Coniston Branch – Gateway to the Lakes

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Foxfield – Junction for Coniston and the Lakes

Although in existence for 100 years, it has not acquired the fame of its near neighbour, the shorter Lakeside Branch. Yet, it is, or rather was, equally picturesque. Running for nearly ten miles on continuously rising gradients – well almost, there were a couple of sections of level or falling grades – the terminus at Coniston was set against the dramatic backdrop of “Coniston Old Man”, towering to some 2000ft. above village and
railway.

Foxfield Jct_1

Foxfield as it was in 1919, with the ‘old railway’ connection to Broughton noted at the very top of the map.              “Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland”

The Coniston Branch of the former Furness Railway Co. was actually formed as a separate company by a group or Furness directors, and incorporated on 10th August 1857. Opened on18th June 1859, and closed only seven months short of its centenary, in October1958, the track was very soon lifted, and the impressive station building at the Coniston end of the line demolished.

Peter Millar photo from FB

The terminus of the Furness Railway’s branch at Coniston with its impressive, mountainous backdrop, where, from nearby quarries, both slate and copper had been extracted for many years. Coniston was also the birthplace of the famous water colour artist, w. Heaton-Cooper. Photo: Peter Millar

Strictly speaking the line to Coniston, as the Coniston Railway, was built from Broughton, the one time Junction of the Furness Railway with the Whitehaven & Furness Junction (W&FJ) main line from Millom. The inverted “Y” connection proved troublesome in operation, with main line trains between Barrow and Millom having to reverse at Broughton. The Furness absorbed the W&FJ Co. in July 1866, in order to remove the threat posed by that company’s plan to build a viaduct across the Duddon into F.R. territory. This direct threat to Furness traffic was thus effectively removed, although the plans to carry the main line across the estuary by a viaduct were retained for a time, unti1 the costs of construction forced the company to use the present roundabout route
to Millom and West Cumberland.

Broughton Station copy

First station on the branch to Coniston was Broughton, seen here in a view taken in later years.

However, their was a penalty to be paid for this., and as a consequence of abandoning the Duddon Crossing Scheme – Bills for which were laid before Parliament – the Furness was required for many years, to carry passengers around the coastal route for the same fare as would have been paid over a shorter, more direct line, using the viaduct. From 1870 onwards then, the main line was taken over the Duddon Just north of Foxfield, on a much smaller bridge. The short cut-off line from Foxfield to the Duddon Bridge forming the third side of a triangular Junction, replacing the previous end on connection with the W&FJ line, and putting Broughton firmly on the Foxfield to Coniston branch line.

Broughton_1

The original end point for traffic from Coniston, before the link to Foxfield was built, was Broughton, but shown here in an 1892 map, and connecting to the Furness Railway.    “Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland”

 

Woodland Station

Woodland Station – the second along the branch – seen here in a postcard view – also shows the passing loop alongside the platform on the south side of the line.

Remaining stations on the Coniston line included Torver, a moderately sized village, two miles from Coniston, and the single platform at Woodland, the midpoint of the line. Construction ran into difficulty almost straight away, 
as the main contractor, Mr Charles Pickles of Bradford was, as they say, financially embarrassed, and declared bankrupt in August 1858. That is not to say that the work involved the Coniston line had proved complicated, rather the opposite in fact, and was easily completed by local sub-contractors under direct Furness Railway supervision.

RPB Photo 1156

The sad remains of the derelict goods shed at Torver, captured in the 1980s.  Photo (c) Rodger Bradley

The ·main purpose behind the building of the line was to provide transport for the copper and slate mined and quarried in and around Coniston, to the existing railhead at Broughton, and finally exported over Furness metals to Barrow and beyond.

Bearing this in mind, it is curious to note that it was in fact opened for passenger traffic first, on 18/6/1859, with the Board of Trade Inspector passing it fit for the carriage of goods traffic the following year. In 1862 the line was absorbed into the Furness Railway proper, and from the later Victorian era, some effort was made to establish tourist traffic, which continued until the 1950s as part of numerous road/rail/steamer tours in Lakeland.

Torver Station copy

Torver Station was the last stop before Coniston, and at the summit of the branch, from where the last 2 miles into Coniston were on gently falling gradients.

Geographically – always good to bear in mind for scenery and the like! – the approach to Foxfield from the south, is over Angerton Marsh, following the shores of the Duddon Estuary, across which the massive bulk of ‘Black Combe’ can be clearly seen. On the southern shore, the railway enters Foxfield by way of a short cutting through the limestone ridge of Foxfield Bank. The double track main line is separated by the station’s island platform, which houses, or rather housed, the station building, signal box, partial overall roof, and a small goods shed on a parallel road, outside the down main line. The main lines come together again immediately north of the station, curving away to the north west, whilst the Coniston Branch Junction made off to the right, or north easterly, heading for 
Broughton.

Coniston Station_1

The impressive location of Coniston Station, shadowed by the Furness Fells, and with stunning views of Coniston Water. As goods traffic declined, tourist traffic grew, but sadly no longer extant – what might have been?        “Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland”

The main lines were carried past the site of the former Junction
at Foxfield Farm, on an embankment built out from Foxfield Point, to carry the railway over the Duddon River on a short viaduct, and on into Cumberland. Back at Foxfield, the station and Junction is a mere 25ft above sea level, whilst almost from the ends of the points set for Coniston, the line began its upward climb. For almost 1·mile, the Coniston line curved away northward on a quite gentle gradient of no more than 1 in 3970, but steepened rapidly through 1 in 400 to 1 in 229, and entered Broughton only 1-¼ miles from the junction, on a rising grade of 1 in 59. Passing the rocky outcrops of Eccle Riggs and The Knott, through Broughton Station the gradient steepened further to 1 in 49 as the line turned north eastwards towards Woodland Station.

Sandwiched between Broughton Moor to the north west, and Woodland Fell to the south east, the route followed the break in the high ground along the course of two rivers – Kirkby Pool and Steers Pool. Even along these two ‘valleys’, the track pursued its upward climb on gradients of between 1 in 179 and 1 in 81 to reach the small station at Woodland. Entry over a level crossing – one of five on this route – the single platform supported buildings constructed from local stone and slate, including a telegraph office and signal box. The smallest station on the line was just 4 miles 110 yards from the junction.

Coniston copy

Coniston Station seen here in LMS days, had a suitably imposing overall roof that reflected the imposing backdrop of the Lake District fells, and with Coniston Water only a few hundred yards away, clearly visible, provided an important destination for many tourists.

Leaving Woodland behind, again on rising grades, the summit of the line was reached just before Torver, at around 7 miles from Foxfield. At 34ft above sea level, this summit was in fact the highest point reached by the whole of the old Furness Railway network. At this point, with some of the quarries responsible for the line’s existence nestling in the lower slopes of Walna Scar (2,000ft), on its northwestern flank, the railway was almost within sight of Coniston Water. The village of Torver, almost 7 ¾ miles from Foxfield, and just over 2 from Coniston, the track was again sandwiched between two fells, almost encroaching on the settlement, and obscuring a clear view of the lake from Torver Station. Just before the station, the last but one level crossing on the route – “Dalton Road Crossing” – was negotiated, with the small goods yard and shed on the south side of the line. The points here were controlled by the single line tablet carried on the engine, which could not be removed from its position on the ground frame until the points were reset for trains to pass on the main line.

Coniston with FR Railmotor

The Coniston Branch was home in Furness Railway days to the company’s own designed and built railmotor – which must have looked colourful in its blue and white livery. In the background in this view, the lower slopes of the fell “Coniston Old Man” can be made out – walking distance from the station!!

The remaining two miles of the branch found the line turning more directly northwards, and for the most part on gently falling grades, following the shoreline of the lake before turning through almost 90 degrees to reach the terminus at Coniston. The final level crossing on the line was situated almost mid way between Torver and Coniston at “Park Gate”. The end of the line was of course provided with the ‘greatest’ facilities for passengers, its station sporting an impressive all over roof, large goods shed, a 42ft diameter turntable, and small, single road engine shed. The backdrop to the Coniston Branch terminus was to say the very least – impressive – towering over both village and railway was the 2,635ft high fell, “The Old Man of Coniston”.

The Furness Railway’s milepost here was 43 miles from Carnforth, but in a dramatically different location.

Operations

Ulverston Mirror 1862 Extract1

Extract from the Ulverston Mirror 1862

Three years after the opening of the branch, and in the same year as the absorption of the W&FJ, the Furness company’s passenger train timetables, published in the Ulverston Mirror (Sept. 13th 1862), listed 4 down and 4 up trains daily.1st, 2nd and 3rd class being provided on all but two services; 3rd class passengers were not permitted on the 11-15 am express from Whitehaven (The Coniston connection left Coniston at 12 noon), or the 5-15pm down service from Barrow.

Locomotives were by many standards, small in the early days, at first using 2-2-2 well tank engines hauling 4 or 6-wheel coaches on passenger turns, and the old Bury 0-4-0 types on freight duties. These latter have left their most famous example in the care of the National Railway Museum today – engine No.3 “Coppernob”. As traffic increased on the much larger parent system, bigger, heavier locomotives came into service, and the older 6-wheelers gave way to non-corridor and corridor bogie coaches, this was eventually reflected in the type of rolling stock seen in regular service on the Coniston Branch. Naturally, on branch lines, changes took longer to occur, since the traffic was proportionately less, and in later years, until the early 1930s, ex-Furness Railway 4-4-2 tank and 0-6-0 tender classes were regular performers. The 4-4-2T class was specifically designed for branch line service by the FR’s CME, W.F.Pettigrew. This innovative engineer was also responsible for the introduction of the steam railmotors used on the Coniston line around the turn of the 20th Century. The railmotor was unique in the sense it was the only motive power both designed and built at the company’s railway works in Barrow.

 

Later, under LMS and BR (London Midland Region) management, the archetypal British 0-6-0 held sway on al, freight traffic, including former Furness Railway and Midland (Johnson) designs, whilst Fowler and Ivatt tank engines were allocated to Coniston to work the passenger trains, based at Barrow’s only sub-shed.   On the main line, local passenger duties were worked by Fowler 2P 4-4-0 types, along with Stanier, Fowler and Fairburn 2-6-4 tank engines, and of course the inevitable Stanier ‘Black Five’ 4-6-0. Visiting motive power on the London turns rarely ventured north of Barrow, where rebuilt and unrebuilt “patriot” and “Jubilee” class 4-6-0s were frequently seen. Mainline freights however often included the ubiquitous Stanier 8F 2-8-0s, amongst the ‘Black Fives’ and Fowler 4F’s, and at least one surviving “Super D” 0-8-0 of LNWR origin was allocated to Carnforth. This latter could be found working the odd mineral train around the coast – even in BR days.

 

FR tour No8_1

Most of the rolling stock transferred to this area for regular service had seen better days elsewhere, a practice still common today – “Pacers” being the obvious example. In the early 1960s, the ill-fated 2-stroke Metro-Vick Co-Bo’s were pensioned off to work passenger services into and around the Furness and West Cumberland areas. Of course they were put to work on longer runs down to Preston, or up as far as Carlisle. The Metro-Vicks had proved troublesome on the prestigious “Condor” fitted freight service over the Midland main line from Hendon To Gushetfaulds Depot in Glasgow, and were no better on the less demanding duties on West Cumberland lines, being stopped frequently for repairs. Some of the first Derby built dmu’s of the mid 1950s were put to work in this area from new, and were still at work out of Barrow MPD in 1964 – though nowadays of course, these have long since disappeared. They were replaced in later years by a variety of the first generation dmu’s, and later by British Rail’s “Sprinter” designs.   Most recently the area has seen a mix of new and 40 years old designs, with questionable operational efficiency.

This reflection of the changing face of passenger traffic, or perhaps its ongoing decline, was equally apparent on the freight side, with the run down and closure of mining operations, quarrying and the once enormous iron and steel industry. Today, there is little or no freight traffic, beyond the transport of spent nuclear fuel to the West Cumberland reprocessing site.

RPB Photo 1155

Looking back down the line towards Barrow-in-Furness, long after the Coniston Branch was closed, and Foxfield no longer a junction station.              Photo (c) Rodger Bradley

RPB Photo 1292

Taken from the level crossing, with the water tower on the left, and station buildings and signablox on the platform to the right, these are typical former Furness Railways structures. Still in place in the 1960s.          Photo: Lens of Sutton

Previously, mineral and steel products traffic to and from the works at Millom in particular had to pass through Foxfield, and although the closure of the Coniston Branch in 1958 meant lost traffic, it did not, initially affect the facilities at Foxfield. Nowadays, the impressive stone built station buildings, goods shed and other structures have long since been demolished, and replaced by the less costly ‘bus shelter’. To add to this ignominy, many stations on the Furness and West Cumberland lines, including Foxfield, were demoted to “request stops” – the train being stopped by intending passengers, jus as you would attract the attentions of a bus driver!

The following tables showing freight and passenger working through Foxfield in 1940 and 1948 respectively, represents an interesting period, when there was intensive main line traffic, and the Coniston Branch was still open.   That said, the emphasis and benefits of Lakeland tourism – so ably developed by Alfred Aslett, and deployed by the Furness Railway – has also long since disappeared.   Access to the area by and for tourists simply means today driving, towing a caravan, or riding in on a bus or coach – a situation delivered by the short sighted planning from the late 1950s and 1960s.

 

Table 2a

Table 2b

 

 

Table 3

Table 1

The following tables list the level crossing and signalboxes included in the Furness Railway’s 1918 Appendix to the working timetable:

Signalboxes Etc

Level crossings

A final view of one of the Furness 0-6-2 tank engines, taken by the late Frank Dean.  The second photo looks out across the station throat, beyond the engine shed to Coniston Water in the background.

L2 Class 0-6-2T at Coniston

L3 Class 0-6-2T at Coniston

Further Reading & Useful Links:

  • “The Coniston Railway”; Michael Andrews, Pub. Cumbrian Railways Association, 1985

Coniston Railway book cover

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