The 'faded glory' of the Queensbury Lines: Great Northern Outpost Vol.3

The ‘faded glory’ of the Queensbury Lines: Great Northern Outpost Vol.3

Back in 2014, an annual report on internet trends found that an average of 1.8 billion photographs were uploaded to social media platforms daily. That’s one for every fourth person on the planet – a breath-taking figure. Whilst each image captures a unique moment in time – and a memory for someone – their long-term value must generally be intangible. That’s not why we take photos, of course, but the production of a social archive has been a happy consequence of us doing so.

We were more thoughtful in exercising our shutter fingers during the era of film and we therefore captured scenes with greater depth, albeit viewed through a rose-tinted filter. The latest offering from Willowherb Publishing – who specialise in colour transport history albums – drips with nostalgia and melancholy, charting the declining years of the Queensbury Lines in West Yorkshire’s Pennine foothills.

The third in a series, ‘Faded Glory’ is dedicated to the post-war railway men and women who battled against the odds to serve customers and communities whilst those further up the management chain conspired to make Queensbury’s three radial routes financially unsustainable. Oh yes they did, such were the prevailing politics.

A B1 passes over Queensbury’s three-span viaduct in 1964.
Reproduced with special permission of the authors © Alan Whitaker/Jan Rapacz
Photo: Howard Malham

The village’s station features on the cover as a B1 hauls its light load over the three spans of a viaduct which carried part of the Bradford-Keighley platforms. The coping stones almost look new, presumably installed after the platforms were removed from the parapets to reveal the elegant ironwork which formerly supported them. It’s all gone now.

The book’s main body presents a journey to Keighley from Bradford’s expansive Interchange station – looking desperately austere – and Halifax, where the Great Northern and Lancashire & Yorkshire railways enjoyed a collaborative relationship. This all comes courtesy of photographers who had the vision – and resources – to invest in colour film, although we’re mostly riding within a Sixties landscape which industry had painted grey.

The railway threaded itself unobtrusively through the urban sprawl, hiding in cuttings and tunnels before emerging to snatch land for stations and yards. St Dunstans, Horton Park, City Road Goods, Great Horton, Clayton, Ovenden, Pellon, St Paul’s: we see all these outposts from what is definitely a stopping service.

John Rothera and David Mitchell, in particular, had eyes for infrastructure, recording a collection of structures that have subsequently been torn from the map. A gloomy incursion into Ripley Street Tunnel stands out, as does another looking down towards Manchester Road Tunnel with the tracks in surprisingly fine fettle.

A goods train rounds the curve towards Wellhead Tunnel in March 1963.
Reproduced with special permission of the authors © Alan Whitaker/Jan Rapacz
Photo: R L Mitchell

Of considerable appeal are views of the routes’ signal boxes, standing sentry over their junctions. Those at Holmfield and Queensbury East are depicted in forlorn states, whilst a view of Horton Junction’s lever frame has a delightful timeless quality. And then there are the modest trackside cabins wherein platelayers would rest; we’re offered two on the approaches to Lees Moor and Clayton tunnels. Whilst drivers and firemen enjoyed the public’s adoration, legions of invisible labourers attended to the tracks in all weathers to ensure their safe passage. Lest we forget.

Possibly most striking is a fabulous panorama of the 25-acre City Road goods yard with its coal drops, six miles of sidings and chimney-strewn backdrop. More evocative is Ralph Wood’s photo of five lads investigating the track-lifting operation at Clayton in 1966, back in the days when kids had real adventures rather than experiencing life through their phones.

A Halifax street scene catches the traffic passing the Great Northern Hotel near North Bridge, long since demolished to make way for a flyover. But for their tonal splendour, there are no better shots than those capturing the vista at the north end of Halifax Station – mills foreground, hills beyond – as a DMU encounters the junction with the line up to Ovenden, and another showing an RCTS Special, paused in the sunshine at Queensbury East Junction whilst its passengers decant to explore the overgrown infrastructure.

A track-level view across the rooftops towards Horton Park in 1966.
Reproduced with special permission of the authors © Alan Whitaker/Jan Rapacz
Photo: John Rothera

Deep insight into the book’s 106 photographs is offered by the accompanying captions, richly researched by authors Alan Whitaker and Jan Rapacz. We learn that the goods yards at Thornton and Great Horton generated income of £13,086 in 1964; closing them a year later saved the railway just £6,000 annually. And in 1957, a section of closed line near Ingrow was relaid with concrete sleepers to test their durability by deliberately derailing a train onto them!

The historical merit of this album – and the two that preceded it – should not be underestimated. The imagery is rare; despite their exceptional engineering, few photographers considered the Queensbury Lines to be worthy of their spotlights. But no less significant is the pulling together of knowledge about them before it is lost. The attention to detail is exemplary.

Great Northern Outpost Volume 3: Faded Glory has been carefully pieced together by Willowherb Publishing and is available via its website, priced £19.95. Despite the pervading gloom, it serves as a celebration of the engineers, contractors and navvies who overcame adversity to drive these lines through hostile terrain and those who subsequently faced the challenges of operating them.

And we’re left with some brightness. The last photo recalls the reopening of Thornton’s majestic 20-arch viaduct as part of the Great Northern Railway Trail in 2008. Those with vibrant memories of the railway mingled amongst youngsters astride their bikes as the structure prepared for a better future.

As we wrestle our environmental responsibilities with a different mindset after Covid, the benefits of old railways as active travel corridors must increasingly be recognised. This commemoration of the Queensbury Lines in print has to be accompanied by more sections of physical rebirth for walking, cycling and our collective wellbeing.

We look forward to Volume 4.

The 'faded glory' of the Queensbury Lines: Great Northern Outpost Vol.3

The Bradford, Thornton & Keighley Railway in colour: Great Northern Outpost Vol.2

Given its decline under British Rail, today’s railway is an unlikely success story, connecting commuters with their workplaces in comfort, good time and unprecedented numbers. Generally speaking. And make no mistake – despite operational hiccups and fares that make your toes curl – it is now an industry that’s acutely passenger focussed.

But it hasn’t always been that way: travel back to the 1950s and things looked very different. Yes, for many miles, tracks rode the contours of the landscape, much as they still do. Those modest corridors did though contrast starkly with the sprawling goods yards which served local enterprise, interrupting an otherwise linear progression. The modern traveller will never have seen such sights, but now can – in full colour – thanks to a photographic journey along the erstwhile Halifax, Thornton & Keighley Railway, a key constituent of the outstanding ‘Queensbury Lines’. This is captured in a book entitled Great Northern Outpost, the second in a series from Willowherb Publishing.

The HT&KR appeared during a late phase of network development in the 1870s/80s, the hilly topography thereabouts having previously been judged insurmountable. In overcoming that challenge, the Great Northern constructed one of Britain’s great railways, although it never earned the ranking enjoyed by the Settle & Carlisle, built partly by the same contractor. Blessed with tunnels, viaducts and earthworks of equally grand proportions, the Halifax, Thornton & Keighley stood testament to the prowess of John Fowler and his son, Henry, its engineers. But ultimately, the two routes faced different fates.

By the time colour photography came within reach of railway enthusiasts, the line was already on the way out. As a result, the book has no rose tint – most of the images depict a creaking melancholy. There’s grime too – lots of it. Those of a certain age will have memories rekindled of an urban world blackened by industrial belch.

A Black 5 collects wagons at Holmfield in 1960.
Reproduced with special permission of the authors © Alan Whitaker/Jan Rapacz
Photo: Gavin Morrison

Our departure point is chimney-strewn Halifax, of which broad vistas are offered featuring the station and now-demolished 35-arch viaduct linking it with North Bridge where a sizeable goods warehouse once did thriving business. Dominating every view is a retaining wall – built to address space constraints – extending more than quarter-of-a-mile to the mouth of Old Lane Tunnel.

Tackling the gradient away from town, we arrive at Holmfield – northern end of the Halifax & Ovenden Railway – where an N1 pauses with a two-coacher heading south. It’s 1954 and passenger services are in their last full year. Despite splashes of sunshine, the scene is bleak, much of the station’s infrastructure having succumbed to rationalisation in the 1930s. There is though a signal box, marooned off the platform end, which controlled a set of motorised points that were unique on the Queensbury Lines.

Before joining the HT&KR proper, a diversion is taken along the High Level line to Halifax St Pauls. We learn from an intricately detailed caption – one of many – that the goods facilities at Pellon accommodated both Lancashire & Yorkshire and Great Northern staff in separate offices, but they had to share the same toilet!

The engineering steps up a gear as the line’s two tracks navigate the deep rock cutting at Strines before disappearing into Queensbury Tunnel. About to do the same, in October 1962, is the District Engineer who is seen relaxing in his inspection saloon as an Ivatt tank propels it through Queensbury’s triangular station towards the north portal. A fabulous panorama helps to describe the layout here.

A train of mineral empties comes off the High Level line.
Reproduced with special permission of the authors © Alan Whitaker/Jan Rapacz
Photo: Ernie’s Railway Archive

Beyond Thornton, the route climbs to its summit between two more tunnels before falling again into Denholme Station, the foundations for which had to be sunk 24 feet below track level thanks to “the peculiar nature of the soil”. The sun again does its best to detract from the Fifties’ dilapidation, but rust and flaking paintwork are not so easily hidden.

As the setting becomes more rural, the page is turned on another structural landmark – Hewenden Viaduct, built in stone from the nearby Manuel Quarry and spanning the valley on a sweeping curve. A locomotive retreats over it towards Cullingworth, our next stop. Here, a spring image from 1954 has a more optimistic flavour, with a four-foot free of vegetation and lone passengers loitering on both platforms. In the adjacent goods shed is an unlikely refugee from Sheffield – a double-deck tramcar.

Weeds take over again as Keighley beckons. Getting there involves a passage through Lees Moor Tunnel, constructed without ventilation shafts to the considerable disadvantage of footplate crews. It was a choking hell hole and, hence, a fitting place to host post-closure experiments into the comparative harm of sulphurous steam and diesel fumes.

Towards the bottom of the hill, a succession of bridges and cuttings – now infilled – reintroduce the line to urban living. Three young lads welcome the opportunity to explore an environment that was theoretically off-limits, bedecked in short trousers: a picture very much of its time. The end of the line is close by, goods trains passing under the Worth Valley Railway to reach a generous yard whilst the GN’s passenger services meet the Midland network at Keighley’s joint station. In 1954, we find a Gresley N1 and two coaches ready to start their ascent: destination Bradford.

A demolition train propels into Queensbury Tunnel in May 1963.
Reproduced with special permission of the authors © Alan Whitaker/Jan Rapacz
Photo: D J Mitchell

Just like Volume 1 covering the Bradford & Thornton Railway, the reader’s return journey is made alongside the salvage teams who lifted the tracks after closure, mostly over the summer of 1964. Glorious weather was their unwarranted bonus. This activity presented several photographers with the opportunity to blag rides on the demolition train – thankfully grasped with both hands – from which they could acquire unique views of the line and its many structures. Of particular interest is a shot showing the gantry machine, used to remove the Down line from the confined space of Queensbury’s 2,501-yard tunnel.

The book’s contributors – notably David Mitchell and John Rothera – performed a fine public service by pointing their cameras at the overlooked Queensbury Lines. But that foresight would have little value without authors Alan Whitaker and Jan Rapacz whose deep research over 40-plus years unearthed the evocative imagery and stories behind it. They’ve done a cracking job. The atmosphere might be gloomy, but it’s a vibrant trip with the richest possible commentary.

Great Northern Outpost Volume 2: The Halifax, Thornton & Keighley Railway is brought to us by Willowherb Publishing and is available via its website (click here to visit the Buy Now page), priced £19.95.

The Bradford, Thornton & Keighley Railway in colour: Great Northern Outpost Vol.2

The Bradford & Thornton Railway in colour: Great Northern Outpost Vol.1

We don’t do book reviews here. It’s far beyond our remit and, in any case, where would we start? Yesterday’s railways have spawned so many of them. But every rule has its exception and this one is driven by the subject matter being close to home, both personally and geographically. That the book takes us on a unique journey along a fabulously engineered (and long since lost) line is, of course, a bonus.

The first in a series entitled Great Northern Outpost, it photographically chronicles the latter days of the meandering branch to Thornton, in the hills west of Bradford. This formed part of what became known as ‘The Queensbury Lines’ and a second volume – to appear later this year – will include the section from Halifax to Queensbury, as well as the Keighley extension. Thus we’ll have many more structures to awe at.

So what makes this book stand out? Yes, the nostalgia is classic – the solitary signalman tugging at a lever, rained-soaked platforms where only a dog waits, the District Engineer’s saloon retreating over a viaduct. Evocative imagery for sure, but elsewhere you’d tend to find it in black and white. Here though, every one of the 110 pictures is colour and, without seeing them, it’s difficult to appreciate the extra dimension that brings.

A J39 shunts in Thornton yard in 1962.
Reproduced with special permission of the authors © Alan Whitaker/Jan Rapacz
Photo: D J Mitchell

Responsible for pulling everything together are Alan Whitaker, whose father served as Station Master at Thornton, and Jan Rapacz with his childhood memories of the line, having grown up at Great Horton. It’s been years in the making, such is the dearth of colour material and the time needed to research it. The comprehensive captions offer much insight. But greatest credit must go to the enthusiasts who captured the scenes on what, at the time, must have been eye-wateringly expensive camera equipment. The predominant collection is that of David Mitchell who clearly had an eye for locomotives; we must though also be thankful to John Rothera and the striking infrastructure views he caught.

It’s difficult to follow the alignment today, such was the vigour with which it was reclaimed after closure and the nature of subsequent development. The book is hugely valuable in that respect, revealing the challenge faced by engineer John Fraser in threading the railway through what, in the 1870s, was already considerable urban sprawl. The topography and geology didn’t help much either.

Whilst passenger services originated from Bradford Exchange, the line proper started at St Dunstan’s, thereafter diving under the Lancashire & Yorkshire’s route to Halifax before entering a cutting, supported by vertical retaining walls, one side being heavily buttressed. There is a sense that the railway was almost invisible – hidden away in cuttings – except at the stations where expansive goods yards gobbled a few acres.

A buttressed retaining wall near Upper Castle Street, Bradford.
Reproduced with special permission of the authors © Alan Whitaker/Jan Rapacz
Photo: John Rothera

Featuring regularly throughout the book are stalwarts of Low Moor shed which succumbed to the outbreak of diesel in 1967. Black 5, B1, J39, WD Austerity: grimy workhorses pictured on freight duties. We venture down the City Goods branch to find a Class 8 shunter going about its business. A coal merchant (remember them?) picks up his consignment from a double bank of coal drops. And particularly rare is a find from 1954 showing a Halifax-bound passenger train pausing at Queensbury’s even-rarer triangular station.

It’s the structures though that grab my attention – all of them built with permanence in mind but mostly demolished since the plug was pulled in 1965. We see the station booking office straddling the railway at Manchester Road, the adjacent tunnel – now buried – and elegant masonry overbridges, often at jaunty angles. Thornton’s eye-catching viaduct bucked the trend, its 20 spans surviving to acquire a Grade II listing.

As Bradford was left behind, the line broke cover to mount substantial embankments. But as Queensbury beckoned, it disappeared again into the 1,057-yard Clayton Tunnel. Accompanied by his four-legged friend, Bert Perry evaded dagger-like icicles to snap a view looking out into the deep, snow-covered approach cutting. This is now backfilled and topped with bungalows.

Adding great character to many of the pictures are the line’s signal boxes. Viewed from the 21st century – where the emerging norm is for soulless, distant control rooms – there is something deliciously charming about them. Two are worth highlighting: the first stood sentinel on the island platform at Great Horton – cantilevered out over the Goods Loop – whilst the second, Queensbury East, settled perfectly into the surrounding pastureland.

Track lifting is well advanced at Queensbury in May 1966.
Reproduced with special permission of the authors © Alan Whitaker/Jan Rapacz
Photo: John Rothera

Journey’s end is at Thornton where the yard remained busy well into the Sixties; indeed it was profitable – attracting new business – until BR management contrived to destroy it by ending timber and livestock feed movements. And so the book ends with salvage crews finishing what nature had, in reality, already begun – the process of reclamation. It’s all very melancholy.

The western end of the Bradford & Thornton Railway is now preserved as the Great Northern Railway Trail; east of Queensbury there’s not much left. So the book reminds us of it, lest we forget the GN’s considerable endeavours in reaching out to places previously unconnected. By doing so in colour, the book draws its readers into believing that the scenes are relatively recent. A couple of shots showing Thornton Viaduct could have been taken yesterday, were it not for the locomotive and its pall of smoke. This was though 50-plus years ago – a very different time – when chimneys and telegraph poles broke the skyline. It certainly whets the appetite for Volume 2.

Great Northern Outpost Volume 1: The Bradford & Thornton Railway is brought to us by Willowherb Publishing and is available via its website (click here to visit the Buy Now page), priced £19.95.