Staying on track

A history of a local railway

On my own steam

The research

The disused line from Colne to Skipton. Image by Alan Young.

This line has fascinated me since I used to live in Carleton-in-Craven, a village just outside of Skipton. It’s a stones throw from the line that crosses Heslaker Lane and the River Aire, about a kilometre up the road. Now I live in Barnoldswick, which was once a branch of this line from Earby. But unfortunately, pushed on to the back burner, this project then laid in waiting for some time, until one day a friend introduced me to the Aussie YouTube sensation that is Beau Miles. If you haven’t watched his videos, I highly recommend them. The one that grabbed me by the short and curlies was ‘Run the Line‘, an adventure from Warragul Station to Noojee Station. Longer and a little more Aussie-esque.

Starting from Colne, I want to walk to Skipton, exploring the well-trodden sections, and probably avoiding landmines laid down by our canine compadre as the only obstacle. Getting towards Thornton, this is when I anticipate hitting a couple of issues, and a tiny touch around Elslack. I am super excited to see what infrastructure still exists of the railway, what of Burwen Roman fort, in Elslack still remains, the Thornton Quarry line and of course, complete the line up to the Skipton bypass. I reckon that is where I’ll have to stop due to the expected big fencing surrounding Skipton Railway Station.

4th Class ticket to Ormskirk. Image from Michael Stewart.

I have been checking out many parts prior to this run, the history, the buildings, the people and the industry, and have found it utterly fascinating. For instance, I didn’t know you could purchase a ‘4th Class’ ticket back in the day. Christ, does that just permit you to hold on to the undercarriage of the train? I’ve never really been into trainspotting, but I do find traveling by train romantic and a great way to travel vast distances, it’s just a pity times of the steam train are over.

There are a number of stops Colne-Foulridge-Earby-Thornton-Elslack-Skipton, I am probably optimistic of finding any railway sleepers or ties, but here’s to hoping. I am just keen to find clues, and bring the history of the line alive, and discover what has been buried almost without memory under our noses by modern industry and infrastructure.

I reckon it’ll take most of the day to walk, sampling the delights of Cargo Café in Foulridge and with many little deviations to be made, like the canal in Foulridge and the river in Carleton, as the bridges no longer exist.

Set in motion

The day has come and I have my trusty pal Chris to tag along with me, we’ve done a few adventures together including Morocco and Scotland. Great adventures are so much better with great company, and he’s a good one.

Parking at Colne Station during Covid-19 was a piece of cake, with our other vehicle in Carleton awaiting our return, so we could conduct our shuttle run. Walking on to the platform, we walked to it’s end to begin our journey towards Skipton, it was exciting that all this time researching was now in progress. Crossing the bypass, it looks more like an inaccessible woodland at first, but on closer investigation there are a couple of paths available. We entered the woodland which has been growing here since the 70’s and is a great little habitat. Before we knew it we came upon our first clue of the railway’s existence. Set back no more than 100m from the road, I’d never seen it before, and it’s hardly a tiny viaduct, this is the road to Barrrowford.

Continuing on, this was an obvious dog walkers trail, with various routes avoiding the cut outs of the railway line. I was impressed with the growth of the trees, this newfound habitat for various creatures, and a plethora of flora, knowing that it was only 50 years old. We continued onwards to Foulridge nattering away on our catch up since COVID-19 began, it was just nice to get out of the house. As we walked, I had never really appreciated the efforts required to establish a railway, as our unfaltering route maintained a plateaued profile throughout, whilst the land either side of us rising and falling unlikely to have changed all that much since the building of this enormous feat of engineering.

We arrived in a village, it must be Foulridge, the village of my childhood. I never even knew as a child that only 14 years before my birth there was a railway passing through Foulridge.

Chris trailblazing towards the canal

The line changed from path to thicker undergrowth, which was dense and somewhat soggy underfoot. Heroically, I sent Chris in first to establish it’s viability, not quite knowing where we were at this point on a map, as I hadn’t actually looked at one since we left Colne. Getting so far down the line, it was clear there was no where to go, we couldn’t see the canal, so I took a look at Viewranger, a OS map app, which is great. It pin pointed us as a stones throw from the canal. Knowing we had to go on the road for this section anyway, we returned back to where there was a turn off on to the road and headed towards the canal again.

Foulridge Viaduct, and the to be Cargo Café. Photo courtesy of Café Cargo, Foulridge

A short break at the closed Cargo Café, which needless to say was a bitter blow to this journey, no cake and latté. Heading back on to our route, I knew this section was going to be pleasant one having spotted it from the A56 a number of times on my journeys to Colne and beyond. Initially it was cool and pleasant under the canopy of the trees. I assume the first concrete style I had ever seen, which must have weighed a metric ton, has to have been for a considerable amount of time. Was it there during the period of the line’s operation? The woodland habitat along this section was shaded yet warm, the sun unrelenting. Eventually the canopy broke and the sun punished us, but offered great views over towards White Moor in the west.

We came across a solitary disclaimer sign from Lancashire County Council, highlighting the disused railway’s terms of use. Which was nice to know we weren’t trespassing yet.

We walked on meeting few people, bar the odd dog walker. We hadn’t come across many people at this point, it was very much appreciated to be honest. As we approached Kelbrook, a great viaduct which was the road to Barnoldswick crossed our tracks. Does anyone who drives over this even know what exists below? As part of my recce I popped my head over to check the route, and caught sight of a stoat, which now walking through here can see why, there were quite a lot of rabbit holes.

We eventually arrived at the junction for Barnoldswick, or Barlick as it is locally known, and took a left towards it. The track was somewhat in tatters as you arrived in Salterforth, and we decided not to pursue it any further. I did however take a photo of the line, now demolished and adapted to accommodate farming use for the herds of sheep.

Early in full swing between 1902-1920, maybe a works outing. Photo from Jim Lake Collection

We continued towards Earby enjoying the views and appreciating the great weather. We were debating the impact of all the lives in the housing adjacent to the disused line, and how it would impact so many lives with it’s construction and long-term noise and general pollution it would create. We were also really admiring natures take back of the disused land, which would all be torn up to make way for the new transport system. It was worrying and sad considering all of this impact.

The next section would prove my favourite bit, running through the countryside, and the line also migrating on to the old Roman Road to Burwen Fort in Elslack. Arriving at Thornton, it took me a moment or so to realise this was the old station, and I was keen for the side adventure of checking out the tunnel as well pictured above. The ground was covered in about 8 inches of water in places, but could just about get to the fenced off tunnel at the end without getting my feet wet. Wild garlic adorned the banks, a plant usually found around woodland streams, there was a very pleasant aroma in the air. Peering though the tunnel, I could just make out a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel.

Getting back on to the Roman Road, the sun was now at it’s fiercest, caning us non-stop from Thornton. About halfway to Eslack, Chris decided to voice his ‘shocker’, “John, you’re going to be angry with me mate”. I was dreading the news, as he poured through his bag. Had he forgotten some food or drink, was he supposed to give me something that has now deteriorated in the heat of the day? No, he said, “I’ve left my car keys in your van”. I erupted with laughter, I wasn’t sure what he was going to tell me, but this was a relief. We’re so used to circular walks in the outdoors, that linear or point-to-point walks throw us sometimes.

We pushed on now entertained by Chris’s massive fail, he was having a touch of a shocker, but it was recoverable. Arriving in Elslack, I have to admit, Burwen Fort, was definitely not a tourist destination. It was a mound of grass and in an empty field. No visible stone or structures, it was a bit disappointing to be honest. Also it was on private land with no access permitted on the gate.

After a footpath removed us from the line for a short time we got back on track. Now a slightly hard and monotonous concrete path heading towards Skipton through the Broughton Hall Estate. The concrete track eventually changed to track, and eventually the off-road course of the Land Rover Experience. We continued past this on to the last remaining section from Denber Wood to Heslaker Lane. The flora on this stretch was lovely, I should have taken more photos really, but I was a tad tired by this point.

Viaduct spanning Heslaker Lane and R. Aire. Photo by G. Tonks

Eventually arriving at Heslaker Lane, we decided the final section to Skipton was unnecessary, and in a previous walk to East Marton from Carleton, I had been warned by a dog walker that the land owner is not too keen on people straying across his land. So we headed back in to Carleton for our ‘Plan B’, to retrieve my van in Colne. The final section across the River Aire though would have been a large viaduct, impressively spanning across the road and river.

There was a good range of plants and trees along the way, which included the below. And these are just the ones we noticed, and can recall from memory.

  • Elder
  • Hawthorn
  • Willows
  • Hazel
  • Rowan
  • Silver Birch
  • Alder
  • Ash
  • Oak
  • Horse Chestnut
  • Monkey Puzzle Tree (which was a bit of a surprise)
  • Holly
  • Bird’s Foot Trefoil
  • Tufted Vetch
  • Red Campion
  • Herb Robert

The stations along this line had all closed by 1970, and there is much talk and action taking place to reinstate the line due to the significant economic benefits. I am not entirely convinced, but it would potentially decrease traffic in to Skipton and/or Colne and may prove invaluable. My concerns are for the habitats and individuals who live along this line, and it’s use for dog walkers, walking, biking, foraging and other activities. Only time will tell.

Many thanks to…

Nick Catford and Alan Young for using the above pictures and maps from the website Disused Stations. A great resource to find out more about our local history.

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