Just three miles from the National Railway Museum is the start of one of Britain’s finest remaining outposts of mechanical signalling, the 17½ miles of railway route between Harrogate and Poppleton, a growing village north-west of York city centre.
After previously spending time photographing the signalling at Harrogate and other intermediate stations, including remarkable Knaresborough, my latest challenge was to visit three of the route’s gate boxes that are signalled by semaphores.
In the 5¾ miles between the stations of Hammerton and Poppleton – a section of the route singled in June 1972 – stand this trio of gate boxes (Wilstrop, Marston Moor and Hessay), each controlling up and down home and distant signals, so making it what must be one of the most intensively-signalled stretches of route in Britain still controlled by mechanical signalling.
Planning a walking route from Hammerton to Poppleton using the local OS map (105-York) and hoping (in vain) to find a footpath running along the busy A59 trunk road, my aim (on Saturday, 7 September 2019) was to visit and photograph the three crossing boxes, all of which stand only a short distance south of the main road.
My quest began at Hammerton, where there are lightweight metal crossing gates and a unique box on the up platform housing its 10-lever signalling frame, with the signaller having an office and key token machine in the adjoining station building (pictured).
Hammerton has a total of four semaphores, of which three can be seen from the station and comprise up (eastbound) home signal H9 just beyond the crossing gates, an eastbound starter (H8) and westbound home signal (H2). Out of view is down distant H1 which, uniquely for this stretch of line, is wire-worked, despite being ¾ mile away.
All the other distant signals on this fascinating stretch of line are motor-worked, including Wilstrop’s up distant signal W5, which can be seen from the platform end at Hammerton (pictured below).
First up, and just one rail mile east of Hammerton, is Wilstrop, where a “Portacabin” box stands at the site of what was once a station called Wilstrop Siding, which closed to passengers in May 1931, but remained open for goods traffic until May 1964.
The box here protects a quiet lane leading to nearby Wilstrop Hall and, unlike Marston Moor and Hessay, its gates are kept closed to road traffic, so its signals remain in the off position unless a vehicle requests to cross the line.
Having already seen up distant W5 from the platform end at Hammerton, there is a brief glimpse of H1 on the lane approaching the crossing, which is protected by up home signal W4 and down home signal W3 (pictured above), with the down distant (W2) being a light. The small lever frame here is housed in a clear glass box on the opposite side of the lane to the Portacabin (pictured below).
Returning to the scary A59 and continuing along it for another 1¾ miles, a right turn signed to the village of Long Marston took me to the most famous name on this route, that of Marston Moor, site of one of the most memorable battles of the English Civil War almost exactly 375 years ago (on 2 July 1644).
Marston Moor station closed to passengers as long ago as 15 September 1958, but its station buildings on the up (north) side of the line survive in private ownership (currently for sale), with a well-preserved 1910-vintage North Eastern Railway signal box standing at the eastern end of the former up platform.
Looking west beyond the former station back towards Hammerton, the Marston Moor up home signal stands above a distant signal controlled by nearby Hessay (pictured above), while in the down direction a home signal stands close to the level crossing, whose wooden gates were replaced by lighter, steel gates around a decade ago.
Back to the A59 and just one mile beyond Marston Moor there is a turn for the village of Hessay. Here again there is a very well-preserved station building on the up side of the line, which closed to passengers on the same day as Marston Moor (15 September 1958) and another place where wooden crossing gates have given way to lightweight metal replacements.
Mirroring the signalling at Marston Moor, the three semaphore arms in view here are a down home signal, with the Marston Moor distant beneath it (pictured above), and a single home signal in the up direction. There was never a signal box here, so the four signals are controlled from a small lever frame that stands on the former up platform.
Being keen to steer clear of the A59 as much as possible, I continued my journey by heading on to the village (½ mile), before turning left and then continuing onto a path which took me to a user-worked crossing of the line. From here there was a good view back towards Hessay crossing, with both its down distant and home signals visible (pictured below).
Returning from this crossing to the nearby A59, it is just about a mile until you reach the A59 over-bridge, with Poppleton’s fixed up distant visible across a field along the way. This bridge offers a great view of the nearby station and signals (top and bottom pictures), and is a ten-minute walk from the station, happily on a pavement!
Like Hammerton, Poppleton has metal crossing gates and has a small signal box alongside, originally dating from the 1870s, but later extended. Its remaining semaphores are two home signals, with a taller one in the up direction close to the box, and another close by, at the western end of the down platform (pictured above).
The Harrogate-York line survived its proposed closure by Beeching in the early 1960s and, after rationalisation in the early 1970s saw both the Hammerton-Poppleton and Knaresborough-Cattal sections reduced to single track, passenger traffic is buoyant, and there has been talk of re-doubling and electrification.
But until such grand plans actually materialise – life extension work has apparently been carried out on the signalling equipment – there is still time to appreciate this fascinating route’s impressive and historic signalling infrastructure.
What was noticeable on Saturday was the variety of rolling stock used on the hourly York-Leeds services, with no less than four classes of unit in operation during the day (144019/150126/158792/170458).
Sincere thanks to the signallers I spoke to on Saturday for their help and advice. My new book “Britain’s last mechanical signalling” is out now, and available from publishers Pen & Sword and from many online retailers.
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