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  • A journey to and through Castleford in the summer of 1840.

On Tuesday 30 June 1840, the official opening took place of the York & North Midland Railway. This 24-mile line started, as its name suggests, at York and ran in a south-westerly direction to join the North Midland Railway’s Leeds to Derby line at Altofts Junction, shortly before Normanton. Although the railway would, in ensuing years, play a huge role in Castleford’s economic development, at the time of its opening the station, despite being a substantial structure, was still effectively a wayside halt with fields between it and the village – though this would quickly change as pubs and inns catering for the needs of travellers were established alongside and a ribbon development of buildings physically joined it with the village from which took its name. Such was Castleford’s insignificance at this time that the promoters of the railway were just as interested in the potential for the station to attract passengers to and from Pontefract, a three-mile coach ride away.

The opening was marked by a special train, comprising three first-class and one third-class carriage, which conveyed railway company officials and civic dignitaries from York to Oakenshaw (near Wakefield), where it connected with a second ceremonial train – a mere five locomotives and thirty-six carriages! – running from Leeds to Derby. Hauled by a locomotive named in honour of Y&NMR founder and then-Lord Mayor of York, George Hudson, the train left York at 7.38am, halting twenty-one miles and forty-six minutes later at Castleford. There the parish rector, Rev Theophilus Barnes – the only person who could be taken as representing the village at a time when it possessed no local government – boarded the train with his wife as, a newspaper report noted, “the inhabitants of Castleford, who were assembled in great numbers, gave their worthy rector and their visitors several rounds of cheers”.

This same report, in the Yorkshire Gazette of Saturday 4 July, also recounted in some detail the route followed by the train. Couched in typically florid Victorian language, it provides a delightful description of a lost rural landscape on which industry had yet to impinge to any great extent. With explanations of locations and present-day comparisons inserted in bold, the route from Fairburn through Castleford and on towards Whitwood was recorded as follows.

“Viewing the railway from the road above the tunnel (the recently-bypassed section of the A1, which south of Fairburn runs along a ridge beneath which the railway passes in a short tunnel) the most beautiful prospect is presented which it is possible to conceive. The railway passes through a rich valley which is diversified with wood and water (Fairburn Ings). The river Aire may be seen winding its course with innumerable barges passing and repassing upon its waters. The village of Fairburn stands on the right, upon a considerable elevation, and in the distance may be descried the ancient residence of Ledstone Hall. The rich vale of the Aire is bounded on the left by the lovely domains of R. P. Milnes, Esq. (Fryston Park, now mostly covered by Ferrybridge Power Station, the Ferry Fryston housing estate and the new stretch of the A1) whose residence (Fryston Hall, demolished in the 1930s) may be seen peeping over the trees which surround his park, and the richness of their foliage adds to the loveliness of the scenery. But we must descend into the valley below, and continue our course on the line.

“Immediately upon the train emerging from the tunnel, an entirely new country bursts upon the eye of the traveller, which we have attempted to describe, we fear very imperfectly, in the above remarks. Along this valley is an embankment of 38 feet for a distance of probably three hundred yards, when we arrive at the Aire bridge, one of the most important works on the line which is built at an angle of 60 degrees. (This is the locally-named ‘Three Bridges’ at the end of the Fairburn Cut footpath from the village through the Ings: the report gives a highly-detailed description of its construction which, owing to problems with its foundations, was completed just three weeks before the line opened, with the brickwork and arches having taken a mere five weeks to build. “This was an expedition probably unrivalled in bridge building” reckoned the Gazette.) After the bridge is crossed, the line enters a heavy cutting through the estate of R. P. Milnes, Esq., and which may be aptly named the Frystone cutting. This is about half-a-mile long and 22 feet deep. Emerging from it, the traveller obtains an instantaneous view of the surrounding country, and the river Aire is seen winding its course near to the line on the right (the site of Fryston Colliery) while the woods of Frystone (Well Wood) shelter it to the left.

“The line then traverses for some distance on the level with occasional dips into the rising ground until we reach Milnes’s quarries, which are situate about one mile from the bridge (between Fryston village and the end of Fryston Road; for many years a scrapyard and more recently filled in and now being developed for housing). Shortly after the Wheldale cutting is entered, and the traveller will find he has on each side a magnesian limestone rock , which has been cut through, to the depth of 30 feet. The slopes in this cutting are considerably more perpendicular than on any other part of the line, the firmness of the rock rendering it unnecessary to give them a greater incline. This cutting will probably be 300 yards long, and near the termination is a neatly constructed bridge, over which a road is made to Wheldale farm, which is contiguous to the line. This bridge is built with stone abutments and a brick arch (bridge and farm both now demolished, although the skeleton of a Dutch barn remains to the north of Wheldon Road). Coming out of the Wheldale cutting the river Aire is again noticed, pursuing its winding course through a most luxuriant valley (now becoming green once more after a century of despoilation by Wheldale Colliery). The line then passes under a private occupation bridge (the ‘switchback’ bridge on Wheldon Road midway between the site of Wheldale Colliery and the junction with Stansfield Road) and an embankment about a mile and three-quarters long, and varying from 14 to 23 feet high, is passed over, from which the passenger has many opportunities of viewing the delightful scenery (now comprising, among other things, a sewage works, Castleford Tigers’ ground, the former Hicksons and Nestle plants, Castleford cemetery, Fawcetts maltings and Carlton Lanes shopping centre!).

“The line is remarkably straight up to Castleford, a village well known for its earthen-ware manufactories. Here is a neat station (the pre-1871 site on Bridge Street), which communicates with the road below by a flight of steps. Immediately adjoining the station is a noble bridge of three arches (replaced in the mid-1970s road widening). The centre arch is elliptic, and the two side-arches are semi circular. By this bridge the Pontefract and Aberford road is crossed, which runs through the village. The span of the centre arch is 34 feet, and the height from the road to the soffit of the arch is 18 feet. The bridge is built of brick, with key-stone, string-courses and coping of Bramley Fall stone. The side-arches are converted into warehouses and stables for the use of the station (the western arch was later opened out for pedestrians but the other remained enclosed by brick screen walls until demolition). This station will probably be one of the most important on the line. In addition to the traffic connected with its extensive population (around 1,400 in Castleford township, plus another 400 or so in Glasshoughton and 250–300 in Whitwood Mere) and manufactures, its proximity to the important town of Pontefract, from which it is distant only three miles, will render it a considerable place of business. A coal depot is to be established here, at which the inhabitants of Pontefract will be cheaply supplied with Haigh Moor coal.

“After passing over Castleford Bridge, an interesting view is presented on the north of a water-fall (this would be the weir on the river Aire, clearly visible from the embankment over the scattered low-roofed cottages of the village), with the ancient church of Castleford (the medieval structure which was replaced by the present church in 1868); the eye is then carried over a lovely valley, and the scene terminates in a dark blue hill, which adds considerably to the effect. On the south there is a very conspicuous and pleasing object, which may be seen for several miles. It is a neat castellated building, erected on a considerable eminence, and was built, we understand, as a residence for the gamekeeper to Mr. Milnes, being so situated that from it a view can be obtained over the whole of his extensive royalty. (This structure stood at the summit of what is now Queen’s Park hill and its ruins remained into the early part of the twentieth century.)

“About three-quarters of a mile from Castleford the line passes under a neat bridge, over which the Leeds and Pontefract road is carried (Jin Whin Hill). The arch of this bridge is 30 feet span, 16 feet high and of elliptic form. After this bridge is passed the line enters the Lumley Hill cutting, which is three-quarters of a mile long, and 34 feet deep, through shale. Shortly after this cutting is entered the line divides, a curve to the right forming what is called the Methley branch (the route presently taken by trains from Castleford to Leeds). Passing by this branch we shall continue our course on the main line to Altofts.”

Map and distance table of the York & North Midland Railway poublished in the Yorkshire Gazette. Note how Castlford is not marked on the map.

Map and distance table of the York & North Midland Railway published in the Yorkshire Gazette. Note how Castleford is not marked on the map.

The remainder of the article describes the course of the line through Normanton and on to Oakenshaw, the stretch to just beyond Normanton being the route presently followed by trains from Castleford to Wakefield and Sheffield. The section of the former North Midland Railway line from west of Normanton (Goosehill Junction) to Oakenshaw was closed and dismantled in the late 1980s, while the stretch from Fairburn to Castleford currently has no regular daytime passenger services apart from the steam-hauled ‘Scarborough Spa Express’ trains during the summer months.

The 1840 vista from the railway on its embankment, across the red-pantiled and occasional remaining thatched rooftops of Castleford, towards the weir, mill and church would, indeed, have appeared a timeless and enticing rural scene. However, beyond those landmarks the more observant traveller might also have noticed plumes of smoke from pottery kilns and glass furnaces, not to mention the rash of small coal pits scattered across the hillside to the left of the train as it approached the station. It was from these pits that Pontefract was to be supplied with the cheap coal mentioned in the newspaper report.

Furthermore, had any of the great and good citizens of York chosen to alight from the train and walk into the village, they would soon have soon realised that the superficially inviting prospect was a deceptive one, for the first signs of the poverty, squalor and overcrowding which would blight the growing town with fatal consequences before the decade was out were already becoming apparent. Helped in no small way by the arrival of the railway, things were about to change rapidly – and by no means always for the better – in Castleford.