ANYONE walking along New Walk near the Millennium Bridge can’t help but have noticed the narrow-gauge railway tracks which have appeared running from the river bank to the brick wall bordering the walk.

These are part of what has been dubbed York’s ‘Ordnance Railway’ - actually a short tram route which once led from a wharf on the River Ouse to the military ordnance depot which once stood between what is now Ordnance Lane and Hospital Fields Road.

The tracks were last seen about 20 years ago, when they were briefly uncovered at about the time the Millennium Bridge was being built. They were uncovered again in April this year by volunteers from Goodgym in York, working with the Friends of New Walk. And at the weekend Andrew Scott, the former director of the National Railway Museum, officially unveiled a new plaque to commemorate York’s ‘Ordnance railway’.

York Press:

Volunteers uncovering the ‘Ordnance Railway’ at New Walk in April. Picture: Friends of New Walk

But what exactly was the railway used for - and when? The Friends of New Walk, together with members of the Fishergate, Fulford and Heslington local history society, have been investigating...

The ordnance depot was the official workshop and stores for the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. It was built in the late 1880s - and an article in the Yorkshire Gazette dated October 6, 1888, boasted about its importance.

“The stores will be used to hold accoutrements, food and in fact, everything wanted at the (Imphal)barracks and Strensall, if not for the whole of the Northern District,” the article said. “(It) will be an important acquisition to the already extensive military undertakings in York.”

Those ‘accoutrements’ will, of course, have included munitions - shells and gunpowder as well as small arms ammunition. “But rather than storing large quantities of ordnance for use in foreign wars, it is thought that the munitions were brought to York for training the various military units based in York,” an article written by the Fishergate, Fulford and Heslington local history society says. “During the Great War (ie the First World War) the ‘Hospital Fields’ just south of the depot, were used for training in field gun practice.”

York Press:

Field gun training on Hospital Fields. Picture: Geoff Shearsmith collection

The depot consisted of several buildings: a long Ordnance Depot HQ building in the centre (which survives today as Cycle Heaven) and two smaller pairs of buildings, one just to the north of the HQ, which survives, and one just to the south, which has been demolished. There may also have been a separate storage area for explosive shells.

But how did all these munitions get to York in the first place? That’s where the ‘Ordnance Railway’ came in.

A wharf was constructed on the banks of the Ouse and a short length of narrow gauge railway track was built leading to the depot. Munitions were brought into York from Woolwich Arsenal by sailboat (to reduce the risk of explosions), unloaded at the wharf, and trundled to the depot on small trucks. One of the boats used was a small Ketch named ‘Princess’ - known locally in York as the ‘Powder Boat’.

York Press:

The Ordnance Depot railway tracks after silt had been cleared away. Picture: Friends of New Walk

When the ordnance depot closed, possibly some time in the 1950s, the gateway through the brick wall on New Walk was bricked up. The depot site was decontaminated, some of the buildings were demolished, and the site began its transformation into the small industrial and commercial estate that is there today.