Crossing the Bridge

I often cross Naburn Swing Bridge on my dog walks along the old York-Selby railway line
Naburn Swing Bridge looking north towards York
The swing bridge showing the control cabin on top and engine room underneath. This part of the bridge would open to allow boats through
A train crossing Naburn Swing Bridge
The rusty gear mechanism covered in ivy that we spotted by the path
The roller frame still in place in the former engine room below the bridge that would rotate to open it


There is a dog walking route that I do regularly. It follows the former York-Selby railway line and crosses the River Ouse via (what we call) The Iron Bridge, although its official name is Naburn Swing Bridge. Others refer to it as The Fisherman’s Bridge because a huge sculpture of a man with a rod and line sits on top of it. The four metre-high sculpture, which is entitled The Fisher of Dreams, is constructed from galvanised steel rods and was put in place in 2001.

We had chosen an alternative route that takes you below that bridge and had just passed underneath when my son pointed out a big iron gear mechanism camouflaged by ivy near the path. Only then were we reminded (despite the official name telling us this!) that at one time, the bridge would have swung open to allow large river vessels to pass through. The rusty old gear was a relic from that time.

It prompted me to look into the bridge’s past when I arrived back home, and I discovered that it was designed by the chief engineer of North Eastern Railways (NER), Thomas Elliot, in 1870. He was already a well-established engineer, and a contemporary of George and Robert Stephenson. One of his most famous achievements was the huge Skelton Viaduct that crosses the Ouse near Goole in the East Riding.

NER were looking to build a faster link between London and York, and they were proposing a new main line via Selby that would shave 10.5 miles (and around eleven minutes) off the existing route that went through Knottingley, near Leeds, but it would mean having to cross the Ouse. Their main rival, the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, objected, fearing they would lose substantial numbers of passengers using the existing line.

However, the plans were given the go-ahead, with the undertaking that the new bridge at Naburn would not impede the commercial water-based trade between Hull and York. Therefore Elliot was tasked with designing a crossing that could be opened to allow large boats through. Although the bridge was completed late, the route finally welcomed its first trains in January 1871.

Elliot had created a bridge with two wrought-iron bowstring spans, one 108 feet long and the other 180, with a supporting pillar placed where the two spans met. Only the longer portion of the bridge moved, and it was kept for the most part in an open position so river traffic could sail along freely. But when a train was approaching, the signalman, who surveyed the railway from a control cabin built on top of the bridge, would set the big crank shaft in motion. Powered by an hydraulic engine in a room below the bridge, the span would slowly begin to swing open.

Being a railway worker wasn’t without risk. On 8th September 1896, the mangled body of the Naburn signalman was found on the tracks. An inquiry concluded that he was walking to work along the railway, then stepped on to the other track when he saw a train coming, failing to realise that there was another one speeding the opposite way too. And during the National Rail Strike of 1911, the Naburn Bridge cabin was occupied by an angry mob who brought the East Coast Main Line to a standstill by refusing to close the bridge. The military were sent in to take back control.

As time went on, the amount of commercial river traffic decreased along with the size of craft using it, and so it was no longer necessary to leave the bridge open.

It might surprise you to learn that this track, unlike many others, was not condemned by Dr Beeching during his sweeping changes in the 1960s, but remained part of the busy East Coast Main Line right up until 1983. It was closed because Wistow Mine, part of the vast Selby Coalfield, opened that year, and the railway line ran right over the top of it. There were fears that activity beneath the ground would lead to subsidence and so the railway line was shifted west, and the part between York and Selby closed down.

The cycling charity Sustrans acquired the redundant trackbed in 1987 and turned it into one of their first ever motor-vehicle-free cycleways, forming part of Route 65 on the National Cycle Network.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 15th April and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 13th April 2022.

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