Exploring the East Coast Mainline – Retford & Doncaster

For episode three of Exploring the East Coast, I once again decided to head north and tick off the next two stations beyond Newark, the Nottinghamshire town of Retford and the South Yorkshire railway town that is Doncaster. Making the most of the journey, I headed down to London first and caught one of Hull Train’s services north (read about that here), giving me a couple of hours in Retford before my onwards train to Doncaster.

Hull Trains call at Retford every two hours on their Kings Cross to Hull services

Retford is a crossroads of both railways and waterways, with the Chesterfield Canal crossing the River Idle half a mile from where the East Coast Mainline (ECML) crosses the Sheffield to Lincoln line. After finding my way through a few residential streets near the station, a short footpath brought me out on the canal towpath, and the oasis of calm that was the Chesterfield Canal. The canal’s towpath is accessible throughout the town and is a great way to avoid the bustle of the centre whilst getting about.

During its life carrying commercial and industrial traffic, the canal was able to carry broad-beam boats as far as Retford, where the first narrow lock prevented anything other than narrowboats continuing towards Chesterfield. The canal’s importance to the town’s industrial heritage is still apparent with a crane from the early 1800s situated at Retford Wharf is now grade II listed.

The Chesterfield Canal runs through Retford

From the canal, I cut through a few back streets before joining Carolgate, one of the town’s main shopping thoroughfares and home to more than a dozen of the town’s 100+ listed buildings. Retford’s marketplace, located at the end of Carolgate and Grove St, contains another plethora of listed buildings including the town’s French-inspired Victorian town hall and Eleanor Cross War Memorial. Mirroring another ECML town 80 miles to the south, Retford has a cannon captured from the Russians during the Crimean War, however, unlike Huntingdon’s, Retford’s cannon was saved from the scrap pile during the Second World War and is now Grade II listed.

From the Market Place I headed down another street that contains a large number of listed buildings, Grove Street. Amongst these listed buildings is Amcott House, a grade II* listed 18th century townhouse which retains many of its original features such ornamental plasterwork ceilings and a wrought-iron staircase. The house is now home to the Bassetlaw Museum, which documents the history of northern Nottinghamshire from Prehistoric times up to the modern day, with a number of rooms set up to display parts of life in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries such as a Victorian school room and a 1940s Kitchen.

The Bassetlaw Museum’s 1940s Kitchen

Also housed in the museum are a large number of artifacts including an Anglo-Saxon log boat, almost 50,000 photographs and, most recently, The Pilgrim’s Gallery which celebrates the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage to America in 1620. Across the road from the Bassetlaw Museum, slightly further up Grove Street is the town’s Methodist Chapel, once described by BJ Biggs as “From whichever direction it is approached this building dominates the skyline”, something that is clearly apparent with the building almost twice the height of some of the surrounding buildings.

Retracing my steps to Carolgate, I turned down Exchange Street to the original entrance of King’s Park, opened in 938, to commemorate not only the reign of King George V, but also the Coronation year of King George VI. The original park occupied land between Chancery Lane and the River Idle, however following a further donation of land in 1960, the park was extended and now occupies the land bounded by the River Idle, Chesterfield Canal and the 16th century West Retford Hall.

The River Idle splits the old and new sections of Retford’s Kings Park

Having thoroughly enjoyed my whistle-stop tour of Retford and the Bassetlaw Museum, I headed back to the station in time for the next Hull Trains service, two hours after the one I arrived on. Retford is not served by many trains, with most services passing through without stopping, however along with the two-hourly Hull Trains service, there is also a two-hourly LNER London-York service and an hourly service between Lincoln and Sheffield for most of the day, providing reasonable connections to the town and to services serving destinations further afield.

The run between Retford and Doncaster is just 12-minutes and so before I knew it, we were passing the multiple railway yards south of Doncaster and pulling into the station. One thing that was noteworthy about the short journey was how busy the service was with plenty of people returning to rail as a way to have a day out or go and see family.

A large portion of Retford’s station building is now disused

Doncaster is one of the original railway towns, at a convergence of lines and in the past home to engine and carriage works. Whilst a lot of the railway industry closed (the carriage works were demolished not long before my visit) a large proportion of the town’s population is still employed by the railways and it remains well connected. With four hourly LNER services, a small range of CrossCountry, Grand Central and Hull Trains services as well as Northern local services across the region, Doncaster is somewhere you can get to from most of the country relatively quickly and easily.

Unfortunately, there’s not loads to do in the town and both of the places I had pencilled to visit were closed due to Covid restrictions/limited opening. The Minster and parish church of St. George, also known as Doncaster Minster, was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1853 and consecrated by the Archbishop of York in 1858. Given Minster status in 2004, it is one of Doncaster’s most architecturally important buildings, is Grade I listed, and was described by Sir John Betjeman as “Victorian Gothic at its very best”.

Doncaster’s grand station frontage

Having arrived in Doncaster just after 1500, I had timed my visit just wrong with the Minster being open for visitors outside of worship between 1100 and 1500 Monday to Friday and from 1100 to 1330 on Saturdays. However, the church yard had plenty of benches and, despite its location next to Doncaster’s ring road, was a great place to sit and recuperate after a day of rushing around whilst I double checked the other location on my list, Doncaster’s Mansion House.

Located on the site of the Carmelite Friary, the Mansion House was opened in 1749 as a location for the town’s corporation to entertain those individuals that were bringing wealth into the town via the Great North Road. Whilst Mansion Houses were also constructed in Newcastle, York and London, these other buildings contained both formal reception rooms and living quarters for the mayor, whereas Doncaster’s differed in being designed purely for entertainment. Unfortunately, whilst tours of the Mansion House’s stunning architecture have been possible in the past, the council has completely closed the building as part of its response to Covid and so I wasn’t able to visit.

Doncaster Minster

Unfortunately, my time in Doncaster was limited (the downside of cheap advance tickets) and I was struggling, so after being able to explore neither of my intended sites I headed back to the station to grab a coffee, do some writing and wait for the hourly stopping train to Sheffield. I was a bit disappointed with my visit and how little there was to do, however I have since discovered that there is the Doncaster Museum that looks like its worth a visit, and I’ve also previously checked out the South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum on the outskirts of the town that’s a great way of spending a few hours. I would certainly recommend a Retford though, with the Nottinghamshire town genuinely surprising me! If you’ve enjoyed this blog and would like to see the video of my explorations, you can find this episode on YouTube, here!

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