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Rail Around Birmingham
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Rail Around Birmingham & the West Midlands


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Railway Research Tips


In the time that Rail Around Birmingham has been on the web I have had a lot of emails from people asking for tips on various aspects of railway research with such varied topics as how you locate the site of stations that no longer exist to how you find details of past railway staff from the pre-grouping era. However, by far the most common advice sought is by people interested in creating their own railway website along the lines of Rail Around Birmingham but for the area in which they live and in which their interest lies.

I have always thought that it would be fantastic if every area in the country were covered by a site similar to this one as it would be an immense resource. So, I have decided that rather than answer individual emails (although I will, of course, deal with any specific queries anyone may have and would be more than willing to offer any assistance possible), and in the hope that other enthusiasts will give it a go, I would provide a basic guide to researching railway sites and I hope it is of some interest!

Part 1 - Identifying Sites

The most common, and in many ways problematic, issue in researching railway sites is 'where are they now?'. Whilst it is relatively easy to obtain a current network map from any of the regional train operating companies, finding a station site that has been closed for 50+ years on a line that no longer exists can cause serious headaches! A publication such as The Railway Gazetteer will list all the stations existing at whichever period you choose to study and copies can usually be found through the local library (albeit they will probably be held in the main library of the region). However, one of the best, cheapest and fastest ways to identify sites is to follow the principles below which will give you a good (but not perfect in ways we will discuss below) idea of the scope of your project:

  1. When you have decided on the area you want to study, pick a central point: ie for Birmingham you would probably select Birmingham New Street station. Go to www.old-maps.co.uk, enter the road the station is on in the search box on the left-hand side (making sure that the 'Address' option is selected), then click on 'Search'. You will then be presented with a list of all the roads in the country with that name, select your road from the list, select any postal address that may then be thrown up and finally select 'View Your Map'. You will then be shown a late 19th Century map of the area surrounding the road/address you entered.

  2. By using the scrolling 'arrows' around the map you can follow a railway line through the region and make a note of all the stations on it: if you can't make out a particular part of the map you can click on the 'Enlarged View' button at the bottom of the page and a new window will open displaying a very large copy of the map on it. In many instances, the operating company for the line will also be shown at some point along it and if you are particularly fortunate, the name of the line will also be indicated. However, the important part here is that if you hover your cursor over a particular location, at the very bottom-left corner of the window you will be given the OS coordinates of that particular spot. Thus, for each station or site of interest, make a note of the relevant OS coordinate as we will need them for the next step.

  3. So now we have a list of all the stations in the region with their OS coordinates too. However, this isn't necessarily that useful as we don't know if all the sites still exist today or, in the case of long lifted lines now home to housing estates etc . . . , how to locate them. If you are an excellent orienteer you will now have the information required to get a modern-day OS map and visit the sites. However, for the rest of us the easiest way is to go to www.streetmap.co.uk, enter your OS coordinates for the site you wish to find (making sure you have the 'OS grid (x,y)' option selected) and click 'Search'. You will then be presented with a modern-day street map with a big orange arrow pointing at the exact spot indicated by the coordinates you entered!

  4. For me, the best thing to do next is to transfer that data to an 'A to Z' street guide for you chosen area as you will then take this with you when you visit the site.

Now, there are limitations to the above method that should be apparent. If the particular station/line in which you are interested was constructed post-1899(ish), then the above method will not be useful to you and you will need to try some of the following methods:

  • A useful resource are the series of 'Godfrey Edition' OS maps which mostly date from the early 20th Century and are fantastically detailed and follow an 'A to Z' style format for each map. They cost around 2.00 - 3.00 per map and to see if your particular area is covered (they don't cover a particularly large area in each map and some areas have not yet had their maps reproduced) go to www.alangodfreymaps.co.uk. The maps can be bought through many online sources but by going to the Alan Godfrey site you will be able to check out the full catalogue of maps.

  • Another useful map resource is E-bay. There are usually a large number of old OS, A to Z and Bartholomews maps to be purchased covering everywhere imaginable.

By using the above methods you should be able to track down the sites of all stations and railway sites of interest in your area with minimal effort and financial outlay.

Part 2 - Visiting Sites

Now, I don't want to appear patronising but preparation before you visit any site is useful and ensures you get the greatest amount out of any visit and don't (as I have on several occassions) returned home after a frustrating marathon walk still not sure if you have found the exact spot or if a certain existing building had any railway relation etc . . . so I hope the following tips may help:

  • ALWAYS research your site well beforehand and obtain as many period photographs of the site as possible and study them well. There is nothing worse than visiting a station that now consists of a 'bus shelter', photographing it and returning home only to discover a photograph some weeks later showing the station once had goods sidings/hotels/sheds etc . . . but as you didn't know this in advance you didn't look for signs of their existence: remember that old 'barn' used by a builders merchants you walked past and didn't photograph? - that was the old goods shed! There is nothing worse than that happening, especially if the site you visited was some distance away and you can't just 'pop back' and investigate further: get as much as you can out of each site on your visit.

  • When analysing old photographs, particularly if the station and especially the line no longer exists, it is easy, however well you have marked the spot on your A to Z street map, to arrive at a site only to find you can't see anything indicating where the site once stood. A particularly frustrating thing you can do if you are not careful and don't follow the earlier procedure correctly, is to look at an old map which shows a street corresponding to the same street on your modern A to Z, saying to yourself "well, the station stood to the left of the road as you walk up it from so and so street" and marking it thus on your A to Z. However, unbeknown to you in the intervening years the road was realigned and the actual station site is now to the right of the road today. This is an easy error to make unless you follow the method above. A useful tip is to look at old photographs and look beyond the railway site: are there any distinguishing features in the background of the photograph that can help you locate your spot such as a church steeple or a row of houses, for example? When you visit the site, take the old photographs with you as these will prove invaluable in getting as much out of your visit as possible.

  • It might sound a little daft, but if you are really stuck - for example you knew there was a level crossing at the site which wasn't shown up on your map studies - ask someone passing-by who looks old enough to remember the site in action. I have on a number of occassions and been given some very useful information!

  • Have faith in your own research: I have encountered a number of mistakes, particularly in certain 'Past and Present' books where 'present' shots show the wrong sites! Errors occur (I know I have made them from time-to-time and have had to revisit certain sites (Bilston West springs to mind with three visits in total) so don't think you haven't necessarily found the correct site because it doesn't correspond with a contemporary photograph in a particular publication.

  • It can happen that you visit a site for which you haven't located an old photograph. Whilst this is far from ideal, there are usually clues to help you identify what was once there (although I would stress the term 'usually': I have visited a few where you'd never have known a railway had ever graced the area). The worst possibility for your endeavours is either countryside stations or housing estates. With the former, as we are now some 40 years since the notorious Beeching closures of many rural lines, nature has had plenty of time to reclaim many sites to the point that, without careful study, you will miss a certain site. Also, maps are less useful in the countryside unless you are using GPS as there aren't so many markers to distinguish where you are on a long countryside road where the line has been long-since lifted with bridges demolished, cuttings filled and embankments levelled.

    One useful method in such circumstances is to get to high ground: you will know the rough direction of the line so look for clues: unnatural lines of trees are sometimes a good giveaway lining, as they once did, the course of a trackbed. Due to land-owner objections, country railways were often sunk in cuttings which should be discernible unless filled-in. However, if they were in a cutting they would likely pass under the road you are on through a bridge and, where these have been filled-in, the walling of the bridge parapet is often left (as the bridge itself was not always removed so still exists but is now buried) so look carefully along the roadside for such evidence! In urban areas you can usually plot the line quite well using the method described earlier but sometimes it is useful to plot multiple coordinates along a now lifted line so you can walk or drive around an area until you pick-up some sign of the railway (there are always some at some point regardless of how well scoured an area has been).

    If the line still exists when you visit a site and the road off which the station stood crosses the line via a bridge, look along the brickwork of the bridge parapet for signs of differently coloured patches of brick where an entrance could have stood, for example. There are often many clues at each site: car parks are a particular giveaway as they often occupy the site of goods yards! So to summarise, look for:

    • Blue brick walling
    • Areas of brickwork in walling that are not of the same period as the rest of the walling
    • Lines of trees
    • Embankments/Cuttings
    • Houses near a site that are not the same style as the rest of the houses in the immediate vicinity: these are often ex-Stationmaster's houses or, as with smaller stations, the station buildings themselves converted into private dwellings
    • Railway picket fencing: especially the wooden type with the diagonally mounted slats
    • Rows of old houses with several houses missing and filled with new properties: often good for charting an old railway - particularly good if you move road by road and the same pattern is repeated.
    • Road names are a good clue . . . obviously 'Station Road' is a bit of a giveaway, but many other names are good clues: look for roads with, for example, 'Midland', 'Great Western', 'Stanier', 'Gresley' etc . . . in their names. Railway-themed road names usually indicate either they were built at the time of the railway or built on the site of an old railway.
    • Even pub names can give you a clue: 'Station Inn', 'Great Western Inn' or 'Brunel Arms' etc . . .

Part 3 - Other sources of information

There are many sources of information on railways that can be used. From the obvious books to more specialist routes. Below I will attempt to highlight some of the resources I have found useful over the years:

  • In-Print Books - An obvious starting point for any railway study. There are literally thousands of contemporary books covering the railways of Britain. In addition to a lot of standalone publications on particular railways/lines/locos etc . . . there are several series of books that provide a useful resource such as the 'Past & Present', 'Then and Now', 'Lost Lines of' and 'On Old Picture Postcards' series of books. In addition to these, you'd be surprised what useful railway info and pictures can be gleaned from books on canals as they were not only often bought-out by railway companies but often had many transhipment wharves along their route - sites of which are often overlooked in railway publications. Amazon is a good resource for railway books and there is the specialist Railway Book Club which, once you have joined, allows you to buy many current publications at good discounts.
    • Ian Allen Excellent (but overpriced) railway book publisher with extensive back-catalogue.
    • Midland Record Home of the Midland Record and LMS Journal publications.
    • Transport Diversions Large selection of railway publications and Alan Godfrey maps too.
    • Silver Link Publishers of the 'Past and Present' series of books.
    • Amazon I'm sure you know about these already!
    • Railway Book Club Good specialist book club with many special offers and discounted prices.

  • Out-of-Print Books - Another great resource, often better than historical contemporary works, are old books. Now these are many and can be quite hard to locate. The library is a good starting point but if you, as with myself, prefer to own the books yourself I would recommend keeping a regular eye on E-bay as there are always a number of good publications there at (mostly) reasonable prices. Amazon are also worth checking-out as you can place a request for a particular book, or buy one, through their 'Market Place' facility. Additionally, there are a number of internet book search engines and you can try specialist online shops such as Nene Valley Books, for example.

  • Public Records Office - When the railways were privatised in 1948, most of the records of the four companies then in existence were sent here (although British Rail did, obviously retain some!). The PRO website will tell you how to go about accessing their vast resources that are held at Kew - unfortunately to view the material will require prior arrangement and a personal visit.

  • The National Railway Museum - The NRM at York is a compulsory visit for any railway enthusiast but also houses many records from pre-nationalisation and pre-grouping railway companies as well as a vast photographic archive which can be viewed, and in many cases, reproduced by prior arrangement.

  • Freedom of Information Act - Another useful method of obtaining information is by using the Freedom of Information Act. Under this act, anyone can write to an organisation asking for material to be made available to them (there are a few get-out clauses for organisations but it is unlikely a request for old railway information would be within these exceptions). A fee can be charged if there is a large amount of material for them to reproduce but I would recommend this as a possible avenue. Local Councils, Train Operating Companies, Network Rail, Strategic Rail Authority and regional Passenger Transport executive bodies (such as Centro for the West Midlands) could provide a useful resource for information.

  • Railway Auctions/Fairs - Apart from E-bay, there are many exhibitions, fairs and auctions covering railwayana that are worth a visit selling everything from railway uniforms, models, postcards, books, photographs etc . . . to locomotives themselves in some instances! The Prorail website gives dates of some such events and is worth checking-out but there are many others.

Part 4 - Placating the Wife/Husband

They just won't understand why standing waist-high in brambles, in the rain, and in the middle of nowhere with a camera is an enjoyable day out for you. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a suitable solution to this issue but would be glad for anyone who has to email me!

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