Transformed landscapes hosting remnants of our past, abandoned and disused railways are the perfect places to discover a wealth of wildlife. Once the most effective way to travel quickly, rail-lines dominated our landscape: transporting materials for use during the First and Second World Wars, whisking tourists to newly discovered places, and delivering construction materials for some of our most important buildings. Today, there are hundreds of secret, forgotten railways, often known as cuttings or embankments, that have been reclaimed by nature.
The Wildlife Trusts protect a number of old railway sites that have been transformed into wildlife highways, bursting with wildflowers, butterflies and birds, and full of secrets and history waiting to be discovered
Find a reclaimed railway
Do a little research in advance and find out some of the best Wildlife Trust reserves to explore the UK’s network of wild railways.
Cumbria Wildlife Trust
Smardale Gill National Nature Reserve occupies a 6km/3.5 mile section of disused railway line which once ran from Tebay to Darlington. If you start your walk at the northern end, you’ll follow the old line through the woodland that’s brimming with plants, trees and birdlife – red squirrels can also be seen year round and the carpet of bluebells and primroses is particularly stunning in the spring.
The wide, surfaced path is suitable for pushchairs and eventually leads to Smardale Gill Viaduct, a magnificent structure where common lizards can be spotted sheltering between the huge slabs of sandstone. From here the character of the nature reserve changes and you’re in open rolling countryside typical of the area. The grassland, which has colonised the railway cuttings and embankments, is rich in unusual plant species such as bloody crane’s-bill, fragrant and butterfly orchid. Numerous butterflies can be seen here too, including the Scotch argus, which is only found at one other site in England.
Northumberland Wildlife Trust
Weetslade Country Park - A former colliery site, this reserve has been extensively landscaped to create a wildlife haven on the edge of the city. Consisting of grassland, scrub, reedbed and woodland, it has a high presence of grey partridge, meadow pipit and skylark. Visit the reserve for glimpses of a former Seaton Burn wagonway (from the car park) and to admire the old railway bridge of a wagonway junction.
Northumberland Wildlife Trust
Close House Riverside - One of a suite of calaminarian grasslands along the Tyne, South Tyne and Allen, this site is an excellent place to see alpine penny-cress and other plants influenced by heavy metal contamination. Access to this small nature reserve on the banks of the River Tyne is along the former railway line from Wylam. The route passes Stephenson’s Cottage where the young English civil engineer George Stephenson lived as a child with his family. The reserve itself contains woodland with dune helleborine and is good for spotting butterflies such as meadow brown and small skipper.
Bathekin Reservoir - Managed in partnership with Northumbrian Water, Bakethin Reservoir is the top section of Kielder Reservoir - one of the best views over the site, and a great place to look out for ospreys and otters. The castellated viaduct here is one of the best preserved examples of a 'skew-arch' bridge in this country which is now used as a great viewing platform to admire the woodland and lake.
Constructed in the early 1980s by damming the North Tyne and several tributaries, Kielder Water is the largest man-made lake in Northern Europe. During the winter months visitors include pochard, tufted duck, goldeneye, goosander, mallard and teal. In spring, merlin and hen harrier can be seen. The shallow margins also offer valuable spawning grounds for the common frog and smooth newt.
Bell Crag Flow is one of a suite of sites in the Border Mires - a set of peat bogs scattered through Kielder Forest. This was one of the few sites to have suffered from peat extraction and a small railway was constructed along the northern edge to help extract peat. Parts of the line are still visible. Key wildlife to look out for includes large heath butterflies, four-spotted chaser and black darter.
Durham Wildlife Trust
Trimdon Grange Quarry - Adjacent to the abandoned limestone quarry is the Raisby Way disused railway line, which provides excellent habitat for birds and 22 species of butterflies including the common blue, small copper and the beautiful burnet moth. A series of well-preserved lime kilns can be seen close to the western end of the line, where kestrels have been sighted making their nests. Meanwhile, peregrine falcons, sparrowhawks and stoat also hunt here, while alder and pine trees at the eastern end of the site provide food for birds including redpoll and siskin.
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust
Potteric Carr - Railway construction at Potteric Carr commenced in 1840 when the Great Northern Railway pushed south from Doncaster towards London forming what is now the main East Coast Main Line (ECML). Over the next 100 years, various additions and realignments have occurred, many in connection with the exploitation of the rich coal reserves which lie beneath this part of Yorkshire; as well as in connection to the improvements to the ECML. In doing so, the area of land we know as Potteric Carr was created, the land, much of which was agricultural in use, becoming isolated and flooded.
Through this 'neglect' a habitat not too dissimilar to that which occurred before the 18th Century slowly developed. Many of the reserve’s footpaths are formed on what were the Dearne Valley and South Yorkshire joint railways’ lines to and from the colliery’s in the area. The Magnesian Limestone ballast adding to the biodiversity of the area-as well as forming excellent, level paths. Finally, the location of the Kingfisher Tearooms sits on the site of Low Ellers Junction, the old signal box sign still being retained in the area. Visit for common spotted and bee orchids and old man's beard -Britain's only wild clematis. Great crested and palmate newts are in some of the pools, and toads are common.
Bolton Percy Station, Tadcaster - Once a railway goods platform and still lying next to the Leeds-York railway line, this nature reserve covers the old platform and bridge embankments. Nature has taken hold of this old station yard - bramble scrambles over the old platform, flower-filled grassland grows where once there were rail tracks and scrub growth provides sheltered scallops filled with fluttering butterflies and moths in the summer months.
Spurn National Nature Reserve - Built during the First World War, the railway at Spurn was a way of getting materials and men up and down the peninsula between Godwin Battery and Spurn Fort (Green Battery). It is a standard gauge rail track and ran from the pier head at Spurn Point to sidings at Kilnsea, opposite the Blue Bell. Materials for the construction of the forts at Spurn/Kilnsea arrived by sea and were distributed to the desired locations.
The railway had an unusual history between the wars; locals used a trolley with a sail fitted to sail up and down the peninsula. They even used an Italian racing car body fitted with iron wheels to run along the rails. It is said that the Italian car body and engine are still buried on Spurn. A book called ‘Sailing the Rails’ was written by a local historian Howard Frost and is a comprehensive history of the Spurn Railway. Today, this nature reserve is often visited for its wildlife-rich mosaic of beach, mudflats, saltmarsh, dunes, grassland, open water, saline lagoons and native sea buckthorn scrub.
The Lines Way - This disused railway line runs all the way from Garforth to Allerton Bywater, south-east of Leeds, and is enjoyed by cyclists and walkers in the area. Creating a perfect corridor for wildlife this 4-mile stretch is home to glow worms which are thought to be declining in the UK. There is also opportunity to stop on a number of nature reserves along the way including Letchmire Pastures where bee orchids grow and Townclose Hills which has a stunning display of wildflowers.
Bishop Monkton Railway Cutting - This small haven for wildlife is tucked away within an intensively agricultural landscape. Sitting on the now disused London and North Eastern Railway line, the magnesian limestone bedrock provides the perfect conditions for a rich abundance of wildflowers including cowslip in spring and common spotted orchids in summer. Pre-1967, when the line was in use there was a small hut for the railway workers with a garden, plants from which still survive today. Whilst not native these plants do provide an additional food source for insects and are an insight into the site’s past.
Rifle Butts Quarry - This tiny nature reserve is a real hidden gem, a few minutes walk from Kiplingcotes Chalk Pit along the old railway line. The quarry itself was used to provide the stone to construct the railway, which ran between Market Weighton and Beverley, and was then used as a rifle range from the 1890 until the First World War hence its name. Over 150 plants have been recorded on this 0.27 ha patch including cowslip, marjoram and giant bellflower. Breeding birds such as yellowhammer and butterflies including common blue can also be seen.
Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust
The Green Line - Once part of the old Midland railway running from St Pancras, London to Nottingham (running through West Bridgford), the ‘Green Line’ was transformed into a beautiful nature reserve in 1989 for use by the local community.
Owned by Rushcliffe Borough Council and maintained by The Friends of the Green Line, the cutting supports a surprising array of wildlife including 180 plant, 20 bird and 11 butterfly and moth species. Playing a role in its management, Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust is helping to protect the diversity of habitats that range from the damper sheltered cutting in the south with woodland and meadow, to the drier, sunnier areas of the embankment in the north.
The Green Line has been designated as a Local Wildlife Site, noted for its botanical interest. Local Wildlife Sites take into account some of the most important, distinctive and threatened species and habitats within a national, regional and local context making them some of our most valuable urban and rural wildlife areas.
Warwickshire Wildlife Trust
Ashlawn Cutting - A corridor between suburban Rugby and the farmland beyond, Ashlawn Cutting is a haven for people as well as for wildlife. Unimproved grassland gives home to over 20 species of butterfly, including the brown argus and marbled white. This place is also the only known location for the forester moth in Warwickshire. Meanwhile, hawthorn scrub supports a large population of birds, and the ponds provide views of dragonflies and a variety of amphibians. Slicing through lias clay soils, this superb railway cutting also holds a splendid collection of flowering plants. A tantalising glimpse of a grass snake could complete your walk through this natural escape from urban life.
Stockton Cutting - The blue lias limestone that lies beneath Stockton Cutting SSSI is the secret behind its rich array of wildflowers. Visit in summer to see the beautiful great butterfly-orchids and common spotted orchids that decorate this reserve, as well as the fantastic variety of butterfly species. The woodland surrounding the cutting consists largely of ash and sycamore, and provides good sightings of all three species of woodpecker and even woodcock. As the site of a railway cutting next to the Grand Union Canal, historically this site was used to transfer goods between the railway and the canal boats. This rich history is matched only by the rich array of wildlife that now thrives in an area previously dominated by industry.
Worcestershire Wildlife Trust
Brotheridge Green - Grassland now covers what were once railway tracks of the Tewkesbury to Malvern railway line, while former embankments have been colonised by grassland, scrub and young trees that provide a mosaic of habitat types and wildlife for all seasons.
A deep cutting with damp soil and overhanging trees lies at one end of the reserve, near the road bridge. At the other end, the reserve is above a well-drained steep embankment. The wide variety of soil types supports a large range of plants. In turn, the reserve is particularly good for butterflies; with more than 30 species being recorded including breeding colonies of marbled white, white-letter hairstreak, dingy skipper, small copper and holly blue.
Devon Wildlife Trust
Halwill Junction - A railway station near the villages of Halwill and Beaworthy in Devon, Halwill junction was a bustling and important stop on the Great Western Railway which was the meeting point of four separate lines. Closing in 1966, around 25 years later, the land was bought by Devon Wildlife Trust from British Rail in 1990.
Over recent years, the old railway track has been converted into a surfaced cycle path connecting Halwill Junction to Cookworthy Forest, while the reserve itself has became a wildlife sanctuary. Wildlife highlights include the badger, green woodpecker and the pink flowered ragged-robin. Abundant in voles and mice along the wildlife canyon, Halwill Junction is also a good hunting ground for barn owls. Visit in spring for carpets of violets that deliver a purple glow to the sunny grassy glades along the pathways, while in autumn, mosses and ferns run wild within the reserve’s damp and humid conditions.
Denham Lock Wood/Frays Farm Meadows SSSI (London Wildlife Trust)
Denham Lock Wood and Fray Farm Meadows SSSI - These wet woodlands and complex of water-meadows lie either side of the embankment that used to carry a short branch line from Denham to Uxbridge High Street. Opened in May 1907, it was planned to connect the line with Uxbridge’s Vine Street station – and then onto West Drayton to make a loop. These plans never happened, with passenger traffic ceasing in 1939, and only freight trains using the line up to February 1964.
Today, London Wildlife Trust manages the two reserves - Denham Lock Wood and Frays Farm Meadows which have taken over the track. Although much of the old track runs mostly outside of these reserves, it does cross over into the east of the wood which contains a glow-worm population.
A visit here in the summer brings sudden sights of bright red-headed cardinal beetles, and banded demoiselles throng the riverbank. The track also crosses over the Frays River on a bridge. To visit the site, you wouldn’t know the railway line once existed, so keep your eyes peeled for the hints of its historic past.
London Wildlife Trust
Sydenham Hill Wood - In August 1865 a branch line, which became known as the ‘Crystal Palace (High Level) Line’, opened to serve visitors to the Crystal Palace – a cast-iron and plate-glass building erected at Penge Place in 1852 (following the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park). The French Impressionist Camille Pissarro, who lived in the area in 1870-1871, painted Lordship Lane station from a bridge over the line. The painting now hangs at the Courtauld Gallery. Sadly, the line was not a great success, especially after the Palace burnt down in 1936. The line closed in September 1954 and subsequently parts of the line were built over.
Taking on the woodland which straddled part of this line in 1982, London Wildlife Trust has defended the wildlife-rich area known as Sydenham Hill Wood from repeated attempts at development. Since the early 1990s, London Wildlife Trust has run a number of events on the history of the railway, including joint-publishing a leaflet, and running several branch-length guided walks, especially for the 40th, 50th and 60th anniversaries of closure. To date, the woodland supports a registered bat roost in the Crescent Wood Tunnel and sustains woodpeckers, rare insects, and a wealth of fungi. There are many Victorian garden relic trees too.
Gunnersby Triangle LNR - Saved from development in 1983 and opened in 1985 as a nature reserve, this triangle of ex-railway land sits between the District Line and the old North London Line (now Overground). The third side of the triangle was once the Acton Curve – a line opened in 1878 to link South Acton and Kensington, primarily for coal traffic. This closed in 1965 and the tracks were lifted soon after – although the route can still be seen and forms the primary path from the entrance of the reserve towards the meadow and pond at the Triangle’s western end.
Cut off from the surrounding area by the railway tracks, this reserve has developed into a lively ecological community. Follow the nature trail, listen out for birds, look out for the tunnels of field voles and keep an eye out for interesting spiders and ladybirds found here.
London Mill Hill Old Railway - Opened in April 1872 as a single track to Edgware, plans were made in the late 1930s to double the track and electrify the line. While these plans were started, the Second World War led to their eventual abandonment, while the southward extension of the M1 motorway contributed to the closure of the line Mill Hill East and Edgware in June 1964. Today, a short length of old branch line crosses the reserve, (acquired by London Wildlife Trust under lease from Barnet Council).
Largely managed by volunteers, the site provides good habitat for suburban birds, including sparrowhawk, green and great spotted woodpeckers, long-tailed tit, chiffchaff and blackcap. Butterflies, moths and other invertebrates such as orange-tip, small copper, and hoverflies are also common. And most excitingly, the reserve supports slow-worm.
The Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs & Northants
Sewell Cutting - A tranquil, flower-rich reserve created by the construction of the long-since gone railway. Once echoing to the rumble of steam trains, this now tranquil reserve has developed into a magical place for chalk grassland flowers. The steep banks of the cutting provide a contrasting sunny south-facing slope and a more sheltered north-facing bank. These opposites have a very different composition of flowers and grasses.
In summer the scorched south-facing slope is home to deep-rooted plants such as hawkweeds, scabious and knapweed while that facing north is lush with grasses. Blocks of scrub have developed, including guelder rose, whose white flowers have larger sterile blooms forming a ring around the smaller, inner fertile flowers. The list of butterflies found here is impressive with dingy skipper in spring, together with small, common and chalkhill blues. Marbled whites drift along the cutting all summer long.
Pingle Wood - This ancient semi-natural woodland of ash and maple is adjacent to an old railway cutting. The disused track has developed into fine meadow grassland since the closure of the railway line in 1969. The cutting and wood form a complementary mosaic of mature woodland, developing scrub and grassland. A colony of common spotted-orchids covers the cutting banks and bloom in early summer. The woodland is recolonising the cutting at its southern end and this area now contains ancient woodland species as well as early purple orchid and twayblade.
Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows - Once forming a line that ran from Northampton to Peterborough and saw its last freight train in 1972, the ghost of this disused line can be now seen running through Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows nature reserve.
Today its long straight pathway and hedgerow lining provides a valuable habitat for many species of small birds including warblers and tits in the spring and summer, and redwing in the winter. The foundation of the old signal box can still be seen today, while the foundations of the Irthlingborough station can be found just beyond the reserve boundary at neighbouring Stanwick Lakes.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Narborough Railway Line - Once part of the King’s Lynn-Dereham line that was closed in the 1960s, this disused railway embankment is home to a rare habitat for Norfolk: chalk grassland. As a consequence, this place supports a range of interesting plants, including pyramidal and early purple orchids, marsh helleborine and autumn gentian. It is one of the best sites for butterflies in Norfolk, with at least 30 species recorded, including the grizzled skipper, grayling and orange tip butterfly.
With sweeping views, bogs, heather-clad heaths and walks along ancient drove-ways, this nature reserve has an atmosphere of real wildness. In summer the heath buzzes with colour and heat, and is wild and windswept in winter.
The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales
The Whitland & Cardigan Railway - Once a Great Western Railway line in West Wales, running 14.5 miles (23.3 km) between Whitland on the West Wales Line and Cardigan, the line closed to passenger traffic in September 1962, with the last train being the 5.45pm Cardigan Mail. Although the tracks remained used by freight traffic for a while, its final closure was in May 1963. The track was lifted completely by the end of 1964.
Today, Teifi marshes bisect the old line, bringing a wealth of wildlife to the scene. Hints of this old line can be enjoyed on a circular walk that surrounds the marshes, including six hides and another two woodland walks, one of which heads up the gorge to Cilgerran. The old railway line runs past the Welsh Wildlife Centre before descending down through the marsh and is accessible to all - including pushchairs, wheelchairs, walkers and cyclists.
Dyffryn, Llynfi, Parthcawl Railway (DPLR) route - A route full of fascinating history, which is today, a great trail for visitors to discover and enjoy. With its life beginning in 1825, a group of local landowners and businessmen established the horse-drawn Dyffryn Llynfi and Porthcawl Railway Company. Running from Maesteg in the Llynfi Valley down to the sea at Porthcawl. Here a new harbour had been built and the line’s main duty was to serve the expanding coal and iron industries in the valleys North of Bridgend. A single track line, its rails were fixed to stone blocks in order to leave a clear path through which the horses and their handlers could walk. By 1845 over 35,000 tonnes of coal and 21,000 tons of iron had been exported from its destination port of Porthcawl.
Meanwhile in the 1840s the line was being extensively used for passenger traffic, that by 1861 the track was converted for steam train usage. Porthcawl soon became a popular destination for day trips and the line from Porthcawl to Cefn Cribbwr continued to operate up until its closure in 1960s. Today, part of the route goes through Parc Slip Nature Reserve, which, after a century of coal mining on the site, is now a unique environment of wetlands, woodlands and beautiful meadows managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales.
Radnorshire Wildlife Trust
Gilfach Nature Reserve - The former Mid Wales Railway that runs through the Gilfach Nature Reserve used to connect the communities between Llanidloes and Brecon and was a popular route. It faced some challenging obstacles in its construction, including twenty river crossings and the 300m tunnel at Gilfach. The tunnel now provides additional habitats for hibernating bats as well as parsley fern on the scree and unusual lichens on the track bed.
For safety reasons the railway bridge is closed off to members of the public but visitors to the Gilfach Nature Reserve are most welcome, and there are signs in place to re-direct walkers away from the railway bridge. The bridge will continue to be closed off until the necessary funds are found to make it safe.
Ulster Wildlife Trust
Milford Cutting - A small (0.8ha), secluded reserve with a mix of woodland and steep grassy banks rich in wild flowers. Cattle graze the banks in winter to create conditions for the orchids to flower in early summer. From the boardwalk you can see common twayblade, fragrant and commonspotted orchids and the rare marsh helleborine. The site also has Northern Ireland’s largest colony of the rare native tree, Irish Whitebeam.
If you can't get to these places
There are countless numbers of old railway lines that cut across the landscape, but it’s not just old railways that are wildlife corridors. Even by our roads – the transport system that largely replaced railways – you can find amazing wildlife, whether it is bee orchids and kestrels to larger animals like deer.
More wildlife experiences
From seeing colourful wildflowers to spotting magnificent birds of prey, we can help you get closer to wildlife across the UK.