The Derwent Valley Light Railway is 100 years old in July. But it is only thanks to the efforts of enthusiastic volunteers that anything of this old railway survives. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
YOU can understand why people should feel affectionate about a railway nicknamed The Blackberry Line.
The Derwent Valley Light Railway earned that monicker in the days when it used to carry blackberries to market in York.
Archivist Jonathan Stockwell explains: “They ran a number of Blackberry Specials from Layerthorpe to Skipwith. The land there was prolific with blackberries, so they ran these specials to go and pick them.”
There's something wonderfully evocative about that image: a local train running on a local line so people can pick local blackberries and bring them to market.
Sadly, there isn’t much of the Blackberry Line left these days.
When it was formally opened almost 100 years ago, in July 1913, by Lady Deramore, the wife of the railway’s co-chairman, it ran from Layerthorpe to Cliffe Common, through a succession of stations including Osbaldwick, Dunnington, Wheldrake and Skipwith.
But like so many of our small branch lines, most of the railway has now vanished. The track has been dug up to allow for development, or turned into cycle tracks and footpaths.
Today, only a short stretch of line running from Murton towards York, under the A64, remains in use. And the only station still in use – Wheldrake – had to be bodily picked up in the early 1990s and moved to its new home at Murton by volunteers.
It is only thanks to the enthusiasm of that small group of volunteers, such as Jonathan Stockwell, who in his day job is a taxman in Leeds, and retired antiques dealer David Wilde, who is chairman of the Derwent Valley Light Railway Society, that some of the railway is left today.
Like many Derwent Valley Light Railway (DVLR) enthusiasts, David’s affection for the line goes back to his childhood. “I used to stand as a kid watching the trains,” he said. “It's amazing how many people can remember it.”
The line had begun as a small privately-owned operation designed mainly to help farmers get their goods to market. There were also passenger services until the mid-1920s until competition from buses brought them to an end.
The line had an interesting history during the war (see panel), and somehow escaped railway nationalisation in 1948, confining it as a privately owned line carrying freight (mainly agricultural produce and grain).
It closed in stages, with the last train – a farewell special – running on September 27, 1981.
By the end of the 1980s, much of the land on which the railway had run had been sold for development, or was abandoned.
Only a short stretch of line ran from Murton, the base of the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, towards York.
From 1992 even much of that had been converted into a footpath and cycleway by Sustrans.
But by then, moves were already afoot to save the short stretch of line still remaining. The Great Yorkshire Preservation Society moved its base of operations from the old NER steam shed at Starbeck, near Harrogate, to Murton.
In 1991, the job began of moving the old Wheldrake station building, which had been standing empty for 20 years, to Murton.
Allan Mitchell, himself an engine driver and fireman, was among the volunteers who worked on that project.
The station was derelict, just a frame and ribs, he remembers. Volunteers took it to pieces bit by bit, carefully numbering each section, transported the pieces to Murton and reassembled it again.
Mr Mitchell said: “It is more or less exactly as it was at Wheldrake.”
Except that it has been lovingly restored.
The station now sits on a platform volunteers built at Murton. There is also a restored signal box and sitting on the line in the station, or gathered in a siding just beyond, is a good selection of rolling stock, including a steam locomotive, a number of diesel locomotives, several lovingly restored passenger carriages, and several freight wagons.
Members of the Derwent Valley Light Railway Society have their own workshop made out of converted coach bodies, as well as a mess and canteen made from another converted coach.
Best of all, on Sundays and bank holidays from Easter until the end of September, they take passengers for a ride along the remaining stretch of railway – keeping the spirit of the railway alive.
The society is constantly looking to improve the line and facilities.
At the moment, they are in the process of improving wheelchair access to the station and platform at Murton, and are building what will become a cattle dock.
There are also plans to build a locomotive shed in which to house rolling stock.
Mr Wilde said: “The plans have been passed by the council, but we are looking for donations. We think it will cost about £30 to £40,000.
“We have raised £10,000 for the initial groundwork, but we need more.”
The society dreams, one day, of even being able to extend the line as far as Osbaldwick.
But for now, the volunteers are focusing on celebrating the railway’s centenary.
It was on July 19, 1913, that Lady Deramore formally opened the line. And the society is planning a big weekend of events on July 20-21 this year to mark the 100th anniversary.
They will be shuttling passengers back and forth along the remaining section of line all that weekend. There will be a number of visiting locomotives, a replica Ford Railbus similar to the type used on the railway in the 1920s, and an exhibition in the Farming Museum.
There will also be a re-enactment of the opening of the railway on the Saturday.
“We are hoping people will join in the celebrations by coming along in period costume,” Mr Wilde said Meanwhile, as a lasting memento of the railway's first 100 years, Jonathan Stockwell is working on a definitive history.
“I'm hoping it's going to be out in time for the centenary, but don’t hold your breath.” he said cheerfully.
• To find out more about the Derwent Valley Light Railway and centenary events, to join the society (more volunteers are always needed) or to make a donation, visit dvlr.org.uk
It was the Light Railways Act of 1896 which made it easier to set up small railways without the need for too much red tape, that made the Derwent Valley Light Railway possible.
Riccall and Escrick Rural District Councils wanted to build the railway to enable farmers in the Derwent Valley to benefit from cheap and reliable transport.
Following delays due to difficulties in raising capital, local landowners stepped in and freight services began between Cliff Common and Wheldrake in October 1912. The railway was formally opened on July 19, 1913, by Lady Deramore.
Other key events in the railway's history:
July 21, 1913: Passengers services begin, using Ford railbuses each carrying 19 passengers
August 1926: Passenger services cease because of competition from buses. Occasional excursions continue - including the Blackberry Specials to Skipwith which gave the railway its nickname.
Second World War: Because of poor maintenance, the railway could not be seen from the air, so could not be targeted by German bombers. There was a strict no weeding policy to ensure this remained the case. Throughout the war, the railway carried agricultural produce, as well as materials for the construction of airfields at Elvington and Riccall. Wheldrake Station also received trainloads of bombs for despatch to aerodromes.
1960s: Dr Beeching announced the closure of the Selby to Market Weighton line in the mid 1960s. As a result, the section of the DVLR which ran from Cliff Common to Wheldrake closed in January 1965.
1972: The transport of sugar beet ceased. By September 1972 the line ran only as far as Dunnington.
1975: The National Railway Museum in York opened. From 1977 to1979, the DVLR ran its own steam tourist railway in the summer, using a steam locomotive called Joem.
1980s: Because of declining whisky sales, the DVR ran its last grain train from Dunnington on September 22, 1981.
1990s: The Great Yorkshire Preservation Society moved its base of operations from the old NER steam shed at Starbeck near Harrogate to the Yorkshire Museum of Farming at Murton. In 1991, the job began of moving the old Wheldrake station building – which had been standing empty for 20 years – to Murton.
The DVLR was reborn in its current form.