One of Derby’s largely forgotten treasures is on the verge of a renaissance some 50 years after it was abandoned. Under plans lodged for the redevelopment of the Friargate station area the imposing old warehouse will become home to retail outlets while industrial land along the old approaches will be used for new housing.
This brownfield site has been earmarked for redevelopment for a number of years but the completion of Derby’s neighbouring inner ring road (I wrote about this last year) was always a prerequisite for reasons of access. With the ring road complete the plans have been lodged and it is only a matter of time before the transformation begins.
While I am happy to see life breathed back into the area I remain concerned about the manner in which the site is revitalised. Of course it has to make commercial sense but all too often our heritage has been irrevocably lost or besmirched by insensitive redevelopment. With redevelopment imminent I wanted to capture the Friargate goods yard as it is today before the builders move in.
I have been visiting the derelict site for a few years now to poke around the outside of the warehouse and follow the path of the lines past the old platforms up to the top of Friargate bridge.
An area once characterised by the soot and machinery of the railway industry had been almost completely reclaimed by nature in the manner of some forgotten Mayan city.
The crumbling brick and rusting iron of a decaying infrastructure had been subsumed by an urban jungle of saplings, bushes, grass and flowers.
Birds, bees and butterflies thrived in numbers here oblivious to the noise and bustle of the city centre close by, yet a world away. You could walk into this undergrowth on a sunny day and lose yourself. The foliage was so dense that it took me a couple of visits to find the platforms.
I’m using the past tense because on my return last month I discovered that the entire platform area had been cleared of undergrowth in preparation for the next stage of work. The loss of this habitat is a huge shame but inevitable and now the general layout of the site is much clearer.
On the day I visited a fashion shoot was exploiting a graffiti covered wall of the warehouse and some students were sitting in the sun reading and talking.
My mediocre research into the history of the line has turned up some interesting nuggets of information. The station opened 1878 and was called Derby Station but subsequently renamed as Derby Friargate Station in 1881. The line was built by the Great Northern Railway primarily to enable coal to be moved more cheaply in the face of Midland Railways’ transportation monopoly. It is ironic that construction of the line was carried out with minimal consultation of local Derbeans who saw swathes of land lost as the line was dispassionately carved though the heart of the town. The iconic iron bridge over Friargate built by Handyside & Co of Derby was one of the few decorative concessions to the affluent residents of the Friargate area who were vocal in their opposition to the new line. For all of our reservations now about public consultation on planning laws it seems that the wider public interest holds more weight than it once used to.
The route of the line has long captured my imagination and this interest has increased since I moved to the nearby Rowditch area in 2002. I vaguely remember the brick bridge that spanned Agard Street prior to it’s demolition in the 1970s and the line continued on past the spot now occupied by Radio Derby and then into a tunnel not far from St Helens House.
It then emerges near the river Derwent where you can still walk across the iron bridge that led to Chester Green and through Breadsall to the east. An excellent map courtesy of Andy Savage (who also has a related blog) illustrates the route and highlights a number of points of interest.
Perhaps more than anything it is the social history of Friargate station that has drawn me in. From another time but in touching distance – the echoes still resonate. The line closed before I was born but there is a living history for people of a certain generation who fondly remember catching the train to Skegness from Friargate station. I have come across individual recollections of the final years of the line but a book called “Memories of Friargate Station” by local author Susan Bourne tops my reading list and ought to provide more substance. Hopefully it is still in print.
The station would have been at the peak of its importance in the late 19th and early 20th century from a strategic point of view and in terms of local employment. I took it upon myself to explore my local cemetery in Uttoxeter New Road on the off-chance of finding some memorial to former workers. I love poking around cemeteries – you can learn a lot from them. Amidst this modest sized plot I predictably found memorials to war casualties, church ministers and successful locals – solicitors and the like – but railway workers were proving elusive. This came as little surprise to me as I presumed they would be low in status and wealth but all the same I expected to find a few small headstones in a corner. Finally I found what I was looking for, and I was amazed when the two memorials in question…
…turned out to be amongst the tallest on the plot. That in itself raises more questions than it answers, although some subsequent research on John Holloway Sanders and Matthew Kirtley reveals that they were not run of the mill railway employees but Locomotive Superintendent and Company Architect respectively.
If the redevelopment of Friargate Station and it’s surroundings pans out anything like a typical Derby construction project then it will be a long time before anything actually happens but I would implore you to visit the site as soon as possible to appreciate a piece of our industrial heritage before it is completely sanitised by the developers. From a personal perspective the more I learn about the history of this site the more I want to know.