English Heritage has been making headlines just recently helping to do its bit for England‘s railway history. In a joint project with Network Rail they’ve been surveying the country’s dwindling number of signal boxes and twenty-six of the rarest and best preserved have been given Grade 11 listed status by the Department for Culture Media and Sport.
The listings come as Network Rail decommission many mechanical signal boxes to consolidate signalling into 12 regional centres – as part of a ’30 year plan to modernise the system and provide a better value railway for Britain.’
The Heritage Minister, Ed Vaizey said: ‘Our interest in everything to do with trains and railways – and the ‘golden age’ of steam in particular – is one of our most endearing and enduring national preoccupations. Signal boxes are a big part of this, and so l am very pleased indeed to be able to list these lovely examples of the type. It is greatly to Network Rail’s credit that they have worked so constructively with English Heritage to bring this project to such a successful outcome.’
Signal boxes were installed from the mid-19th century onwards and numbered around ten thousand at the peak of their use in the 1940’s. Today fewer than 500 are still in use by Network Rail.
Amongst the listings is one for the large signal box at Totnes station in Devon. It was built to the Great Western Railway’s standard design used between 1896 and the 1920’s and – stripped of its original operating equipment – is now a successful station cafe where – while l was living in the town – l have enjoyed many a hearty Sunday brunch!
Totnes shows that, although there can be issues with access and location, decommissioned signal boxes can sometimes be rejuvenated. They have been re-used as cafes, museums or holiday lets and – in some cases – moved to new locations, often on heritage railways.
One very close example is at Wellow to the south of Bath. This was a station on the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway – perhaps the most famous cross-country railway line in England and one that inspired an extraordinary number of books on its history.
Only one of its distinctive signal boxes survives. It also now has a Grade 11 listing! The box was built as part of the Wellow station complex which opened on July 20th 1874 and consisted of two platforms, a goods yard and sidings, controlled from an 18 lever signal box.
The station closed to goods in 1963 and passenger services were withdrawn when the Somerset and Dorset closed on March 7th, 1966.
The station building was converted into a house by the artist Peter Blake and his then wife Jann Haworth in the mid-1970’s. It was during their Brotherhood of Ruralists period and the signal box was used as Peter’s studio. It has now been converted for residential use.
One final signal-box note of interest to me as a man born at Weston-super-Mare. The sad and sorry-looking signal box there is also Grade 11 listed. The structure which dates from 1866 is the oldest surviving signal box in the country! It could do with some help if it is to have a future.