Almost four years after my last visit it is time to pay an overdue return to one of the most charming outposts of mechanical signalling in the North-West, at Helsby Junction in Cheshire, roughly mid-way between Warrington and Chester.
Since that June 2017 visit the semaphores have been replaced at nearby Frodsham Junction, as part of the Halton Curve revival, but Helsby remains an oasis of traditional signalling controlled by its Grade II-Listed London & North Western Railway signal box.
Helsby Junction Signal Box is an LNWR Type 4 design that was opened in 1900 as replacement for an earlier 1870s box. It stands on platforms 2/3 and is listed along with the station building and waiting shelter, both dating from 1849. The signal box was renovated almost 20 years ago and won a National Railway Heritage Award in 2004.
The citation for its Grade II listing in November 2013 described it as a good example of the typical form of the London and North Western Railway Type 4 signal box, while its interior retained its original lever frame and it had group value with the Grade II-listed station buildings and waiting shelter.
Today its 45-lever frame controls a total of 12 semaphore arms, comprising three on the up main (HY2/3/4), four on the down main (HY43/42/37/36) along with a junction arm controlling access to the Ellesmere Port line (HY6) standing alongside up home HY2 on the right hand side of the line.
Four other semaphores on the little-used Ellesmere Port line are down home HY39 (out of sight from the station), the famous co-acting starter HY38, which controls access from platform 4 to the down main line, and starting signals for Ellesmere Port-bound services HY7 (platform 3) and HY20 (platform 4).
Day-time services through Helsby currently comprise hourly TfW services between Manchester Airport and Chester, some of which are to/from Llandudno or Holyhead, two-hourly TfW services between Liverpool and Chester via the re-opened Halton curve, and two-hourly Northern services between Leeds and Chester, the only services not stopping at Helsby.
Under the limited COVID-19 timetable currently in force there is just one daily “Parliamentary” service on the Cinderella route to Ellesmere Port, departing Helsby at 06.00 and returning from Ellesmere Port at 06.19, then calling at Helsby (06.29) on its Monday-Saturday journey to Leeds (08.41).
There are a number of great photographic locations on the station as well as from three nearby over-bridges. One of these is a former railway bridge to the south of the station, which carried a line from Helsby West Cheshire Junction on the line to Ellesmere Port to Mouldsworth on a route from Chester to Manchester via Northwich.
This west curve (seen in the map above) was built by the Cheshire Lines Committee and saw heavy freight traffic to and from oil refinery at Stanlow, but that traffic was lost when pipelines were built, with the route finally closing 30 years ago (September 1991) when the signal box at Helsby West Cheshire Junction was severely damaged by fire.
Today it is possible to get up to the bridge which took this curve over the main line by heading south from the station for about half a mile along the main A56 Chester Road, then turning right into Freshmeadow Lane and climbing up a well worn path onto the old line from an over-bridge at the end of the lane.
A rough path in the ballast takes you to the bridge over the line, which is fenced off and has lost its decking, but from where there is a good view looking north towards the station, with up section signal HY4 and down inner home HY42 in view. Down outer home HY43 stands just south of the old bridge, but too close to be photographed.
Returning towards the station then continuing along the main road for about 300 yards brought me to a second new photo spot at the end of a short residential street called Bank House Lane. Here an easily-climbed gate gets you onto an over-bridge with an old Land Rover on it (pictured above), beyond which there is a good view back to the station with down section signal HY36 in view along with up homes HY2 and HY6 in front of another bridge.
That third bridge, at the end of Rake Lane and very close to the station, is the other great vantage point from which to see and photograph some of the semaphores, although the co-acting signal HY38 is obscured by trees and cannot be seen from here.
Alas too, on the day of my visit (27 April 2021) there was no opportunity to see HY38 pulled off, as I had done on my previous visit, with both the early morning “Parliamentary” service from Ellesmere Port, and an early afternoon freight working from an industrial site at Ince & Elton, cancelled.
If it wasn’t for incessant noise from the nearby M56 motorway and a total lack of traffic on the Ellesmere Port line, it would be hard to find a place to beat Helsby as a peaceful photogenic spot, an oasis of semaphore signalling, and home to an impressive collection of historic station buildings.