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The story of the Derwent Valley Light Railway
9:00am Friday 11th October 2013 in Features
The permanent way gang in action at Wheldrake in November 1947. LR: Frank Wood, Les Richardson, Phil Heselwood, Ned Jackson and Dick Howden
It was affectionately known as ‘The Blackberry Line’. Now, 100 years after it was opened, the story of the Derwent Valley Light Railway is told in a beautifully illustrated new book. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
AT ABOUT 10am on July 19, 1913, a gathering of invited guests assembled on the platform at York’s Layerthorpe station.
There, in a brief opening ceremony, they watched Lady Deramore cut a double blue ribbon which ran from the station building to a tank engine standing at the platform.
The UK’s newest railway – the Derwent Valley Light Railway – was officially open.
The DVLR was one of a number of light railways – low-cost, simply operated railways that catered mainly for local people and businesses – which opened across the country as a result of the 1896 Light Railway Act. And it was enthusiastically welcomed by local people.
The first train to run along the line – consisting of a locomotive, two coaches, two decorated wagons fitted with seats and canvas awnings, and a brake van – set off at about 10.30am on that morning in July.
It was 15 minutes late setting off. But by the time it reached the other end of the short line at Cliffe Common at 11.42am – having passed through Osbaldwick, Dunnington, Elvington, Wheldrake, Thorganby and Skipwith en route – it was three minutes early. It then promptly turned round and came back to York again.
That first train was greeted with real excitement by locals who had turned out to watch.
“At all stations, and along the line… the train was greeted with great jubilation by the local residents, and there was much flag-waving by local children”, write Jonathan Stockwell and Ian Drummond in their new history of the line, Rails Along The Derwent.
A number of the light railways set up as a result of the 1896 Act proved surprisingly long-lived – and the DVLR was among them. Affectionately known as The Blackberry Line, because of the blackberry-picking ‘specials’ which once ran from Layerthorpe to Skipwith, it survived two world wars and the Beeching reforms. In one form or another it continued to run, on an independent commercial basis, until the early 1980s.
Passenger services came to an end in the 1920s because of competition from buses: and from then on until its closure, the line concentrated on freight, carrying agricultural produce to market in York as well as transporting coal, oil and petroleum, chemicals and concrete.
During the Second World War it also carried materials for building airfields at Elvington and Riccall. Because of poor maintenance and overhanging vegetation, the railway could not be seen from the air – so could not be targeted by German bombers. A strict ‘no-weeding’ policy ensured it remained invisible to enemy eyes.
After the war, the railway closed in stages. It survived Beeching, but in the mid-1960s, the southern section of the line between Wheldrake and Cliffe Common closed. By 1972, all the line south of Dunnington had closed, leaving just the eastern stretch of line between Dunnington and York in operation.
In 1977, a steam-hauled passenger service was introduced, in conjunction with the Friends of the National Railway Museum. This ran until 1979, when it was terminated: and the line itself closed in 1981.
Much of the track was pulled up. But even today, thanks to enthusiasts with the Derwent Valley Light Railway Society, a short stretch of line remains open between the Yorkshire Museum of Farming at Murton and the A64.
Volunteers even disassembled the old Wheldrake Station, moved it bodily to Murton, and reassembled it there.
There is a platform at Murton, along with a restored signal box, and every Sunday and Bank Holiday from Easter until the end of September volunteers take passengers for a ride along the remaining stretch of line.
This year, to mark the 100th anniversary of the line, the society’s archivist Jonathan Stockwell teamed up with railway historian Ian Drummond to write a definitive history of the line.
Jonathan was one of the passengers on the last timetabled steam passenger train, which ran on August 31, 1979.
“Little did I know some 30-plus years later I would be involved in writing its updated history in the centenary year,”
he writes in his introduction to the book.
Rails Along The Derwent is a labour of love: and it shows. Jonathan, a civil servant with HM Revenue and Customs, spent two years speaking to former passengers and people who used to work on the railway, and tracking down old photographs.
The book includes a clear history of the line; an evocative account of its opening; and detailed descriptions of every halt and station along the route. There is also a wonderfully clear map of the route, plus timetables from the early passenger days.
Best of all, however, are the photographs: wonderful black-and-white images that bring the history of The Blackberry Line to vivid life.
He had long hoped that someone would write a new history of the line, Jonathan admits. “The last full history was written by former manager Sydney Reading in the 1960s… and it seemed that someone ought to write a new history. What I didn’t think was that that person would be me.”
• Rails Along The Derwent: The Story of the Derwent Valley Light Railway by Jonathan D Stockwell and Ian Drummond is published by Holne, priced £22.95. It is available from local booksellers and from the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, or else, for an extra £3 to cover postage and packing, direct from the publisher, Holne Publishing, PO Box 343, Leeds, LS19 9FW, or online at holnepublishing.co.uk
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