ALL was well in Skipton at the dawn of the railway age. Cotton mills provided ample employment and made full use of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, an immensely prosperous undertaking completed in 1819. Railways followed the same course. Rash expansion in the mid-1840s, known as the Railway Mania, saw Skipton linked with Bradford and Leeds in 1847. A line continuing to parallel the canal was completed to Colne the following year and in 1849 it was possible to travel to Liverpool on a through express – a journey far shorter than today’s route via Leeds. Railway speculators were now quick to propose a direct link between Manchester and Newcastle, two of the greatest cities in northern England. A straight line drawn on a map passed through Grassington, and thus was boldly conceived a main line that would leave the Skipton to Colne railway at Elslack before passing close to Gargrave and Hetton. It would run up Wharfedale, tunnel into Bishopdale and then cross Wensleydale to connect with an existing line near Richmond. Thus scarcely 50 miles of new railway would be needed to link the two cities and everything seemed to be in favour of the scheme. There was then no amenity movement to make anguished protests about a railway through the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. It was just one more symbol of economic expansion in the new and glorious era of Victorian progress. Surveyors duly started to stake out the route. Then came the Railway Mania’s sudden collapse and the venture was abandoned never to be revived. Had it been built the journey from Manchester to Newcastle would have been some 18 miles shorter than today. Owners of mills in Skipton and lead mines around Grassington would have been delighted but others may have had mixed feelings. It had been a near thing, and just how close a call may not be appreciated by those who now revel in the scenic delights of Upper Wharfedale. A main-line railway would have transformed such a narrow valley beyond recognition. Skipton did at least find itself on another main line with the 1876 opening of the Settle to Carlisle railway creating a direct route to Scotland. In any country blessed with a rational approach to transport needs, it would never have been built. A product of inter-company rivalry, it was conceived out of frustration and completed in desperation. Had an existing route via Ingleton been developed, it would have been vastly less expensive, less exposed to extremes of weather, cheaper to maintain, and even a fraction shorter. Instead, a magnificent main line through the mountains was constructed against many odds and has survived even greater challenges to its continued existence. Seemingly watched by a guardian angel, it has understandably achieved cult status. Such has not been the case with lesser railways serving Skipton. A link with Ilkley, completed in 1888, had the advantage of serving Bolton Abbey – already made famous by Wordsworth and Turner. At Embsay it provided the springboard for a line to Grassington, intended as the first stage of another attempt to build a railway up Wharfedale to the North East. Optimistically titled the Yorkshire Dales Railway, it got off to a shaky start by electing Sir Mathew Wilson of Eshton Hall as its first chairman. Aged only 22, he had gained notoriety as a rake and ladies’ man. His reputation was not helped when he threw a party for everyone from miles around whose surname included the word ‘bottom’, set his guests to work introducing themselves and then fled the scene! He was soon ousted and the line was opened with great ceremony in 1902. It was now very late in the day for new railways, but at least the Grassington branch transformed the fortunes of the village by bringing in crowds of visitors. It also made commuting possible and the population doubled within twenty years. A wave of new housing included a terrace overlooking the river which quickly gained the colourful nickname Boiled Egg Row. In theory, dutiful wives saw the train arrive and could time an egg to be ready just as the husband crossed the threshold! The railway never got beyond Grassington and its passenger services lasted for only 28 years. This was long before the cuts of Dr Beeching, which brought demise of the Skipton to Ilkley line in 1965, although happily its central section survives as the Embsay & Bolton Abbey Steam Railway. A more regrettable closure five years later was the section of line between Skipton and Colne. Early railway promoters recognised the importance of a direct link with Lancashire and its key cities, but sadly this was lost and the economies gained by closing a mere 10 miles of line must have been minimal. It is right that a campaign to restore the missing link still continues.
David Joy will be signing copies of Rails in the Dales at a meeting of the Upper Wharfedale Heritage Group on April 6 at the Soroptimists Rooms, Skipton, 7.30pm. Copies are also available, price £12.50, through National Park Centres, on the website yorkshiredales.org.uk, and at the Dales Book Centre in Grassington.