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Walking the lost rail line from Sheffield to Manchester with TV's Rob Bell

Rob Bell walks the closed Woodhead Line from Sheffield to Manchester.
Rob Bell walks the closed Woodhead Line from Sheffield to Manchester.

“There were some fairly strong sentiments about how important the line was, and how great it would be to have it back,” says engineer and presenter Rob Bell diplomatically, as he remembers the opinions he encountered while exploring a closed Sheffield rail route for his new TV series.

The second episode of Walking Britain’s Lost Railways airs on Channel 5 on Friday, focusing on the Woodhead Line – the valuable link to Manchester that closed to regular passenger services in 1970, leading to repeated calls from campaigners for its reinstatement.

The last scheduled passenger train on the Woodhead Line from Penistone station in 1981.

The last scheduled passenger train on the Woodhead Line from Penistone station in 1981.

Rob begins in Sheffield city centre by admiring the Royal Victoria hotel – which survives, even if the station terminus next door is long gone – and rides on a freight train towards Wortley. He also walks the Thurgoland Tunnel and, west of Penistone, follows the route’s path across the bleak Pennines.

Dr Richard Beeching is the man blamed for the loss of the line. Hired by the Government in the 1960s to make the railways pay, he recommended shutting 4,000 miles of Britain’s network, including the Woodhead which opened in 1845 and was electrified in the 1950s.

The Hope Valley line to Manchester was kept open, and passenger numbers have grown nationally ever since, disproving Beeching’s case for making cuts. The widespread disruption and mass cancellations triggered by timetable changes earlier this year also demonstrated the need for an effective railway.

However, Rob says his programme is not a lament for the past.

Woodhead Tunnel - Britain's first all-electric main line, British Railways proclaim in 1955

Woodhead Tunnel - Britain's first all-electric main line, British Railways proclaim in 1955

“It’s very much a celebration of what we have left,” he explains. “It’s a great way for us to get out and see parts of the country you might not normally see otherwise. You experience the different cultures and passions people have for their region.”

The grand Royal Victoria – now a Holiday Inn – is a reminder of how revolutionary rail travel was in its early days, he says.

“This was a completely new way of moving large numbers of people at once, right around the country. You walk around these hotels today and there’s still a very strong sense that this was part of that railway mania. But for most people who stay there now, if they didn’t know what it used to be, they would probably quite happily go out of the front door, get in their car and drive off.”

Rob hunted for signs of the old station, now concreted over for the car park. “There are still a few now bricked-up windows that would have been the ticket office and there’s some of the original tiles. You walk up the ramp and what would have been platform one is now just a car park. The edge of the kerb used to be the edge of the platform. There’s a lot to take in.”

Sheffield Victoria Station, 1960, with Castlegate and Blonk Street in the foreground, and busy goods yard lines to the right.

Sheffield Victoria Station, 1960, with Castlegate and Blonk Street in the foreground, and busy goods yard lines to the right.

He visited Wortley Top Forge and was entertained by the miniature railway run by hobbyists. “They’re absolutely fantastic, proper railway enthusiasts who used to work on the railway. They’ve got their little steam engines – pretty much everyone has their own that they’ll go down and maintain. They’ve got a section of track which we rode around on, and it’s lovely.”

The Thurgoland Tunnel is a portion of the line that has been turned into a path for cyclists and walkers. “It’s on a curve, and the profile of the tunnel is this horseshoe shape, and because it’s all been rendered inside it gives an amazing echo. If you go and stand in the middle it’s quite freaky, you can hear people hundreds of metres away as they enter the tunnel. You can pretty much hear the conversations they’re having as if they’re right next to you. Very strange.”

Passenger services remain between Manchester, Glossop and Hadfield, while Penistone station offers trains to Huddersfield. Freight trains run to Deepcar to serve the Stocksbridge steelworks, and efforts continue to launch a steam-powered heritage railway using surviving tracks.

“We finish off from Hadfield,” says Rob. “I get back on the train which still runs from Hadfield into Manchester. Those communities round there are very pleased to have that, it’s a lifeline. They can easily commute to the big city. That trip round from Sheffield to Manchester was very convenient for a lot of people, and obviously that convenience is not there any more.”

Upcoming episodes feature lost routes in North Wales, Somerset and Dorset, Dartmoor and the Lake District. Rob takes time to examine how former stations have been turned into homes, and how places have been taken over by nature again since the Beeching axe fell.

But traces of the past almost always endure, he says. “If you’ve got your eyes open and you know what you’re looking for you can see clues, and it’s really pleasing when you do.”

Walking Britain’s Lost Railways will be shown on Friday, September 28, at 9pm on Channel 5.