guidance.
  • Railways closed in some national park and moorland areas. In a few cases, lines were closed in areas where the public had established access rights. For example, in the New Forest, the public enjoys a right of access on foot over much of the open forest. Here, the old railway line from Brockenhurst to Ringwood evolved into a trail between Cater's Cottage and Burbush Hill by a simple process of people exploring its remains on foot. (The route became so popular that, in 2005, two demolished bridges were replaced.) In the North Yorkshire Moors, parts of some old mineral railways can be walked as the result of a similar process.
  • Privately owned routes where local authorities and/or others have negotiated access. In recent years, some local authorities have negotiated with local landowners in order to bring back into public use old lines whose ownership had become fragmented. Not all landowners are amenable to this, but many have been most helpful, and some notable routes have been opened up as a result. For example, by this process, 6 miles of the old GWR line from Plymouth to Yelverton (between Marsh Mills and Goodameavy) now form part of a long distance coast-to-coast route in Devon. We are very grateful to those who have enabled this to happen.
  • Old tramways. This is perhaps the most surprising source of railway paths. In the early days of tramways, it was not uncommon for local people to use them as short cuts between communities, and it would appear that public rights of way evolved alongside the rails. When the lines closed, the rights of way remained. There is a surprising archive photograph from Pembrokeshire which shows a lady returning from market, basket in arm, walking along the tracks. Most railway paths of this type are in Wales, including the coastal path network around Saundersfoot, several old tramways in Dyfed, and a number of paths in the Brecon Beacons south of Talybont-on-Usk.
 

Left: Member Richard Lewis negotiates the steep upper incline on the Llangattock Tramroad. There is a considerable mileage of old tramways on the high ground above the Clydach Gorge in Gwent, much of which can be viewed on the web page here. These mineral lines conveyed limestone from various quarries on the Llangattock Escarpment down to Nantyglo Ironworks near Brynmawr. There are plenty of impressive views out here, and even a few tramway rails and wagons if you know where to look. 5th June 2007. (Lisa Lewis)

 

What Walks Does the Club Organise? Most walks organised by Railway Ramblers follow official railway paths, but once or twice a year most areas try to offer local members the opportunity to walk a line that is privately owned. The club does not approve of trespass, so this process involves lengthy negotiation with landowners. Most have been pleased to accommodate a club like ours with a genuine interest, but for those who decline permission, we devise an alternative route using minor roads, public footpaths and public bridleways. The last thing we want to do is antagonise landowners, so it is particularly pleasing to receive comments like this:

'It is a welcome change these days to have someone ask permission to do something like this, and I am very happy to give permission for your party to walk the section of track that I own ...'

We have even had landowners come and join us on our walks, sometimes out of curiosity to see in detail where their line continued to.

What is the Club's Policy on Trespass? As noted above, the club does not approve of trespass, which we believe does no good for relationships in the countryside, or in towns and cities for that matter. Detailed guidance is available to all of our walk leaders, but the key points of our Non-Trespass Policy can be viewed by clicking the link here.