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HISTORY AND ACHIEVEMENTS

Railway Ramblers was formed in 1978 when Nigel Willis, the club's founder member, placed a small ad in The Railway Magazine asking if there were other individuals in the UK who were interested in accompanying him on walks along abandoned railways. The response was far greater than Nigel had expected – a big surprise, in fact – and, as a result, he decided to form a club: this is the result.

The club's main purpose is to bring together groups of like-minded people to explore old railways, but it has also done much to encourage the preservation of old railway lines as public footpaths and cycleways. As most railway enthusiasts know, Dr. Beeching and his successors axed about 8,000 miles of railways within the UK, but thanks to the efforts of local authorities and Sustrans (the charity behind the National Cycle Network), over 4,500 miles of this discarded network have been brought back into use as public walks and cycle trails. Happily, this mileage is increasing all the time.
 
 

Left: One of four towering viaducts on the Derwent Walk, which re-uses the old railway line between Consett and Swalwell, near Newcastle-on-Tyne. This line was saved for public use by Durham and Tyne & Wear county councils. You won't find features like this on an ordinary field path! (Julian Marko)

   

  
Trackbed Purchases.
Railway Ramblers has played its part in increasing the number of 'rail trails' by raising money for the purchase of several disused railway lines, which it has 'gifted' to Sustrans or other charities to convert into railway paths. By January 2006, the club had purchased the following routes for use by the public:

  • Whitehaven to Rowrah (7 miles)
  • Cleator Moor to Egremont (2 miles)
  • Princes Risborough to Thame (7 miles)
  • A link from the Cheddar Valley Railway Path to Yatton railway station (a short but valuable connection whose purchase was supported financially by many other voluntary groups)

Nowadays, the club has little opportunity to purchase old trackbeds since the 'political landscape' has changed immensely, and local authorities are usually offered first refusal on the freehold of a closed railway line. Most of them know exactly what to do next, and many have created some first rate multi-use trails as a result. However, the change of view of old railways – from useless wasteland to potential community resource – has meant that, for some years now, no trackbeds have come on to the market at rock-bottom prices for us to purchase.

Viaduct Restoration. As the possibilities for trackbed acquisition dried up, the club began to look at other purposes to which its grants could be put. The restoration of viaducts – the most iconic of all railway relics – was an obvious choice. The first expression of this change was a grant of £2,000 to the North Pennines Heritage Trust towards the cost of repairing Alston Arches Viaduct – actually in Haltwhistle, Northumberland – which was made safe for public access during 2006. Since this project was funded by 'matched giving', our grant released an equal amount from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which brought the effective value of our gift up to £4,000. (Further details are available on the 'News 2005' page.)
  

   

Left: In glorious weather on 10 May 2006, Ralph Rawlinson represented Railway Ramblers at the unveiling of National Railway Heritage Award Plaques by Sir Chris Bonington, CBE, at Kirkby Stephen station and Merrygill Viaduct, whose restoration was supported by the club (see story below). Merrygill and Podgill Viaducts are on the former 'Stainmore line' from Kirkby Stephen to Barnard Castle. (Ralph Rawlinson)

   

Grant History. During 2005, the club provided Sustrans with a grant of £2,000 to help fund clearance work between Midford and Wellow in Somerset, so that this part of the old Somerset & Dorset Railway could be opened up to walkers and mountain bikers. When this was done, subsequent improvements saw the installation of a smooth surface suitable for all users. Turning to the north of the country, we made a grant of £500 to the Northern Viaducts Trust to help with trackbed improvements on the old Stainmore cross-Pennine route, where the Trust is slowly acquiring and restoring old viaducts such as Merrygill, Podgill and Smardale Gill. Currently, only isolated sections of this route are open to the public, but it is vital that these important viaducts are not allowed to decay – without them, the continuity and potential of the old trackbed will be lost forever.

In the south of the country, the club supports The North Dorset Trailway, a project managed by Dorset County Council (in conjunction with North and East Dorset District Councils) which is slowly establishing a long distance multi-use path on the former Somerset & Dorset Railway from Stalbridge to Poole. Significant sections are open already with completion planned, hopefully, for 2020. The capital sums involved in this project are large, with over £200,000 having been spent in autumn 2006 on installing a new bridge over the River Stour at Fiddleford Mill; the original was removed for scrap shortly after the line closed. By today's standards, the sum of money realised for the original will have been pitiful, and it is easy to imagine the scrap men arguing successfully with BR that the material value of the bridge was diminished by the cost of getting to it, removing it and then cutting it up. (How times change ...)

In June 2008, following earlier donations of nearly £250 raised by the Southern Area, the club donated £2,500 to the North Dorset Trailway towards the cost of replacing a further missing bridge over the Stour, this time Hodmoor Bridge which crossed the river about a mile north west of the former halt at Stourpaine & Durweston. The total cost of the new structure was approximately £300,000, so this was a major piece of civil engineering. Clearance work started in February 2010, with the new bridge receiving its official opening on 7th November 2010 (click here for further details). Its opening created a continuous railway path between Sturminster Newton and the Stourpaine & Durweston area, with Blandford Forum as the next objective. (The link into Blandford opened in May 2013.)

The club supported the extension into Blandford (click here for details) by providing, in June 2013, a grant of £2,500 towards the cost of repairing the short tunnel at Stourpaine which took the old railway underneath the A350. It was essential to get this tunnel incorporated into the route so that trail users did not have to cross this busy road on the level; however, the tunnel had been under-packed for decades, and so the first task was to excavate all of the infill, which revealed that the brickwork in the arch was suffering from serious spalling. The British Rail Residuary Body, which owned the structure, was perfectly willing to sell it to Dorset County Council, but first it had to be made completely safe both for road users above and trail users below; due to the spalling, there was a real risk of the odd half brick falling out, and that obviously presented a safety risk to walkers, cyclists and horse riders. This work has now been completed sucecssfully and represents the club's first venture into a tunnel project.

Turning back the clock a couple of years, in summer 2011, the club provided a grant of £2,000 to Sustrans to support the development of its Ossett to Dewsbury Greenway, a route which includes some fine engineering features such as Headfield Viaduct and Earlsheaton Tunnel. Headfield Viaduct is a 14 arch masonry structure which includes a plate girder span over Sands Lane, plus two bowstring spans of 126 and 100 feet respectively over the River Calder – an impressive sight. Earlsheaton Tunnel is a 179 yard structure built on a long curve to accommodate double track: it was opened to the public on 16th January 2013, and pictures of the ceremony can be seen here. The club's £2,000 grant has been earmarked for a later phase of the project (Headfield Junction to Dewsbury Junction), which will extend the trail along the Great Northern trackbed towards Dewsbury Central station.

   

Left: The Honda Brushcutter which the club purchased for the Cawston Greenway team in Warwickshire (see story below) shortly before it was unleashed on the first of its vegetation-busting duties, which we are sure will be many and varied in the years to come. This local group is gradually improving the condition of the east end of the former LNWR line between Rugby and Leamington Spa. Although substantially in public ownership and with a few mini-trails along its length, the goal of a town-to-town trail has proved elusive. January 2016. (Paul Hayden-Hart)

   

In May 2012, the club's AGM voted to provide a grant of £2,500 to support the conversion of Scotland's Connel Ferry to Ballachulish branch into a cycle trail, but within weeks the Scottish government changed all that by announcing that it had committed £102 million over the next 3 years (2012-15) for improving walking and cycling infrastructure within the country. The funds were split into £25 million p.a. for large scale projects, plus £9 million p.a. for local projects within the most heavily populated areas. This funding so eclipsed the modest grant that the club could make that the committee chose instead to make a pro tem grant of £495 to the Hincaster Trailway Group. This supported trackbed clearance and surfacing work on the former Furness Railway's branch line from Hincaster Junction to Arnside, and helped to provide a one kilometre extension to the existing trail, built to an all-weather standard which allows use by walkers, cyclists, horse riders and mobility scooters. The club's next grant, in November 2015, was to another group of local volunteers, this time those working on the Cawston Greenway which aims to open up more of the LNWR's former line from Rugby to Leamington Spa. Our grant enabled the Greenway's volunteers to purchase a powerful Honda Brushcutter, which should be more than a match for the clearance duties which face them.

Six months later, in May 2016, the club made a grant of £2,500 to help with the cost of re-surfacing the Peregrine Way, which is the railway-based part of NCN423 that runs from north of Monmouth (near Hadnock Halt) to Symonds Yat. This grant was considered initially because the club wanted to support a project in Wales, but, in April 2016, Sustrans saw Chancellor George Osborne slash the funding for walking and cycling projects in England and Wales by 85%. This made the grant doubly useful, for it came at a time when Sustrans was feeling the pinch acutely. The charity undertook to use volunteer labour for the re-surfacing work in order to make the club's money go as far as possible, or (to quote Sustrans' Huw Davies) 'to give us more bang for our bucks'. The need for such work is a reminder that some of the country's rail trails have proved so popular that they are getting worn out. This used to be 'a nice problem to have' because path providers like it when their routes prove popular, but now it is just another financial headache.

Despite the current difficulties, which – thanks the Scottish government taking a very different attitude – apply only south of the border, there is much to be thankful for. The days are gone when old railways were simply sold off to the highest bidder and broken up piecemeal, although there are still thousands of miles of old trackbed which, potentially, might find a new purpose in life. Each new route encourages healthier travel choices, helps to combat rising obesity levels, and has the potential to reduce the number of accidents involving walkers and cyclists on our roads. If you can spare a few moments, read this article and notice how many cyclists killed on our roads in 2012 were children. There's no use for old railways? No demand for rail trails? The work is done and the funding can be stopped? We don't think so ...
 
 

   

Above: This reproduction bridge plate on Midford Viaduct, south of Bath on the former Somerset & Dorset Railway, commemorates the club's contribution to restoring this part of the old S&D line for public use. Midford Viaduct is now the start of a railway path to Wellow, but in time this short local route could become much, much longer. (Rupert Crosbee/Sustrans) Above: Another viaduct, another bridge plate – again commemorating the contribution of Railway Ramblers. This bridge plate adorns Alston Arches Viaduct in Haltwhistle, at the start of the highly scenic Alston branch. The whole of this branch is now a railway path, and the views from it are marvellous. Give yourself a treat and try it out! (Bob Prigg)
   

 
Current and Future Projects.
The club is always interested in hearing about projects to revive old railways. For a number of years, members were anxious about Torksey Viaduct in Lincolnshire, a massive 22 span viaduct that once formed part of the Great Central Railway. In April 2016, we were delighted to report that, after several false starts, this Grade II* listed structure had been restored by Railway Paths Limited (a sister charity to Sustrans) to a standard which allowed pedestrian use. Torksey Viaduct is the only crossing of the River Trent for several miles north or south, and already is proving very popular and useful. Currently, RPL and its partners are planning to extend access to cyclists, which will require a significant new ramp to be built on the east side of the A156 through Torksey village, plus the replacement of a removed railway bridge over the same main road. Not too far away on the Nottinghamshare/Derbyshire border, RPL has great plans for the even more magnificent (and even more neglected) Bennerley Viaduct.

Another project that may receive our support in future is the proposed railway path from Maiden Newton to Bridport, which the local authority and Sustrans (with enthusiastic support from the village communities along the route) would like to see developed. Unfortunately, this traverses a very remote area – albeit a highly attractive one – and is a good example of the type of project that recent government cost-cutting is undermining. This trail needs money to help purchase materials for surface improvements because a new main to Bridport was laid under the trackbed in the early 1990s, churning up much of the railway's sub-structure. As a result, parts of the surface can become a mire of clay during the winter months. Currently, much of the route is open to walkers on a permissive basis, but it is not waymarked and one needs a knowledgeable guide to lead one through the different sections without getting lost. However, the Bridport Trailway offers the chance of re-using much of Dorset's most attractive branch line, and opening up to walkers and cyclists a very beautiful part of this lovely county. It is a bonus that the route is in a popular area for holidays, close to Weymouth, Dorchester and the Jurassic Coast.

As in the past, the club will strive to ensure that its support for railway path projects is spread widely around the country. Other major projects that are currently in progress – all with significant input from Sustrans – include The Great Northern Railway Trail (Queensbury to Cullingworth, Yorkshire), The Great Northern Greenway (Breadsall to Ilkeston, Derbyshire), and the Strawberry Line (an entire network of rail trails across Somerset).