Neill’s Hill railway station, Belfast & County Down Railway (BCDR) – 70 years closed on 22 April 2020
What makes Neill’s Hill such an important station and why did the BBC Radio Ulster programme ‘Good Morning Ulster‘ feature two segments about it on Friday, 19th January 2018? The first segment was a walk through the former station with BBC reporter, Sara Neill and I. The second segment, which was a studio discussion, featured railway historian Charles Friel BEM who talked about Neill’s Hill, the BCDR, the Comber Greenway and other closed railways in Northern Ireland.
The story starts on 1st March 1890 when the Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR) opened a small station between Bloomfield and Knock stations on the main double track line to Comber and onward to Newcastle. The new station had a level crossing on the Sandown Road, a gateman and a boy porter. There was also a sand siding from which sand was extracted for use in the manufacture of the famous Belfast bricks.
In 1927 the station consisted of sidings, station-masters house (built 1904), porters house, passenger sheds, two platforms, a subway and advertising boards on fencing. A signal cabin had been closed in 1925. It is recorded that the ‘Permanent Way men loaded the signal cabin onto the 12:15pm stone train and brought into Belfast’.
Sometime before 1937, the BCDR invested funds to lengthen the platforms at Neill’s Hill; increasing them up to 188yds and 175yds long. Bloomfield, Neill’s Hill and Knock were regarded as commuter stations with new housing developments being built around each station. Charles Friel in his radio broadcast told the audience that the BCDR had 3 rush-hours with commuters travelling home for their lunch.
1941 saw the wife (Mrs Edith A Gray) of the gate-keeper at Neill’s Hill being badly injured when she was clipped by a passing engine.
Economy measures after the war had the BCDR reducing the status of Neill’s Hill from a ‘station’ to a ‘halt’. Eventually, on 15th January 1950, the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) closed the main line to Newcastle. The Belfast suburban stations also closed on that day; Frazer Street (halt), Bloomfield (station), Neill’s Hill (halt) and Knock (station). Within a couple of years, the track lifting gangs were working along the main line. Dereliction of the buildings started immediately. The level crossing was removed from the Sandown Road in May 1957. The station buildings were knocked down in the early 60s and the subway filled in as well.
From the BCDR story, we move onto the personal story. The Bamford family moved into 15 Sandhill Gardens in 1953 following the marriage of my father Rea to my mother Edith. Paul arrived in 1954, myself in 1956 and my sister Linda in 1961. Our house backed onto Neill’s Hill railway station and we had a cinder bank with laurel hedges at the end of the garden.
As children in the early 60s, the railway became our playground. We had platforms to play on, we ventured into the subway as far as we could and when the ferns grew in the summer, we would hide in them and make plans as only children can. Within a few years, the station was demolished and cleared.
Our friends, the McMaster’s lived in 25 Sandhill Gardens. Their house was different from the others in Sandhill Gardens as their land was bordered by a public footpath from the platform through to the road. A garage couldn’t be built until the family purchased the public footpath.
The Bamford’s left the area in 1977. The Comber Greenway was laid out between the Holywood Arches ending just short of Comber. The Knock Valley Sewer Scheme was laid in 2003/2004 along the length of the former main line between Dundonald and Ballymacarrett. It was this sewage scheme that effectively stopped heavy rail ever returning to the former BCDR track bed.
In 2004 it was expected that the development of the Belfast EWAY would be built on the old BCDR line. At that stage, I thought about my childhood days spent on the railway and realised that I had to do something to stop the old platforms of Neill’s Hill being destroyed.
Thankfully the EWAY scheme evolved into the Belfast Rapid Transport scheme with the eastern segment currently being built along the Upper Newtownards Road and due to open later this year. Well away from the Comber Greenway and Neill’s Hill. I also have to thank the 2005 Belfast Telegraph newspaper campaign ‘Saving Our Heritage’ organised by reporter Linda Stewart that featured Neill’s Hill as one of the industrial heritage sites in danger. Sustrans who manages the Comber Greenway said at the time “We wouldn’t have any big plans for it at the moment… but we could consider it for the future”.
2010 saw a change in tactics for myself. The remaining section of the UP platform was safely hidden away in the undergrowth. However, what was missing from the bigger picture was signage to inform the general public, walkers and cyclists on the Comber Greenway that their greenway owed its existence to the railway age and the infrastructure built by the BCDR.
For the past 10 years now, I have been using Facebook and Twitter to encourage someone to fund, build and place railway station signage at each of the former stations along the greenway.
2017 saw a Facebook group member William Scott taking it on himself to manually clear the old platform of shrubs and undergrowth. On seeing what one individual could do, a small team consisting of myself, William Scott, Michael Hopper and Edward Connolly was formed into a work group. Using ‘rail’ salvaged from the former BCDR Knock station we laid the first rail on a Belfast urban station in nearly 70 years. Further rails recovered from Knock will hopefully be laid.
That brings the story up to date. In January 2018, the Department of Infrastructure announced they were going to widen the greenway. I started to ‘tweet’ the story asking what exactly was planned and the resounding likes and retweets were picked up by the BBC Radio Ulster programme ‘Good Morning Ulster’. The department who own the greenway issued a statement to the BBC; “The Department recognises the historical importance of the remains of the old railway infrastructure along the Comber Greenway and has taken the necessary steps to ensure that it’s work will not interfere or remove these features”.
What makes Neill’s Hill such an important feature? Quite simply, it’s nostalgia for what is effectively an old railway within the city boundaries. For me, it’s also a 60-year story that spans my childhood, my working life and into retirement.
Gavin Bamford, Chair, History Hub Ulster