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 2.
The partnership in the 1890s between Newnes as financier and Marks as engineer resulted in three more cliff railways in quick succession, Bridgnorth, Clifton Rocks and Aberystwyth, as well as the long-forgotten Matlock funicular tramway. The latter no longer survives but the three funiculars remain, two of them active today.
Bridgnorth Castle Hill Railway, opened in 1892 to connect the Low and High areas of the town, is one of our few inland cliff railways. As at Lynton it is built in a narrow cleft of the sandstone cliff face and similarly has the narrowest practicable gauge of 3ft 8½” so as to minimise the amount of excavation required. It too was water-powered until converted in 1944 to electric haulage.
The length of the line is 201ft, the gradient 1 in 1.8 and the total rise is 111ft. The lower station on the west bank of the River Severn is inconspicuous in the extreme, being no more than a doorway at the end of a narrow alley between a shop and a public house. By contrast the upper station is a riot of stockbroker Tudor and steeply pitched turret roofs.
The original 18-seater cars at Bridgnorth had something of the appearance of single deck horse tramcars, complete with clerestory roofs. In keeping with the spirit of the times they were replaced in 1955 by a pair of steel-bodied vehicles that seem to have escaped from the motor coach industry.
These stylish 55-year old veterans, painted in an attractive cream and blue livery, remain in use. They carry about 200,000 passengers a year, seven day a week.
Arguably the most spectacular of all our cliff railways was the Clifton Rocks Railway at Hotwells, Bristol, which though closed three-quarters of a century ago is still largely intact and thus worth a brief reference here. It is the only one of our traditional cliff railways built wholly underground and the only one with a quadruple-track line.
Clifton Rocks was another collaboration between Marks and Newnes, the latter providing the financial backing when the original proprietors failed to raise sufficient capital. Opened in 1893, the line ascended 450ft in a cavernous 27ft diameter tunnel. Hydraulic power was the means of propulsion throughout the life of the line. The ornate lower station was set into the near-vertical cliff face and was adjacent to Hotwells Station on the Bristol Port & Pier Railway, while the upper station was behind elegant iron railings on Sion Hill.
Attracting far less traffic than anticipated, the Clifton Rocks Railway suffered a severe blow when Hotwells station closed in 1922 and – there being little day-tripper business to sustain it – the end of the cliff railway occurred in 1934 after improved bus services came to the Clifton area. During the World Second World War the disused tunnel was partitioned for use by the BBC and several military organisations and was not finally abandoned until 1960.
The writer visited the railway in the mid-1970s with a party from the Railway & Canal Historical Society when we found the tunnel a scene of eerie desolation and both stations in decay. About six years ago the Clifton Rocks Railway Trust started a restoration programme with the ambitious objective of reopening the line. The removal of tons of rubble and rubbish from the upper 30 feet of track has revealed the gauge to be 3ft 2½ins rather than the published figure of 3ft 8ins. Regular open days now attract large crowds.
Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth, is a massive promontory and popular beauty spot at the north end of the town esplanade, and its cliff railway was the final joint venture between Marks and Newnes. Opened in 1896 with a track gauge of 4ft 10ins , the length of 798 ft is exceeded in Britain only by Lynton. Here for the first time Marks used his new design of stepped cars – now virtually universal for modern funiculars – rather than the familiar horizontal car on a triangular frame found on most British systems. The Constitution Hill cars carry 30 passengers in four bays, with side access from matching stepped platforms at the stations. Water power was used until replaced by electric winding in 1921.
At £60,000 it was a costly line to build (Lynton cost £8,500), partly because of the extensive stabilisation works of the shale forming the hill, and has always been expensive to ride. When opened the return fare was 1s-2d (most lines were a penny or tuppence) and in 2007 it was £2-75p. For that the rider is rewarded with magnificent views across Cardigan Bay and a chance to travel in the car now named The Lord Marks.
After Aberystwyth, Marks was engineer for only one more scheme, the second of Budapest’s funiculars. According to Marks’ biographer, he attended its opening and was honoured by the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha for his work in getting the line open on time for the great Budapest Exposition of 1896. That railway appears to have been short-lived and nothing is now known of its history. Marks then concentrated his energies upon his other main business enterprise, the lucrative patent agency Marks & Clerk (now a world-wide concern) but late in life acted as consulting engineer to the next of our railways, the Babbacombe Cliff Railway at Torquay.
A relatively late newcomer in 1926, Babbacombe is a classic seaside line that delivers its passengers to a ramparted station immediately above the beach. From there it only a few steps down to the sands. It was built to the gauge of 5ft 10ins and electrically powered from the beginning. Length is 718 ft (vertical rise approximately 250ft) and gradient is 1 in 2.8, the cars being of the traditional triangle-frame pattern. The line has recently undergone extensive renovation and was doing good business when visited in August 2006.
The short cliff railway at Southend-on-Sea, Essex, is different from those so far described. The track was originally the site of a Reno Inclined Elevator that had been installed in 1901 and dismantled about 1912. The Reno Elevator was a primitive (and noisy) wooden ‘travolator’ of a type now familiar on the Bank-Monument section of London’s Underground and at many airports. Its replacement cliff railway was opened in August 1912 and consists of a single car running on 4ft 6ins gauge track, counterbalanced by an iron weight running on its own 1ft 9ins gauge railway beneath the main track. The line is built upon a pair of plateframe girders about six feet above ground level. These girders appear to be survivors from the Reno days. Despite modernisation in 1930, 1959 and 1990, the Southend line seems not to have had much success and was found to be out of use when visited in June 2007.
Another funicular-type operation is the little-known Shipley Glen cable tramway at Baildon in West Yorkshire. Completely different from the usual steep cliff railways, and operated with a pair of two-car toast-rack trains, it is nevertheless a true funicular, running for over 1100 feet on an average gradient of 1 in 12. The counterbalance system is powered by a pair of 35hp electric motors at the upper station. Because of the length of the cable and the degree of expansion in hot weather the return pulley is mounted on a weighted trolley to maintain tension.
The Shipley Glen tramway was built by local entrepreneur Samuel Wilson in 1895 as part of a scheme to develop this popular beauty spot. The line was cheaply constructed for less than £1000, the narrow gauge of 1ft 8ins being used to accommodate some secondhand cars of obscure origin. The tramway has gone through several changes of ownership and faced closure more than once. Since 1982 it has been leased by the Bradford Trolleybus Association and is now operated at weekends only by volunteers. Traffic is fairly low, not helped by the lack of direction signs. On an August afternoon in 2008 there were less than a dozen visitors including the writer. This is a pity as it provides a delightful ride through sun-dappled woodland.
Since the 1980s a new breed of cliff railway has emerged to offset the numerous closures that occurred after the Second World War. I shall mention just three. In 1992 the Centre For Alternative Technology at Llwyngwern, near Machynlleth, built a new 200ft cliff railway from the visitors’ car park to the main demonstration area on the hilltop above. In keeping with its green credentials this was the first new water-balance cliff railway for ninety years. As at Lynton it is fed from a natural source and reservoir at the upper level, some water being returned to the upper level by a water turbine. The cars are of the stepped variety and were built by the Lancastrian Carriage & Wagon Co of Heysham. The track is 5ft 3ins gauge and is laid with ex-BR flat bottom rail.
In 2001 Britain’s longest and most ambitious funicular – it cannot with accuracy be called a cliff railway – was opened. This is the Cairngorm Mountain Railway near the Scottish Highlands ski resort of Aviemore. It takes skiers (and in summer tourists) to the summit of Cairn Gorm, at 4,084 ft (1244 metres) the 6th highest peak in Scotland, and where the summit station is now the highest in all Britain.
Superseding a life-expired ski lift, the Cairngorm Railway was built in the face of powerful opposition from the environmental lobby and was only permitted by not allowing tourists out of the top station. The reason is the ecological fragility of the mountain surface. Skiers have a separate alighting platform that is inaccessible to other riders during the summer. The single-track line is built entirely on a low concrete viaduct on widely a variable gradient – at one point the ascending car is travelling slightly downhill. The track gauge of 2 metres is unique in the United Kingdom, though it can be found on several modern funiculars in Switzerland.
The two large 5-compartment cars cars can carry 120 standing passengers in winter or 50 seated passengers in summer, and have several unusual features. The wheels are double flanged on one side and flangeless on the other so that the pointwork at the halfway loop requires no moving parts. There is an attendant on all journeys and the cars are designed to withstand winds of up to 150mph. Batteries power the car lights and emergency systems, these being recharged via pantograph pickups at both stations.
Lastly, Britain’s newest and least known cliff railway can be found in the heart of the City Of London. Given the curious title of the Millennium Inclinator, it was opened in early 2008 and is situated at the north side of the Millennium footbridge across the River Thames. A single car on metre gauge track operates within a glassed enclosure, carrying pedestrians effortlessly up St Peters Hill toward St Paul’s Cathedral. It is Britain’s only free cliff railway but is hardly ever used: the complete lack of signage means that the public do not realise it exists for their benefit.