The Ffarquhar Branch Line - The Ulfstead Extension

Ulfstead Extension Route Description

THE ULFSTEAD EXTENSION

Opened in 2004 after four years construction, the Ulfstead Extension of the Ffarquhar Branch is the largest project tackled by the NWR in decades. Built as a result of a deputation from townsfolk to take traffic off their over-taxed roads, and financed by the Sodor Island Council and monies pocketed from the NWR’s wise investments in the Sodoil company, the extension is very much a symbol of our Island’s economic prospertity. Let us now take a journey along it…

FFARQUHAR STATION TO SUMMIT CUTTING

Ffarquhar is located at the top of a small valley, on the watershed between two river systems. Rain falling to the west of the town will drain into the River Arle through the Hackenbeck, and to the east, it will eventually flow into the River Els. As such, Ffarquhar station is almost on the summit of the line.

From the station the single-track extension line slowly curves with the valley, climbing in cuttings for nearly three-quarters-of-a-mile with gradients as steep as one-in-eighty to the summit. Drainage here can be a problem, particularly in Summit Cutting, and so the track is lined with large and roomy concrete drainage channels. Train crews are however notified to visually inspect them each time they pass, so that any blockages can be quickly identified and dealt with.

Having climbed forty vertical feet from Ffarquhar Station, Summit Cutting is reached. It is very shallow (indeed it barely comes up to the carriage windows) allowing passengers good views over the watershed plateau. There is very little wildlife here, but climbing the slopes to the south are the familiar pine trees of the Hackenbeck and Ffarquhar plantations. The NWR obtains much fine timber for sleepers and woodwork from these plantations. To the north can be seen the Quarry Tramway doubling back on itself, crossing over the Ulfstead road, before climbing out of sight onto the wooded flanks of Anopha Fell. The mountain itself looms in the near distance, a pleasant amber hump of heather. We pass a few final houses, and then road and railway are on their own. Ahead of us can be seen the valley stretching straight-and-true to Ulfstead, a pleasant land of fields where cows and sheep graze, bisected with meandering steams and farms.

Beyond Summit cutting the line begins a steady descent on a moderate gradient. The valley floor falls off sharply however, taking the stream and the road with it, leaving us stranded on a ledge on the hillside. We’ll eventually reach the bottom of the valley, but for now we can enjoy the view as we roll along. It is easy travelling in this direction, and not too difficult for trains coming back; although engines have to climb, the line is firmly laid and easily curved, allowing their drivers to charge the steepest sections and keep going.

THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (ST. FINANS VIADUCT)

Two miles from the summit we come to the major engineering structure of the line; St. Finan’s Viaduct, also known as Cassandra Crossing. A seven-arched structure, it curves across the headwaters of the River Els, and just north of the viaduct the river divides into two tributary streams. This confluence is known as St. Finan’s Font; Finan was a 7th Century Irish Monk who in 653AD was nominated by his peers as Bishop of Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island, a tiny but spiritually important community off the coast of Northumbria). Legend attests that Finan visited Sodor during his journey to Northumbria and conducted a brief ministry here, baptizing converts in the river’s confluence, and churches are dedicated to him at Ffarquhar and Norramby. Environmental studies prior to building the extension revealed the remains of a simple church near the Font, believed to date from the same era. While the ruins do not serve to prove the legend, they have prompted a small swell of tourism, which the region and railway welcome. The viaduct is officially named in Finan’s honour, but railwaymen know it by the nickname of ‘Cassandra Crossing’, due its long and laborious construction, and by association with a pretty bad film.

The Cassandra Crossing was a pulpy 1970s disaster flick in the vein of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, wherein the passengers of a transcontinental train are infected with a plague. To contain the disease a US Army Colonel (played by Burt Lancaster) reroutes the train along a disused railway line, well aware that it crosses a notoriously unstable steel-arch viaduct high in the Carpathian Mountains, with the inevitable climax of the train crashing off the bridge. Many Sudrian railwayman are fans of Lancaster thanks to his railway-centric-and-accurate WW2 film The Train (indeed there’s an unofficial Burt Lancaster Fanclub made up mostly of the loco crews), and thus were aware of The Cassandra Crossing. As such, when the construction of St. Finan Viaducts was delayed multiple times, they began referring to it as their own Cassandra Crossing.

For a time it seemed that the name was justified. Preliminary work was slowed when the ruins of the church were discovered, meaning the area had to be re-surveyed to ensure no other historic remains would be disturbed, and when construction began, solid bedrock could not be found for the two central piers. The valley floor here is marshy, and talk was made of trying to work around this by pressure-injecting concrete into the ground, creating a floating foundation for the pillars. Though theoretically possible, the very idea seemed dubious, and it was probably at this time that the Cassandra Crossing nickname came into usage, with railwayman predicting that the bridge would either fall over or never get finished. Work continued to back up, worsened by bad weather and a shortage of motive power (which necessitated borrowing Edward temporarily), but eventually solid rock footings were struck, and the bridge was quickly erected and finished three years after work began, and remarkable only six months behind schedule.

Nevertheless the viaduct is a fine structure, curved and graceful. An outer shell of best-dressed Ffarquhar Stone is filled with reinforced concrete, giving phenomenal vertical strength. Of the seven spans, four are arches reinforced with steel beams, while the three central spans are carried on girders sixty feet above the river.

CLAGGAE JUNCTION & DRAYMAN'S SIDING

The viaduct is the ‘sump’ of the extension, and from it we begin another gentle climb, following a tributary of the Els. This stream drains from Chybbyr Ulf, and so it will be our companion all the way to the end of the line. Now however the route is becoming more sinuous, and eventually we wind our way around the wooded hillock on which Ulfstead Castle stands, and emerge into the town in grand style, under a faux medieval arch through an impressive wall.

Ulfstead Castle featured numerous earthworks to provide defence against attack, but an outer wall was never one of them. After the Restoration of Charles II, the Earl of Sodor built himself a mansion in the grounds, and the family began works to improve the estate and town over successive generations. One of their larger flights of fancy was the construction of gate-towers at the main entrances to the town, and a decorative stone wall along the eastern boundary of the estate, all of which were complete with mock-battlements. Over the centuries these have become a beloved feature of the town, but did contribute to traffic congestion. This contributed to the extension of the railway when Ulfstead’s citizens were faced with the possibility of massive road ‘improvements’ which would destroy the character of their town.

The ‘Wall-Walk’ is a popular tourist attraction, and as our train steams under the mock-arch cut for the railway there are numerous people waving to us from above. Here there is double-track, another line having rising up through the woods to join us, and the two lines meet at ‘Claggae Junction’ (a corruption of Clagh-Aae or ‘Arch Stone’). Steeply graded and a mile long, the short branch terminates beside the Ffarquhar road at what is termed ‘Drayman’s Siding’. Originally a storage yard for Drayman’s of Cronk (one of two outsider contractors hired during the construction of the extension, the other being Evan Cousins & Co of Knapford), it is now a goods depot, specialising particularly in the transhipment of sheep to market. Since space for goods facilities was not available at Ulfstead Station, the location of Drayman’s Siding just outside town made it ideal for modification as a goods facility, although there have been one or two spectacular runaways down the steep branch. On a more embarrassing occasion, Thomas pushed a string of trucks through one of the sidings’ buffer headstocks, and they subsequently ran amuck across the loading bays and the main-road, causing no end of bother to motorists!

ULFSTEAD STATION

From Claggae Junction, we cross a major road and a stream on a low, graceful three-arch bridge, the town to our left, and almost immediately enter Ulfstead Station. Set back against a steep, wooded hillside and overlooking the town, the station has an aspect both charming and spectacular. In this it is helped in that its architecture is radically different to the other station-buildings on the line, being a two-storied structure built in Mock-Tudor style, so as to harmonise with the nearby Raven Hotel (excellent rooms at quite reasonable rates).

The size of the station is justified both in that it was felt that this historic extension deserved a station with a sense of grandeur, and so as to incorporate features serving the tourist-trade, particularly during the holiday season. As such, the station contains a large restaurant on the ground floor (the catering services being contracted to the Raven) and a well-appointed shop located in a building which also serves as a goods shed for parcels and other small deliveries. These neatly cater to those who have come solely to ride on a steam-train, and a large car-part has been built in conjunction with the Sodor Island Trust, owners of Ulfstead Castle. Besides tourist-trade there is also considerable commuter traffic, and a bay-platform is provided for use in periods of high demand.

The upstairs of the station building contains accommodation for the Stationmaster and his young family, and some have suggested that in return for living in a working railway station, this family have been rewarded with the best view in Ulfstead, on a clear day being able to see right across the town to the lake. As the view from the platform is itself spectacular, it is hard to disagree.

Passengers now have a choice as to how to proceed. They may choose to follow the approach-road back towards the castle, or to take an underpass under the tracks to come out in the town centre, right by the Raven Hotel. Railway enthusiasts however will want to follow a footpath along the side of the hill to where they can overlook the locomotive servicing facilities. Since this is the terminus for most trains, there is almost always something of interest going on.

ULFSTEAD LOCKGATE

Ulfstead Station is not however the end of the line and the railway continues onwards, curving tantalisingly out of sight into a cutting and out of sight under an occupation bridge. This two-mile line leads to the textile mills at the north end of the town, and is generally considered to be the stomping ground of Percy, though really any engine rostered for goods duties will find themselves venturing up it on a regular basis. As noted, space was not available for sizable goods facilities at Ulfstead Station, and since the objective of the extension was to take traffic off the town’s overcrowded roads, it was considered common sense to extend onwards to a dedicated goods-terminus adjacent to the two mills.

The line immediately begins to climb, and although not the steepest gradient on the branch, this section features the tightest curves on the extension, requiring engines to work hard. We must gain ground so as to squeeze around the back of houses, often in deep cutting or on a hillside ledge, passing under several bridges carrying lanes and farm-tracks. Eventually however, even this no longer suffices, and we pass through a short tunnel under several back-gardens. 101 yards long, Allotments Tunnel is the ‘true’ summit of the extension. At 710 feet above sea level it is also the highest point reached on the island by standard-gauge rails, except for the Quarry Tramway, which at its summit reaches 890 feet datum, as high as the infamous RMS Titanic was long.

From the tunnel we now roll easily once more, through a long sweeping curve into Ulfstead Lockgate. A corruption of ‘Loch Giat’ (Lake Gate), the station takes its name from the adjacent textiles mill, which in turn was named after another decorative gatehouse built by one of the more eccentric Earls.

Here we are near to Chybbyr Ulf lake, but just out of sight. The small station is squeezed between the hillside and the mill, one of two at this end of town, both of which are owned by Ulfstead Textiles. Cloth and clothing are sent out by train on a daily basis, and the Textile Company’s vintage fleet of delivery lorries now make a healthy trade bringing in wool from the outlying farms, resulting in a healthy balance of business for all.

Lockgate also has general goods facilities for businesses at this end of town (including livestock pens situated at the far end of the headshunt), and a small platform with a humble corrugated-iron and brick station-building. Originally intended solely for worker’s trains, this small building now has its own Stationmaster-cum-Booking-Clerk, who sells a surprising amount of tickets to locals who prefer to catch their trains here than walk to the town station. Although only a handful of passenger trains continue up the Textiles Line from the town station, all of Daisy’s services terminate here at Lockgate, ensuring regular trains for these loyal passengers. And of course, when everything else fails, there is the option of presenting your ticket to the guard on the various goods trains. As long as you sign a legal waiver, he'll be quite happy to welcome you into the snug warmth of his van, at least as far as the town station.

Here, at Lockgate, we end our journey. We have come just over eight miles from Ffarquhar, and from here to the junction at Knapford is a distance of almost exactly twenty-five miles, travelling throughout through some of the most beautiful scenery our Island has to offer.