The creation of the railway network had an enormous impact on Britain's rural environment, carving up the landscape for the steam locomotive. But it also created 'green corridors' with ideal habitats for a wide variety of plants and animals.
Creating the railway corridor
Railways require varying degrees of intervention in the landscape, with land needed for construction and finally operation.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, short distance horse-drawn wagonways made of wood were built to serve industries such as mines and quarries, carrying minerals or other goods to watercourses for onward transport. By carrying heavier loads compared to road transport, the wagonways were an important factor in increasing production and hence profit.
Wagonways overcame the problem of dirt roads quickly becoming rutted and waterlogged in poor weather, but they could only be constructed once ‘wayleaves’, or right of way agreements, had been negotiated with neighbouring landowners. This was because the owner or lessee of a mine or quarry didn’t necessarily own the land between colliery and river, and therefore did not have an automatic right of way.
Wayleaves were granted for a fee, usually based upon the volume of traffic, and competition for these rights could shape the landscape. If a landowner refused to grant a right of way across their land, mine owners and other industrial interests would have to find alternative routes for their wagonways. Railways needed long-term rights of way, a principle which would be essential for the growth of railway construction during the 19th century.
A move in this direction came in the 1750s from Charles Brandling, who owned a colliery at Middleton, near Leeds. A lack of direct access to the River Aire placed Middleton Colliery at a disadvantage compared to its neighbours. Brandling wanted to build a wagonway towards a point closer to Leeds, and in 1758 sought to secure long-term access and right of way over neighbouring land via an Act of Parliament.
The resulting ‘permanent way’ secured the route against renegotiation of wayleaves that could lead to loss of access. This became a fundamental principle of the modern railway, allowing the rise of heavily engineered, long-distance routes powered by locomotives.
Maintaining boundaries in the landscape
The emergence of the steam-powered railway in the early 19th century underlined the importance of establishing clear boundaries between the operational railway, private land and common land. The Railway Regulation Act of 1842 stipulated that public and animal access to the lineside had to be restricted on safety grounds, and required railway companies to maintain the fences along their lines.
In rural districts, wooden or iron fencing needed to be robust; anything else was described in the 1870s as '…a risky and expensive contingency for the proprietors and engineers of our railways if cattle stray through the fencing'.
There was also a natural option: thorny hedges composed of hawthorn quicks were planted, set and left to grow to form an impassable barrier. This method was used on the London and Birmingham Railway, which possessed what was described as ‘one of the best quick-fences in this country’.
Nevertheless, the establishment of hawthorn boundaries depended on several factors ranging from soil quality, weather, fire risk and damage caused by animals. Hawthorn quicks required careful management in their early years to ensure a thick undergrowth and hence provide an effective lineside barrier. This maintenance work was undertaken by platelayers, who were responsible not only for keeping the the track in good condition but also the environment it passed through.
This method was labour-intensive, however, and by 1850, firms such as Charles D. Young offered cheaper taut wire fencing. Natural or otherwise, railway boundaries need continuous maintenance, and this is still an important responsibility for Network Rail.
Connecting and dividing: Railways as rural corridors
In the four decades from 1830, the railways grew in a series of investment bubbles known as the ‘Railway Manias’. By 1870, 15,500 miles of track had been built, creating new connections between people, places, and economies—and with dramatic impacts on the natural environment.
The establishment of clear boundaries between the railways and the land either side had created new corridors across the landscape. Surveying and settling the right of way over the land a railway route covered would shape the line’s character, and taking the most direct route sometimes resulted in vast construction projects. Feats such as the embankment floated over the peat bog at Chat Moss between Liverpool and Manchester, the construction of Tring Cutting through the Chilterns and the driving of Box Tunnel under the Mendip Hills all sought to master the topography of the rural landscape to the benefit of the steam locomotive.
Connecting towns and cities to the network was not simply an engineering exercise. Landowners of rural estates sought compensation for the loss of land value, and could even refuse access to a proposed railway. This is in sharp contrast to the poorer residents of growing industrial cities, who could be subject to eviction or compulsory purchase orders if a railway line was planned through their existing neighbourhood.
Compensation for landowners could be financial, or take other forms like the addition of terms and conditions, such as providing a station, or constructing railway infrastructure to hide its existence or complement its picturesque surroundings, such as the Trent Valley Railway’s tunnel beneath the Shugborough Estate near Stafford.
Landowners' refusal to allow access could lead to a proposed line being diverted, like at Stapleford Park in Leicestershire in 1844. The resistance of Lord Harborough, the estate’s owner, forced the Syston and Peterborough Railway company to build a sharp curve around the estate’s boundaries. This was only rectified when a more sympathetic owner of the estate permitted the laying of a new curve in 1898.
Opposition to new railway schemes is not a thing of the past, though the debate has broadened past the aesthetics of private estates to include concern about the destruction of wildlife habitats and other environmental issues.
Creating havens for plant life
Railway construction inevitably disturbed the existing natural landscape; indeed, the earth in embankments and lining the sides of cuttings was vulnerable to subsidence, slipping and settlement, while the freshly turned soil could be eroded by wind and rain. Yet, the lack of public access to the land along railway lines meant that it became home to a variety of wildlife.
Once the navvies left, newly built railway formations soon played host to fast-growing pioneer plants. A common example was couch grass, which crept onto the freshly turned soil, binding it together and consolidating it. However, the dry stems of couch grass created a fire hazard in spring and autumn, as sparks and cinders were thrown from steam locomotives.
Platelayers periodically undertook scything or controlled burns alongside their track maintenance work, although excessive burning created conditions where bracken and rosebay willowherb encroached at the expense of other plants. Despite this, there was something to see all year round.
An article published in The Times in 1908 noted that
The fringes of the line have all the contrast and variety of each type of surrounding country, and are bedecked with a special concentration of the flowers which are native to each soil.
Wild Flowers of the Railway, The Times (20 June 1908)
For example, the cess at the base of a railway embankment provided drainage and damp conditions ideal for brooklime and meadowsweet, while coltsfoot, which likes rocky environments, made a home among the track ballast. In areas with chalky soil, sainfoin and lucerne clover might ‘stray down from the sheepfolds above’, adding flashes of pink and purple to the array of plants.
The article also noted how the array of plants changed with the seasons, with broom—a deciduous shrub with yellow flowers—appearing on the line as spring waned, and summer welcoming moon daisies, common red clover and thick grasses. In autumn, the pale mauve flowers of the scabious appeared.
The corridors provided by the railway boundary also provided a means for native or invasive plant species in one locality to emerge in another or spread onto adjoining land. Oxford ragwort, for example, is a weed closely associated with the expansion of the railways. Imported from the volcanic soils of Sicily to Oxford Botanic Garden, the plant escaped and grew around the city, with the ash-strewn railway formation offering an ideal environment for the plant to prosper. Oxford ragwort seeds were numerous and could be dispersed over several miles by passing trains before germination.
The role of the railways in creating and changing plant habitats is complex, but concisely summed up in K. G. Messenger’s investigation of lineside plants of the Rutland:
…on the one hand, plant communities are protected from the destructive influences of modern agricultural practice, while on the other they are subjected to a whole range of controlling influences deriving from railway practice. The extent to which these do control the flora can readily be seen when a line is closed and dismantled. The artificial equilibrium is lost and the flora very soon loses its distinctive character.
K G Messenger, A Railway Flora of Rutland (1968)
Railway corridors are still home to a variety of wildlife. Today, trackside workers are also trained to recognise species of wildlife which might be present along the line, and Network Rail employs ecologists to survey areas whose wildlife could be affected by works.
Shaping our environment
Looking at railway boundaries gives us a sense of how our landscape and environment has been shaped by transport and industry. Questions of land ownership and access dictated where the lines run in the first place, and the engineering feat of building new railways had an enormous impact on the rural landscape. In operation, railways offer a more environmentally friendly form of transport, but the construction required to improve connections is no less disruptive to the landscape than during the 19th century.
While the growth of the railway network permanently changed the natural environment, it also provided opportunity. From a natural perspective, railway corridors provided unique habitats for plant life that are relatively undisturbed by agricultural or domestic intervention. Railway history reveals the capacity of the landscape and its wildlife to adapt.