September 11th marks the centenary of the Nidd Valley Light Railway. Take to your bike in search of the remains of the line and the lost village that was its destination.
My journey was to take me from Pateley Bridge to Upper Nidderdale in part along the course of the railway which was built primarily to transport workmen and materials to the Scar and Angram reservoirs during their construction.
First, though, in common with all train trips, I needed to find the station. This wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds since Pateley Bridge once had two stations. I had to make do with setting off from the terminus of the North Eastern Railway line (which connected to Harrogate) since the station for the Nidd Valley Light Railway (NVLR) can only be viewed from a distance from the end of Millfield Street.
I soon came across clearer evidence of the NVLR – the hollow of a quarry beneath a bridge in the woods at the southern end of Gouthwaite Reservoir, the third reservoir of the series. Stone from the quarry was used as ballast for the line. As I started the descent to the waterside I could see the Gothic Gouthwaite Lodge where, on the day of the official opening of the line on Wednesday, 11th September 1907, a party of 12 VIPs travelling in a saloon and three coaches stopped for refreshment. They also had lunch on arrival at Angram in the reading room. By all accounts it was quite a boozy day. After the opening, Bradford City Council – which built the reservoirs and railway – received a letter from the city’s United Temperance Council complaining about the bill for alcoholic beverages which ran to over £150. The Lodge was so often used for VIP entertaining it became known as The Alderman’s Rest.
Where the track reaches the waterside it picks up the route of the railway for about a mile. On the other side of the fence you can see the ledge along which it ran and a length of retaining wall. As the track climbs again there are great views over the fields in the valley bottom which the line crossed and, in Bouthwaite, you can see where the beams for the old railway bridge over the river were removed.
I came to a halt for the first time at the former Lofthouse station. It was easy to spot as it shares the same distinctive design – including four-pot chimney stacks at each gable end – as the other three stations at Pateley Bridge, Wath and Bouthwaite (which served Ramsgill). Station master’s wages were not quite as uniform. The incumbent at Lofthouse was paid 25 shillings per week compared to 30 shillings for his counterpart at Pateley Bridge. All stations are now private houses.
Lofthouse marks the official end of the NVLR but the line continued north for construction purposes. So it was that, on the opening day, locomotives were switched. The Mayor of Bradford stepped down from the plate and handed over to John Best, the man in charge of works at Angram reservoir, who used one of his locomotives for the rest of the journey.
His route follows the reservoir access road which Yorkshire Water opens to the public. The views again are superb. A shooting lodge teeters above Thrope Farm on opposite side of the valley as if the slightest touch which send it tumbling down. Just as the road bears left you pass a sealed off railway tunnel built in 1920. Ordinarily trains would travel up the tunnel to avoid the steep incline and then return in the open around the headland, along the route of the present day road.
Round the bend is an even more curious relic: the remains of Scar Village which was built in the early 1920s to house men working on the construction of Scar Reservoir and their families. Set into the hillside on terraces slightly above the left of the road you can make out the shapes of the 10 single men’s hostels from their foundations. The steps linking them are also clearly visible but today they barely even provide shelter for sheep. Excluding a bungalow which was rebuilt for the Home Guard in 1939 and is now a public convenience, only two of the buildings remain in tact. One of them is the projection booth of the cinema but all that’s showing through the hole in the wall where the projector would once have pointed is a fine view of Carle Fell on the far side of the reservoir. That hill is terraced too. Trains used an intricate zig-zag layout of sidings to work their way up the side of the hill to the quarry and then back down again with stone for the dam. You can see the route of a railway line to another quarry up above the booth. Where now we take dumper trucks in those days they laid rails. This was the real age of the train. Appropriately, the booth’s barrel roof and size gives it the almost ghostly shape of a railway carriage.
I propped my bike against the only other remaining standing structure – the urinal of the village school – and had my lunch, fittingly, next to the bakehouse and overlooking the site of the fried fish shop. Supporting a peak population of 1,135 in 1926, the village also included bungalows for married couples, shops, a post office, bank, gymnasium, library, hospital and mortuary. Perhaps the most evocative site is the old tennis court. The rectangular shape is clear of weeds unlike the surrounding land and it’s as flat as a pancake. It’s as if the net was removed and the court markings deleted only recently.
The population of Scar village gradually dwindled to just 31 in 1936 when Scar House Reservoir was completed. Some of the buildings were demolished and others auctioned off to be rebuilt elsewhere. The mission church – which had come from a similar much smaller village at Angram – was removed to Heaton in Bradford but subsequently destroyed by fire. The concert hall, meanwhile, went to a mental hospital at Queensbury, and two labourers houses became youth hostels. The canteen is still in use today as the memorial hall in nearby Darley, its timber construction typical of the buildings at Scar. I visited it on my drive home.
After viewing the dam from the site of the original Scar House where John Best lived I set off and up the steep, rocky track to Middlesmoor. The labour is worth it, though, as from the top there is a great view back towards Little Whernside and, ahead, down Nidderdale and the length of Gouthwaite Reservoir. As exposed as the valley is enclosed, the moorland is home to birds such as curlew, merlin, red grouse, golden plover, snipe and lapwing. The route would have been familiar to reservoir workers since some lived in Middlesmoor, one of Yorkshire’s highest settlements at nearly 1,000 feet above sea level. The village vicar would also have trod the track on his trips to Scar for monthly communion.
At his church, St Chad’s, I surveyed the rest of my return journey from the eyrie of the churchyard. The only other person there was a man sitting on a bench gazing deep in thought to the far distance while the breeze blew patterns in the grass in front of the jumble of gravestones. Inside the church there is an ancient preaching cross that dates back to the seventh century, the time of St Chad who led Celtic Christianity in the north.
I swooped down from Middlesmoor and traversed a bridleway running parallel to the road with views back up the dale to reach Ramsgill. The Yorke Arms here looks even posher than The Sportsman’s Arms I’d passed earlier in Wath and certainly beyond the aspirations of a sweaty man in shorts and a t-shirt. It sits on one side of an immaculately maintained village green with the Coronation Hall on the other and the road in between. For a little more ecclesiastical history take a look at the remains of the gable of the monastic chapel of Byland Abbey which you will find in the churchyard.
After a long and often arduous day in the saddle the flat road running along the west bank of Gouthwaite Reservoir was most welcome. Several viewing platforms provide the opportunity to watch the wildlife and you can also see the stumps of trees that were cut down when the valley was flooded to create the reservoir. I, however, stopped just the once for a closer look at the Lodge before finally pulling into Pateley Bridge for a celebratory ice cream next to the bandstand.
Lying just outside the national park, Nidderdale is, in a way, the black sheep of the Yorkshire Dales family but had more than lived up to its alternative accreditation as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – and one with a hoard of hidden history.
The rise and fall of the railway
John Best & Son of Edinburgh, contractor for the reservoir at Angram, originally built a three-foot gauge light railway from Lofthouse to Angram, later extending it to Pateley Bridge, to facilitate transportation of equipment, supplies and workmen. From 1904 the railway was upgraded to standard gauge by the reservoir owners, Bradford Corporation, and re-named the Nidd Valley Light Railway.
Initially, the NVLR was intended for construction usage but, to conform to the requirements of the Board of Trade which sanctioned the track upgrade, the Corporation had to open up the line to the public too.
A return fare for the 25-minute journey from Pateley Bridge to Lofthouse cost two shillings for first class and one shilling for third class. Curiously, there was no second class. Usually four trains ran each way (Sunday excepted) in summer and three in winter with an extra train each way on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The full journey to Scar Village took an hour but services were exclusively for the use of Scar residents.
For many years the line provided a valuable service linking with NER trains from Pateley Bridge. However, by the end of 1929, following a decline in profitable operation, passenger services ceased and the line was used solely for freight until it finally closed after the completion of Scar House Reservoir in 1936.
Parking: Car park on Nidd Walk, Pateley Bridge. All day for £1.
Distance: 25 miles. For a longer ride cycle around Scar Reservoir via Yorkshire Water’s access road (open to the public) which adds four miles. For a much shorter ride, turn left rather than right at Bouthwaite to reach Ramsgill then follow directions as above to give a distance of 11½ miles.
Time: 3½ hours excluding stops.
Terrain: The route includes three stretches of the Nidderdale Way bridleway. The eastern bank of Gouthwaite Reservoir is fairly easy to cycle for most of its length. In Moor Lane – which runs from Scar Reservoir to Middlesmoor – is very rough, heavily rutted and hard work. The majority of the section from Studfold Farm to Ramsgill is across fields and passes through several gates making progress slow. Alternatively, follow the Lofthouse-Ramsgill road. Allow plenty of time for your journey and use a mountain bike if possible.
Refreshments: The Sportsman’s Arms, Wath; The Crown, Lofthouse; The Crown, Middlesmoor; The Yorke Arms, Ramsgill; lots of pubs and cafes in Pateley Bridge (including a third Crown!)
Leave the car park heading towards the village. Cross over the road and proceed down King Street. Follow the road as it bears right past St Cuthberts School then left past the church on your right to leave Pateley Bridge.
Just before Wath turn right up bridleway indicated by a fingerpost. Where track splits fork left and continue ahead to Bouthwaite. Pass through the hamlet then turn right at t-junction signed ‘Lofthouse 2’. Pass through the village (ignoring the right turn to The Crown unless that’s where you want to go) and, immediately, after bridge turn right up the Yorkshire Water access road which takes you all the way to Scar Reservoir. You can’t tell from the map but the road is substantial and Tarmac throughout. Just past the dam turn sharp left up a signed bridleway to Middlesmoor. Pass through the village and down steep hill.
Turn right at t-junction signed ‘To How Steen Gorge’ then left at fingerpost indicating ‘Public Bridleway Ramsgill’ and towards Studfold Farm. Pass through farm and then turn right up steep cobbled lane. At top turn left, still following bridleway sign to Ramsgill. After passing between two ruined farm buildings don’t bear right up stony track but continue ahead across the pasture heading towards a gate visible to the left of a tree. Pass through West House Farm with a new bungalow on your left and keep ahead. When you enter a field with a telegraph pole in it continue ahead, keep the wall on your left. Soon afterwards the bridleway becomes a much clearer farm track which takes you into Ramsgill. Pass through the village then follow the road as it runs alongside Gouthwaite Reservoir and back to Pateley Bridge.
Note: To identify the various remains of buildings at Scar Village consult the information board next to the public conveniences and picnic area.