The story of Scarcliffe Station by Trevor Skirrey: The Last Train

The story of Scarcliffe Station by Trevor Skirrey: The Last Train

Promptly at 9pm on Saturday evening, a passenger guard blew his whistle and held aloft his polished, paraffin-filled hand lamp, displaying a green light to the driver. He acknowledged with a resounding whistle and the train hissed and puffed away from Chesterfield Market Place Station for the last time – nostalgic sounds that would be heard no more.

A small ladder leans against one of Scarcliffe Station’s lamp posts,
suggesting that the lamp is in need of paraffin.

An ambitious scheme was conceived by William Arkwright – a local landowner – and other Victorian planners to connect and develop the great coal fields of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. It would bring together the east and west coasts, 175 miles apart, passing through Chesterfield, making it the Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway.

After five years, a line was finally laid from Langwith Junction (later called Shirebrook North) to Chesterfield. The cost of this short stretch of line was astronomical and further funds were unforthcoming so the project ended at the Market Place Station which had a new glass roof, four platforms and great expectations. But a railway would eventually run; ribbon cutting by Mrs Arkwright officially opened the line for traffic on 8th March 1897. Freight trains would serve local collieries and at least seven passenger trains provided a daily service to Lincoln, Mansfield and all tiny stations en route.

In less than 60 years, the very pits which the line was intended to serve wreaked havoc upon it by subsidence, bringing about its quick demise. The terrain was most uneven, necessitating the erecting of bridges, viaducts and tunnels.

The most costly construction between Lincoln and Chesterfield was undoubtedly the Bolsover Tunnel; completely straight for 2,624 yards, emerging at Scarcliffe. Subsidence and water formed the basis of its rapid closure. It constantly dripped water even when the weather was dry. At the Scarcliffe end, I walked down to the tunnel mouth many times to collect fresh watercress!

A special tunnel gang was employed seven days a week, keeping it maintained and under observation. In 1942, only 45 years after its opening, the Up line was deemed unsafe due to water erosion of the north wall, meaning all trains would now travel on the Down line. A single line system was introduced (key token working) and the signal boxes at Scarcliffe and Bolsover Stations were modified to allow this. A leather pouch would be handed to the driver by the signalman containing that ‘key token’ ensuring that his was the only train on that stretch of line.

In that year, the Royal Train from Sheffield was diverted off the London route and directed instead towards Duckmanton and Arkwright Junction. It was night and the train came to a stop inside Bolsover Tunnel. All traffic had earlier been cancelled. Sheffield suffered heavy bombing and it was considered, for obvious reasons, that the Royal Train with King George VI on board would be safer taking cover in the tunnel overnight. Villagers were unaware of this activity except for railway staff. The platelayers, in crumpled greasy caps and baggy corduroys, guarded fences, bridges and viaducts to deter any would-be 5th Column assassin – called ‘the enemy within’ during the war years. The next morning the train continued on its journey.

The 8:24 ‘school train’ leaves with young passengers bound for Chesterfield Grammar School.

In 1947, a passenger timetable ran:

Shirebrook North4:43pm

Fares were low compared with those of today. Chesterfield Market Place to Lincoln – eight shillings and tuppence, or 41p as we know it now (£11.90 if converted using RPI). Scarcliffe to Chesterfield – two shillings and four pennies – 12p in today’s money (£3.40 if converted using RPI).

A proud Mr Hunt – Scarcliffe’s last station master – pictured with his wife and ‘railway children’ around 1910.

Probably the first and last station master to be appointed at Scarcliffe Station was a bewhiskered Mr Hunt where he, his wife and three children lived in the newly-built four bedroomed house, situated at the entrance to the station premises which boasted a huge white gate. The Great Central’s station houses were unmistakable in their Edwardian style; built to last.

The station’s pretty island platform contained tiny gardens of roses and bright mesembryanthemums and was the recipient of many ‘Best Kept Station’ awards which were framed and proudly displayed in the waiting room. Quite and achievement considering the number of stations between there and Lincoln!

The station, viewed from the signal box.

The historic snows of 1947 not only disrupted life at Scarcliffe but the whole of England itself. The running of trains throughout the system was seriously disrupted for many weeks. When the mountains of snow eventually melted, it was almost spring and water poured from everywhere. At Scarcliffe, it gushed down Fox’s Hill for days. It came from surrounding fields where snow had lain several feet deep, melting into a river. It poured onto the street, past the school and Chapel, and as it passed the Elm Tree Inn it was joined by more water flowing down Main Street. Its course took it down Station Lane, through the station gates, across the railway line and down an embankment on the other side, to merge with the swollen River Paulter.

The force of water washed away yards of ballast from beneath the track and trains were cancelled again. It was many days before fresh ballast was replaced and normal working resumed.

Serious as this was, a huge embankment slip at Arkwright stopped the line for weeks. Passengers detrained at Bolsover and a bus service was provided onwards to Chesterfield. The culprit again was the aftermath of the ’47 snows which caused a high and wide embankment to collapse, leaving the metals hanging in mid-air like two ladders across a precipice. Months of work were involved bringing train loads of ballast and dozens of men to restore support for the tracks. The Down line was eventually made safe for the passage of trains and emergency Single Line Working brought in until the other line was repaired, which was not until late summer. It ran between Arkwright Junction and Markham Colliery, entailing the employ of a pilotman – distinguished with a red armband – to ride footplate over the single line, thus giving the driver assurance that no other train would occupy track at the same time.

Trevor’s domain for six happy years.

Signalman Skirrey multi-tasks – phone in one hand, lever in the other.

Being a signalman, I was temporarily rostered to act as pilotman for several weeks. Riding footplate backwards and forwards made a refreshing change. After accompanying a train to Markham, there would be another waiting to go in the opposite direction so I climbed aboard and the process began again. Close cooperation between pilotman and signalman was absolutely essential and one had to bear in mind the all-important passenger trains to which no unnecessary delay was caused.

Trevor’s Scarcliffe colleagues – Harry Key…
…and James Taylor.

In 1951, a decade before the ruthless Dr Beeching took delight in closing many important branch lines, the expensive Bolsover Tunnel was finally declared unsafe. Further maintenance work would be ineffectual as the water ingress was unstoppable. It ran more determinedly through the brickwork and the metals themselves had a tendency to creep due to subsidence. Trains maintaining a strict speed limit were almost scraping the tunnel sides. The end was near. All staff were notified that other places of work would be found for them. The local press publicised the news that from 3rd December 1951 the line would be closed.

And the village folk of Scarcliffe were obviously saddened. The line was still a vital link to those far-away places. There being far fewer cars in those days left for quiet and dreamy roads lined with the sweet fragrance of hawthorne blossom, not diesel oil. The next blow to Scarcliffe came a year later with the closure of its only shop and Post Office.

And so at 9pm the train departed Chesterfield Market Place for the last time. Being on duty that evening to signal it through (it did not halt at Scarcliffe), I watched as it slowly passed by, leaving a skein of smoke drifting across the platform and, through condensated windows, discerned a few railway enthusiasts riding the train for nostalgia’s sake. It was 9:29pm. The engine sounded a long and final whistle to everyone at Scarcliffe before rounding the curve on its way to Shirebrook; its small red tail light – bobbing and flickering slowly – disappeared into the December darkness.

Sunday morning I opened the signal box for the final time to allow engines and wagons up to the station, crowded with gangs of men with dismantling equipment. The tunnel portals and ventilation shafts were sealed at both ends. The station buildings, furniture, signals and signal box – together with the green-painted iron footbridge – were hastily removed and, in three weeks, it was all but a memory, save for my first Train Register which I salvaged from a dusty pile beneath the frame.

Trevor thumbs through Scarcliffe’s surviving Train Register.

In November 1945, after a few years in various signal boxes, I had taken up the signalman’s post at Scarcliffe, remaining there until its closure six years later. My family and I continued to occupy the station house for a further ten years. At night, when winds gusted through the station’s trees, I could swear to hearing sounds of a distant train!

The remnants of a railway station – Scarcliffe, summer 1952.

More Information

Richard’s Bygone TimesPage of photographs showing Scarcliffe village and station
WikipediaPage about Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway

The story of Scarcliffe Station by Trevor Skirrey: The Last Train

The story of Reedsmouth Junction: Brief Encounter

Whilst the world around him was welcoming the arrival of 1948 with laughter, drink and song, Isaac Elliott took to his bike for a nine-mile trek across the hills of Northumberland. This was not a bizarre expression of his youthful exuberance. As the clock struck midnight, he joined the mass ranks of railwaymen as cleaner-fireman at Reedsmouth, a posting which would prove the most gratifying of his working life. But that first shift had a surprise in store. After two hours of unremarkable solitude, a sodden apparition came knocking at the shed door. It was a surreal twist which lived long in Isaac’s memory.

A J21 waits at Reedsmouth’s Wansbeck platform with an early departure for Scotsgap.

Reedsmouth was a humble community of railway cottages, fifteen miles up the line from Hexham, at the junction of the Border Counties and Wansbeck railways. The latter cut a meandering path east to Morpeth whilst the former headed west to climb the North Tyne valley, joining the famous Waverley route in the high fells at Riccarton. This desolate place gave Reedsmouth the feel of a bustling metropolis.

Promoters of the Border Counties Railway thought their feet were firmly on the ground, even if their commercial future lay some distance beneath it. With the prospect of meagre revenues from local passenger traffic, they set their sights on supposedly rich reserves of coal, estimated at more than 100 million tonnes. These, coupled with rejuvenated iron furnaces at Bellingham, would form a solid industrial base from which a new rail link – with buffer stops just beyond Falstone – could profit.

Optimism subsided in June 1854 when a Select Committee sat to consider the prospectus. Opposition was unexpectedly fierce and well prepared, calling into question both the viability of the coal deposits – which had not been surveyed – and the line’s proposed timber structures, deemed unsuitable given the strength of local river currents. With its shortcomings exposed, relief must have been palpable when the scheme successfully negotiated these choppy parliamentary waters by July’s end.

Reedsmouth station today – the Border Counties’ Up platform overlooked by the main station building and signal box.
Colour photos: Four by Three

But the great British institution of friends in high places had delivered a hollow victory. Investors ran from the deafening alarm bells. As cash stopped flowing, the scheme fell into disarray, running years behind schedule. Contractual shenanigans between overbearing engineer, J H Tone, and his builder, William Hutchinson of Hartlepool, added to the sense of impending doom. This dysfunctional relationship cast a long shadow over the project.

It was shortly before Christmas 1855 when shovels were first heard on the Tyne’s south bank near Hexham, where the single line of the Border Counties diverged from the Newcastle & Carlisle. Within a month, Tone was back at his drawing board – he spent a lot of time there – redesigning the 440-foot river crossing which had already run into difficulties. Silence prevailed for more than a year. When work finally resumed, the viaduct rose from the water in just 14 months but at a price double the original estimate. By now, the company was struggling to stay afloat.

Chollerford, just four miles from the junction, enjoyed the role of temporary terminus when wagons first rolled in April 1858. Progress thereafter continued at a snail’s pace – indeed, the parliamentary powers vested in the company would have expired long before construction was even close to completion. Relief arrived during the summer of 1859 in the form of a second Act authorising an extension into Scotland to meet the Border Union railway and a deviation at Reedsmouth where the planned Wansbeck route would join. Twelve months on, the Border Counties Railway merged with the North British, finally placing its finances on a firm footing.

Rails were eventually laid into Falstone in September 1861, more than seven years after the original 26-mile plan was rubber-stamped. A siding and incline provided the connection to the large colliery at Plashetts, of which Tone was the first leaseholder. The 16-mile section through to Riccarton received the Board of Trade’s nod of approval in April 1862 though, with work there also behind schedule, it was not until 24th June that the ribbon was cut on the goods service. Passenger trains were shining the rail-top one week later.

Acrimony between engineer and contractor persisted to the end. Tone pointed the finger of blame for the line’s belated opening firmly and unfairly at Hutchinson, activating harsh penalty clauses. With all payments frozen, Hutchinson was declared bankrupt before the year was out. Legal action rumbled on for four years, concluding in a farcical tribunal over which Tone was appointed arbiter. Details of the settlement have not survived.

Looking south from the four-foot of the Counties’ Riccarton-bound platform.
The Down platform and its shelter await discovery in the undergrowth.

For Reedsmouth, the rapid approach of Wansbeck metals drove its sudden transformation from humble halt to principal staging post. Rebuilt as early as 1864, its main building was dominated by a vast water tank, perched on its roof, holding upwards of 60,000 gallons. These were guzzled from a moorland stream. Offices and a waiting room sheltered beneath. The Counties side comprised two platforms – allowing passenger trains to pass, though they rarely did – whilst a generous marshalling yard was installed on the eastern side, with turntable, weighbridge and accommodation for livestock. Standing sentinel on the platform end was an imposing signal box, overlooking the pointwork. Initially the only one on the line, it was joined by half a dozen others when Absolute Block signalling entered the statute books in 1889.

Motive power for both the Wansbeck and Counties was housed at Reedsmouth. Three local passenger trains ran each way during the day, with specials added when needs must. Through services linked Newcastle to Hawick and Edinburgh, a somewhat futile venture by the North British which liked to think of the route as an alternative Anglo-Scottish main line. Journey times were awful. On the goods side, coal headed north, though never in the quantities foreseen by the line’s promoters, whilst agricultural supplies made the trip inbound.

In the 1920s, a national reserve of timber was established, with the largest development consuming 120,000 acres of moorland around Kielder. By the start of the Second World War, forestry was a major employer throughout the district. Working at its fringe was a young Isaac Elliott who was helping to fell trees for ten shillings a week. The Wansbeck had attracted a saw mill to his home village of Knowesgate, where his dad was a platelayer. Timber went out by rail. Their modest cottage had neither water nor electricity, but boasted a train at the back door and bus at the front.

Isaac Elliott

Elliott Junior served his country with both Army and Navy, gaining quite an education during a year-long turn of duty in India. Discharged in 1947, his father’s footsteps soon lead him into gainful employment on the railway, preparing engines over the hills at Reedsmouth.

That career got off to an unsociable start at midnight on New Year’s Eve. A solitary light glowed by the shed door though, inside, it was lifeless – just a handful of locos sleeping peacefully in the gloom. So it was quite a revelation when, two hours after clocking-on, the silence was broken by a knock at the door. “I thought Gabriel had landed!” jokes Isaac. He peered out to see a girl shivering in the shadows. “I think she was a Land Army type – something like that. She had an overcoat on but was absolutely soaked to the skin. I’m quite sure she’d crossed one of the rivers.”

Our hero brought her in, took her coat – “just her coat, mind!” – and sat her by the fire to thaw. In spite of his care and hospitality, not a word passed her lips. Perhaps her jaws had frozen shut. “We had a bothy outside – an old carriage with a fire in. I lit it and, after it took hold, I put her in there for the night.” Eventually she found her voice and asked “Will you see I get the Kielder train in the morning?”

Duly installed on that first service north, the damp damsel disappeared in a cloud of smoke, never to be seen again. “To this day, I don’t know who she was. It was one of the mysteries of life” Isaac muses.

A view of the Down platform from a Hexham-bound passenger train.

A cleaner’s lot did not often feature such intrigue. It was a tough, dirty business, involving an early start to get the engine fired ready for the driver. “If it wasn’t lit, you were in trouble! I used to leave home at two-thirty in the morning and cycle to Reedsmouth for four o’clock. After a week or two, I got board and lodgings in the village which helped a bit. It took about two-and-a-half hours to get the engines steamed up.” Like people, these living machines could be temperamental. “On damp mornings, the fires would hardly burn at all!”

Reedsmouth shed was brick-built and occasionally played host to six locos, mainly J21s and J36s. Some of them were still going strong at retirement age. Eight men were based there – four drivers and four cleaner-firemen. As the junior, young Elliott would often find himself booked on the Saturday night train out of Hexham, heading up to Kielder. It was not a popular turn – the old hands took the day off. “There was no turntable at Kielder so you’d come back tender first. Whatever was coming out of the heavens, you got a bit of it!”

Hands were rarely idle. Carriages and engine had to be coupled, taking care to dodge the buffers. Water was taken daily to slake the thirst of a crossing keeper. And then there was the coalman who was always thankful for help with his load. Digging into that was “absolute slavery”.

Reedsmouth engine shed looking rather healthier than it does today.

After a few months in service, each locomotive was taken down to Blaydon to have its boiler washed out. “It was an easy shift, that one!” On a return journey, Isaac and driver once stopped for water at Hexham. As the huge pipe was coaxed into the tender, a Newcastle-bound train pulled in alongside. Its passengers turned to watch the action. Regrettably, the driver was a little over-enthusiastic with the valve. “He turned it on too quickly, the pipe bent, lifted out and the water went straight in through the carriage window opposite!” A swift departure was called for.

Firing was a skill which got easier with practice. Good drivers offered advice; others said nothing – just gazed across at the steam gauge. “You knew what that meant – get it stoked up!” Footplate relationships varied. “The majority of drivers were alright but some didn’t trust you. If there was a signal on your side, you’d tell him what it was showing but they’d still come across and have a look.”

Although lacking its former splendour, a refurbished Reedsmouth box still stands on the platform end. Rusting relics of its signalling system still survive.

Pride was in plentiful supply and everyone tried to do the job right. The railway was run with locals in mind, not management. After a Saturday shopping trip to Morpeth, the platelayer’s wives would be dropped at their door, half way between two stations. As a thank you, they’d give the crew chocolate bars. Lumps of coal were shared with all and sundry. And, when the Scotgap stationmaster’s goat passed away, the driver offered to cremate it in the firebox.

Scotsgap sat at the Wansbeck’s midpoint and visits there often involved a bit of shunting in the yard. Tragedy could strike if those working lineside didn’t have their wits about them during these slow, quiet movements. In one episode, the guard didn’t hear the approaching engine and, as Isaac recalls, “he stepped into the line and it took his foot clean off.” The unfortunate soul succumbed to his injuries a couple of weeks later.

By the 1950s, both the Counties and the Wansbeck were also struggling to survive. When Northumberland’s highways had been upgraded 30 years earlier, railways shouldered the burden of carrying stone to the roadworks. Ironic then that affordable motor cars caused their demise, prompting an exodus from rail to road. “By the end, we’d just have two or three passengers on, or a bundle of Evening Chronicles. It couldn’t have been paying. Originally, the railway meant everything because of the lack of road transport but eventually that’s what killed it.”

The plug was pulled on the Wansbeck’s passenger service in September 1952. The Counties’ kept rolling for four more years and it was the autumn of 1958 before the last through goods trip ran. The mile-and-a-half section from Reedsmouth to Bellingham clung to life as an extension of the Wansbeck though, when this was abandoned on 9th November 1963, one hundred years of community service was brought to a disappointing end. The Wansbeck completely shut up shop in October ’66.

A classic view of Reedsmouth box as a special occupies the Wansbeck platform.

Whilst the iron deck of Border Counties viaduct is long gone, its concrete foundations still stand like giant stepping stones across the Tyne. The trackbed beyond Falstone was overwhelmed by Kielder Reservoir during the Seventies, yet much of the remainder can still be traced and, in parts, is walkable. At Reedsmouth, the decaying shell of the engine shed now benefits a local farmer. Both the station building and signal box are reborn as dwellings.

For Isaac Elliott, the railway’s decline was sad, if inevitable. British Rail dangled the carrot of employment in Hull – a prospect with no appeal so he chose a career change, signing up with the forestry which kept him busy for forty years. “I never had any complaints about the railway except for starting at that ridiculous time! It was the best job I ever had and I was quite sorry when it packed up.” That’s progress, isn’t it?

Visitors to the area can journey back to the Border Counties’ heyday through a photographic exhibition at the Bellingham Heritage Centre. It also lodges a collection of memorabilia, including signs, tools and even a station clock. Opening times are from 1030-1630, Friday through to Monday, from Easter until the end of September. There’s a small entrance fee. For more information or to arrange a group visit, call 01434 220050.

More Information

Northumberland RailwaysStatistics, history and archive shots of the Border Counties
RailScotTimeline and contemporary photos of the route
Bellingham Heritage CentreExhibition of Border Counties’ photographs and memorabilia

The story of Reedsmouth Junction: Brief Encounter

The story of Queensbury Station: Queensbury Rules

‘Unique’ is an overused word and it would be wrong to apply it to Queensbury station. Because it wasn’t – well not quite. Like the former junction at Ambergate in Derbyshire and Shipley today, it boasted a triangular layout with inner and outer platforms on all three sides, as well as a signal box at each corner. The first train pulled in during the Spring of 1879.

The line north snaked its way to Keighley, embracing viaducts, tunnels and lofty views over the industrial sprawl – earning it the affectionate title of ‘The Alpine Route’. To the south-west, via the glorious gloom of Queensbury tunnel, lay Halifax whilst Bradford nestled to the east, also linked by a hole through the hill. Much to the annoyance of locals, Queensbury itself was perched high above its station, connected by a steep, meandering lane which the Great Northern Railway grudgingly lit after some protest.

An early view of Queensbury triangle, before the North and South junction boxes had been demolished.
Photo: Bradford Central Library

By the time Eric Brook joined the railway in 1935, the Queensbury lines had been swallowed up by the LNER. As a bright 15-year-old, he became a ‘block lad’ at Laisterdyke East signal box – recording the comings and goings in the Occurrence Book – and rose to become a porter-signalman at Holmfield before the Second World War called.

Eric Brook

He didn’t see action and ended up in Ireland via a brief foray to the French coast. But the railway wanted him back. “They traced me to a NAAFI in a field in Belfast” recalls Eric. “Somebody shouted out ‘2634125 Brook’. I said ‘I’m not coming now – I’m queuing for my bun!’ ‘I think it’s your ticket home’ came the reply. I was off!”

Back in Bradford, the Inspector offered Eric the signalling backwater at Thornton where he stayed for a year. “Then Clayton box became vacant” he remembers, “but it started at two o’clock in the morning. The Inspector had a bit of difficulty filling Clayton. I was a nit for going!” Eric was not an early riser as the Station Master would discover to his cost, occasionally covering for his signalman’s late arrival.

Shortly before the service finished in 1955, a Keighley-Bradford train approaches Queensbury signal box.
Photo: P Sunderland

The North and South Junction boxes had long gone when Queensbury beckoned in 1944. Only the 40-lever frame on the Bradford side remained but that was open around-the-clock. “A much busier box” crows Eric. “Trains ran through the station every hour and they all came in at once – first you’d get the outers and then, an hour later, you’d get the inners. One train used to deliver a fish wagon.” A red ‘eyeball’ was fixed to the wall – an electrically operated device which alerted the signalman to a train waiting to come in from Keighley. As Eric recollects “you couldn’t see the Keighley side so that was marvellous.”

But there was a downside – the walk to work from his home on Horton Bank Top. “I used to come across three or four fields in the pitch black. I fell over cows and horses – just walked into them. There was a sheepdog – it never barked, just followed me until I was off the premises. One night I crossed this lane and ran smack into a corrugated lamp-post. There was blood everywhere.”

A view of the station site taken from the South Junction in 2006 – the line to Keighley curved off to the left, the Bradford line headed towards the pylon and, behind the camera, is Queenbury tunnel.
Colour photos: Four by Three
Looking towards Bradford from the site of the former signal box.

He shared the box with Arthur Clark – a professional signalman who knew the rules and used them to his advantage – and a young lad called Bill Ball, with whom he’s still friends. Thanks to payment by ‘time and motion’, they only took home two pounds eight shillings a week – same as the porters who “sat on their backsides!”

There were few mod-cons – just a stove and a bench. Eric ate a lot. “I used to take two dozen slices of bread for each shift, all full of beetroot sandwiches.” The cold certainly made its presence felt. From time-to-time the points froze and an icy draft blew up through the frame. Rugs and coats were deployed as insulation. Fleeting glimpses of two young ladies undressing in the window of a terrace opposite occasionally warmed the cockles, but we’ll draw a veil over that story. More than those girls did!

“We had a big fire but the railway coal that we had delivered wasn’t a patch on the engine coal” bemoans Eric. “So we stopped the drivers that we knew and got a few lumps off. And we’d have that stove roaring! When I relieved Bill, I’d say ‘well the weather doesn’t look good – are you going home?’ He’d have a look out and say ‘no, no, I’ll stop’ and he’d spend the shift with me! I taught him how the play chess – took me about six months. We had some laughs!”

The neglected northern portal of Queensbury tunnel.
The viaduct which carried the Keighley-Bradford line has been dismantled over the past 20 years. This was the scene in the early nineties.

But there was discipline too. Eric was once hauled before management in Leeds after “rambling a load of gobbledegook” in the Occurrence Book. Arthur Clark reported him. And his recall of Rule 55 left something to be desired as the Inspector pointed out after his biennial knowledge test.

In 1945, an extra two shillings and sixpence a week enticed Eric south to Rotherham. He stuck in there for a year before leaving the railway to drive a bus. By the time Queensbury box rang its last regular bells in 1955, all his former colleagues had moved on. Excursion trains made occasional visits in the years that followed but the station was finally torn from the map in November 1963.

Today, the triangle has lost its shape and the platforms engulfed by 20-feet of landfill. A lonely rusting footbridge rests below the station house, next to the spot where the signal box once stood. Queensbury tunnel leaks like a baby but still clings to life. The viaduct on the Bradford-Keighley side was not so lucky.

Walkers and cyclists are now breathing some life into this industrial burial ground, through the extension of the Great Northern Trail, a footpath occupying two sections of trackbed. Queensbury’s geometric masterpiece has not returned but its place in railway history cannot be erased. As Eric Brook proudly states, “It was the cream!”

More Information

Queensbury Community WebsiteOur History: Queensbury station
Queensbury Community WebsiteOur History: Queensbury tunnel
Queensbury RailwayHistory and photos of the Halifax-Queensbury line
SustransDetails of the Great Northern Trail
Disused StationsQueensbury station history and photographs

The story of Queensbury Station: Queensbury Rules

The story of Norham Station: Last Man Standing

“It was a lovely, happy little station” muses Katherine Short as she guides another visitor around Norham’s railway museum. And she should know having lived there with her husband Peter – the last signalman and station master – for 54 years.

Norham station staff, pictured in the early 20th Century.

Authorised by the Newcastle & Berwick Railway Act of 1845, the branch from Tweedmouth first appeared on the timetable in July 1849 and, two years later, an end-on junction was made with the St Boswells to Kelso line, creating a 23-mile through route. This unremarkable railway served the border town of Coldstream and a handful of small, rural communities. Its one claim to fame came in 1948 when the East Coast Main Line was flooded and, for three months through the autumn, expresses were diverted along the branch.

Norham was a busy station and home to a trackwalker and six platelayers. Peter Short heard a whisper of an imminent vacancy but, so popular were such outposts, thought that he “hadn’t a cat in hell’s chance of getting it”. A speculative application went in and, against the odds, he got it. The couple spent four years living at nearby Twizel before moving into the station house.

The signal box and goods yard.
Norham station looking towards Berwick.
Colour photos: Four by Three

There was plenty to do. Milk churns arrived every morning. Goods came in for local shops and parcels for the villagers. Katherine recalls huge boxes of chickens which sometimes burst open, allowing their contents to flee.

Peter worked the signal box. One night, Mrs S came up with his supper to be confronted by The Flying Scotsman. Inside, the equipment had to be cleaned and polished, and the books kept in order. At precisely half-past-ten every Friday morning, the station master would walk along the platform to inspect the cabin. Peter often read the paper after seeing the 1025 on its way so a mirror was fixed to the wall, carefully aligned to allow his superior’s approach to be monitored without rising from the chair.

When the station master left, the burden of responsibility became heavier. As well as Norham, Peter took charge of the goods service at Twizel and Velvet Hall – the yards on either side. Then the Superintendent dropped a bombshell, announcing that the place would close in a few months and just nine of the line’s employees would be offered new posts. The Super suggested that Peter bought the station and concentrate on the coal business which he’d been running for some time.

Norham’s now-restored signal box.

Mr Short was the last man standing when he signalled the final freight train out of Norham on 29th March 1965. Eighteen months later, word came through that one of the tracks would be lifted as well as the sidings. The reclamation gang behaved like animals – removing anything steel and smashing the ten-tonne weighbridge. When they returned to complete the job, the signalbox was vandalised and a small fire started. The fireplace was unceremoniously pulled out together with the levers and frame.

Hours of back-breaking labour rescued the cabin from demolition and today, thanks to the installation of salvaged equipment, it looks much as it did forty years ago. Although a manicured lawn grows between the platforms, the booking office and porters’ room survive as home to an overwhelming hoard of railway artefacts. Norham’s rebirth as a museum might, in part, have been an unexpected consequence of its Grade II listing but it now stands as a glorious monument to the country station and its role in local life.

This nostalgic time warp is free to enter on Bank Holiday afternoons and can be found seven miles south-west of Berwick, just off the A698. For weekday tours, call 01289 382217.

More Information

Daily MailStory about the sale of the station

The story of Norham Station: Last Man Standing

The story of Millers Dale Station: The Right Hand Man

To some, he was the saviour of the railways; to others, he was their butcher. Whatever your standpoint, it’s beyond debate that Richard Beeching’s report on ‘The Reshaping of Britain’s Railways’ did exactly what it said on the cover. There were no small measures. Over six years, 200,000 railwaymen joined the dole queue; the doors were locked on 2,300 stations; 4,000 miles of trackbed were plundered for scrap. A once-weighty public service took on a leaner form.

Though vigorous campaigns were often mounted, the fight to reprieve deserted platforms was futile. Emotional attachment could never conquer British Railways’ skewed economics. Felled branch lines littered the countryside. To successfully challenge a closure proposal, objectors had to establish that community hardship would result. Usually this uphill struggle proved insurmountable but, at the western edge of the Peak District, one famous victory was recorded over officialdom.

A mixed goods service heads south over Millers Dale’s new viaduct.

A stronghold of Manchester commuters, Buxton and its road network regularly surrendered to the vagaries of old-fashioned winters. So, in 1963, when BR announced its intention to sever both routes into the town, a deluge of acrimonious protestation rained down on the Transport Users Consultative Committee, which acted as arbiter on such issues. With a well-marshalled opposition, the plan’s fragile foundations were soon exposed, prompting arguably the most significant climb down of the Beeching era.

Of course, one battle does not win a war. Falling passenger revenues could not support the local network. When the axe was raised again three years later, the Midland Railway’s Buxton branch bowed to the inevitable. But of greater significance was the loss of its feeder route – part of the St Pancras-Manchester main line – which cut a spectacular course across the Peaks.

It was in 1845 that the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midlands Junction Railway (there were no small measures when it came to company names either) placed plans before Parliament for a link into Lancashire from a junction on the North Midland Railway at Ambergate.

Engineer George Stephenson deemed that, through the hills, the new line would follow the Wye valley via Bakewell. His scheme did not pass muster with landowner the Duke of Rutland whose disapproval prompted a hasty return to the drawing board. An alternative plan was fashioned, taking the tracks north from Rowsley through the estate of the receptive Duke of Devonshire. Faced with a future bypassed by the railway, Bakewell’s anxious townsfolk appealed to the Duke of Rutland for a change of heart. He relented, but too late – Royal Assent was granted in August 1848.

As it transpired, these aristocratic manoeuvres were nothing more than a sideshow. The main event was now being played out in banks and boardrooms – the railway bubble had burst. A modest line was laid from Ambergate to Rowsley, welcoming customers in June 1849, but the route into Lancashire remained untouched for more than a decade.

Today, Millers Dales’ main station building is home to Peak District rangers.

Financial considerations aside, the ambitious Midland Railway longingly eyed the land of plenty which lay across the hills – domain of the London & North Western. These two rivals became embroiled in a tactical chess-like battle, each attempting to block any territorial expansion by the other. The LNWR enjoyed the upper hand, initially thwarting the Midland’s efforts to secure a main line through to Manchester.

Instead the pair descended on Buxton – the former constructing a line south from Whaley Bridge whilst, in May 1860, the Midland received the go-ahead for a 15-mile extension of the Rowsley line, entering the town from the east. This would serve Bakewell and entailed the excavation of seven tunnels, totalling 2,133 yards. Trains first rolled in May 1863, two weeks ahead of the competition.

The balance of power was shifting. Much to the LNWR’s fury, in 1862 the Midland had joined forces with the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway to construct its missing link into Lancashire. Although geological troubles at Dove Holes Tunnel slowed progress to a crawl, the four-year slog eventually paid off and the signals were cleared in October 1866. Within weeks, an immense landslide consumed half-a-mile of track, restyling a viaduct. It was not until February 1867 that remedial work was finished and the Midland’s first London express hurtled towards Manchester.

Nestling in the valley two miles south of Tideswell was Millers Dale, a village of no great importance until the railway arrived. Bestowed upon it was the honour of hosting the junction station for Buxton and the main line. The junction itself was a mile-and-a-half to the west, through three tunnels.

The interchange was a sprawling affair, built on a man-made ledge and boasting a main building with two platforms, signal box, goods facilities and sidings. It was approached from the south over a high, elegant viaduct comprising three iron arches.

The original Millers Dale (south) viaduct.
As it looks today, from a vantage point above the River Wye.

Traffic levels soared – expresses, stoppers, coal, goods. More sidings materialised. A bay was built for Buxton trains. Refreshments satisfied the appetite. And yet none of this treated the crippling congestion which grew from a mix of conflicting passenger, freight and local quarry services. Something had to give.

And it did. In 1903 powers were granted for the formation of a double track loop, allowing slow and fast trains to run separately through the station. The project devoured £90,000 – £6.6million in today’s terms. A second viaduct rose from the river; the main building was demolished and moved north; the goods yard sprawled. On the 1st April 1906, a new Millers Dale opened for business.

Under construction – the new northerly viaduct which is now Grade II listed.

Around 40 trains per day paused to collect and set down. Although the station itself generated relatively little income, this was a vibrant place where passengers traded main line speed for the branch’s more sedate progress. The goods yard bustled with merchants for coal, milk and livestock.

Tideswell’s travelling public was ferried to the station by coach from the George Hotel. They were carried up and down to Buxton on a push-and-pull service, introduced in the mid-30s. Its serene approach went undetected by one platelayer who paid the ultimate price for his error.

Wartime arrivals at the branch terminus were greeted by Wilf Oven whose first turn of duty at Buxton, as a porter/guard, drew to a close in 1943. Postings to Burton-upon-Trent and Derby followed, before Buxton beckoned once again. “The spirit there was very good” he remembers. “You could do anyone’s job and anyone could do yours.”

Wilf Oven, now and then

In 1957, Wilf was installed as foreman at Millers Dale – the Station Master’s right hand man. His day followed a familiar routine. At seven o’clock, he’d unlock the station, light the fires and see to the Manchester engine which had to be run around for the journey into Buxton. Meantime the Station Master, who acted as sub-postmaster, would deal with the mail before heading off for breakfast. Millers Dale was the last station to have a Post Office on the platform.

Water for the toilets was pumped up from the river. The inlet had to be cleared daily. Drinking water came from the spring at a nearby farm. Wilf enjoyed the luxury of his own office but the only phone sat with the booking clerks.

Home was in Tideswell, as it had been throughout his adventures further afield. The railway families formed a close-knit community. Parties and outings were arranged, including one to the Festival of Britain. But there was little free time for the foreman – just one Sunday per fortnight. Late shifts finished when the last train had gone.

Team spirit was “a bit lacking. If I said ‘go and do something’, some would go and do it, others would say ‘do it your bloody self’!” When the lamp went out in the signal on platform 3, Wilf instructed a porter to go and sort it out. He refused, stating that a lampman was still on duty. This was true, but he lived in Tideswell so Wilf did the job himself. Some weeks later, the lamp was out again. “When I asked this chap to sort it out he told me that he couldn’t climb ladders, so I had to do it myself again! It was the route of least resistance!”

Early diesels were put through their paces on the climb across the hills. The first test runs took place in the late forties. By Wilf’s time, regular services were still in their infancy and engines often failed. Steam locos would be sent from Rowsley on rescue missions.

The branch was serviced by a diesel unit from 1958. But the 0940 from Buxton was steam-hauled, bringing a through coach which was connected to an express at Millers Dale. Coupling the two was one of Wilf’s many responsibilities. But when a confused passenger was bending his ear at the crucial moment, the task fell to a porter. The automatic buckeye clicked into place, or so he thought. The downhill run into Derby passed without incident but, as the train pulled away, this coach remained motionless. From then on, it was accompanied up from Buxton by a Carriage & Wagon man.

Drivers were not infallible. One broke a coupling when he snatched his train on departure, causing the palaver of extracting one of the middle coaches. Assistance was provided by an engine which was conveniently passing by. Another missed a signal in fog and came to a halt immediately behind a late running express standing in the platform. Fortunately the through coach to Buxton, which would otherwise have been attached to its rear, was suspended in poor visibility. Only by this happy chance was disaster averted. The guard made his views known to Wilf but he pretended not to hear.

There was a pantomime one morning when the 0740 arrival from Manchester – which then went onto Buxton – turned up with ten coaches. Only six would fit in the bay so it was brought into platform 1. The loco was dispatched to run around the train. Wilf accompanied the driver as he didn’t know the route, leaving one of his minions to deal with the approaching parcels service from Derby.

As this was happening, the bus from Tideswell brought a dozen regulars for the 0815 to St Pancras. With no advice to the contrary, they boarded the waiting coaches. Chaos reigned on Wilf’s return. Was the train London-bound or heading for Buxton? “I had to walk down the train and get ‘em all out!” Management was not amused. “Anyone sat in an office knows what you should do in theory, but dealing with a problem is quite different” Wilf asserts. Even well-oiled machines misfire from time-to-time.

In 1955, British Railways made its first loss. With freight and passenger numbers dwindling, the Government launched a Modernisation Plan, cutting a swathe through the fleet of wagons and pushing the introduction of diesels. It did little to help. Eight years later, with Beeching at the helm, a more drastic remedy was prescribed – closing loss-making lines and focussing investment on others, better placed to carry long-distance, high-volume traffic.

Although it resisted the initial cuts, the elevated status of Millers Dale afforded it no immunity. At 2116 on Sunday 5th March 1967, the last train pulled away for the short trip to Buxton. Wilf Oven saw it off. “The feeling was pretty grim but it closed just the same.”

Wilf Oven ‘acquired’ the Delay Slip which recorded the very last departure from Millers Dale. The guard was clearly behind the times – the month was actually March 1967, not February.

Expresses raced through the platforms until July 1968 but the excessive costs of maintenance soon encouraged their diversion via the Hope Valley. For ten years Wilf found employment as a shunter at Peak Forest before hanging up his cap once-and-for-all in 1977, bringing to an end 40 years in the railway’s service.

It’s a testament to the toils of its 19th Century navvies that the route’s many structures remain in first-class condition. Now in the care of the Peak National Park, almost nine miles of it have been transformed into a footpath, known as the Monsal Trail. Steam engines still head up the valley between Matlock and Rowsley, operated by heritage outfit Peak Rail which holds the long-term goal of relaying tracks into Buxton. Derbyshire County Council supports the idea – indeed Railtrack once planned to do the job.

The northerly viaduct is fenced off but the original crossing now carries the Monsal Trail across the Wye.

At Millers Dale, the northern viaduct is now protected by a Grade II listing. Two platforms also survive. During the summer, rangers – based in the main station building – offer guided tours along the line, exploring the tunnels. Those who care to visit can still savour a unique view of the Wye Valley, enjoyed fleetingly by passengers before deserting the railway and taking to the roads.

More Information

The Rowsley AssociationA forum for the line’s former railwaymen
Peak District OnlineThe Monsal Trail
Discover Derbyshire & The PeaksMonsal Trail: The Feature
Peak RailSteam services from Matlock to Rowsley

The story of Millers Dale Station: The Right Hand Man

The story of Hassop Station: Coming home to Hassop

It was a rural outpost on the main line from Manchester to St Pancras. Passengers last used it in August 1942. But when it opened, the delightful station at Hassop in Derbyshire found itself elevated – albeit only temporarily – to serve as terminus of the Midland Railway’s Buxton branch which was being advanced through the Peak District, blessed by some outstanding engineering.

Whilst the nation celebrated Olympic glory and locals made tracks for the annual Bakewell show, 1st August 2012 saw around 50 former employees – or relatives thereof – gather at Hassop to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the station’s opening.

Five members of staff stand proudly on the Down platform in the early 1900s.
Photo: Rowsley Association

It was an industrious place in its heyday, standing in isolation about a mile south of the village from which its name was taken. Erected on the Up platform, the single-storey main building boasted fine masonry – grandeur reflecting its intended status as host station for the Duke of Devonshire, seated at nearby Chatsworth House. A First Class waiting room was provided for this purpose although, as things turned out, His Grace preferred to catch his trains at Rowsley, four miles further south.

Designed by Manchester architect Edward Walters, elegant canopies offered shelter for passengers – the two platforms being overlooked by the station master’s house on the Down side. Benefiting from a five-ton crane, the adjacent goods yard comprised a shed, three sidings and a loading dock, access being controlled from a signal box at its southern end.

Whilst one railway landscape looks much like any other, Hassop’s stood out thanks to a curious idiosyncrasy. Ganger Isaiah Gilbert is credited with introducing topiary to the trackside in the early part of the 20th century, cutting hawthorn bushes into unusual shapes, often depicting animal life. The tradition continued beyond his retirement in 1930, ending only when the line closed in 1968.

Four topiary-cutting platelayers stand alongside some of their creations.
Photo: Rowsley Association

Meagre receipts had brought the withdrawal of passenger services 26 years earlier; goods traffic kept the place going. But there was no halting progress. As road transport caused flows to dwindle, the 1963 Beeching Report accelerated the demise of rural goods yards, bringing Hassop’s curtain down on 5th October 1964. The final shift in the signal box was worked in May ’66. Subsequently leased as an agricultural depot, the site fulfils a mundane function as a car park today. But the building has recently been sympathetically renovated to accommodate a book shop, café and cycle hire business, the latter profiting considerably from last year’s upgrading of the adjacent Monsal Trail and reopening of four tunnels.

Snubbed by the Duke of Devonshire, his waiting room was buzzing on 1st August when some of the station’s former staff arrived to exchange stories about their time there. Others came from across the country to learn about the roles played by their distant relatives. Some had connections to the topiary-crafting platelayers. The Rowsley Association marked the event by publishing a commemorative book, written by Glynn Waite, as well as providing displays charting the station’s history in photographs. The café’s owner, Duncan Stokes, ensured those in attendance did not go hungry.

The First Class waiting room was filled with former staff and their relatives on the 150th anniversary of the station’s opening.

Ken Reader, whose father was a driver on the line, and Bill Newton recalled their time as relief signalmen, often finding themselves at Hassop. Bill described the scene on Bakewell show days when the goods sidings would be used to stable some of the extra trains laid on for visitors. But whilst Ken and Bill were part-timers at Hassop, Les Harrison (left) was one of three permanent signalmen, working the box from 1943 to 1950. Now 85, he joined the railway at 17, earning five shillings less than his colleagues due to that tender age. One of the daily duties involved collecting water for the box from a pump next to the station master’s house.

The event rekindled old friendships and helped to forge new ones. Like many rural stations, Hassop’s was at the heart of local life, providing employment and, occasionally, a lifeline. “Everybody knew everybody”, declares Les. “It was a happy place.” Although the industry has changed beyond recognition in the years since it closed, memories remain vivid in the minds of former staff who felt part of Hassop’s railway family.

Hassop’s main station building has recently been renovated and now accommodates a book shop, café and cycle hire business.

More Information

Hassop StationDisused Stations page about Hassop
Hassop StationCafe, book shop and cycle hire operation