IN early Victorian times, hordes of people enjoyed the fresh air and open space of Shipley Glen, away from smoky mills and backstreets.

Visitor attractions came and went, not least the British Temperance Tea and Coffee House and a giant Camera Obscura, in which paying tourists viewed surrounding countryside projected onto inside walls.

By the late 1800s thousands of people were spending Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Shipley Glen, and entrepreneur Sam Wilson spotted the potential for a new attraction.

To reach the Glen, most folk walked down Victoria Road in Saltaire, across the River Aire bridge and up the steep woodland bridleway. Sam Wilson had an idea for a rope tramway, initially from the Roberts Park entrance, across Milner Fields and through the woods. The owners of Salts Estates refused permission but, undeterred, Wilson negotiated with the woodland owner and, in late 1894, construction of the tramway began. A track was laid, with top station buildings clad in corrugated iron and a bottom station comprised of three wooden platforms and a ticket booth. Each wooden tram seated 12.

Wilson charged a penny up and a penny down, but when canny Bradford folk decided to walk down rather than pay another full fare, he reduced it to a halfpenny. A trial run took place on May 18, 1895 and the tramway opened to the public the next day.

Today, Shipley Glen Tramway is Britain’s oldest funicular railway. Next year will be the 125th anniversary of the attraction, visited by people from around the world. Wedding parties have used it, a couple celebrated their Diamond Wedding anniversary on it, and there has even been a marriage proposal, half-way up the tramway.

“We had four people from Canada last week. We get visitors from Australia and New Zealand,” says tramway treasurer Richard Freeman. “Railway enthusiasts come from across the UK. Many visitors have fond memories of coming as children; some are now bringing their grandchildren. Someone wrote in our visitor book: ‘You put the fun in funicular’.”

The tramway, which had 27,119 passengers last year, is run by a dedicated team of volunteers. It has been operated and maintained by volunteers since 2001, with a 125-year lease from owners Bradford Council. From drivers to ‘greeters’ guiding people on and off the platforms, volunteers have various roles. “We have about 50, giving what time they can,” says trustee Maggie de’Vries, who has known the tramway all her life. “I was brought on it as a baby, it’s been in my life over 70 years. It’s a lovely part of our heritage. Our volunteers are great to work with. Everyone is trained for their role, and re-assessed every 12/18 months.”

The driver has overall charge of the tramway. There are currently six drivers, and more are needed. “It’s a big responsibility,” says Richard. “No previous experience is required, as we train them. They have to be fit as they must walk the track too, checking for things like debris and broken rails.”

Kathryn Pitcher is currently the only female driver. “I started volunteering here as a teenager. My dad, John Pitcher, is a driver and my son, Jamie, is a volunteer too,” she says.

Kathryn was originally a greeter, later becoming a dispatcher - the “eyes and ears” of the driver, at the bottom station - before training as a driver. She operates the tramway from controls comprising gears, handbrake and throttle.

“You have to gage the speed, when sending a full tram down with an empty one coming up, and do safety checks. There was a deer on the track one day.”

Dispatcher Jim Small talks to the driver on a radio and phone, and monitors the bottom half of the track on a screen.”I’ve only had to use the emergency stop once, in nine years, when someone put their arm out,” he says. “I like the camaraderie of the volunteers, we’re a little community.”

Greeters supervise passengers and give safety instructions. Hassan Ali volunteers every Saturday. “I help people on and off, I enjoy meeting different people here,” he says. “It’s a special place.”

The tramway is open at weekends, 12noon-4.30pm, and bank holidays. This summer it will open for Wild Wednesdays over the school holiday, in conjunction with Bracken Hall Countryside Centre, followed by Halloween tram rides and, at Christmas, the popular Santa Specials, with a new grotto opening this year.

Special events co-ordinator Christopher Bush is planning celebrations for next year’s anniversary.

The charm of the Victorian attraction is cherished - the museum, which has had a £27,000 refurbishment, features old tramway footage, swing boats from the fairground at the top, and a mock-up of an original tram, and in the ticket office there’s an array of items on display, including an old shop till.

And trustees are looking to the future, with plans for re-building the top station, including extending the sweet shop, popular with young visitors.

* For more about volunteering email Maggie de’Vries at