Originally published in The Railway Magazine for March 2010 under the title “Cliffhangers”
Cliff railways, part of Britain’s transport infrastructure since 1875, are often overlooked by the enthusiast fraternity. ROBERT HUMM reviews their history and development : continued from Part 1.
With a total of four cliff railways the Kentish town of Folkestone was once second only to Scarborough. Today only the original line of 1884 remains in use. It runs from the Leas – the gardens in front of a solid phalanx of Victorian and Edwardian hotels – down to the beach and has a gauge of 5ft 10ins. At the top is a small cabin housing the operator, who is kept busy with not only the car controls but also the entrance/exit gates and the manual car doors. Below, facing the esplanade is a rather stylish pavilion housing the ticket office, pumping engine and waiting room. In 2007 a single ticket was 85p, good value when compared with some other cliff railways.
Folkestone is another rare surviving water-balance installation and is as good a place as any to observe at close quarters how the system works. The simple principle of the water-balance system is that the descending car should always be heavier than the ascending car, even if the former has a lighter passenger load than the latter. This is achieved by filling a tank beneath the car with a variable, measured amount of water. When the descending car reaches the lower station the tank is discharged, while, at the top, the ascending car is refilled. At Folkestone there is a double-sided water spout between the tracks, water being loaded by gravity which entails much enjoyable sploshing.
For the most economic operation there should be an unlimited supply of water at the top station. In practice this has been rarely achieved, the most notable examples being Lynton & Lynmouth and Llyngwern, both to be described later. Most water-balance railways either relied entirely upon water being pumped back up to the top, or (as at Saltburn) pumping augmented by a cliff-face spring.
Such was the popularity of The Leas railway that another was built alongside it only six years later. It demonstrates the idiosyncrasy of British cliff railways – the track gauge, gradient and length were all different from Leas (1) just a few feet away. Leas (2) closed in 1966 though the track still remains in place over forty years later. Further cliff railways followed at Folkestone’s west end – Sandgate Hill (1893) and the Metropole Hotel (1904) but both have long since disappeared.
Today Bournemouth has more active cliff railways – three – than any other town in Britain. The East Cliff and the West Cliff lines were both opened in 1908 and were the first to employ electric winding from the start. The installation was carried out by R Waygood & Co (later Waygood Otis), the well known lift manufacturers, and operated on a 500v dc supply. They were followed in 1935 by the Fisherman’s Walk cliff railway at Boscombe, the last of the traditional British cliff railways to be built.
Because of the friability of the rock formation the Bournemouth cliff railways are characterised by massive stone revetments. Originally the tracks were carried on baulks of timber, but were replaced by precast concrete sections in the 1980s. The first two lines have a track gauge of 5ft 6ins while Fisherman’s Walk is a little wider at 5ft 8ins. The gradient is approximately 1: 1.4 at all three.
All six of the present Bournemouth cars date from the early 1960s and their spartan interiors reflect that austere period. There is some talk of replacing them soon, one of the problems being that they are no longer waterproof – as was all too apparent on a wet and blustery day in summer 2007. The Bournemouth lines are well patronised though more could be done to advertise their presence to those not familiar with the town. Fisherman’s Walk in particular is so unobtrusive that by the time the writer eventually located it the railway had closed for the night. A local resident commented, “They took the signs down for the winter and haven’t put them back yet.” That was in late June.
An unusual feature of the Bournemouth lines is a variable pricing system found nowhere else – it costs £1 to ascend but only 50p to descend.
Hastings, in Sussex, is now the only other town with more than one cliff railway. West Hill was the first to be constructed, in 1891 – a decade that saw more new cliff railways than any other. It has the unusual distinction of being almost mostly within a brick-lined tunnel built into the cliff face. The gauge is 6ft and the length is 500ft, the attractive lower station being set well back from the esplanade among the town shops.
This costly piece of construction soon led to the bankruptcy of the promoters, the Hastings Lift Company. Acquired cheaply by another private company, the line eventually passed into local authority ownership in 1947. Winding, originally with a gas engine, then diesel, is now by electric power. The 1891 wooden-bodied cars, built by the Midland Carriage & Wagon Co of Birmingham, remain in use today.
Built in a natural cleft in the rock face and located immediately behind the famously picturesque fishermen’s tarred net lofts, Hastings East Hill is one of our more spectacular cliff railways. Its purpose is to provide access from the lower town to the extensive Cliff Walk Country Park. It was designed and built by the Borough Engineer and was opened in 1903. Gauge is 5ft and length 267ft; the gradient of 1:1.28 is the steepest of all the cliff railways. Both stations are distinctive, the beach station very much a suburban villa while the upper station resembles a medieval fortification. Water-balance operation was used (the castle towers housed the water tanks) until conversion to electric winding in 1973.
East Hill suffered a serious accident in June 2007 – only a few days before the writer’s visit – when one of the cars crashed into the lower station, and has been closed since. Both cars, which date from 1976, have been removed for renovation and other improvements to the line are also taking place. Reopening is scheduled for 2010.
Undoubtedly the best known cliff railway in Britain is that between Lynton and Lynmouth in Devon. The idea was first proposed by a local entrepreneur and councillor, John Heywood, who in the event was unable to take the scheme forward.
Eventually built as a collaboration between the publisher and philanthropist George Newnes, the engineer George Croydon Marks, and local builder Bob Jones, it was the outcome of Newnes’ distress at the sight of overworked horses toiling up the 1 in 4 road with goods and passengers from the harbour at Lynmouth to the town of Lynton many hundreds of feet above. He and Marks could see that the fast flowing River Lyn would provide an inexhaustible supply of water for a water-balance railway. The line was quickly built and was opened at Easter 1890. At 862 feet it is the longest traditional cliff railway in the country.
Much of the Lynton line is in a deep cutting. In order to reduce the amount of rock excavation the cars themselves are relatively narrow, as is the gauge of 3ft 8ins. The two tracks are laid no more than 8ins apart, except for a splay-out at the central passing place. A unique feature was an intermediate station at North Cliff House, long since closed,
Marks’ most important contribution was the realisation that a line of such length would require a more sophisticated braking and safety system than the earlier short lines. No fewer than four safety measures were incorporated, all of them patented in 1888 in the joint names of Marks, Newnes and Jones. They were a hand operated emergency brake, an automatic brake in the event of a rope breakage, a governor to control the speed of the car, and a hydraulically operated brake under the direct control of the conductor.
Unlike most British cliff railways the Lynton & Lynmouth had a serious public transport purpose. It embodied another improvement of Marks’ devising, a car body on its own wheels that could be drawn off the triangular underframe to allow goods vehicles to be transported. This was much used in the early years.
With today’s vastly more powerful road vehicles the facility is no longer needed and the wheels of the passenger car bodies have been removed. The last recorded occasion on which motorcars were carried was in the aftermath of the Lynmouth flood disaster of 1952. In other respects the line is still very much as built. The cars are the originals, though the flat-floor configuration was altered to a stepped arrangement in 1947 so as to increase the carrying capacity to 40 passengers.
Water-power is still used, the free supply being cheaper than any alternative, and an added bonus in these environmentally conscious times is the absence of any emissions. Currently the line is open from mid-February to mid-November, a return ticket costing £2-85.
(to be continued)