Before Christmas I found myself in conversation with Peter Van Zellor, historian of all things minimum gauge (i.e. 15” gauge), and a driver of many years experience at the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway.
During the planning for Railfest 2012, the centenary of former Sand Hutton Railway locomotive Synolda had not gone unnoticed. So Matt Ellis, our Rail Operations Coordinator and I made a visit to the ‘Ratty’ (as the R&ER is known), the railway that looks after this venerable machine in their museum. We wanted to see if it was possible to bring Synolda, a minimum gauge ‘track star’ with clear local associations, back to Yorkshire for Railfest.
We had already been to the Kirklees Light Railway to talk to the good folk there about Hawk, the 15” gauge’s most powerful loco, and now we were after a locomotive that looked a bit like Hawk’s elegant, rakish, grandfather.
When we got to Ravenglass we discovered that Peter had managed to fit us in around driving the oldest of the 15” gauge locomotives still in steam – River Irt – as part of their ‘Santa Special’ train operation. River Irt sported a headboard proclaiming it to be Rudolf. As ever in the heritage railway world, you feel that a Japanese film crew making a documentary about the eccentric British are surely not far away.
Having worked out that Synolda could come to Railfest, how to crew it, and how to make it compatible with Hawk on a ‘push and pull’ arrangement, we headed back to York, soon to be swept up in the full on-excess that is Christmas.
In amongst all that turkey and wrapping paper I pondered, and midway between Christmas and New Year got a map and a bike out and went for a wander. The weather was cold and very windy, and the lanes muddy. I was out to see if there was anything at all left of the Sand Hutton Light Railway, which closed in 1932 having been converted to 18” gauge in 1925. (When 18” gauge it was worked by a locomotive like Jack, which can be seen at the Armley Mills Museum in Leeds). The one carriage on the line is preserved at the Lincolnshire Coast Light Railway in Skegness. I was ably helped on this quest by a website which I had come across called The railway that isn’t there by Ron Evers, which included a map.
When I finally set off from near the former Warthill Station – now a house near Stockton on the Forest – I was full of a kind of nervous wonder that such an unassuming piece of country could provide a quest of any kind. It was just like visiting an ancient battlefield: imagination would be needed to see off the feeling that what you were really doing was a wild goose chase, long after the goose had been eaten. Still, after Christmas, exercise is exercise, so off I went.
First off down the bridleway to Sand Hutton – alongside which the SHLR once ran from the exchange sidings at Warthill (now a small forest). On the left the field ended short of the track, a hint that the railway’s formation lay under the rough turf. At a stream a set of rails, once the support for a bridge, sat there, an unassuming reminder that I was in the right place.
Sand Hutton itself, on a cold blowy December day, seemed asleep. Where the line to Claxton brickworks crossed the road there was not a hint that anything like a railway was ever there.
I cycled up to the war memorial, on a rural crossroads without a house in sight, and wondered at people so focused on the ‘civilising influence’ of railways that even this nondescript spot once had a station (well, actually more like a bus stop shelter). The line once ran alongside the road here, and if I hadn’t known that I would have taken the wide verge to be a sign of an old drove route into the village.
Up at Bossall, with its enormous church and few houses, I couldn’t help wonder why anyone had built a railway here at all. By the time the SHLR reached Bossall, ex-Army lorries were two-a-penny and Britain’s railways were already suffering competition from road haulage over short distances, like the distance I’d just cycled from Stockton on the Forest.
Still, the view was magnificent, out across the valley of the Derwent towards Lincolnshire with just large fields and small copses to see, no sign of villages or towns, and no idea that the thunderous A64 was not far away.
So Synolda will come to Railfest 2012. But as to the railway, including the successor 18” gauge line that Synolda never ran on? Well that is as disappeared as a child’s wooden railway at bedtime, and no less charming to contemplate on a windy December day.