Across the UK, many organisations are involved with ‘re-purposing’ abandoned railways, from local community groups to local authorities and important national charities such as Sustrans – the organisation behind the National Cycle Network, which includes many former railway lines.
Railway Ramblers actively supports a number of organisations that broadly align to our interests in the use and re-use of former railway lines. However, we do not review, assess or inherently endorse every decision and action that these external organisations may take.
Bennerley Viaduct is a grade 2* listed railway viaduct built in 1877 by the Great Northern Railway Company. ▼https://www.bennerleyviaduct.org.uk/
At over quarter of a mile long, it is the longest wrought iron viaduct in the country. It straddles the River Erewash connecting Ilkeston in Derbyshire with Awsworth in Nottinghamshire. It is known as The “Iron Giant”. The Friends of Bennerley Viaduct (The FoBV) are dedicated to restoring, conserving and celebrating the Viaduct.
Carlisle Waverley Viaduct Trust. A charity whose mission is to re-open the Waverley Viaduct (AKA North British Viaduct) over the river Eden on the outskirts of Carlisle as a footpath and ultimately a cycleway.http://www.carlislewaverleyviaducttrust.co.uk/
The Dorset Trailway Network is a project supported by Dorset Council and local communities to convert the former Somerset & Dorset Railway into a multi-use trail between Stalbridge (near the Dorset/Somerset border) and Poole on the south coast. ▼www.northdorsettrailway.org.uk
The route currently is about two-thirds complete
Frome is a wonderful mediaeval town in north Somerset, situated somewhat incongruously (given its antiquity and rural appearance) on the edge of the former Somerset Coal Field. ▼fromesmissinglinks.org.uk
The Frome community is distinctive and individualistic, and well known for rarely returning to the local council any candidate from a major political party. The town’s railway path to Radstock, with onward links to Bath and Midsomer Norton, starts several miles outside the town at Great Elm, but this committed and imaginative campaign has been working for years to plug the gap with a safe, traffic-free route right into the town centre – which is where rail trails ought to begin and end, not miles away on the periphery of their communities.
This was the scene in December 2016 at Great Elm, a few miles outside Frome, where the popular cycle trail from Radstock (NCN24, Colliers Way) left the old railway trackbed and switched walkers and cyclists on to a rather challenging non-railway route (behind camera). Frome’s Missing Links aims to take the trail forward, quite literally, on a new traffic-free route right into the town centre. (Jeff Vinter)
Hockley Viaduct ▼
In the 1980s, army engineers offered to blow up Hockley Viaduct, to the south of Winchester, as a training exercise. The Army assumed that the viaduct was a useless liability and presumed that its owner, Winchester City Council, would jump at the chance to get rid of it. The public reaction came as a shock. Winchester residents actually liked the viaduct, and appreciated that it shielded them from sight and sound of the busy A33, then the main Southampton-Winchester-London road. Railway Ramblers joined the protests from the start. The tide began to turn when a team of industrial archaeologists under Dr Edwin Course from the University of Southampton took core samples from the piers and found that, rather than being rubble-filled, they were made from concrete. This was a significant discovery, for it revealed Hockley as being one of the earliest concrete viaducts in the UK, predating those built by McAlpine’s on the West Highland line in Scotland by several years. Finally in 2013, the viaduct was re-opened as part of a new trail, which offers a traffic-free link for rural communities in the Itchen Valley right through to within a few hundred yards of King Alfred’s statue in Winchester city centre.
The parapet of Hockley Viaduct, which straddles the Itchen Valley to the south of Winchester, being repaired in September 2012. (Jeff Vinter)
The HRE Group is an alliance of walking, cycling and heritage campaigners, civil engineers and greenway developers acting to safeguard threatened disused railway structures. Click HRE Group page on Railway Ramblers websitewww.facebook.com/theHREgroup/
Lyle Barwick has travelled much of England, Wales and Scotland in pursuit of lost railways, and in the process has built up an interesting and substantial photographic collection on flickr. ▼www.flickr.com/photos/25795659@N02/
There are some nicely composed shots here, featuring many major engineering works such as viaducts, bridges and tunnels, plus a number of favourite routes such as the Somerset & Dorset Railway and the Waverley line.
The Northern Viaduct Trust works to preserve and, where possible, re-use the many disused railway viaducts which are such striking features of northern landscapes. ▼www.nvt.org.uk
Thanks to the Trust, a number of these structures have now been restored and opened to walkers, rather than being razed to the ground
Otter Trail ▼www.ottertrail.org
Staff and pupils at The King’s School, Ottery St Mary, Devon, are campaigning for the disused railway from Feniton (ex Sidmouth Junction) to Ottery St Mary to be converted into a new shared use trail. Sustrans has already carried out a feasibility study which emphasised the improved safety which such a trail would provide, as well as spelling out the benefits from improved public health and increased local spending from green tourism. Unfortunately, partly due to past government cutbacks, Sustrans does not have the means to develop trails like this itself.
Queensbury Tunnel and The Queensbury Tunnel Society ▼www.queensburytunnel.org.uk
This is the big story in disused railway conservation at the moment. Queensbury Tunnel is a vital missing link in a proposed multi-use trail linking Bradford and Halifax with Keighley via an extravagantly engineered old line built by the Great Northern Railway. Already, the small national charity, Railway Paths Ltd, has restored key viaducts along the route, such as those at Hewenden and Cullingworth. The tunnel itself is difficult thanks to a roof fall, and it was this, plus a risk-obsessed and opportunity-averse approach, that led Highways England to propose infilling the tunnel with concrete. By the time the necessary planning application was lodged with Bradford Council, Railway Ramblers were on the case – along with a lot of other individuals and organisations – with the result that the number of objections broke all council records at well over 4,000. In early March 2020, Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport, rejected the infilling plan and stated his preference for other possible uses, such as a cycle track, a tramway, or part of a light railway system. Given that restoration of the tunnel is part of the ‘North of England Connecting Communities Initiative’, the chances for the proposed Bradford/Halifax-Keighley trail now look good.
This site can take a long time to load due to its graphical content, but is a valuable research tool for anyone with an interest in old railways. ▼www.railmaponline.com
Developer Matthew Bromley explains: “I;ve been working on [historical railway maps] for many years, and have now decided to try and create a Google Maps based site to display them.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is the USA’s answer to Sustrans, but very much larger, and supported by government. When we first discovered the RTC, its website covered 1,359 separate rail trails. ▼www.railstotrails.org
As an organisation, it has over 160,000 members – which proves that re-using old railways is not a minority interest.
Railtrails Australia is the Australian equivalent of the RTC, with its website providing a one-stop guide to the country’s rail trails. ▼www.railtrails.org.au
Like Australia itself, some of these routes are big, like the Munda-Biddi Trail (from Mundaring to Collie in Western Australia), which is ca. 220 miles long.
Railway Paths owns about 15% of the UK’s unused and unsold railway infrastructure, and exists to re-use it in schemes which benefit the public, such as new railway pathswww.railwaypaths.org.uk
Smardale Gill Viaduct ▼
This viaduct on the former Stainmore line over the Pennines delivered another big surprise for the authorities, and again Railway Ramblers were involved in the campaigning – especially members of our various northern groups. Last used by a train in 1962, Smardale Gill Viaduct had become dangerous by the 1980s with the result that the British Rail Property Board proposed to demolish it. Again, there was local resistance, but this time it wasn’t residents who wanted to retain a shield against a major road; it was where the viaduct was situated – in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Most people in the UK would consider that an AONB is not the sort of place where one should deploy large quantities of Semtex, and – when it came to the crunch – BRPB discovered that the cost of repairing the viaduct was cheaper than destroying it, i.e. after all the necessary consents and making good had been taken into account. As a result, the Northern Viaduct Trust was able to restore the structure in 1992, using the £350,000 it raised to strengthen and repair the masonry, and install waterproofing and a new deck. The viaduct now provides pedestrian access to Smardale Gill Nature Reserve.
Click on the link to see more RR Smardale Gill Viaduct Article
Somerset Rail to Trail ▼www.railtotrail.org
The Rail to Trail project hopes to create a level path allowing walkers, cyclists, mobility scooter and wheelchair users, runners and horse riders to travel safely away from traffic between towns and villages across Somerset through glorious countryside!
Since the 1990s, the government in the Republic of Ireland has taken a growing interest in railway re-use. ▼www.southerntrail.net
This volunteer-led group was one of the earliest schemes -and the Irish State Railway supported it by making the cross-country Limerick to Tralee line available for use as a trail after it closed as a railway.
The Strawberry Line Project ▼www.thestrawberryline.org.uk/
This campaign group in Somerset aims to create a multi-use network of paths based largely on old railways between Clevedon and Shepton Mallet, Somerset. Much of the necessary preparatory work has been completed already by Somerset County Council, which has published detailed plans for an extension of the existing Yatton-Cheddar section eastwards to Wells. However, the project has reached an impasse thanks to local authority inaction, which is why the campaign’s website includes a petition (please click the link below, navigate to the petition and sign it). Despite the obstacles, local volunteers are still managing to bring their vision forwards, but the pace is slow – and no doubt the parlous finances of Somerset CC are part of the problem.
Sustrans (the name stands for ‘sustainable transport’) is a national path-building charity.Since 1995 has been developing the National Cycle Network. Much of the NCN is based on former railways. www.sustrans.org.uk
Subterranea Britannica is concerned mainly with’underground Britain’, but its website includes, as an offshoot, a fascinating guide to disused railway stations in the UK. Not every disused station is documented yet, but the standard of the research is exemplarywww.disused-stations.org.uk
Vias Verdes (literally ‘Green Ways’) is Spain’s organisation for railway paths. The country has over 1,800 kilometres (ca. 1,120 miles) of disused railways that can be walked and cycled, and the scenery on many of them is stunning. ▼www.viasverdes.com/en/principal.asp
Autumn is a good time to explore these routes, when the extreme heat of high summer has abated
The Watercress Way is a proposed long distance path which aims to use as much as possible of the former railway lines from Alresford to Winchester Junction, and from Winchester Junction to Sutton Scotney. ▼www.thewatercressway.org.uk
These being parts of the former Mid Hants Railway and Didcot, Newbury & Southampton Railway respectively. Much has been achieved on the ground already thanks to a motivated committee with professional attitudes and good connections.
The West Somerset Mineral Line Association exists to ‘inform people about the history of the West Somerset Mineral Railway and its associated mines and communities’. ▼www.wsmla.org.uk/
This standard gauge freight line once linked the Brendon Hills with Roadwater, Washford and Watchet on the Bristol Channel. The association offers a series of high quality guided walks every season.
The Wye Valley Line ▼you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/restoring-the-disused-railway-line-from-chepstow-to-tintern-for-a-shared-use-path
The disused railway from Tintern to the eastern edge of Chepstow hasn’t seen a train for decades, although the rails remain in place from the junction east of Chepstow up to Tidenham Quarry, which last saw a train in 1981. The Tintern end of the line has been used as a path for many years thanks to the good offices of the Forestry Commission, but the rest of it is a tale of lost opportunity. In recent years, John Grimshaw’s new organisation, Greenways and Cycleroutes, has got its teeth into this project and is making steady progress. Having founded Sustrans in 1977, John is expert at delivering seemingly intractable projects.
Bishton Lane overbridge on the disused Wye Valley line between Tintern and Chepstow during a 2013 inspection by directors of the charity Railway Paths Ltd. If all goes well, this bridge will be repaired and the rubbish removed to make way for the new Wye Valley Trail. (Jeff Vinter)