Sir Thomas Bouch: From the Tragic Tay Bridge to Cumbria’s Lost Railway Link

(Images: Martin Brewster (left); unknown (right); Magdalen Green Photography (see Facebook)

On a windy night in late December 1879, a section of the Tay Bridge in Scotland collapsed. The passengers of a crossing train were killed along with the train’s driver and crew. A public inquest held the bridge’s designer, Sir Thomas Bouch, responsible for all 75 deaths. Despite his many achievements, the heavy burden of the Tay Bridge disaster saw Bouch’s health deteriorate and he died in the following October. (Above: CK&PR tunnel, old and new Tay Bridge.)

(Images: lakewalker, all rights reserved; Illustrated London News (inset), public domain)

Throughout his career, Sir Thomas Bouch had engineered great railways, branches, bridges and viaducts. He even designed the first train ferries or ‘floating railways’. Bouch was born in 1822 at the inn his father managed in the historic English county of Cumberland (disestablished in 1974 when it became part of Cumbria). It therefore seemed apt to uncover a line that Bouch engineered in this region in the 1860s, which was slowly dissolved after the Beeching Cuts and closed completely in 1972.

The line is the Cockermouth, Keswick & Penrith Railway, the closure of which increased the isolation of the picturesque tourist towns it once served. Original plans for its creation were made during Railway Mania in the 1840s but the line wasn’t completed until 1865, when it was deemed useful for transporting materials for the manufacturing industries across northern England.

(Images: Born in York, all rights reserved; Ryan Taylor, cc-nc-nd-3.0)

The Keswick to Penrith section is currently fighting to reopen by arguing that most of Bouch’s original track bed, bridges and tunnels remain in existence, which should make it possible to reinstate the branch from Penrith. Even the station at Keswick, which was visited by Queen Victoria in the 19th century, still stands as part of a hotel.

(Image: Born in York, all rights reserved)

Cockermouth Station‘s fate was not so bright, its building demolished in 1975. In 1966, Cockermouth lost its connection to Keswick and Penrith as well as another line to Workington (on the north-west coast), which had opened in 1847. Their loses left the small market town cut-off from London, Scotland and the rest of the UK. Because of this, Cockermouth was virtually unheard of before it made the headlines in November 2009 when the River Cocker (from which the town gets its odd name) and the River Derwent burst their banks causing severe flooding.

(Image: Born in York, all rights reserved)

The CK&PR line may have been small but its creation demonstrates why Sir Thomas Bouch was a highly-respected Victorian engineer. The mountainous terrain of the Lake District necessitated the building of steeply inclined routes, cavernous tunnels and large viaducts which still hold strong today.

(Images: Ryan Kirkbride; Martin Brewster; all rights reserved)

While most of the earlier-constructed Workington to Cockermouth route has been demolished to make room for modern roads, much of Bouch’s CK&PR line has been protected and adapted to create paths within the magnificent Cumbrian countryside. Although Bouch’s work was originally intended for the transportation of minerals, cyclists and walkers will be able to appreciate his genius for years to come. Learn more about Sir Thomas Bouch and the Cockermouth, Keswick & Preston Railway.

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