Settle Down Now – and join me for a trip on the Settle-Carlisle railway line

The Settle-Carlisle railway line is billed as the most scenic railway journey in England – and who am I to argue? By way of a post-birthday treat to self, I decided to take a steam special, The Dalesman, run by West Coast Railways.

A classic diesel locomotive hauling the train into Westgate Station, Wakefield
The journey actually began in Wakefield one morning back in June when my partner and I arrived at Westgate Station ready to catch the train as it glided smoothly in alongside us on Platform 2 at a rather civilised time of 9.45 am. At this point, the train was being hauled by a classic diesel locomotive in the maroon livery of the operating company. The train had begun its journey from York station earlier that morning, calling at Normanton and then at Wakefield’s Kirkgate Station before arriving at Westgate, so the train was already quite busy as we boarded to find our pre-booked and reserved seats.

Ready for breakfast
We had opted for the ‘Premier Dining’ service. Tables are available for two or four people. We chose to go for a table for two, although this upped the price further by £15 each. We were travelling in what had originally been first class inter-city carriages back in the day, now restored and furnished with comfortable armchairs. Dining tables are aligned to windows to make the most of the views (unlike many modern trains where you can easily find yourself sitting up against a pillar). There were curtains, table cloths and table lamps, and every table laid for the serving of breakfast!

Breakast is served!
Hardly had the train moved out of the station before our stewards were bringing round orange juice, tea and coffee. There was a choice of cereal, porridge or orange and grapefruit segments to start with, followed by the ‘full English’ (here entitled the ‘Great British Grill Tray’) or Grilled Manx Kippers. (A vegetarian option was available – although this had to be booked in advance, as we had done). To complete the breakfast, there was a selection of toast and croissants with jams and marmalade.

The steam locomotive, seen here at Carlisle Station
But I’m skipping ahead! Breakfast was actually a leisurely affair, so there was plenty of time to chat and look out of the window as we headed towards Leeds, our next stop, to pick up more passengers, and then onto Skipton, the final boarding station. At Hellifield, the diesel locomotive was exchanged for our steam engine.

For any steam buffs reading, the loco was former LMS Stanier heavy freight Class 8F 2-8-0 locomotive No. 48151, originally built in 1942 and now painted in the black livery of British Railways.

Crossing the Ribblehead Viaduct
We passed through Settle and headed on towards Carlisle. As we picked up speed, steam and smoke swept past the carriage windows. Soon we were crossing the famous Ribblehead Viaduct before plunging into the Stygian gloom of the Blea Moor tunnel, nearly a mile and a half long. More viaducts and tunnels followed as we approached Ais Gill Summit, the highest point on the line (and with a name that sounds as if it comes straight out of the pages of a Tolkien novel). Alongside, nature performed its magic: rolling hills, rocky limestone outcrops, verdant trees and grazing sheep, all beneath a cloudless cerulean sky.

The plaque on Appleby Station commemorating the late Eric Treacy, MBE, Bishop of Wakefield from 1968 to 1976
After a brief pause at Appleby to allow the locomotive to take on water and an opportunity to stretch our legs on the platform, we continued on to Carlisle as Yorkshire Dales gave way to Cumbrian Fells. Drinks were served ‘at seat’ and orders taken for wine to accompany the evening meal.

We arrived in Carlisle at around 2.30 pm and had a couple of hours to look around but such was the heat of the day that a few of us headed for a nearby coffee shop to take advantage of the air conditioning while drinking coffee and eating muffins!

The wine awaits!
Heading back to the train, we found our table was now laid for dinner and our selected bottle of wine waiting for us. It seemed pointless to delay, so we poured ourselves a glass apiece and toasted Carlisle as the train pulled out of the station just after 4.30 pm.

Dinner consisted of four courses plus coffee and chocolates, again with a vegetarian option (special diets can be catered for if notified at the time of booking). We had the Asparagus and Pea Girasol to start and this was followed by vegetarian lasagne and then Eton Mess. We had to decline the cheese board – too many muffins in that coffee shop!

The return journey was every bit as relaxed as the journey out, but mellowed even further by the bottle of wine and the slowly setting sun. The diesel locomotive was there at Hellifield to take over again for the final haul to Skipton, Leeds and back to Wakefield.

The sun had just about set as we pulled into Westgate Station at 9.20 pm, saying farewell to travelling companions we had come to know but who were staying on until the train reached its final destination of York.
All in all, this had been a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable day. You could even say I was chuffed!

Need to know:

The Dalesman is one of a number of special trains run by West Coast Railways throughout the year. Have a look at their website,, for more information or telephone them Monday – Friday from 9:30am – 4:00pm on 0844 850 3137.

Prices: Tickets start at £59 for an adult travelling in Standard Class (£25 for a child). For passengers wishing to travel in First Class, the price is £115 (£50 for children) and includes complimentary teas and coffees along with a Danish pastry served on the outward journey and a savoury of the day with cakes on the return journey. The Premier Dining offer costs £199 per person. Subject to availability, it is possible to reserve a table for two in First Class and Premier Dining at a supplement of £15 per person. (All prices for the York-Wakefield-Settle-Carlisle return journey described above and correct for 2017.)

There is a buffet car on the train from which it is possible to purchase refreshments.

[A version of this article appears in the September 2017 edition of TopicUK magazine – Wakefield issue]

Do members add value for civic societies?


Let me be provocative (again)…..

Members, eh? Who needs ’em? No, seriously, who really needs members?

If you’ve read my article on how we can measure the success of a civic society, you’ll know that I have questioned the idea that membership numbers should be used as an indicator of a successful civic society: we tend to think that the more members a society has, the more successful it must be and most if not all civic societies probably spend some time and effort in trying to recruit and retain members.

In my previous article, I posited that it is actually reputation and trust that really count: how others see you, and whether or not they trust your judgement and advice are the real markers of a successful society. If you agree with me, then the natural conclusion is that the size of membership is not really that important. In fact, dare I suggest that your members are holding you back? Let me explain.

As I said in my article, at Wakefield Civic Society we organise 30 to 40 events and activities per year, sometimes more. We do that because our members enjoy the events and, if the members are happy, they are more likely to renew their membership year after year. On top of that, a lively programme of events is a great way of attracting new members. In other words, our desire to recruit and retain members determines how we operate: we are a membership-based organisation so therefore we run events for members.

While often hugely enjoyable, these events take a good deal or work to organise and to run but only around a fifth of our membership turn out for them and sometimes attendance is even less which means we are going to a lot of trouble to put on events for a smallish subset of the membership. As well as effort, these events also cost us money – we subsidise at least some of the events we put on from our membership subscription income as part of our charitable mission. Having said that, our members (or at least those who attend) tell us that they enjoy the events and, if I’m honest, I enjoy hosting them!

However, our charitable objects as a civic society are:
(a) To encourage high standards of architecture and town planning in Wakefield.
(b) To stimulate public interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the area of the City and its surroundings.
(c) To encourage the preservation, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic interest.
(d) To pursue these ends by means of meetings, exhibitions, lectures, publications, other forms of instruction and publicity, and promotion of schemes of a charitable nature.

Nowhere in the charitable objects is there any mention of our being a membership organisation (this comes later on in the Society’s constitution) and we could arguably deliver our charitable objects without the need to recruit lots of members. All we really need is enough people to form a committee.

What I’m getting at here is that the society could meet its charitable purposes with just a handful of really committed people serving as a sort of ‘think tank’. Say we had around ten people willing to serve. They would need a mix of skills and local knowledge, including some experience of design, planning and architecture but, with the right mix, they could review planning applications, offer advice, write position papers and even organise the occasional public event, exhibition or lecture.

They would still need money, of course, but not so much. There are certain things you just can’t get away from paying for (such as insurance!). However, there are other ways of raising money than membership subscriptions – donations, grants and sponsorships, for example – but the ten people or so willing to serve on the committee could also offer to pay some of the costs out of their own pockets (anything to make it easier!). I suspect that many civic society committee members already do this to some extent – spending money that they don’t necessarily claim back on the work of their society.

I remember one year when we organised an annual dinner at Wakefield which made a surplus of around £200 – a tidy sum that was paid into our general funds. The dinner had been very hard work and there were some sleepless nights: we’d signed a contract with the venue to pay for a set number of places but then the bookings were very slow to come in and it was touch and go as to whether the event would break even, let alone generate a surplus as a fund-raising event, so it was relief all round when we achieved the result we did. In fact, we were in celebratory mood until one of the committee pointed out that if each of the committee (20 strong at the time) had paid £10 each directly to the Society, we’d have achieved the same result without the stress or the fuss. This was rather deflating but was a point well made, especially when you realise that we had each paid around £25 for our tickets to attend the dinner!

The learning point here, of course, is that our desire to put on an event for the members had taken a toll in time, effort and stress to achieve a result that could have been achieved without any of the fuss and hassle.

Before we all rush to dispense with our members though, we need to remember that we all have our written constitutions to follow and that, for those civic societies which are also charities, care would have to be taken to ensure that the charitable aims were still delivered. While it might even be worth considering doing away with the charitable status – it removes the need for all those pesky compliance issues, after all! – there are advantages to being a charity that should not lightly be tossed aside. These include the impact on fund-raising activities when some donors will only consider giving to charities and, of course, the ability to claim Gift Aid.

Now, I’m aware that some very small civic societies might already be the position of having a total membership of just a handful of people – and they might even feel that they are failing. They look at other societies with larger memberships and spend hours worrying over how to recruit more members of their own, almost to the point that the search for new members becomes a millstone around their necks when, according to my argument here, they should be celebrating the fact that they don’t have to spend time and effort servicing a large membership! Surely, that thought alone should be positively liberating!

I know that having members can be rewarding and there are many positives about being a membership organisation. Members provide income and, to a degree, credibility. They can help to spread the news about what the society is doing and what it stands for. They can act as eyes and ears, reporting back to the society on threats to the buildings and public realm in the area. Members will also usually form the pool from which your future committee members will emerge. Running events brings people together and helps strengthen community links; friendships are developed and networks enhanced. I personally have had a great deal of fun from being in charge of an active membership organisation – but it has been exhausting.

So, there we have it: let’s pause and re-think how our civic societies should operate. Do we really need to be large membership-based organisations running events primarily to keep our members entertained? Can we meet our charitable purposes in other ways – and if we can, do we really want to change the model?

Provocative enough?

Measuring Success: what makes a civic society ‘successful’?

As I travel around the region (and even further afield) giving talks about the civic society movement, I always stress the importance the work that civic societies do. When I give talks about the work of my own society – Wakefield Civic Society – I talk about it in glowing terms as one of the most successful civic societies in the country! Now, that might sound boastful and you may or may not agree with it, but it’s something I believe to be true. But what do we mean when we talk about successful civic societies? What makes them successful and is it possible to measure their success objectively?

One of the advantages of being on the YHACS committee is that I do get to visit other civic societies and, over the years, I may well have met people from just about all our member societies as well as others from outside the region. Wherever I go, though, there’s always one question that gets asked: “How many members do you have?” To be fair, I’m as likely to ask it of you as you are to ask it of me about Wakefield Civic Society. Our fascination with membership numbers does suggest that, rightly or wrongly, size is seen as one of the key markers for success – the bigger the society’s membership, the more successful it must be.

But is that the best measure of success and, if we are to use membership numbers as a measure of success, should we put it into context by comparing the membership numbers with total population? Let’s look at three civic societies, not that far apart geographically.

At the time of writing (2017), Wakefield Civic Society has a membership of around 250, which is very reasonable for a civic society. However, the city of Wakefield has a resident population of around 80,000 so, in broad terms, our membership represents just 0.3% of the population.

Meanwhile, Addingham Civic Society has around 360 members, which is very impressive for a village and, with a resident population of 3,800, it means that nearly 10% of the population are members of the society.

Then there’s Leeds Civic Trust with a membership of 485 out of a population of 450,000, so the membership amounts a little over 0.1% of the population.

On this basis, Leeds, which looks the biggest of the three at first glance, is less successful than Wakefield, but Wakefield is less successful than Addingham. Yes, in percentage terms, Addingham is the most successful of the three societies.

But before we award that trophy, what happens if we use a different metric? What if we don’t use membership numbers, but instead look at overall annual income: in 2016, Leeds had an income of over £200,000; Wakefield just over £12,000 and Addingham around £3,000. Here then, Leeds comes out top and Addingham comes out bottom. As can be seen, income doesn’t necessarily relate directly to membership numbers: it’s more complicated than that. Income comes from many sources, not just membership subscriptions, and subscription levels (and types) will have an impact on the income generated: those societies with an established corporate membership scheme, for example, will probably raise more in membership subscriptions overall than those societies that don’t have one and, when averaged out across the membership, the average take per member is likely to be higher too.

Money isn’t everything, however, and societies might only set out to raise the money they need to cover the things they want to do so perhaps we should measure success by the number of activities that a society organises during the year? Now, I don’t have comparison figures to hand to be able to declare a winner in this category but I’m confident that my own society, Wakefield, would score well. With our talks programme, our excursions and visits, our guided walks and blue plaque unveilings and not forgetting our very popular monthly Dining Club, we probably average close to three events per month – 30 to 40 per year – and sometimes more; quite an achievement for an organisation run entirely by a handful of volunteers.

Of course, a large proportion of the events we run at Wakefield are targeted at attracting new members (while also retaining existing ones) – and it’s not surprising that larger societies run more events, so maybe it would be a little unfair to measure the success or otherwise of a society based purely on the number of events they run. We need some understanding of context, particularly if we are ranking societies against each other: horses for courses and all that.

We could look at projects, by which I mean those practical projects that lead to physical improvements to the public realm (such a litter picking, tree planting, repairing amenities, conservation projects to bring old buildings back into use, and so on). These projects are tangible, often highly visible and benefit local communities directly. I know some civic societies that have done terrific work in restoring, repainting, replanting, etc. My own society did lots of this practical stuff back in the 1960s and 70s (although I wasn’t there at the time and can take no credit): there are photos in the Society’s archives showing our members cleaning off graffiti, picking up litter, and planting trees. However, times have changed. There are now many more agencies and organisations that routinely undertake this work so that often all it takes is a phone call or email to the right person or organisation to prompt some sort of response and the Society doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting. But does a lack of practical projects indicate an unsuccessful society? Not necessarily!

So, if we are not going to use membership numbers, overall income, number of events, or number of projects as our overarching measure of a successful society, what are we left with?

Well, how about influence and impact? A successful society will undoubtedly interact with a wide number of stakeholders – decision makers within local and possibly national government, property owners and local businesses as well as local residents. And these interactions will be used by the society to convey messages about planning, heritage and design that will influence stakeholders in their thinking so that the society can point to outcomes and claim it was these interventions that led to the result achieved – in other words, the actions of the society had an impact on the result. However, demonstrating cause and effect in these situations can be very difficult unless credit is given publicly: sometimes, an outcome that chimes with the society’s aspirations may be no more than lucky chance or pure coincidence. We might claim ‘it was us that did it’, but can we prove it?

As you’ve probably guessed by now, there’s no easy way of measuring the overall success or otherwise of a civic society. The successful ones will be firing on all cylinders – doing lots of different things, or perhaps just a few big things, but doing them all really well. Context is important but so is reputation. How do your members regard what you do? What do people outside your membership think of you? (Have they even heard of you?) Do people come to you for advice? Are you the first place people come to for information and support when they need it? Do they trust your judgement?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, then no matter how many members you have, how much money you have, or how many events and projects you are running, to be held in high regard by others and to be trusted as ‘honest brokers’ is perhaps one of the true markers of a successful civic society.