Highdyke to Hougham in Fifty Pictures: photographs by Tom Boustead
Above: The 09:45 Edinburgh to King's Cross express speeds south beneath the Great North Road at Grantham on Saturday 8th August 1959, with class A4 No. 60031 Golden Plover of Edinburgh (Haymarket) shed. The locomotive is carrying the train headboard for The Elizabethan, but the Saturday service included a call at Newcastle and was officially untitled.
The stretch of the East Coast Main Line (ECML) that we consider as Tracks through Grantham territory extends from Stoke Summit 13 miles northward to Westborough, which is between Hougham and Claypole and was once the location of a minor road crossing and a small signal box. This page explores most of 'our' section of the ECML in a selection of photographs taken by Tom Boustead, as we travel with him from Highdyke to Hougham.
Our journey is in time as well as space, so we've borrowed the Tracks through Grantham Tardis. Tom was first attracted to the line in the 1950s which, of course, were still the days of steam, sidings and semaphore signals; the railway appeared little removed from the system which the 20th century inherited from the Victorian era. But change was in the air. During the 1960s the route was 'dieselised'; in the 1970s it was modernised (or rationalised, depending on your point of view); and in the 1980s it was electrified. Tom continued to observe the scene until the early 1990s. Thus his pictures span five decades.
These photographs are an absorbing record of 'what, where and when'. However, as we journey north we also become increasingly aware of the imprint of the East Coast Main Line on the landscape of South Kesteven.
From the photographic perspective we enjoy unusual viewpoints and creative compositions. We see how variations in season subtly change the lineside ambience; how weather conditions and the time of day affect the intensity, direction and quality of light, and the depth of shade.
Tom had a lineside photography permit from 1955 until they were all withdrawn in 1968.
With thanks to Tom for making his photographs available to Tracks through Grantham. We're also very grateful to Steve Philpott who has expertly scanned Tom's pictures.
Travelling north, Highdyke is reached immediately beyond Stoke Tunnel and 4½ miles south of Grantham station, at the point where the line crosses the Roman road Ermine Street (London to York, via Lincoln), known in this area as High Dyke.
After Highdyke the line continues its descent from Stoke Summit at a gradient of 1 in 200 all the way to Grantham. In the southbound direction this is a tough climb to take at high speed or with a heavy load. Every train reaching Highdyke from Grantham has climbed 120 feet, and the ascent continues for another mile through and beyond the tunnel.
There are two reasons for Highdyke's importance in railway operations; one still applies, the other is historic.
Since 1882 the railway from Grantham up to Highdyke has had three running lines, one for northbound (Down) trains and two for those heading south (Up). Through the tunnel there is space for only two tracks, so at Highdyke the southbound lines converge. For nearly 140 years efficient signalling of Up trains through this junction has been vital to ensure that the limited capacity of the tunnel is used to best effect by the variety of traffic that shares it, from non-stop passenger expresses to slow and heavy coal trains.
From around 1917 until 1973 ironstone was extensively mined in the locality south west of Highdyke. A single track branch line was built to interchange points near the quarries. Sidings were laid out at Highdyke where loaded wagons were received from the branch and assembled into trains bound for iron and steel works in Lincolnshire and the North Midlands.
There's more in Tracks through Grantham on Highdyke signal box here, on the ironstone traffic here, and on the High Dyke branch here.
2. Great Ponton
Travelling north from Highdyke the line curves gently to the right through the limestone rocks of Great Ponton Cutting to reach the site of Great Ponton station, which opened with the Great Northern Railway's 'Towns Line' in 1852. The station closed to passengers in 1958 and was demolished soon afterwards. The goods yard closed in 1963, but the signal box remained in use until 1972.
3. Little Ponton
From Great Ponton towards the village of Little Ponton the line runs at first on an embankment through farmland, crossing Whalebone Lane before approaching Little Ponton Cutting (sometimes known as Saltersford Cutting).
There's a video of Woodnook Valley (SSSI) including passing beneath the Whalebone Lane bridge under the ECML (from about 3:20) here.
Little Ponton Cutting was driven on a curve through the Lincolnshire limestone. Excavation, initially for two tracks, appears to have started in 1850. The relatively stable rock allowed the sides to be moderately steep, reducing the volume of material to be excavated. The cutting was widened to take the additional Up goods line in 1875-76. For well over a century the exposed strata have suffered erosion by weathering and by pollution such as acid rain - and locomotive exhaust gases.
The Little Ponton and Saltersford area was one of Tom's favourite locations for photography.
The photograph above is from a sequence of three consecutive images captured as the train approached. Below is a short video composed from all three shots. It's best seen in 'full screen' mode. There's no soundtrack, so why not let your imagination enhance the experience...
Leaving Little Ponton Cutting the line passes, on the left, the Grantham Water Works. This is on the site of the Salters' Ford which was a Roman crossing of the River Witham by the Salt Way, a route for salt from Droitwich in Worcestershire to the Lincolnshire coast. Then the railway itself crosses the River Witham on a short viaduct and enters Spittlegate Cutting.
From the 1870s until 1932 there was a signal box at Saltersford opposite the water works There were crossovers here between the running lines, and a siding for supplying coal to the works.
In 1943 a loop was laid in on the Down (northbound) side, controlled remotely from Grantham South box. This is the scene illustrated in Tom's photographs.
Today there's little sign of the loop and the water works siding. The siding had been taken up by 1957 and the loop was removed in 1968.
5. Spittlegate Cutting
These earthworks mark the approach to Grantham station. In contrast with the rock cutting at Saltersford, the gently graded slopes are a sign of the instability of the clay ground hereabouts. At first the sides of Spittlegate Cutting were steeper than they are today, but soon after the line opened there were frequent landslips. One, in October 1852, left 'the engine partly buried in the ground.' The slopes of this cutting have required frequent attention over the years.
6. Grantham South
Passing under the Great North Road bridge, the three running lines which have kept us company from Highdyke are immediately flanked by sidings and shunt lines. At Grantham South signal box a Down slow line and an Up and Down goods loop appear. Soon there are carriage sidings on the left, goods yards on both sides and, on the far left, the loco sheds.
Being on an embankment, and closely bordered by industrial premises on the 'town' side, this is an area of railway property which is fairly inaccessible - except by those who had business to be there or who, like Tom, had been granted a lineside pass for photography.
Into the 1970s at Grantham a number of characteristics combined to make the station an exceptionally good location for watching and photographing the railway at work. Here's a list; there are some features that still apply today:
A variety of traffic, ranging from main line passenger expresses (including titled and Pullman trains) and local connecting services to fast freight and heavy mineral trains; some stopping, including for locomotive changes, others passing through at speed;
Modest size, so that all activity was easily observed, yet large and busy enough to have most ‘big station’ facilities such as a bookstall, refreshment rooms, an announcer, a parcels office, GPO postal traffic and a goods depot;
A clear view along straight track for about a mile south, with a wide platform end for a selection of viewpoints;
A curve to the north offering interesting perspectives for photography; for example, superelevation of the main lines on the curve gives a dramatic ‘lean’ to approaching Up trains - which, if not stopping, power through the station to maintain speed up the forthcoming ascent to Stoke Summit;
An open aspect from the west giving, in fair weather, good lighting for afternoon and evening photography;
Interesting architectural and landscape features such as industrial buildings, signal boxes and semaphore signalling, Victorian gas lamps, water columns, decorative structural ironwork, and equipment such as old platform barrows and trolleys.
8. Grantham North
North of the station platforms were the junctions for the Nottingham line and for the Up and Down goods loop. Beyond a series of connections and crossovers two twin-track routes, the main line and the Nottingham line, ran parallel for half a mile. They crossed a massive curved brick viaduct with divergent skew arches over Harlaxton Road and Wharf Road. The curve continues on a wide embankment with bridges over Dysart Road and Barrowby Road, where the Nottingham route diverges to the left. The main line, having resumed a straight course, crosses a further bridge over the Great North Road, known here as North Parade.
The track layout is quite different today; there are no main line connections on the curve and a single, bi-directional track has been substituted for the pair of Nottingham lines. After the Nottingham line diverges it runs alongside the main lines as a bi-directional slow line, which connects into the main lines on the straight approaching the North Parade bridge.
'The Grantham curve' with its raised, superelevated track and clear skyline is a dramatic setting, especially in the warm, low light of a clear late afternoon or evening.
From the outskirts of the town to Peascliffe Tunnel the line is straight and level. It used to run entirely through farmland.
Since the 1960s some of the fields on either side, south of the bridge which carries Belton Lane over the line , have been developed for housing. There's now no sign there, on the right, of the one-time Peascliffe signal box , or of the junction for a short-lived branch line to an important WW1 military training camp at Belton Park. However, widening of the distance between the lineside fencing to accommodate the junction is still apparent, if you know where to look!
Beyond Belton Lane bridge Belton Woods golf course has today replaced the fields over and around the south end of the tunnel.
The line resumes its long descent from Stoke Summit through Peascliffe Tunnel to Barkston Junction. This section is all in tunnel or cutting, and there's evidence that over the years its drainage has required frequent attention.
Belton is the name of a nearby village, and Belton signal box was once located half a mile north of the tunnel. The names of neighbouring Jericho Farm and Jericho Woods are also used locally to identify the area.
There's no sign of encroaching housebuilding here; the line now passes through farming country until it reaches the outskirts of Newark.
There were once four bridges across the cutting to maintain local access after the line was built. The only one that remains, Gadd's Lane bridge, has been rebuilt to provide clearance for electrification.
11. Barkston Junction
Here we curve to the left, cross the minor road from Barkston village (which is more than a mile to the east) on a bridge - at one time this was a level crossing - and we then cross above the line which links Nottingham with Boston. That's the situation today, but until 1972 there were also north-to-east and south-to-east connections from the main line. Barkston was a well-known triangular junction.
Barkston station, which closed in 1955, had an unusual disposition of platforms, two facing the main line and another on the south-to-east spur.
There's more on Barkston North Junction signal box here; on the junction's role as a locomotive turning facility towards the end of this page ; and on its attraction as a spotting location here.
A little under a mile north of Barkston Junction the line crosses Frinkley Lane on the level. The road here is now a footpath, but years ago vehicles could use the crossing. About ¾ mile further, on the right, the site of Hougham station is today a featureless storage yard. We pass beneath Gelston Lane and into a short cutting, emerging onto a low embankment bridged by Brandon Road. From here it's 8 miles dead ahead to Newark.
Well that's the end of our travels through time and space with Tom and his camera. We began in 1959 at Highdyke, near milepost 101, and leave in 1991 near Hougham at milepost 112. We've descended about 220 feet (67m). It's time to hand back the keys of the Tracks through Grantham Tardis. We hope you've enjoyed the trip!
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