Posted by: mike on Apr 11, 2014

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delightLatest

Kennet & Avon Canal Bruce Tunnel west portal

Kennet & Avon Canal Bruce Tunnel west portal inscription

Just as the proprietors of the Kennet & Avon Canal named the Dundas Aqueduct at Limpley Stoke after the company chairman, Charles Dundas, 1st Baron Amesbury, so they named the tunnel at Savernake after the local landowner Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury (1729-1814).

Bruce Tunnel wasn’t in fact needed.  It was built solely because the Earl declined to have a deep cutting splitting his estate.

It's 502 yards long, with a wide bore to take Newbury barges, and has no towpath.

Above the west entrance portal is a stone panel carved with an elaborate dedication by Benjamin Lloyd, the canal company’s mason:

The Kennet and Avon Canal Company
Inscribe this TUNNEL with the Name of
In Testimony of the Gratitude
for the uniform and effectual Support of
through the whole Progress of this great National Work
by which a direct communication by Water was opened

The inscription is almost illegible, so a modern duplicate, smaller and in a different stone, stands to the side of the tunnel arch, with a pendant:

“This monument was erected by the Kennet & Avon Canal Partnership and John Lloyd, seventh generation mason of Bedwyn, as a replica of that erected by his ancestor, Benjamin Lloyd, mason of Bedwyn to the Kennet & Avon Canal Company, AD 2003.”

John Lloyd delivered the new inscriptions, appropriately, by boat.

Posted by: mike on Mar 23, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Newark Air Museum:  Lancaster Corner

One of the most poignant exhibits at the Newark Air Museum is the wingtip of a Lancaster bomber, R5726, which was fished out of Knipton Reservoir, near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire.

It broke up in the air in bad weather on the afternoon of April 4th 1944, killing the crew of seven, and was found by Newark Sub-Aqua Club in 1979.

Next to it is a short section of the fuselage of another Lancaster Mk I, W4964, which flew 106 missions, one of them part of Operation Catechism, the final attack on the German battleship, Tirpitz, on November 12th 1944.

When this aircraft was retired its fuselage was used for ground training, and eventually a sawn-off section became a garden shed in Gainsborough, from where it was rescued for preservation in 1974.

Its wartime paintwork remains intact.  The accompanying display shows a photograph of its crew returning from its first sortie to Stettin in 1943, with the plane’s insignia in the background.

Also on display is one of Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bombs, properly an Upkeep Mine:  this one was a test version dropped in a practice run at Reculver, Kent.

It’s one thing to see a historic relic, whether a plane or a train or a building, fully restored as new, but it’s a far more resonant experience to see actual artefacts unchanged from the time of the story that they tell.

Posted by: mike on Mar 19, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Newark Air Museum:  Taylor JT1 Monoplane G-APRT

Newark Air Museum:  Taylor JT1 Monoplane G-APRT

The most endearing aircraft in the Newark Air Museum is the prototype Taylor JT1 Monoplane, G-APRT, designed in 1956 and built in Ilford in 1958-9 by Mr John F Taylor.

He specified that it had be within the capabilities of a do-it-yourself constructor, fabricated entirely of wood, and originally cost less than £100.  Its wingspan was restricted to sixteen feet, because that was the size of the lounge in his apartment.  Even so, extricating the finished plane involved removing the bay-window and sliding it down ramps from first-floor to ground level.

At least 110 of these nippy little planes have been built, and you can buy one for slightly above £4,500:

It cruises at 90-100 mph, and has a range of 290 miles.

I imagine John Taylor’s family were glad to get it – and him – out of the house.

There’s an article about the Taylor JT1 Monoplane at

Posted by: mike on Mar 15, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Newark Air Museum:  English Electric Lightning T5 XS417

Newark Air Museum:  English Electric Lightning T5 XS417

I know very little about aircraft.

I was brought up alert to steel wheels on steel rails.  I was taught to read, write and count by watching the trams go past the house in post-war Sheffield.  My dad took me trainspotting on Sunday mornings while my mum cooked lunch (which we called dinner).

I still think numbers look best in sans-serif, as they were on the front of most Sheffield trams and buses and on the cab-sides of British Railways locomotives.  And though roller-blind destination indicators are on their way out, if I see a driver scrolling to change his display I have to stand and watch the succession of place-names.

My mate Richard was brought up on rubber wheels – cars and motorbikes – and seems to have spent his childhood building model planes.

So when he suggested spending a couple of hours at the Newark Air Museum, just off the A1 in Nottinghamshire [], I didn’t expect to learn much.

In fact, it’s a rich, varied and highly professional museum, with excellent interpretation that’s informative for enthusiasts and at the same time intelligible to numpties like me.

We wandered through two vast display halls and a small-objects display hall, inspected a range of aircraft outside, and briefly looked at a collection of aero-engines (to appreciate which you presumably need an engineering degree).

I declined an offer to sit in the cockpit of a Jaguar, knowing that when Dick walked round the corner he’d jump at the chance.  He had at least a vague idea of what all the knobs and dials were for, whereas I’d be like the guy at Crich who asked how you steer a tram.

The Museum runs a rich series of events, ranging from an Aeroboot sales day to a Cockpit-Fest.  There is a comprehensive education programme, particularly for primary schoolchildren, Cubs and Scouts, and Air Training Corps squadrons.

There’s a shop, billed as “the best specialist aviation outlet in the Midlands”, and a small, warm and welcoming café, which for the moment only goes as far as “legendary” toasties and paninis but will in due course branch out in a new building, thanks to ‘Project Panini’ [].

The site, adjacent to the Newark and Nottinghamshire Agricultural Society showground, was formerly RAF Winthorpe, a Second World War base that operated from September 1940 until July 1959.

The aircrew who flew from there and didn’t come back are commemorated by a poignant memorial which incorporates part of a propeller hub of a MK III Short Stirling, EF186, which was based at RAF Winthorpe and crashed out of control at Breeder Hills near Grantham on December 4th 1944.

In essence, this rich collection of magnificent engineering commemorates the skill and the bravery of those who flew from airfields like this before, during and after the Second World War and their successors who continue to do so.

Posted by: mike on Feb 20, 2014

Category:LatestTransports of delight

Bure Valley Railway:  Wroxham

An unexpected sight on the rail journey between Norwich, Cromer and Sheringham is the busy little station of the Bure Valley Railway at Wroxham.

It’s literally little because the Bure Valley trains run to the tiny gauge of fifteen inches.  The line follows the trackbed of the former East Norfolk Railway standard-gauge line to Aylsham, which is now the terminus.  Originally it extended past what is now a Tesco car-park to a junction at County School.

The scale of the Bure Valley trains allows for the full paraphernalia of main-line steam and diesel operation.  The Aylsham station has four platforms and a complicated track layout, and both termini have turntables:  indeed, the turning of the locomotive at Wroxham is a highlight of the journey.

The full fleet of four steam and three diesel locos can be seen in operation on the Everything Goes Weekend, May 24th-26th 2014.

Miniature it may be, but this is no toy railway.

Indeed, it operates boat trains which offer a return journey from Aylsham to Wroxham with a ninety-minute Broads cruise:

Three adults can sit comfortably side by side in the passenger coaches, some of which have electric heating for winter operation.

It’s a seriously attractive attraction.

Posted by: mike on Feb 16, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Mid-Norfolk Railway:  Wymondham Abbey Station

At present, the Mid-Norfolk Railway [] preserves an 11½-mile-long, unremarkable stretch of the former Great Eastern Railway between Wymondham and Dereham.  Though there is a physical connection to Network Rail at Wymondham, public services stop short at Wymondham Abbey.

As well as providing the usual tourism services of a heritage railway, the enterprising Mid-Norfolk line provides freight services through its connection to the national network, serves military traffic and provides testing facilities for the rail industry and training opportunities for the emergency services.

Most of its operations are diesel hauled, and there are regular appearances of guest steam locomotives.

Reaching this stage of development has been a considerable struggle [] and future plans are ambitious and exciting.

The Mid-Norfolk Railway Trust owns a further six miles of track-bed northwards to County School Station (built for and named after a long-gone boarding school operated by Dr Barnardo’s from 1907 to 1953).

Linking this section to the existing line provides a springboard for a further lengthy extension to Fakenham.

And that’s not all.  The proposed Holt, Melton Constable & Fakenham Railway plans to reinstate continuous railway from Holt to Melton Constable, the core of the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway system, continuing on to the M&GNR main line to Fakenham, where it would ultimately connect with the extended Mid-Norfolk Railway on the former Great Eastern Railway.

This project involves several physical alterations to the historic route –

  • reinstating a rail link alongside the A148 by-pass into Holt
  • construction a new Melton Constable station on a different site to the vanished original
  • realigning the route through Melton Constable to avoid reversal
  • avoiding the Pensthorpe wildfowl park which occupies the original alignment on the entry to Fakenham

The completed project, the Norfolk Orbital Railway [], would reintroduce rail transport to north-west Norfolk, and provide an 84-mile continuous loop incorporating the current rail-services between Wymondham, Norwich, Cromer and Sheringham.

A further project, the Whitwell & Reepham Railway Preservation Society Limited, based at Whitwell & Reepham station on the M&GNR Fakenham-Norwich line, has long-term [] plans to reinstate seven miles of track and to link with either the North Norfolk Railway or the Mid-Norfolk Railway.

Posted by: mike on Dec 24, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring South AfricaLatest

The Blue Train

The Blue Train (interior)

Everyone deserves to be treated at least once in their lives as well as passengers are treated on South Africa’s Blue Train [] which trundles the 990 miles between Pretoria and Cape Town at a leisurely pace in 27 hours.

From the moment passengers are ushered on to the platform and then the train by the train-captain, all they need to do is ask.

My butler was called Herbert.  He showed me the cabin, awash with armchairs and cushions, the marquetry panelling, the marble bathroom, the mobile phone to summon him at any time, the multiplicity of light-switches and lights, the TV zapper which also controlled the venetian blinds within the double-glazed window.  You can even tune the TV to the camera on the front of the locomotive, a quarter of a mile ahead, so you can see where you were going.

When you have a bath on a train, the water slops up to your head or down to your feet every time you go round a bend.

Everything you could possibly need was there, if sometimes not where you’d expect to find it, and every time I ventured into the corridor Herbert was invisibly in and out tidying the pencils and replacing the mineral water bottle.

Everything, including the postcards and the postage, is on the house.  In the lounge car I asked the barman, a young man called Wesley, if people sometimes got out of control and he said, yes, it sometimes happened.

In the dining car Irene, my waitress, kept me stocked up with appropriate wines, tuning into my preference for cheese before dessert and proffering dessert wine at the appropriate moment.  For lunch I had venison;  for dinner ostrich.  There was also afternoon tea, and pots of tea and coffee delivered to the cabin by Herbert.

Before dinner I sat on a bar-stool watching the sunset, and drinking white wine, and returned to the bar afterwards with an English couple I’d met in the observation car, and we mulled over brandies which Wesley had expertly warmed.  Very large double brandies.

When I eventually went back to my suite, transformed by Herbert into a bedroom, and opened the window-blinds, the sky was ablaze with stars as we crossed the Karoo desert.

For breakfast there was smoked-salmon omelette – and much, much else.

I was very fortunate to make the journey in 2000, when the Rand was falling through the floor.  In 2014 the single fare from Pretoria to Cape Town or vice versa is just short of £1,200.  Seriously, there are far worse ways of spending that sort of money on a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Or perhaps twice in a lifetime.

Posted by: mike on Dec 9, 2013

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delightLatest

Thames & Severn Canal Sapperton Tunnel Coates Portal

Thames & Severn Canal:  Sapperton Tunnel, Coates Portal

Sapperton Tunnel on the Thames & Severn Canal epitomises the canal-builder’s dilemma about crossing a watershed – whether to dig an expensive tunnel to save lockage, or to build locks that demand a constant and abundant source of water.

Sapperton Tunnel cost a great deal to build, and leaked like a sieve.

The engineer Josiah Clowes is thought to have worked on the 2,880-yard, nine-foot-wide Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal for James Brindley, and Sapperton Tunnel was longer, at 3,817 yards, and was built to broad-canal dimensions without a towpath.  At the time of construction it was the longest tunnel so far built.

Work began in the spring of 1784 and was completed in 1789:  the first boat went through on April 20th that year.  Defects in the structure led to a ten-week closure only a year after the opening.

The original surveyor of the Thames & Severn Canal, Robert Whitworth, had observed, on a frankly superficial inspection, that the summit level ran “over some bad Rocky Ground...worse than [he had] even seen any Canal cut thro’ for such a continued length”.

In fact, the line of the tunnel alternately passes through impermeable oolite and the unstable, permeable clay known as fuller’s earth:

The geologist John Phillips (1800-1874), in his biography of his geologist uncle Memoirs of William Smith (1844), wrote scathingly about the fundamental weakness of the line:

Such canals…are like the buckets of the Danaids, and with the water goes the profit.  In vain the Thames, raised from its source by a mighty engine, is poured into such a thirsty canal;  the flood passes into the gaping rocks below, in spite of renewed puddling and continual repairs.

The last boat went through Sapperton Tunnel on May 11th 1911 and almost the entire canal was abandoned in 1927.

The Cotswolds Canal Trust has been working since 1975 to restore the entire length of the Thames & Severn Canal, and the reopening of Sapperton Tunnel forms part of the third and final phase of their project:

It won’t be easy, as Ken Burgin’s inspection 2009 report indicates:

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Nov 11, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Midland Railway Butterley:  46203 Princess Margaret Rose

Midland Railway Butterley:  46203 Princess Margaret Rose

Billy Butlin (1899-1980) was as sharp as a tack.

South African-born, raised in Canada, he came to England with £5, of which he invested £4 in a stall at his uncle’s fair.  From this humble start as a showman he built his empire of holiday camps.

He was astute.  Fred Pontin once told him, “You’ve taught me everything I know about holiday camps.”  To which Butlin responded, “Maybe, but not everything I know.”

He had a pragmatic attitude to the finer things of life.  To furnish the chapels that he installed in each of his camps, he instructed his staff to source paintings – “religious, big, and not more than fifty quid”.

When British Railways were scrapping steam locomotives in the early 1960s, Billy Butlin bought eight as ornaments for his camps at Ayr, Minehead, Pwllheli and Skegness.

He saved four tank-engines (three LB&SCR Terriers and an L&SWR dock-tank) and four magnificent express locomotives from the LM&SR – all of which are now in serious preservation – purely so that kids could climb on them and be photographed in front of them.

Thanks to Billy Butlin we can still enjoy 6100 Royal Scot, 6203 Princess Margaret Rose and two of the huge ‘Princess Coronation’ class – 6229 Duchess of Hamilton, now in the National Railway Museum restored to its original streamlined shape, and 6233 Duchess of Sutherland, currently earning its keep pulling charter specials on the main lines.

6203 Princess Margaret Rose is one of the jewels in the crown of the Midland Railway Butterley [], where the Princess Royal Class Trust [] has its base.

Occasionally, when tour itineraries require it, Princess Margaret Rose is visited by its sister engine 6201 Princess Elizabeth, named after the present Queen.

Then it is possible for the Trust to wheel out its two 21-inch-guage replicas of the two locomotives, which were also built for Butlin’s Camps, alongside.

Two locomotives, in two sizes – all side by side.  Unique, as far as I know.  All thanks to Billy Butlin.

Posted by: mike on Nov 9, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLatest

National Fork Truck Heritage Centre

Of all the topics I’ve come across in a lifetime of researching architectural and social history, the development of the fork-lift truck is singularly bereft of humour, entertainment or engaging personalities.

In the fork-lift world there’s nobody like Percy Shaw, who invented the retro-reflective road marker or “cat’s-eye” [].

Instead, there’s a simple story of complex machines that can shift and stack heavy loads without overbalancing – machines which we tend to take entirely for granted.

One of the few fork-lift history websites [] declares, “Everything we eat or wear, and everything in our home, including the materials to build the house itself, has at some stage been stored and handled by materials handling equipment.”

The National Forklift Truck Heritage Centre [] preserves the heritage and the archives of these clever pieces of kit.

The Centre’s collection spans from the oldest fork-lift truck in existence, a Yale model of 1926, to examples from the end of the twentieth century.

Who would cross the road to see a collection of eighty-odd fork-lift trucks?  Anybody who’s ever driven one, for sure.  Engineers, and those with an appreciation of engineering, certainly.

In fact, ordinary tourists, families out for the weekend and railway enthusiasts find their way to the Centre because it’s part of the Midland Railway Butterley museum in Derbyshire:

In addition, the rental that the Centre presumably pays to the Midland Railway Butterley helps to develop their hugely ambitious transport-museum campus.

It’s a win-win situation.  Uplifting, so to speak.

Posted by: mike on Nov 7, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Midland Railway Butterley, Swanwick Junction

Midland Railway Butterley, Swanwick Junction

First-time visitors to the Midland Railway Butterley, Derbyshire, the biggest and most comprehensive attempt to commemorate one of Britain’s finest pre-Grouping railway companies, might initially be underwhelmed by the presentation of the place.

Riding in a rag-tag collection of railway carriages with slow speeds, limited mileage and much standing in stations may not impress at first.

The full length of the line is 3½ miles, and you can’t get off at either end, but the main site at Swanwick Junction is extensive.

There are meticulously reconstructed station buildings in the classic Midland design at Butterley and Swanwick Junction, four Midland-pattern signal boxes and other structures including the tin church of St Saviour from Westhouses, Derbyshire.

There are actually several railways:  apart from the standard-gauge line there’s a narrow-gauge railway, a miniature railway and a garden railway.

In a succession of museum buildings there are locomotives, rolling stock, buses, stationary steam engines and the national collection of historic fork-lift trucks.

A notice in one of the museum buildings apologises for the dust – because “we are a working museum”.

That’s the key.

This is a hugely ambitious project, driven by a consortium of preservation groups, “dedicated to the glory of the Midland Railway”, according to the website strapline:

The scale of the task is measured by the contrast between the finished preservation projects, such as the Midland Railway royal saloon and the only surviving Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway coach, and the desperately decayed relics waiting for attention.

Butterley reminds me of the Sydney Tramway Museum in New South Wales – another grand scheme to recreate a vanished and much celebrated transport system.

The Midland Railway project has been at Butterley now for forty years, and it might take another forty to accomplish the vision.  No doubt an influx of volunteers and repeated injections of cash would help, but the place is busy.

I spoke to a seasoned enthusiast on the train back to Butterley.  “There’s a lot here,” he said.  He thought he’d be on his way home by 2.30 and it was coming up to half past four.

That’s the short-term measure of success – and the encouragement to return.

Posted by: mike on Oct 21, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Groudle Glen Railway:  Sea Lion Rocks

Many of the Manx glens remain open to the public, but one above all recaptures the atmosphere of its late-Victorian heyday because of the restoration by a team of ten volunteers of the Groudle Glen Railway.

Richard Maltby Broadbent, the owner of Bibaloe Farm, Onchan, built the Groudle Hotel, and opened Groudle Glen as a resort to coincide with the opening of the Manx Electric Railway in 1893.

He added to the glen’s amenities by opening a miniature railway in 1896 to carry visitors to see the imported Californian sea-lions at a zoo at Sea Lion Rocks.  The service became successful enough to justify supplementing the original locomotive, Sea Lion, with a companion, Polar Bear (1905).

After the First World War battery-electric locomotives were used for six years, but proved to be so unreliable that the original steam locomotives were overhauled and returned to service.

The Groudle Glen Railway reopened after the Second World War in 1950, but a landslip made the terminus inaccessible.  The line was abandoned in the late 1950s, briefly reopened in 1962, but was then closed and lifted.

In the 1980s it was rebuilt by the Isle of Man Steam Railway Supporters Association:  diesel-hauled trains as far as the Headland began running in May 1986, until Sea Lion, fully restored by BNFL Sellafield apprentices, was ready for service in October 1987.

The line was restored to Sea Lion Rocks in May 1992, and a tea-room with spectacular views now stands at the terminus.

The railway has gone from strength to strength in the past twenty years and is well worth seeking out:

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes an optional visit to the Groudle Glen Railway if the 2014 timetable permits.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 19, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Snaefell Mountain Railway:  Laxey

The Snaefell Mountain Railway really shouldn’t exist – a line to a bleak mountain top, using barely altered Victorian technology, built to a different gauge to the line it connects with.

While Alexander Bruce was engaged in constructing what became the Manx Electric Railway he was also driving an electric-powered mountain railway, the first in the British Isles, to the summit of Snaefell, the “snow mountain”, just over 2,000 feet above sea level.

For this he enlisted the engineer George Noble Fell, whose father, John Barraclough Fell, had developed an Incline Railway system, involving a central third rail to provide extra adhesion.  Because of this additional rail, the Snaefell Mountain Railway has a gauge of 3ft 6in.

The line was built with astonishing speed, beginning in January 1895:  despite the “Great Snow” and a navvies’ strike, the 4½-mile route, climbing at an average gradient of 1 in 12, was complete and ready to operate – with track and overhead in place and a coal-fired power station halfway up the mountain – in less than eight months.  The opening ceremony took place on August 20th 1895.

It turned out that the six 100hp electric cars, the most powerful in Britain at the time, could cope with the gradient without the Fell drive, but the centre rail was retained for braking.

In 1896 a hotel, which became known as the Bungalow, was built at the halfway passing loop and a further battlemented hotel was constructed at the summit in 1906.

Through all the political uncertainties that threatened the island’s railways as traffic declined from the 1950s onwards, the Snaefell cars have run up and down the mountain.

Car 5, destroyed by fire in August 1970, was rebuilt and returned to service within a year;  the entire Snaefell fleet was equipped with new bogies built by London Transport and electrical equipment from Aachen tramways in the mid-1970s.

The Summit hotel was burnt down in 1982 and rebuilt two years later, and new car sheds were built for the Snaefell fleet in 1995.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the Snaefell line has more purpose than ever – the Summit Sunday lunches, sunset dinners, astronomical suppers (branded “Pie in the Sky”) with telescopes provided.

Only in the Isle of Man…

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a trip to the Summit on the Snaefell Mountain Railway.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 17, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Manx Electric Railway: Groudle Glen

When the Manx Electric Railway was developed in the 1890s it brought the best and newest transport technology to the Isle of Man and opened up the east of the island to property development.

It was masterminded by energetic engineers and financed by smoke and mirrors.

In 1889 the manager of Dumbell’s Bank, Alexander Bruce, and a civil engineer called Frederick Saunderson bought land north of Douglas and sold it on to Douglas Bay Estate Company for housing development. 

They consulted leading experts in the new technology of electric traction, Dr Edward Hopkinson and Sir William Mather of Mather & Platt, Salford, over the construction of 2¼ miles of 3ft-gauge track from Douglas to Groudle, with gradients of 1 in 24 at each end of the route.  The initial service, using three electric cars, began on September 7th 1893, and carried over 20,000 passengers in the first three weeks.

The following year the original company was renamed the Douglas Bay Estate & Groudle Glen Company Ltd, and it promoted the Douglas & Laxey Coast Electric Tramway Company to extend the line to the harbour town of Laxey.

The company, having taken over the Douglas horse-trams and promoted the Upper Douglas Tramway, was renamed the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company Ltd.  It subsequently took over Bruce’s Snaefell Mountain Railway which ran from Laxey to the top of the island’s highest peak.

By the time the line reached Ramsey – 17½ miles from Douglas – in 1899, the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company had become an established and powerful force in the Island’s economy.  The company was carrying well over two million passengers by 1896, a quarter of them on the partly-completed electric railways, and 2,500 tons of goods, including quarry traffic.

However, expenditure up to early 1899 amounted to £518,000, which was covered by capital of only £336,000.  Half-yearly dividends of up to 8½% were paid, and the company secretary, quietly and understandably, resigned in January 1900.  When in February 1900 Parr’s Bank foreclosed on a loan of £150,000 to Dumbells’ Bank, the bank, and with it the tramways and the power company, were finished.

The electric railway, along with the Douglas horse and cable trams, continued to operate in liquidation, and the Douglas-Ramsey and Snaefell lines were purchased in 1902, first by a UK syndicate for £250,000, and then sold on to the London-registered Manx Electric Railway Company for £375,000.  This new owner put the electric railways back on their feet, repurchasing in addition the Dhoon quarry and the original company’s string of hotels.  It also opened the Snaefell Summit Hotel in 1906 and owned or operated the Laxey, Ballaglass, Garwick and Dhoon glens as resorts.

In 1906 the electric railways carried 535,021 passengers, generating £34,279 profit.  By 1913 over 700,000 passengers were carried, and the undertaking was solvent and paying dividends.

So the Isle of Man gained a superb late-Victorian transport facility which earned its keep well into the twentieth century and remains as a much-loved government-owned tourist attraction that has repeatedly escaped closure by the inimitable twists and turns of Manx politics.

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a workshop visit to the Manx Electric Railway depot at Derby Castle, and uses the railway repeatedly as a means of travel.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 30, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Armidale Railway Station, New South Wales

Armidale Railway Station, New South Wales, looking towards Brisbane

I was intended to travel from my Newcastle DFAS lecture to the next booking at Scone by car, but my chauffeur was taken ill so I took the train to Muswellbrook (pronounced Mussel-brook), and after I’d lectured at Scone, another train from there up the length of the Hunter Valley.

I wasn’t aware at the time but later discovered that Sandgate station on the way out of Newcastle marks the location of the Sandgate Cemetery Branch, which operated from when the Cemetery opened in 1881 until at least 1933 – (the cemetery website [] – indicates services ran until 1985).

Stations with evocative Geordie names – Wallsend, Hexham – lead to Maitland, the junction where the North Coast Line, built on a shorter route closer to the coast between 1905 and 1932, leaves the older Main North Line.

Maitland is also the base for the elaborate Hunter Valley Steamfest [], which offers an astonishing range of steam-related entertainments, not all of them rail-based, every April.

Even from the road, especially on the New England Highway, the coal and the trains still dominate:  the inexorable coal-trains look a mile long, and at a level crossing you might as well switch off the car-engine and pour yourself a coffee.

Yet the countryside is open and pastoral:  here there is money to be made from horse-breeding and wine-growing.

The station-names become Scottish for a while – Lochinvar, Allandale – and then switch to Co Durham – Greta.  Eventually, after the vast Dartbrook Colliery, the landscape turns rural again and the towns more elegant, with Scots names – Aberdeen and Scone.

From Scone the route continues to climb and the ruling gradient of 1 in 80 becomes 1 in 40 at the approach to the single-track bottleneck Ardglen Tunnel, over a quarter of a mile long, at over 2,300 feet altitude.

The once-a-day CountryLink service to and from Sydney breaks at Werris Creek, still a significant railway junction with a fine station building by John Whitton (1820-1898), Engineer-in-Charge of New South Wales Railway and builder also of the border railway station at Albury.

One portion of the CountryLink train goes takes the Mungindi Line to Moree;  I followed the main route to the present-day end of the line at Armidale.  Past Tamworth the line tends to follow tight river-valleys, until at Uralla it emerges on to the open, empty tableland plain.

Passenger service ends where the line turns sharply north-west at Armidale, at the fine 1882-3 railway station designed by Edmund Lonsdale with cast-ironwork from the New England Foundry at Uralla. 

You can stand at the north end of Armidale Station gazing at the rusting tracks which stretch another 93 miles to the break-of-gauge at Wallangarra.

The line to the border with Queensland was abandoned beyond Tamworth in the late 1980s, though services were restored as far as Armidale in 1993.  The abandoned track and infrastructure remains in place, though it must be decrepit by now.

Queensland Railways’ 3ft-6in-guage services to Wallangarra ceased in 1997, though heritage steam services occasional operate:

Posted by: mike on Aug 31, 2013

Category:Transports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

National Tramway Museum, Crich:  London United Tramways 159

The National Tramway Museum, like all good tourist sites, needs novelties to encourage visitors to return repeatedly:

This year’s pride and joy is London United Tramways no 159, built in 1902 and now newly restored after twenty-one years of service in London and fifty-five years as part of a residence in Surrey.

It was originally used on the routes out to Twickenham, Hampton and Hampton Court, where expectations were understandably high, so this W-class tram was one of the LUT’s “Palace cars”, its palatial lower deck fully fitted with the inlaid walnut ceiling, plush carpet, velvet curtains and upholstery and silk tassels instead of leather hanging straps that were thought appropriate for its upper-class passengers.

It was not, as such, a first-class vehicle, simply what the residents expected.  (Liverpool tramways did have first-class trams in which workmen could not ride so that passengers could travel without fear of dirtying their clothes on their fellow passengers’ overalls.  Presumably the LUT didn’t expect workmen in Twickenham and Hampton:  they are, after all, a long way from the docks.)

The National Tramway Museum, in conjunction with the London County Council Tramways Trust and the Arts Council’s Prism Fund [Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material], has spent £400,000 on bringing 159 back to its glorious original condition.  The original cost in 1902 was £669.

It’s the biggest restoration project the Museum has tackled so far.

The London County Council Tramways Trust’s album of the restoration of 159 shows how much work is needed to turn a recovered tram body back into an operational vehicle:  A smaller but more comprehensive gallery is at

Posted by: mike on Aug 11, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Bayerische Zugspitzbahn

The Bavarian Zugspitze Railway [Bayerische Zugspitzbahn] is an outstanding travel experience – a 19-kilometre journey by metre-guage electric railcar from Garmisch [sic] station at 705 metres above sea-level to the Zugspitzplatt (2,588 metres) near the summit of the Zugspitze mountain, 2,962 metres (9,718 ft), the highest point in Germany.

The railway was originally driven in 1930 to a higher point, Schneefernerhaus (2,650 metres) where a hotel was constructed:  the hotel is now a scientific field-study centre, serviced by the railway.

The first part of the journey is a conventional, fairly speedy route along the valley floor, until at Grainau the rack-section begins and the train climbs precipitously up to a tunnel-mouth at Riffelriss (1640 metres above sea level).

From then on the entire journey is in tunnel, 4,466 metres (14,652 feet).  The smart advice is to travel at the front of the train so you don’t have to climb the last few feet along the sloping station platform.

The physical effects of being at high altitude are immediately noticeable:  walking up a short flight of stairs produces disconcerting breathlessness, and I found that when I came out of the cold fresh air into a warm interior my voice wouldn’t work for a few moments.

I was told that coming up to this height gradually by rail was a better idea than using the cablecar that covers the 6,398 feet from the lake to near the summit in ten minutes.

The little chapel above the tourist centre was consecrated in 1981 by the then Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI.

The indoor facilities at the top are fairly spartan, understandably geared to skiers.

Outside on the plateau, making the most of the superb 360° view across the Alps on either side of the border between Germany and Austria, is a circular restaurant with a revolving roof to catch the sun and shade as required.  It’s the most congenial place on the Zugspitzplatt to shelter for refreshments, though the food-menu is necessarily restricted because of the location.

Posted by: mike on Aug 9, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Igls Bahnhof, Austria

Igls Bahnhof, Innsbruck, Austria

There’s much to attract the visitor in the Austrian city of Innsbruck.  One of the less likely enjoyments for a first-time visitor is an astonishing curiosity, the Igls tramway [Innsbrucker Mittelgebirgsbahn] – in English, the Innsbruck Central Mountain Railway.

It joins end-on to the Innsbruck city tram-system, which is now a state-of-the-art light rapid transit, with dignified claret-coloured Bombardier trams very similar to the new Blackpool fleet.

The Igls line, which runs as Route 6, climbs sharply away from the streets and disappears into deep forest, climbing steadily by means of cuttings, embankments and hairpin bends to an upland level of pastures, dotted with expensive residences.  It serves two intermediate villages, Aldrans and Lans, and passes a couple of recreational lakes, the Mühlsee [Mill Lake] and Lanser See.  The surviving original Igls Bahnhof building is a generous-sized branch-line station.

It could hardly be a serious tram-route:  its purpose could only be for pleasure, carving its way through the woods, and it has a strong resemblance to the Manx Electric Railway with the practical pointlessness of the Snaefell Mountain Railway.

Surely, I thought, it can’t have run by any other means than electricity.

But it did.  It was conceived as an adhesion steam railway in 1900, and only converted to electric traction in 1936. 8½ kilometres long, it was intended to connect the upland town of Igls with the centre of Innsbruck, yet has never penetrated more than three-quarters of a mile from the centre of Igls, which is now served by buses.

Nevertheless, the tram is more fun than the bus, and is within easy walking distance of coffee and cake.

There’s a detailed history of the line, eccentrically translated into English, at

Posted by: mike on Jun 1, 2013

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Cromford Canal Bull Bridge Aqueduct (1967)

Bull Bridge Aqueduct, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire (1967)

My journeys to school in the early 1960s were punctuated by a pause on the road through Bull Bridge, near Ambergate in Derbyshire, for the traffic lights that controlled the tight gothic arch of Bull Bridge Aqueduct on the Cromford Canal.

The canal had not been used since before the Second World War and the arch was impossible for any vehicle larger than a single-deck bus.

The A610 road was already a significant link in the 1960s, and would become more important when the Ripley by-pass was opened in 1977.

It was inevitable, therefore, that Jessop and Outram’s tiny road-arch had to go.  It was demolished in 1968 – shortly followed by the adjacent iron-trough aqueduct that had been inserted into the canal when George Stephenson drove the North Midland Railway through in 1839.

Images of the canal at Bull Bridge can be found at

In the 1960s no-one in their wildest dreams would have expected the Cromford Canal to be restored, but the Friends of the Cromford Canal plan to return the whole canal to navigation, however long it takes, and so one day an elegant new aqueduct will span the road and the railway, rather like the New Semington Aqueduct (2004) on the Kennet and Avon Canal:

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire Peak tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 13, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx Heritage

IMR 15 Caledonia

Photo:  John Binns

Isle of Man Railway no 15 (as Manx Northern Railway no 4):  Caledonia

The Isle of Man Railway has more locomotives than it really needs, and to the untutored eye they look very much similar.  In fact, there are three different varieties, and each of the survivors has its idiosyncrasies.

Only four of the eighteen original locos have completely disappeared:  of the remainder, a couple haven’t moved for decades and others are in private ownership.  One of the original 1873 fleet, No 3, Pender, is sectioned and exhibited at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry.

Enthusiasts look forward to new events on this great little railway.  The 2013 star turn is the rebuilt No 15, Caledonia, one of two locomotives surviving from the Manx Northern Railway, which ran from St Johns to Ramsey and was originally independent of the Isle of Man Railway.

Since the Manx steam railway was nationalised in 1977, its locomotives have worn a variety of liveries in order, according to rumour, to prove that there are more than two locos in the fleet.

Caledonia is turned out in the attractive Manx Northern livery of “Metropolitan Carriage red”, a darker shade than the standard IMR red.

Built in 1885 to work the steeply graded Foxdale Railway, serving the zinc mines in the heart of the island, Caledonia was required to work a ruling gradient of 1 in 49, but proved capable of climbing at 1 in 12 when she visited the Snaefell Mountain Railway in 1995.

Over 125 years old, the second newest loco in the fleet – Caledonia proves that Victorian steam locomotives were built to last.

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a workshop tour of the Isle of Man Railway as well as journeys along the line to Castletown and Port Erin.  For details please click here. 

Posted by: mike on Mar 30, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightExploring Australia

Hotel Culcairn, New South Wales

Culcairn Hotel, New South Wales

When Barb Ross showed me the Holbrook Submarine Museum I thought my day out was complete, but there was more to come:  I might have found the submarine – indeed, I could hardly have missed it if I’d been driving the Hume Highway between Sydney and Melbourne – but I’d never have stumbled on the places Barb showed me.

There’s no substitute for exploring a district with someone who’s spent decades of their lives there.

Barb pointed me towards a couple of tall grain silos, which mark the vestigial remains of Holbrook’s railway station, which opened in 1902 and closed in 1975:  When Barb and her husband Malcolm first farmed here their grain was dispatched by rail;  now it goes by road.

We followed the valley westwards, repeatedly crossing the old railway line, on which the track remains intact.  It seems that in Australia abandoned railways are literally abandoned;  in Britain the track and infrastructure were most often ripped up for scrap.

We couldn’t find the little wooden church which had been repainted specially for Barb’s friend’s daughter’s wedding.  It seems someone has removed it.

The Round Hill Hotel [] was closed:  from the 1860s there was a Cobb & Co staging post – the Australian equivalent of Wells Fargo – but the origin of the pub is lost in mists of early New South Wales history.

This was the site of the first of a series of murders by the bushranger Dan “Mad Dog” Morgan (1830-1865):  the memorial to his victim, John McLean (d 1864), is beside the road some distance from the Round Hill homestead.

We followed the branch railway all the way to the junction, Culcairn, which proved to be a historical gem.  I’d travelled along the North East railway line twice and so passed through Culcairn, which was once a significant stopping-place.  It was the junction for Holbrook and for Corowa (opened 1892), another derelict but intact line which also closed in 1975:

Culcairn railway station (1880) retains a single platform and its wooden buildings, including the stationmaster’s house (c1883) which is restored as a museum:  Across the road is the former branch of the London Bank of Australia.  Later in my tour I met a lady who was the daughter of the branch manager and grew up in Culcairn:  she recalled being kept awake at night by the noise of shunting trains, and travelling by rail to boarding school in Sydney.

The Germanic origins of the local community are apparent on Railway Parade in the substantial brick terrace of shops, Scholz’s Buildings (1908), and the Culcairn Hotel (1891, extended 1910):  We looked inside the hotel, and I marvelled at the elegant leaded-light windows which looked something between Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

None of this I would ever have found but for the privilege of being hosted by somebody who knew the place like the back of her hand.

Posted by: mike on Mar 26, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightExploring Australia

Albury Railway Station, New South Wales

There was a time when travelling between New South Wales and Victoria involved going through customs.

When the railway lines first reached the Murray River, from Melbourne to the Victoria border-town of Wodonga in 1873 and from Sydney to the New South Wales side at Albury in 1881, there was no rail bridge:  passengers had to transfer by coach.

Even when the rail bridge was completed in 1883, passengers still had to transfer across the platform because the two railways ran to different gauges:  the Victoria North Eastern Railway was built to the Irish broad gauge of 5ft 3in, while the New South Wales Great Southern Railway had the British standard gauge of 4ft 8½in.

The fine station at Albury, designed by the NSW Government Railways’ Chief Engineer, John Whitton (1820-1899), is distinguished by its 1,480-foot covered island platform which allowed inter-state passengers to transfer between the gauges – an experience which astonished Mark Twain:  “…a singular thing, the oddest thing, the strangest thing, the unaccountable marvel that Australia can show, namely the break of gauge at Albury. Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth.”

Though the Commonwealth of Australia was constituted in 1901, oversight of transport policy remained with the individual states, and it took until 1962 to complete a standard-gauge through connection between Melbourne and Sydney.

This produced the anomaly of a twin-track railway between Melbourne and Albury operating as two single lines, one of each gauge.

The remaining broad-gauge track on this route was converted to standard gauge between 2008 and 2011.

The state boundary at Albury-Wodonga is practical, yet appeared to me invisible:  the adjacent towns are, after all, both part of the Commonwealth of Australia.  A similar conjunction on the border between Canada and the US state of Vermont is more vexatious:

Posted by: mike on Mar 8, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Flxible Clipper

I was walking along a street in Launceston, Tasmania, when I came across this strange beast of a bus.

When I got home my friend Doug, who likes buses, helped me to track its provenance.

It’s a Flxible Clipper, an American design dating from 1937 that was imported to Australia in 1947 by Sir Reginald Ansett (1909-1981).

Reg Ansett was an inspired Australian entrepreneur:  he began running buses and taxis between the towns of western Victoria, and then founded Ansett Airways in 1936.  His airline became the basis for investment in hotels and television as well as interests in Diners’ Club and Bic pens.

This particular vehicle is the American original, from which Reg Ansett built a further 105 (or 131, depending on the source,) under licence.  It now belongs to Ken Turnbull, who drove it in the 1950s, bought it in 1974 and restored it to original condition.

There are at least another sixteen Flxible Clippers on the road in Australia, but all the others are converted into motor homes:

They are revered for their durability and speed and their inimitable style.  In the USA they were known as “the DC3 of highway buses”:

A 1951 Australian model figures in this clip:

Flxible, by the way, is pronounced “Flexible”:  the vowel was dropped for trade-mark purposes in 1919.

Posted by: mike on Jan 16, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightExploring AustraliaCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Site of Cemetery Station No 1, Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney

Site of Cemetery Station No 1, Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney

As your train leaves Sydney Central Station, you may spot on the right-hand side an elaborate Gothic building.  When I last visited in 2011 it was shrouded in scaffolding, which is why I don’t have my own image of it.

This was the Mortuary Station, designed by the Colonial Architect, James Barnett, opened in 1869 and later named Regent Street [].  It was the terminus for funeral trains to Rookwood Cemetery (1868) at Lidcombe to the north of the city, Woronora General Cemetery (1894) at Sutherland to the south-west, and – if Wikipedia is to be believed – Sandgate Cemetery (1881) in Newcastle, a hundred miles up the coast.

Whether the name Rookwood was chosen in reference to the English Brookwood Cemetery is unclear.  Rookwood Cemetery is so vast, nearly 750 acres, that today it has its own bus service.

Originally, funeral trains terminated at the very fine Haslam’s Creek Cemetery Station, otherwise known by a variety of names including Cemetery Station No 1, also by James Barnett (1867):  [ and].

The line was further extended, to Mortuary Terminus (1897), later Cemetery Station No 3, and then to the eventual terminus at Cemetery Station No 4 (1908).  Between Nos 1 and 3, the Roman Catholic Platform, latterly Cemetery Station No 2, was opened in 1901.

The line through Rookwood Cemetery closed in 1948, though its alignment is clearly visible on Google Earth, branching south-east of Lidcombe Station.  The site of Cemetery Station No 1 is in the middle of Necropolis Circuit.

The building itself was badly vandalised and damaged by fire, and was eventually dismantled and transplanted in 1958 to Canberra, where it now serves as All Saints’ Parish Church, Ainslie

In the course of rebuilding the bell-tower was moved to the liturgical south of the building.  It is now fitted with a locomotive bell presented by the Australian Railway Historical Society.

The church has two English stained-glass windows, the War Memorial east window from St Clement’s Parish Church, Newhall, Sheffield, and another from St Margaret’s Church, Bagendon, Gloucestershire.

Posted by: mike on Jan 14, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Railway Square YHA, Sydney Central Station

On one of my rail trips out of Sydney Central Station during my lecture-tour for the Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies, I gazed across the platforms and noticed a group of obviously ancient passenger carriages.  I couldn’t tell from my viewpoint whether they were parked at a couple of platforms or grounded.

They belong to the Railway Square YHA, one of many Sydney bases for backpackers and people visiting a city on a budget.

Its website invites prospective guests to “stay in one of the funky railway carriages on the former Platform Zero or one of the comfy rooms in the historic 1904 main building, now converted into contemporary accommodation.”

It’s apparent from the reviews that it’s a noisy night’s stay – if the other guests don’t disturb you with lively conversation, the trains on the adjacent platforms will.

That said, there are far, far worse places to rest your head in Sydney.

Posted by: mike on Jan 12, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Central Station approach, Sydney

New South Wales suburban and outer-suburban trains are double-deckers, built to the generous Australian loading-gauge, based on the pre-war French prototype, the Voiture État à deux étages.

The doorways at the end of each carriage lead to a mezzanine level, which is used by passengers with pushchairs or wheeled luggage, and stairs lead up and down to the two central compartments.

It’s an odd sensation to sit so high above rail-level on the top deck, and even odder to sit below-decks with the platform edge skimming the windows.

Double-deck carriages twenty metres long carry nearly 50% more passengers than single-deck rolling stock of equivalent length, saving the huge expense of lengthening station platforms.

To allow for the low-slung centre section, designers had to move as much electrical and mechanical equipment as possible on to the roof above the entrances.

The first of double-deck trailer cars were introduced in 1964, followed by double-deck motor cars four years later.  Interurban double-deck trains, with an additional burden of air-conditioning units, followed in 1970.

Travelling to outer Sydney, with little idea of direction let alone distance, I was anxious to know what level of creature comforts my train would provide.

I quizzed the travel-information officer about on-board lavatories in my best Pommie accent.  He replied, “You’re in the wrong country mate.”

Ask a silly question.

Posted by: mike on Jan 10, 2013

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Wynyard Station, Sydney

In just over four weeks of travelling to give lectures for Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies I got lost only once, and that was in the middle of Sydney.

Wynyard Station, on the City Circle, has two exits, and I took the wrong one, so that I had to wander the streets to find a hotel that’s almost next to the other entrance.  C’est la vie.  The travel co-ordinator revised the map for my successor.

I got used to Wynyard Station in my comings and goings, and realised that the building above the platforms is a rather fine piece of Art Deco, with lots of jazzy detail in pale green faience.  Next to the York Street entrance (the one I needed) is a doorway leading to the Department of Railways offices. 

The station was designed by John Bradfield (1867-1943), and opened in 1932, as part of the transport links that served the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  Originally it was a terminus, until the City Loop between Wynyard and St James via Circular Quay was completed in 1956.

The platforms at Wynyard are numbered 3 to 6.  The original platforms 1 and 2 were intended for the unbuilt Northern Beaches line [ – compare with the eventual network:].

As an interim measure the Northern Beaches platforms and approaches were used for the North Shore tram services that crossed the Harbour Bridge.

When the trams were abandoned in 1958 the trackbed over the bridge was adapted to make two further motor-vehicle lanes, and the platforms at Wynyard were used for car-parking.

A 2009 discussion paper proposed to build a Fast North Shore Line [, Attachment 5, page 1] which would reinstate heavy rail on the Harbour Bridge and into the unused platforms at Wynyard.

This alignment could also be used for a long-term plan for a high-speed rail-link between Newcastle, north of Sydney, and Canberra to the south.

What goes around comes around.

There is in fact a complex archaeology of unused or disused rail tunnels under the centre of Sydney. 

There is a faintly fanciful video-clip of the tunnels under St James Station, also on the City Loop, at [], an article from the Sydney Morning Herald that illustrates an uncompleted tunnel, abandoned in 1932, at North Sydney Station across the harbour 5km north of Sydney Central [], and a photo-album of tunnels at Central, Redfern, and North Sydney stations [].

Posted by: mike on Dec 30, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delight

Stockport Lord Street Station

Former Southport Lord Street Station (2012)

The Southport & Cheshire Lines Extension Railway was never a good idea:  it opened from Aintree Central, formerly a terminal station, on September 1st 1884 to an impressive new station next to the Southport Winter Gardens, fronting on to Lord Street.

It was a creation of the Cheshire Lines Committee, a consortium of the Great Northern, the Midland and the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire (later Great Central) Railways which managed a collection of lines stretching into their competitors’ territory.  Less than half the Cheshire Lines lines were actually in Cheshire.

The idea behind the S&CLER was to compete with the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway’s service from Liverpool Exchange, which ran directly north-west via Bootle and Formby to Southport Chapel Street station in the centre of town.

The S&CLER, however, ran from Liverpool Central Station, southwards to Hunt’s Cross, and then round the back suburbs of Liverpool through Gateacre and Aintree before crossing to a coastal approach to Southport Lord Street.

No-one in their right mind wanting to travel from the centre of Liverpool to the centre of Southport would take the Cheshire Lines route.

It may have been fairly busy at the height of the summer season, but outside the holiday period services were so unprofitable that they were closed as an economy measure between January 1917 and April 1919.

The only time the line was heavily used was a period of a few weeks in 1940, when Liverpool Exchange Station was closed by bombing.

Although British Railways extended the platforms for longer trains in the late 1940s, the Lord Street passenger service was closed on January 1st 1952, and freight services along the line followed shortly after.

The track-bed of the S&CLER between Southport and Woodvale now forms the Coastal Road, and a further section is used as the Cheshire Lines Cycle Path.

The Lord Street train-shed was adapted as a bus station for Ribble Motor Services, simply by filling the trackbeds level with the platforms.

The bus station closed in 1987, and the train-shed was demolished in 1993.  The site was subsequently redeveloped as a supermarket, but the street frontage remained unused and derelict until the iron-and-glass verandas became dangerous and had to be demolished.

The building is due to open as a Travelodge hotel in 2013:

The best illustrated account of Lord Street Station is at

Posted by: mike on Dec 23, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Shrine of St Edward the Martyr, Brookwood Cemetery

Shrine of St Edward the Martyr (former South Station), Brookwood Cemetery

South of the London-Southampton main line, just beyond Woking, lies the vast spread of Brookwood Cemetery, founded by the London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company in conjunction with the London & South Western Railway in 1852.

"Necropolis", in Greek, translates as “city of the dead”.

The idea was to provide practically limitless space to bury London’s dead away from the insanitary churchyards and the high-priced commercial cemeteries such as Kensal Green, Highgate and Brompton.

Funeral trains left the Necropolis Station at Waterloo, reversed at a specially installed siding at Brookwood, and proceeded along a ¾-mile branch through the cemetery grounds to one of two funeral stations, one Anglican and the other Nonconformist.

There were, inevitably, concerns about this innovative prelude to the last great journey.  The Bishop of London worried that “the body of some profligate spendthrift might be placed in a conveyance with the body of some respectable member of the church, which would shock the feelings of his friends”, so the company provided hearse-vans with first-, second- and third-class compartments for coffins.

Nevertheless, Brookwood funeral trains soon attracted something of a reputation, especially on the return journey.  The Builder reported in 1856 that “At the funerals by the Necropolis Company, we are told that not unusually, mourners have carried drink with them, of which on the return journey, they had partaken to such an extent, that they have been found dancing about the carriage, by the ticket-collector.”

Of the original 2,100 acres purchased from Lord Onslow, only 400 were laid out as a cemetery and much of the rest was sold for residential development.  Nearly a quarter of a million burials have so far taken place, and there is still 200 acres to spare.

After the First World War parts of the Brookwood Cemetery were given over to military cemeteries for British, American, Canadian, Turkish and Czechoslovakian combatants, and many of its more recent burials are for religious groups with specific needs and requirements – Russian Orthodox, Muslim, Zoroastrian.

By the 1930s the daily funeral trains had reduced to twice a week at most, and the service abruptly stopped in 1941 when a bomb destroyed the building at Waterloo and much of the rolling stock.

The trackbed within the cemetery is now landscaped, and the South, Anglican station belongs to the Brotherhood of St Edward, an Orthodox Christian community dedicated to maintaining the shrine and relics of the Saxon king St Edward the Martyr (c959-978/9).

The cemetery itself was purchased by Mr Ramadan Houssein Guney, Chairman of the UK Turkish Islamic Trust, in 1985.  He painstakingly reversed the cemetery’s long decline, clearing encroaching undergrowth and reinstating the lake in the Glades of Remembrance, aided by the voluntary efforts of the Brookwood Cemetery Society who have organized the restoration of significant graves.

It’s a fascinating cemetery to explore – but it does involve a lot of walking.

For information, see

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Dec 16, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Prague

Prague Tramway Museum:  Mayor's Tram 200 

During my ramblings round Prague I found my way on to the Historická tramva, the “historic tram”, which charged off up the hairpin slope Chotkova and eventually ground its way into a tram depot at a place called Střešovice.  In the absence of anything else to do, I followed a desultory crowd to the far end of the track fan and found my way into the Prague Tramway Museum, which for a little over £1 displays dozens of trams, trolleybuses, motorbuses and associated paraphernalia in immaculate condition:  

This is no work-in-progress like the Sydney Tramway Museum:  it looks for all the world as if they could run a historic fleet of several dozen trams, but for the fact that there is another, operational historic fleet at the other end of the depot.

The most endearing of these antique vehicles was the Mayor’s Tram, no 200, designed by the leading Art Noveau architect Jan Kotěra (1871-1923) and built by the Ringhoffer Company in 1900. 

Its headlamps are garlanded with delicately moulded metal leaves, and its interior consists of comfortable chairs and occasional tables, designed for the city councillors to meet and converse while riding in state through the streets.

When new it was exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition, and subsequently carried every mayor of Prague until 1951.  Thereafter it became a transport for nursery schoolchildren until it was acquired by the Tramway Museum after it opened in 1993:

Posted by: mike on Dec 14, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Prague

Prague tram 7112

When I first visited Prague I had a flashback moment in the taxi from the airport.

My antennae twitch when I see tram-tracks, not only because my parents taught me to read (in block capitals) and count (in Gills Sans) by means of the trams running past our house in the late 1940s, but also because whenever we left Sheffield by road or rail our return was always marked by a competition to see who could first see a cream-and-blue Sheffield tram or bus.  And there were, in my early childhood, rather more trams than buses on the streets.

So when I first spotted a red-and-cream Prague tram (or trams – they mostly seem to run as attached pairs), I had a flashback to 1968, when the Crich tramway museum hit the national headlines because an antique Prague tram, with its minders, narrowly escaped the Soviet army arriving to extinguish Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring:

Prague is in fact a tram city, rather like Melbourne.  Most major streets have tram-tracks and there are services twenty-four hours a day.  A twenty-four-hour travel pass costs the equivalent of just over £3.

From my hotel near the metro-station I P Pavolva (named after a Russian physiologist), I found the 22 tram invaluable.  It crosses the river, threads its way through the Old Town (passing at one point through a tiny arch you would think twice about driving a bus through) and climbs hairpin bends up Chotkova to the level of the Castle (and returns with suitable caution down the slippery slope).

But I also made a point, as I do still with London buses, of hopping on and off at random simply to see the city unfold before me.

By that means I learnt my way round Prague without a guidebook, and found some remarkable and unexpected places.

Posted by: mike on Nov 20, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Wingfield Station, Derbyshire (1976)

Wingfield Station, Derbyshire (1976)

The 2012 version of the Victorian Society’s Top Ten Endangered Buildings list headlines Wingfield Station, Derbyshire of 1840, by Francis Thompson (1808-1895), one of the very first architects to specialise in designing railway buildings:

The Transport Trust considers that “Francis Thompson's best work was on the North Midland Railway, between Derby and Leeds” [], yet all the others have disappeared, apart from one small isolated structure at Chesterfield and his Railway Village, next to the main station in Derby.

Wingfield Station appeared, transformed into a suburban villa, in a supplement to John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture.

As long ago as 1950 Christian Barman, author of the pioneer study An Introduction to Railway Architecture, described it as “the most perfect of all station houses”.

Passenger services ceased in 1967, but trains still thunder past twenty-four hours a day:  the North Midland line remains a major trunk route between Sheffield and London, and between the North East and South West of England.

Soon after the station closed to passengers it was bought as a residence, but the passing trains must have made life intolerable.  For several decades the building has simply been left to rot, and lead thefts have led to extensive water damage.

The Victorian Society commentary unequivocally lays the blame for the dire condition of this beautiful little building on neglect by the private owner and negligence by the local planning authority, Amber Valley Council:  “The building has seen too much time go by to wait any longer. The council needs to take action urgently:  compulsory purchase looks to be the only answer.”

It’ll be interesting to see if the national publicity will lead to a burst of energy from a cash-strapped council.

Even more interesting will be the search for a practical use for an elegant station building with too many trains and no passengers.

Posted by: mike on Nov 17, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Snow Hill Station, Birmingham (1975)

Snow Hill Station, Birmingham (1975)

The absurdities of Victorian railway competition are only equalled by the profligate waste of the railway closures in the 1960s.

Birmingham’s two main stations lie at right-angles to each other, on different levels and several hundred yards apart, because three entirely separate and competing companies built the lines into Birmingham.

The Great Western Railway’s Snow Hill Station, first opened in 1852, developed into a magnificent red-brick and terracotta structure of 1911-12 behind J A Chatwin’s grand Great Western Hotel of 1875.

In 1961 a scheme was published to turn Snow Hill into “the most modern railway terminal in Europe”.

As late as 1964, during the electrification of the West Coast Main Line, it handled 130,000 trains and 7,500,000 passengers, compared with 175,000 trains and 10,000,000 passengers at New Street.

Later in the 1960s many former GWR services were closed or diverted to the redeveloped New Street, except for Stratford and Warwick local services which terminated at the suburban-relief station at Moor Street, south of the Inner Ring Road.

The Great Western Hotel was demolished in 1971.  Snow Hill Station itself remained derelict after the last train-service finished in 1972, became structurally unsafe and was eventually cleared in 1979.

However, from 1987 the Moor Street services again ran through the reopened tunnel, and a new Snow Hill Station was incorporated in the unlovely Colmore Court office-development. 

Since 2001 the Birmingham to Wolverhampton service of the West Midlands Metro has used a platform of Snow Hill station as its city-centre terminus.

So, apart from the fact that more trains run from Moor Street than Snow Hill, and the second London service runs to Marylebone rather than Paddington, there are relatively few significant differences in the availability of services now than there were in 1960.

Hindsight is a wonderful luxury, but I can’t help wondering if the planners’ plans really added up correctly in the 1960s, any more than the haphazard eccentricities of Victorian laissez-faire did 110 years previously.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 13, 2012

Category:Transports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Duddeston Viaduct

Almost every time I travel from Sheffield to Birmingham, the train pauses outside New Street Station to wait for a vacant platform.

Looking to the south, it’s possible to discern two railway viaducts, one carrying trains into Moor Street Station, from where they traverse a tunnel at right angles to the New Street lines under the city centre to Snow Hill Station.

There’s another viaduct that carries only bushes and small trees.

This is the 1,100-yard-long 58-arch Duddeston Viaduct, built by the Great Western Railway as a linking curve towards the old Curzon Street station that closed when New Street opened in 1852.

The companies operating into New Street, the London & North Western and the Midland railways, blocked the Great Western access to their old and new stations, and the Great Western instead built Snow Hill station and tunnel at great expense.

Duddeston Viaduct halted at the land-boundary and, though it still exists, has never been used to carry trains since it was built.


The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 2, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightSheffield's Heritage

Sheffield Victoria Station (1976)

Sheffield Victoria Station and the Royal Victoria Hotel (1976)

The Holiday Inn Royal Victoria Sheffield, is a splendid Victorian hotel, dating from 1862, but it stands in splendid isolation, high above the River Don, cut off from the city by the Inner Ring Road, and – as its website plaintively declares – half a mile from the railway station:

This is ironic, because the hotel was built to serve Sheffield Victoria Station on the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway.  When Victoria Station opened in 1851, it provided the first direct service from Sheffield to London.

The rival Midland Railway had a station nearby, Sheffield Wicker, opened in 1838 on the site that's now occupied by Tesco Extra, but that line took passengers north to Rotherham where they had to change to a London train.

Only after the Midland Railway opened their new station in 1870 did Sheffield have a choice of direct trains to London and (from 1876) to Scotland.

Victoria continued to provide the quickest service to Manchester and served the east-coast resorts that were popular among Sheffield folk – Cleethorpes, Mablethorpe and Skegness.

In 1954 the Manchester-Sheffield service was electrified, cutting the journey-time between the two cities to 56 minutes.

The 1960s Beeching rationalisation caused the transfer of almost all the passenger services from Victoria into the erstwhile Midland Station, and after some controversy the Sheffield-Manchester service was diverted to the Hope Valley route, which served more local communities and carried the cement traffic from Hope.

Until 1983, rail passengers between Sheffield and Huddersfield via Penistone had the weird experience of trundling through what remained of Sheffield Victoria and reversing to gain access to the former Sheffield Midland.

Eventually, that route was adjusted to run via Barnsley to reach Penistone, and all that now remains of Sheffield Victoria is a single track to carry trains to the steelworks at Stocksbridge.

There is a proposal to reinstate passenger services over the existing track to Stocksbridge:

Meanwhile, fast trains between Sheffield and Manchester via the Hope Valley complete their journeys in under an hour via Stockport.

The authoritative account of Sheffield Victoria Station is at

Posted by: mike on Oct 31, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightSheffield's Heritage

Sheffield Midland Station

When I book a taxi and absentmindedly ask for Sheffield’s “Midland Station” the switchboard operators generally haven’t a clue what I’m talking about.  There’s been no reason to call it that ever since Sheffield’s other station, Victoria, closed in 1970.  Yet when I listen to black-cab driver’s radios, they often refer to it as “LMS”, though it ceased to belong to the London, Midland & Scottish Railway on the last day of 1947.

Similarly, Sheffield's trams – and possibly buses – still showed 'LMS Station' as a destination until the end of the 1950s [see Going nowhere anytime soon].

For practical purposes, it’s now simply Sheffield Station.

It’s not a particularly spectacular building, though it was handsomely refurbished in 2002.  Indeed, the most impressive structure is out of sight – the culvert that takes the River Sheaf (after which Sheffield is supposedly named) underneath the platforms:

The present frontage dates from 1905, designed by Charles Trubshaw who also rebuilt the Midland Railway’s stations in Nottingham and Leicester and designed the Midland Hotel in Manchester.  Trubshaw’s first-class waiting room and the adjacent dining room are now occupied by one of Sheffield’s fine real-ale pubs, the Brewery Tap [].

The location of the station was controversial when it was built in the late 1860s as part of the “New Road” extension from Grimesthorpe to Chesterfield [see Round house on the Old Road].  The local landowner, the Duke of Norfolk, insisted on the southern approach being hidden in a tunnel (later removed) so that it was invisible from his residence, The Farm.

At the same time Sheffield Corporation, concerned that the streets to the east where Park Hill Flats now stand would be cut off from the town centre, demanded a right of way across the station footbridge.

That’s an argument that’s still running 140 years later.  The operator, East Midlands Trains, seeks to close the footbridge with ticket-barriers:

Alan Williams, in an article about Sheffield Station in Modern Railways (June 2012), suggested that the railway obsession with ticket barriers may be less connected with fare-dodging (which according to the four train operators serving Sheffield is no worse on their lines than the national average) and more with national security, because the specification for installing the barriers includes enhanced CCTV with individual personal recognition:  “What better way of ensuring that we all dutifully line up to have our picture taken than in a secure station and gating scheme?”

Posted by: mike on Oct 28, 2012

Category:Transports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Birmingham & Fazeley Canal:  Farmer's Bridge Locks (1976)

Birmingham & Fazeley Canal:  Farmer's Bridge Locks (1977)

Opposite the National Indoor Arena is a circular island with a signpost in the middle of the canal, for all the world like a waterway roundabout.

It dates back to the Second World War, when LMS Railway engineers installed it to hold stop-planks which would dam the canal in the event of bomb-damage, with the aim of protecting the railway-tunnel below from flooding.  The signpost, beckoning in three directions, to Liverpool and Manchester, Nottingham and Lincoln, and to Coventry and London, is a cross-roads of the English canal-system.

One arm of the junction leads on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, which shortly begins the descent of the thirteen Farmer’s Bridge Locks.

This was the eighteenth-century equivalent of the motorway system around Spaghetti Junction.

At one time there were 124 separate wharves and works between Farmer’s Bridge and Aston Junction, and until at least the 1920s the locks were gas-lit in order to operate twenty-four hours a day.  This stretch is a varied and spectacular piece of canal-scape, whether viewed from the towpath or by boat.

The canal plunges beneath the high-rise buildings associated with the 498-foot Telecom Tower (1965-6), which actually straddle Locks 9 and 10.  Locks 12 and 13 are similarly located beneath the bridges of Livery Street, the Great Western Railway approach to Snow Hill Station and Snow Hill itself.

The Farmer’s Bridge flight is a powerful and evocative walk beneath the streets of central Birmingham, the city that boasts it has more canals than Venice.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 26, 2012

Category:Transports of delightBirmingham's Heritage

Birmingham Gas Street Basin

Gas Street Basin, Birmingham (1976)

I first came across Gas Street Basin, the heart of Birmingham’s canal-system in 1976, when it still had the patina of a neglected, workaday industrial site.

The canal basin lies at the end-on junction of the Birmingham Canal and the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, the site of one of the famous absurdities of the waterways system.

From the moment the Worcester & Birmingham gained its Act of Parliament in 1791, the Birmingham Canal refused to share its water supplies, and set up the notorious Worcester Bar, a physical barrier 7ft 3in wide and 84 yards long over which freight had to be craned.

Eventually the Birmingham Canal consented to install a lock in return for heavy compensation when the Worcester & Birmingham line was fully opened in 1815.

The area was riddled with wharves, most of which have been filled in at various times during the twentieth century, and what few warehouses survive have been rehabilitated.

Nowadays Gas Street is positively gentrified, with apartment-blocks, canal-side pubs and restaurants and trip-boats, and the mirror-glass slab of the Hyatt Regency Hotel (Renton Howard Wood Levin 1990) dominates the area.

There’s no point regretting the loss of the scruffy patina.  Decay is destructive.

But I do regret the demolition of the Gothic Unitarian Church of the Messiah (J J Bateman, 1860-2), which stood above the short tunnel at the west end of the basin, a landmark both for street-passengers and boatmen.

It was the place of worship of the enormously significant Chamberlain, Nettlefold, Kenrick and Martineau families, and it contained the memorial of Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the discoverer of oxygen, political radical and victim of the Priestley Riots of 1791.

This monument of Birmingham’s history deserved better than to be obliterated.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 23, 2012

Category:Transports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

National Tramway Museum, Crich:  Sheffield 189 (1968)

National Tramway Museum, Crich:  Sheffield 189 (running in 1968)

The last time I had a chance to indulge my inner anorak talking to someone from the National Tramway Museum, Crich I made a point of asking why, whenever I visit the museum, I never get the chance to ride on the dignified, elegant Sheffield trams I remember from my childhood.

The superbly restored Sheffield 74 operates quite often, but otherwise the Sheffield vehicles in the collection stay in the depot.

The two Crich volunteers, who themselves happen to come from Sheffield, looked a little shamefaced, and said they were itching to get their hands on repairing and restoring Sheffield’s Last Tram, the Roberts car 510, which has a number of technical defects and needs a complete overhaul.*

It’s in the queue [see], but the cost in time and money will be considerable.

But what, I asked, about the two most representative Sheffield trams, the Standard 189 and the Improved Standard (similar but with curves) 264?

It seems that they both have serious bodywork defects.  The frames are creaking and they aren’t safe to run.

I felt like Dame Edith Evans, who refused to play Lady Macbeth because, she said, there were some pages missing from Shakespeare’s script:  “Why does she go mad?  She was perfectly all right at dinner.”

Both these trams came to Crich in 1960, straight from the streets.  They were perfectly all right when they left Sheffield.

When the museum began running services in 1964, those trams that were already in running order were the mainstay of operations.

Gradually, new restorations joined the fleet, and the Sheffield standard trams were parked up indefinitely.

There’s an additional irony.  264, which always ran in the post-1930s cream-and-blue livery, has been repainted twice since it reached Crich.  189, on the other hand, has the older, elaborate, traditional Prussian blue livery that dates back much further.

As such, it was rarely if ever repainted after it was built in 1934.  Once the elaborate lining and lettering had been completed, such trams were given many layers of varnish.  Every few years, the varnish was sanded down and reapplied.

So, my Crich contacts told me, the actual paintwork of 189 is a historical artefact, and as such should be preserved intact.

The fact is that Crich, like almost all museums, has far more exhibits than it can show at once.  But its pioneering raison d’être from the early 1960s onwards was to run as a working line, alongside the early preserved railways like the Talyllyn and the Bluebell.

So I hope that before I become completely doddery I’ll have the chance to catch an orthodox second-generation Sheffield tram, as I used to do when I went to school in the 1950s.

For information about the National Tramway Museum, see  There is a detailed and richly illustrated history of the museum at, and

* Update:  The Museum's blog reports that Sheffield 510 has entered the workshops for its overhaul:

Posted by: mike on Oct 21, 2012

Category:Transports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

National Tramway Museum, Crich:  Sheffield 74

As part of its mission to show fully the evolution of British railed street transport, the National Tramway Museum has carried out some remarkable restorations.  Indeed, some of the restorations are almost reconstructions.

One of the oddest-looking stages in the development of the British tramcar from an electrified, railed, double-ended horse bus to a suitable vehicle for speedy, weather-proof mass transportation is illustrated by the impeccable example of Sheffield 74, dating from 1900 but displayed in its late Edwardian condition.

It’s fundamentally a four-wheeled open-top tram, but with the upper deck enclosed in a substantial and shapely top cover.  However, in order to sit in sheltered state upstairs, you have to brave the icy blast climbing up and down the stairs from the platform.

It was a half-way house, dictated by the nervousness of designers and – more significantly – the Board of Trade, about the feasibility of extending an upper deck out over the platform.

Fairly quickly those concerns were dealt with, and most British double-deck trams from the First World War onwards had a full-length double deck, commonly fully enclosed by glass:  [see Essentially Victorian Blackpool].

Sheffield 74 went through a number of metamorphoses, including transfer to Gateshead, where it ran until the early 1950s.  It must have looked as we now see it for only a few years.

When I first rode on the restored 74, I asked one of the crew how much was actually original.  The answer was identical to the answer I got when I asked about a tram at the Birkenhead Tramway – only the lower saloon, which in this case survived in Gateshead as a garden shed.

In the restoration of Sheffield 74, the top deck was taken from another Sheffield tram, 218, with parts from a third, 215, and the chassis (in tramway jargon, the truck) is from Leeds and the motors from Blackpool.  Most of the rest is, apparently, a superbly crafted fabrication.

The wizards of the Crich workshops have performed this feat time and time again – Derby 1 (formerly a summer house), Chesterfield 7 (a cottage), Leicester 76 (a cricket pavilion).  Some others, such as the Leeds trams 345 and 399 and the Liverpool Green Goddess 869, stood derelict for so long that they had to be fully rebuilt to be fit for passenger service.

What you see is not always what you got in vehicle restoration:  sometimes the shining monster is back-restored from a later design (like some of the locomotives currently emerging at Didcot) or even built totally from scratch, like the LNER A1 locomotive Tornado.

But up to now, the workshops at Crich and the other British preserved tramways have always ensured that what you see is built round something original, and what you get is at least as good as new.

For information about the National Tramway Museum, see

Posted by: mike on Oct 1, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

Barrow Hill Roundhouse 30075

I don’t know much about railway locomotives, but I thought I could identify a Southern Railway USA-class 0-6-0 tank locomotive when I saw one.


I spotted a locomotive with the unmistakable American outline at the Barrow Hill Roundhouse [see Round house on the Old Road], but 30075 isn’t what it seems and its story is interesting.

These USA tank locomotives were mass-produced by the United States Army Transportation Corps in 1942, as part of the preparations for what became D-Day.  382 of these punchy little shunters (which the Americans call “switchers”) were stockpiled in Britain, ready to operate the railways of Europe as they came under Allied occupation.

After the Second World War the Southern Railway bought a batch of fifteen to use in and around Southampton Docks, because they could cope with very sharp curves and yet were powerful enough to haul a full-length boat-train if necessary.

Fourteen were actually used, while the fifteenth was broken up for spare parts.  Under British Railways the fourteen were numbered 30061-30074.  Four of them survived into preservation.

30075 is not one of the fourteen, let alone the four.

Other ex-US Army locos were bought by private railways in Britain;  the Chinese bought some, as did the Egyptians, and some ended up in Israel and Iraq.

The Yugoslav State Railways thought they were so good they bought over a hundred, and then built nearly a hundred more themselves.

One of these, number 62-669, dating from 1962, was purchased from a Slovenian steelworks by the Project 62 Group [] in 1990. 

They brought it to the UK, converted it as closely as possible to the British specification, and gave it the next number in sequence after the fourteen originals.

In 2006 the Group bought another from a steelworks in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and this will in due course become 30076.

In the 1960s we thought steam locomotives, apart from a few museum pieces, would disappear forever.  Fifty years later, preservation is morphing into reconstruction and, in this case, reconstitution.

It’s an interesting and welcome twist on the conventions of museum preservation, and it’s ironic that while many genuine historic locomotives are preserved in aspic, sitting indoors, beautifully maintained, highly polished like works of art, brand new locomotives like Tornado and nearly-new examples like the USA tanks are coming into service.

If it steams, and it moves, and it brings pleasure, I’m in favour.

Posted by: mike on Sep 29, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

Deltic Preservation Society D9009 Alycidon

Among transport-preservation enterprises, I think the Deltic Preservation Society is particularly admirable.

The Deltics were the first-generation high-powered diesel locomotives that replaced steam on the East Coast expresses between London and Edinburgh in the early 1960s.  In their time they were the most powerful diesel locomotives in the world.

The prototype was named Deltic as an allusion to the marine-pattern Napier engines, which featured a triangular arrangement of cylinders like the Greek letter delta.

Twenty-two production locomotives were built, replacing a roster of 55 express steam locomotives dating back to the 1930s, and ran the East Coast services until the arrival of the Advanced Passenger Train [see High-speed Designer] in 1978.

They lasted another ten years on other routes, and six of the original twenty-three have been preserved.

They’re much-loved for their size and power, their classic American shape and the distinctive sound of their diesel-electric power units.

Three of these belong to the Deltic Preservation Society [] and are based in a purpose-built depot at Barrow Hill Roundhouse, Derbyshire [See Round house on the Old Road].

All three locomotives – D9009 Alycidon, D9015 Tulyar (both named, in the old LNER tradition, after racehorses) and 55019 Royal Highland Fusilier – were purchased as long ago as the 1980s, and they have now been in preservation for more years than they were in public service.

Another Deltic, 55022 Royal Scots Grey, recently made news when it was hired as a working locomotive by GP Railfreight to haul bauxite trains:  [].

The Society maintains them in working condition so that they can earn their keep on preserved railways and on main-line excursions.  Alcyidon and Royal Highland Fusilier are serviceable, and Tulyar is currently under overhaul.

It’s good to see superannuated locomotives in practical use, rather than as frozen-in-time exhibits in a gallery setting.

I applaud the acumen of groups of enthusiasts who have so successfully combined their own enjoyment of maintaining traditional engineering with a commercial business model that brings pleasure to present-day enthusiasts and guarantees a long-term future for these fine locomotives.

A similarly laudible preservation campaign, but at an earlier stage in the process, is the Deltic Preservation Society’s neighbour at Barrow Hill, the 5-BEL Trust’s project to restore an entire train, the Brighton Belle

Posted by: mike on Sep 27, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

60163 Tornado

I’ve been looking forward to seeing the new A1 locomotive 60163 Tornado, ever since it took to the rails in 2008.  I caught up with it at the Barrow Hill Roundhouse “Fab Four” event in April – a well-organised facility for people who like locomotives to stand and stare at them and, in many cases, take photographs.

I happened to find my way to the trackside at the moment when a large, loudly hissing cloud of steam advanced down the line.  By the time it came alongside, anyone with a camera needed to shield their lens against the fog of cool condensation that completely enveloped us.

The cloud turned out to contain 60019 Bittern, one of the glorious streamlined A4 Pacifics now displayed in garter-blue livery.

The next cloud of steam proved to be 61994 The Great Marquess.  It was a damp, cold morning, and each loco was loudly blowing off surplus steam through its safety valves.

It’s an extraordinary sensation to stand within a few feet of a railway line, amply protected by safety fencing, as a hundred and more tons of locomotive glides past, the steam exhaust utterly deafening, the wheels and motion barely audible.

The final cloud of steam was something else.  60163 Tornado snorts and clanks and blows steam in all directions:  it’s intended to speed down long, straight stretches of main line, and doesn’t take particularly kindly to doing a catwalk turn.

Once this procession had reversed back into exhibition position I took an opportunity to look over Tornado closely.  It’s a strange beast:  it makes weird banging noises while sitting doing apparently nothing.

It is indeed a magnificent piece of engineering, built from scratch to fill the gap in the ranks of preserved main-line locomotives that ran the East Coast route in the days of steam, to the original post-war design by Arthur H Peppercorn, the last Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London & North Eastern Railway.

In order to run on main lines the design is necessarily adapted to present-day railway conditions – slightly lower than the original, fabricated with the advantages of modern engineering, equipped with the data recorders and warning protection that modern trains carry, with riding-lights that look like traditional oil lamps but are in fact LED clusters.

In effect Tornado represents the form that the original A1s would have evolved into if steam had continued in Britain after the 1960s, and it carries the “next in class” running number accordingly.  Its name commemorates the RAF Tornado pilots who flew in the first Gulf War.

The first standard-gauge steam locomotive to be built in the British Isles since 1960, Tornado has all the dignity and elegance of original museum pieces, with the added frisson of being virtually brand new.

The very sight of Tornado brought audible expressions of ecstasy from hardened rail enthusiasts.

This must have been how it felt to see Flying Scotsman, Mallard and the rest when they emerged from the workshops between the wars.  Tornado’s website is at

It won’t be the last.  Other new builds of lost locomotive designs are on their way, led by a new LMS ‘Patriot’, which will take the last-in-class number 45551 and the name The Unknown Warrior as a national memorial engine, replacing the long-lost, much rebuilt original 1919 London & North Western Railway memorial locomotive, Patriot

Posted by: mike on Sep 8, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Sydney Tramway Museum:  prison tram 948

I had great difficulty persuading anyone to take my admission money when I checked out the Sydney Tramway Museum.  Eventually, a gentleman dressed as a tram conductor, on the second tram I rode, correctly answered my question “Do you think I look like a concession?” and I decided the operation was simply relaxed.

Similarly, when I made my second visit to the deserted refreshment cabin it was another tram driver who actually provided me with a plastic cup, a teabag and a large carton of milk – and a ceramic mug to dispose of the wet teabag.  The whole experience was very relaxed.

Finding the Museum is a matter of deduction.  There’s virtually no signage:  resting trams can be seen from the platform of Loftus railway station, but it requires navigation to find a way into the site.

Two tram-rides are on offer in opposite directions, out-and-back trips where the entertainment at the outer end is watching the crew reverse the trolley poles.

The display hall has a fascinating collection, not always well displayed.  There are welcome invitations to climb aboard some trams, including the Sydney prison tram, 948, which is difficult to photograph because of the photo display boards propped against its sides.  Displays throughout are copious and labelled in detail.

It’s apparent, though, that a significant proportion of the fleet of trams is off limits to visitors.  It’s a pity there isn’t an escorted tour of the workshops and other storage areas where interesting-looking relics in a variety of liveries lurk.

A huge amount of volunteer effort has gone into this well-resourced museum, and further development is afoot behind a fine Victorian façade beside the track.  In time to come, when there are attractions at the termini and high-quality shop and refreshment facilities, the Museum will provide a magnificent day out.

This is the place to learn about Sydney’s complex, interesting and much lamented tram system.  If you’re passionate about steel wheels on steel rails it’s a must.  At present, though, for a simple outing it’s a bit of an effort.

To see the state of Sydney trams that didn't find a home in the museum, see and

Posted by: mike on Sep 6, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Melbourne Tram 896

The Melbourne attachment to tradition embraces its trams, though the system itself survived partly because it was electrified much later than most.

Melbourne people regard the traditional W-class single-decker as part of the city’s furniture, like Londoners’ attachment to red double-deck buses.

The design dates as far back as 1923, and has been modified repeatedly over the years.  The latest were built in 1956, in time for the Melbourne Olympics.

Street-running trams are ideal for Melbourne’s transport needs, and new, improved vehicles have been introduced up to the present day.

But every time the authorities try to pension off the W-class there is uproar.

When the drivers (“motormen” in Melbourne) complained about the brakes, a media campaign pushed for the brakes to be improved, rather than retire the trams.

Around two hundred cars are in storage, and a much smaller number work the City Circle and a couple of routes where their restricted speed doesn’t conflict with more modern trams, and three are converted for the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant operation.

They are heritage listed, like the San Francisco cable-cars.  Some have been retired to transport museums, and there are several in the USA, but there is now an absolute embargo on exporting them.

Elton John has one in his back garden near Windsor, and Princess Mary and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark were given one as a wedding present.  (Princess Mary was born and grew up in Tasmania, and worked for a time in Melbourne.)

There’s nothing quite like the Melbourne tram-system, and the operation on the same tracks of the most modern LRTs alongside a ninety-year-old design that won’t retire results from an endearing combination of practicality and public affection.

See and

Posted by: mike on Sep 4, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Flinders Street Station, Melbourne

Melbourne people are vehement about their traditions.  They don’t take kindly to the prospect of losing time-honoured components of the city’s lifestyle.

Flinders Street Station (opened in 1854, current buildings completed 1910) is a traditional city-centre meeting place.  You meet “under the clocks”, in much the same way that New Yorkers meet at the clock in Grand Central Station.

The clocks are an array of clock-faces above the station’s main entrance, giving the times of imminent departures on the various lines served.

From the 1860s until 1983 a man with a pole moved the clock fingers as each train left to show the following departure time.

One day the clocks at the Flinders Street entrance were taken down ready for the installation of digital displays.

The following day the decision was announced to restore them – such was the public outcry about their removal.

Ever since the clocks that everyone meets under have been computer-controlled;  the man with the pole is long since retired and everybody’s happy.

Posted by: mike on Sep 1, 2012

Category:Transports of delight


Ex-London Transport RM167, operating as a tour bus in Christchurch, New Zealand (February 2011)

A couple of years ago my cousin Richard and I dined at Paradiso Inferno on London’s Strand, an Italian restaurant that I understand was a favourite of the late, great journalist, Bill Deedes (1913-2007).

Richard is actually my first cousin once removed, so we’re a generation apart and I’m as fascinated by his understanding of the technological present as he is bemused by my ramblings about the historical past.

I pointed, as a tease, to the succession of red buses that stopped nearby, and mentioned that if you look closely at the destination indicators, the letter ‘l’ curls at the base and the dots of the ‘i’ and ‘j’ characters are actually diamonds.

That’s because the lettering is not Gill Sans but the specific font that London Transport’s chief executive officer, Frank Pick (1878-1941), commissioned from the typographer Edward Johnston (1872-1944).

This formed part of Pick’s campaign to give the capital’s transport system a uniform brand-image at every level from architecture and vehicle livery to poster-design and typography.

Frank Pick is a towering figure in modern marketing, and his legacy continues to colour the streets of London.

After all, though London Transport was broken up in 2000 and its bus-services are now run by a variety of operators, Transport for London still uses a revision of the Johnston font and the trademark roundel, and the buses are still red.

For the whole of our meal on the Strand, Richard and I found ourselves looking up at passing buses to check that the ‘i’s and ‘j’s really did have diamonds for dots and that the ‘l’s were turned up at the base.

Versions of Johnston’s Underground font crop up unexpectedly, even – as in the illustration above – in New Zealand.  [See also Christchurch by bus.]

An interesting article on Frank Pick, Edward Johnston and the designer of TfL New Johnston, Eiichi Kono, is at

If you'd like to own your own piece of Johnston – at a price – you could visit my friendly neighbourhood picture-framer at

The Paradiso Inferno website is still live at, though the building was empty when I passed by in January 2012.

Posted by: mike on Aug 10, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

Barrow Hill Roundhouse Fab Four event, April 13th 2012

BaBarrow Hill Roundhouse Fab Four event, April 13th 2012:  from left to right, 4464 Bittern, 4468 Mallard, 60103 Flying Scotsman, 4771 Green Arrow

My friend Doug, who likes trains nearly as much as he likes buses, tipped me off that the Barrow Hill Roundhouse “Fab Four” event would be good value.

The original intention behind the title, apparently, was to reunite for the first time in preservation examples of the LNER A1, A2, A3 and A4 locomotive classes.

I had to look this up, having discarded my Ian Allan spotting books many years ago.

The A1 Pacific locomotives were all scrapped in the early 1960s, and a brand-new version, 60163 Tornado, has been painstakingly constructed.

The A2 was an updated version of the A1.  Its sole survivor is a household name, 60532 Blue Peter, which looks magnificent and only needs half a million pounds spending on its next overhaul.

The only surviving A3 is an even more familiar household name, 60103 Flying Scotsman, saved by the late Alan Pegler, doyen of railway enthusiasts.  (His obituary in The Times, March 23rd 2012, relates a life well lived:  “When the good Lord calls me to the happy shunting yard in the sky, I shall have no regrets,” he told the Railway Magazine.  “I’ve had a great innings.”)

The Fab Four plan came adrift because Flying Scotsman, nearing the end of its latest overhaul, was indisposed, so the Barrow Hill people and their sponsors, Railway Magazine, fielded two examples of the instantly familiar streamlined A4 class, LNER 4464 Bittern, which is in full working order, and the record-breaking 4468 Mallard, which is apparently regarded as so precious a piece of history that it hasn’t steamed since the 1980s.

It was a tremendous show, and drew hordes of visitors, including hard-core railway photographers who carry not only dauntingly huge cameras but also stepladders, like paparazzi.

The implicit thematic intention was to show locomotives that hauled the East Coast main line expresses between London and Edinburgh and beyond.

In addition to the Fab Four, there were other locomotives with an East Coast Route connection.

Great Northern 251, dating from 1902, spun on its own axis on the roundhouse turntable.  LNER 4771 Green Arrow, a variant version of Sir Nigel Gresley’s Pacifics, lined up with the Fab Four.  61994 The Great Marquess, a more rugged beast designed for yomping across the Scottish Highlands, pulled trains up and down the Barrow Hill demonstration track.

Barrow Hill is also the home base of the Deltic Preservation Society [], which maintains in running order a roster of three of the diesel successors to the steam-powered Fab Four.

It was a fine display, beautifully organised.  I warmed to the fact that every Barrow Hill volunteer I spoke to wished me an enjoyable day.  They may have been scripted but they clearly meant it.  I admired the fact that the carriages hauled by The Great Marquess were immaculately turned out in British Railways maroon on the side that the public sees;  the other side is still in the Rail Blue livery that they brought from mainline service.

I had only one complaint about the whole experience.  The advertised advance-ticket prices were fictional.  It was practically impossible to buy a ticket in advance without paying a “transaction fee” of £1.00.

I don’t at all mind paying £15.00 rather than £14.00 for an entertainment.  But I do expect to pay the price on the price-tag.  Compulsory add-ons simply make me feel ripped off.

There’s no need for it.  It would have cost the Barrow Hill Roundhouse and the Ticket Factory nothing at all to come clean and say the cost is £1 more than they pretended.

To do otherwise leaves a nasty taste.

Posted by: mike on Aug 8, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

Barrow Hill Roundhouse

To this day, when trains north from Chesterfield turn right towards Barrow Hill and Beighton, rather than take the direct route via Dronfield into Sheffield, railway staff call it the “Old Road”, because it’s the line of the North Midland Railway which opened in 1840.  The newer route was opened thirty years later, so has now been new for over 140 years.

At the same time that the Midland Railway opened its direct route north into Sheffield, the Barrow Hill locomotive shed was constructed.  It has survived to become a unique piece of railway archaeology – the only surviving operational roundhouse locomotive depot.

There are other roundhouses, of course:  the Roundhouse at Camden Town, in north London is now a celebrated arts venue [], the Derby Roundhouse is a multipurpose conference venue [] and the main hall of the National Railway Museum [See Rail museum proceeds with caution] is built around one of the two turntables of the former York North motive-power depot in Britain.

But only at Barrow Hill can you sense, smell, almost taste the atmosphere of coal and oil and grime that characterised the age of the steam locomotive.

And there, within the roundhouse itself and in the surrounding buildings, the graft of maintaining steam engines and diesel locomotives continues, thanks to the vision of a group of enthusiasts who realised that when the place closed to operational use by British Rail in 1991 an important piece of railway heritage was in danger.

The Barrow Hill roundhouse is home to a variety of preservation projects, including the Deltic Preservation Society [;  see also Keeping the wheels turning] and the Brighton Belle project [].

This is a workaday place.  Visitors are welcome, but there’s a healthy preoccupation with getting jobs done.  Contemplate the hours of graft that bring back the neglected railway heritage;  ask questions and show an interest.  It’s places like Barrow Hill that keep the antique wheels on the modern rails.

Didcot Railway Centre [see God’s Wonderful Railway] has something of the same atmosphere, but is more fully developed as a tourist site.

For details of opening-times and special events at Barrow Hill, see

Posted by: mike on Aug 6, 2012

Category:Transports of delightHistoric York

National Railway Museum, York:  L&YR signalman training model

National Railway Museum, York:  L&YR signalman training model (1912)

It’s an interesting reflection on British culture that, in addition to a National Gallery and a National Portrait Gallery, we have a National Collection of railway vehicles – 280 locomotives and items of rolling stock, most of them distributed between the Science Museum in London, the Locomotion museum at Shildon, Co Durham, and the National Railway Museum in York [].

The York museum has something for everyone.  I once took a school group there, and discovered the kids enthusiastically tracking the lavatory outlets on the Royal Train carriages.

NRM York, as it’s now called, started in a small way, built around the core collection of historic artefacts that came from the Stockton & Darlington Railway and its successors, the North Eastern and London & North Eastern Railways.  Gradually, the other three of the pre-war “Big Four” railways added items which ultimately found a home on the site of the York North locomotive depot, literally across the line from the city’s passenger station.

This location has been repeatedly transformed, in 1975 when the Museum opened celebrating the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, in 1990-2 when the main building was re-roofed to create the Great Hall and in 1999 when the site was extended to create The Works.

An ambitious new plan, NRM+, has been shelved, unsurprisingly, for lack of funds, and the existing displays and activities stretch between serious museum work such as the splendid new research facility, Search Engine, and popular exercises to increase footfall such as the Railfest gathering [].

There is so much potential in this vast collection of transport memorabilia.  I’d particularly like to see the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway's signalman training model displayed with sufficient space to appreciate fully its scale and complexity.

It’s unfair to expect exciting new developments at a time when every pound counts.  All that matters is that places like the NRM survive to maintain their collections and give pleasure and learning to their visitors.

And the miracle of the NRM and the other great national museums and galleries is that they continue to offer free admission.

For that we should be grateful – and as generous as possible in support.

Posted by: mike on Jul 27, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

National Tramway Museum, Crich:  Blackpool locomotive

Alongside their sleek new LRT vehicles, Blackpool Tramways has retained some of its previous fleet – a few double-deckers adapted to fit the new disability-compliant boarding platforms and some authentic heritage trams surreptitiously fitted with transponders to operate the new traffic signalling.

In order to rescue some of the others, the Lancastrian Transport Trust is planning a retirement home for superannuated Blackpool trams at Thornton Gate, on the way to Fleetwood:

This location was last used by the contractors upgrading the line to light rapid-transit standards.  Before that it was used as the permanent-way yard for the tramway.  Originally it was a coal-delivery yard.

Apparently, to forestall a 1919 plan to build a railway line from Thornton to Cleveleys, Blackpool Corporation Tramways agreed to run railway wagons of coal along the Fleetwood tramway, and acquired an electric locomotive for the purpose.

The coal deliveries started in 1927 but were ultimately unprofitable and ended in 1949.

The locomotive was useful and survived, and now serves as a shunter at the National Tramway Museum at Crich, Derbyshire:

Posted by: mike on Jul 25, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Blackpool LRT trams 012 & 013

The new Blackpool trams are up and running – sleek, smooth articulated LRTs in a funky purple-and-white colour scheme.

It’s a superb service, all the way from Starr Gate to Fleetwood and back with space, comfort and ease.  It cost £100 million.

The demise of the old fleet is regretted by some, but it really was past its sell-by date.  Some trams dated back to the 1930s, and many had been rebuilt and patched like the hammer with three new handles and two new heads: [see Essentially Victorian Blackpool and Tram terminus].

The beauty of the promenade tramway, and the reason it survived, is its ability to shift holiday crowds, most of all at the illuminations.  Blackpool trams have always been much bigger than buses, and they take up less road space because they mostly run on their own private tracks.

And the new ones, like the old ones, appear to be crewed by committees.

I don’t know how the new service will shake down, though.  One vehicle with the capacity of a small train every twenty minutes doesn’t offer the same opportunity to hop on and off on an impulse as a constant procession of trams running on demand.

It remains to be seen how much spare capacity is available when the crowds materialise later in the year.

Unlike their predecessors, the new trams are free to holders of senior bus passes.

And if you want a nostalgia trip, you can pay buy a day-saver to use the heritage fleet, when it’s running:

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 15, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

Windsor & Eton Central Station:  Royalty & Railways (1983)

Replica GWR locomotive 3031 The Queen, as decorated for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, 1897, depicted at Madame Tussauds’ Royalty & Railways exhibition, Windsor & Eton Central Station (1983)

While I was waiting for a book to come up from the stack in Sheffield Reference Library, I came across a reproduction of the first issue of Railway Magazine, a periodical that continues to serve industry professionals, enthusiasts and general-interest readers:

In June 1897 the dominant rail news was the construction of the Great Central Railway, then burrowing under Lords Cricket Ground on the approach to its new terminus at London Marylebone.

The lead interview, however, was with Mr Joseph Loftus Wilkinson, the General Manager of the Great Western Railway, who was profiled because the GWR prided itself as the “Royal Railway”, and was about to unveil a new Royal Train in time for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

The magazine duly included a detailed description of the new royal carriages and locomotives, noting that the Queen’s original saloon had been meticulously incorporated into the new coachwork without any alteration whatsoever:  it was the only part of the new train that remained oil-lit.

The Chief Mechanical Engineer, William Dean, intimated to the reporter that though Her Majesty insisted on a speed limit of 40mph for her travels, she sometimes unwittingly approached nearer sixty.  Presumably she was not expected to read the Railway Magazine.

Mr Wilkinson, in what nowadays would be seen as undisguised PR, remarked that at the Great Western “we firmly believe in speed.  In these high-pressure days everybody is in a hurry.”

Posted by: mike on Jun 26, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

The first high-level crossing of the Avon Gorge at Bristol was not, in fact, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s suspension bridge, but a wrought-iron bar, installed in 1836 when bridge-building was about to begin, a thousand feet long and 1½ inches thick, suspended two hundred feet above the River Avon, to carry a basket for transporting materials hung from a roller.

Brunel made the first trip across (after his newly-wed wife, Mary Elizabeth Horsley, declined the opportunity) and got stuck halfway when the bar dipped.  He shinned up the suspension ropes to free the pulley and reached the opposite bank without further difficulty.

By 1843, with £45,500 spent, only the piers had been completed, linked by the single iron bar:  work stopped – to Brunel’s lifelong disappointment – and the unused suspension chains were sold and incorporated in his railway bridge across the Tamar at Saltash.

L T C Rolt, in his biography Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1957;  revised edition with an introduction by Angus Buchanan 1990), reports that when construction of the bridge stopped for lack of funds, the Clifton Bridge Company collected £125 in fares from members of the public who wished to ride across in the bucket.

The bridge as we know it was completed, to a variant of Brunel’s original design, in 1864 using the chains from another of his suspension bridges, across the River Thames at Hungerford.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jun 21, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

One of the finest ferry journeys in the world is the 70-kilometre Interislander voyage across the 24-kilometre wide New Zealand’s Cook Strait, between the south of the North Island and the north of the South Island.  The three-hour trip takes so long because it involves sailing in or out of Wellington Harbour and penetrating the drowned valleys of the Marlborough Sounds.  There's a detailed history of the Cook Strait ferries at

It’s a fine, relaxing journey – as long as you’re a passenger, and not responsible for steering the ship.  The Cook Strait is notoriously rough and unpredictable, with particularly weird tidal surges:

The vessel, MV Kaitaki, felt oddly familiar.  It turned out to be a former Irish Ferry, originally built in 1995 for the Holyhead-Dublin route:  originally the MV Isle of Innisfree, it was latterly P&O’s MV Challenger, operating between Portsmouth and Bilbao.  'Kaitaki' is the Maori word for ‘challenger’.

The other two vessels on the Interislander service, DEVs Arahura and Aratere, are rail-capable, purpose-built as the physical link between the railway systems on the two islands.

Though none of the ferries transport passenger rail vehicles, they make it possible to travel all the way from Auckland to Christchurch by surface public transport, using the Overlander [see Train through Middle Earth], the Interislander ferry and the Coastal Pacific train [see].

Indeed, when I return to New Zealand at leisure I plan to use that route and then the TranzAlpine to reach the west coast of the South Island at Greymouth:  [see By rail across the Southern Alps].

The errand that took me on the Interislander was a lecture for the Nelson Decorative & Fine Arts Society at the Suter Art Gallery [].

While I was in Nelson my host, Ainslie Riddoch, and her colleagues gave me snapper for lunch at the Boat Shed Café [] and dinner at Harry’s Bar [], where we admired the waiter’s sang froid in serving a ménage à trois in the far corner.  Ménage à trois is not, I’m assured, usually on the menu.

Ainslie’s husband, Hamish, told me about the holiday potential of the “Top of the South”, in particular, the tiny settlement of Collingwood, named – like Nelson and Wellington – after a British hero of the French wars a generation earlier.

During the 1850s gold rush there was a serious suggestion that Collingwood should be designated the capital of New Zealand.  Now it’s where tourists go to experience wide-open spaces, with curious outliers of history such as the Collingwood Cemetery (1857) and St Cuthbert’s Church (1873):

I’m fascinated by remote places that time passed by, so I will return to the Top of the South.

Posted by: mike on Jun 15, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Regent's Canal above Camden Lock

Thousands descend on Camden Lock and Camden Market to eat, drink, shop and otherwise enjoy themselves in the industrial-picturesque surroundings of the Regent's Canal, within a short bus- or tube-ride of central London.

On my last visit I spent an unseasonably warm spring lunchtime with my mate Ants at Camden Lock, eating and drinking and gazing across the water outside the Ice Wharf

There’s much more to the scene than meets the eye.

The Regent’s Canal was originally the early nineteenth-century version of the M25, built by a consortium that included the canny architect John Nash (1752-1835), who had the ear of the Prince Regent, later King George IV, and who made the most of his royal patronage to devise a master plan for a swathe of central London that runs from St James’s Park via Regent Street to Regent’s Park.

The practical purpose of the canal was to link the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington Basin with the London docks at Limehouse.  It was begun in 1812, completed as far east as Camden Town by 1816 and fully opened in 1820.

In fact, most of its traffic came from the docks:  it was more used as an artery to deliver freight around north London than to convey traffic to the Midlands canals.

Boats floating through Regent’s Park were an embellishment rather than intrusion:  indeed, repeated attempts to turn the canal into a railway through the nineteenth century invariably came to grief.

In between the First and Second World Wars, the Regent’s Canal amalgamated with connecting waterways through the Midlands as the Grand Union Canal, a brave and partially successful attempt to revive water transport as a bulk carrier.

Since 1945, commercial traffic has given place to pleasure cruising, encouraged by recognition of the amenity value of canalside homes and leisure facilities, and the growth of some of the finest market-shopping opportunities in the capital.

Latterly, it has proved invaluable for an entirely different purpose:  since 1979 trunk cables have carried electricity at 400KV, cooled by canal water, buried beneath the towpath.

John Nash and his chief engineer, James Morgan, would be astonished.

Posted by: mike on Jun 12, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

SS Great Britain

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamship Great Britain carries an immense cargo of stories.

Brunel remarked to the directors planning to build the Great Western Railway, “Why not make it [the GWR] longer and have a steamboat to go from Bristol to New York and call it the Great Western?”

The Great Western duly made its maiden voyage to New York in 1838, by which time the Great Western Railway reached out from London only as far as Maidenhead.

The Great Britain was his second steamship – the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven transatlantic steamship, at the time of her launch the largest ship in the world, the first ship ever to be photographed (by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1844).

She was floated for the first time on July 19th 1843, and ultimately returned to rest in the purpose-built dry dock in which she was constructed on July 19th 1970.  The launch was observed by the Prince Consort, and the return to Bristol by the present Queen’s consort, Prince Philip.

During her active life she served as a troop ship during the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean War, carried the first England cricket team ever to visit Australia in 1861 – an event that produced the first sponsored sporting tournament, the first cricket test match, and the first hat trick.

Her career had more than its fair share of cock-ups.  Brunel, the great risk-taker, repeatedly modified the design during construction – changing from a wooden to an iron hull, extending the dimensions five times and scrapping the half-completed engine and building a new one in order to switch from paddle- to screw-propulsion.

The completed vessel stuck in the lock on departure from Bristol, ran aground in Ireland because of navigational errors, and went through repeated modifications to the engines, propeller and auxiliary rigging.  Eventually, SS Great Britain gained a reputation for reliability shipping migrants from England to Australia.

She ended up as a sailing collier, and finally acted as a floating coal-bunker in the Falkland Islands, where she was eventually beached at Sparrow Cove.

Her rescue, promoted against huge odds by a group led by Richard Goold-Adams and Ewan Corlett and largely financed by Sir Jack Hayward and Sir Paul Getty, is itself one of the great stories of the sea, and her return to Bristol, sailing under Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, one of the memorable moments of many people’s lifetimes.

Though she arrived in Bristol as a rusting hulk, she is now vividly restored.  Wandering among her elegant saloons and cramped cabins brings to life the life-changing experiences of Victorian voyagers.  The only omission, fortunately, is that she doesn’t make anyone seasick.

Nevertheless, I noticed how one particular mannequin, a sad lady in black, sat alone in the dining saloon, repeatedly attracted the sympathetic curiosity of young children.  Her silence and their attention says all that’s needed about the cost of emigration – and the power of imaginative curating.

Read the story at

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 26, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Kennet & Avon Canal Caen Hill Locks

Kennet & Avon Canal:  Caen Hill Locks

The excitements of the dotcom bubble and the speculation that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis seem leisurely compared with the sheer farce of the Canal Mania of the early 1790s.

The financial success of the early canals, which sometimes halved the price of coal and other commodities in inland towns, caused a headlong rush to promote waterways across Britain from anywhere to everywhere. 

Optimistic investors literally fought to put their names on subscription lists for waterways which in most cases had little chance of a practical future.

In the West Country serious promoters took to keeping their subscribers’ meetings secret to avoid attracting frivolous speculators.

On one occasion, according to Kenneth R Clew, historian of the Kennet & Avon Canal, an advertisement appeared in the Salisbury Journal for a promoters’ meeting in Devizes without indicating a precise venue.

On the day the town became overcrowded with increasingly irritable potential investors looking for a meeting that nobody had organised.  Eventually the town clerk was persuaded to chair an ad hoc assembly but “no business of any consequence could be done, and the meeting could only be a tumultuous assembly called together without any knowledge for what purpose, no person appearing to take an active part in it”.

The only people who profited from this farce were the publicans of Devizes.  A bed for the night cost a guinea, whereas a post-chaise back to Bristol was ten guineas.

The Kennet & Avon Canal was eventually built through Devizes:  it opened in 1812 and after years of neglect is once again navigable.

Just outside Devizes the canal climbs through a series of 29 locks – sixteen of them in a magnificent single flight at Caen Hill.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 23, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New York

New York City Grand Central Terminal

The very heart of Manhattan’s 42nd Street is Grand Central Terminal, New York’s principal monument to the age of the railroad, which will celebrate its centenary next year:

Many New Yorkers have never forgiven the destruction of the other great terminus, Penn Station, McKim, Mead, and White’s triumphant pink granite temple to transportation, built in 1910 and flattened in 1963:

Grand Central was the destination of steam-hauled trains from the north, ploughing down a cutting that was covered over when electrification became practical from 1889 onwards.

Begun in 1903, the terminal was structurally completed ten years later but not fully operational until 1927.  Its concourse is 275 feet by 120 feet and 125 feet high, lit by arched windows 75 feet high.  The Guastavino roof is decorated with a painted zodiac (which is for some reason reversed) by Paul Helleu. 

It has sixty-seven tracks on the two levels, a turning loop and connections to the subway, including the 42nd Street Shuttle, which takes a minute to shunt between Grand Central and Times Square.

This was the starting point for some of the great trains of the early twentieth century, the Knickerbocker to St Louis, the Ohio State Limited to Cincinnati and the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago to which, among its many luxuries, is attributed the original red-carpet entrance.

A major conservation campaign, led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, saved Grand Central from demolition in the 1970s, and in 1994-8 a $197-million renovation was undertaken by LaSalle Partners and Williams Jackson Ewing, the restorers of the superb Union Station in Washington DC.

Now it looks as good as it did in 1913 – if not better.

The quintessential Grand Central experience, other than catching a train, is to eat at the Oyster Bar [], where journalists used to take advantage of the acoustics to pick up scoops.  If that's outside the budget, there's plenty to eat in the food court:,

To see images of parts of Grand Central Terminal that ordinary travellers don’t see, go to

To enjoy the best flashmob invasion of the Grand Central concourse go to

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 18, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakVictorian architectureTransports of delightTaking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Buxton LNWR Station

At one time, you had a choice of rail routes to travel between Buxton and Manchester.

As a result of farcical Victorian competition, there were two Buxton stations, served by two companies, running between Buxton and Manchester by completely different routes.

The London & North Western service, which survives, took a reasonably obvious way over the hills to Whaley Bridge and Hazel Grove, where it joined the main line through Stockport to Manchester.

The Midland route, which was a by-product of that company’s desperate dash to find an independent route from Derby to Manchester, dived through deep Derbyshire limestone dales and a lengthy, 1½-mile long tunnel at Dove Holes, to link with the Cheshire Lines into Manchester Central.

Though the Midland line passenger service closed in 1967, almost all of the track is still in place for use by mineral trains.  Only the approach tracks into Buxton and the Midland station have gone, replaced by the town’s inner relief road.

Present-day trains run into the North Western platforms, and though the train-shed roof has been demolished, the distinctive gable with its Crystal Palace fanlight window remains.  The adjacent Midland station was a mirror-image of this.

The shape of the window hints at the involvement of Sir Joseph Paxton, the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener and a Midland Railway director.  It seems that the Duke, as principal landowner, insisted that the two stations should sit harmoniously side-by-side, and Paxton was instructed to advise the architect, John Smith.

Indeed, when the two companies opened on May 30th 1863 it seems that the inaugural dinners were scheduled to begin an hour apart.  Presumably, Paxton turned up to both, and got two starters and only one pudding.

A full and well-illustrated account of the Buxton Midland station can be found at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Apr 4, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delight

King's Cross Station:  2012 concourse

At last the new concourse for London's King’s Cross Station has opened, elegantly spanning the space between the west wall of Cubitt’s trainshed and the gentle curve of the Great Northern Hotel.

It’s a spectacular uninterrupted space, spanned by John McAslan’s semi-circular geometrically interesting roof, easy to navigate if you’re in a hurry, with space to sit and wait above the throng.

The considerable challenge of linking and respecting the contrasting architecture of the two Victorian stations, King’s Cross and St Pancras, is met in an unequivocally twenty-first-century manner.

It used to be so different.  Not that many years ago, nobody hung around King’s Cross unless they were deeply naïve or even more deeply dodgy.

It could have been so very different, if the best-laid plans of local authorities and commercial developers had ever been fulfilled.

Henry Porter, in an article in The Observer (March 25th 2012) [], describes how a succession of financially-driven schemes came to grief in a succession of economic downturns, and how the persistence of local activists, led by the King’s Cross Railway Lands Group [], led the way towards a community-based solution.

His main message is that “the wisdom of citizens should routinely count for much more than it does in British planning, because it is always local people who understand the aspirations of their community and the way their particular public spaces work”.

The King’s Cross Railway Lands Group is monitoring what looks like a signal success:  the block across the Euston Road from King’s Cross Station is the subject of an incompletely thought-out proposal, and the Group continues to challenge the designs to replace the 1970s frontispiece of Cubitt’s station after the Olympics.

There is no final victory in the campaign to protect the environment, but there are successes.

And this is a moment to be grateful that groups such as the King’s Cross Railway Lands Group plug away for decades at a time, even when the chances of success look most slender.

Earlier blog-articles about King's Cross and St Pancras Stations are Built around beer barrels, Midland Grand, King's Cross and Midland Grand renaissance.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture on St Pancras Station and the Midland Grand Hotel please click here.

Posted by: mike on Mar 15, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring New York

New York City Pan Am Building

New York City:  New York Central Building [now Helmsley Building] and Pan Am Building [now MetLife Building] (1981)

I recently came across Meredith L Clausen’s book The Pan Am Building and the shattering of the Modernist dream (Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2005).  It’s obvious from the title that she doesn’t much like the building.  She tells in great detail the story of a Manhattan building that symbolises the over-ambition of financiers seeking to make money out of transport.

This huge Modernist block sits astride the railroad tracks that lie in tunnel beneath Park Avenue, separating Grand Central Terminal (Reed & Stem, Warren & Wetmore 1903-27) from the former New York Central Building, now the Helmsley Building (Warren & Wetmore 1929).

Emery Roth’s original design, which would not have interrupted the Park Avenue vista, was altered, enlarged and turned 90° by Pietro Belluschi and Walter Gropius, who proposed, unsuccessfully, to demolish the New York Central Building to create a public park.

The development was commissioned by the New York Central Railroad in a desperate attempt to shore up their finances as traffic leached from rail to air.  The building reeks with irony, a hubristic symbol of the age of air-travel, no longer owned by the luckless company that built it.

Completed in 1963, it became the Pan Am Building because it was tenanted by Pan American World Airways, the last company to claim the right to have their logo on the outside of a New York skyscraper.  Initially the airline occupied fifteen floors of offices and ran a booking hall at street level.

The roof of the Pan Am Building was designed as a helicopter landing-pad offering rapid transfer from mid-town to JFK Airport for up to eight passengers at a time.  This grandiose scheme was unpopular from the start for obvious reasons of noise and danger.  Eventually, a fatal accident on May 16th 1977 put a stop to it:

The design is apparently derived from an unbuilt Le Corbusier design and the Pirelli Tower, Milan (Gio Ponti & Pier Lugig Nervi 1959) [].  Its distinctive footprint is repeated in Britain in the 331ft Portland House, Westminster (Howard Fairbairn & Partners 1960-3) [], and echoed by the 253ft Taberner House, Croydon (H Thornley 1964-7 – due for demolition in 2013) [] and the 656ft Alpha Tower, Birmingham (Richard Seifert & Partners 1969-73) [].

Pan American Airways came to grief, driven to bankruptcy in the face of the 1973 oil crisis, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the destruction of Flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988 and the effect on oil prices of the First Gulf War of 1991.

In 1990, Pan Am gave up their remaining four floors of the building and shortly afterwards the owner, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company changed the name to the MetLife Building and replaced the Pan Am name and logos with their own.

Though the airline ceased to exist in 1991, the Pan Am brand still functions.  It now belongs to a railroad company:

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Mar 12, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Somerset Coal Canal

Somerset Coal Canal, stop lock at Dundas Aqueduct

At the southern end of Dundas Aqueduct, a branch runs from the Kennet & Avon Canal, through a curious narrow stop-lock.  Nowadays the branch ends abruptly after less than half a mile, at Brassknocker Wharf, where there is an excellent modern restaurant called the Angelfish [].

This is all that remains navigable of the Somerset Coal Canal, a long-forgotten and fascinating piece of canal and railway archaeology.  It was devised by John Rennie (1761-1821), the engineer of the Kennet & Avon Canal, and surveyed by William Jessop (1745-1814) and William 'Strata' Smith (1769-1839), whose work is celebrated at the Rotunda Museum, Scarborough.

The original canal was built westwards to Paulton, to tap the potential traffic of the Somerset coalfield.  The first coal was brought out in 1798, though the canal itself fully opened only in 1805.

Bringing barges from the summit level 135 feet higher than the Kennet & Avon required 22 locks.  To reduce the drain on limited supplies of water, the engineer Robert Weldon proposed instead building a caisson lift at Coombe Hay, in a single operation [See].

This involved building a series of three 60-foot-deep cisterns, into which each barge would be floated in an airtight container – the caisson – and sunk, emerging at the foot of each lift with no loss of water at all.  [See and (which first appeared in The Daily Telegraph)].

An experimental model of this system appeared to work, but the full-sized version was unsuccessful, apparently because of geological rather than mechanical problems.

It was replaced, first by an inclined plane, and eventually – in 1805 – by a flight of locks, from which a steam pump returned water to the summit pound.

A canal branch from Radstock as far as Twinhoe was never completed:  to avoid the expense of a further flight of locks the line was built as a tramway by 1815.  This was superseded in 1875 by the Somerset & Dorset Railway line to Bath.

There was no shortage of coal traffic, but the Somerset Coal Canal was an early victim of railway competition.

Later, the bulk of the main canal between Limpley Stoke and Camerton was converted by the Great Western Railway to a standard-gauge branch-line in 1910.  This was not a commercial success, but after it closed it became the location for the celebrated Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953).

Much of the route of the Somerset Coal Canal is traceable, including the former aqueduct at Dunkerton, for seriously determined explorers to seek out.  The Somerset Coal Canal Society exists to foster interest in the route:

Of the caisson lift hardly anything remains.  The masonry was used to build the replacement locks, and archaeological digs have revealed very little.

I wonder if there’s a working model somewhere?

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Mar 4, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakTransports of delight

Cromford Canal Ironville Locks (1978)

Cromford Canal Ironville Locks (1978)

My blog-article about the Cromford Canal [Slow boat to Cromford] caught the attention of Hugh Potter, the Archivist of the Friends of the Cromford Canal, partly because of the 1963 image of the west portal of the Butterley Tunnel, which is no longer recognisable because of the construction of the A61 Ripley by-pass.

Hugh asked what other images I had from that period, and very kindly rescanned them for me to a higher resolution than my scanner can achieve.  They’re now displayed on the Friends’ website at

The Friends exists to work towards the entire restoration of the Cromford Canal, including its Pinxton and Lea Wood branches.  This is clearly the work of a generation, at least.

When I pottered around the canal in the 1960s it was virtually intact.  In the time it took me to go through secondary school and university, a great bite was taken out of it at Ambergate to build a gas-processing plant, and other stretches were lost to road improvements and opencast coal working.  The current state of the entire line can be seen at

At the moment, only six hundred yards of the Cromford Canal are accessible from the inland-waterways system:  above the first lock at Langley Mill, a stretch exists as moorings for boats that have travelled up the Erewash Canal.

Beyond that, the course of the canal was obliterated by opencast mining in the 1960s:  six locks and 2½ miles of waterway must be completely rebuilt to connect with the surviving flight of locks to Ironville.

Here, well-intentioned but over-enthusiastic flood prevention works have wrecked the top locks which were, until 1985, virtually intact, though the gates had been removed and concrete cills installed to carry overflow.

What would have been a restoration will now become a major rebuilding.  Now is not the time to expect enormous financial support from outside bodies, but the Friends quietly beaver away reversing the decay and encroachments of nature:

It’s the work of volunteers and their determination, for which ‘heroic’ is not too strong an adjective, that kickstarts the recovery of amenities which shouldn’t have been squandered in the first place.

One day, boats will sail again up to Ironville and to Pinxton, and in time through the Butterley Tunnel and on to Cromford.

It worked on the Rochdale and Huddersfield Narrow Canals, and it's happening on the Chesterfield.

It’s only a matter of time – and timing.

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire Peak tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Mar 2, 2012

Category:Transports of delight

Chesterfield Canal (1975)

Chesterfield Canal (1976)

My friends Andy and Sue often take their kids, Liam and Daniella, cycling down the Chesterfield Canal on the border of South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.  The stretch near where they live, running from the east end of Norwood Tunnel down the locks to Worksop, is a wonderfully restored, picturesque stretch of waterway.

If you’re lucky somebody might even offer you and your bike a lift on their narrow boat.

When I first saw this stretch of canal in 1976 it was a wreck.

Twenty-six miles of the canal from the River Trent at Stockwith to Worksop had been designated a cruiseway under the 1968 Transport Act, largely because of the campaigning of the Retford & Worksop Boat Club, who not unreasonably wanted to sail their boats between Worksop and Retford and beyond.

The remaining twenty miles from Worksop to Chesterfield, including the Norwood Tunnel (abandoned in 1908), were simply discarded and the locks by which the canal climbs from Worksop up to the tunnel were demolished as a hazard.

Local people and canal enthusiasts disagreed with this, and in 1976 the Chesterfield Canal Society (since 1998 the Chesterfield Canal Trust) began the huge task of bringing the whole canal back to life.

Since then eleven miles, from Chesterfield to Staveley and from Norwood Tunnel to Worksop have been made navigable:  (see

The next stage will be to restore the still derelict locks on the western section from Staveley up to the tunnel and then, the biggest challenge of all, the tunnel itself, which runs beneath the M1 motorway.

Already the Chesterfield Canal Trust has achieved a great deal, and their activities are constant and enterprising:

And Liam and Daniella, both children of the twenty-first century, may find it difficult to believe the contrast between their childhood memories and the archive pictures of only thirty-odd years before.

Posted by: mike on Feb 28, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLiverpool's Heritage

Liverpool Overhead Railway Dingle Station

The Liverpool Overhead Railway was the only example in the British Isle of the American elevated railway, which once filled the streets of New York City and elsewhere with girders and noise.  The most well-known surviving example is the Chicago Loop.

The Liverpool line followed the docks, all the way from Seaforth in the north to Herculaneum in the south, skirting behind the great Pier Head buildings and providing a grandstand view of the ships berthed beside the River Mersey.

My granddad used to take each of his six kids to Liverpool between the wars to ride on the Overhead and, if they were in luck, to tour a transatlantic liner lying up between voyages.

Those dockers who didn’t ride on it to get to work would walk underneath the rail-deck at ground level, so it was known as the “Docker’s Umbrella”.

Hardly any vestige remains above ground of this distinctive piece of transport history, which was scrapped in 1956 simply because it was life-expired.  If it had survived, it would now be a magnet for tourists in a Liverpool very different from the one for which it was built.

One of the two surviving carriages forms a focal point in the display at the new Museum of Liverpool [].  (The other is awaiting restoration at the Electric Railway Museum, Baginton, Warwickshire:

There is, however, an intriguing survival at the southern end of the line – an underground station.

In 1896, three years after the opening, the railway was extended through half a mile of tunnel to Park Road, Dingle where it linked with the south Liverpool tram services.

The tunnel mouth, above the site of Herculaneum Dock, is still prominently visible, and the station itself survives, much less obvious but structurally intact, in use as a car-body repair shop.

Visitors are made welcome, if you can find it.

Background information and excellent photographs of Dingle Station are at

Movie footage of the LOR is at

Posted by: mike on Feb 25, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Chicago

Chicago Loop

If ever you fly into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, don’t – as I have done repeatedly – take a cab into town.  It’ll cost you something like forty dollars that you could put to better use.  Catch the Blue Line for $2.25 or less:

The Blue Line is one of the newer (1984) sections of Chicago’s celebrated elevated railway, pronounced “El” and formally written as ‘L’.  All of Chicago’s urban railways were elevated above street-level, either on embankments or viaducts, until the construction of two subways which were intended to double as air-raid shelters, the State Street subway (1943) and the Dearborn subway (completed 1951).

The ‘L’ was the creation of a dynamic, unscrupulous, unlikeable tycoon, Charles Tyson Yerkes (1837-1905), who followed up his attempts to gain a monopoly of the city’s streetcars by linking together the elevated railways which until 1897 stopped short of the central area, disgorging thousands of passengers into the congested streets of the financial and retail zones.

Yerkes provided the links, creating a four-sided loop round which all but one of Chicago’s ‘L’ lines gyrate.  Without him, there would be no meaning to the phrases “in the loop” and “out of the loop”.

Everybody knew Yerkes was not an honest man.  He’d been thrown into jail in Philadelphia for misappropriating public funds in 1871:  he served seven months of his 33-month sentence.

He moved to Chicago, with a new wife and a newly minted credibility, and quickly established himself as a financier and investor in streetcars and urban railways.  (Whenever he gained authority to build a line out of town, the out-of-town section generally didn’t get built.)

His methods were unorthodox:  syndicates, honeytraps, blackmail and bribery were his stock in trade.  When they failed he used more subtle deceit, hiding his identity behind proxies.  His self-proclaimed method was to "buy up old junk, fix it up a little, and unload it upon other fellows."

By fair means and foul, Yerkes imposed on the streets of Chicago the characteristic steel viaducts that to this day blot out the sun and fill the air with the rumbling of electric trains grinding round right-angle bends.

Only once does it seem he was beaten at his own game.  The newly-appointed University of Chicago professor of astronomy, George Ellery Hale, aged twenty-four at the time, manipulated – and embarrassed – him into funding not only the largest telescope in the world up to that time, but also the observatory to contain it, which to this day is known as the Yerkes Observatory [].

Eventually, city government and the city’s press combined to defeat his chicanery, and he sold up and left town in 1900.

He eventually ended up in London, where the practical and financial uncertainties that had dogged the planned deep-level tube system looked a fertile area for his type of enterprise.  He bought up existing companies and combined them into the London Underground Electric Railway Company.

He died before the Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly railways were fully operational, and the London Underground was directed to success by others.

This disreputable man gave London one of its greatest public assets, and an unmistakable icon. His estate was proved at $4 million – under a million pounds at the time.

There is an account of his career at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 17, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLiverpool's Heritage

Mersey Tunnel Queensway, Central Avenune

Mersey Tunnel Queensway:  Central Avenue

When you drive through the two Mersey tunnels, the 1934 Queensway and the 1971 Kingsway, you’re being watched – and cared for – by a small team of professionals, many cameras and, in Queensway, a great deal of 1930s over-engineering.

The Mersey Tunnel Tour is the public’s opportunity to see behind the scenes of Queensway, and to understand that it’s much more than a hole in the ground.

The tour takes visitors from the top of the George’s Dock Building, which is essentially an elegant Art Deco fan-assisted chimney with an office block attached, to the safety refuges below the road-deck.  And, of course, back to the surface.

It’s a moderately strenuous two hours, and because the ventilation station is a dusty, though not dirty working building, it’s a good idea to go dressed for gardening rather than tourism.  (On the recent Liverpool’s Heritage tour, we came straight from St George’s Hall and may have been a little over-dressed.)

The 1920s designers couldn’t be sure how the finished tunnel would work practically.  At the time it was the longest under-river bore in the world.  Furthermore, traffic was changing as horse-drawn carts and electric trams began to give way to motor vehicles.

In these circumstances, especially in a two-way tunnel, ventilation was crucial, and could not be skimped.  The later Kingsway is in fact two unidirectional bores, so the traffic itself acts as a piston, pushing foul air through.  Queensway has six ventilation stations;  Kingsway needs only two.  In each case, the fresh air has to be pumped in at either end:  after all, there’s a river in the middle.

The party-piece on the tour is to see one of the 22ft-diameter fans start up, high in the George’s Dock building.  These are the original 1934 fans, built into the building.  Even at the lowest of four speed-settings, they’re distinctly draughty.

And they work.  When you stand beside the traffic lanes below the river, the air is remarkably fresh.

Another resonant experience is to stand below the road-deck on Central Avenue, an empty corridor intended for double-deck electric trams to connect the Liverpool and Birkenhead systems.

The original specification assumed that the road tunnels would carry 3,000 vehicles per hour, travelling at an average speed of 15mph while maintaining a distance of 100ft apart in four lanes.  Down below, an endless procession of double-deck trams, each carrying perhaps sixty people, could have shifted many more thousands.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way.

In a different age of faster, cleaner road vehicles with far better brakes than between the Wars the ventilation system has a much easier time, yet carries enough capacity to cope with any foreseeable emergency such as a blockage or fire.

One of the benefits of the Mersey Tunnel Tour is the reassurance of seeing how efficiently motorists are looked after if the traffic in the tunnel stops in its tracks.

Not that most people give an emergency a second thought as they breeze between Liverpool and the Wirral, listening to their car radios.  And not realising why they can use their radio in the tunnel.

Booking a Mersey Tunnel tour requires premeditation:  e-mail to

For further background information on the Queensway Tunnel, see

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Feb 3, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Northern PenninesTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Dent Station

Dent Station on the Settle & Carlisle railway is the highest main-line railway station in England.  It stands 1,150 feet above sea level.  Its remoteness is such that it lies four miles from the village of Dent, six hundred feet below in the dale.  The site is so bleak that the stationmaster’s house was built with integral double-glazing.

The stretch of line to beyond the summit at Ais Gill (1,168 feet) was notoriously difficult to keep open in snow.  The trackside snow-fences of wooden railway sleepers are a gaunt reminder, even at the height of summer, of conditions in the worst of winter.

In 1947 the drifts reached to the road bridge north of the station platforms and took three weeks to clear. 

There is a story, related in the Settle-Carlisle Partnership website [] of a signalman dying in the Dent signalbox, and his relief laying him on top of the locker until they were relieved at the end of the shift.

After the station buildings were sold in 1985 Neil Ambrose spent twenty years restoring the down-side building.  In 2006 a quantity surveyor, Robin Hughes, bought it for £250,000 and spent a further £150,000 upgrading the interior as holiday accommodation for six.

The adjacent Snow Hut, provided as a base for the track workers who battled, often unsuccessfully, to keep the line open in winter, is now a studio bunk barn for two (or, at a pinch, three).

Details of Dent Station and the Snow Hut are at

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Waterways & Railways across the Northern Pennines tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Feb 1, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Northern PenninesTransports of delight

Garsdale Station

There’s really no other reason to get off the train at Garsdale except to go walking in the wild scenery.  There are numerous round walks of varying degrees of difficulty starting from the station.

Nevertheless, Garsdale Station has numerous claims to fame. 

Opened with the Settle & Carlisle Railway in 1875, it was originally known as Hawes Junction, because it was the starting-point of the branch line up Wensleydale to Hawes and onwards to Northallerton.  The branch closed to passengers in 1964 and was dismantled west of Redmire.  There are plans eventually to reopen the entire line [see Yorkshire railway with potential].

A locomotive depot was planned at Garsdale but never built.  It proved easier to bring banking engines up the line than to service them in such a remote spot:  indeed, the locos would routinely have frozen solid.  The 40,000-gallon water-tower that fed the highest railway water-troughs in the world was steam heated, and its base was used as the village hall with a 200-volume library.  The waiting room was regularly used for church services.

Garsdale was also the location of a legendary incident in 1900 when the wind caught a locomotive on the turntable and spun it uncontrollably until the crew poured sand into the pit.  As a result, a timber stockade was afterwards built round the turntable.  The actual turntable is now installed at Keighley.

Hawes Junction was the site of a collision between a northbound express and two light engines on Christmas Eve 1910, caused by a signalling error, which killed nine people.  The signalman, when he realised the collision was inevitable, instructed his colleague, “Go and tell the station master that I am afraid I have wrecked the Scotch Express.”

The station closed, along with almost all the others on the line, in 1970, and reopened from 1975 to serve the Dalesrail trains by which the Yorkshire Dales National Park and other bodies regenerated the line in the face of government opposition.

The up platform of Garsdale Station has a memorial to Ruswarp (pronounced “Russup”) the border collie which along with 22,265 people registered an objection to the closure of the railway in the 1980s.  As a regular fare-paying passenger the dog was permitted to register an objection with a paw-print.

Named after a railway viaduct and a station near Whitby, Ruswarp was the companion of Graham Nuttall, one of the founders of the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line.  Graham and Ruswarp went walking in the mountains above Llandrindod Wells in January 1990 and did not return:  Ruswarp was found, guarding his master’s body, eleven weeks later.  The fourteen-year-old dog was so weak he had to be carried from the mountain:  cared for by a local vet, Ruswarp lived long enough to attend Graham Nuttall’s funeral.

On April 11th 2009, twenty years to the day after the line was reprieved, the statue of Ruswarp, by the sculptor JOEL, was unveiled.  Ruswarp is shown gazing across the line to the bench that commemorates his master.

Mark Rand, chairman of the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle line, told the Daily Telegraph [August 29th 2008], “Having a statue there of Ruswarp will symbolise not only the successful fight to save the line but also the loyalty of man’s best friend...This is the silver lining to a very bitter-sweet story.”

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Waterways & Railways across the Northern Pennines tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 29, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Llandudno Great Orme Tramway

Llandudno’s Great Orme Tramway [Tramffordd y Gogarth] is the only British example of a street-running funicular railway.  It is completely unlike the San Francisco cable-cars [see Halfway to the stars], because its trams work in two pairs, permanently fixed to a winding cable.

It opened in two sections, the lower half on July 31st 1902, and the summit section on July 8th 1903.  The winding house was steam-powered from 1902 to 1958, and since then the cables have been electrically hauled.

The lower section of the Great Orme Tramway looks like its San Francisco cousins, because the cable is concealed for much of its length under the roadway in a conduit slot between the running rails.  The upper section, above the half-way winding house, runs on railway track, and the complex arrangement of cables and rails is visible.

Until 1991 the tramway had an overhead trolley-wire solely to carry the telephone-system so that tram-drivers could communicate with the engineman.  Now the communication-system is radio-operated and the trolley poles, which convinced some visitors that this was an electric tramway, are entirely cosmetic.

The line is operated by four trams, 4 and 5 on the lower section and 6 and 7 on the upper:  the first three numbers were taken by jockey-cars, propelled by the cable-connected trams and manhandled along loop tracks between the two sections.  Cars no 1, 2 and 3 were wagons for carrying coal for the boiler house and coffins to St Tudno’s Church:  all three disappeared before 1930.

There has been only one fatal accident:  the drawbar on No 4 snapped on August 23rd 1932, killing the brakesman and a little girl he tried to rescue by jumping from the car.  In 1963 a retired GOT employee revealed to Ivor Wynne Jones [Llandudno:  Queen of Welsh resorts (Landmark 2002)] that the Board of Trade inspector was deceived into thinking the emergency brake worked at the time of his inspection on July 30th 1902.

As a result of compensation claims amounting to £14,000, the original Great Orme Tramway Company went bankrupt, and after a completely new and still effective safety system had been designed for the lower section, a new Great Orme Railway Company was formed in 1934.

The Llandudno Urban District Council compulsorily purchased the tramway in 1949;  the UDC was absorbed by Aberconwy Borough Council in 1974.

After a collision between cars 6 and 7 on April 30th 2000, when the facing points at the loop malfunctioned, injuring seventeen passengers, the entire tramway was closed and refurbished, with an induction-loop system that electronically locates each car on a monitor in the central control-room, and the system was fully operational in time for its centenary in 2002.

A further accident occurred in 2009, when cars 6 and 7 collided as a result of another points failure on the passing loop:

It’s worth the ride, not only for the vintage travel-experience but also for the views from the top of the Great Orme.  Having blown away the cobwebs at the summit, the smart advice is to return to the Victoria Tram Station and visit Fish Tram Chips alongside:

The most recent history of the tramway is Keith Turner, The Great Orme Tramway – over a century of service (Gwasag Carreg Gwalch 2003).  The tramway website is at

Posted by: mike on Jan 25, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Llandudno Grand Hotel & Pier

Llandudno Pier is one of the finest unspoilt British piers, and it’s always been my favourite because it’s the one I remember, as a child, still in use for its original purposes.

Seaside piers were, after all, primarily landing stages, which quickly gained an entertainment function because they offered landlubber holidaymakers the experience of being out at sea without the inconvenience of sea-sickness.

The main section of the Llandudno Pier by the engineer James Brunlees, 1,200 feet long, opened on August 1st 1877.  The Baths, Reading Room and Billiard Hall alongside were reopened as the Baths Hotel in 1879, and a spur was added linking the Pier to the promenade in 1884.  Alongside this the Pier Pavilion, a huge glass structure 204 feet long and between 84 and 104 feet wide, was opened in September 1886.  Its basement contained a swimming pool 160 feet by 48 feet, then one of the largest in existence.

The Baths Hotel was replaced in 1900 by the existing Grand Hotel, designed by James Francis Doyle.  The Pier Pavilion, having stood derelict in the ownership of a developer who famously didn’t develop, was destroyed by fire on February 13th 1994:  [See and].

When we stayed in Llandudno in the 1950s one of the highlights was a paddle-steamer trip from Llandudno Pier to Menai Bridge and back on one or other of the Liverpool & North Wales Steamship Company steamships, St Tudno or St Seiriol [].

The trip, which we did on more than one occasion, included chugging round the enigmatically inaccessible Puffin Island, with its mysterious hill top tower, and gazing from Telford’s suspension bridge at the beached wreck of HMS Conway.

Puffin Island [Ynys Seiriol] was part of the Bulkeley family’s Baron Hill estate, of which the derelict Palladian house by Samuel Wyatt is illustrated at and

The tower forms part of the remains of one of the stations on the semaphore telegraph system that brought news of incoming ships from Holyhead to Liverpool [see Frank Large’s detailed study, Faster Than the Wind: A History of and a Guide to the Liverpool to Holyhead Telegraph (Avid 1998)].  More details of the island, and the opportunity to take a close look at it, are at

What we knew as HMS Conway was originally HMS Nile, launched in 1839 and used as a Liverpool-based training vessel until, while being towed through the Menai Strait in 1953, she grounded and broke her back.  She was eventually destroyed by fire three years later.  A detailed account is at

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company maintained a tenuous steamer service to and from Llandudno Pier, and the celebrated PS Waverley and MV Balmoral made occasional visits until the landing stage was declared unsafe in 2007.

Nevertheless, the Pier itself appears to be in good order, and it’s an essential part of the Llandudno experience to stroll to the end of the pier, watch the fishermen and have either a cup of tea or an alcoholic drink in the bar, very much as the Victorian patrons would have done 130 years ago.

Descriptions of Llandudno Pier are at and

Blog-articles about other piers are at Last resort in YorkshireStars on the streetEnd of the pier showExploring Australia 10:  St Kilda and Wasting asset.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Dec 20, 2011

Category:Transports of delight

London Transport Edgware Station

Staring at the London Underground map as the train rattles through the tunnels can become a hypnotic experience.

I find myself identifying which of the stations are named after pubs that were once horse-tram termini – Angel, Elephant & Castle, Manor House, Royal Oak and Swiss Cottage.

I’m also intrigued by the odd little branches, such as the Northern Line extension to Mill Hill East.  This, it turns out, used to be a LNER branch-line through to Edgware, and was about to be converted into a Northern Line service when the Second World War broke out.  The only section that was within reach of completion became part of the Northern Line in 1941;  the rest was eventually lifted in 1965.

Between the wars Edgware had two stations, the branch line and the Underground:  the site of the LNER station and goods yard is now the modern shopping mall.

When you leave the Northern Line train at the terminus at Edgware, you may notice that the platform and track disappear under the road, where the buffer stops are sited.

This is because the line was to be extended beyond the 1924 Edgware station, as part of the London Transport 1935-40 New Works Programme, to Bushey Heath with additional stations at Brockley Hill and Elstree South.

At the outbreak of war, some of the formation, including viaducts and tunnels, was in place and the largely completed depot at Aldenham was adapted as an aircraft factory.

Post-war designation of the area around Bushey Heath as Green Belt meant that there would never be enough housing to justify an Underground extension, and work was not resumed.

The isolated Aldenham depot became a bus maintenance works, which appears in the opening sequence of the 1963 Cliff Richard movie, Summer Holiday, produced by Associated British Pictures down the road at Elstree.

The bus works closed in 1986 and has now completely disappeared.  The railway route beyond Edgware is largely built on and there is little to see, but some of the defunct line south of Edgware towards Mill Hill is now accessible as a nature reserve [see].

Tony Beard’s book, By Tube beyond Edgware (Capital Transport 2002), a superb exercise in writing about a railway that never was, tells and illustrates the full story.

Posted by: mike on Dec 11, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Tranz Scenic Overlander

When I did a lecture-tour for the New Zealand Decorative & Fine Arts Societies [] their travel co-ordinator Jenny offered me the option of travelling from Hamilton to Wellington (that is, much of the length of the North Island) by air or by rail.

For me that’s a no-brainer.  There’s no finer way to see a land than through the window of a railway carriage.

The Overlander takes twelve hours for the full journey from Auckland to Wellington, 9½ hours from Hamilton southwards.  It’s a comfortable, leisurely trip, in rolling stock very similar to the TranzAlpine [see By rail across the Southern Alps].

Mark Smith, the Man in Seat 61, points out that this is the journey that inspired the film producer Peter Jackson, who first read J R R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings on a train on the North Island Main Trunk Railway and returned to the region to shoot his film trilogy Lord of the Rings (2001-3).

The journey is an unmissable opportunity to sense the scale of the North Island.  The line climbs into the volcanic centre of the island, and then drops into the precipitous Rangitikei gorge.  Towards evening it finds its way to the west coast, where on fine summer evenings there’s a grandstand view of the sunset.

Driving a railway through the heart of the island took nearly a quarter of a century:  construction started in 1885 and the last spike was driven in 1908.

The engineering is spectacular.  The most memorable feature of all is the Raurimu Spiral, which lifts the line 132 metres within a distance of two kilometres, by twists and a spiral over 6.8 kilometres of track.  It’s one of those stretches of railway where the train nearly meets itself coming back:

Some of the viaducts on the final 1908 section are as impressive as those on the TranzAlpine line.  The Makatote Viaduct [] is an original steel structure, 258 feet above the river-bed;  the curved Hapuawhenua Viaduct is a modern concrete replacement, 167 feet high, built on a diversion from which the earlier steel viaduct is visible to the east of the line – and,171.928037&sspn=0.002533,0.004967&ie=UTF8&ll=-39.385256,175.399566&spn=0.002687,0.004967&t=h&z=18.

The most endearing and surprising landmark on the journey south is at Mangaweka, where a DC3 aircraft rests beside the Hub Café

New Zealanders customarily disparage their railways, which were built with difficulty and have been managed half-heartedly over the years.  It’s as if the nation can’t decide whether rail is essential or superfluous to the task of transportation across the two mountainous land-masses.

The North Island Main Trunk Railway has been improved over the years by building deviations before and after the Second World War, and by a piecemeal electrification.  The Wellington-Paekakariki section was electrified at 1,500V DC in 1940, and 255 miles between Palmerston North and Hamilton were electrified to 25 kV 50 Hz AC in the 1980s.

This means that the Overlander leaves Auckland behind a diesel locomotive, changes to electric power at Hamilton and back to diesel haulage at Palmerston North, running under electric wires it does not use from Waikanae through the Wellington suburbs to its terminus:

In 2006 there was a strong likelihood that the Overlander, the only remaining train between the North Island’s two biggest cities, would close completely:  the service was reprieved three days before the closing date, and both the line and the rolling-stock were refurbished.  As a result, passenger numbers rose significantly, and the length of the trains and the number of days’ service have repeatedly increased.

If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Update:  In June 2012 the Overlander was rebranded, speeded up but reduced in frequency as the Northern Explorer  The route and the scenery are just the same.

An excellent description and a practical guide to booking trips on the Northern Explorer is at

Posted by: mike on Nov 20, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Swindon & Cricklade Railway, Blunsdon Station

The Swindon & Cricklade Railway is one of the smaller volunteer efforts to preserve the age of steam.  It boasts that it’s the only standard-gauge preserved railway in Wiltshire and occupies, not part of Brunel’s former broad-gauge Great Western, but a stretch of the little-known Midland & South Western Railway, a late-comer which allowed the trains of the Midland Railway and its allies to penetrate Great Western territory to reach Southampton.  The section from Swindon through Cricklade to Cheltenham was opened in 1881.

When the Swindon & Cricklade volunteers came here there was nothing but trackbed.  Every sleeper and rail, every stick and sheet of metal has been brought here since 1978.  This is a railway that hasn’t been blessed with lottery money or large donations.

Volunteers have built two stations, Blunsdon (which last saw a passenger train in 1924), and a temporary terminus with loco- and carriage-sheds at Hayes Knoll, where additional land was available short of the ultimate destination at Cricklade.

The long-term plan is to extend southwards, diverging from the M&SWR line to a new station at Mouldon Hill Country Park and then eventually to an interchange station with the Great Western main line at Sparcells.  A northward extension to Cricklade is also planned.  The current round-trip ride is around four miles. 

There is an excellent Whistlestop Café, housed in two Norwegian railway carriages, from which you can birdwatch as well as train-watch, and a rolling programme of entertaining events through the year – not only the customary Wartime Weekend and Santa Specials, but Murder Mystery Evenings and a Halloween Ghost Train.  On-board dining is provided on two beautifully spruced-up blue-and-cream Moonraker carriages.

Details of this year’s and next year’s programmes are at

Every cup of tea bought, and every fiver pushed into the green donations pillar-box, takes this enjoyable little railway nearer to its termini.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Oct 25, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Dawdling Dairy

You have to be a special person to have an aqueduct named after you.

Charles Dundas, 1st Baron Amesbury (1751-1832) was in fact the chairman of the Kennet & Avon Canal company:  someone thought it would put a smile on his face to give his family name to John Rennie’s aqueduct across the River Avon at Monckton Combe.

Its parapet carries a plaque commemorating Charles Dundas on one side and, on the other, John Thomas, the company’s chief engineer, “by whose skill, perseverance and integrity, the Kennet and Avon canal was brought to a prosperous completion”.

The Dundas Aqueduct is slightly larger than the Avoncliff Aqueduct [see If it moves, charge it].  The main span is 65 feet (Avoncliff 60 feet) and the whole aqueduct 150 yards long (Avoncliff 110 yards).

Whereas the Avoncliff Aqueduct has a light, simplified Corinthian entablature, the Dundas Aqueduct has full-dress twin Roman Doric pilasters and an exaggerated cornice that may be a not entirely successful attempt to give weather-protection to the masonry beneath.

Only at the Lune Aqueduct on the Lancaster Canal [], with its five arches, Doric entablature and buttresses, did Rennie exceed his aqueducts on the Kennet & Avon.

As a tourist attraction, and an excuse for gongoozling [see], the Dundas is a prime spot.

You can even buy cheese and an ice-cream from the floating dairy that is currently moored alongside the aqueduct:

You don’t get that at any old aqueduct.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Oct 23, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Kennet & Avon Canal Avoncliff Aqueduct

It’s not easy to reach Avoncliff except, of course, on a boat.

South of Bradford-on-Avon the Kennet & Avon Canal follows the narrow valley of the River Avon.  Brunel’s Great Western Railway squeezes alongside John Rennie’s waterway and there are two tiny roads on each side of the valley, with no connection across the river.

Rennie carried the canal over the river on the stately Avoncliff Aqueduct, not perhaps his best advertisement because the sixty-foot main arch sagged very shortly after it was finished in 1798, yet it has stood ever since.

As early as 1803 heavy repairs were needed.  It seems that Rennie’s advice to use brick was disregarded to retain the goodwill of local quarry-owners who would bring trade to the completed canal.

In the course of restoring the entire canal, the aqueduct was made securely watertight with a concrete bed in 1980.

It’s not a good idea to take a car down the valley, especially on summer weekends.  Indeed, it’s inadvisable to take anything much bigger for lack of turning space.  There is a railway station, with a two-hour service between Bristol, Bath and Bradford-on-Avon, which is particularly useful if you want to walk the couple of miles along the canal from Bradford-on-Avon and then ride back.

Once you reach Avoncliff it’s a pleasant spot to while away the hours.  There’s an excellent historic pub, the Cross Guns [], which provides meals and refreshments, and usually something passing by along the canal.

This was not the case between the wars when, according to Kenneth Clew, the canal’s historian, most of the tolls collected at Bradford-on-Avon were cycle permits.  The toll-book also records a shilling toll “for carrying a corpse across the aqueduct at Avoncliff”.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Oct 20, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Radio Ferrymead

Radio Ferrymead, Christchurch, New Zealand

Ferrymead Heritage Park, Christchurch, New Zealand, portrays an early twentieth-century township, complete with trams, trolleybuses, buses, trains, a working cinema, shops and houses, populated with volunteers in costume.

It’s in the same genre as the British museums at Beamish [], the Black Country []  and Blists Hill [], and reminds me of Old Sturbridge in Massachusetts [].

Its constitution is interesting:  because of its historical development [see], Ferrymead is run by an umbrella trust and provides a home for a fascinating variety of independent societies, in the same way that some British rail and tramway museums offer homes to subsidiary groups [see Shunter Hunters].

Its transport exhibits include steam, diesel and electric trains, running on the trackbed of the first railway in the South Island (opened 1863, closed 1867, restored 1964 onwards), as well as tram and trolleybus services [] and a magnificent aircraft display [].

The museum has a convincingly scaled tiny picture house, a post office which accepts mail and a practical radio station that broadcasts on AM, using 78rpm, vinyl and cassette recordings for mature listeners.  When the station is on air, it’s possible to listen online at [].

The museum escaped serious damage in the February 2011 earthquake [], and is back in operation:

Posted by: mike on Oct 10, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delight

Didcot Railway Centre

Didcot Railway Centre [] celebrates the Great Western Railway – known to its aficionados as “God’s Wonderful Railway” and to its weary Victorian customers as the “Great Way Round”.  The Centre is built round the 1932 engine shed, itself a remarkable piece of social and transport history, funded in the midst of the Depression by a National government desperate to reduce unemployment by priming cash-strapped private enterprise.

The engine shed has much of the patina of a working loco depot, with odd nooks and crannies in which engineering wizards deal in steel, brass and oil while brewing strong tea and putting the world to rights.

The GWR Chief Mechanical Engineer at the start of the twentieth century, George Jackson Churchward, developed standardised features in locomotive design so successfully that his signature can be seen in the locomotives of the LMS Railway, those of his pupil Sir William A Stanier, and in the final series of post-war British Railways designs by Stanier’s own pupils.

Immediately recognisable features of Churchward’s designs – tapered boilers, copper-capped chimneys and brass valve-cases – meant that Great Western engines were among the most elegant on British railways.

Didcot proudly shows more than twenty of these magnificent locomotives, and Churchward’s use of standard components means that the Great Western Society can reconstruct long-vanished designs to complete the sequence.  Whereas the LNER A1 locomotive Tornado had to be constructed expensively from scratch, the GWS plans to reproduce a ‘Saint’ from a ‘Hall’, and a ‘County’ from another ‘Hall’ using an LMS boiler.

The Centre astutely makes a virtue of its limitations:  its two short branch-lines offer frequent out-and-back steam-train rides “so there is always something to watch”.  The publicity-material makes the point that all train-rides are in vintage carriages not (as in some Johnny-come-lately steam railways) using late-1960s stock from the age of diesel, and visitors have freedom of movement to explore such features as a working turntable, a reproduction broad-gauge track and train and a surviving example of Brunel’s atmospheric railway track.

For nearly ten years, museum development at Didcot was held back by uncertainties over the lease for the site, until October 2011, when the Centre obtained a further fifty-year lease from Network Rail.

The Centre stands at the apex of a junction between the GWR lines from Paddington to Swindon and Oxford.  That is the point of the place:  it provides the sounds and smells of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century rail travel while twenty-first century trains whizz past on either side.

There’s an echo of this contiguity in Kensal Green Cemetery [see Catafalque burial, Equestrian genii, Praised with faint damns and Apocalyptic visions], where lie both Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who virtually invented the Great Western, and his great friend and rival, Robert Stephenson, son of George, within earshot of trains which still speed on opposite sides of the cemetery from Paddington and from Euston.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Oct 9, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernVictorian architectureTransports of delight

STEAM – the Museum of the Great Western Railway

If you must drive, don’t go to Swindon.  Just don’t go there.  Get someone who already lives there to come out and fetch you.

The place is a nightmare of bad signage and confusing road layouts.  It’s the location of the notorious Magic Roundabout, designed by Frank Blackmore, claimed to be safer than any alternative because drivers are so terrified they go slowly:

The sensible way to reach Swindon is, of course, by train.

Walk from the station to the surviving Railway Village, built in the early years of the Great Western Railway as a company town, New Swindon, alongside the line and the works, away from the original market town, Old Swindon.

The rows of terraced houses, with gardens, are now carefully looked after, unlike the desperately neglected, historically important Mechanics’ Institute (1855;  extended 1892) [, and].

Walking through the subway under the railway tracks into the area that was the great railway works is a poignant experience.  Sturdy stone buildings from the days of Gooch, Dean and Churchward stand alongside modern structures with names such as ‘Heritage Plaza’.  Some of the site is occupied by those great wealth-generators, English Heritage and the National Trust.  Walk through the door of one building and you’re immediately in the midst of John Lewis’ furniture department:  this is the Swindon Designer Outlet [], which has the GWR locomotive 7918 Hinton Manor as a backdrop to the food court.

Across the way, STEAM – the Museum of the Great Western Railway [] is superb, capturing the noise and busy-ness of the great works in a restricted space, and telling its story with breadth and wit.  It’s a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours, with plenty to occupy children and big kids.  I worked the signals and points to let the Royal Train past, because there was too much of a queue to drive an engine.

That said, there’s nothing much to eat inside the Museum, though there is a National Trust café, more department-store than country-house, in Heelis, their headquarters across the way which is named after the author Beatrix Potter, Mrs William Heelis [].

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Sep 27, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Arthur's Pass

Arthur's Pass:  approach to Otira Tunnel

The TranzAlpine train-journey across the breadth of New Zealand's South Island from Christchurch to Greymouth is not cheap, and it's worth every cent.  Parts of the journey are spectacular, and the 4½-hour journey unfolds a variety of landscape across the divide between the dry eastern plains and mountains to the tropical, rainy west of the country.  The Midland Line depends heavily on its coal traffic.  The lengthy and heavily engineered route couldn’t possibly survive solely on passengers.

The most exciting part of the route traverses the Waimakariri and Broken River gorges through a series of tunnels and vertiginous viaducts including the Stair Case Viaduct, 240 feet high [].

The line climbs continuously to Arthur’s Pass (population 54), in the heart of the aptly-named Southern Alps, and plunges downgrade into the Otira Tunnel, 5.3 miles long, with a gradient of 1 in 33.  Built between 1907 and 1923, this was originally only workable by electric locomotives;  since 1997 trains have been diesel-hauled with a system of airtight doors and fans at the tunnel mouths to enable trains to expel their foul air.

The line skirts Lake Brunner, itself strongly reminiscent of the European Alps, and terminates at Greymouth.  This is the nearest large town to the Pike River Mine, where 29 miners were killed in explosions in November 2010.

The long main street is well geared to the daily one-hour influx of tourist train-passengers, and provides coach links to places along the coast that might once have been rail-connected.
Since I rode in February 2011, the odd-looking yet extremely comfortable 1950s TranzAlpine rolling-stock has been replaced by new 'AK' panoramic sightseeing stock.  New Zealand railways run on 3ft 6in-guage, so the carriages, rebuilt from older stock, are compact, yet there’s room for two seats each side of a central aisle and more than adequate leg-room.  The rear coach is an enclosed observation car.

In the middle of the rake is a generator car, with viewing platforms at each end for fresh air and photographers.  A further observation platform, with less panoramic views, is built into the end of the baggage car.  As the train approaches the major viaducts these areas become a species of genteel, geriatric cage-fighting.

The on-board team-members are friendly and eager to please, and service is excellent – plenty of food and drink to purchase, pauses for fresh air at major stops and an informative, well-scripted commentary.  (I’m fully tuned to the New Zealand habit of turning most vowels to a short ‘i’, but one young man on the TranzAlpine insisted on turning the ‘i’-vowels to apostrophes, describing the route as the “M’dln’d Line” and referring to “licim’ves” and “trick m’nance crews”.)

The central Christchurch rail terminal, opened in 1960 [], was sold off in the 1980s and demolished after the February 2011 earthquake, and the present rail station for South Island’s largest city is a one-platform affair in an industrial estate, a ten-minute drive from the centre.

My hotel promoted a so-called complimentary station shuttle.  There is no such thing.  Only at the end of the spectacularly relaxed journey out to the train does the driver reveal that it costs NZ$6 to return at the end of the day – the oldest con-trick in transport history.  The alternative taxi no doubt costs more, but nevertheless I didn’t like the feeling of being taken for a ride.

A detailed description of the route and advice about booking the TranzAlpine from outside New Zealand is at

Posted by: mike on Sep 24, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Ultimate Driving Experience, National Tramway Museum

My friend John from the Isle of Man had the time of his life learning to drive a tram at the National Tramway Museum, Crich.

The Ultimate Driving Experience [] was a retirement present from his colleagues.  I had the privilege of being the photographer, which brought with it the challenge of working out how to capture someone driving a moving vehicle fitted with a windscreen.

John was superbly looked after from start to finish by his instructors Nigel and Paul.  Paul is a superlative driving instructor, and Nigel (nominally the conductor) kept us interested and informed and patiently answered our questions throughout the day.

The day starts, over a cup of coffee, with classroom instruction.  John needed to know one end of a tram from the other, as it were, and to be aware of the safety requirements of steering fifteen tons of tram along predestinate grooves.  (Nigel told us that a recent visitor actually asked him how you steer a tram.)

John’s chosen Blackpool tram was in the sick bay, so he was given a huge, bosomy Liverpool “Green Goddess”, a shiny powerful beast that hadn’t been out of the depot for some weeks and took a certain amount of getting going.  At one point we had to call the Crich equivalent of the AA when 869 mysteriously parked itself on the main line and refused to budge.

I was grateful to be allowed to listen in on the entire day so that I learnt a lot that I’d never realised about these ponderous vehicles.

The technology, for instance, is at once simple and complicated;  the machinery is both robust and extremely delicate.  Six hundred volts moving from wire to rail through a wood, steel and glass double-deck vehicle is not to be messed with.  Direct current behaves in a different way to the alternating current we use at home.

If you treat the tram properly, John was told, it’s really quite easy to move;  if you’re uncertain, there can be smoke and bangs and flashes – and you can cause damage that takes time and money to put right.  It very rarely happens.

I learned, watching and listening to Paul’s meticulous instruction and encouragement, that driving a tram is much more about coasting and momentum than I’d imagined.  As with a car, you keep your foot off the throttle as much as you can.

Making it move is one thing;  stopping it is another.  This is why the regular Crich tram-drivers have one or more of seven different licences, largely because of the variety of braking systems in the historic fleet.

We were hospitably received by this exceptionally professional museum – coffee in the morning, lunch, and then more coffee at the end of the day, constant friendly attention, the run of the museum both on foot and in our own big green tram.  We arrived at 10 am and left at 5 pm, and Paul and Nigel showed no haste to see us off.

I know more about trams and Crich than I’d have learned any other way, and – thanks to his former colleagues – John has another skill to add to his CV.

Posted by: mike on Sep 3, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightSheffield's Heritage

Sheffield Cavendish Buildings

It’s remarkable how much built history is literally invisible.

Among John Minnis’ slides when he talked to the Victorian Society South Yorkshire Group about 'Early Automobile Architecture' [see Westminster Coach & Motor Car Works] was one image of my native Sheffield that made me double-take.

John knows Sheffield because he co-authored the Pevsner Architectural Guide on the city.

He pointed out Cavendish Buildings on West Street as an example of an early purpose-built motor-sales and repair shop.  I thought it was a wine-bar, until I remembered that it used to belong to the Kenning Motor Group.  In fact, I once hired a car there.

Cavendish Buildings has a very fine, imposing terra-cotta façade, obviously designed in one piece but actually, by the date-stones on the semi-circular pediments, built in three stages, 1907, 1910 and 1919.

It was built for the Sheffield Motor Company Ltd with, according to Ruth Harman and John Minnis’ guide, showrooms at street level and, on the upper stories, one of those repositories of misspent youth, a billiard hall.

Contributors to the history forum relate that during the Second World War part of the upper level was occupied by the apparently lively Central Labour Working Men's Club, and later the space was used by the Cavendish Dance Studio.

Until at least the 1970s there was a car hoist within the building, presumably serving repair shops on the first floor.  To passers-by, of course, its original use had long been forgotten.

Now you can eat and drink at the Cavendish: – even if you don’t qualify for student ID.

And you can see it in 3D at


Future meetings of the Victorian Society South Yorkshire group are advertised at  Guests are welcome.  The biscuits are excellent.

Posted by: mike on Aug 29, 2011

Category:Transports of delight

Blackpool tram 707

I had occasion to drive the length of the Flyde coast from Fleetwood to Lytham in the summer of 2011, and discovered – as any tram enthusiast could have told me – that major changes were afoot on the Blackpool tramway.

The line from Fleetwood to Little Bispham was in a state of upheaval, and there were no trams south of Pleasure Beach.  The entire line from Starr Gate to Fleetwood was upgraded to a modern light-rail system, with sixteen brand-new low-floor vehicles, built by that great British rolling-stock builder Bombardier, operating out of a brand new depot.  [See and]

That means that the summer of 2011, until the end of the Illuminations on November 6th, was the very last time a public-service tramway will operate in Britain with technology that is essentially Victorian.

Blackpool’s proud history of electric trams back to 1885 encompasses a traditional first-generation tram system which was comprehensively upgraded from 1932 when the transport manager, Walter Luff, introduced a fleet of streamlined luxury vehicles, in four different models, alongside a parallel fleet of streamlined centre-entrance buses.

When all other mainland British electric tramways were replaced by diesel buses after the Second World War, Blackpool still needed the promenade trams because there was no other practicable way of shifting the crowds that visit Blackpool for the Illuminations.

Over decades the system has struggled on, rebuilding 1930s trams in various guises, buying in one-off designs from the local bus manufacturer and patching the track and overhead time and time again.

Eventually, in 2008, a package was agreed between local, national and European authorities to convert the tramway to the standards now familiar in Manchester, Sheffield, Croydon, Nottingham and elsewhere.

In Blackpool the heritage fleet, as it is now called, continues – discreetly modified to comply with the new traffic signalling, operating out of the original depot at Rigby Road.

But when the older cars are trundled out it’s for show.

This was the very last time, after a century and a quarter, that ordinary passengers clambered aboard traditional British tramcars to go to work, to shop or to get home.

In the 1880s the borough first introduced electric trams and electric street lighting:  then and now Blackpool’s civic motto is “Progess”.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Aug 27, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightFun Palaces

Blackpool tram 147

When I last stayed in Blackpool for a birthday celebration we took a walk along the North Pier at dusk.  On the way back to the promenade I ended up in conversation with two siblings, Richard, who was twelve but looked sixteen and had lost a tooth in a rugby match, and Natalie, eighteen, who was about to read medieval history at a university of her choice.

Natalie, who’s grown up down south and whose immediate family usually holidays abroad, was fascinated by the unfamiliarity of being in the great working-class resort of the north-west.  I pointed out that the Tower is a vertical pier – sturdy engineering topped with a fairy-tale structure five hundred feet above the sea.  When it opened in 1894 anybody with a few pence in their pocket could stand nearly five hundred feet in the air, an experience otherwise only accessible by balloon.

When we returned to the promenade a tram glided past, one of those huge double-deckers gleaming with light.  I mentioned that Blackpool had one of the first electric street tramways in the world, dating back to 1885.  At least as important, in historical terms, is the fact that the Corporation tramway department pioneered the development of Blackpool’s greatest stroke of municipal acumen.

To mark a royal visit in 1912, the tramway electricians were asked to festoon the promenade with coloured lamps, which drew so many extra visitors that from 1913 onwards, interrupted only by two wars and the General Strike, the Illuminations, as they were called, extended the Blackpool season by anything up to two months, adding to the prosperity of landladies, hoteliers and shopkeepers, enhancing the profits of the railway companies and subsidising the municipal rates from the increased profits of the trams themselves.

It made practical sense, during the busy summer season, for tram engineers to work on the Illuminations, while all their vehicles were needed on the road, and the autumn visitors kept the trams busy to the end of October.  Eventually, a separate Corporation department was established to run the Illuminations, and until the establishment of the National Grid, Blackpool had to buy additional power from Preston Corporation, because their own generating works couldn’t cope with the extra load.

As I pointed out to Natalie, when people go to see the Blackpool Illuminations, they’re doing something essentially Victorian – admiring electricity.

Details of this year’s Illuminations are at

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 24, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Christchurch tour bus RTL68

I wrote this piece while I was staying in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the week before the February 2011 earthquake.

On my first morning in Christchurch I spotted the familiar and unmistakable shape of a London Transport red double-decker, and booked a tour that afternoon.  My friend Doug, who likes buses, would have been miffed not to ride on the roof-box RTL that I’d seen;  I rode in a common-or-garden Routemaster, but I’m easy to please and a red bus is a red bus.  I’m only concerned that it has a top deck and windows that open in hot weather.

The conductor, for so he called himself though he didn’t ring the bell or shout “Hold tight”, was Paul, who quickly entered my pantheon of tour-guides I wish to emulate.  He was adept at the fortissimo bonhomie required by cruise-groups and loud American ladies who chirp and squawk fit to drown the PA system.  When they stopped talking and listened it was quickly apparent that Paul knew his way round Christchurch, and that his presentation was as sharp as a pin.  He could fill in time when stuck in traffic, yet never missed a cue to point out sites, and if he said look left he meant left not right.

The bus company is aptly named Hassle-free Tours [].  The logo and web-address on the side panels of the Routemaster use the elegant, authentic London Transport Johnston font.  It’s a quality outfit:  the entire fleet runs on biodiesel fuel from restaurant cooking-oil.

As an introduction to Christchurch the itinerary was ideal – a quick spin round the city centre for orientation, a walk in the park to Mona Vale Mansion (designed by Joseph Clarkson Maddison 1899-1900), a walk in another park to Riccarton House (1856 onwards) and the transplanted Deans Cottage, the successive homes of the Deans family who first settled the site of Christchurch, and a look at the Riccarton Bush, a preserved area of the vegetation that filled the Canterbury Plain before the Deans tamed it, now used as a kiwi nursery.

Then the bus headed out of town for an ice-cream at the seaside resort of Sumner – Christchurch’s answer to Bondi Beach (though no-one with sense would surf around Cave Rock).

And then Steve the driver came into his own as the bus crawled up the precipitous road over the Port Hills to the port of Lyttelton, where cruise liners sit alongside the wharves from which west-coast coal is loaded for shipping to China, Japan and South Korea.

There’s no finer introduction to Christchurch and its surroundings than the precipitous ride back over Mount Pleasant Road, savouring the views from the top deck of a vehicle built to chug down Oxford Street, driven with care and precision and much horn-sounding on the hairpin bends by Steve.

Mona Vale Mansion is closed because of earthquake damage for the foreseeable future.

Posted by: mike on Jul 24, 2011

Category:Transports of delight

High Speed Train, Sheffield (1978)

It’s an interesting challenge to name ten modern British designers – almost as difficult as naming ten modern British engineers or, notoriously, ten famous Belgians

One of the greatest modern British designers, still very much alive and working, is Kenneth Grange (b 1929), who is celebrated by an exhibition, ‘Kenneth Grange:  making Britain modern’ at the Design Museum in London until the end of October:

His first major commission was the original British parking-meter, now a rare artefact, in 1958.  He went on to design the Kenwood Chef food-mixer, the Kodak Instamatic camera (1968), the Adshel bus-shelter (1993) – another great British bus-shelter designer was the late David Mellor (1930-2009):  see The genius of the knife, fork and spoon – and an acclaimed new version of the London black taxi (1997).

Kenneth Grange’s own favourite is the biggest of all his designs – the InterCity 125 High Speed Train, introduced by British Railways in the early 1970s.  He didn’t engineer the entire train;  indeed, he was originally commissioned only to design the livery, but as he explained to Rachel Cooke [The Observer, July 17th 2011], “...I decided to have a go at the aerodynamics, testing it in wind tunnels with the help of an engineer I was employing.  I showed it to [the British Railway Board] with some trepidation.  It was a bloody nerve, to be honest...But they weren’t difficult to persuade in the end because the argument was sound:  the design made the train more efficient.”  It’s instructive to compare the prototype – – with Kenneth Grange’s more familiar production model, illustrated above.

Train passengers take the HST for granted:  after all, it’s been around for thirty-five years now, upgraded, re-engined, rebadged, and still going strong.  Some operators have replaced it with newer models, not all of them fully satisfactory, while others have indicated that with further modifications these trains could run until at least 2035 when they will be approaching sixty years old.

The High Speed Train is a credit to British engineering:  the prototype broke the world speed record for diesel traction (143 mph) which is now held by a production-version HST (148 mph).  Introducing the HST to the Western and East Coast main-lines and other routes in the late 1970s and early 1980s significantly increased passenger numbers and pushed up house-prices in such towns as Reading, Swindon, Huntingdon and Peterborough.

The design was exported to Australia as the basis for the XPT train [], introduced in 1982 and still operating on five routes out of Sydney.  It’s oddly reassuring for a Brit to stand on an Australian station platform as one of these instantly recognisable beasts glides in.

Back home, its proudest passenger is its long-lived designer, who continues to travel on HSTs regularly from his home in Devon to work in London.

Update:  Kenneth Grange was awarded a knighthood in the 2013 New Year Honours.

Posted by: mike on Jun 25, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Northern PenninesTransports of delight

Summit Tunnel west portal

One tunnel-mouth looks very much like another – see Trouble at t'summit, O, brave new world, The Flute, No light at the end of the tunnel, Great Central and Slow boat to Cromford – but the stories are different.

The 2,860-yard Summit Tunnel, which takes the Manchester & Leeds Railway through the watershed from the Roch to the Calder valleys was, at the time it opened (1841), the longest railway tunnel in the world.

It was the scene of a particularly spectacular railway accident, even though the derailment took place underground almost exactly a thousand yards from each portal.

On December 20th 1984, a southbound train of petrol tank wagons was derailed by a defective axle-bearing almost at the mid-point of the tunnel.

The three-man crew evacuated to raise the alarm at the nearest telephone outside the south portal.  This meant walking or running along railway sleepers in the dark for something like three-quarters of a mile.

Under fire-service protection, they re-entered the tunnel, where the tankers were already ablaze, and with some difficulty detached the first three wagons which were still on the rails and drew them out of the tunnel.

The remaining ten wagons blazed on, and two of them melted.  Vapour flew up two of the tunnel ventilation shafts at speeds estimated at 110mph, bursting into flames 150 feet high in the open air.

Seventy local people were evacuated as a precaution, but no-one – train-crews, firefighters or members of the public – was injured in any way.  It was a remarkable emergency operation.

The tunnel was too hot to enter until December 27th;  the fire brigades eventually handed it back to British Rail on January 3rd.  Train services through the tunnel resumed on August 19th 1985.

Alongside the bravery and expertise of the fire and police officers at the scene, the sang-froid of the railwaymen is impressive.  They had to unhitch tankers full of petrol from other tankers well ablaze, reversing the diesel locomotive to push back and unhook the couplings.  Then they drove out of the tunnel into the dark night.

The Department of Transport report [] states that later the same night "after inspection this part of the train went forward to its destination".

That's cool.

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Waterways & Railways across the Northern Pennines tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jun 19, 2011

Category:Transports of delightManx Heritage

Douglas IOM Derby Castle

Derby Castle horse-tram terminus trackwork, Douglas, Isle of Man

In the Isle of Man, if something works it doesn't need fixing.  That's why the island is a treasure-house of Victorian transport.  Eventually, though, even the simplest engineering wears out.

So Douglas Corporation, confronting its decaying promenade road-surface, has to make a decision about its unique horse-tram service.  Like-for-like replacement of the present double track is estimated at between £3 and £4½ million.

2010 passenger figures for the summer-season service are up slightly over the previous year at 54,286.  Last year's annual loss is similarly down slightly to £207,700.  In 1938 the horse trams carried 2¾ million passengers and contributed to the transport department's clear profit of nearly £10,000 (over £350,000 at current values).  As late as 1955 they still carried 1½ million people.

The tramway dates back to 1876, when it was built by Thomas Lightfoot, who moved to the island after inaugurating Sheffield's horse trams.  The Douglas horse tramway survived because the seafront hoteliers objected to overhead electric wires in front of their premises.

Because there's an efficient, faster bus service alongside the horse trams they are in effect a tourist ride.  The £3.00 flat fare means that nobody in their right mind uses them to travel a few stops.  Their only practical use is to travel from the Sea Terminal to the Derby Castle terminus of the Manx Electric Railway.

Alternative plans being discussed include building a replacement track for the horse-trams on the broad pedestrian seaward side of the promenade, segregating them from motor traffic.  Whether this would result in fewer or more collisions on the promenade is open to question:  the trams would no longer provide an obstruction, enabling the boy racers to accelerate.

Deciding to get rid of horse trams is a decision most towns made 120 years ago.  Maybe the 1890s proposal to electrify the line as a continuation of the Manx Electric Railway and to extend it to the railway station is worth looking at.  Not only would it integrate the three rail systems and delight enthusiasts, but it would still allow the horses and horse-trams to survive as a heritage feature.

This worked well in San Francisco, where the temporary suspension of the cable-car service in effect saved the surviving electric streetcars [See Streetcar Survivors].

Indeed, a 2013 proposal specified that the relocated single-and-passing-loops horse-tram track should be designed to carry Manx Electric "or more modern rolling stock":

There are detailed instructions for catching a Douglas horse tram (and for patting the horse) at  Further information about the Douglas horse tramway can be found at

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a visit to the Douglas Corporation tram-depot at Derby Castle and, of course, a ride on a horse tram.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 16, 2011

Category:Transports of delightExploring California

San Francisco streetcar 1055

San Francisco's historic streetcars, which ply between Castro and Fisherman's Wharf along Market Street and the Embarcadero, are an ironic survival.

Most San Francisco streetcar lines gave place to trolleybuses and motor buses after the Second World War.  A small number of routes survived because they used tunnels that couldn't be adapted to non-guided vehicles.  By 1982 the transport authority, Muni, converted the remaining streetcar routes to light-rail and built a twin-level subway along Market Street with light-rail on the upper deck and the inter-bay, heavy-rail BART line below.

In that same year, the utterly worn-out cable-car system shut down for complete rebuilding over a two-year period.  In an attempt to maintain tourist interest, Muni, in conjunction with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, ran some of the surviving streetcars along the Market Street surface tracks as a summertime tourist attraction.

These Historic Trolley Festivals were so successful that they were retained after the cable-cars returned in 1984, and from 1987 the Market Street lines were relaid and a fresh fleet bought second-hand from Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey.

When the Embarcadero Freeway was demolished after the 1989 earthquake, opening up the harbour piers to the city centre, streetcar tracks were laid all the way from the Ferry Terminal, the focal point of the original cable-car and streetcar systems, past Pier 39 to Fisherman's Wharf.

The current F-Market & Wharves line is a fully functioning component of the city's public transport, serving the suburb of Castro as well as the tourist honeypots downtown.  There are plans to add a further E-Embarcadero line south from the Ferry Terminal and west beyond Fisherman's Wharf.

Most of the vehicles are the ubiquitous PCC cars, designed in the early 1930s and mass-produced until the 1950s, spacious, comfortable cars with impressive acceleration, painted in liveries from a range of American cities.  There are also some older vehicles, Peter Witt cars, originally designed for Cleveland and successfully exported to Europe.  These exceptionally noisy vehicles are from Milan, and still contain charming Italian notices inside – Vietato fumare, Vietato sputare, Uscita.  And, on special occasions, a historic fleet is wheeled out, including a 1934 Blackpool open "Boat" tram.

It's ironic that, while San Francisco's two successive light-rail fleets have been plagued by technical faults and remain far from popular with passengers, the seventy-year-old PCC cars and their older Peter Witt cousins trundle back and forth smoothly, fairly quietly and efficiently.

For practical information about the F-Market & Wharves streetcar service, see, or to indulge your inner anorak look up the cars at  The latter site belongs to the San Francisco Railway Museum, which is about streetcars, not railways, and is to all practical purposes a shop:

Posted by: mike on Jun 14, 2011

Category:Transports of delightExploring California

San Francisco cable car 6

San Francisco is the city where "cable cars climb halfway to the stars", and if you stand in the right place at night, they really do.

That the cable cars are indelibly linked with the visitor's image of San Francisco is the cause of, but not the reason for, their survival.

The very first cable-hauled streetcars in the world, they were developed by a wire-rope manufacturer, Andrew Smith Hallidie (1836-1900), as an alternative to the inefficient and cruel horse-drawn streetcars that simply couldn't cope with the city's precipitous inclines.  His first line, on Clay Street, opened in 1873.  On the first run, the original gripman, a steam-locomotive driver (or – in American English – engineer) called Hewitt, lost his nerve at the brow of the hill, and resigned on the spot:  the first car was driven by Hallidie himself.

By 1894, 103 miles of cable-car track were in operation with a combined fleet of about five hundred cars.  In the recovery from the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire, several cable-car lines were converted to electric operation.  Even so, electric streetcars were unequal to the 10% grades that cable-cars took in their slow but inexorable stride.  Only rubber-tyred trolleybuses eventually stood a chance of competing.

After the Second World War city politicians, supported by a powerful lobby of oil, rubber and motor-vehicle interests, aimed to close down the five surviving lines, but were ultimately defeated by the sheer weight of public-opinion.  In 1956 three remaining routes, comprising nine track-miles, gained legal protection by popular demand.  The system was designated a National Landmark in November 1964, and when it finally wore out was completely rebuilt in 1982-4.

To a modern eye the cars look absurd, but when you climb aboard they immediately make sense.  Because they attach to an underground cable running at a constant speed of 9½ miles per hour, they tackle the steepest inclines with as much equanimity as dead level, and crawl downgrade as steadily.

Riding the cable cars is an experience for the early morning:  after about 9.30am the crush is such that all you see sitting inside is buttocks.  Outside your view is often blocked by passengers standing on the running board.

There is a practical alternative to being crushed on a cable car.  San Francisco is festooned with trolleybus routes, operated by surprisingly noisy single-deck vehicles, some of them articulated.  They're spacious, speedy, and effective as urban transport.  I learned years ago, when I bought a plastic salad spinner to dry lettuce, that the moaning sound I remember Sheffield trams making when I was a kid, which is also distinctive of the London Underground, is not in fact the electric motors but the gears.

The single-deck San Francisco trolleybuses, with their long trolley booms, also make a distinctive slapping noise overhead as they progress through junctions.  They're nowhere near as noisy as the cable cars, though.  And totally clean, unlike their diesel cousins.

$29 buys a seven-day Muni Passport (or $23 for three days, $15 for one – prices from January 1st 2014) – a real bargain giving access to cable-cars, streetcars, Muni Metro light-rapid transit, trolleybuses and motor buses across the city area.  They're not valid on BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] or airport shuttles.  See for further details.

Posted by: mike on May 27, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Northern PenninesTransports of delight

Leeds & Liverpool Canal Foulridge Tunnel

When I gave a lecture recently to the Driffield Wolds Decorative & Fine Arts Society [], I met Ian Toon, who was about to canoe the Yorkshire length of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal from Foulridge Tunnel down to Leeds.  I was impressed.

I can see that canoeing a canal is an excellent way to see every yard of waterway at close quarters, and to enjoy the wildlife as well as the history.  How much of the scenery you see from water level is another question, but it's an experience most of us will miss.

Foulridge (usually pronounced "Foalridge") is a good place to start an exploration in either direction, by canoe, by narrow boat or on foot, because it's downhill all the way in either direction.  It's also a relevant place to consider the dilemmas the original canal surveyors faced as they plotted their routes across the Pennine hills.

The traditional, James Brindley solution was to hug the contours regardless of the distance:  this is what the Leeds & Liverpool Canal does, and it's 127¼ miles long with two tunnels.  The alternative was to save mileage with a tunnel:  the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, highest in England at 684 feet above sea level, punches the three-mile Standedge Tunnel through the hillside;  it's not quite twenty miles long, but it took seventeen years to complete.  The Rochdale Canal, 33 miles long, has no tunnel, was finished in ten years, and was bedevilled by water-supply problems.

There was a major argument when the Leeds & Liverpool Canal was under construction about whether it would be cheaper to tunnel at Foulridge, or to carry the canal higher and increase the mileage further.  The engineer, Robert Whitworth, airily declared that building Foulridge Tunnel would be "a small affair...compared with what has been done in other canals".

In fact, it took five years, 1791-6.  It proved a liability when the lining failed in 1824 and again in 1843, and there were such difficulties in between those dates that the canal company engineer, Samuel Fletcher, estimated it would cost £23,000 to open it out as a cutting.  In the end, the tunnel was repaired, and it's been kept in repair ever since.

The main problem on the Leeds & Liverpool is and remains, ironically, water supply:  for much of the nineteenth century the company kept building additional reservoirs, the last in 1893.  As recently as 2010 the upper stretch of the canal was closed for lack of water.

Hindsight is easy, of course:  it was a different matter for an eighteenth-century engineer staring at a hillside without so much as an Ordnance Survey map and deciding the best strategy.  All three canals did their job, and the Leeds & Liverpool maintained traffic against rail competition until the early twentieth century and has always remained navigable.  The other two trans-Pennine canals are once again navigable, despite decades of neglect [see The return of the Ring and Longest, highest, deepest].

Now you can walk, cycle, canoe or sail along these waterways with relative ease.

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Waterways & Railways across the Northern Pennines tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 16, 2011

Category:Transports of delight

Woodhead (1975)

Woodhead station and tunnel (1975)

I was born in 1947, and so grew up in a particularly special transition period in British history.

As part of the post-war recovery, many aspects of 1930s life simply continued in the late forties and fifties:  factories and coal-mines churned out their products;  people shopped at Woolworth's and Burton's and collected their "divvy" at the Co-op;  cinemas had one screen each and a queue outside twice nightly if not more;  British cars were built with British badges;  British Railways ran trains just about everywhere and served curly sandwiches in buffets with crockery and silverware;  radio announcers talked in clipped accents.

And yet, on the horizon a brave new world could be glimpsed – supermarkets, motorways, television, high-rise buildings, nuclear energy.  It was a moment when so much was about to disappear, and so much that was new was understood dimly and with optimism.

It came back to life for me when I was browsing through the British Pathé website and came across a clip of the opening of the electric railway from Sheffield to Manchester through the new Woodhead Tunnel:  This was the brief moment when post-war British railways seemed to have a future that was directly connected with their Victorian origins.

The original Woodhead tunnels were a saga of Victorian engineering, notorious for appalling working conditions and the contractors' bloody-minded exploitation of their workers, vividly described in Terry Coleman's 1968 book, The Railway Navvies, now long out of print.  54 workers lost their lives, and many more were injured.

The gradients were a nightmare:  up to five steam locomotives were needed to shift a single coal train up the 1 in 201 inclines.  Electrifying the route required a completely new Woodhead tunnel, which opened in 1953.  This project had started before the Second World War, using 1,500-volt DC traction, which was incompatible with the post-war standard 25KV AC system.

Once the new trains were running, the two original single-track tunnels, Woodhead 1 and 2, were handed over to the Central Electricity Generating Board to carry a 400KV power-cable underground, rather than disfigure the landscape with pylons.

The Manchester-Sheffield-Wath electrification, as it was called, closed in 1981.  The 1953 tunnel, Woodhead 3, figured in schemes, most of them barely practical, to carry the M67 motorway across Woodhead:  see

In recent years National Grid PLC has expressed increasing concern about the deteriorating condition of Woodhead 1 and 2, and lobbied to be allowed to move the power line into Woodhead 3.  This precludes the restoration of the rail route for the foreseeable future, and has attracted considerable opposition:

No doubt, the arguments will continue to roll back and forth about whether a tunnel, constructed to carry electric trains "under the hill", as the railwaymen called it, should carry cars or a power line – or trains.

The brave new world of 1953 was remarkably quickly shunted into a siding and scrapped.

Posted by: mike on May 14, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Monsal Dale Viaduct & Headstones Tunnel

Monsal Dale Viaduct & Headstones Tunnel, Midland Railway Rowsley & Buxton Extension (1970)

My friend Richard is a serious walker.  He doesn't think twice about twenty-five miles in a day, and goes walking with people who'll tackle the West Highland Way (94 miles) carrying their own rucksacks.

So a walk along the Derbyshire Monsal Trail [see Changing trains in the middle of nowhere: Miller's Dale Station] counts as a gentle stroll.  This is the former railway line between Derby and Manchester that has so many tunnels the railwaymen called it "the flute".

Richard told me that as he walked across Monsal Dale Viaduct on a hot day in a T-shirt recently he was suddenly confronted with a blast of cold air.

This turned out to be the draught from Headstones Tunnel, which for years has been bricked up with a locked steel door for inspection parties.  Now the tunnel mouth is open again, and work proceeds to make it accessible to walkers, complete with lighting.

This welcome development is flagged on the Peak District National Park website:

One might ask, what happened to the proposal to reinstate the railway line from Matlock to Buxton, which at present stops at the PeakRail terminus at Rowsley [see Rails across the Peak].  The most probable answer is not that there's a bridge missing across the A6 road at Rowsley, but that there's a problem a little further west.

UPDATE:  Richard told me (riding through another railway tunnel on a train, on our way to a Friday night at Anoki [see Cosy Curry]) that the Monsal Trail tunnels are now open:

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire Peak tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 4, 2011

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Isle of Man Railway Port St Mary

My Isle of Man host John and I watched the Royal Wedding, toasted the happy couple in Sauvignon Blanc (because the island – or at least the island's co-op – had apparently run out of champagne) and wondered what else to do for the afternoon, rather than watch Huw Edwards busking while waiting for something to happen.

We caught the steam train one stop, from Port St Mary to the end of the line at Port Erin, and went for tea at the utterly seaside Cosy Nook Café [], walked back up the hill and took the same train back an hour later.  For £4.00 return, rather than £3.20 on the bus.

It is of course a delight to travel, even for a few minutes, in a wooden railway compartment with windows that let down on leather straps.

Even more, it's satisfying to be able to use a Victorian heritage line as practical transport.

As we watched the red locomotive and carriages chug off towards Douglas, I remarked that this railway wasn't designed to be cute.

When it opened in the 1870s this was practical modern transport, scaled down to the geography of the island.  It opened up towns like Port St Mary and Port Erin, and enabled people to travel across the island quickly and relatively cheaply for the first time.

The system of four lines, run by two companies, survived because it worked, and because the manager between the wars surreptitiously subsidised the steam trains from the revenues of the bus routes.

The routes to Peel and Ramsey eventually expired in the 1960s, and the remaining Douglas-Port Erin line was in effect nationalised in 1977.

It's now heavily marketed as a tourist attraction, which rivals the bus-service in speed though not in frequency.  When the TT annually blocks the island's road-system, it provides a much-needed commuter service.

Meanwhile the Peel and Ramsey trackbeds remain substantially intact as footpaths [see Walking the Manx Northern Railway].

Details of the Isle of Man Railway services appear at

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a workshop tour of the Isle of Man Railway as well as journeys along the line to Castletown and Port Erin.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 18, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Totley Tunnel west portal

Even if they're not the slightest bit interested in trains, few visitors to the Grindleford Station café [see No mushrooms – ever] can resist peering down from the station bridge at the western portal of Totley Tunnel and reading from the signs that it's 6,230 yards long and was built in 1893.  It was in fact the second longest railway tunnel in the UK until the construction of High Speed 1.

Even if you go down to the station platform and walk to the end, it's not possible to see light at the other end of the tunnel.

This is because not only is there a slight curve at the Grindleford end, but there's also a summit in the middle.  In the days of steam and loose-coupled freight trains this presented a considerable challenge.  Running a heavy coal-train north from Derbyshire, up the Hope Valley towards Manchester with controllable brakes only on the locomotive and the rear brake-van required skill and nerve.

When I first taught adult-education classes in transport history in the 1970s they repeatedly attracted retired locomen who explained the practicalities of train-driving with old technology.

The risk bringing the train down the grade in Bradway Tunnel from Chesterfield was that the loose-coupled loaded coal wagons would simply push the locomotive faster.  At the north end of Bradway Tunnel is a tight curve, with another short tunnel, that cannot be taken at speed.

Once past the curve and through Dore & Totley West Junction, the approach to Totley Tunnel is a sudden steep uphill gradient, and the weight of the wagons dragged the locomotive as it charged forwards at gradients of 1 in 100, 1 in 176 and then 1 in 150 – significantly steep for steam power.

Inside the tunnel, you can't see.  But there comes a point where the track levels and then dips downhill at 1 in 1,000.  You knew that was happening because the wagons would begin to bash together on their chain couplings pushing the loco as it headed towards the curve at the Grindleford end and, all too suddenly, the light at the end of the tunnel would appear.

This isn't such a problem with modern traction, so I'm told.  A nudge of a control handle activates the brakes on every wheel of the train.  It's all too easy to be nostalgic about the age of steam.

Posted by: mike on Apr 16, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Grindleford Station

One of the finest, and simplest, eating experiences in Derbyshire is the full breakfast at the Grindleford Station Café.

Grindleford is the first station westwards on the Hope Valley Line, which carries passenger services between Sheffield and Manchester.  This line between Dore and Chinley was a late link in the Midland Railway network, opened in 1894.  The station building, like others on the line, is a standard design, built in timber with stone footings and chimneys.

Its interior has been altered, and for well over thirty years it has housed one of the truly great hikers' pit-stops.  Whether you walk, cycle, motor-cycle or drive it's a rest-and-be-thankful port-in-a-storm.  You can of course reach it by train with no more effort than walking the ramp up from the platform to the bridge;  if you're really decadent you can arrive by car.  (The station is a mile north of the village of Grindleford, on the B6521 road to Fox House.)

It was founded and driven by Philip Eastwood, a man who affected a truculence which would have been noticeable in the grumpiest eateries of Lower Manhattan.  His notices are legendary:  "Don't even think of asking for mushrooms", "Unaccompanied children will be sold into slavery", "This is a serving hatch, not a gawping hatch" and "If you want to be a fire guard, join the fire brigade".

Inevitably, some innocent customers took exception to this, but astute reviewers recognise that nobody builds a successful business by hating customers.  Review comments on describe the service as "charmingly grumpy", "curt but helpful", "so awful it was wonderful".  The place is so special its Wikipedia entry contains irony:

Philip Eastwood Snr died in 2007 at the age of 63, dancing at a party, and his son, also Philip, then aged nineteen, promptly gave up his business-management degree-course and his plans for an athletic career to take on the family legacy, much to the relief of the rambling community.

The café continues, and Philip Jnr has added to the notices, but long-standing visitors will sense that the new management has a gentler temperament, and some of the heart has gone out of the truculence.  A Sheffield Telegraph writer ['Station café still on track', January 13th 2009] even spotted one that ended with the words "Thank you".

For cholesterol-on-a-plate breakfasts and lunches with chips piled high there is nowhere finer anywhere in the Peak District.  Don't use the loo without making a purchase, and if you want to check if the hair-dryer's still working, ask for mushrooms.

Posted by: mike on Apr 10, 2011

Category:Transports of delight

Loughborough Central Station (1977)

Loughborough Central Station (1977)

Though the Great Central main line was eliminated by Dr Beeching's programme of rationalisation in the 1960s it is still possible to travel extensive stretches of the route between Nottingham and Leicester, thanks to the efforts of a team of volunteers who have worked to reinstate the railway since the final British Railways closure in 1969.

At the moment there are two Great Central preservation lines, the Great Central Railway PLC running for 7¾ miles from Loughborough Central station to the outskirts of Leicester, and Great Central Railway (Nottingham) Ltd, currently operating a ten-mile stretch between Ruddington and Rushcliffe Halt at East Leake.

In between there is The Gap.  Even though the southern project was under way in the early  1970s, British Rail severed the line north of Loughborough Central in 1980, removing the bridge over the Midland Main Line.  Reinstating The Gap, as it's called by GCR and GCR(N) members, will be a significant challenge, costing £15 million to reinstate 500 metres of railway.  Once it's accomplished the two railways intend to merge and operate as an eighteen-mile main line railway.

Much of the route is double track – unique among British preserved railways and entirely appropriate to the generous layout of the last main line to London.  The energy for this expensive development was driven by David Clarke (1929-2002), a major benefactor with a particular enthusiasm for railway signalling, who wanted to preserve the techniques of main-line signalling in a way that more limited preserved lines could not achieve.

With authentic main-line signalling it is possible for steam trains to operate and pass each other at speeds up to 45 mph, while on most single-track preserved lines there is a maximum speed-limit of 25 mph and trains in opposing directions have to stop at passing loops.

Other exciting projects in development include a one-mile extension from Leicester North station (built near the site of the vandalised original, Belgrave & Birstall) south to Leicester Abbey, the location of the city's industrial museum and space-centre, and an extension north to meet the proposed Line 2 of Nottingham Express Transit [see].

When the members of these two ambitious lines have bridged The Gap, they deserve to rename their project the Great Great Central Railway.

Websites for the various components of the future Great Great Central are,,, (soon to be superseded when the current Great Central (Link) Ltd hands over to GCR Development Ltd) and  A presentation about 'Bridging the Gap' can be found at

Posted by: mike on Apr 8, 2011

Category:Transports of delight

Charwelton Tunnel (1984)

Great Central Railway, Catesby Tunnel looking north (1984)

The planning process for High Speed 2, the rail link from London north to Manchester and Leeds, is crawling inexorably forward, creating controversy in the conservation community and for Conservative MPs whose constituencies lie in its path.

A recent edition of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Building magazine, Cornerstone (Vol 31, No 4, 2010), likened the new line to the Iron Curtain, declaring that in bridging the North-South divide its path would split "East Britain from West".

When it comes to the crunch, we all have a hidden Nimby [Not in my back yard] and nobody takes kindly to reductions in the value and amenity of their home and their community.

It's noticeable that the proposed alignments make little use of the long abandoned route of the former Great Central Railway as a means of threading High Speed 2 through the environmentally and politically sensitive areas of the Home Counties.

The Great Central was the brainchild of a remarkable Victorian businessman, Sir Edward Watkin (1819-1901).  He was general manager (1854-1862) and chairman (1864-1894) of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, known to its despairing passengers as "Mucky, Slow & Late" and to its shareholders as "Money Sunk & Lost".  He also had interests in the Metropolitan Railway, the East London Railway that ran through the Brunels' Thames Tunnel, the South Eastern & Chatham Railway, the Submarine Continental Railway, promoted in 1881 with capital of £250,000 to build the Channel Tunnel, and the Chemin de Fer du Nord running from Calais to Paris.

His folie de grandeur was to turn the MS&L, a provincial line running east-west between Grimsby and Manchester, into the last main line to London, running 94 miles from Annesley Junction in Nottinghamshire by way of the Metropolitan Railway to a purpose-built terminus at Marylebone, passing through Nottingham, Leicester, Rugby and nowhere else of any importance.  Renamed Great Central in 1897, it cost £11½ million:  wits declared that money sunk and lost was "Gone Completely".  It opened with no fanfare in 1899.

Its engineering was the steam-age equivalent of High Speed 2.  No curve was sharper than a one-mile radius and huge cuttings and embankments kept the gradients under 6%.  All the intermediate stations were built on island platforms with space for future quadrupling of the tracks.  The Marylebone terminus included spare land for additional platforms.  Overbridges, tunnels and station platforms were designed to continental loading-gauge to allow through running of European rolling stock if the Victorian Channel Tunnel had ever been built.

Watkin's dream, of direct train services between Manchester and Paris via Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, the Thames Tunnel and a yet unbuilt Channel Tunnel, evaporated.  The entire line south of Sheffield and north of Aylesbury was closed in the 1960s, though much of the trackbed south of Leicester remains derelict but intact.

No doubt there are weighty practical reasons why high-speed trains can't simply be sent up the old Great Central.  It's ironic that Watkin's visions (which also included a version of the Eiffel Tower started, but later scrapped, on the site that became Wembley Stadium) were so prescient, yet bore fruit in ways he'd have found hard to recognise.

To gain an idea of what is left of the Great Central route from Leicester southwards, see  Better illustrations of Catesby Tunnel than the hand-held, daylit shot-in-the-dark above are at, along with John Quick's article at which indicates that a proposal to route one track of High Speed 2 through Catesby Tunnel alongside a new parallel bore was considered and rejected.

What was built of the Submarine Continental Railway Company's 1880 Channel Tunnel is illustrated at

Posted by: mike on Mar 24, 2011

Category:Transports of delightHumber Heritage

New Holland Pier (1981)

New Holland Pier Station (1981)

When I was an undergraduate at Hull University in the late 1960s, one of our innocent pleasures was to catch the Humber ferry from Hull Corporation Pier to ride across to New Holland and back.  The boats in those days were still, literally, paddle-steamers, Wingfield Castle and Tattershall Castle (both 1934) and Lincoln Castle (1940) [see Paddle-steamer for sale].  The bar was customarily open once the vessel had left dry land.

The only time I ever set foot on New Holland Pier was a week before the ferry-service ended in 1981.  Here there was a rail service south to Grimsby to join the main railway network.  The New Holland ferry started out in the early nineteenth century as a legally dubious operation, named after Holland's Gin.  Its latter-day function was as an extension of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway (later the Great Central Railway and latterly the LNER and, of course, British Railways).  It was eventually superseded by the opening of the Humber Bridge.

The informative and well-illustrated Disused Stations website [] tells me that the New Holland Pier and its rail-connection still survive as a grain and animal-feed terminal.  Passenger rail services continue between Cleethorpes and Barton-on-Humber.

There is also an intriguing parliamentary service that runs three times a week between Cleethorpes and Sheffield via Gainsborough Central.  Parliamentary trains were originally a bottom-of-the-range penny-a-mile compulsory service intended by the so-called "Gladstone Act" of 1845 to guarantee cheap travel and encourage mobility of labour.  They were satirised by W S Gilbert in The Mikado:

The idiot who, in railway carriages,
Scribbles on window-panes
We only suffer
To ride on a buffer
On Parliamentary trains.

Nowadays they are a device which allows railway operators to pretend to provide a service over lines that they no longer wish to operate without going through the cumbersome procedure of legal abandonment.

By modern standards, this parliamentary service is actually quite good:  parliamentary trains in other parts of Britain run once a week, often in one direction only.  Details, some of which may be out of date, can be found at

An article in the Birmingham Press (February 4th 2011) illustrates the reasons for maintaining – at some expense – stations and routes that have little current practical purpose:

Posted by: mike on Mar 16, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Cromford Canal Butterley Tunnel west portal (1963)

Cromford Canal, Butterley Tunnel west portal (1963)

The history of inland waterways in Britain has gained a fresh chapter within the past generation.  When the author Tom Rolt (1910-1974) struggled to navigate silted and derelict waterways before and after the Second World War in his narrow boat Cressy it seemed inevitable that water transport had at best a minimal place in the future economy.

Not least through the campaigning energy of Rolt and his quarrelsome colleagues who founded the Inland Waterways Association, political momentum built up, first to save barely navigable waterways from destruction and ultimately to resuscitate canals that were thought irretrievably lost – among them, the Rochdale, the Huddersfield Narrow, the Chesterfield, the Hereford & Worcester, the Lancaster, the Manchester, Bolton & Bury and the Montgomery.  Now canals that were proposed over two centuries ago and never built – such as the link between the Sheffield and Chesterfield Canals – are seriously discussed –

There is clearly much more to this than air-headed enthusiasm.  The growth of leisure boating (of which Tom Rolt was a famous pioneer), the real-estate possibilities of waterside property and the recognition that waterways are an amenity not an eyesore have led to an environmental revolution.

My first personal experience of inland waterways was exploring the Cromford Canal in Derbyshire in the early 1960s, just as its course was repeatedly broken up by mining subsidence, opencasting, road upgrading and industrial development.

Fifty years later, the upper five miles from Ambergate to Cromford is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI] while the bottom three miles from Ironville to Langley Mill has been completely obliterated by opencast mining.  In between, the obstructions include industrial installations, at least one bungalow and a major trunk road.

Repeated collapses within the Butterley Tunnel put paid to through traffic as far back as 1900 and provided easy justification for abandoning this particularly scenic waterway.  In fact, now that coal mining has ceased in the area, the tunnel appears to be stable, and an intrepid canoeist, Robin Witter, surveyed a substantial length of it in 1979.  His images are available at  The Wikipedia entry on the Butterley Tunnel indicates that a further exploration by Tina Cordon took place in 2006 [].

It's no longer facile to suggest the restoration of long-vanished canals.  There are now sufficient examples of resurrected waterways to provide economic and amenity arguments for schemes that in Rolt's time seemed utterly impractical.

In each case, it won't happen quickly, but that doesn't mean it won't happen.

For more information see the website of the Waterway Recovery Group –

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire Peak tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Mar 3, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Northern PenninesTransports of delight

Wensleydale Railway

The Wensleydale Railway [] at present is, in essence, a seventeen-mile railway siding through some of the most attractive landscape in Yorkshire.  Its staple rolling stock consists of those wonderful 1950s diesel railcars when you can sit at the front looking over the driver's shoulder at the track ahead.  It potters through stations serving the towns and villages of the eastern end of Wensleydale – Bedale, Finghall, Leyburn.  It has really exciting potential, and a hard-headed management team that shows every sign of achieving its targets.

The line served as a link between the East Coast Main Line near Northallerton and the Settle & Carlisle Railway at Garsdale.  Opened in stages between 1848 and 1878, the section east of Hawes was owned by the North Eastern Railway;  west of Hawes belonged to the Midland Railway but the through service was operated by the North Eastern.  The stretch west of Redmire was dismantled after 1964, while the line east remained in use for quarry traffic until 1992.

In response to the imminent threat of final closure, the Wensleydale Railway Association was formed in 1990, initially committed to restoring environment-friendly passenger transport to the towns and villages of the dale and – given the assurance that the long-threatened Settle & Carlisle would after all remain open – ultimately dedicated to the long-term reinstatement of the whole line.

Assisted by a Ministry of Defence undertaking to use the line to transport military vehicles from Catterick, the Association agreed terms with Network Rail to lease the existing track and reopened passenger services between Leeming Bar and Leyburn in 2003.  The service was extended to Redmire the following year.

Though the line uses historic rolling stock, including on occasions steam haulage, it is not so much an exhibition line as a serious transport route.  Its administration is committed to hastening slowly, first upgrading the well-used existing track, next reinstating a link into Northallerton [] and then extending from Redmire to the popular tourist destinations of Castle Bolton and Aysgarth Falls [].  The more ambitious project to restore the missing link to Hawes and Garsdale – which requires repurchasing land, rebuilding bridges and in effect constructing a new railway – must wait.  Earning revenue by providing a service comes first.

For the moment, this admirable line provides an enjoyable outing between Leeming Bar, just off the A1, to Redmire, linking with a vintage single-deck bus service to and from Ripon, calling at Jervaulx Abbey, Castle Bolton and Aysgarth Falls.

One day, it will be possible once more to make a round trip along the East Coast Main Line, the Wensleydale Railway and the southern part of the Settle & Carlisle.  Serving that traffic will need more than a couple of diesel railcars.

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Waterways & Railways across the Northern Pennines tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Mar 1, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Northern PenninesTransports of delight

Keighley & Worth Valley Railway (1975)

Keighley & Worth Valley Railway:  outside Keighley Station (1975)

Among the preserved steam railways of Great Britain, the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway [] was notably quick off the mark.

British Railways closed the branch from Keighley to Oxenhope in 1962, the year before the publication of the Beeching Report, and the Keighley & Worth Valley Preservation Society had the line running again by 1968, the year that steam traction finally disappeared from main line British railways.  (For comparison, the narrow-gauge Talyllyn Railway opened in 1951;  the standard-gauge Bluebell Railway in Sussex opened in 1960.)

As a result the K&WVR remains the only British heritage railway that operates a branch line in its entirety, and in its relatively short five-mile length it offers the traveller connection from the main line at Keighley, two tunnels, a significant viaduct and a succession of stations with attractions of ranging from rolling-stock displays to tearooms.  The penultimate station on the ride up to Oxenhope is Haworth, the key location in understanding the writings and personalities of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne.  (Their brother Branwell was, briefly, a ticket clerk at Luddendenfoot station on the Manchester & Leeds Railway:  he was not a success.)

The line also benefitted, both financially and in terms of publicity, as the location for the Lionel Jeffries' 1970 film The Railway Children and John Schlesinger's 1979 film Yanks.

One of its other proud claims to fame is that it is the only railway that serves real ale in its buffet car.  The railway's real-ale festivals are, by all accounts, jolly affairs.

This branch, opened in 1867 and operated from the outset by the Midland Railway, was not the only railway in the valley.  The rival Great Northern Railway reached Keighley in 1882 by a contorted system connecting Bradford, Halifax and Keighley linked by an unusual triangular station at Queensbury.  The Queensbury-Keighley route trailed into the Worth valley through the 1,533-yard Lees Moor Tunnel, built on a ninety-degree curve that was no fun to drive a steam loco through.  Almost all of this improbable network has disappeared and can be best explored at  Lees Moor Tunnel became, of all things, a caravan park:

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Waterways & Railways across the Northern Pennines tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Feb 27, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Northern PenninesTransports of delight

Bingley Five Rise

The Leeds & Liverpool Canal, begun in 1770, climbs the valley of the Yorkshire Aire on its way to the watershed leading to Lancashire.  As you walk up the towpath through Bingley you encounter one of the 91 locks, then a staircase of three, the Bingley Three Rise, and then a further staircase of five, the Bingley Five Rise.

This magnificent piece of engineering was one of the wonders of England when it opened to traffic in 1774.  Thirty thousand people came to see the first boats along the canal, and the Leeds Intelligencer reported –

This joyful and much wished for event was welcomed with the ringing of Bingley bells, a band of music, the firing of guns by the neighbouring Militia, the shouts of spectators, and all the marks of satisfaction that so important an acquisition merits.

The first journey down the Five Rise, a fall of 59 feet 2 inches, took 28 minutes.

The Five Rise is a staircase, which means the bottom gate of the top lock serves as the top gate of the next lock down:  once a boat starts to ascend or descend it has to keep going to the level pound at the end.  Now that the traffic consists entirely of leisure cruising a professional lock-keeper supervises all transits:  his name is Barry Whitelock, a man so celebrated that he was awarded an MBE for services to inland waterways in the North of England.

This is an excellent spot for the spectator sport of gongoozling:  gongoozler is the boatman's term for people who stand and stare at other people working hard. [See the completely straight-faced entry at]

The Five Rise is also a place to contemplate the energy and pride of the eighteenth-century canal builders, hoisting the country into the industrial age.  Take a look at the impeccable stonework, the robustness of the gates and paddles, and the utterly straightforward management of water under gravity.  It's not actually true to say they don't make them like that any more:  the moving parts were renewed as recently as 2006.

To see the stretch of canal before and after the Five Rise, go to

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Waterways & Railways across the Northern Pennines tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Feb 9, 2011

Category:Transports of delight

Harrogate Stray

One of the glories of Harrogate is The Stray, over two hundred acres of green space set aside by the Forest of Knaresborough Enclosure Act of 1780 so that the area "would for ever hereafter remain open and unenclosed, and all persons whomsoever shall and may have free access at all times to the said springs, and be at liberty to use and drink the Waters there arising, and take the benefit thereof..."

Recurrent battles have been fought since then to keep the Stray as free as possible of public conveniences, road-widening and other incursions.  Of these controversies the most difficult was over bringing a much-needed direct railway to the town.

The Harrogate view was that trains should neither seen nor heard.  When the York & North Midland Railway reached the town, it tunnelled under Langwith Avenue south of the Stray and opened its Harrogate terminus at Brunswick Station, south of the West Park Stray, in July 1848.

Eventually, in the early 1860s a through line was built across the Stray in an unobtrusive shallow cutting.

Brunswick Station closed in 1862 and completely disappeared.  Its site was filled in and handed over as part of the Stray.  Not a single photograph of the buildings has been found.  The site is marked only by a small stone plaque.

However, the approach tunnel remains.  Even though it hasn't seen a train since shortly after 1862 it remains in good condition, and the indentations of the sleepers are still visible in the ballast.  Part of it was used as a Second World War air-raid shelter until 1943.

It is practically inaccessible, but was surveyed and recorded and by the Leeds Historical Expedition Society in January 2008 and by Subterranea Britannica in the following September.  Comprehensive illustrations of its present condition can be found at, with additional material at

What remains of the approach to the former Brunswick Station is strictly private and off-limits to the general public.

Posted by: mike on Jan 31, 2011

Category:Transports of delight


Pontcysyllte is one of the major triumphs of British canal engineering, and the most spectacular travellers' experience on British waterways, whether you walk or sail across it.  The 1,007-foot long aqueduct carries the waters of the Ellesmere Canal 126 feet above the River Dee.

Vertigo can be a problem.  Whenever I've taken groups to Pontcysyllte there's no guarantee they'll all walk the length of the towpath, despite the protection of railing five feet high;  indeed, I know of people who only managed to sail across by lying on the floor of their boat with their eyes closed.

Industrial archaeologists argue over how to apportion credit for this magnificent structure.  The engineer of the Ellesmere Canal was William Jessop (1745-1814), well-established, busy and – it has to be admitted – not always successful in building masonry aqueducts.  At the Dee crossing, one of Jessop's team had suggested dropping the canal down each side of the valley by flights of locks to a low-level three-arch aqueduct:  this idea amounted to throwing two lockfuls of water away for every boat that crossed.  Jessop pointed out that a smaller number of locks feeding into a taller aqueduct would save a third of construction costs, but still use up huge amounts of water.

When Thomas Telford (1757-1834) was appointed to take direct charge of constructing the canal, with Jessop as consultant, he pointed out that building an iron-trough aqueduct across the valley at the height of the canal would actually cost no more to construct and would speed up traffic by eliminating lockage without any loss of water whatsoever.

Using cast iron for this purpose was a new and virtually untried technique.  Telford took the opportunity to field-test the principle when he took over as engineer of the Shrewsbury Canal and completed the Longdon-on-Tern Aqueduct (1796), and then rehearsed it further down the Ellesmere Canal at Chirk Aqueduct (1801) before ordering the ironwork for Pontcysyllte, which was completed and opened in 1805.

Visiting Pontcysyllte is an unmissable experience, whether by boat or on foot.  From there it's possible to walk down to Chirk Aqueduct and back within half a day, or to walk into Llangollen in an hour or so.  A more relaxing experience, starting from Llangollen Wharf, is to catch a horse-drawn trip-boat to Pontcysyllte, or a diesel boat across the aqueduct (one way, with a return journey by courtesy coach) [].

The best experience of all, though, once every five years when the ironwork is inspected, is when the waterways engineers pull the plug in the aqueduct bed, sending the canal water cascading down to the Dee.  You have to get up early for that.

Posted by: mike on Jan 11, 2011

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Sydney Central Station

Sydney Central Station

Taking advice from the invaluable The Man in Seat 61 website [], I'd booked an ordinary economy ticket for the train from Melbourne to Sydney.  The Man in Seat 61 points out, and illustrates, that the seating is identical in both economy and first.  My fare, for a twelve-hour journey, was A$110.70 [approximately £70].

Although the incoming train arrived and departed an hour late and lost a further half-hour getting out of the Melbourne suburbs, the on-board service compensated for the genuinely unavoidable delays.  The female train captain made meticulous announcements after every stop about the continuing delay, sometimes as little as seventy-odd minutes but usually ninety.  Each time she apologised, citing a signal failure on the incoming journey and track maintenance "which is necessary for your safety and comfort":  I assume also that our train had lost its path, as railwaymen say, and was fighting against other traffic running to time.  We arrived at Sydney Central at 9.30 pm, exactly twelve hours after our departure from Melbourne.

The buffet car was a dream, with efficient staff and meticulous PA announcements.  The idea of a "Devonshire cream tea" (the complete tea, jam, scones and cream version) as a mid-morning refreshment took a little time to sink in.  Otherwise, decent airline-style cooked meals, interesting orange and poppy-seed cake, reasonable tea and excellent coffee filled the intervals of the day.

This was the most visually interesting journey of my odyssey across Australia.  The landscape was verdant heading east out of the state of Victoria.  We passed Australian backyards, small towns fronting on to the railway tracks and farmyards.  It was noticeable that the sheep stations loaded their stock on to road vehicles, not the railway line as they do in the more remote areas of Western and Southern Australia.

Some stops stood out as landmarks on the journey:  Seymour, clearly a historic railway town with a large steam museum, a town which I thought by the PA announcement was called Manila or Vanilla but turned out to be Benalla, a place with the strange, delightful name Uranquinty and the major settlement, Wagga Wagga, which the locals call "Wogga".  Some railway stations have original or authentic signage at Junee and Moss Vale – "Ladies' Room" and "Telegraph Office".

After Junee the entire character of the journey changes.  The line becomes double track, and crosses the mountains by wiggling up and down hills continuously:  there is hardly a straight stretch for many miles, and often the line ahead is visible at right angles to the direction of travel.  At one point the two tracks diverge wildly, crossing and recrossing at the Bethungra Spiral [see].

This is working rail travel.  Passengers got on and off at each stop, unlike the set-piece Great Southern luxury trains.  The largest and loudest man in Australia helped fellow passengers with their puzzle books, in between phoning his relatives ahead with repetitive news of the delay.  I chatted to a young man from Surrey who was working his way round the world driving combine harvesters in preparation for managing his father's farm on his return to the UK.  Outside the window, train-spotting kangaroos sat by the track, with that odd limp-wristed stance as if they've just finished washing the dishes.

The arrival into Sydney Central, cathedral of the age of steam, is an apt overture to a great city – an engaging contrast with the airy, modern steel and glass of Melbourne Southern Cross.

A nice taxi driver took me on a brief tour of Sydney before depositing me at my hotel, which I discovered the following day is three minutes' walk away.  At that time of night, after twelve hours on a train, I'm more than happy for someone to hump my luggage and drive me around for five minutes for A$8 [about £5].

Posted by: mike on Jan 5, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Colonial Tramcar Restaurant

The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant [] is a stroke of business genius.  There is no more appropriate place to dine in Melbourne than on a tram.  This popular tradition, dating back to 1983, operates twice nightly, providing a five-course dinner and liberal amounts of alcohol while gliding and occasionally grinding along the streets of central and southern Melbourne to the greatest hits of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Abba.  Irresistible.

There are actually three trams, clearly the same American-style model as the City Circle vehicles, and from the outside they look surprisingly tired, in a dull red-brown livery with lamps missing from the illuminated display above the door.  Inside, however, the two restaurant compartments are a feast of plush curtains and mirrors and extremely comfortable seating in twos and fours:  each of the two compartments seats a total of eighteen.  The maitre d's introductory announcement mentions that the evening takes 3½ hours and that the on-board lavatory is the smallest in the southern hemisphere.

The staff of three that I witnessed at work was the acme of teamwork.  No sooner had the wheels begun to turn than the champagne came round, and as we pottered back and forth, reversing from time to time, they presented a choice of pâté, a choice of entrée (the Australian term for a starter), of which I had duck risotto, and a choice of main course, of which I had an excellent, thick and perfectly cooked steak.  The trams are fitted with stabilisers, and there was – wisely – no thought of soup.

Individual service was leisurely, in keeping with the steady ride through the streets, while the staff worked non-stop to maintain an efficient and apparently effortless service to thirty-six covers.  And all the time the wine, a simple choice of red or white, was poured and poured again.  It was one of those wine-waiter situations where the only way to slow the flow is to keep the glass full.  I forgot.

There's something magical about gliding through the streets, gazing through tinted windows at the ordinary world we customarily inhabit – people waiting at crossings and tram-stops, yellow taxis picking up fares, shop windows, houses.

There was only one discordant moment, somewhere around the University, when the car paused opposite a tram-shelter where there was what in England is called a tramp and in the United States a "derelict", complete with his carrier bags, seated in state.  The tram moved forward to reverse in front of a urinal.

Most of the time we processed back and forth around the centre and out to the beach-resort of St Kilda, which is magical in the evening.  After the main course, the three trams parked up at Albert Park for a cigarette-break, and then dessert (in my case date pudding), coffee and liqueurs were served.  Eventually, in good time, we were returned to our starting point, where a fleet of taxis was lined up waiting.  I sauntered into my hotel thinking I'd quite like a malt whisky, but fortunately the bar was shut.

The following morning I didn't want to move very fast.  At the coffee shop (I'd given up on the hotel breakfast) the barista made a great deal of noise bashing and grinding behind his big machine.  When I walked across to the Southern Cross Station the locomotives were roaring very loudly.  I caught a tram, which shook a great deal, to St Kilda and sat very quietly until I felt better.

The Colonial Restaurant Tram is not cheap, and worth every cent.  But it's a good idea to keep the wineglass full for much of the time.

Posted by: mike on Jan 3, 2011

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Melbourne City Circle

Melbourne largely moves on steel wheels on steel rails.  It's certainly the only city in Australia, and arguably the only one in the world, which still runs a complete, traditional street tramway system.  This isn't an isolated route with heritage overtones, like Blackpool or Adelaide, or even a vestige like Boston or Rome;  this is a full-on, in-yer-face tram system, with 27 routes covering most of the city, running single-deck vehicles of different dates and sizes up to the very latest 21st-century sophisticated models, operating with very cheap fares and some free travel.  Buses, I eventually noticed, are a rarity.

The suburban rail system is also ubiquitous.  There are some places in the city-centre (which the locals call the Central Business District, or CBD, rather like Chicago's Loop) where it's possible – with trams screeching round tight curves and trains rumbling overhead on viaducts – to imagine you're sitting in the midst of someone's gigantic train set.  There is even a compact version of London's Circle Line, circumambulating the CBD sub-surface between five stations.

On Sunday I could travel the entire network – trams, trains and buses if I could find any – for the price of a Sunday Saver ticket, A$3.10 [less than £2];  on Monday the same facility for Zone 1, which extends as far as a visitor would reasonably need, cost A$6.80 [around £4.25].  Notices on the trams and tram stops showed that Christmas Day travel was free of charge, and on New Year's Eve trams ran throughout the night until the New Year's Day timetable began.

One consequence of the plethora of tram tracks is that Melbourne motorists perform a manoeuvre called a "hook turn" to ensure trams have priority at green lights.  To turn right at a tramway crossing (the Australians drive on the left), it's necessary to move into the left-hand lane on the crossing, wait until all traffic has passed by and then make a tight right turn just as the lights change.  I repeatedly saw this operation completed with skill and grace, but I think I'd be a wimp and take three left turns round the block rather than put myself in such a situation.

The ideal way to orientate in Melbourne is by means of the free circular tram service which circumscribes the CBD, following almost exactly the route of the underground line, with a dogleg spur to the Waterfront City on the redeveloped Docklands.  This is operated by distinctive heritage trams, rugged streetcars with an American appearance.  There is a recorded commentary and, unlike visitor tours in many places, trams run in both directions so it's easy to hop backwards and forwards between sites.

The CBD is an elongated oblong:  it's a comfortable stroll across the short axis, but quite a tramp along the long axis from Southern Cross Station to the Parliament House.  The City Circle tram, with its commentary, makes it much easier to visit the city-centre sites, such as the Parliament House of Victoria, the Old Treasury (now the City Museum), the Old Melbourne Gaol and the Victorian Arts Centre.  I used it to visit Melbourne's cathedrals, both impressive, the Anglican St Paul's [see Exporting Pointed Architecture] and the Roman Catholic St Patrick's.

The only place I ate in Melbourne CBD was a delight.  Federici [] is attached to the Princess Theatre, opposite the Parliament House, and offers bistro-style food at all hours [see History's foot-soldiers].  I missed the opportunity to see Jersey Boys at the Princess, because I had a prior engagement with the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant.

Posted by: mike on Jan 1, 2011

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

Melbourne Southern Cross Station

Southern Cross Station, Melbourne, Australia

The Adelaide cab-driver pointed out, as he took me to the Parkland rail terminal, that there are quicker ways to Melbourne, but travelling on The Overland, the train that leaves Adelaide at breakfast time and makes it into Melbourne 10½ hours later, was part of my intention of seeing how big Australia is.

I travelled Red Premier class, which provides comfortable seating adjacent to the buffet car and a limited, rather relaxed trolley service.  Food is marginally more generous but no more ambitious than an average British rail company:  there was a customer stampede in late afternoon when the remaining pies were sold off at $2 [around £1.25] each.

The most interesting part of the journey from Adelaide is the first, because threading the line through the Adelaide Hills was clearly an engineering challenge.  The huge American-style rolling stock screeches round tight curves, over viaducts and through tunnels, and there are repeated views of the sea as the line climbs towards its summit at Mount Lofty.  At Mount Lofty station (where, apparently, you can hire self-catering apartments and train-spot to your heart's content –, the line visibly dips down-grade and heads off into endless plains of farmland, the breadbasket of Australia.

For the remaining nine hours of the trip the train coasts through a gentle landscape, sometimes hilly and rather like southern England, often extensive flat plains stretching to the horizon or to distant hills.  There were few visual events on the journey – crossing the Murray River on a high viaduct with the original rail bridge alongside, now used as a road, a few large towns like Ararat and Geelong.

At the start of the journey the train captain encouraged passengers to introduce themselves and talk to each other.  Imagine a British train manager suggesting such a thing!  That would really get the conversation going on the morning commute from East Grinstead.

There was an intermittent commentary, which I imagine was informative.  The commentator was BBC World Service in comparison to The Goons on The Ghan, but he read at breakneck speed, reminding me of the apocryphal Nancy Reagan story, where she was asked if she understood poor people and replied, "Yes, if they speak slowly."

The man in the seat opposite at one point asked if I was bored with the landscape yet.  I said that I was never bored by landscape:  occasionally I dozed off, but I never opened the paperback I'd brought.

At last the train crawls into Melbourne, to the Southern Cross station, a spectacular steel tent draping a curvy roof over the platforms.  Stepping out on to Spencer Street gives an immediate impression of 1950s Glasgow – big, impressive buildings, a grid street plan and trams rattling across right-angled crossings.  The taxi-driver declined my fare, pointing to my hotel which was within sight.

Posted by: mike on Dec 28, 2010

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

The Ghan

The Ghan backtracks over the route that brings the Indian Pacific into Adelaide, including the section from Tarcoola that the Indian Pacific traverses in darkness.  For someone who watches train-journeys like other people watch movies, this is like watching the last bit of DVD that you missed when you fell asleep – but backwards.

This is the great outback railway, originally opened between Oodnadatta and Alice Springs in 1929, along an alignment that proved prone to flash floods which regularly washed the track away.  Apparently the surveyors never saw any rain in all the time they were planning the route;  the rain only came when it was too late to divert the line.  The idea was always to link Adelaide with Darwin, but in the 1930s this made no financial sense.

In 1980 a new standard-gauge flood-free western route replaced the old narrow-gauge Ghan as far as Alice Springs, and the long-intended link to Darwin, via Katherine, was opened in 2004.

Heading northwards from the suburbs and satellite towns of Adelaide, the line runs through a huge plain of agricultural land – market gardens, crops, the occasional herd of cows, racehorses with coats on to protect them from the sun.  At some point in the past, someone cleared all this acreage to make agriculture possible, probably with no more than horse- and man-power at their disposal.

As the afternoon wore on, and the train glided effortlessly across mile after empty mile, I was aware that this vast landscape was initially explored by nineteenth-century pioneers on horseback, working out what there was and where it led from the vantage point of a saddle.  Before them, this land was the home of the Aboriginal peoples who, according to a self-serving 1938 writer quoted by Bill Bryson, "can withstand all the reverses of nature, fiendish droughts and sweeping floods, horrors of thirst and enforced starvation – but...cannot withstand civilisation."  The conflict between the two ways of life lies heavy still on the national consciousness.

I've now learned, having travelled on both the Indian Pacific and The Ghan, that the "welcome reception" is a compromise between the attraction of a free glass of champagne and the agony of a badly-handled radio mike with feedback.  Throughout the journey, whoever was in control of the on-board PA system wasn't:  announcements and music cut in and out without warning and on at least one occasion photographers were told the train would slow down for a landmark in ten minutes' time and it didn't – leaving people gazing through windows bemused as whatever it was flashed by.

On this journey, though, the bonus was that I happened to meet a couple, Gabriel and Cornelia, with whom I struck up instant rapport.  They were in the midst of moving house between Melbourne and Darwin, using The Ghan as the easiest way of transporting a car full of luggage while the furniture took a slower route by road.  We share an interest in Victorian history (in the chronological, more than just the Australian geographical sense) and photography, and Gabriel promised me a list of things to see in Melbourne, a privilege I couldn't otherwise have hoped for.

There was a brief stop at Port Augusta, where the 1980 Ghan route diverges from the original, ill-advised 1929 alignment.  This prompts me to plan to return some day, to ride the Pichi-Richi Railroad [], which offers a 1¾-hour ride, often steam-hauled, along the original route in vintage 3ft 6in-gauge rolling-stock.

The Pichi-Richi people take the view that the name 'Ghan' derives from a passenger on the inaugural sleeping-car run in 1929 who, at an evening stop, rushed on to the platform to place his prayer-mat in the direction of Mecca:  the Australian crew assumed, it is said, that he was an Afghan.  The Great Southern Railway Company prefers to ascribe the name to the Afghan camel-trains which the railway replaced.

Port Augusta is the "gateway to the Outback":  from there on, the landscape is as arid as the Nullarbor Plain, but more varied.  There are gentle contours, distant mountain ridges, a vast snowy white salt lake, river beds – one, the Finke River, a three-hundred-yard wide channel of bone-dry sand.  The landmarks are minor and far between – a stone marker for the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory, a statue, the Iron Man, commemorating the laying of the millionth sleeper on the 1980 route and, eventually, the MacDonnell Range which marks the location of Alice Springs.

Posted by: mike on Dec 20, 2010

Category:Transports of delightExploring Australia

The Indian Pacific gold-class bar car

The Indian Pacific is a serious train [].  For me, it's the only way to see how big Australia is.  Starting from Perth at midday Wednesday, it takes nearly two days – two lunches, two dinners, two nights' sleep, and one-and-a-half breakfasts (the latter a doggy-bag before disembarking at Adelaide).  For the even more serious-minded, it continues via Broken Hill to Sydney.

The line from Perth to Adelaide, or more specifically the section from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta, has major historical significance:  its construction clinched the deal by which Western Australia agreed to join the Commonwealth of Australia in 1900.  Without that deal Western Australia would have remained for the time being a British colony and would, very probably, have achieved independence like New Zealand.  (There was a point in the 1890s when New Zealand considered amalgamating with Australia, but the New Zealanders thought better of it.)

The statistics are awesome – 4,325 kilometres (2,687½ miles) for the full run from Perth to Sydney, crossing two time-zones, including the longest stretch of straight railway track (478 kilometres; 297 miles) in the world.

The train itself is awesome – 29 vehicles, including power cars, crew cars, baggage car and motor-rail vehicles, 771 metres (843 yards) long, 1,375 tonnes, drawn by one extremely powerful diesel locomotive – crawling its way across the endless landscape, much of the time on single track, pausing at passing places to make room for enormous freight trains.

It's not cheap.  The basic version is Red Service – coach-style seating, by the look of it not dissimilar to basic Amtrak, in which people sit for days on end.  You see Red passengers boarding very sensibly carrying pillows.  There are also Red sleeper compartments.  The next version up is Gold Service – your own compartment, loos and showers at the end of the carriage, a comfortable bar car and a quite opulent dining car with all meals included.  There is something called Platinum Service, newly introduced with spare vehicles from the Ghan route:  apparently, the compartments are more roomy, with en-suite facilities.

On board Gold class, the single compartment is, rather like the interior of an airliner, a masterpiece of compact planning.  Even the wash-basin folds away.  The wardrobe, such as it is, is all of three inches wide;  the bed, of course, folds down;  the window-blinds sit within the double-glazed unit, controlled by an ingenious winding handle.  An odd consequence of the layout of the single compartments is that the central corridor is literally sinuous:  it curves from side to side.  Other coaches with double-bunk compartments have the customary layout with the corridor down one side.

There can be no better way to appreciate the vastness and emptiness of this great continent, without going to the lengths of driving for days on end, as Bill Bryson did in researching his excellent book, Down Under (2000).

I sat for the first hour or so, watching the route out through suburban Greater Perth, leaving behind the electric commuter trains, heading into the hills.  I chose to watch our way through an anonymous valley, with an accommodation road snaking alongside the track:  it was a good twenty minutes before I spotted any sign of life – a track-maintenance crew with their pick-up miles from anywhere.

Through a lunchtime glass of beer, an introductory presentation with a free glass of champagne, an interminable wait for second sitting and lunch itself, the landscape gradually opened out, became virtual desert, then became more verdant, hour after hour, mile upon mile.

As the first afternoon wore on, the train occasionally passed vast grain silos, then pastures with surprisingly purposeful-looking sheep, then monotonous low scrub, then patchy woodland.  For anyone used to watching rail journeys in Europe, this is indeed slow-motion travelling, despite the respectable speed of the train.  For hours on end there are no valleys, so no bridges or tunnels, hardly a cutting and never a viaduct.  Where there were cuttings, the rock varied in colour from pale grey to gunmetal to rust;  elsewhere the soil might be mustard or ochre.  That's all there was to look at:  it was oddly restful.

Sometimes the trackside dirt road was punctuated by a gate, with the name of a ranch (which the Australians call a station) hidden beyond the horizon.  The lifestyle out here is a world away from the experience of most Europeans.  In all but the remotest corners of the British Isles, it's a matter of choice not to go window-shopping, not to go the theatre or a big-league sporting event;  in populous regions education, health services, social life, variety is effectively on tap.  Living in rural Australia involves a direct reversal of these expectations.  These people must have particular qualities of self-reliance, initiative, stamina and determination.

The evening ended, after a convivial dinner, with a ludicrous but informative tour of the gold-mining twin towns of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in the middle of the night, peering at nineteenth-century hotels and public buildings, viewing the huge floodlit Superpit on the outskirts of town and examining the remaining, innocuous-looking brothels on Hay Street.  The coach-driver was straight from Central Casting – began each stage of the journey with the expression "Okey-doke", and all of his sentences? Went up at the end? Like they do in Australia?  He knew what he was talking about, and went out of his way to make sure we saw as much as we could in the circumstances.

And so, as they say, to bed...

Posted by: mike on Dec 11, 2010

Category:Transports of delight

Melton Constable

The holidaymaker's experience of the Norfolk seaside was, until the late 1950s, bound up with the eccentricities of travelling on the former Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway, one of the less likely networks to emerge from the idiosyncracies of Victorian railway competition.

The East Anglian "main line" network was the Great Eastern Railway, fanning out from London Liverpool Street station to the major towns and cities – King's Lynn, Hunstanton, Cromer, Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Ipswich and Southend.

Two of the Great Eastern's competitors in the national network, the Midland and the Great Northern, recognised that by merging their interests in a string of cross-country lines into and across East Anglia they could reach ports and holiday resorts to capture freight and passenger flows into the Midlands and the North that the Great Eastern simply couldn't deal with.  They could also provide competing services into London's King's Cross, though that route was never as fast as the Great Eastern's more direct routes.

In 1893 the two companies set up a joint board, with equally shared rights and responsibilities, to manage their East Anglian operations.  Over the following sixty-odd years, the M&GNJR struggled against two particular difficulties – an excess of single-track mileage (over 60%) and heavy gradients across the grain of the landscape.  Normal services were laborious, and holiday specials spent much of their travelling time waiting in loops for approaching trains to clear the route – hence the popular nickname, "Muddle and Get Nowhere".

The line was distinctive as well as eccentric, and came to be much loved by enthusiasts.  Its locomotives wore a golden ochre livery and its carriages were either built of teak or painted to look as if they were.  Almost the whole of the M&GNJR network, nearly 200 miles, closed down peremptorily in 1959, years before Beeching.

The line from Norwich to Cromer and Sheringham remains operational, and the North Norfolk Railway runs preserved steam and diesel trains between Sheringham and Holt [].  Otherwise, much of this extensive railway has completely disappeared – returned to farmland or woodland.

Melton Constable, hub of the system with a four-way junction, workshops and workers' housing, is no longer recognisable as the "Crewe of North Norfolk".

A couple of summers ago my friend Terry, who knows a thing or two about railways and lives near Holt, spent a baffling morning showing me what little remains of railway archaeology in Melton Constable.

The most impressive relic is the bus shelter – not up to Ukrainian standards [see] – but very dignified, with monogrammed ironwork from the station awning, painted in golden ochre.

The monogram in the ironwork clearly has the letters CNR – Central Norfolk Railway – a company that never actually operated:  the spandrels were cast in anticipation and reused by its successor, the Eastern & Midland Railway, itself an amalgamation formed in 1883.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Norfolk's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Oct 25, 2010

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delight

King's Cross Station (1977)

King's Cross Station (1977)

King's Cross Station (opened 1850) has long been overshadowed by its neighbour St Pancras (opened 1867).  That was precisely the intention of the directors of the Midland Railway, the designer of the St Pancras train-shed, William Henry Barlow, and the architect George Gilbert Scott, whose Midland Grand Hotel was intended, until the railway directors insisted on cutting it down to size, to be two storeys higher than the existing building.

King's Cross is actually well worth a look.  Built for the Great Northern Railway by Lewis Cubitt, it originally had only two platforms.  As traffic built up, its operation became notoriously chaotic, right into the 1930s when the signalling was sorted out just as the entire station threatened to seize up.

The original train-shed was built by the Wiebeking System of laminated timber construction, a pioneering effort to cover a wide space that eventually had to be replaced by iron girders.

Lewis Cubitt's elegant, understated façade has for long been obscured:  it was revealed once more in 2013.

What King's Cross lacks in visual impact it gains in its stories.

Queen Boudicea is reputed to be buried somewhere under platforms 8, 9 and 10.  Indeed, the area was known as Battle Bridge, commemorating the formidable queen's last stand, until a much-derided monument to George IV briefly occupied the site.

The station featured with St Pancras in the 1955 film The Ladykillers, and the Hogwarts Express famously departed from Platform 9¾ in the Harry Potter books and films.

King's Cross Station was the scene of a wonderful encounter between Ann Widdecombe and an Irishman who flung his arms round her in the middle of the concourse:  "He wanted to thank me for the peace process in Northern Ireland," she remarked.

It's also the pretext for a little-known story about the Abdication.

In late 1936 Mrs Wallis Simpson apparently took a taxi from her London residence to catch her train for a weekend up north.  "King's Cross," she said to the driver.

"I'm sorry to hear that, madam," he replied.

Posted by: mike on Oct 22, 2010

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delight

Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras Station (1977)

Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras:  grand staircase (1977)

George Gilbert Scott's Midland Grand Hotel was once the finest place to stay in London but from 1935, when it was converted to railway offices, it stood neglected and increasingly dirty, and in the 1960s it narrowly escaped demolition.

I first knew it well in the 1970s when I brought adult-education groups from the north Midlands to visit sites in London by rail.  I had a deal with a British Rail group-travel organiser I won't name (even though he's deceased), whereby if I took the group round the back of the old hotel and presented the man who answered the door with a brown envelope we more or less had the run of the building.

At that time the lower floors were offices for the British Rail catering division, Travellers' Fare, and the upper storeys had only recently been vacated by restaurant-car crews who had used them as sleeping accommodation on overnight turns.

We would climb to the top of the building in the ancient lift and tramp on to the roof above Euston Road, noticing that each chimney-stack was numbered to assist the chimney sweeps.  We went inside the clock tower to admire the clock.

And we enjoyed the astonishing three-storey main staircase under its Gothic vault painted with stars.  The first time we went the original fitted carpet was still in position, with the faded patch where the German band positioned their harmonium until they abruptly departed in 1914.

In the reception area we wondered at the bracket clock, still being wound weekly by a clockmaker whose contract had not been cancelled in 1935.

The offices closed in 1988 when British Rail was refused renewal of the fire certificate.  Although the exterior was cleaned and restored in the 1990s, finding a use for an obstinately sturdy Grade I listed building took time, and was eventually kick-started by the decision to adapt the under-used station for Eurostar.

At last the building has come back to life.  The upper storeys of the original hotel are converted into luxury apartments by the Manhattan Loft Corporation, and the remainder, with a new, sympathetically designed extension on Midland Road, is a Marriott Renaissance Hotel which opened in 2011.

Posted by: mike on Oct 19, 2010

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delight

St Pancras Station (1977)

St Pancras Station (1977)

My Isle of Man friend John asks interesting questions.

When he disembarked at King's Cross Station (after pausing to photograph his late-teenage son Matthew in front of Platform 9¾) he crossed the road to St Pancras and texted me "Why are the trains at St Pancras upstairs?".

The answer is the Regent's Canal.

When the first railway into London, the London & Birmingham, was built in 1837 the engineer Robert Stephenson tunnelled under the canal to reach the site of Euston terminus.  The fact that this created a stiff incline out of the station wasn't an immediate concern, because trains were initially cable-hauled to Camden Town where locomotives were attached.  Subsequently, steam locomotives always had to work hard on the climb out of Euston.

In the late 1840s the competing Great Northern Railway was built into King's Cross Station.  Its engineers, Sir William and Joseph Cubitt, also tunnelled under the Regent's Canal, creating a challenging 1 in 107 gradient for steam locomotives and a constricted exit from the station, the "Throat", through Copenhagen and Gas Works tunnels.

William Henry Barlow, the engineer of the Midland Railway, chose the alternative when his company's London Extension approached the site of St Pancras station in the mid-1860s.  He bridged the canal, so that the terminus platforms are fifteen feet higher than the street level.  His magnificent train shed, with its uninterrupted arch 240 feet wide and 100 feet high, is engineering elegance in every sense:  not only does it look superb, but the ties beneath the platforms mean that a heavy locomotive could safely sit at any point without overloading the floor.

Pedestrians and taxis have always approached the platforms by ramps and stairs, and travellers used not to be aware of the vast undercroft below the platforms.  This – now revealed as The Arcade and the Eurostar booking area – was intended to store Burton beer, brought down the line and lowered by a hydraulic lift from track level.  Indeed the entire station is built to a module of 14 feet 8 inches, the dimensions of the Victorian beer barrel.

It's no coincidence that one of the Midland Railway directors was Michael Thomas Bass Jnr, and that in the years after excise duty was removed from beer glasses in 1845, the dark London porter traditionally served in pewter tankards gradually gave way to the lighter ales brewed in Burton.

In the days before Eurostar, the undercroft was the rumoured location of the apocryphal "St Pancras Hoard", silverware hidden when the Midland Grand Hotel closed in 1935.

Now at last, thanks to the redesign of the station in 2003, it's possible walk off the street and reach the trains by lift or escalator.  As you walk into the former undercroft and gaze up at the train shed above, your spirits will be lifted by the colour of the arches – "English Heritage Barlow Blue".

The ironwork was originally brown, until in 1877 the general manager of the Midland Railway, James Allport, remarked, "Why cannot the train shed be the colour of the sky?"  In the age of steam it didn't stay sky-coloured for long;  now W H Barlow's wonderful space, reglazed to its original pattern, has become one of the most exciting sights in the capital.

Mike Higginbottom offers a one-hour lecture, St Pancras Station, including images taken from the mid-1970s onwards.  For further details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 26, 2010

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

C&HPR water tender

One of the peculiar attributes of the Cromford & High Peak Railway was that it provided water-supply, not only for its own engines but also for adjacent farms and quarries on the high limestone hills that it traversed.

The water was carried along the line in trains of reused locomotive tenders which were filled from a spring at High Peak Wharf.  One of these tenders was rescued when the line closed in 1967 and ultimately ended up in the reserve collection of the National Railway Museum.

This fascinating but unspectacular piece of railway archaeology would hardly attract attention in the main museum at York, and has been loaned to the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway [] in Derbyshire, where it's locally relevant.  There it stands, in a siding, labelled "Cromford" as you'd expect.

Apparently, this is incorrect.  Someone at the Middleton Top Visitor Centre [], which is beside the actual trackbed of the C&HPR, has interviewed the last surviving engine-driver, who is adamant the tender at Wirksworth couldn't possibly have got up the cable-hauled Middleton Incline.

It has six wheels.  All the tenders based at Cromford had four wheels:  indeed, the six-wheeled versions had their middle wheels removed precisely so they could breast the top of the inclines.

The tender now at Wirksworth must have come from the other end of the line.  Perhaps it should say "Parsley Hay" on the side.

Does this matter?  Certainly not to 99.9% of the EVR's visitors.  But it shows that to make historical and archaeological facts as accurate as possible, it's important to listen to living witnesses.  Oral history matters, even if it's as prone to misinterpretation as written or moving-image evidence.

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire Peak tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Aug 24, 2010

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Heritage Shunters Trust

Wandering round the Peak Rail site at Rowsley South in Derbyshire, I came across a gentleman in a shed surrounded by more 1960s and 1970s heavy diesel shunting locomotives than you could shake a stick at.

Peak Rail provides a home and facilities for a number of specialist rail-preservation societies, and I was intrigued by the work of the Heritage Shunters Trust [], who conserve and commemorate an extraordinary episode in the non-development of British Railways.

When the Attlee government nationalised the railways in 1948, the initial policy was to run the railways on steam and coal-fired electricity to make best use of the British coal industry.  Only later did the cheapness of imported oil become economically irresistible.

After British Railways decided in 1955 to phase out steam (having built over 3,500 locomotives since 1948, 999 of them to brand-new designs) there was a rush to obtain sufficient diesel locomotives on a one-for-one replacement basis.  In particular, small, heavy-duty steam shunters were replaced by a great variety of diesel equivalents, some to designs which had not been fully tried and tested.

This policy ignored the fact that single-wagon loads of freight were diminishing, as road transport became more efficient and cost-effective.  By the mid-1960s increasing amounts of rail freight were moving in train-loads not wagon-loads and there was less and less need for shunting locomotives.

This huge, diverse fleet proved to have been a waste of money, and not all of them were capable of doing the job they were intended for.  As pieces of engineering history, however, the different designs are fascinating.

There are over twenty of these engines at Rowsley, some fully restored, others awaiting attention.  I asked my guide what the display policy was – is it an art gallery of locomotive design, or do the workable engines have a practical function?  There is, after all, not much more shunting to do at Rowsley than there was on British Railways after the 1960s.

The major annual jamboree when the working shunters get an outing is the Shunter Hunter weekend – this year on October 23rd-24th – when the Trust takes over the Peak Rail line and works all the passenger services.  This puts up to ten shunting locomotives on the line.

If it raises funds to help volunteers preserve the engineering heritage it's a worthwhile enterprise.  And it's entertaining into the bargain.  Details of the Shunter Hunter weekend are at

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire Peak tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Aug 23, 2010

Category:Transports of delight

Birkenhead Tramway

Photo:  Janet Miles

The first time I visited the Birkenhead Tramway, which preserves a representative collection of trams from both sides of the River Mersey along with numerous buses and cars, I fell into a conversation that highlighted why individuals give up so much time literally to make such museums work.

I asked one of the museum workers about the Birkenhead tram we were standing next to.  This splendid vehicle had spent the years 1937-1983 as a potting shed, and the Merseyside Tramway Preservation Society rescued it by providing the owner with a brand-new potting shed.  I asked how much of the original tram still survived.

The short answer is – the middle bit downstairs.  The ends, the top deck and the running gear are all second-hand or fabricated – necessarily, because who needs a double-deck potting-shed with wheels and a trolley pole?  My guide showed me the high-quality original woodwork, including the finely carved borough coats-of-arms, that had remained untouched and had polished up marvellously.

I asked a question that had fascinated me:  he was nowhere near thirty years of age, so why did he spend time preserving a mode of transport that virtually died out long before he was born?  I'm the last generation that can recall traditional street tramways in such cities as Liverpool;  for him, they're out of the history books.

He told me he was a graduate engineer.  In his daily work he sits at a computer screen.  Occasionally he clicks his mouse and a lathe or cutting-machine miles away springs into action which he never sees.

As he put it, by coming down to Taylor Street once or twice a week, he sees a potting shed gradually resurrected.  Metal, wood, glass and paint come together and eventually, after two or three years, the pole is lifted to the overhead wire, the thing lights up and trundles away.  That's real engineering.

And that's why we should all be grateful to "anoraks" – and "overalls".

Details of the Merseyside Tramway Preservation Society's activities are at

Posted by: mike on Aug 22, 2010

Category:Transports of delight

London Transport Museum Acton Open Day March 14th 2010

In some circles, the term "anorak" is pejorative, indicating greasy outdoor clothing, a camera and an unhealthy predilection for standing on railway bridges and the ends of station platforms with a notebook.

In a particularly fine evocation of the attraction of watching steel wheels on steel rails, the journalist Mike Carter, ['Shunted on a branch line to nowhere', The Observer, June 25th 2000], tells of the reaction when he asked the assistant at W H Smith, Birmingham New Street, if they still sold trainspotting books:  "'I don't think we sell that type of thing any more', she said, looking at this 35-year-old man as if I'd just asked for the latest copy of Nuns in Rubber."

I argue that the general public and its posterity owe a great debt to those who spend their weekends scraping rusty metal, polishing brass, learning to drive locomotives, trams, buses and cantankerous vintage cars – or making models of long-gone vehicles.  If they also spend their evenings arguing over which defunct railway company had the smartest engines, or how many electric dustcarts operated in Birmingham after the last war, there are far worse ways of passing the time.

And without the "anoraks", where would we now hear the beat of a steam train approaching, admire the sheer craftsmanship of coach-built cars, buses and trams, sail in a paddle-steamer, see in flight the aircraft that fought the Battle of Britain?

I spent an entertaining Sunday in March at the London Transport Museum Acton Depot, where they keep the trams, buses and Underground trains that won't fit into the Covent Garden museum, along with piles of memorabilia ranging from posters to railway signals.

I was astonished at the range and variety of volunteer-built models on show – highly convincing representations of trams and Underground rolling-stock ranging in size from miniatures you could hold in your hand to models you could ride on.

You can, of course, buy kits or ready-made models if you want a train, bus or tram to put on your mantelpiece.  You can even buy the kits of my fifties childhood – Bayko and Hornby Dublo.  But I most admire the craftsmen (mainly, so far as I could see, men) who spend countless hours getting the detail right and making the whole thing work.

They recreate scenes and customs that vanished a couple of generations ago.  One shows, for instance, how the four-track tramway layout at Dog Kennel Hill in East Dulwich operated, and why it was necessary [see and].  Another provides the only opportunity so far to compare the size of first-generation London trams with the vehicles of Croydon Tramlink, because there was a layout running models of both.

It's essentially a species of entertainment, and well worth a tenner and a few hours' time.

Future London Transport Museum Acton Depot Open Day arrangements are at

Posted by: mike on Aug 16, 2010

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Middleton Top Engine House

Middleton Top Engine House

The Ecclesbourne Valley Railway runs an excellent 'Rails and Quarries' tour from their Wirksworth station, using their diesel railcar to run up the steepest section of line in use in the UK – 1 in 27 – to Ravenstor, the foot of a slightly mysterious incline that connected with the Cromford & High Peak Railway at Middleton Bottom.

The day I visited, the guide was Vince Morris – informative, professional and endlessly patient with people who struggle with stiles.  His itinerary involved a steep climb through the National Stone Centre [] to the High Peak Trail [] , which follows the trackbed of the Cromford & High Peak Railway, up the 1 in 8½ incline to Middleton Top Engine House and then over the fields and through the derelict moonscape of Middle Peak Quarry and back through the centre of Wirksworth.

Middleton Top Winding Engine [] is an interesting survival, the only remaining example of eight built by the Butterley Company to haul trains up and down the inclines which in 1825 were judged the most effective and economical method of running a railway over the Peak massif.  William Jessop II was a director of both the Butterley Company and the C&HPR:  his younger brother, Josias, had engineered the railway though he died during the construction period.  The total cost of the railway, when it was completed in 1831, was £149,206 16s 8d.  Of this the eight winding engines cost £20,000.

More significantly, the largest single item of expenditure was for cast-iron rails, provided by the Butterley Company for £61,950.  The Butterley Ironworks was incapable at that time of manufacturing wrought-iron rails, so that when the railway wanted to replace horses with locomotives (as Josias Jessop had suggested in his initial specification), the track couldn't stand the weight and had to be re-laid in wrought iron from end to end.

As the Americans say, do the math.

This unique railway, which was technologically sound when it was promoted in 1825 and an anachronism almost as soon as it opened in 1831, continued to work with periodic modifications on the principle that if it works, don't fix it.  Middleton Top stopped winding in 1963, but at the Sheep Pasture Incline further down the line a steam engine built in 1883 was replaced with an electric winder in 1965.  The entire line finally closed in 1967.

As the French say, C'est la vie.

Events on the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway can be found at

The stretch of the Cromford & High Peak Railway between Whaley Bridge and Hindlow, some of which was abandoned as far back as 1892, can be explored from the comfort of an armchair thanks to  I'm grateful to Paul Jones for this link.

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire Peak tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Aug 14, 2010

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Ecclesbourne Valley Railway

There's a sleepy little branch line up the Ecclesbourne valley in Derbyshire, from the former Midland main line at Duffield to the market town of Wirksworth.  Since 2002 a group of volunteers have been reviving it for tourist traffic.  Its survival is unusual, but nothing like as unusual as its origin.

For complicated reasons of Victorian railway politics, there was a possibility in the 1860s that the Midland Railway's line from Derby to Manchester might be blocked by its competitor, the London & North Western Railway, when the joint lease on the section between Ambergate and Rowsley ran out in 1871.

In case this happened, or perhaps to prevent the L&NWR making trouble, the Midland built the branch up the Ecclesbourne valley as far as Wirksworth, which is as far as any reasonable railway line would go.  Beyond that, they secured the right to tunnel under the hills, crossing the Via Gellia road on a 280-yard-long viaduct, emerging into daylight above Matlock and dropping down the Derwent Valley to their newly-built line from Rowsley westwards.

If it had been built it would have been even more heavy-duty than the "flute" line through Monsal Dale, Miller's Dale and Chee Dale.  It would have been a stiff challenge to drive expresses and – even more – coal trains up the grade, through a series of lengthy tunnels and round tight curves under the Heights of Abraham.

The Wirksworth-Rowsley extension was never built, and instead trains pottered up and down the Wirksworth branch, carrying limestone, milk and passengers.  The milk and passengers went over to road transport before and during the Second World War, but the huge Middle Peak Quarry kept the railway running until 1989.

Then, when the quarry was mothballed, the railway was left intact but utterly neglected, so that by the time the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway crews had the go-ahead to bring it back to life it was an 8½-mile-long jungle.  Whereas most railway-preservation groups have to lay fresh track, as did the EVR's neighbours at Peak Rail, here the heavy work has been clearing out blocked culverts and replacing rotten sleepers.

The line is open from the existing main line at Duffield so that passengers can connect with East Midlands trains' hourly Derby-Matlock service.

The main-line connection has been severed and, so I'm told, there's only a minimal chance of it being reinstalled.  The EVR can provide a worthwhile passenger service with steam locomotives and diesel railcars, and Wirksworth is a pleasant market town with a fascinating history.  The future looks promising for this once derelict survivor of a time when railway companies would build their lines almost anywhere.

Details of the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway services are at

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire Peak tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 28, 2010

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakTransports of delightThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Peak Rail Rowsley South

Peak Rail is a steam-railway project with a huge future.

The present is relatively modest.  Trains operate along a four-mile stretch of the Derbyshire Derwent valley.  Most of the resident locomotives are diesel, though trains are often steam-hauled.  The catering staff do an excellent line in Sunday lunch, afternoon tea and cream tea.  There is a regular roster of events to bring in special-interest groups.

The next major development will be running trains into the Network Rail station at Matlock.  At present the Peak Rail line terminates at a temporary station, Matlock Riverside, which is within walking distance of the town centre.  Once Peak Rail trains stand on the adjacent track to the railcars from Nottingham and Derby, it'll be easier for passengers to make the use of the line, and a restored direct rail link will enable steam tours from afar to travel up to Rowsley, and for Peak Rail excursions to head south on to the national network.

But the big agenda is the vision that started the whole project in 1975.  When the main line through Matlock to Manchester closed in 1968 the trackbed remained largely intact and much of it eventually passed to the respective local authorities, Derbyshire County Council and the Peak Park Planning Board.  The Peak Railway Association exists to support Peak Rail with proposals to restore train services up the Wye valley west of Rowsley, bringing visitors to Bakewell, Monsal Dale, Miller's Dale and eventually Buxton.

The practical impediments are, apparently, replacement of an overbridge at Rowsley and "difficulties" with Haddon Tunnel.  Otherwise the obstacles are primarily economic.  Repeated examinations of the plan have so far ruled out reinstatement, though the attractions of routing freight by rail across Derbyshire, relieving the heavily-used Hope Valley line from Dore to Chinley, may become more attractive in the years to come.

Details of Peak Rail's services and events are at

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire Peak tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 21, 2010

Category:Transports of delight

Heckington Windmill

When my friend Elisabeth, who is one of the ladies who lunch, suggested stopping at Heckington during a drive round Lincolnshire, the tea-shop was our priority.  In fact, the tea-shop she had in mind was closed, but we found a new one, the Mill House Tearoom – a work in progress by Michaela Spenger and Ian Yardley who provide excellent pots of tea and pastries with a Viennese accent.

Alongside stands the unique eight-sailed Heckington Windmill [], which was built in 1830 with five sails, and uprated (as one would say of a motor-car) to eight sails in 1890 when the Mill House was built.  Commercial milling stopped in 1946, and the mill was restored to working order in 1986.  Eight sails means that this mill keeps grinding when others run out of wind.  Visitors are invited to climb through its five flours, and can buy Heckington Windmill flour to take home.

Alongside the windmill is a railway level-crossing, for the village has a full train-service between Nottingham and Skegness.  At least once an hour traffic stops as the signalman manhandles the gates, and the signal box works in the traditional way:  for everything you could want to know about this, see

The original 1859 Great Northern Railway station building was saved from demolition by the Heckington Village Trust in 1975, and now houses the Heckington Village Trust Railway Museum built around the layouts of the HVT Model Railway Club.  For £1.00 you can chat about trains and use the station loo.  Opening times are at

And, as Elisabeth and I found, you might see the arrival of a huge train from Nottingham too long for the platform, so that the rear carriages block the level crossing and Heckington grinds to a halt.

No pun intended.

For more illustrations of the windmill and the signal-box (though, oddly, not the station), see

For the story of the Mill House Tearoom see and

Posted by: mike on Jul 8, 2010

Category:Transports of delightLiverpool's Heritage

Liverpool Prince's Dock

Liverpool Riverside Station [left] and Prince's Dock [right] (1983)

My Isle of Man host-with-the-most John was puzzled when he parked up at the ferry terminal in Liverpool to find himself standing on cobbled roadway with a complex set of railway lines embedded.

This turned out to be all that is left of Liverpool Riverside station, a legendary line by which passengers were transported directly to the quayside, so that they stepped out of their railway carriage and walked across a covered roadway directly to their ocean-going liner.

Boat trains left the main line at Edge Hill station, which still exists, and followed a steep descent through Victoria and Waterloo tunnels and then over a tight curve on to the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board tracks that led to the three platforms of Riverside station.  On the dock estate these trains proceeded literally at walking pace, following a man carrying a warning flag.

The appeal for trans-shipping passengers who would otherwise have to make their way across town from Lime Street station is obvious, but the operational practicalities made the service cumbersome even in the heyday of rail travel.

In any case, not long after this link was constructed in 1895 the major transatlantic passenger traffic began to migrate to Southampton, where the London & South Western Railway cannily built docks big enough to take the new generation of vessels which included Oceanic, Titanic and Britannic.  (The reason that Titanic had the lettering 'TITANIC – LIVERPOOL' on its stern was because the White Star Line registered its vessels from its Liverpool head office.  The ship never visited Liverpool.)

The real heyday of Liverpool Riverside appears to have been wartime, when it was heavily used for troop movements.  Indeed, according to the Disused Stations website [], the very last train brought troops embarking for Northern Ireland on February 25th 1971.

The place stood derelict until the 1990s, and is now transformed by the regeneration of Liverpool's riverside.

PS:  Since John got back "across", as they say in the Isle of Man, he's passed me this very informative link about the rail links between Edge Hill and the Liverpool docks:

PSS:  A 1950s image from the same viewpoint as the image above, the western tower of the Royal Liver Building, is at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 2, 2010

Category:Transports of delightHumber Heritage

PS Lincoln Castle (1988)

PS Lincoln Castle at Hessle (1988)

Two of the three of the pre-war paddle-steamers built for the London & North Eastern Railway's Humber ferry have survived:  the fate of the third, Lincoln Castle, is a particularly sad story.

The first two, Wingfield Castle and Tattershall Castle (both built in 1934), each have safe harbours.  Wingfield Castle is moored at Jackson Dock as part of the Museum of Hartlepool [];  Tattershall Castle, though structurally altered, continues to earn her living as a pub-restaurant moored on the Thames Embankment in central London.

Lincoln Castle, however, has had a more chequered career.  Intended as a development of the two 1934 vessels, she was built by A & J Inglis on the Clyde in 1940.  The Heritage Trail website [] tells of the difficulty of moving her from the Clyde to the Humber under the twin threats of bombardment and U-boat operations to begin work in 1941.

The last coal-fired paddle-steamer in regular public service, Lincoln Castle was withdrawn from service in 1978 when the boilers were no longer safe.  She was beached at Hessle in the shadow of the Humber Bridge where she served as a pub from 1981 to 1987.  Then she was towed across the river to Immingham, refitted and taken, not without difficulty, to Grimsby's Alexandra Dock where she opened as a pub-restaurant in 1989 alongside the Fishing Heritage Centre building and the trawler Ross Tiger [see and].

The Lincoln Castle pub closed in 2006 for renovations and because of concerns about the condition of the hull she was beached in a corner of the dock.  In 2010 she was put up for sale, with the threat that without a buyer she would have to be broken up.  Between them, private sponsors, the North East Lincolnshire Council and the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society [] were unable to find a practical solution to the difficulty of preserving a significant example of British maritime history that needed a great deal of expensive work simply to keep her afloat.

The future of the Lincoln Castle rested on a knife-edge:,, and

In the end it was dismantled, and some of the parts rescued for possible reconstruction:

Images of the Lincoln Castle and her sister ships can be found at

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