Heritage – history and engines


Heritage is History – historical events or processes that have a  special meaning in memory.

We have national heritage – monuments and buildings; natural heritage – conservation of natural environments specific to a region; cultural heritage – artefacts from specific periods of time or people; industrial heritage – relics from industry and industrial culture.

I’m particularly interested in Industrial Heritage – looking at how things used to be manufactured, transported and used.  I enjoy seeking out places of interest when travelling and here I’ll introduce you to two particular places which I find fascinating.  One in Yorkshire, one in Lancashire.

Elsecar Heritage Railway is found at the Heritage Centre, Barnsley, Yorkshire, UK.  The Heritage centre itself is described as a Living History Centre, as it houses the Newcomen Bean Engine which can be seen working and has been described as the most important piece of industrial heritage in the world.


The Railway at Elsecar is known as ‘The Coalfield Line’ in recognition of the coal mining heritage of its route and environment. The railway connects the sites of several coal mines, from Elsecar to Cortonwood reflecting a period in time from the creation of Earl Fitzwilliam’s iron and coal empire, through nationalisation of the mining industry, to the demise of local coal mining in the 1980s.

The single-track mineral line Elsecar Branch ran from Elsecar to Elsecar Junction near Wath, via Cortonwood, serving local collieries and ironworks. The line follows the Dearne and Dove Canal from Elsecar Basin to Cortonwood and originally crossed the canal by lifting bridge. In 1864 the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (M,S&LR) took over the South Yorkshire Railway. In 1897, the M,S&LR renamed itself to The Great Central Railway (GCR) which under the Railways Act of 1921 became part of railway grouping of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER).

Earl Fitzwilliam ran private trains from his own covered station at Elsecar (now the Playmania building in the Elsecar Heritage Centre), with the future King Edward VII a regular passenger to Doncaster Races. Earl Fitzwilliam lived at Wentworth Woodhouse in Wentworth village, one mile from Elsecar.  His former home is well worth a visit and I may write of that in a future blog, today is about the railway.  Steam and Deisel engines are run on the line and maintained by a team of dedicated volunteers.  Its a wondrous site to see a railway engine in full steam – the smell, the steam and smoke and the noise evocative of a time not too distant but all but forgotten.  The engine yard is a great place for photographers, with the machinery, signage and even old forgotten engines sitting idle and rusting away.


My last visit coincided with a steam day and I was welcomed onto the footplate with my camera – if you are so inclined you can even sign up for a one day course to learn how to drive a steam or diesel engine.  I feel a sadness that the great days of steam are now over, and looking at the facts it would seem inevitable that a cleaner, more efficient engine was needed to cope with the demands on the passenger and freight services when the railway was at its peak.  However myself and fellow nostalgia lovers owe a great deal to the volunteers who keep such steam engines and railways alive for our children and grandchildren to see and experience the wonder of steam railway travel.


A more recent trip to the North West of the country found me looking around Burnley for somewhere to visit and I came upon the Queen Street Mill Textile Museum.

This proved to be a very special find indeed, as the museum is home to the last remaining 19th Century mill steam engine in working order.  If you would like to see it for yourself, you’ll have to hurry – the local area council are planning on closing it citing budget constraints as the reason.  It was due to close on 1 April, but I’m pleased to hear it has a stay of execution until at least September 2016.


One man alone maintains the steam engine – named ‘Peace’ – the same man has had this role for 28 years and you can tell by the way he speaks of the engine and the work involved that it is a real labour of love.  Until recently he had an apprentice, but when the news of the possible closure reached the ears of those who run the apprenticeship scheme the young lad was withdrawn and moved to another position – and so, if Peace is given a reprieve it can only be for the lifetime of the engineer, he is the only man who knows every nut and bolt, every nuance, who lovingly oils and polishes as he answers visitors questions about the engine.  The engine itself is awarded the highest level of Graded protection which means if the museum closes the engine must always be maintained in working order, secure, the correct environment, one has to ask – who will oversee Peace if not an apprentice?

I was happy to spend a couple of hours at Queen Street Mill, and ponder what life was like for the mill workers, thousands of them, as you drive around the area its not difficult to imagine as the rows and rows of terraced houses and cottages still stand as testament to the industry which provided much of the region with its bread and butter.  An industry which helped build a nation.  A sad thought.


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