My photo above shows York Railway Station, as it appeared in 1979. In case you’re now feeling that there must be some mistake, I should clarify that it’s York (Layerthorpe) Station, the terminus of the Derwent Valley Light Railway (DVLR), which was still operational for freight at that time.
The DVLR acquired the nickname “The Blackberry Line” long ago, because of the trainloads of blackberries that it once carried, but the most remarkable aspect of the line was its survival as a working independent railway, from its construction in 1912 to final closure in 1981. Bear in mind that almost all other railways in Britain were grouped into the “Big Four” in 1923, then nationalized in 1948, eventually all becoming part of British Railways.
A Successful Light Railway
In 1967, S J Reading, who had been the line’s General Manager from 1926 to 1963, wrote a book describing the history to that point. Full details can be found in that book, or the 1978 revised edition.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the railway system in Britain was largely complete. There were simply no further lines to be built that would be economically viable under existing laws. To try to stimulate further growth, the government set about specifying laws that would allow so-called Light Railways to be built more cheaply.
Among many other provisions, the Light Railways Act 1896 empowered local authorities to build new lines, and the DVLR was the only instance where local authorities took advantage of those powers and actually built a line. The DVLR was promoted and developed by the Escrick and Riccall Rural District Councils.
Passenger services on the DVLR were never particularly successful, and, following the end of the First World War, the growth of bus services, spurred on by the cheap availability of military-surplus trucks and buses, led to the end of all passenger service in 1926.
Nonetheless, freight services continued robustly for many decades more, peaking during and after the Second World War, when the Ministry of Food established warehouses near the line. It wasn’t until 1981 that the DVLR’s last major customer, Yorkshire Grain Driers, switched to road transport, which spelled the end of rail operations.
The Final Steam Specials
When the new National Railway Museum opened in York in 1975, the DVLR saw an opportunity to work with the NRM to offer steam train rides along its remaining tracks. This seemed like a great idea at the time, but it was soon to be overtaken by events.
Since the end of steam locomotion on BR in 1968, the nationalized railway had refused to allow operation of any steam locomotives on its tracks, so the only way to travel on a steam train was to visit one of the preserved lines that were springing up around the country. However, BR’s ban was reversed in 1971, and specials hauled by preserved steam locomotives gradually began to make a comeback.
That was bad news for the DVLR, whose small trains ambling along a few miles of rural track couldn’t compete (in the view of the public) with expresses roaring along main lines. The DVLR’s steam specials ended after the summer of 1979.
Sadly, I never took the opportunity to travel on one of those steam specials. I think we just it took it for granted that the DVLR would always be around, until suddenly it wasn’t any more.
The Bus Route to Knowledge
After returning to live in Scarborough, and beginning my first full-time job at Swifts of Scarborough, in 1979, I got into the habit of traveling to York by train almost every Saturday. There was more happening in York than in Scarborough, and York was also the closest place that had a real university!
The University of York is actually in an attractive suburb called Heslington, and during my visits I would often take a York-West-Yorkshire Joint Services bus from the City Centre out to the bookstore there. In those pre-internet days, university bookstores were my only real antidote to the intellectual wasteland of Scarborough, so I was a frequent visitor.
It so happened that the bus route to the University partially paralleled the DVLR’s rail route, so the bus recrossed the railway several times. I remember the overgrown rails at those crossings, as the double-deck bus swayed over them, but again I never gave it much thought, because I just assumed that the DVLR would always be around.
Another blogger wrote a post describing how he too saw the DVLR’s tracks from his bus, on the way to York University.
The Preserved Remnant
The DVLR terminus at York (Layerthorpe) was demolished during the 1990s, and there is now no trace of the railway there. Fortunately, however, not all trace of the DVLR has disappeared. A small portion of the route has been rerailed as a preserved line.
Part of the former rail route passed through what is now the Murton Park site of the Yorkshire Museum of Farming. When the Great Yorkshire Railway Preservation Society had to move from its former home in Starbeck in 1990, the group negotiated a transfer of its collection to Murton Park. They relaid about ¾ mile of track, and even moved the former Wheldrake Station building to the site and rebuilt it there.
I paid a brief visit to the preserved DVLR when traveling between York and Scarborough in 2008. It was heartening to see that not only was something left of the Blackberry Line, but also that the remnant seems to have a secure future.