A brief glance into the lineside huts, past and present.
By Kerry Fieldhouse, Lineside Conservation Officer, November 2021.

When I first travelled on the NYMR I think I did notice the lineside huts, and for a fleeting moment considered what they might be, but they faded out of mind pretty quickly. Now that I have the pleasure of being lineside, I can snoop around them and explore them and I have discovered that they have stories to tell.

Esk Valley Hut today - Kerry Fieldhouse.

When the railways were maintained entirely by hand the lineside huts (also called ‘Platelayer Huts’ or ‘PWay Huts’) could be found at regular intervals across all railways – in most every mile or two. In the early days they were simple structures made from timber sleepers but later, starting in the 1930s, concrete huts were manufactured by the LNER in their concrete works (there was one in York) and could be ordered from a catalogue. After WWII some were replaced by ‘modern’ sectional wooden huts during the 1950s.

On the NYMR we have around 6 traditional wooden huts left though they are mostly in a bad way and 6 concrete huts which fair a little better but are still in need of TLC. We are lucky too that we have 2 remaining ‘wriggly tin’ (actually corrugated iron) huts which were originally used to store rail motor vehicles.

Goathland Rail Motor Hut - Kerry Fieldhouse.

What were they for?

Essentially the lineside huts were a place of sanctuary - to rest, have lunch, brew the kettle and warm through. They were also occasional tool stores for the men working on the line - the platelayers, gangers and inspectors.

We must remember that there was no road transport to those locations nor a handy van to retreat to. Most staff would have travelled by train to the nearest station and walked or got dropped off to their work location by train. Once on site, there was nowhere to go.

In rain or fog or falling snow, into the cabin you must go.

The ‘Gangers’ mantra – as told by John Addyman, NYMR.

Men would check in with their team in the huts and be given the tasks for the day working on the PWay. One essential task was sending someone back to the hut before lunch time to put on the stove and kettle and warm through any lunch! I naively suggested ‘stew?’ to one gentleman I interviewed and was politely corrected to ‘beans’ and potatoes if lucky.

Lineside Hut Esk Valley 1969 - Nick Carter.

It is easy to romanticise the past lives of people on the railway but in fact life was hard. Wages were barely sufficient and the hours were long and the work heavy. In heavy fog or snow, some men would stay on overnight in the huts to make sure points didn’t freeze or get blocked or remain to give warnings to trains passing in the fog as to the signal positions.

Inside, each lineside hut had a stove and whilst some people tell tales of first-class railway seats ‘borrowed’ for seating and old carpet from the carriages salvaged for flooring, most were earth or slab floors with plank seats and benches to rest on.

I would like to be a fly on the wall for the day and listen in to the men and their tales. They could teach us a lot I am sure. And they weren’t the only ones telling tales in the huts. A local lady, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the tale of how her father and her, whilst out rabbiting when she was a girl, would nip into the huts and light the stove to make tea and dry their socks on a night!

Their future

The Levisham Station Group have done a great job restoring a couple of huts – one concrete and one wooden – either side of the station but others are harder to reach. However, they are all a part of our heritage and the living museum that the railway is.

I set about trying to raise funds to restore more of the lineside huts and it was with great pleasure that I received the news from the North York Moors National Park, that we had received funding via the S106 monies from the Woodsmith Polyhalite mine to restore 3 of our huts via the, ‘Restoration of Degraded Heritage Assets in the National Park through the Landscape and Ecology Compensation Contribution’.

  • The first priority hut is the ‘wriggly tin’ Rail Motor Hut at Goathland. The foundations are weak which has lopsided the hut and the sheets have started to erode. It is interesting to note that although it looks black now, an old image shows its twin in Grosmont as an ivory colour. It would have once housed a rail motor vehicle which would have been railed out and turned off and onto the rails, used by teams to get themselves and resources up and down the line. The gang working on the line would have used the tank house in the Station as a base rather than the Rail Motor Hut.

The vision for the Rail Motor Hut - John Ives.

  • We are also focussing our efforts on 2 of the concrete huts – one in the North between Beck Hole and the Esk Valley Cottages and one in the South at Kingthorpe nearer Pickering. Both are obvious from the train to passengers and will be of real historical interest to restore.

In 1947 The Chief Engineer's Office of the London & North Eastern Railway issued a catalogue of concrete articles produced in their Central Concrete Depot in York to meet the needs of the North Eastern Area. A facsimile of the catalogue was produced by the North Eastern Railway Association (above) and details the specification of the concrete lineside huts we have on the railway. Our restoration of lineside huts will follow this specification.

We are lucky to have original catalogues and descriptions of the huts, which will allow us to follow exacting replicas and colours of pieces that do need replacing. In other instances the huts will be given the TLC needed to preserve them a while longer.

What to look for

Part of the project is to draw your attention to these old heritage assets. Full of tales, I hope to unearth more about the lives of the people who worked in and around them and share those with our passengers and partners. There will be a new webpage in due course with more information about the lineside heritage features and where you can see them.

Alongside the restoration and preservation of the huts we hope to make some of them actually usable again – at least for some shelter – and we plan to add bird and bat and bug boxes to them, making them a little bit of a haven for the creatures around us and the men, women and young people working on the railway today.

Read Kerry's Previous Blog Post