Working semaphore distant signals in west Cumbria

My fascination with seeking out those elusive yellow and black distant signals takes me on a pre-Christmas return to the delightful Cumbrian Coast Line and the search for a clutch of these fishtailed beauties around the town of Millom.

Over a distance of eight route miles there are a total of seven working semaphore distant signals, controlled by the signal boxes at Foxfield, Millom and Silecroft, as well as by two gate boxes at Kirksanton and Limestone Hall level crossings, on the A5093 between Millom and Silecroft.

Uniquely for the Cumbrian Coast Line, the two gate boxes are protected by three combined home and distant signals on the same post, which I believe are the only working examples of combined home and distant signals on this route. 

Beginning a look at this fascinating stretch of line at Foxfield, there are a total of seven semaphore arms controlled by the 1879 Furness Railway wooden signal box, which stands at the northern end of the station’s island platform, from which five of its semaphores can be seen.

For those unfamiliar with the fascinating Cumbrian Coast Line, trains from Barrow will head 11¼ miles north to reach Foxfield, before turning sharply left, crossing Duddon Sands and heading in a south-westerly direction to Millom, then turning right to resume their northerly journey towards Sellafield and Carlisle. 

Looking south from the platform at Foxfield you will see up starter (5) with a sighting board behind, and down outer home signal (50) on a bracket some distance beyond, as seen above on 8 December, where 156496 departs with a service for Barrow and passes 156481 with a Carlisle-bound working. 

As with most semaphores along the Cumbrian Coast, the signals do not carry number plates, and neither Foxfield nor Millom have signal box prefixes.

The trio of stop signals looking north from the station platform are down home (49) close to the signal box then, as the line sweeps round to the left to cross the estuary known as Duddon Sands, you will see up home (3) and down section signal 48 beyond. 

Also just in sight across the estuary is up distant (1), seen above as 156496 passes it on 8 December with the 10.13 Carlisle-Lancaster (2C48). To get a close-up shot of the up distant, the best option is a 1½-mile walk on a path leading north from the next station, Green Road, which sadly I did not have time to try. 

Reaching Foxfield’s down distant (51) is a good deal more straightforward, however, and involves heading south from the station, over a manned level crossing and then walking down a rather muddy lane alongside the line until you reach another level crossing about ¾-mile from the station.  

Pictured above is 156443 passing Foxfield’s down distant signal on 8 December with the 11.18 Barrow-Carlisle, while below it is seen approaching down outer home signal (50).

Moving next to the attractive small town of Millom, on the west side of Duddon Sands, an attractive feature on the station itself is the former up station buildings, now home to the Millom Discovery Centre and operating one of the few independently-run ticket offices on the national network – other examples I have come across being those at Ledbury and Pembrey & Burry Port.

Millom’s compact 1891 Furness Railway signal box (as seen above) stands south of a road over-bridge just beyond the station platforms, from where four of the six semaphore arms it controls can be seen. Looking beyond the up station platform is up section signal (26) while in the down direction home signal (4) stands at the platform end, with up home (27) just beyond the signal box and down section signal (5) some distance beyond.   

As at Foxfield there is a relatively easy walking route to see and photograph the box’s motor-worked down distant signal (3), pictured above, with another muddy path running close to the railway line from the town all the way back to the intermediate station between Millom and Foxfield, Green Road.  

Alas though, I later discovered that this signal is only pulled off for trains such as the BNFL nuclear flask traffic to Sellafield, as pulling it off for passenger services that stop at Millom would require unacceptably long closure to road traffic of the level crossings between Millom and Silecroft. 

Heading west from Millom in search of its up distant (28) requires a walk of around a mile along the A5093 – narrow and no pavement, so with care! A left turn sign-posted “HMP Haverigg” brings you to the automated Haverigg Level Crossing.

From here there is a great view of the distant signal looking back towards Millom, as seen above where 156475 approaches the up distant signal on 7 December with the 12.10 Carlisle-Barrow (2C52).

My luck was in here on Monday, 7 December, when not only did the sun shine, but one of the few BNFL flask workings that seem to operate made its delayed appearance, with DRS 68002 Intrepid and 68033 top-and-tailing a working of three flasks from Sellafield to Heysham Harbour Power Station.  

Apart from the very occasional Class 68-worked nuclear traffic, Cumbrian Coast services are almost exclusively worked by Class 156 units – the route is cleared by use by the newer Class 195 units, but they seem confined to Barrow-Manchester Airport workings and only venture up the Cumbrian Coast Line at weekends. 

Looking west from Haverigg Level Crossing it is just possible to see the down distant (1) controlled by Kirksanton Level Crossing, as seen above in another view of the Class 68-powered nuclear train.

But two days later, on Wednesday, 9 December, I was able to get a much closer view when the owner of Hestham Hall Farm kindly let me into his muddy field alongside the line to see 156496 passing with the 11.18 Carlisle-Barrow (2C51).

A 15-minute walk on along the A5093 from the farm turning brings you to the first of the two manned crossings, Kirksanton, where the best vantage point I found was from a foot crossing just 200 yards west of the road crossing. In the view below 156428 passes the crossing on 9 December with the 10.22 Barrow-Carlisle. 

In the down (northbound direction) Kirksanton is protected by its home signal (2) beneath which is the distant signal (1) controlled by the nearby crossing at Limestone Hall, while in the up direction there is the single home signal (4).

Looking west from this foot crossing, 156428 can then be seen approaching another taller home and distant signal combination, comprising the Limestone Hall down home (2) with the Silecroft down distant signal beneath. Also in view beyond is the up pairing of Limestone Hall’s home (6) with the Kirksanton distant (5) beneath. 

Another five-minute walk along the A5093 through the village of Kirksanton brings you to the alarmingly rusty gates of Limestone Hall Level Crossing, where this view of its eight-lever frame  shows the one non-mechanical (short lever) being its up distant (7) which controls a three-aspect colour light standing on the platform at nearby Silecroft station.           

After a long chat with the very friendly gate-keeper, I was able to photograph 156475 approaching the crossing on 9 December with the 09.27 Barrow-Carlisle (2C45) – pictured above – closely followed by 156496 approaching from Silecroft with the 08.08 Carlisle-Barrow (2C44) – pictured below.    

A final 20-minute walk along the A5093 brings you to Silecroft, where a Furness Railway signal box (1923) stands just south of the down (northbound) platform and controls level crossing barriers and a trio of semaphores, all in the down direction. Besides the distant signal at Limestone Hall LC, these are a home signal close to the station and a section signal 400 yards to the north.   

For a charming place to stay in the area I can recommend the Queen’s Hotel in St. Bees, which is just 150 yards from the railway station and its Grade II listed 1891-vintage Furness Railway signal box. St. Bees is the only passing loop on the section of single line from Sellafield to Whitehaven and is another photogenic spot, controlled by five semaphore arms, though no semaphore distant signals.

While staying in St. Bees I could not resist a five-minute train ride north to photograph another of the line’s semaphores that I had not captured previously. This is the Bransty (Whitehaven) down outer home signal, which stands north of Corkickle station at the southern end of the ¾-mile long Whitehaven Tunnel.

Looking at the tall post it stands on shows that this was once another home and distant signal combination, with the remaining arm mounted in what would once have been the position of Bransty’s down distant signal.

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