Prototype Inspiration: Railways around Lowca

Back in November last year (remember those days when we used to be able to go outside?) OTCM went on a mad tour to exhibit Six Quarters at Solrail 2019 in Workington. There was a reason other than sheer madness for this – SQ was inspired by the industrial railways immediately south of Workington itself. The trip itself was covered off in an earlier post, Solrail 2019: Better late than never!

Given how close we were to the prototype, and the fact we are usually in the opposite corner of the country, it would have been rude not to head down to the village of Lowca to see what the location looks like today. This then got considerably more involved as we ended up chatting to a couple of drivers that worked at the location while at the show, who gave us plenty of additional information, as well as kindly sharing some photos from their own collections. However one thing was clear, the area provided great modelling inspiration! So why not grab a cup of tea (preferably in an enamel cup) and read on, as I suspect this might be quite a long post….

While today the only rail activity in the area is the Cumbrian Coast Line, running from Barrow in Furness through Whitehaven and Workington to eventually reach Carlisle (taking quite a long time to do so…), this was far from the case in times of old, with a plethora of lines concentrated around Whitehaven, Workington and the various mines and iron works in the surrounding area, as attested by the RCH Junction Diagram below. Connecting into these lines were an even more complex array of industrial railways serving the mines themselves, although these thinned out considerably after WW1, the small mines they served becoming worked out. Some of these lines featured fearsome gradients, to the extent there were a number that had to rely on rope working to get the coal out, but these fall a bit outside our sphere of interest so we will focus on some that survived a bit longer, in particular the yellow coloured line heading off the bottom of the map.

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The village of Lowca sits on the cliff tops about 3 miles south of Workington, and, rather confusingly, Harrington No5 Colliery was located here, and not in the village of Harrington, just up the road. Given all the other lines in the vicinity were at sea level, or just above, and nowhere near the cliff tops, there was a fairly significant issue when it came to rail connecting the village and it’s collieries, but we assume the local railway builders adapted an attitude of ‘sh1t happens’ and cracked on regardless, approaching the village from both the East and the North – after all, why have one big gradient when you can have two!

From the East, the colliery and washery were accessed via a 1 in 25 gradient climbing from a small set of exchange sidings (Bains Sidings) adjacent to the erstwhile Whitehaven, Cleator and Egremont Junction Railway, which joined the Cumbrian Coast Line at Parton. Not to be outdone, the Lowca Light Railway approached the village from the North, linking it directly to Whitehaven, climbing onto the cliff tops at a gradient of 1 in 18! The Light Railway also served Micklam Brickworks, located just north of the Washery, as well as Harrington Docks, the branch to these dropping at 1 in 15 from Rosehill Junction. For a short time after WW1, the line was graced with passenger trains… Indeed Copperas Hill station, located half way up the gradient, was believed to be the steepest graded adhesion worked station in the country – quite understandable really.

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The remains of Copperas Hill station, looking South.
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Copperas Hill looking North, down the gradient – we wonder how many over run incidents there must have been in this direction!
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Looking down the trackbed of the Harrington Harbour Branch…. the steepness of the gradient is evident.
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On the southern outskirts of Harrington, the Harbour Branch crossed the Cumbrian Coast Line on a heavily skewed bridge, still at 1 in 15 we think! The sports fields over to the left of the shot were once the site of much heavy industry.

Harrington No5 Colliery closed in 1968. However, the washery remained open and ensured the survival of both lines, if anything leading to the most inspiring part of the sites life for a modeller. With the former WC&EJR line closed North of the exchange sidings, coal from collieries at Workington was worked by BR along the coast to Parton, passing Harrington washery 200ft above it on the way. It was then required to reverse, propelling up the stub of the former line to reach Bains sidings. At this point the NCB took over proceedings – one of Harrington’s Austerity tanks being assigned to drag 5 or 6 loaded wagons up the bank, through the centre of Lowca, and into the former colliery site. From here they were shunted out onto the cliff top, around a remarkably sharp 90 degree curve, climbing again at 1 in 25 to reach the connection into the washery, before propelling the wagons back in. Once reloaded with washed coal, the wagons had to head back to the top of the gradient, crossing Lowca High Road a second time, to be weighed, before they could be shunted over and returned to the exchange sidings.

By this era, trains from the North consisted almost exclusively of British Steel workings coming up from the steelworks in Workington itself to be loaded with coal, presumably used for coking. By the time of most photographs, and our interest, these were hauled by a pair of Yorkshire Engine Co 0-4-0 diesels, usually working cab to cab. However, NCB locos were known to make forays down the line from time to time too.

Today, little remains to identify the colliery and washery site, it having been landscaped and turned into a rugby club. However, if you pass this and head round onto the coast path itself, Micklam brickworks is still in situ, and the coast path continues to pick up the former Lowca Light Railway trackbed heading northwards, through the remains of Copperas Hill station and Rosehill Junction. In Lowca itself, many of the buildings that surrounded the line are still recognisable, and the line down to the exchange sidings has been converted into a cycle path.

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The remains of Micklam Brickworks, high on the clifftops.
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We believe this building was once the original loco shed, before it was closed and moved into the colliery site itself – The style of the building would lean towards that being the case, and it has not changed on OS Maps over the years.

As mentioned previously, we were lucky enough to be able to chat to two former drivers that had worked at Harrington during our period of interest, although not at the same time – John Harkness and Ray Penn. They shared some interesting stories, and were able to point out that Oly’s model of the level crossing keeper was inaccurate the prototype, who’s name escapes me, had landed that job after loosing an arm in an accident underground, while Oly had modelled him with a full complement of limbs! John was kind enough to share some photos from his collection with us, which are included below – apologies for the poor quality of the scans:

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John leaning on an Austerity by the weighbridge. The level crossing over Lowca High Road and the colliery yard are in the background, with the post office to the left.
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Looking the other way, with the post office on the right of the image, some British Steel internal user opens are brought into the former colliery site.
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A rake of 21T hoppers crosses Lowca High Road – this is the view that inspired Six Quarters, and was modelled, albeit in reverse.
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Sitting outside the colliery loco shed, with the washery sidings at a higher level in the background.
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Looking across the colliery yard.
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The Washery building and sidings, with a mix of BR 21T hoppers and British Steel Internal User wagons in the sidings.

The location was visited by Gordon Edgar a number of times during it’s latter days, with many of his photos appearing in his book ‘Industrial Railways of Cumbria’ which if you do not already own, comes highly recommended, purely on account of the level of filth it contains within its pages. With his kind permission, we have included a number of his photos below, and have added our own aligned as closely as possible to the originals, to provide a ‘now and then’ album of the site, starting at Bains Sidings and working up the hill…..

Storming the Bank

Storming the Bank

A train of coal is seen climbing the 1 in 25 up to Lowca, in the first image this has not long left Bain’s Sidings, while in the latter it is passing the connection into a loop that once served a much smaller pit. Today this section of the line is a cycleway, with the driveway to a garden centre build alongside:

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Last Run

As the line comes into Lowca village, it passes various terraced houses – some newer buildings now surround this site, but the original buildings are still there:

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Lowca Weighbridge

The site of the weighbridge was more or less the top of the gradient, the line running alongside a rendered wall to pass through the village itself. Today the wall is still there and a footpath uses the old trackbed, although this has been landscaped somewhat:

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Lowca

Trains from the weighbridge then had to cross Lowca High Road to access the colliery itself. Readers probably recognise the building here from Six Quarters! Today the building remains intact, and the road has a noticable flat spot where the railway used to cross.

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Lowca Colliery Remains

Within the colliery site itself, we think this vaguely aligns with what is now a rugby club but landscaping has made it hard to tell exactly:

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The line now curves through a sharp 90 degree bend and starts climbing again as it reaches the clifftops, a very exposed place, which has today been returned to nature:

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Irish Sea View

Slightly further round the curve sidings joined the ‘main line’ before it climbed through a short cutting to the washery link. Again this is now returned to nature and landscaped:

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Lowca Light Railway

Reaching the top of the gradient, before the line started descending again as the Lowca Light Railway. This pair of BSC locos show the gradients! Although not a direct comparison, this panorama shows the area today:

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So what about modelling this? We think it would make an ideal, if very different, round the room style layout for the industrial modeller. A fiddle yard could easily be located under the colliery site, with trains being pushed out by BR locos into a model of Bains Sidings, situated in one corner of the room, from where NCB locos could run up a gradient into the colliery itself. A tight curve in one corner of the room would then take you round to a model of Micklam Brickworks, before another steep gradient finished in a very small fiddleyard representing the other end of the Lowca Light Railway…. it could also make quite an attractive L shaped exhibition layout, although keeping things moving over the whole layout while at a show might prove quite challenging!

That’s all for now folks…. If you’ve got this far, well done and thanks for reading! We must extend our thanks to John Harkness for sharing his photographs with us, and to Gordon Edgar for the images used to illustrate this post – it should go without saying that he retains the copyright so please don’t pinch them for use anywhere else! Oh, and Gordon’s series of books on industrial railways, particularly the Cumbrian one, make great reading and are ideal for browsing if, say, you were told to stay in isolation for several months…. and remember your friendly railway book retailers have taken a big hit with the cancellation of so many shows, so try and buy from them rather than multinational conglomerates that may have names starting with A and finishing with Mazon!

Chris and Oly

4 Replies to “Prototype Inspiration: Railways around Lowca”

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