Walking the line: Uncovering the work of the Upper Tweed Railway Paths group

The bridge that carried the railway line from Symington to Peebles, crossing the river Tweed. This part of the line is a footpath which runs through Haylodge Park in Peebles. Photo: Jayne Wright
The bridge that carried the railway line from Symington to Peebles, crossing the river Tweed. This part of the line is a footpath which runs through Haylodge Park in Peebles. Photo: Jayne Wright
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Next year marks a century since one of the most remarkable railway lines in Britain was torn up for scrap. Now plans are being laid to bring it back to life as part of a railway path network, finds Alastair Dalton

IT WAS an extraordinary undertaking, even by the standards of Victorian engineers. An eight-mile railway was built up a remote Borders hillside just for the construction of a reservoir – only for it to disappear just 15 years later. The project, which took trains 1,000ft above sea level, involved a 300-strong workforce and featured a bridge over the River Tweed built using Italian granite. From the top, there are views as far as Arran and the Lake District.

Fashion at Talla Reservoir. Model on boat wearing hooded cardigan.'Pic ......Neil Hanna

Fashion at Talla Reservoir. Model on boat wearing hooded cardigan.'Pic ......Neil Hanna

However, next year’s centenary of the tracks being lifted between Broughton and the Talla Reservoir will coincide with a feasibility study into reopening the route for walkers, cyclists and horse riders. The Upper Tweed Railway Paths group has included the route in its plans to open up the neighbouring 20-mile former Symington to Peebles line for public use. It hopes this will boost tourism and bring new jobs from new guesthouses and camp sites.

The group expects to win funding from a windfarm operators’ fund for the £40,000 study to be completed next year. That source could also fund the path work, which is expected to cost several million pounds.

The Talla Reservoir scheme, capitalising on high rainfall in the Borders’ hills, was prompted by Edinburgh’s growing demand for water as the city expanded and toilet and washing facilities in homes improved.

The railway was required because more than 100,000 tonnes of puddle clay – a mixture of clay, gravel and sand – were needed to create a watertight seal for the reservoir. Existing roads were unsuitable to move so much. Commissioned by the Edinburgh and District Water Trust, work started in 1895 on the line, which branched off south from Broughton to transport workers and building materials to the reservoir construction site.

It reached the site of a viaduct over the River Tweed in Tweedsmuir two years later, with progress being inspected by officials who travelled in first-class carriages in a train direct from Edinburgh. The 100ft steel bridge, completed along with the rest of the line later in 1897, included substantial abutments using granite from Italy.

Another special train from the capital, this time named the Tweedsmuir Express, brought up to 200 guests for the official opening, including from the water trust. However, completion of the reservoir was delayed by the Edinburgh-based contractor James Young and Sons going into liquidation in 1899. It was replaced by one of the sub-contractors, John Best of Leith, which also faced difficulties from losing much of its workforce to the Boer War and other Borders projects.

However, the new contractor’s cashflow was helped by Best taking a financial interest in the Crook Inn – reputedly Scotland’s oldest licensed pub – in Tweedsmuir, two miles from the Talla end of the line, and beside which he built a temporary platform.

The popularity of the bar – licensed since 1604 and is where Robert Burns is said to have written the poem Willie Wastle’s Wife – was such that Best is said to have recouped much of the wages he paid out on Friday by the following Monday.

The train taking workers to the pub from Talla was nicknamed “The Paddy” because they were mainly of Irish origin. So unruly was the reservoir workforce, which peaked at more than 1,200, that a police station was built near the site, with 55 people being locked up in the cells in 1898 and numerous complaints from local people about drunkenness and disorder.

Construction material for the reservoir and dam included freestone and granite from quarries at Craigleith in Edinburgh and North Queensferry, while the puddle clay was moved to the base of the reservoir via an aerial ropeway named after “Blondin” – real name Jean-François Gravelet – the French tightrope walker who crossed Niagara Falls.

Four men were killed during construction,two when the Blondin ropeway snapped in 1901 and 40 from “natural causes”, including several from exposure after collapsing from heavy drinking.

The reservoir was finished in September 1905 with the Talla Water being diverted into the dam at a ceremony led by Lady Cranston, wife of the Lord Provost of Edinburgh.

The Scotsman’s report of the event said of the guests: “To many, this part of the country, hitherto somewhat inaccessible, was quite new, and the view of the infant Tweed and high hill screen of the valley in its beautiful autumn colouring was very much enjoyed.”

A celebratory dinner to mark the opening heard the first of a series of pleas to retain the railway for passenger trains between Broughton and Tweedsmuir. These were echoed by the Tweedsmuir parish minister and Peeblesshire County Council, but were rebuffed by the water trust and Caledonian Railway, which had operated the special trains. The line’s rails were sold in 1910 and, by July 1912, had all been removed.

Rail historian Peter Marshall said the line had been an amazing achievement. Marshall, author of Peebles Railways, which chronicles the route, said: “Reservoir railways were not uncommon in remote locations, but what is unusual is the distance involved here. The Edinburgh and District Water Trust was pushing into the Borders because it was desperate to get more fresh water to supply Edinburgh, so it was a case of needs must. There was a desire to turn it into a public railway afterwards but that was found to be unfeasible because of the few people living in the area. It’s a shame it was all left to wither away.”

Nearly 100 years on, the track bed of the line remains intact but is completely overgrown in places, with some stretches now occupied by front gardens or farms. James Gordon, a member of the Upper Tweed Railway Paths group, said the line could provide an attractive day out but admitted landowners still had to be won over.

He said: “It is one of only two national scenic areas in the Borders for its rugged beauty. The gentle incline would be ideal for cyclists and suitable for families, with a nice run back down. Any track would be multi-use; making it usable for horses is essential to the development.” But he added: “We have to win the support of the landowners, and the feasibility study will include an economic assessment of the impact of opening the path. Their initial reaction has not been good because farmers do not particularly like people coming on to their land. However, they appreciate the possible economic benefit of attracting more people into the area.”

The plans could dovetail with a planned community buyout of the Crook Inn after locals won their battle to prevent the pub being turned into flats following its closure five years ago.

The Tweedsmuir Community Company has so far raised £50,000 of the £160,000 required to buy it. However, Andrew Mason, a director of company, which plans to restore the building as a “community hub” – including bar – agreed that local opinion was mixed on the path plans. He said: “There are lots of people who are positive about the project and it would help to bring walkers in. It would be great to see the line used again so people could get to Broughton without having to use the busy A701 with cars racing up and down.

“But the line runs through a lot of estates and farmland, and there is a serious issue about the risk of gates being left open or dogs running around farm animals, which could cause a significant financial loss.”

Sustrans, the cycle and footpath development body, which has been advising the path group, said it would provide a tranquil haven.

Its Scotland director, John Lauder, said: “The area is truly one of Scotland’s most scenic and yet undisturbed corners. It’s a great location to bring people looking to unwind and enjoy themselves.

“Paths segregated from traffic are very popular with locals and visitors alike, and with the right connections to the places people live, will give locals a welcome chance to make short journeys under their own steam away from roads that can be busy with cars and lorries making their way to and from the M74.”

• The Talla Reservoir has been Edinburgh’s main source of water since it was opened in 1905.

• It produces 27 million gallons of water a day – enough to fill the Royal Commonwealth Pool 50 times.

• Although the larger Megget reservoir was opened just to the east nearly 30 years ago, much of its capacity is held in reserve. It pumps out 22.5 million gallons a day but could produce 45 million with upgrading work.

• Water from Talla – which is also the capital’s most distant reservoir – is transported using gravity through a 35-mile network of pipes and tunnels, crossing seven valleys to reach treatment works at Alnwickhill and Fairmilehead on the south side of the city.

• Talla’s water was strongly recommended by engineers and chemists seeking new supplies for the capital for its “purity and potable [drinkable] quality”.

• The reservoir is part of a network built south of Edinburgh since the 1850s, which include Harperrig, Crosswood, and the neighbouring Harlaw and Theipmuir, in the Pentland hills.

• These are now used for flood prevention rather than water supply.

• Megget had Scotland’s highest dam, at nearly 200ft, when completed in 1982, against Talla’s at almost 80ft.

• Edinburgh took its first steps to develop a piped water supply near 400 years ago under an Act of the original Scottish Parliament in 1621, to use water from Comiston springs.

• George Sinclare, a schoolmaster, calculated that gravity could be used to transport water to a proposed collecting tank at Castlehill, near Edinburgh Castle’s esplanade, since it was 60ft lower than Comiston.

• Previously, water in the city had been available only from wells, mainly in the Cowgate, with the rich people employing water “caddies” to carry supplies to their homes in special barrels called “rakes”.

You can add your support for the footpath plan by going to uppertweedrailwaypaths.org.uk