Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway


The History of the Line is a very large topic, and different aspects of it can be found in different areas.

Below can be found a brief history of

Also on the website, details of the locomotives and the rolling stock can be found with some information on their histories
  • Stocklist which includes photographs and information on each locomotive.
A new section is being developed as a digital archive of materials relating to the line and its operation. This includes tickets, posters and handbills, and will be expanded as more items from collections are scanned. Also worth investigating are the pictoral records of the line with their extending selection of photographs from the line's operational days. These pages are accessible through the main photogallery page.

If you would like to find out more information about the line, a book is available from the Railway's Bookshop, titled 'Rails to the Dales'.

Please help me!! If you have any photographs of the Skipton - Ilkley line, and would be willing for them to be used on the website, please e-mail me or contact the railway.

The Skipton - Ilkley Railway
(including the Grassington Branch)


The Midland Railway in the 19th Century was an enterprising Railway Company with designs to rival both the East and West Coast anglo-Scottish routes. It set out to construct a railway linking Settle with Carlisle over some of the most difficult terrain imaginable, including the famous ‘long drag’ with its many tunnels and viaducts. This line was completed in 1876.
In order to reach Settle, the railway passes through the Aire Valley and towns of Shipley, Bingley and Keighley before arriving at Skipton, the Gateway to the Dales, preparatory to setting out northwards to Hellifield and beyond. Leeds was first connected with Skipton by rail in 1847 through the efforts of the Leeds & Bradford (Shipley - Colne Extension) Railway.
Another Midland Railway line was to reach Skipton but this time from the east. There had been proposals, agitations and abortive Bills of Parliament for several years before the Midland Railway (Additional Powers) Act to construct an 11 mile 6 furlong line from Ilkley to Skipton received Royal Assent in July 1883.
In April 1885 a contract was awarded to Mousley and Company of Bristol for the construction of the Skipton to Ilkley railway. Actual construction commenced in the June of 1885 with the line being completed and opened as far as Bolton Abbey in Summer 1888.
On Monday 1st October 1888 the new tracks were open all the way from Skipton to Ilkley and the first through ticket was purchased by Welbury Kendall, a Skipton Timber Merchant.

The Route

The new railway left the already-established Ilkley Station, rail connected since August 1865 through the Ilkley and Otley Joint Railway, via a series of bridges spanning the genteel spa town of Ilkley and the flood plain of the River Wharfe, making its first station stop in the village of Addingham. Beyond Addingham the line climbs and passes over Lob Ghyll viaduct, a most impressive structure now invisible due to tree growth, and enters Bolton Abbey station from where the railway continues climbing up to the watershed between the valleys of Wharfedale and Airedale.
Staff at Bolton Abbey Station in the late 1800s, looking towards Ilkley. (C) YDRMT Bolton Abbey station, situated some 1½ miles from the Abbey itself, nestles in the lee of Beamsley Beacon. The Abbey, or more correctly Priory, has been in existence since founding in 1155 by a community of Augustinian Canons, known as Black Canons because of their black habits or robes.
The Canons and their Priory were dissolved by Henry the Eight in 1538/9 and the buildings were subsequently allowed to fall into disrepair.
Bolton Abbey station has long had a royal connection, being the nearest railhead for the Duke of Devonshire’s Bolton Hall, with a number of reigning monarchs visiting the Duke or simply enjoying the grouse shooting on the nearby estate moorland.
Some examples are: King Edward VII visited in 1902 for the grouse shooting, arriving by the Midland Railway’s Royal Train whilst the LMS Royal Train conveyed King George V in August 1922, moving on to Balmoral a week later.
During World War II, an air raid shelter was constructed in the embankment adjacent to Bolton Abbey station and this was regally appointed for the use of the Royal party should the need arise.
The last known visit of the Royal Train was in October 1947.
The final intermediate station is Embsay, a suburb of Skipton, from where the Railway descends to its own platforms in Skipton Station.
Embsay is an old agricultural village which developed rapidly with the industrial revolution into a hive of industry featuring seven spinning mills and weaving sheds powered by waterwheels from the streams running down the fells behind the village.
The quarrying industry was closely linked with Embsay, and still is to this day, developing in the 18th Century at Haw Park and Haw Bank to the south of the village at the time of the arrival in Skipton of the Leeds - Liverpool canal in 1774. Haw Bank is known in geological parlance as the Skipton Anticline and is one of a series of anticlines running from near Clitheroe in Lancashire north eastwards to Hambleton near Bolton Abbey. The limestone quarried is known as Chatburn limestone and is part of the carboniferous series of Dinantion age being of dark grey to blue grey strata. Formerly used for burning to create lime, the stone is nowadays considered to be only suitable for use as aggregate.
Between Ilkley and Skipton he line comprised 3 viaducts, 1 tunnel, 19 public road or canal bridges, 45 occupation bridges and numerous culverts together with some 1,500,000 cubic yards of cutting.
The initial train ran from Colne through Skipton and Ilkley to Otley and, in the early years of the line, a daily service connected Skipton with Harrogate. There was, for many years, a through Manchester - Ilkley service whilst excursion traffic from the ‘cotton towns’ to Skipton and Bolton Abbey proved to be very popular. Other excursions using the route would feature Morecambe, York and Harrogate as their destination whilst ‘circular tours’ encompassed the Settle - Carlisle line and Wensleydale via Hawes Junction, Leyburn and Northallerton.
Embsay Junction, looking towards Embsay with the Dalesman Railtour. (C) Gavin Morrison (YDRMT) A branch line diverged from the Skipton to Ilkley railway, at Embsay Junction, striking out into the Dales and terminating in the village of Grassington or, rather, Threshfield for Grassington. This branch was originally promoted by the Yorkshire Dales Railway Company, opening for traffic in July 1902, and served several small villages together with Spencer’s quarry and limeworks at Swinden, near Cracoe.

Decline and Closure

Grassington lost its’ passenger service in September 1930 but was served by goods and holiday excursion traffic for many years afterwards. In August 1969 the final passenger-carrying train ran into Grassington station. This excursion, promoted by the Yorkshire Dales Railway Society, ran some 67 years after the opening of the line and brought a chapter in story of the Grassington Branch to an end. Ilkley Station - Platforms looking towards Embsay after closure of the line. (C) Charles Boylan The line was dismantled beyond Swinden limeworks but the Swinden to Skipton length continued in daily use for the carriage of freight, in fact limeworks products - a situation that prevails up to the present day.
Having provided both a local passenger and freight service for many years, as well as valuable use as a diversionary route, the Skipton to Ilkley route itself succumbed to Dr Beeching in March 1965, being closed from Embsay Junction to Ilkley and leaving the Grassington Branch as a truncated line serving only the limestone quarry.


The Skipton Rock Company was incorporated in December 1895 and worked the Haw Bank quarry independently until April 1968 when it merged with Hargreaves Quarries Ltd.
Formerly, under previous ownership, trains of wooden wagons had been worked from Haw Bank Quarry down to the Bailey in Skipton by use of a stationary winding engine. From there, the wagons were lowered to the Springs Branch of the Leeds - Liverpool canal and the stone loaded into barges. This was the Haw Bank tramroad and was 4' 1" gauge.
From 1893 onwards, locomotive haulage was used within the quarry and along the tramroad using a Leeds-built Manning Wardle 0-6-0 saddletank No 1264, also of 4' 1" gauge. The tramroad was eventually strengthened and steel hopper wagons of 4 or 5 tons capacity were provided. At the Bailey the locomotive gave way to a self acting incline which completed the journey to the canal. The weight of full wagons descending the self acting incline was used to raise empty wagons back up from the canal side to the tramroad.
Following the incorporation of the Skipton Rock Co., the quarry line was widened to 4' 8½" standard gauge and a short spur was provided from the new Skipton to Ilkley line on the east side of Embsay Station into the quarry.
Locomotive 1264, named Wyvern, was also converted to the standard gauge of 4' 8½".
A further locomotive, Darfield, was purchased in 1920, this being an ex-Ministry of Munitions Hunslet 0-6-0 saddletank No 162 of 1876. Both Darfield and Wyvern continued in Skipton Rock service until 1932/4, Wyvern going first followed by Darfield two years later.
Hudswell Clarke Ltd, of Leeds, provided replacements in the form of 0-6-0 saddletanks Nos. 1650 Wyvern of 1932 and 1651 Darfield of 1934.
Road traffic overtook the rail network within Haw Bank quarry and by 1952 both locomotives had been sold for scrap. Stone was no longer shipped out of Skipton in barges and the Army had built a road into the quarry using Italian prisoners of war as a workforce.
At its peak in 1934 the quarry had some 5 miles of track available and employed fitters for locomotive repairs/maintenance, joiners for wagon repairs, blacksmiths for locomotive and wagon parts and 5 lengthmen to look after the tracks.
In addition to the large numbers of internal user wagons for the quarry and tramroad, the Skipton Rock Co. also operated a fleet of private owner wagons for carrying stone to customers via the Midland Railway and connected through the Embsay spur.
Following the disposal of Darfield in 1952, a tractor was used to shunt wagons down from Haw Bank quarry to the British Railways siding.
The Skipton Rock Co. was purchased by Hargreaves in 1968 and they later sold out to Tilcon Quarry Products. The quarry has, in recent years, been used only for coating limestone brought in by road from Tilcon’s Swinden Quarry. An inspection of the quarry reveals no trace of the former rail use apart from some buried sleepers at the point where the spur joined the Skipton to Ilkley line.

The Embsay & Grassington Railway Preservation Society was formed in October 1968 when it was realised that the former Yorkshire Dales Railway branch from Skipton to Grassington was threatened with closure. The aim of the Preservation Society was to preserve this branch and operate trains for the enthusiast and tourist market whilst saving from extinction a part of the Yorkshire Dales’ railway history. The Grassington branch has something of a celebrity status in local railway circles and throughout the wider railway fraternity.
The branch is still operating today, owned by Railtrack and featuring stone trains worked using the latest English, Welsh and Scottish Railway locomotives and wagons. This explains why the aims of the infant Society were never realised.
However, a name change to Yorkshire Dales Railway Society (YDRS) in 1969 saw the Society undeterred and still determined to preserve something of the Midland Railway in the local area. A plan to re-open a part of the recently - closed Skipton to Ilkley line was conceived.
Embsay Station in the mid 70's. (C) Charles Boylan The YDRS took possession of Embsay Station on a rental basis, in 1970, until arrangements for the line purchase could be made and the necessary funds raised. The station building was oil-lit, without power supplies and was to all intents derelict.
Track lifting on the line was well advanced by this time and the YDRS was only able to secure approximately 880 yards, from Embsay Junction up to a point just on the Ilkley side of Embsay Station near to where the spur into Haw Bank quarry was once located.
The official re-opening in 1979. (C) Andy Lister The first priority for the Society was to establish a base from which future developments could build and, in order to raise capital, the ‘steam centre’ plan was formulated. Trolley buses found a home in Embsay’s former Goods Shed and a simple railway operation was introduced, with one or two former Manchester South Junction and Altrincham electric railway trailer cars sandwiched between two steam locomotives.
In the mid-1970’s the climate changed for preserved railways. The move was towards authenticity and a greater respect for railway heritage was prevalent following the early years when the battle cry had been, of necessity, ‘save everything’. It was realised that the push-pull shuttle was insufficient and could not sustain the desires of the Society. The trolley buses had gone and the YDRS decided that it was high time that they became a railway.
Bow Bridge Loop. (C) Charles Boylan By May 1979 a shuttle service was inaugurated centred on the Embsay station to Embsay Junction line. The trackbed, track and station had been purchased from the British Railways Board and an impressive collection of locomotives, carriages and wagons was being formed, with Yorkshire-built steam locomotives at the core.
The YDRS continued to progress its aims over the next few years. It became a Charitable Trust, the Yorkshire Dales Railway Museum Trust (YDRMT), and, later, a Registered Museum. Embsay station was restored to LMS condition, locomotives were overhauled, carriages refurbished and given a livery identical to the early British Railways colours but with a YDRMT crest on the flanks.
At this stage in the Trust’s development it became obvious that the Grassington Branch had found a new lease of life, truncated at Swinden Quarry near Cracoe, and would not be succumbing to the ‘closure axe’ as had been earlier feared. This left the Trust facing a crucial decision as to its own future.
Skibeden Loop. (C) Charles Boylan As the Trust owned the trackbed for some distance from Embsay towards Ilkley, it seemed a logical idea that the way ahead was to commence rebuilding the old Midland Railway line in that direction. Discussions with the owner of the next section of trackbed proved to be fruitful and a lease was negotiated. Tracklaying proceeded satisfactorily and an extended operation, to Skibeden Loop, was introduced. The lengthened train ride proved very popular with visitors and volunteers but the Railway still lacked a true destination.
The next target to be set was to further extend the line to a location known as Holywell. A Halt and picnic area / nature trail would be built and passengers would be able to leave the train in order to view the Craven Fault. A this point on the line, where the railway passes through a cutting, there is an unrivalled view of the geologic feature and the area is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. A viewing area and interpretative panel were created giving our passengers an opportunity to understand a little of this significant geological phenomenon.
Holywell Halt. (C) Charles Boylan Trains commenced operating to Holywell Halt in July 1987 as a result of some considerable effort by the Trust volunteers and other organisations who helped with various stages of the project. These included Pendle Heritage Trust (training unemployed young people in building skills), the Christian Youth Fellowship Association, local Venture Scouts and the sterling efforts of the Yorkshire Dales Conservation Volunteers (affiliated to the BTCV).
Holywell Halt and the associated Hartington Hollow picnic area / nature trail were declared open by the Marquess of Hartington, whose Bolton Abbey Estate borders the line, and have proved to be very popular with our visitors, particularly in Summer. The Halt also provided the Trust with a second station but not, alas, a real destination.
The old Bolton Abbey Station in the mid 70's. (C) Charles Boylan The Trust continued to operate services to Holywell Halt whilst plans were formulated to extend the line further towards the derelict Bolton Abbey station.
The proposal was to extend the line to a location known as Stoneacre, near to the village of Draughton, which approximates to the half way point between Embsay and Bolton Abbey. Trains could terminate here, it was envisaged, for a few years to allow the Trust to complete the remainder of the railway to Bolton Abbey and rebuild the derelict station building.
At this time the Trust underwent a further change of identity purely for marketing purposes. The name Embsay Steam Railway would be adopted for publicity and marketing use with the YDRMT identity would remain as the title of the owning and operating body. Embsay Steam Railway was a descriptive title allowing no misinterpretation as to the location and purpose of the railway.
Stoneacre Loop. (C) Charles Boylan. The line to Stoneacre opened in 1991, tracklaying being considerably speeded up by the involvement of the Territorial Army Royal Engineers, and once again the extra length of railway was well received providing a new dimension for our visitors and an enhanced railway experience.
Bolstered by the success of Stoneacre, the Trust started negotiations with the trackbed owner with the aim of securing the purchase of the remaining two miles of trackbed into Bolton Abbey and the station there. These proved to be protracted but, ultimately, the Trust was able to agree a price and ownership was taken in 1995.
The final push to Bolton Abbey proved to be the largest project undertaken by the Trust so far; the most challenging with two bridges to reinstate, two miles of trackbed to reclaim, track to construct and a station to rebuild.
The new Bolton Abbey Station. (C) Pete Walker Trains ran again between Embsay and Bolton Abbey during 1997 and this state of affairs would not have been possible without welcome grant aid from the European Regional Development Fund and English Partnerships plus some superb support from the railway and construction industries. A new station, of Midland Railway design, was constructed to replace the original, dangerous and derelict timber building. This construction was undertaken by Sir Robert MacAlpine & Co Ltd free of charge with 90% of the materials donated to the project, including all architectural works by DLG+P - an amazing feat.
An official opening was conducted by Sir William MacAlpine in 1998 and the YDRMT entered a new phase with a transformed railway. Visitor comments since re-opening have vindicated our efforts in rebuilding the line and passenger numbers have reflected this new dawn for the YDRMT.
Stoneacre Signalbox. (C) Simon Gott Settling down after Bolton Abbey and the commencement of a time of consolidation have been the key since re-opening. The loop at Stoneacre has been adapted to form a passing loop allowing trains to cross and thereby increase the frequency of service. A newly built signal box to an early 20th century design, innovative ‘alternative’ power supplies and imaginative use of old equipment have led to Stoneacre being awarded the Westinghouse Award in the 1999 National Railway Heritage Awards.
For the future, the Trust intends to create a Museum dedicated to Yorkshire industrial locomotive building and operation together with a conservation area where vehicles in the collection can be lovingly restored to former condition and placed in a protective environment.


Yorkshire Dales Railway Museum Trust (Holdings) Limited
Registered Charity No. 1116386
Bolton Abbey Station, Bolton Abbey, Skipton, North Yorkshire, BD23 6AF
General Enquiries: 01756 710614 - Talking Timetables & Fax: 01756 795189
enquiries AT embsayboltonabbeyrailway DOT org.uk webmaster AT embsayboltonabbeyrailway DOT org.uk
Yorkshire Tourist Board

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