Whether it’s a wildlife haven, carriage caff or scenic cycle trail, reinvented railway lines have much to offer
Without trains steaming back and forth, the architecture of long-abandoned railways is all the more apparent. Bridges, viaducts and tunnels often linger long after the tracks themselves have vanished. In fact, these features can help serve modern communities; an old viaduct between Bolton and Bury in Greater Manchester has been turned into an enclosed route that local residents call the Sky Walk. Each former line provides an excellent vantage point for reading the landscape and seeing signs of the industrial past in the surroundings, such as the former quarries, mills and lime kilns that the trains once served ( just take an OS Explorer map to identify what’s what). An even more mindful activity is watching the season turn into that of mists and mellow fruitfulness, from verdant countryside to one of fiery shades.
There may be few trainspotting opportunities but plenty of chances to spot wildlife, some species of which have made certain cuttings and embankments their key habitats. Lydford Old Railway in Devon is home to several types of grassland butterflies, including the protected heath fritillary. Along a 4.5-mile former train route, known as Parkland Walk, North London has its very own bat cave in the form of tunnels between Alexandra Palace and Finsbury Park, which are now closed to safeguard the colony there. Stockton Cutting in Warwickshire is a Site of Special
Scientific Interest, being rich in orchids, due to its blue lias limestone bedrock (the woodland beyond has the full complement of woodpeckers). To discover nature-rich old railway lines across the country, search ‘railways’ at wildlifetrusts.org.
The Victorian architecture of old stations combined with the romance of the railways seduces many an entrepreneur into restoring them as a venue for their business. Warm yourself by the original fireplaces, pick some secondhand books from the warren of shelves and cabinets, or simply sit and read a paper in the waiting room at Mary and Stuart Manley’s much-loved shop Barter Books in Northumberland’s former Alnwick Station. It is run in the same public-serving spirit as its predecessor and includes an entire room for children complete with toys and a book-lined truck in which to read. Ex railway buildings across the country have been turned into community-minded tearooms where the locomotive-themed interiors attract a mixed bag of punters, from groups of serious cyclists to chaotic young families, all equally keen to enjoy the generous helpings of nostalgia and homemade cake. Request stop: Platform 1 at Carnforth Station in Lancashire for The Refreshment Room, a café that replicates the set of the 1945 film Brief Encounter in which it played Milford Junction. Let your heart skip a beat over a cuppa in the very spot where Alec (Trevor Howard) helps remove grit from Laura’s eye (Celia Johnson) and sparks their unrealised romance in the bittersweet love story.
The very pretty Old Petworth Station in West Sussex was constructed out of wood in 1892, principally to serve Edward VII en route to Goodwood for the races. On a branch line that has been decommissioned for nearly 50 years, it has been turned into
In the cool, illuminated passageway it’s easy to imagine the ghosts of locomotives past
a colonial-style B&B by owners Gudmund Olafsson and Catherine Stormont. Its well crafted interior – with wood panelling, brass beds and original features such as luggage racks – pays homage to the golden age of travel. Guests have the option of staying in the station building or stepping aboard one of four gleaming Pullman carriages. Other train-themed places to stay are on glamping websites such as Canopy & Stars (canopyandstars.co.uk).
UNDER YOUR OWN STEAM
Being flat, even and relatively soft of surface, former trackbeds make ideal terrain for exercise. Along part of Somerset’s old Strawberry Line, there is a ten-mile cycleway from Yatton to Cheddar; with plans to extend it from Clevedon to the Mendip Hills (thestrawberryline.org.uk). Stroll along the five-mile Phoenix Trail, between Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire and Thame in neighbouring Oxfordshire, and not only will you be rewarded with spectacular views of the Chiltern Hills and red kites wheeling overhead but 30 railway-inspired art works, including a sculpted wooden bench called Winged Seat (search ‘Phoenix Trail’ at chilternsaonb.org). Portioned up into appetising smaller sections is the 41-mile Deeside Way (deesideway.org), which starts in Aberdeen and finishes at Ballater in the Cairngorms National Park, the stop for the Queen’s summer destination of choice, Balmoral Castle.
Restored trackside buildings 1 add charm to a trail. 2 Cinders and ashes! It’s the rstored Bluebell Railway. 3 Level cuttings means many routes are wheel friendly. 4 Deeside Way (we’re pretty sure she doesn’t need the map)
Somerset’s Strawberry 1 Line cycle trail. 2 Step this way for a Brief Encounter at Carnforth station. 3 Bat heaven along London’s Parkland Walk. 4 The beauty of a disused railway? You can walk through the tunnels 2