Discover the Groudle Glen Railway
The railway from the middle of nowhere to the edge of it...
Groudle Glen Railway history - Hidden away, almost out of sight, is one of the most unusual 2ft gauge steam railways in the British Isles. The Groudle Glen Railway was built solely to carry passengers, and is classified as a pleasure line. Most narrow gauge lines were usually constructed to serve some industrial or contracting needs. However, the line at Groudle served no real purpose, except to take a group of Victorian tourists from the middle of nowhere to the edge of it.
Situated in the middle of one of the island's most attractive glens, the line runs ¾ of a mile upwards to the sea. The GGR can only be reached by a very pleasant short walk from the Manx Electric Railway at Groudle, which is about a ten minute ride out of the main town Douglas, on the island's east coast. The zig-zag path follows the course of the river in a deep gorge to Lhen Coan terminus, which is about 30 feet above the river on the opposite side of the valley.
The line climbs steeply out of the station at a steady 1 in 36 grade through the wooded glen out of the headland, then swings left to hug the rugged coastline, winding its way along to Sea Lion Rocks Station, the outer terminus. This is where a small zoo was constructed by the damming off one of the rocky inlets to form a pool. Both sea lions and polar bears were exhibited (not together!) at this rocky pool for the delight of the Victorian and Edwardian holidaymakers. This little railway was opened on the 20 July 1896, and was at the time, boasted to be “The Smallest Passenger Railway in the World” by the local newspaper, 'The Isle of Man Times'.
The glen had originally opened three years earlier, when the first section of the Manx Electric Railway was opened on 7 September 1893 as far as Groudle. Local entrepreneur, Mr. Richard Maltby Broadbent built a hotel at Groudle, and developed the adjacent glen by installing footbridges and walkways, and planting hundreds of trees.
This created a landscape that delighted the Victorian visitors. Further attractions were added over the next couple of years:- including a bowling green, dance floor, swings and fortune teller. A 2ft narrow gauge railway was proposed and built, but right in the middle of the glen, so the visitors had to go past all the numerous other attractions first to reach the railway station.
The all important rolling stock was delivered in the spring of 1896, the locomotive, named 'Sea Lion', a Bagnall 2-4-0T was possibly the smallest loco the firm of industrial engine builders had ever constructed. 'Sea Lion' looks more like a scaled down standard tank locomotive than a normal 2ft narrow gauge locomotive, which makes her look more deceptively bigger than she actually is.
To put 'Sea lion's diminutive size in to context, she weighs just 5 tons, has an overall length of 10ft-9”, and a width of only 4ft-2”. The diameter of the main driving wheels are tiny at 1ft-2”, while the front pony wheel is just a mere 9” in diameter. 'Sea Lion' worked for the first nine years on its own with four open toastrack four-wheeled coaches with reversible seats for ten passengers supplied by G. F. Milnes of Birkenhead, who at that time were also tramcars for the Manx Electric Railway.
Groudle Glen at this time was host to as many as 100,000 visitors annually with poor old 'Sea Lion' doing as many as 40 return trips daily. Relief arrived in June 1905, when a second locomotive and four more carriages were obtained. The engine, also from Bagnall, was an improved and enlarged version of 'Sea Lion, and was very aptly named 'Polar Bear'.
The glen and railway prospered right up to the out-break of World War One, when it was closed for the duration. The local newspapers reported that the sea lions and polar bears in the zoo were being set free, presumably to swim home!
After the war, it was business as usual, although as the railway's two steam locomotives were badly in need of a major overhaul, and the sharp increase in coal prices, two battery powered locomotives were purchased from British Electric Vehicles in 1921 as an economy measure. The two steam engines, which had lost their names to the newcomers, were placed in store. However, steam power was to get the final word, as the two battery locomotives were completely worn out after only six years, and the original 'Sea Lion' and 'Polar Bear' were returned to service after a major overhaul.
With the out-break of war again in 1939, the glen closed once again and the rolling stock put into store. It was a different story when the Glen re-opened in 1945, the main attraction, the headland zoo never re-opened due to a landslide, and again as with the other Manx railway systems, the glen rapidly declined due to fall in visitor numbers during the late 1950s / early 1960s as a result of cheaper foreign package holidays. Sadly, the Groudle Glen Railway closed after the 1962 season.
The rolling stock was removed and the track lifted, and within a couple of years, all that remained of the former GGR was a very muddy and overgrown footpath. The story of many narrow gauge railways would end at this point, but not the GGR. By a quirk of fate, the Isle of Man Steam Supporters Association decided to restore the Groudle Glen Railway in the early 1980s.
The last 25 years or so has seen a total restoration of the railway at Groudle, mainly by a small band of local volunteers. The steam locomotive 'Sea Lion' was rebuilt by the Apprentice Training School at BNFL Sellafield and returned to the Isle of Man in 1987. Meanwhile, the ornate Swiss chalet style canopy at Lhen Coan station has been restored, and more recently the station building at the far terminus at Sea Lion Rocks has been rebuilt.
The railway now runs a variety of motive power; including diesel locomotives and even a replica of one of Groudle's battery powered locomotives from 1920s. 'Sea lion's younger sister 'Polar Bear' returned to the island in 1993 from her new home at the Amberley Museum in West Sussex, to run with her sister once again. The engine has made several more return trips to the Island since.
If you go down in the woods on Sundays and Wednesday evenings during the summer months, you're sure of a nice and friendly surprise, if you visit the Groudle Glen Railway. As with all the other railways on this enchanted railway island, Groudle needs visitors to survive, although it is very popular with the locals too, especially at Christmas time.
© David Lloyd-Jones 2010
Groudle Glen Railway : Useful Links
- Groudle Glen Railway, Isle of Man, UK
Groudle Glen Railway : Unique Manx family day out on IOM steam train to seaside cafe and special events.
- Bus and Rail Timetables for the Isle of Man - iombusandrail.info
Full details and timetables for the railways and tramways of the Isle of man
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