Canals & Railways

In the 1760s, Yorkshire merchants were keen to improve the supply of limestone from the Craven Dales to the farmland and towns of the West Riding. The limestone, once burnt and turned into lime was needed to improve yields from marginal agricultural land while the mortar produced from the same source went to build taller weaving sheds and houses for mill workers. They conceived the idea of building a canal from Leeds, up the Aire valley, to Gargrave. They also saw the possibilities of extending the canal to Liverpool in order to take advantage of the trade in textiles to the growing colonial markets in Africa and America. They tried to get support in Lancashire for their enterprise, but found that Liverpool merchants were more interested in a canal to bring them coal from the collieries around Wigan, well away from the route proposed by the Yorkshire merchants. Arguments followed, but in the end the Lancashire side won the day and the route from Gargrave to Liverpool included a link to Wigan.


Work started on the canal in 1770 from each end simultaneously but by 1777 the company had run out of money. The canal had reached Gargrave from the Leeds end and Wigan from the Liverpool end. By 1790 new money had been secured and the final stretch of the canal was completed. The whole canal took 46 years to build and cost over £1 million. Water for the canal originally came from Eshton Beck in the Yorkshire section. Several reservoirs were then built around Foulridge when the summit level was being constructed and more followed as traffic increased including Winterburn Reservoir. The canal is relatively wide and can accommodate vessels just over 18 metres long, just over 4 metres wide and a metre deep.


The effect on the southern Dales of the arrival of the canal at Gargrave can not be overestimated. Although limestone was intended to have been the canal’s major traffic it turned out to be coal instead. Up until then coal for domestic and industrial use in the Dales had come from often remote collieries such as those above Threshfield or on Tan Hill. The state of the roads and the difficulty accessing many of these collieries meant that packhorses and to a lesser extent wheeled vehicles had been the only method of transporting it. Added to that, local coal was shaley and poor quality. The Leeds-Liverpool canal offered a viable alternative by being able to transport bulk materials over distance at a low cost. Better quality coal at cheaper prices was delivered to warehouses in Gargrave and from there the coal was collected by carriers who delivered it throughout Wharfedale and beyond. The Cupola smelt mill on Grassington Moor was now assured of a regular supply of good quality fuel. Domestic users had an alternative to collecting wood or cutting and drying peat. During much of the nineteenth century over one million tons of coal a year was transported on the canal. This contrasted with around 50,000 tons of limestone per year.


The Leeds & Liverpool Canal was an efficient carrier of both bulk raw materials and merchandise such as groceries, beer and machinery. It continued to compete successfully along its length with railways until road transport began to take off after the First World War. Coal remained the main cargo, but as factories began to turn from steam power to electricity demand for it fell away until finally in 1972 the last regular commercial traffic ceased.


Outside the Craven area of the National Park, the canal was less influential. It fell to the new railways of the Victorian era to revolutionise transport in the northern and western dales. Rivalry between two of the largest companies, the London and North Western (LNWR) and the Midland led in the end to the bringing of steam trains to almost impossibly remote parts of the Yorkshire Dales. The story began in 1846 with a proposal to build a branch line from Ingleton to Lowgill to complete a main line through route from London (Euston) to Scotland via Carlisle. 11 years passed while rival companies fought and schemed over the project. In the end, the line was built by a local railway company called the Lancaster and Carlisle, who quickly ended up leasing it ‘in perpetuity’ to the London and North Western who already controlled large sections of the London to Carlisle route.


The Ingleton Branch Line opened to passenger traffic in 1861 but was never to fulfil its potential as a main route north. The Midland Railway owned the existing station at Ingleton but failed to reach an agreement with the LNWR about its joint use so the LNWR built a rival station at Thornton less than a mile away. Passengers joining connecting trains faced an arduous walk between the two stations. The situation was not helped by the LNWR who failed to lay on fast through trains to Carlisle, and whose timetabling deliberately prevented good connections with the Midland Railway trains. In the end Midland lost patience and began to plan an independent route to Carlisle starting from Settle. The LNWR realised it had gone too far and attempted to renegotiate a deal for the use of its line with Midland. Midland agreed but Parliament did not and the company was forced to construct the new line from Settle to Carlisle through some of the most difficult terrain in the country. The building of the Settle-Carlisle Railway line nearly bankrupt Midland, but it also resulted in the Ingleton route losing its main line status forever. It continued as a rural branch line until early 1950s when like many others it was finally closed. Most of its buildings have now been demolished including the two rival stations at Ingleton. The Ingleton viaduct spanning the River Greta still dominates the town however.


James Allport, then General Manager of the Midland Railway Company walked the proposed route for the Settle-Carlisle Railway and was dismayed. He wrote afterwards: “I shall not forget as long as I live the difficulties that surrounded us in that undertaking. Mr Crossley and I went on a voyage of discovery – ‘prospecting’. We walked miles and miles; in fact I think we can safely say that we walked over a greater part of the line from Settle to Carlisle, and we found it comparatively easy sailing till we got to that terrible place, Blea Moor. We spent an afternoon there looking at it. We went miles without seeing an inhabitant, and Blea Moor seemed effectually to bar our passage northward.”


In the end, the railway engineers were faced with the task of building 13 tunnels including the tremendous Blea Moor Tunnel and 21 viaducts of which the Ribblehead viaduct is perhaps the most famous. The 72 mile long railway was the last main line in England to be mainly hand-built and sprawling construction camps were erected to house the workers while they built the most demanding parts of the line, particularly around Ribblehead. At its height, around 7000 men worked on the project, nearly 2000 of them on the Ribblehead section. Steam hoists and horse drawn trams eased some of the work, but the navvy and his shovel dug the tunnels, embankments and cuttings by hand. Alongside him was an army of other specialists such as masons and brick makers. A brickworks was built at Ribblehead since the roads into the dale were too poor for it to be economic to transport brick from elsewhere. The bricks were needed to turn the arches of the viaduct and line Blea Moor Tunnel. Clay for the brickworks was dug nearby while limestone for the viaduct piers came from quarries to the north in Little Dale.


The line was opened in 1876 after seven years of construction. It was built at a cost in today’s terms of around £200 million. The cost in human terms was also high. A number of the workmen who laboured on it lost their lives, both in accidents and in outbreaks of small pox in the Ribblehead shanty towns. Their families were also struck down. Many of the dead were buried in St Leonard’s Chapel in Ribblesdale.


The Settle-Carlisle line was always intended as part of a high-speed, long distance route but stations were built along its length to serve local traffic. They were constructed to a standard Midland Railway design but mostly used local materials. Ribblehead Station is a well-restored example. The overriding desire to build a speedy route led to some stations being built inconveniently far from the nearest settlement such as Dent Station. Other lineside buildings included signal boxes and railway workers’ houses. A lamp hut at Horton-in-Ribblesdale railway station is an example of a recently restored [2003] ancilliary building.


The Settle-Carlisle Railway survived at least two attempts to close it during the 20th century and is now an important part of the economy of the areas it runs through. The same cannot be said for the other two railway lines that reached into the Dales, the Grassington and the Wensleydale lines. Midland opened a branch line from Skipton to Grassington in 1902. It brought both tourists and commuters to Wharfedale. Tourists were served by the large hotel built at the railway terminus in Threshfield called the Wilson Arms. White collar workers from Bradford and Leeds occupied new houses such as Bridge End in Grassington facing towards the new railway station on the other side of the river. The Yorkshire Dales Railway as it was known closed to passenger traffic in 1930. Today part of it is still used to carry limestone away from Swinden Quarry near Cracoe.


In the Westmorland Dales, three railway lines came to dominate the landscape. The Lancaster and Carlisle Railway via the Lune Gap, Tebay and on past Shap was the first to be established through Westmorland in 1846 after a certain amount of wrangling about its exact route. Alongside the manufactured goods and raw materials it was intended to transport, it was also expected to carry thousands of passengers a year. Its closeness to the ‘English Lakes’ was one of its many selling points.
The South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway followed, opening in 1861. It was built to carry minerals from the east to the west coasts and back and became known as the Stainmore Line. It ran from Kirkby Stephen west along the Lune Valley to join with the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway at Tebay. To the west of the area, the Settle-Carlisle travels through several villages such as Crosby Garrett on its way north to Carlisle.

The Lancaster and Carlisle survives today as the busy West Coast mainline but the Stainmore Line was closed in 1962. Several structures such as the magnificent Smardalegill Viaduct have been preserved along its length.


New railways also brought great economic benefits to the farmers near enough to use them. In Wensleydale businessmen realised that in order to compete with markets elsewhere, the dale needed a railway line. The North Eastern Railway proposed to build a link from its Northallerton to Leyburn line, on to Hawes. At the same time, the Midland Railway Company decided to build a branch line from Garsdale on the Settle-Carlisle line through to Hawes. The two railway companies built a joint station where their lines terminated at Hawes and the whole length of line through the dale was completed by 1878.


Hawes Station became the transport hub of the upper dale. From here quarried stone, cattle, sheep and milk were shipped to ready markets in the north east. The milk trade alone was responsible for keeping many farmers from going out of business during the agricultural depression of the 1880s and 90s. The railway also allowed new industries in the dale to expand and flourish including cheesemaking, quarrying and tourism. The railway came too late however to save the lead industry. By the time the trains arrived, competition from abroad and the increasing inaccessibility of local lead veins had seen to its end. The train also brought goods in. Coal was important of course. The car park at Aysgarth National Park Centre was once the site of a huge coal store. Nearly as important were the daily newspapers and luxury goods hitherto almost impossible to get hold of. A large number of carriers using horses and carts were employed in collecting and delivering goods to and from the further corners of Wensleydale and Swaledale until the early years of the 20th century when motorised delivery vehicles began to replace them.


The Wensleydale Railway line was a victim of the countrywide railway closures of the 1950s and 60s. Thirty years later, enthusiasts, some of them veterans of the fight to save the Settle-Carlisle line, set their sights on getting the line reinstated. Their aim is to bring both economic and environmental benefits to Wensleydale. By 2003, the section of the line to Leeming had been re-opened, but they have some way to go before they reach the National Park.



Binns, Donald (1990) The Yorkshire Dales Railway. The Grassington Branch Skipton: Northern Heritage Publications

British Waterways (ND) The Leeds and Liverpool Canal London: Pyramid Press

Cardwell, Peter et al (2004) ‘An Archaeological Survey of the Ribblehead Navvy Settlements’ in White, R F & Wilson, P R (eds) (2004) Archaeology and Historic Landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 2 pp195-202

Hadfield, Charles (1950) British Canals. An Illustrated History London: Phoenix House

Hallas, Christine (2002) The Wensleydale Railway Ilkley: Great Northern Books

Jenkinson, David (1980) Rails in the Fells Seaton: Peco Publications

Joy, David (1984) Portrait of the Settle-Carlisle Clapham: Dalesman

Mitchell W R (1989) How They Built the Settle-Carlisle Railway Settle: Castelberg

Western, Robert (1990) The Ingleton Branch. A Lost Route to Scotland Headington: The Oakwood Press – website for the Settle-Carlisle Railway – website of the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway. Includes a history of the Grassington branch line – website of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal Society