Railways and Greenways

31st October 2020

Map of Harrogate's old railways
Harrogate's old and current railways

Harrogate District once had a lot of railways, but most of the lines are disused. Wouldn't it be great if they were turned into greenways?

The Railway Companies

The Leeds & Thirsk Railway company built the line shown in red, from Leeds via Starbeck to Thirsk. The southern part of that line, from Leeds to Pannal, is still used by trains today.

The East & West Yorkshire Junction Railway built a line between York and Knaresborough, which linked up to the Leeds & Thirsk Railway. This line is still used by trains running between York and Knaresborough.

The York & North Midland Railway, controlled by George Hudson (the Railway King), constructed a line from Church Fenton to Harrogate Brunswick station. You may have seen a plaque on Trinity Road where Brunswick station used to stand, and there's information about the tunnel leading to it in this interesting BBC article. Trains later ran to the present-day Harrogate station.

Many of the railway companies merged into the North Eastern Railway, and it was North Eastern that built the Nidd Valley Railway in 1862, to Pateley Bridge.

Except for the lines to Leeds and York, trains stopped running in the 1950s and 1960s.

Current Greenways

Nidderdale Greenway
Nidderdale Greenway

Disused railways make great greenway routes. The trackbeds provide good level surfaces on which to lay paths. It's a great shame the lines weren't systematically turned into greenways as soon as trains stopped running; as time passes, the land falls into private ownership, and buildings block the routes.

We do have the Nidderdale Greenway, which uses a bit of the Leeds & Thirsk line (from the Dragon Junction to a short way north of Bilton Junction) and the a bit of the Nidd Valley Railway. There are plans to extend it further along the Nidd Valley Railway route, as far as Pateley Bridge.

The York & North Midland line forms the Harland Way, but only between Spofforth and Thorp Arch. To get to Spofforth from Harrogate, you can't use the railway trackbed - instead, you're sent via Rudding Lane, which introduces hills and traffic, and makes it much less attractive for family bike rides.

One obstacle to creating new greenways lies in negotiating with landowners over the exact routes of paths, but if the political will were there there's no doubt it could be done.

Future Greenways

Nidderdale Greenway extension

Plans to extend the Nidderdale Greenway from Ripley on towards Pateley Bridge are well under way. Work is being driven by Malcolm Margolis, who was instrumental in creating the original Nidderdale Greenway, and David Hall, a retired Sustrans Regional Director. It will be amazing if and when it's built - a real benefit to local communities as well as a draw for visitors.

Harrogate to Spofforth

Harland Way
Harland Way

A traffic-free greenway route through the Prospect Tunnel and along the route of the Harrogate-Church Fenton line makes far more sense than the current route from Harrogate to Spofforth via Rudding Lane and Follifoot.

It needs Councillors and Officers from North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) to get behind the idea and make it a priority. Unfortunately, they regard motor vehicles as important, and active travel as peripheral. In fact, short local journeys are what most of us make most of the time. Active travel is very important, because it brings so many health and environmental benefits.

It sometimes seems as though all you ever hear from NYCC is them banging on about what a big county it is, and how distant the east and the west of the county are from each other. Fine, but hardly anyone needs to travel from the far east to the far west of the county on a daily basis; most trips are a mile or two. Short journeys are most important, so start providing for them.

Another part of the problem is that local politicians like going off to Transport for the North meetings, where they talk about "strategic" schemes. This generally involves lots of money, long distances, bulldozers flattening the countryside, and great emphasis on making it easier for lorries to thunder around the place.

Talking about "strategic" transport makes Councillors feel important, but it doesn't help local residents much as we go about our daily lives.

Greenways are not a luxury. They are essential to our health and well-being; they help us tread lightly and reduce the pollution we cause. Let's start by making Harrogate to Spofforth a priority.

Harrogate to Ripon

Ripon Town Hall
Ripon Town Hall

I'd love to see the old Harrogate to Ripon line turned into a greenway. You can cycle to Ripon on fairly quiet roads, but a greenway would encourage so many more people to make the trip by bike, and really link up these two population centres. The route would be another visitor attraction, and would be used by commuters too.

One uncomfortable fact that's relevant here is that there's potential for competition for the route from trains. The idea of reopening a railway line between Harrogate and Ripon is sometimes mentioned. I'm in favour of rail, in principle, but would that rule out a greenway?

There could be a bike path running alongside a railway line, but it would be quite a lot less pleasant than a standalone greenway. Plus, HS2 should serve as a warning. The original plan had a cycle path alongside the railway, but when the project's costs spiralled the first thing overboard was the bike route.

If Harrogate and Ripon were linked by a greenway, why not show real ambition and extend the route from Ripon to Thirsk, Masham and Northerallerton? Then we could really advertise Harrogate District as a top-class area for cycle tourism. It's the future.