Before we answer this question, let’s consider briefly why the country is littered with old railways in the first place.
Why and When Were the Railways Closed?
The answer usually was because they were 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 In recent years, most closures have occurred as the result of freight services being withdrawn, e.g. in the former Nottinghamshire coalfield. The big swathes of closures in the UK 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 Valley Light Railway, although the London, Midland & Scottish Railway donated the L&MR to the local authority for use as a country path on account of its scenery and potential as a trail.
- 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 operated (and run into the ground) by the government. Despite the investment, it was recognised that many branch lines were little used and running at a loss, so some mainly rural ‘pruning’ took place at this time. These closures included the Meon Valley line in Hampshire (Fareham to Alton) and the branch from Pulborough to Petersfield via Midhurst, mostly in West Sussex.
- In the 1960s as part of the ‘Beeching closures’. The 1960s saw the really big round of closures, when Dr Richard Beeching recommended to his masters in Government the axing of masses of lines and intermediate stations in order to streamline the system and save what was left. However, when Dr Beeching’s secondment from ICI to be the Chairman of British Railways ended, his recommended closures (and even more) continued under successors such as Richard Marsh, until many observers began to suspect that railway managers saw their role as closing rather than promoting railways. Notable losses during this period included the Somerset & Dorset Railway (Bath-Bournemouth) and the Waverley Line (Carlisle-Edinburgh). The closure machine was dealt a fatal blow in 1989 when the then Transport Minister, Michael Portillo, refused permission for British Rail to close the now-thriving Settle-Carlisle railway.
Types of Walkable Railway
The majority of disused railway lines are privately owned, so members of the public have no right to go out and ‘help themselves’. However, about 3,000 miles of old railways are now open for recreational use, with the most popular routes, such as Bath-Bristol and the Taff Trail north of Cardiff, attracting huge numbers of users, including cycling commuters. Both of these trails support millions of self-powered journeys every year. A reasonably up-to-date list of official railway walks can be obtained from Vinter’s Railway Gazetteer (The History Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0750969765), while club members have access to the online version of this guide. Many local authorities actively promote their rail trails, with many publishing leaflets or booklets which can be obtained from local tourist information centres.
So, how did we come to acquire this mileage of old trackbeds that we can walk and cycle?
- Road improvement schemes that were never built. Many old railways were acquired by local authorities for new roads, but sometimes traffic levels never increased enough to justify the cost of conversion. As a result, local authorities ended up with dormant assets, which they often turned into off-road walking and cycling routes instead.
- Freight-only branch lines that closed after about 1980. If a railway closed at any time up to the 1970s, it was usually lost forever as a public resource because the railway’s property board would sell off multiple small parcels of trackbed to create a patchwork of local owners. Nowadays when a line is closed, the railway usually offers first refusal to the local authority, and government policies have helped this process. For example, in the early 1990s, Planning Policy Guidance 9 (PPG9) gave local authorities a responsibility to provide good quality facilities for walkers and cyclists, and this principle remains today.
- 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, but many have been very constructive in helping to open up new routes. 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.
- 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 public rights of way evolved alongside the rails; then, when the lines closed, the rights of way remained. A 19th century photograph survives from Pembrokeshire showing a lady returning from market, basket in arm, alongside one of the county’s tramways. 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.