Centenary Art Trail plans celebrate area’s rail heritage

RUGBY Rotarians have unveiled plans for a new Railway Art Heritage Trail as part of an ongoing centenary project to upgrade a section of the Great Central Way.

The club has applied for £15,000 Arts Council funding for the trail, which will see commissioned local artists collaborating with schools in a competition to produce unique artwork, interpretation boards and murals along the 1.2km route.

Rugby Rotary Club, Great Central Way, Art Heritage Trail, Laurence Ilbraham

First to be installed in a few weeks will be three new bespoke benches, funded by The Rugby Group Benevolent Fund and designed by Cawston artist and former Rotarian, Eric Gaskell, who is also confirmed as one of the competition judges. The back of the bench design incorporates trains, pedestrians and a cyclist as well as wildlife.

Eric Gaskell said: “I was delighted to devise and draw up the design for the new benches as well as putting forward ideas to involve local schoolchildren and artists to complete the project.

“The Art Trail is a project that will bring together a variety of age groups, allowing everyone to be part of something that will hopefully be around for many years.”

Rugby Rotary Club, Great Central Way, Art Heritage Trail, Laurence Ilbraham, Eric Gaskell
From left: Bob Holloway, Andy Wright, Keith Ward and Laurence Wilbraham lay track as part of the Great Central Way upgrade project.

Rugby Rotary Club is working in conjunction with Rugby Borough Council and Warwickshire Wildlife Trust to upgrade the section of the former railway line between Hillmorton Road and Abbey Street.

It ceased use as a railway in 1965 when Rugby Central Station was also demolished. Without the resources to manage it along its full length, the council handed over the lease to Warwickshire Wildlife Trust which now maintains the section south of Hillmorton Road. But they don’t have the resources to manage the northern section.

Chris Worman, Rugby Borough Council Parks and Grounds Manager, said: “One of the council’s key objectives is ensuring our green spaces are places where people want to be. By working in partnership with the Rotary Club we can help improve the visitor experience to areas such as Great Central Way whilst also proving more volunteering opportunities for local residents.

“And the benches not only provide a place to sit and relax but the unique design gives users of the Great Central Way the opportunity to reflect on the past industrial use of the area whilst also recognising the natural environment it is today.”

Plans also include interpretation boards, to be designed by local blacksmiths, in a style echoing the traditional British Rail signs and explaining the history of the Great Central Way.

From left to right Bob Holloway, Andy Wright, Keith Ward and Laurence Ilbraham, Eric Gaskell

Rugby Rotarian and GCW project leader Laurence Wilbraham, said: “We will soon be seeking a number of local artists in areas such as metalwork, woodwork, sculptors, graffiti etc. who would be appointed to work with one a particular local primary or senior school to create their piece of artwork for the trail. We want people to use their own ideas and imagination and we’re open to a wide diversity of artworks.

“It could be using recycled materials or incorporating engineering – in line with Rugby’s engineering history – and some murals on the walls of the bridges. We want to provide proper murals that will echo something about Rugby itself.”

Rugby Rotary Club is now more than halfway through its four-year project to enhance the southern section of the Great Central Way, including the removal of undergrowth and trees, improving the Sun Street Play Area, creating a wild play area, providing signage and, subject to community involvement, the provision of a community garden/orchard.

The first phase of the Art Trail, laying nearly 200ft of track, is under way thanks to the donation of rails and sleepers by Network Rail – and the hard work of Rotary and WWT volunteers, as well as members of the public.

From left to right Bob Holloway, Andy Wright, Keith Ward and Laurence Ilbraham, Eric Gaskell
An area of the Great Central Way north of Hillmorton Road that has been cleared by the volunteers.

Some volunteers have even been specially trained in strimming and hedge-laying for the project, which has managed to continue despite lockdowns – a period, claims Laurence, that has only brought the value of these trails into sharper focus.

“The Great Central Way is one of Rugby’s best kept secrets which was only really rediscovered by people during the first lockdown, particularly when Severn Trent closed Draycote Water,” he said.

“In our section the number of people has increased enormously because we’ve made it more attractive. We’ve opened up a lot of the vista between Lower Hillmorton Road Bridge and Hillmorton Road Bridge.

“It’s also had the net result of reducing incidents of anti-social behaviour. By making it more open and visible from the roads it’s meant areas are much more observed than they used to be, coupled with the increasing usage.”

He added: “To mark our centenary, Rugby Rotary Club members wanted to do something that would raise both the profile of the club and of Rotary, would provide long term benefits for the people of Rugby and involve volunteering and young people as well as doing something environmental.

“This is the largest and longest project we’ve ever been involved in and so far the feedback we’ve been getting from everyone who uses the Way is extremely positive.”

For further information about the Great Central Way project, Rugby Rotary Club or to volunteer, click here

Great Central Way, Rugby, Rugby Rotary Club, centenary, Laurence Ilbraham, Eric Gaskell

Background Information:

The Great Central Railway was opened in 1899 and ran from Marylebone Station, London to Sheffield via Rugby, Leicester and Nottingham. It was primarily a goods line and was built to the continental loading gauge. The section of the line between Rugby and Aylesbury was closed in 1966 and the section from Rugby to Nottingham was closed in 1969.

In 1970 RBC purchased 4.5 miles of the railway line comprising two sections, one extending from Onley Lane to Abbey Street and the other between the Oxford Canal and Newton.

In 1991 Central Railway Ltd proposed to re-open the railway following completion of the Channel Tunnel rail link although these proposals were rejected twice by Parliament.

Chiltern Railways had a long-term plan to re-open the railway between Aylesbury and Rugby (and later to Leicester) but in 2013 the company abandoned that proposal.

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