(Early railways: the abandoned wagonways, plateways and dramways of Britain)
When the Industrial Revolution hit Britain, it hit hard. In the blink of a generational eye, cast iron rails began replacing earlier wooden tracks, greatly improving the transportation of materials from industrial sites to loading docks in the name of commerce.
We’re all familiar with the railways that leapt from the blast furnaces of the period, but what about the earlier tracks and rugged horse-drawn tramways that came before the invention of the steam engine? Known in the UK as wagonways, plateways and (sometimes) dramways, these proto-railways featured cast iron rails sitting atop stone blocks or wooden sleepers and characterised the pre-steam rail transport of the early Industrial Revolution.
(Image: Yewenyi; a reconstructed plateway or flangeway)
Wagonways allowed horses to carry far greater loads of coal than they could otherwise haul, and many were later upgraded to steam or cable power as technology advanced. Plateways, on the other hand, consisted of “L” shaped rails where wagon wheels were guided by a flange (leading to the alternative term flangeway). These early railways remained in use until around 1830, before being either upgraded or abandoned. Now long since forgotten, the traces of disused wagonways and plateways still crisscross the British landscape; haunting tributes to an age before steam travel. This article uncovers 10 of them.
Holy Island Waggonway, Northumberland
Just off the coast of Northumberland lies the tiny, storied island of Lindisfarne. Also known as Holy Island, this lost world of old castles, forgotten abbeys and sweeping vistas was once a focal point of Celtic Christianity. It was also, much later, a centre for limestone production. In 1839, at the dawn of the Victorian age, a new mine was opened. At the heart of its production lay the Holy Island Waggonway.
Running between the quarry and the castle, the horse-drawn wagonway unfurled across multiple lines, linking all corners of the island into this vital industry. Yet they didn’t stay linked for long. By about 1861, at least two lines on the wagonway had been abandoned, and the others followed soon after. Yet, despite its short life, the Holy Island Waggonway hasn’t plunged into total obscurity.
Today, parts of its route now form a public footpath, while former bridges and traces of the old trackbed still remain. It’s even possible to walk large portions of the old narrow-gauge tramway, retracing in the modern world these paths that were forged over 150 years ago.
Dean Paper Mill Plateway, Calderdale
In the moody foothills of the Pennines, the borough of Calderdale is home to a little-noticed treasure. At the site of the old Dean Paper Mill, near the comely village of Midgley, you can find the last traces of what was once a sizeable network of plateways. Although far from other island-straddling tramways featured here, the mill’s plateways nevertheless crisscrossed the complex, hauling goods in a never-ending procession of wagons.
With the mill no longer active, the old Dean Paper Mill Plateway itself closed down a considerable time ago. Most of it has since vanished under the bricks and cobbles of the courtyards. Yet, if you look closely at the pictures above, traces of its route are clearly still visible. Running between the mill’s old buildings and a nearby stream, they act now as a kind of map of the past. A faded route that once meant something to hundreds of people, now buried forever beneath the detritus of the present day.
Wollaton Wagonway, East Midlands
(Image: Wikipedia; Wollaton Hall, where the old wagonway terminated)
The stately Elizabethan pile of Wollaton Hall may just have been the site of one of humanity’s great leaps forwards. Although experts believe there are other contenders, it’s possible that this iconic mansion in Nottinghamshire may be where the world’s first “overground” wagonway was built, in 1603. If true, that would mean you could draw the evolution of the steam train all the way back to this humble starting point.
But even if it wasn’t the first, the Wollaton Wagonway was still one of the first, and thus worth a place in our article. Built by the fabulously-named Huntingdon Beaumont and Sir Percival Willoughby for transporting coal across the estate, it is today something of an enigma. Relatively little is known about its construction and its decline, although there must have been records. Furthermore, the reason for its ultimate abandonment is also unclear. Yet forsaken it was. Nowadays, almost no traces remain of the abandoned wagonway itself, although those with a sharp eye (and maybe the help of an expert) might still be able to discern its form.
Middlebere Plateway, Dorset
In 1806, wealthy businessman Benjamin Fayle did something that no-one else had done before. He opened the Middlebere Plateway (also known as Middlebere Tramway), thereby bringing the proto-railway to Dorset for the very first time. While the Southwest had seen a small number of such innovations before, nobody had ever thought to establish one in Dorset. When Fayle’s engineers started digging, they were both literally and figuratively breaking new ground.
As with almost everything in this article, the reasons for the Middlebere Plateway were strictly prosaic. Fayle needed an easy way to transport clay from his pits all the way across the Isle of Purbeck and into ships bound for the mainland. Incredibly, this industry remained a key local influence until as late as 1907, when the plateway finally closed over 100 years after opening. Fast forward to 2017, and the route of the abandoned plateway now makes a pleasing path for walking across Purbeck. There’s even an old iron bridge still standing, all these many decades later.
Old Plateway at Museum of the Gorge, Iron Bridge
If there’s any UNESCO World Heritage Site in Britain that deserves more attention, it is Ironbridge. It was here, in 1779, that Abraham Darby III and architect Thomas Farnolls Pritchard built the Iron Bridge, the first metal bridge the world had ever seen. Still standing nearly 250 years later, it is a masterpiece of modern design, perhaps even the first modern masterpiece. But, for those who can tear their eyes away from the bridge itself, there is another treat in store. Lying alongside the old Severn Warehouse (now the Museum of the Gorge) are the last traces of the old Ironbridge plateway.
Considering it’s connected to such a famous site, we know surprisingly little about the abandoned plateway. Only a single photo of it in operation is known to survive. Yet it must have once been a vital part of the entire complex. Dedicated to bringing blocks of limestone up alongside the river, it ran all the way to Coalbrookdale. Although only small traces are left, the old trackbed itself now forms a cycle path, allowing visitors a glimpse into the journey many workers must have taken, all those years ago.
Silkstone Waggonway, Barnsley, South Yorkshire
Known as a place of grit and hard work, the area around Barnsley in South Yorkshire is studded with former mining villages, atmospheric moorland and industrial ruins. Yet the past that gave this area its hard-edged reputation is never far from the surface. The old Silkstone Wagonway is a case in point. Today a network of preserved paths and small monuments, it commemorates a time when this area abounded with proud pits and tragic disasters.
It wasn’t far from here that the Huskar colliery disaster of 1838 took place, shocking people across the land. Twenty-six children drowned when a mineshaft flooded, the youngest of whom was just 7-years-old. Although the Huskar tragedy was an outlier, it was far from unique. Children and adults alike died in accidents with depressing regularity in those days, a sad fact the Silkstone Wagonway commemorates. Beautiful as it is now, the remains of the abandoned wagonway remind us all of the often grim reality hidden behind Britain’s compelling industrial ruins.
Abandoned Plateway Near Coalway, Gloucestershire
(Image: Andy Dingley)
Outside the small village of Coalway, on the fringes of the Forest of Dean, you can find the now-buried remnants of this forgotten plateway. Running from the old quarry down to the Cannop Ponds stone works, this trail was once a vital artery slicing through the beating heart of Gloucestershire. Like many such old plateways, though, it eventually fell into disuse and was abandoned. Now all but lost beneath the earth and passing years, it today looks like little more than a succession of stones, buried in the mud.
In many ways, the speed at which nature has reclaimed this disused plateway, and others like it, is impressive. But just as impressive is the way that traces of it can still be seen. Like the Roman roads that still subconsciously guide how we travel up and down the length of Britain, the plateways of the country are like a distant echo from the past, seen in the paths and bridleways of today. As a result, walking their length can be an almost spiritual experience, as if reconnecting with a vision of Britain that has long since vanished.
Haytor Granite Tramway, Devon
Once upon a time, granite was the lifeblood of Devon industry. Up on the great wilds of Dartmoor, thousands toiled hewing this incredible stone from the earth, before sending it down to the distant Stover canal. Although the availability of cheaper Cornish granite would ultimately kill this industry, it lived just long enough to construct something that still has the power to awe today: the Haytor Granite Tramway.
Essentially a plateway, the tramway had one distinctive feature that set it apart from all others. It was carved from granite, the stones laid end to end with grooves chipped into their surface that could perfectly guide the wheels of a horse-drawn cart. Impressively, the entire system was powered by gravity. At all points, the tramway consistently heads on a downhill gradient. Given the rolling, hilly nature of Devon and the unfriendly terrain of Dartmoor, constructing it in this way was an undoubted achievement.
In recent years, the Haytor Granite Tramway (as featured in our 2016 article covering rural exploration) had all but disappeared under moss and earth and heather. Thankfully, things are now changing. Since 2016, groups of volunteers have been excavating the old tramway, returning it to its onetime glory.
Abandoned Dramway (Tunnel) Near Oldland, Gloucestershire
Another local name for an old industrial tramway, the dramway in south Gloucestershire once transported coal nine long miles, from the Bristol coalfield all the way down to the river Avon. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this statement is the word ‘coal’. While we’re used to thinking of the great northern towns and the Valleys of Wales as Britain’s major coal producers, southerly Bristol more often brings to mind shipping, cotton, and even the slave trade. Yet coal was once big business here, too. Hence the ruins of the 19th century dramway.
Now little more than a scattered collection of stones and half-buried arches, the abandoned dramway nonetheless leaves its mark on the landscape. Near the small village of Oldland, the old horse-drawn dramway route (now known as the Dramway Path) still leads into a once-vital tunnel that is now dark and faintly menacing.
Abandoned Lead Mine Wagonway Near Legburthwaite, Cumbria
(Image: Stephen Middlemiss)
At first glance, this old abandoned wagonway is indistinguishable from the wild and desolate Cumbrian countryside surrounding it. Situated beside a tumbling stream that runs in a jagged scar down the face of a broken hillside, it looks like just another gash violently sliced into the rural landscape. But look closer, and you’ll see traces of the industrial wagonway that once ran alongside this stream. A wagonway that led all the way up to a now-defunct lead mine.
An important chapter in Britain’s industrial past, lead mining had a long tradition in various parts of the nation. In Cumbria, particularly, lead was mined and fashioned into bullets to be used in the American Civil War; admittedly often supplying the pro-slavery Confederate side. Today the industry, like this rugged wagonway, has almost disappeared from sight; submerged beneath the tide of history.
For more forgotten infrastructure, explore a series of abandoned ropeways, cableways and aerial tramways across the world.