Book review: All Stations to Longridge by David John Hindle

When a group of children and their teacher waved at a train passing through the village of Grimsargh near Preston on November 3 1967, it marked the end of 127 years of railway history.

Tuesday, 8th February 2011, 6:00 am

‘Last train on the Longridge line,’ read a placard they had specially prepared for the landmark occasion.

The six-and-a-half mile long Preston and Longridge Railway (PLR) was one of many victims of Dr Beeching’s notorious and unprecedented hacking of Britain’s railway network, euphemistically described by the railways board chairman as a ‘reshaping’.

In reality, thousands of miles of railway were written off, a decision that would be much lamented in later years when the true impact of car travel became only too obvious.

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Hindle’s fascinating and fruitful hunt through the archives and his own much-loved collection of train memorabilia has unearthed a gem of a book which is not just the story of one diminutive Lancashire line but also a reflection of the transforming nature of rail travel on Britain’s social and economic prosperity.

A born railway buff, Hindle was raised and still lives within sight and sound of the tracks that once connected Longridge to Preston, and the complex history of this former sleepy branch line is close to his heart.

The PLR was opened in 1840 with the aim of linking stone quarries at the western end of Longridge Fell with a distribution centre at Deepdale Street, close to Preston town centre.

A combined mineral and passenger line, it was only the second railway to open in the Preston area, preceding even the important Lancaster and Preston Junction railway which would evolve into the main England-Scotland route.

For eight years, trains ran on the steeply-graded route using genuine equine ‘horse-power’ with the animals boarding their own special carriage during gravity runs.

In June 1848, it was all change to steam traction and plumes of white smoke became a feature of the local landscape. Passenger carriages were included three times a week and on other occasions travellers would hop onto a seat screwed to the rear buffers of a stone wagon.

Travelling conditions were often primitive with the old Preston Chronicle newspaper describing ‘a 1st class passenger sharing a passenger compartment with a 1st class bovine’.

One of the first fatalities on the line occurred in July 1856 when a man and his horse were hit by an engine on an ‘occupation’ crossing near Stone Bridge.

And at Deepdale Bridge Station during the Christmas festivities of 1866, 15-year-old power loom weaver Margaret Banks died when her crinoline dress became entangled with a carriage door and she ended up under the wheels of a Preston-bound train.

A young man on the train who was alleged to have been holding her hand as she fell was later charged with unlawful killing. The case never reached court but the girl’s blood-curdling screams are said to still echo through ‘Miley tunnel’ beneath the busy streets of Preston.

There were also hidden ‘dangers’ on board the trains. A newspaper correspondent using the pseudonym ‘public decency’ complained that a group of men in a darkened carriage shocked female passengers ‘by the loud repetition of filthy stories’.

And there are other things which never change...verbal and written attacks on the state of the stations were commonplace and stories abounded of frustrated passengers on broken-down trains and people being late for work.

From their carriage windows, 19th century travellers would have looked out on a now-forgotten landscape of meadows, cornfields, gardens and orchards. Indeed, the line spawned the Preston Naturalists’ Field Club whose members enjoyed the great outdoors on walks to Red Scar from the old Gammer Lane Station (later Fulwood Station).

For 50 years the PLR was linked to the privately owned and unusual Whittingham Hospital Railway which opened in 1889. Hospital staff used the trains and from its earliest beginnings, all passengers travelled free of charge.

During the First World War, railways played a vital role in the transport of troops and material, and the Longridge line was no exception. A recruitment drive in 1915 used the natural amphitheatre of one of the quarries for a large gathering of people who arrived by train.

In 1923, the line came under the ownership of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS). The quarrying industry was in a downward spiral and the company withdrew passenger services in 1930.

A bizarre concession was allowed in 1935 when a special train organised by the Bradley family of Preesall near Blackpool transported their entire farm stock, a true ‘Noah’s Ark’ according to onlookers, to Grimsargh Station on their way to a new home in Alston, Cumbria.

Members of the Railway Correspondence & Travel Society were on board the very last passenger train to travel the full length of the PLR in 1962, and in 1967 the line closed permanently.

The tracks were lifted in 1968 but Longridge Station has survived as a combined ‘Old Station’ cafe, business and heritage centre thanks to a grant from the heritage lottery fund.

Hindle’s trip down memory lane is crammed with train facts, nostalgia, photographs, diagrams, extracts, posters and drawings - a must read for both social historians and railway fans.

He will be signing copies of All Stations to Longridge at Ribble Steam Railway at Riversway Docklands in Preston from 11am on both Saturday and Sunday this weekend (February 12 and 13) as part of the Steam Gala.

(Amberley, paperback, £16.99)