The 125th anniversary of the opening of the Skipton to Ilkley Railway line will be celebrated this weekend. While there is no longer a line linking the two towns, part of the old track was brought back into use by the Embsay Dales Railway Museum Trust. Here, with the help of the trust, we look at the history of the line, which used to transport royalty to Bolton Abbey.

The Midland Railway was an enterprising railway company.

It had already constructed the line linking Settle with Carlisle over some of the most difficult terrain imaginable, including the famous “long drag” with its many tunnels and viaducts. The line was completed in 1876.

Then it turned its attention to creating an 11-mile line from Ilkley to Skipton. There had been proposals, agitations and abortive Bills of Parliament for several years before the scheme received Royal Assent in July 1883.

In April 1885, a contract was awarded to Mousley and Company of Bristol and work started in June of that year. The line was completed as far as Bolton Abbey by the summer of 1888, with the remainder opening in October 1888.

The first through ticket was purchased by Welbury Kendall, a Skipton timber merchant.

The new railway left the already-established Ilkley Station, via a series of bridges spanning the genteel spa town and the flood plain of the River Wharfe, making its first station stop in the village of Addingham.

Beyond Addingham, the line climbed and passed over Lob Ghyll viaduct, now invisible due to tree growth, and entered Bolton Abbey station from where the railway continued climbing up to the watershed between the valleys of Wharfedale and Airedale.

Bolton Abbey Station has long had a royal connection, being the nearest railhead for the Duke of Devonshire’s Bolton Hall, with a number of reigning monarchs visiting the Duke or simply enjoying the grouse shooting on the nearby estate moorland.

King Edward VII visited in 1902 for the grouse shooting, arriving by the Midland Railway’s Royal Train whilst the LMS Royal Train conveyed King George V in August 1922, before he moved on to Balmoral a week later.

During World War Two, an air raid shelter was constructed in the embankment adjacent to Bolton Abbey Station and this was regally appointed for the use of the Royal party should the need arise.

The last known visit of the Royal Train was in October 1947.

The final intermediate station was Embsay, from where the railway descended to its own platforms in Skipton Station.

Between Ilkley and Skipton, there were three viaducts, one tunnel, 19 public road or canal bridges, 45 occupation bridges and numerous culverts together with some 1,500,000 cubic yards of cutting.

A branch line diverged from the Skipton to Ilkley railway, at Embsay Junction, striking out into the Dales and terminating in Grassington (or more precisely) Threshfield). This branch, promoted by the Yorkshire Dales Railway Company, opened in July 1902 and served several small villages together with Spencer’s quarry and limeworks at Swinden, near Cracoe.

Grassington lost its passenger service in September 1930 but was served by goods and holiday excursion traffic for many years afterwards. In August 1969 the final passenger-carrying train ran into Grassington station.

The Skipton to Ilkley route itself succumbed to Dr Beeching in March 1965, being closed from Embsay Junction to Ilkley and leaving the Grassington Branch as a truncated line serving only the limestone quarry.

However, when it was realised the branch line was threatened with closure, the Embsay and Grassington Railway Preservation Society was formed in October 1968 with the aim of operating trains for the enthusiast and tourist market.

It was not successful in terms of holiday traffic but the line still operates today – owned by Railtrack and used by quarry trains.

Undeterred, the preservation society changed its name to Yorkshire Dales Railway Society (YDRS) and focused its attention on the recently-closed Skipton to Ilkley line.

A year later, the YDRS took possession of Embsay Station on a rental basis until arrangements for the line purchase could be made and the necessary funds raised. The station building was oil-lit, without power supplies and was derelict.

Track lifting on the line was well advanced by this time and the YDRS was only able to secure approximately 880 yards, from Embsay Junction to the spur at Haw Bank Quarry.

Its first priority was to establish a base and a “steam centre” plan was formulated. Trolley buses found a home in Embsay’s former goods shed and a simple railway operation was introduced, with electric railway trailer cars sandwiched between two steam locomotives.

In the mid-1970s the climate changed for preserved railways. The move was towards authenticity and a greater respect for railway heritage. It was realised that the push-pull shuttle was insufficient and could not sustain the desires of the society.

In May 1979, a new service was inaugurated between the Embsay station and Embsay Junction. The trackbed, track and station had been purchased from the British Railways Board and an impressive collection of locomotives, carriages and wagons was being formed, with Yorkshire-built steam locomotives at the core.

The YDRS continued to progress its aims. It became a charitable trust, the Yorkshire Dales Railway Museum Trust (YDRMT), and, later, a registered museum. Embsay station was restored to LMS condition, locomotives were overhauled and carriages refurbished.

As the trust owned the trackbed for some distance from Embsay towards Ilkley, it seemed logical to commence rebuilding the old Midland Railway line in that direction. Discussions with the owner of the next section of trackbed proved to be fruitful and a lease was negotiated. Tracklaying proceeded satisfactorily and an extended operation to Skibeden Loop was introduced. But the railway still lacked a true destination.

The next target was to further extend the line to Holywell where a halt and picnic area/nature trail were built, allowing passengers to leave the train and view the Craven Fault, a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Trains started operating to Holywell Halt in July 1987, with an official opening being carried out by the Marquess of Hartington.

Still not content, the trust formulated plans to extend the line further towards the derelict Bolton Abbey station. But, it was decided while work was being carried out trains would terminate at Stoneacre, near the village of Draughton, halfway between Embsay and Bolton Abbey.

At this time the trust underwent a further change of identity. The name Embsay Steam Railway was adopted for publicity and marketing use, with the YDRMT identity remaining as the title of the owning and operating body.

The line to Stoneacre opened in 1991 – tracklaying was speeded up by the involvement of the Territorial Army Royal Engineers – and once again the extra length of railway was well received.

Bolstered by this success, the trust started negotiations with the trackbed owner with the aim of securing the purchase of the remaining two miles of trackbed into Bolton Abbey and the station there. These proved to be protracted but, ultimately, the trust was able to agree a price and ownership was taken in 1995.

The final push to Bolton Abbey proved to be the largest project undertaken by the trust so far, with two bridges to reinstate, two miles of trackbed to reclaim, track to construct and a station to rebuild.

Trains ran again between Embsay and Bolton Abbey during 1997 – thanks to grant aid from the European Regional Development Fund and English Partnerships plus support from the railway and construction industries.

A new station, of Midland Railway design, was constructed to replace the original, dangerous and derelict timber building. This construction was undertaken by Sir Robert MacAlpine & Co Ltd free of charge with 90 per cent of the materials donated to the project.

An official opening was conducted by Sir William MacAlpine in 1998 and the YDRMT entered a new phase with a transformed railway.

For the future, the trust intends to create a museum dedicated to Yorkshire industrial locomotive building and is also looking at the possibility of reopening the “missing link” to reconnect the railway with the mainline at Skipton.

* Anniversary events will take place this weekend, with trains running every 30 minutes. For more information, visit