Smart suits and fancy frocks, not a phrase you often associate with the volunteers of the Downpatrick & County Down Railway, who are more often to be found covered in various shades of grease, smoke and dirt underneath carriages or engines…
But last Friday the volunteers let down their hair and dolled up in the culmination of the celebrations of the 150th Anniversary of the railway opening to Downpatrick, and the 140th of its opening to Newcastle, with a gala dinner in the Slieve Donard Hotel.
The Slieve Donard Hotel was chosen as the venue as it was originally owned and run by the Belfast & County Down Railway. The event was held in an original room of the hotel, the Chandelier Room, which looked suitably impressive, with lit candelabras adorning each table, a fire in the fireplace and views out the bay over the sea and Newcastle. The old crest of the BCDR dominated the room as guests entered.
Over seventy guests attended the function (an increase from the original 60 the room was booked for) ranging from volunteers and family, to many non-volunteer society members, veterans and family of the old Belfast and County Down Railway, councillors and officials from Down District Council, and special guests such as Dr. Billy Hastings, local MP Eddie McGrady, and renowned historical author on all things ‘County Down’, Desmond Coakham.
The night began with a four-course meal, consisting of a Honeydew Melon starter, cream of celery soup, and the main course of Chicken Isobel, followed by apple pie. The printed menus incorporated the old historic emblem of the hotel when it was owned by the BCDR, which proved quite popular with souvenir collectors.
After the meal the guests were welcomed by Robert Gardiner of the DCDR to this anniversary function. Mr. Gardiner paid thanks to Dr. Hastings and Mr. John Toner of Hastings Hotels for enthusiastically backing the anniversary celebrations, and what better place for such a celebration than in the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the old BCDR railway – the Slieve Donard Hotel. He also noted that he was particularly pleased to see so many people who either worked on the old BCDR or had a family connection to the line.
Mr. Gardiner then welcomed Colin McGrath, chairman of Down District Council, to say a few words. Mr. McGrath was pleased to welcome all the guests to this part of the district, and to celebrate such a milestone in the railway history of the town. He remarked that it was in not too many towns or cities across Northern Ireland where they had lost their railway links around the same period that south Down lost its links, that such a celebration could occur, and that this was down to the hard work of the volunteers of the Downpatrick & County Down Railway, who take their name in honour of the old company, that this could happen. He said that everyone who was involved in volunteering across the District was in awe of what was being done in the town by the railway, and that the Council looked forward to seeing and supporting that rich railway legacy continuing and growing in the future.
Mr. Gardiner then took guests through a timeline of how the line to Downpatrick was built and why. He revealed that it was not an easy birth, that the disastrous impact of the famine on the country delayed construction for nearly a decade, and that even when it was close to being built, it faced competition from rivals wanting to built a line between Lisburn and Downpatrick.
But built it was, and he concluded his presentation by reading an extract from the official minutes of the BCDR in 1859, where the chairman William R. Anketell from Ballynahinch, announced the line to be open, and paid tribute to the work involved and his hopes for the profitability of the line. Mr. Gardiner noted that it wouldn’t last, and that crippled by the Second World War, the BCDR nearly collapsed as a company, and had to be saved by the Stormont government. It was a situation which led to the closure of all the BCDR lines except the Bangor line.
Passing over to current DCDR chairman Michael Collins, who observed that was where many people thought the rail legacy would end. But Mr. Collins showed the audience via a slideshow, the very beginnings of the current heritage railway scheme, and how it started with virtually a blank canvass, with everything having been ripped up in the mid-1950s, and how many people thought this scheme would never get off the ground.
Taking the audience through the various milestones since the 1980s, Mr. Collins concluded with some of the ideas the DCDR has for the future, as a tantalising glimpse of railway legacy yet to come.
Mr. Gardiner returned to the podium again and played for the audience ‘as a treat’ some rare black and white, as well as colour footage of the last trains on the BCDR before closure. There were gasps from the audience, bringing back memories for those who worked on the lines, and a glimpse back for many of audience who had never seen a BCDR train in motion either in real life or on screen, or had only seen still images.
Thanking everyone for attending, he said that if the DCDR could preserve even a portion of that railway legacy, then it was a job well done. And with thunderous applause, the night concluded
“W.R. Anketell, Esq”, chairman of the Belfast & Co. Down Railway in 1859, cheers on the “first train” into the town, with a fanfare from the Ballyduff Silver Band from Belfast, and his dear wife and railway staff in attendance.
Today marks the 150th Anniversary of the Belfast & Co. Down Railway extending their line to Downpatrick.
To mark this significant anniversary the DCDR, successor to the old BCDR, re-staged a “Gala” official opening ceremony yesterday, Sunday 22nd March.
Living History interpreters Cameron and Hilary Robinson step into the shoes of Mr. and Mrs. William R. Anketell, who was the chairman of the BCDR in 1859 when the line to Downpatrick was completed.
Two special trains were run, reflecting the two trains that were run for the first time to the town on Wednesday, 23rd March 1859.
“W.R. Anketell, Esq” gives the signal for the train to leave for “Belfast” (a.k.a. Inch Abbey)
The DCDR was also pleased to show off its restored Belfast & Co. Down Railway carriage, No. 148, which had just come out of the workshops following some minor finishing work.
While slightly younger than 150 years, being only 112 years old, it is of a very similar style to the carriages that would have been used in 1857, adding that little hint of authenticity to the proceedings.
Commemorations this month will culminate with a celebratory dinner in the Slieve Donard Hotel, which was formerly owned by the railway company.
The event was previewed on BBC Radio Ulster’s Your Place and Mine programme, and then covered by BBC Good Morning Ulster on the day, as well as in the Irish News and News Letter papers.
You can listen to the Your Place and Mine report here:
You can listen to the Good Morning Ulster report here:
Dr. Billy Hastings (left) and DCDR vice-chair John Wilson (right) underneath the old BCDR coat of arms still guarding the entrance to the Slieve Donard Hotel launch the series of commemorative events
March 2009 is a very special date for railway enthusiasts throughout the county as it marks the 150th Anniversary of the opening of the railway line from Belfast to Downpatrick, and the 140th of its opening to Newcastle.
At 8 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, 23rd March, 1859, the first train bound for the county town left Belfast, and arrived in the town at 9.10 am. This marked an event that would change the face of Downpatrick forever.
Later at 9.20am a second train left for Downpatrick, with the return journey not until 6.30pm in the evening, stopping at all intermediate stations except Knock.
Railway Vice Chairman John Wilson said, ‘For nearly a hundred years, the old Belfast & County Down Railway provided a vital transport service and way of life for hundreds if not thousands of people in County Down.’
He continues, ‘Following the Second World War, in the name of economy the main line was closed on 15th January 1950. Many people thought the age of railways in the area was gone for ever.’
But, the railways must have left their mark on the people of Downpatrick, because in 1982 a proposal was made to resurrect a section of the derelict line to create a heritage railway. In 1985 that dream became reality when the scheme got off the ground and by 1987 trains were running again over a short stretch of newly laid track.
Now this reincarnation of the old railway, the Downpatrick & County Down Railway, is paying homage to its predecessor and holding a series of events throughout March and the rest of the year to mark this special anniversary.
Looking back – No.1 sits under the train shed in the original Downpatrick Station
Mr. Wilson explains, ‘On the Sunday 22nd there will be a re-enactment of the ‘official opening’ of the line at 2.15pm – open to the public – when the train will arrive into the town station along that very same line that was traversed in 1859 to the sounds of trumpets and fanfare’ before adding, ‘although obviously not the whole way from Belfast!’
‘We will have a Victorian re-enactor to give passengers a speech as the BCDR chairman of 1859, William R. Anketell, using the text of what was actually said back when the line was opened.’ Mr. Wilson continues, ‘Then on Friday 27th March at half seven in the evening, the anniversary celebrations culminate in a celebratory dinner and illustrated talk in the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, to mark that anniversary.’
‘The extension of the line to Newcastle opened 140 years ago on 25th March 1869,’ states Mr. Wilson, ‘and as the hotel was built by the Belfast & County Down Railway it is a very appropriate venue and we are very pleased to have the enthusiast support of Hastings Hotels in our celebration.’
Dr Billy Hastings, Chairman of Hastings Hotels speaking at the launch of the event in Monday in the Slieve Donard Hotel, added, ‘The vision of the Belfast & Co. Down Railway to secure the most beautiful piece of land in Ireland, in the Newcastle Bay area, overlooking St John’s lighthouse and beneath the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne and helping build the Royal Co Down Golf Club was inspirational.
He continues, ‘I admire the strength of character of the BCDR to design and build the finest hotel in Ireland at that time, and to set brand new standards for the hotel industry. The vision and leadership in developing that which was constructed 110 years still commands the respect of the travelling public and retains its position as the premier resort and spa in the Island of Ireland. ‘
Dr. Hastings added, ‘The volunteers of the Downpatrick & County Down Railway have dedicated themselves to keeping this legacy alive, and we have always had a great partnership and I congratulate them on their celebrations this month.’
Work is also progressing in Downpatrick Station for a permanent exhibition on the BCDR, and there are also plans for a special 150th Anniversary book of photographs of the railway around Downpatrick from the DCDR’s archive.
The DCDR is grateful to Ulsterbus for allowing us to acquire enough seating to (eventually) fit out our Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railcar.
The SLNCR vehicle, built in 1947, was fitted with seating that could hold three people on one side of the vehicle, and two on the opposing side (3+2 seating). However, during its years of deterioration only a few of the original seats remained inside the vehicle, and in poor condition.
Ulsterbus currently has a number of vehicles fitted with very similar seating in a number of their ageing “Tiger” buses, and we inquired if it would be possible to acquire enough seats to completely refit the vintage railcar when it undergoes restoration in the coming years. While this is not planned for at least another two years at the very least, due to the current maintenance schedule, the DCDR felt it prudent to acquire these seats before the last of the vehicles fitted with them were withdrawn and scrapped – which could very well be before restoration commences!
So Carriage and Wagon officer David Briggs mounted an expedition to reclaim the last amount of seats needed from a withdrawn vehicle (a ‘Tiger’, Fleet No 368 for those interested) at Ulsterbus’s Newtownabbey depot. We are grateful to Paddy Moss of Translink for helping arrange this.
As the bus is now withdrawn and shortly to be scrapped, we need not worry that there is now only standing room in it.