South Yorkshire Railways by Andrew Walker
It’s always difficult to adopt an objective view about the place where you were born. If like the authors of this book, you grew up in one town, never moving away until adulthood, the place and the self become an almost indistinguishable singular entity. You don’t really see the streets, shops, and buildings – well, you may look at them, but you don’t really take them in. They are just there, part of daily life. It was the same with the railways really. As children we were fortunate to live in sight and sound of a railway line, and could see trains from the bedroom windows, winter in particular offering a leaf-free view of the tracks on the Barnsley to Penistone branch. The entire vista, on a curving alignment stretching from the end of a row of houses on our right, to a tunnel mouth on our left, was perhaps three hundred yards at most. There was a colour light signal at about the mid-point of our view, but no other infrastructure. This little panorama became ‘our’ bit of the railway. Just part of the background, a rather unremarkable stretch in many ways, it went ‘unseen’ for many years, but then somehow it began to be visible, and we began to pay attention and properly observe the trains that trundled up and down each day. That small beginning sparked a curiosity to find out more – and like a snowball rolling down a hill, momentum was gained and before we knew it, the network opened up and ‘our’ railway became the railway of South Yorkshire, this county of steel, coal, coke, factory, pit, glassworks, moorland, woodland and working-class towns.
What really made the difference in our ability to understand the spidery network of lines criss-crossing the county though, was an aerial view. Not an aerial view of the sort we can now obtain from a drone or from Google Earth, but an aerial view in the form of the brilliant ‘Rail Atlas of Britain’ by Stuart Baker, published in 1977. This book was like a key that unlocked the mystery of where lines went, where they joined up, where the little branch lines terminated, and which were for freight only and hence never seen when we took our routine trips by DMU to Sheffield or Leeds. I still have my original copy of this atlas, which will always fall open at page 56 – the ‘Barnsley page’ – the centre of our railway hub. I owe many discoveries to that little book.
It was never going to be feasible to capture pictures of the entire South Yorkshire network - when I got my first camera in 1979, the Woodhead route had a mere two years left – but I guess with limited resources and time against us as lines were steadily closed and rationalised, the results were not bad. Our pictorial collection presented in the Amberley book ‘South Yorkshire Railways’ offers an insight into the county’s railways, infrastructure and motive power over nearly four decades of change and modernisation. It’s only when you pull together all the images into a collection like this that you do really see the diversity of what was once there. Today, there is less diversity, more uniformity, and more automation, but in my view it’s still worth taking the photographs, because it’s always fascinating to see change in pictures of the same places taken years apart.
Andrew Walker and John Walker's new book South Yorkshire Railways is available for purchase now.