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The High Dyke Branch Rediscovered – Part 1

Highdyke Junction to Bridge End, Colsterworth (via B6403)

modern photographs and description by John Pegg and C. Taylor

edited by John Clayson

This series of photographs was taken by John in the summer of 2017 while walking the northern section of the former High Dyke branch line, a distance of 3 miles.

The branch was a mineral line which transported locally mined ironstone to a junction at Highdyke on the East Coast Main Line, just north of Stoke Tunnel.  It was declared open by the Great Northern Railway Company on 3rd March 1919.  However, the connections for the branch had been installed at Highdyke by November 1916, so the branch may well have been in partial use well before its official opening .

There had been a junction at Highdyke since 1882 when a third running line from Grantham, the Up Goods, was extended as far as the approach to the two-track Stoke Tunnel.  The branch had originally been promoted in about 1912 as the Waltham and Highdyke Railway, because it was intended to connect Highdyke with Waltham-on-the-Wolds, a terminus on the GNR's branch line from Scalford, Leicestershire.

The High Dyke branch was built relatively cheaply across undulating countryside and it was quite steeply graded in parts, being known to generations of Grantham train crew as 'the alps'.   To avoid runaways on the sharp descent approaching the junction at Highdyke, regulations limited the number of loaded wagons that could be brought down the branch.  Larger trains were assembled in the sidings next to the main line for delivery to iron and steel works in Lincolnshire and the North Midlands.

The ironstone mines were mainly opencast and they had their own private railway systems.  There were loading points and exchange sidings at several locations on the branch.  No regular passenger services were ever operated, but there were at least two special excursions, on 19th June 1960 and 15th April 1972.  The branch closed in August 1973 after ironstone mining ceased.  There was an attempt at a preservation and leisure railway initiative - see here - but it failed, and by autumn 1975 all the track had been removed.

As a comparative latecomer to the local transport infrastructure the branch intersected many existing landscape features, both natural and man-made.  The Great North Road was spanned by two bridges, the earlier dating from the line's construction and the second, to the east, a result of the realignment and dualling of the A1 in 1959-61.  The River Witham was crossed and several roads, lanes and footpaths were intersected, requiring bridges or gates.  John has captured evidence of most of these crossings in the photographs.

The maps show the area in around 1974 (after the branch was closed but before the track was removed), unless otherwise noted.


Editor's note: Highdyke or High Dyke?

Apparently both.

On the railway, the locality where the branch joined the East Coast Main Line was, and is still, officially referred to as 'Highdyke' (one word) or 'Highdyke Junction'.  The official name of the signal box, as printed on the box diagram, was HIGHDYKE, and this is also its name on the British Railways era Telephone Circuit Card illustrated further down this page.  However the joiner who, in the 1880s, fixed the letters to the signal box nameboards left a space: HIGH DYKE.

Nevertheless, the line is correctly referred to as the High Dyke branch because High Dyke (two words) is the name of the B6403 road which, for its first 3 miles, the line closely paralleled.

To add to the variety of spellings available, the Ordnance Survey tends to have used 'Highdike' and 'High Dike' on its maps!

Other/alternative insights are very welcome - please leave a comment.


Highdyke

Nature has taken over since the closure and large bushes are blocking the start of the branch line in Highdyke yard. A southbound Virgin Trains East Coast express is approaching the north end of Stoke Tunnel.

 

Back in time... a scene from about the same point at Highdyke on 5th September 1963, with a little less undergrowth!
One of Grantham shed's class O2 heavy freight locomotives has just brought 15 wagons filled with ironstone down the branch. The brake van has been uncoupled and the loaded wagons will be drawn past the camera and propelled into sidings, mainly hidden by the locomotive, to join others ready to be taken to the steelworks.
On the left, behind WD Austerity class locomotive No. 90169 in one of the sidings, is the entrance to Stoke Tunnel.  The Virgin Trains East Coast expresses will be along in a little over 50 years!
Photograph by Humphrey Platts
A map of 1972 showing the commencement of the branch, the sidings and the north entrance of Stoke Tunnel.  The arrow shows the viewpoint of the previous photographs.
Let's stay in our time machine for a few more minutes.  We'll walk a few step north, cross the tracks and watch as No. 90169 departs with its load of nearly 1,000 tons of tippler wagons and ironstone. The fireman is looking back, checking that all is well with the train and watching for signals from the Guard while, from the other side of the cab, the driver will be concentrating on the road ahead.  Real teamwork from the crew of three.
Photograph taken by Humphrey Platts
We turn to face north as the end of the train passes the signal box, the brake van with regulation tail lamp in position.  The Guard is still keeping an eye on the heavy, loose coupled train as it follows No. 90169 over the crossovers behind the signal box to gain the Down Main line, appearing to the right of the box.  The  signals are 'off' for a clear run to Great Ponton and beyond.  The signalman is seen in the box and he also will be watching the train's departure, having checked before signalling it away that there was a gap in traffic sufficient to allow it to progress at its maximum 25mph speed at least as far as Grantham without causing delay to approaching expresses.
Photograph by Humphrey Platts

Humphrey's visit to Highdyke on Thursday 5th September 1963, when the photographs above were taken, was arranged by his friend Walter Dale who was Yard Inspector at Highdyke.  Walter was an Alderman of the Borough of Grantham and he had been Grantham's Mayor in 1949-50.  This was the final week that Grantham-based locomotives worked the branch, because the shed closed the following Sunday.

John Pegg worked at Highdyke signal box and there are some of his recollections here (scroll about ⅓ down the page).

Leaving our Tardis and the former railway community of Highdyke, we find our way blocked.  No ironstone has passed this way since July 1973.  This is the present condition of the branch between the junction at Highdyke and bridge number 1.  The power lines overhead, marked 'ETL' (Electricity Transmission Line) on the map above, provide a clue to our whereabouts.

The route is virtually impassable due to large trees, thorn bushes, brambles and nettles.  So for now we'll travel south - on foot or by bike or car - along the B6403 High Dyke (known to the Romans as Ermine Street) with the branch on our left.  We will turn off where we can to rediscover the railway.


Bridge No.1

Our first call is at Bridge number 1, which still carries a track to Highdyke Farm over the cutting.

Interesting metal work on the end of the brickwork, holding the end of the coping in place.  The painted bridge identification remains clear.
The lane to Highdyke Farm goes 'up and over' the railway cutting.  Since the coming of the mobile phone those power lines no longer have the 'skyscape' to themselves!
The location of Bridge number 1.
Looking south over the bridge parapet.
Down at track level. This bridge is 100 years old and it looks fit for another century at least!  Quick - back up onto the bridge.  I think there's a train coming up the branch!

From the Geoff Plumb Collection of original slides. LNER O2/2 three cylinder 2-8-0 No. 63941 sets off away from the East Coast Main Line at High Dyke sidings with an empty train of iron ore wagons to return to the quarries at Colsterworth on Sunday 7th July 1963. Photographer unknown. Collect Slide No. 28664.

A train of empty wagons from Highdyke approaches bridge number 1 in July 1963.  Click on the image to visit the owner's website.

A few seconds later and this would be the scene.  In the early 1960s empty ironstone wagons are brought up the High Dyke branch by Class O2 No. 63932 of Grantham shed. The location is bridge number 1, about a quarter of a mile from High Dyke, where the branch is ascending on a 1 in 40 gradient. Everything about the lineside is neat and trim even though this was a mineral branch, never travelled by passengers.
Photograph taken by Colin Walker
In the opposite direction the gradient presented a significant hazard.  The crew of class O2 No. 63987 have 'stopped to pin down brakes' at the start of the 1 in 40 descent to the sidings at High Dyke, and they are just getting under way again. The change of gradient is quite noticeable in the shot.  The guard is walking back to the brake van, having applied the brakes on the rear half of the train by pushing down on each wagon's external brake lever and inserting a pin to hold the brake blocks against the wheels (you can see that the angle of the brake levers changes after about the eighth wagon). This willl assist the train crew to control a train weighing several hunderd tons.  The fixed (i.e permanently at caution) distant signal of High Dyke signal box stands on the skyline.
Photograph taken by Colin Walker

Park Farm Lane Crossing

About ¾ mile south of Bridge number 1, Park Farm Lane joins the B6403 from the left.  There was a gated but unstaffed level crossing about 150 yards along the lane. Road users opened the gates when required, taking responsibility to ensure that it was safe to cross the line.  Locomotive drivers were required to give a warning whistle as they approached.

The lane to Park Farm at its junction with the B6403, High Dyke. The ironstone branch ran parallel to the road at the far side of the fields to left and right, along the line of the trees and hedge.  It crossed the lane on the level about 150 yards from the camera.

While here we may pause to remember a fatal accident at Park Farm Lane Crossing in late January 1941.  In very thick fog Blanche Arthur of Swayfield was helping her husband Horace, a baker, with his delivery round.  Blanche was opening the crossing gates ahead of the baker's van driven by Horace when a locomotive propelling a brake van suddenly appeared out of the fog, travelling from the left as we view it here, and knocked her down.  She may not have heard the train approach because of the muffling effect of the fog and the noise of the van's engine.

Park Farm Lane Crossing

Canner's Lane Crossing

The next lane on the left, Canner's Lane, also had a gated level crossing about 150 yards along the lane from the B6403.

The junction of Canner's Lane with High Dyke (B6403).  The route of the branch is shown by the hedge in the left background.

Burton Lane Crossing

We are just over 1½ miles south of Highdyke at Burton Lane, the site of a level crossing where there was a gate keeper's cabin and sidings.

At Burton Lane, looking north, back towards Highdyke.
On the north east side of the site of the crossing (upper right on the map) is the huge cold store and food processing plant of XPO Logistics, formery Norbert Dentressangle, formerly Christian Salvesen!

This is our first encounter, somewhat surprisingly, with the legacy of ironstone mining activity. The extensive industrial premises north of Burton Lane here are on a former 'brownfield site' which was first developed by the United Steel Company in 1958-60 as Easton Mines.  It was an attempt to exploit some deeper ironstone deposits by mining, rather than by openncast quarrying.  The venture proved to be uneconomic and Easton Mines closed in 1967.

In 1970 the site was taken over by Christian Salvesen who, by 1979, had established there what was then claimed to be 'the largest frozen food centre in Europe'.  In 1982 McCain's (the Canadian potato chip / french fry manufacturer) began manufacturing on the site which, inevitably, became known locally as 'the chip factory'.

For further information see: The Ironstone Quarries of the Midlands - History, Operation and Railways: Part VIII South Lincolnshire by Eric Tonks, especially pages 125-129 (Easton Mines).

At Burton Lane looking south, towards Colsterworth; in the foreground, with waist-high nettles, is the site of Burton Lane siding on the west (right) side of the branch.  Sidings for the Easton Mines were laid in on the left.
Here's the view from Burton Lane Crossing, also looking south, in March 1970. On the right is the crossing keeper's cabin, which was staffed whenever trains were running on the branch.
Photograph by David Ford
Need to give the crossing keeper at Burton Lane a call? Here's a card listing all the telephones on the branch. Give two short rings and he'll talk to you when he's dealt with the gates.
From the collection of R. Pike

 

The gates are closed to traffic on Burton Lane so that Brush Type 2 No. D5672 of Immingham depot can proceed towards Highdyke.  March 1970.
Photograph by John Ford

Ridd's Farm Crossing

Another farm lane leads in from the left with a former level crossing about 100 yards in.

The lane to Ridd's Farm - the line of the branch is the low embankment on the far side of the field.
Ridd's Farm Crossing shown on a map of 1930. Note that the branch has curved since Burton Land Crossing and is now taking us in a south westerly direction.
These old concrete gate posts are at the crossing near Ridd's Farm.
Looking towards Colsterworth at Ridds Farm Crossing.  A few yards further on the trees and undergrowth take over again.

Crossing the Great North Road

2¾ miles from Highdyke sidings and we are close to the Great North Road.

Here, 350 yards of the old branch line's formation have been wiped off the map to allow the B6403 to cross above the dual carriageway A1.  But don't worry - once we pick up the line on the other side there'll be a proper footpath to help us on our way.

Here's a bird's eye view. The dotted line is where the railway once ran.
A is where the trackbed temporarily ends;
B is the site of a concrete and steel bridge - bridge number 1A - built in 1959-1961 when the dual carriageway Grantham bypass was constructed;
C is the site of a brickwork and steel bridge - bridge number 2 - built in 1917 across the 'original' Great North Road.  The west abutment survives, as we'll see.
Looking towards Point 'A'.  The bushes just right of centre mark the branch trackbed.
The railway crossed the Grantham bypass here, at point 'B', just north of the new B6403 road bridge.  There's a description, with photos, of this bridge being placed in position on 7th July 2008 here.
Now we're on the road bridge, looking north.
Down on the tarmac and back in time a decade or so.  Bridge number 1A built in 1959-1961 took the branch line over the dual carriageway A1 at 'B'.  It saw only 12 years' use, followed by 35 years' disuse, before it was removed on the same day that the new road bridge was installed, 7th July 2008.

Now let's hop up onto that bridge and into our time machine...

Class O2 No. 63931, travelling tender-first down the High Dyke branch, crosses the new bridge over the A1 dual carriageway at Colsterworth with a train of ironstone on Saturday 25th March 1961. The Grantham crew were driver Sid Harris and fireman Dick Healey.
Photograph taken by Colin Walker
A few yards further on, and we can see in the distance the blue brick abutment of the former bridge at 'C'.

 

Here we are next to the 'old' Great North Road.  It's called Bridge End in these parts.
The painted bridge number '2' has survived the test of time.
Class O2 No. 63932 waits for signals on the approach to Colsterworth on the High Dyke branch in the early 1960s, before proceeding with a train of empty ironstone wagons.  Bridge number 2 can be seen beyond the signals.
Photograph taken by Colin Walker
This is the bridge during its working days, in August 1970, with Brush Type 4 No. D1787 of Immingham depot travelling towards Highdyke (i.e. from right to left in the photograph).
Photograph by John Ford.
In 1983, 10 years after the line closed, the bridge was being demolished.  If you look carefully you'll see that the deck has been removed and some upper courses of brickwork demolished.
Photograph courtesy of Colsterworth & District Parish Council
Gone! December 1983.
Photograph courtesy of Colsterworth & District Parish Council

From here onward Colsterworth & District Parish Council has laid out a Nature Trail along the old branch line.  We'll explore this in Part 2!


To be continued in Part 2: Bridge End, Colsterworth to Stainby (in preparation).

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6 thoughts on “The High Dyke Branch Rediscovered – Part 1

      1. Del Ayto

        I had the dubious honour of driving over the old bridge across the A1 in a 17-tonne lorry when they were drilling exploratory bore holes for the new junction. After dropping off some 1-tonne bags of pea gravel on the eastern side of the A1 I asked the guy where I could turn round, and he said "Go over the bridge. It's safe enough, trains carrying hundreds of tonnes of iron ore used to use it." Halfway across it dawned on me that it was years since it had been used! I was quite glad to reach the Colsterworth side without any problems.

        Reply
        1. TracksthroughGrantham1

          Hello Del,
          Thanks for telling us about your trip over the bridge in a lorry. Perhaps it was fortunate that you'd already dropped off the pea gravel and didn't need to cross the bridge loaded!
          John Clayson

          Reply
  1. Paul Watson

    Interesting article and pictures.
    I can remember as a schoolboy on summer holidays in Colsterworth, Brush Type 2s and Type 4s in 1971-73 regularly using the line. The line was always busy, serving Colsterworth, Buckminster, Market Overton and Sproxton Quarries.
    I was surprised when preserved steam trains started appearing in 1974. Quite a sight after the dirty ironstone wagons!

    Reply

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