The Preston & Wyre Railway- The First Rails to the Seaside

Image produced by AfterBrunel, CC-BY-SA 2.0

The town of Fleetwood owes its very existence to the dreams of one man, Sir Peter Hesketh Fleetwood. In the mid-1830s he decided that he would design and build, a new town set out as he wanted it to be.

Using a large sand hill as the central feature from which all roads would radiate, this is what he did. He hired renowned architect Decimus Burton to bring this project about.

Burton had previously designed some fine Regency houses near Regent's Park and in St Leonard's on Sea and so was a good choice. Many of his grand houses still survive in Fleetwood. Sir Peter then turned his attention to how the town could be best served by transport and he thought that a fashionably new railway was by far the best option for this.

He began purchasing land and the whole scheme opened on 15th of July 1840 to great acclaim. However, the original route took the line over a rather rickety wooden trestle bridge that, at high tide made the trains appear to be ploughing through the river. The re-routing of the railway to a safer alignment cost Sir Peter very dearly.

Through overspending and through basically being a victim of fraud by one of his managers, he had to sell his home at Rossall. This building formed part of Rossall School, though sadly little of the structure survives. However, because of the topography of the popular route to Scotland from Euston, the line became a great success. Unfortunately, it was sadly just too little and too late for Sir Peter to take advantage of and he retired off the scene.

Until 1856, when a more powerful design of steam locomotive was finally developed, the gradient at Shap in the Lakes meant that anyone (and in 1847 that included Queen Victoria herself) had no option but to catch the train to Fleetwood and then transfer to a steam ship to make the onward journey to Ardrossan in order to complete the journey to their Scottish destinations by rail from there. So for around sixteen years, Fleetwood was the northern end of the Euston railway line, hence the name of the hotel on Fleetwood prom, The North Euston.

The Fleetwood Boat train, 1901, The Railway Magazine, CC-BY-SA 2.0

When Shap was eventually conquered in 1856 Fleetwood did slip back in importance a little, but by then the town had already become an established and useful fishing port in its own right and so it continued to flourish.

And so it continued until the 1960s when railways started to suffer declining freight passenger numbers. The dreaded Beeching Report on the future of Britain's railways was published. Surprisingly, Fleetwood was, to Dr Beeching's mind at least, a vital link to the rail network with its strategic dockside potential.

However, in 1970, the passenger services were cut and by 1999 the only freight user, ICI, had decided to switch to road haulage, although the line had only been fully upgraded three years earlier.

There the line lay, mothballed, unloved and unused, until around eight years ago, when a meeting was called by Wyre Borough Council at their Civic Centre to discuss a proposal to get rid of the remaining track work and make it into a cycle path.

A few people attended to support the cycle only option, but around sixty attended to support the retention of the railway for all to be able to use it, including cyclists.

From this meeting the Poulton & Wyre Railway was formed. We now have around one hundred and seventy members of all ages from all around the country.

Derelict railway line near Fleetwood docks, image by Anthony McCann, CC-BY-SA 2.0

We have gained a clearance licence from Network Rail, who currently owns the line, to allow us to clear forty odd years of vegetation and to then allow services to once again run along this historic line.

We have fully cleared Thornton Station and its surrounding areas and we are halfway through clearing Burn Naze, the next station along the line towards Fleetwood. We are now in negotiations with Wyre Borough, Network Rail, LCC and other interested stakeholders to fully rebuild and reopen the railway line to Fleetwood.

We should be allowed to lease or purchase the line in the next year or so with the work needed to start services being finished shortly after that.

We have already cleared the line from Burn Naze to the buffer stop which is on the outskirts of Fleetwood and to celebrate this fact and to help celebrate the 175th anniversary of the line being opened, we got our “train” to the buffer stop on the 15 July 2015. A film of this event is available to view on YouTube. Just key in Poulton & Wyre Railway Society and you should be able to see the result of our efforts.

And so, things are looking hopeful for us returning Fleetwood to the rail network. It was, apparently, the first seaside resort in the world to have a railway built to it and is now, the largest town in the UK, which used to be served by rail, but no longer is. The first accolade the town can theoretically never lose, but the second one, residents cannot wait to lose.

To find out more about the Poulton and Wyre Railway Society visit their website

David Evans, PWR trustee, society and founder member.

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