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 others in the UK who were interested in accompanying him on walks along abandoned railways. The response was far greater than he had expected – a big surprise, in fact – and, as a result, he decided to form a club: this is the result. We are still going strong and, in September 2018, celebrated our 40th Anniversary with a grand dinner at Sheffield’s Royal Victoria Hotel (ex Great Central Railway), when Nigel was installed as our Honorary President.
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 footpaths and cycleways. As most railway enthusiasts know, Dr Beeching, together with his predecessors and successors (who could be just as destructive), recommended the axing of 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 – something approaching 3,000 miles of this discarded network has been brought back into use as public walks and cycle trails. This mileage is increasing all the time. Government austerity measures from 2008 reduced progress, but with a new administration in office that is no longer austerity-obsessed we should see improvements.
Our grants are not massive (ca. £500-£3,000), but are of a size that is difficult to obtain from other sources, sitting between the top end of individual donations and the bottom end of grants from bodies such as the Historic Railways Trust or Heritage Lottery Fund. Path-builders can use our contributions to demonstrate public support for their projects, and, when match funding is provided by the bigger players, the value of our grants is effectively doubled.
We have helped to increase the number of rail trails in the UK by raising money to purchase several disused railway lines, which we have ‘gifted’ to Sustrans or other charities to convert into new trails, namely:
- Whitehaven to Rowrah (7 miles)
- Cleator Moor to Egremont (2 miles)
- Princes Risborough to Thame (7½ miles)
We also contributed to the purchase price of a trackbed link in North Somerset between Yatton railway station and the Cheddar Valley Railway Path; this is only 400 yards long, but now walkers and cyclists can access the trail (which connects with many outlying villages) directly from the platform.
Opportunities like these no longer occur because railways are longer being closed routinely. If a line is closed now, the local authority will usually be offered first refusal, and in most cases will buy the trackbed and convert it into a trail. The changed of view of old railways – from useless wasteland to dormant asset / potential community resource – has meant that, for some years, no trackbed has come on to the market at a price low enough for us to purchase.
As the opportunities for trackbed purchase declined, we began to look at other options. The restoration of viaducts – the most iconic of all railway relics – was an obvious choice. Our first such grant was to the North Pennines Heritage Trust to help repair Alston Arches Viaduct (actually in Haltwhistle), which was made safe for public access during 2006. Because this project was supported by match funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the value of our grant was doubled, and this has happened many times since.
We have supported other projects which included viaducts (and tunnels), but our next viaduct-specific grant was not until 2019, when we helped Railway Paths Ltd (a sister charity to Sustrans) to restore Bennerley Viaduct, which straddles the Erewash Valley on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border. This Grade II* listed structure is almost a quarter of a mile long and is one of only two surviving wrought iron viaducts in the UK (the other is at Meldon, near Okehampton, in Devon). ‘Iconic’ is an over-used word nowadays, but it is certainly appropriate for this structure, which when restored – hopefully during 2020 – will be opened for access by walkers in a scheme costing ca. £1¼m.
The loss of bridges on closed railways is a major impediment to the re-use of trackbeds because it makes them fragmentary. We have provided grants to help replace two major bridges between Sturminster Newton and Stourpaine on the former Somerset & Dorset Railway (S&DR), namely Fiddleford in 2006 and Hodmoor in 2010. The overall cost of these new bridges was £200,000 and £320,000 respectively.
So far, we have made only one tunnel-specific grant, and that was in 2008 to help repair a short tunnel at Stourpaine, also on the S&DR, which took the line beneath the busy A350. The tunnel had been ‘under-packed’, but when the infill was removed the brickwork in the arch was found to have spalled. Following repair, two previously separate sections of Dorset Council’s ‘North Dorset Trailway’ were linked together so that, today, the section from Sturminster Newton to Blandford is almost entirely on the old railway. The council’s long term ambition is to extend the Trailway north to Stalbridge and south to Poole; a significant proportion is complete already, with economic benefits being delivered to rural communities along the way.
Around the Regions
While we have done much to support the North Dorset Trailway in the south of the country, we are a national organisation and aim to spread our support around, although this can be difficult in times of recession, or if rail trails are being developed predominantly in specific regions. In the north, we provided a grant in 2005 to the Northern Viaducts Trust to help finance trackbed improvements on the former trans-Pennine Stainmore line, where the Trust was 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 maintained because, without them, the linear continuity and potential of the old line will be lost.
In 2011, we provided a grant 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 substantial piece of work – a 14 arch masonry structure which includes a plate girder span over a local road, plus bowstring spans of 126 and 100 feet each over the River Calder. The trail continues through Earlsheaton Tunnel, a 179 yard structure built on a long curve to accommodate double track; it was opened to the public in 2013. Subsequently, the Greenway was extended along former Great Northern trackbed towards Dewsbury Central station.
Because we are a national club, we aspire to support trackbed re-use in all of the home countries. We had planned a grant in 2012 to support conversion of Scotland’s Connel Ferry to Ballachulish branch, but the Scottish government beat us to it by committing £102 million over the next 3 years (2012-15) for improving walking and cycling infrastructure within the country. Our intended grant was eclipsed, so instead we gave money to the Hincaster Trailway Group in Cumbria to support trackbed clearance and surfacing work on the former Furness Railway’s branch line from Hincaster Junction to Arnside. In 2015, we supported the Cawston Greenway group, who are working on the LNWR’s former line from Rugby to Leamington Spa. Our grant enabled them to buy a powerful Honda Brushcutter to clear significant amounts of vegetation, which was beginning to block the trackbed.
In 2016, we made our first grant in Wales, when we helped Sustrans to re-surface the Peregrine Way, the railway-based part of NCN423 which runs through the Wye Valley from north of Monmouth (near Hadnock Halt) to Symonds Yat. Sustrans used volunteer labour for this work to make our money go further, while the need to re-surface this trail was a reminder that routes based on old railways are now so popular that some are wearing out.
As we move away from austerity, which thankfully the Scottish and Welsh governments did not adopt with Westminster’s enthusiasm (at least as regards rail trails), there is cause for optimism, and much to be thankful for. The days are gone when old railways were sold off to the highest bidder and broken up into useless fragments, 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.
There’s no use for old railways? No demand for rail trails? The work is done and the funding can be stopped? ‘No’ on all counts!