Before we have a look
at which old railways can be walked, it is interesting to consider why
the country is littered with old railways in the first place ...
Why Do Railway Lines
Get Closed? The answer to this is usually because they are losing
money, although, in the 19th century, it was sometimes because better
alternative routes had been opened. In recent years, most closures have
occurred as the result of lines reduced to freight-only operation losing
their last rail freight customer. Notable swathes of closures in the UK
have occurred as follows:
In the 1930s
after the Depression. This period saw the end of now fabled lines
such as the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway and the Leek & Manifold
Railway, although the London, Midland & Scottish Railway donated
the L&MR to the local authority for use as a country path, such
were its scenic splendours.
In the 1950s
as part of the BR Modernisation Plan. The BR Modernisation Plan
poured money into the nation's railways after the war years, when
the system had been treated as a strategic resource run by the government
(and, some might say, almost flogged to death). Despite the investment,
it was recognised that many branch lines were little used and therefore
losing money, as a result of which some mainly rural 'pruning' took
place at this time. Closures in the 1950s included the Meon Valley
line in Hampshire (Fareham to Alton) and the branch from Pulborough
to Petersfield via Midhurst, mostly in West Sussex. Both of these
scenic routes were closed on the same day 7th February 1955.
In the 1960s
as part of the 'Beeching closures'. The 1960s saw the really big
round of closures, when Dr. Richard Beeching closed lines (and wayside
stations) wholesale in order to streamline the system and save what
was left. Even after Dr. Beeching resigned as Chairman of the British
Railways Board, the closures continued under successors such as Richard
Marsh, until many observers began to suspect that a closure mentality
pervaded railway management. Notable losses during this period included
the Somerset & Dorset Railway (Bath-Bournemouth) and the Waverley
Line from Carlisle to Edinburgh. Fortunately, the closure steamroller
was dealt a fatal blow in the late 1980s when a group of campaigners
saw off British Rail's bid to shut the scenic Settle and Carlisle
railway. Both environmentalists and railway enthusiasts hope that
they will never see the like of these closures again.
The following paragraphs
provide a summary of information about railway walks, but further details
can be found on our new Walks page.
Which Old Railways
Can I Walk? The majority of old railway lines are privately owned,
so members of the public have no right to go out and 'help themselves'.
However, the good news is that a substantial mileage is now open for recreational
use, with the most popular routes, such as Bath-Bristol and the Taff Trail
north of Cardiff, attracting considerable numbers of cycling commuters.
The last time that it was surveyed, the Bath-Bristol railway path was
carrying about 2½ million journeys per year, spread equally between
walkers and cyclists a figure which emphasises the 'green' credentials
of such trails. When we surveyed the mileage of official walks in the
mid 1990s, it came to about 1,500, but that number today is probably over
4,000. An up to date list of official railway walks can be obtained from
the webmaster's book, Vinter's Railway Gazetteer, details of
which can be found on our Publications
page. Members also have access to an
online gazetteer of railway walks,
which forms part of this website.
So how do we
come to have this mileage of old trackbeds that we can walk and cycle?
The majority of routes arise from the following sources:
schemes that were never built. Many
old railways were acquired by local authorities for new roads, but
sometimes traffic levels never increased sufficiently to justify the
cost of building them. As a result, local authorities often turned
these old lines into official walking and cycling routes.
branch lines that closed after about 1980. Right
up until the 1970s, when a railway closed, it was usually lost forever
as a public resource. The railway's property board would sell off
small parcels of trackbed in a piecemeal fashion to the highest bidder,
resulting in a patchwork of local owners. Nowadays, however, the railway
usually offers 'first refusal' to the local authority when a line
is closed. Government initiatives such as Planning Policy Guidance
9 (PPG9) have had an impact on this process, by giving local authorities
a responsibility to provide good quality facilities for walkers and
cyclists. PPG9 has been replaced in recent years, but its principles
remain in more recent guidance.
in some national park and moorland areas. In
a few cases, lines were closed in areas where the public had established
access rights. For example, in the New Forest, the public enjoys a
right of access on foot over much of the open forest. Here, the old
railway line from Brockenhurst to Ringwood evolved into a trail between
Cater's Cottage and Burbush Hill by a simple process of people exploring
its remains on foot. (The route became so popular that, in 2005, two
demolished bridges were replaced.) In the North Yorkshire Moors, parts
of some old mineral railways can be walked as the result of a similar
routes where local authorities and/or others have negotiated access.
In recent years, some
local authorities have negotiated with local landowners in order to
bring back into public use old lines whose ownership had become fragmented.
Not all landowners are amenable to this, but many have been most helpful,
and some notable routes have been opened up as a result. For example,
by this process, 6 miles of the old GWR line from Plymouth to Yelverton
(between Marsh Mills and Goodameavy) now form part of a long distance
coast-to-coast route in Devon. We are very grateful to those who have
enabled this to happen.
This is perhaps the
most surprising source of railway paths. In the early days of tramways,
it was not uncommon for local people to use them as short cuts between
communities, and it would appear that public rights of way evolved
alongside the rails. When the lines closed, the rights of way remained.
There is a surprising archive photograph from Pembrokeshire which
shows a lady returning from market, basket in arm, walking along the
tracks. Most railway paths of this type are in Wales, including the
coastal path network around Saundersfoot, several old tramways in
Dyfed, and a number of paths in the Brecon Beacons south of Talybont-on-Usk.
What Walks Does the
Club Organise? Most walks organised by Railway Ramblers follow official
railway paths, but once or twice a year most areas try to offer local
members the opportunity to walk a line that is privately owned. The club
does not approve of trespass, so this process involves lengthy negotiation
with landowners. Most have been pleased to accommodate a club like ours
with a genuine interest, but for those who decline permission, we devise
an alternative route using minor roads, public footpaths and public bridleways.
The last thing we want to do is antagonise landowners, so it is particularly
pleasing to receive comments like this:
'It is a welcome change
these days to have someone ask permission to do something like this,
and I am very happy to give permission for your party to walk the section
of track that I own ...'
We have even had landowners
come and join us on our walks, sometimes out of curiosity to see in detail
where their line continued to.
What is the Club's
Policy on Trespass? As noted above, the club does not approve of trespass,
which we believe does no good for relationships in the countryside, or
in towns and cities for that matter. Detailed guidance is available to
all of our walk leaders, but the key points of our Non-Trespass Policy
can be viewed by clicking the link here.