Engines of Change
Lord of the Hrungs
Editor Simon Denison
Engines of change
Railways profoundly influenced the rural and urban landscapes of Britain. David Gwyn reports
Few inventions have had so vast an impact on the British landscape as the railway. Alongside its more obvious direct effects - the thousands of miles of cuttings, tunnels and embankments, bridges, stations, signal-boxes and crossings - the railway brought immense changes to the size and layout of towns and transformed the architecture of industrialising rural areas.
Visible signs of the influence of the railway lie all around, yet landscape archaeologists have generally been slow to recognise their importance. For many, it seems, archaeology is only about the distant past and railways are simply too recent to be interesting. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For a start, the railway was not an invention of the Industrial Revolution. Railways have been part of the European landscape from at least the 6th century BC when Periander, tyrant of Corinth in Greece, built a railway with stone rails over the Corinthian isthmus in order to save the long sea journey around the Peloponnese. The underground mine railway was certainly known to Roman engineers, and it was in the great mining centres of the Eastern Alps that the technology re-emerged in the late medieval period, whence it was brought by German miners to the Lake District in about 1560.
The earliest overland railway in Britain was probably the colliery line connecting Strelley colliery to Wollaton in Nottinghamshire, operational by 1604. Railways serving collieries were established in Shropshire by the following year and on Tyneside by 1608. In the 18th century they were increasingly found in ironworks, quarries and foundries, and at any large construction sites - such as lighthouses and factories - where building materials had been brought in by rail. Even before the wrought-iron rail and the steam locomotive ushered in the 'railway age' in the 1830s, Britain had many thousands of miles of railway. By 1906 this had become 52,904 miles belonging to more than a hundred public railway companies. And there was almost as much again of private industrial railway.
The scale of railway civil engineering is overwhelming. Prodigious quantities of soil were excavated manually by navvies, and moved with the aid of nothing more than horse-drawn tip wagons. The nine main lines built between 1834 and 1841, with a combined mileage of 660 miles, involved the excavation of 70m cubic yards (54m cubic metres) of material for which there was no precedent. This scale of landscape transformation was not exceeded until the construction of the M1 motorway. Here, the first 55 miles involved the excavation of 11m cubic yards, but this was achieved with modern earth-moving equipment. The number of bricks used for the huge retaining walls through which railways entered towns and cities is incalculable.
A locomotive had to be designed and operated according to the landscape through which it ran. The more powerful it was, the longer and heavier the trains it could pull, but the more substantial its rails and earthworks had to be to carry it. Moreover, its wheelbase had to be able to negotiate whatever curves it might encounter. The long steep gradient of 1:75 up to Shap summit between Lancaster and Carlisle, for instance, was for many years the limiting factor on the West Coast main line, only finally overcome with the introduction of electric locomotives in 1974.
Where capital was readily available, as on most European main lines, civil engineering could defy topography, and span great valleys on embankments and viaducts, and drive tunnels through mountain ridges. But where money was scarce, other means of overcoming differences in height had to be found. Some railways, particularly those which only carried goods or minerals, often resorted to rope-hauled sections, in which goods were either moved by a stationary engine, or operated on the counterbalance principle, whereby heavier loaded wagons pulled up lighter empties on an adjacent track. Many of the cash-starved railways in the British Empire climbed mountain ranges in gigantic spirals, such as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, now a World Heritage Site, or in huge zig-zags, such as the Khyber Pass Railway in Afghanistan.
The Americas posed different civil engineering problems, and provided different answers. The first trunk line in the usa, the Baltimore and Ohio, chartered in 1827, was consciously modelled on the Liverpool and Manchester, building solid brick viaducts over Gwynns Falls and the Patapsco. Shortage of capital and the availability of timber as well as landscape factors ensured that later American railways opted for wooden bridges. The preference for timber was seen at its simplest in a railway built in Sonoma County, California, in the 1880s, where the trees in a ravine were sawn off to a level on either side of the railroad, and cross ties (sleepers) attached to the stumps to receive rails.
Railways came into being as the handmaidens of industry, and by the late 19th century there were few industries of any size which were not connected to the rail network, and had a rail system for internal movement as well. Coal mines, open quarries, gasworks, cement works, engineering complexes and defensive sites all came to acquire their own railways, with the result that buildings and plant were designed, and their relation to each other decided, according to the need to shunt materials from one place to another. The Corus (British Steel) steelworks at Scunthorpe, for instance, contains 90 miles of railway on its 1,700 acre (690 hectare) site.
Ports and harbours which had been built in a pre-railway age were often unsuitable for rail access. The quay walls were not strong enough to bear the weight of trains, and the dock area insufficiently large to allow for the comparatively large-radius curves which even small goods wagons required - so either a new generation of harbours had to be constructed, such as Grimsby, or older ones had to be adapted, as at Liverpool.
Railways themselves grew into large-scale industries. Locomotive sheds and coaling facilities might cover many acres, and many companies developed manufacturing works capable of turning out locomotives and rolling stock - even, in the case of Crewe, operating a steel mill. Other companies bought in from independent engineering firms which specialized in such work. These were located all over the UK, though Glasgow-Kilmarnock, the North-East of England, Manchester and its satellites, and Bristol were principal centres. Many locomotives were built by one or other of the Leeds firms which grew up in the Hunslet area of the city, an area traditionally associated with blacksmithing.
A host of smaller industries came into being in the immediate vicinity of station goods yards, and some remain there still - even after the railway has gone. The town gasworks might be sited close to the railway to allow for the delivery of coal. Other typical satellite industries include coal merchants, cattle marts and merchants selling agricultural foodstuff.
The landscape impact of the railway system was felt in many ways. In some areas transport routes became a 'metropolitan corridor', creating a more developed urban world in their immediate vicinity than the broader hinterland had hitherto supported. We tend to assume that railways supplanted roads in the early 19th century, but in fact many of the fast-industrialising areas of this period had not even developed a road network. The South Wales valleys, for instance, were crossed by little more than hill-paths, and certainly what roads there were ran in the wrong direction for the ironworks and their ancillary industries.
The railways that were laid here from the 1790s onwards became the natural thoroughfares for the workers and families who established themselves in this otherwise scantily populated area. Houses, places of worship and pubs were built facing the railways, and when locomotives were introduced on these lines in the 1830s the temptation for enginemen to quench their thirst at a lineside watering-hole was often irresistible. More than one iron horse came to a sudden and explosive end because its crew were sinking pints nearby, forgetting all about the rising pressure gauge and the screwed-down safety valves.
Trains on railways such as these moved slowly, and the footpaths alongside them gradually evolved into roads. When the railways came to be upgraded in the mid-19th century, they were re-routed onto their own new right of way, leaving the present-day road as evidence of its original course. Many of the valley roads in South Wales, for example, started as railway lines. Even in genteel Cheltenham several roads began in the early 19th century as horse-drawn mineral lines.
The preserved Ffestiniog railway in North Wales, opened to carry slate from the mountains to the sea in 1836, provides an illuminating example of how these early industrial communities evolved. Near its upper terminus is the village of Tan y Grisiau. Here all the older houses, mostly vernacular cottages, cling to the hillside alongside the sinuous course of the narrow-gauge railway. For as long as trains were horse-hauled, groceries were delivered to the front door by the simple expedient of throwing them off the wagons as they crept past. Once steam locomotives were introduced in 1863, catching your groceries became a more hazardous affair. A station was opened at one end of the village, a road was built to it, and straightaway all the new houses came to be constructed along the road. These were solid, industrial two-up two-down types, contrasting both in form and location with the earlier houses built higher up the hillside.
Railway companies themselves built houses for their workers - this might be a single cottage for a widow supporting herself by opening and closing level crossing gates, a row, a suburb, such as Inchicore in Dublin, or the best part of a whole town, such as Crewe and Swindon. Railways created communities in different ways also. They did not bring coastal resorts into being, but they fuelled their growth and democratized them - sometimes, as at Llandudno, driving out their more well-heeled earlier patrons.
In fact, railways blurred the distinction between town and country. Huge suburban tracts were brought into being by railway companies, generally as a consequence of electrification. The London tube system was rapidly expanded between the wars, ensuring the passage of traffic from its further reaches right into the centre. By buying a house in 'Metroland' the city clerk might, in Betjeman's words, become a countryman again.
The townscapes of the USA, above all others, are the creation of the railway, which confirmed the fortunes of some cities and either created or greatly enlarged towns in their hinterlands. The railway system transformed Chicago, for instance, but also effectively created the other Illinois towns of Centralia, Decatur, Galesburg, Effingham, Savanna and Stockton.
When railroads pushed into the unsettled West and Florida from the 1860s onwards, the rail companies created their own towns from new - the value of agricultural land by the trackside was far less than the money that could be made from urban promotion, and careful research went into selecting sites with a good hinterland, and at a suitable distance from each other. Typically these towns were laid out on a grid pattern, with a business and middle class residential district on one side and a working class district on the other - the phrase 'the wrong side of the tracks' had a very specific meaning in the American West. Always the railroad was the central element, and it is only recently that in some towns they no longer run down the main street.
Yet not even the usa could match the experience of Kenya. After three years' work and fatalities in the thousands, the Uganda Railway paused to establish a depot at a site known to the Maasai as Ewaso Nairobi ('stream of cold water') in 1899. By 1907 Nairobi was the capital of British East Africa, displacing the ancient coastal settlement of Mombasa, and is now the largest city between Johannesburg and Cairo.
Railway architecture both influenced, and was influenced by, prevailing local idioms. Architects responsible for passenger stations included learned references in their building work right from the days of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and buildings 'on the ancient principle' were felt to lessen the shock of the new. Cottage and vernacular styles found their way into station design, though details such as the finials and ornamented bargeboards with which railway companies liked to decorate passenger facilities also came to be found on houses and public buildings. Before long, mass-produced and processed building materials, such as Bedfordshire brick and Welsh slate, began to displace local stones and thatch.
The gradual contraction of the British railway system from the end of the First World War has impacted on the landscape in a variety of ways. Branch lines in rural areas were the first to go, and many secondary main lines disappeared as a consequence of the Beeching axe in the 1960s. Some have been reclaimed by nature, others have become cycle routes or footpaths, serving recreation in a very different way from the excursion trains of old.
Selling off the sites of redundant railway buildings, particularly former steam sheds or infrastructure from the very early days of railways, has released land often near town centres for the development of supermarkets, multiplex cinemas or fast-food outlets. The classic case is Swindon, where the closure of Brunel's Great Western Railway works made it possible for the silicon valley microchip businesses to buy town centre sites near the M4 and the railway - and for the National Monuments Record to establish itself in one of the old railway workshops.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that the railway as a form of technology will cease to be an element in the British landscape. Despite all the complaints about passenger services on the privatized system, train operators have finally managed to reverse over 80 years' decline in goods traffic, and are now handling materials in vastly more efficient ways than the sleepy country goods stations of the past.
Opposition to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which recently cut a swathe through the Kent countryside, suggests that many of us still object - as Wordsworth did - to what is new and raw in the landscape. Our reaction is wholly different, however, to railway lines that have been established for decades. They have come to be seen as a cherished part of the landscape, and the closure of entirely redundant and out-of-date systems is felt by local communities as an affront. The first railway threatened with closure to be taken over by enthusiasts was the Talyllyn railway in Gwynedd in 1950. It passed through beautiful scenery, and lay significantly near tourist destinations. It has since gone from strength to strength.
When the Ealing studios sensed the comic possibilities of amateur volunteers running an old railway, they filmed The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952) not in Wales but in Devon. Here not only is the railway firmly a part of old England (with the bus company there to represent the distorting forces of modernity and commercialism), but it is also the traditional regional élite of squire and parson which takes the lead in enabling the villagers to run their own railway.
According to Steam Railways magazine (March 2002), no fewer than 110 'heritage railways' are now operational in the United Kingdom, many of which try to recreate the ambience of a particular period in the recent past such as the 1950s. Perhaps this is a symptom of a worrying malaise, in which we feel compelled to retreat to a less threatening world. But if nothing else, it is also a testament to the almost unconscious way in which this form of technology has entered both the mental and the physical landscape.
David Gwyn is the Editor of 'Industrial Archaeology Review', and is Director of the Gwynedd-based Govannon Consultancy
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005