The Cliff Lifters’ Tale

Tales from End to End
The Cliff Lifters’ Tale

by Richard Yoxall and Neville Burdett

There we were, on 28th June, celebrating the 127th birthday of the Saltburn Cliff Lift and who should come gate-crashing the party but none other than John and Nancy on their Land’s End to John o’Groats Walk!

But we’re a friendly bunch – last year we welcomed 126,000 people who went up or down the Lift during the summer holiday season. And then the other month we were welcoming visitors from England’s two other water-powered cliff lifts at Lynmouth and at Folkestone. Cliff Lifters are a special breed; we’ve made a kind of ‘Fellowship of the Lift’ and you can only join if you work on the lifts at Saltburn, Lynmouth or Folkestone. We three are the only water-powered Cliff Lifts in England. Scarborough’s two lifts are different because they are worked by electricity. (Actually the South Bay Lift at Scarborough is older than ours at Saltburn but it used sea-water for its ballast and this caused some parts of the machinery to corrode so it had to be electrified in the 1920s.)

Saltburn Cliff Lifts
Saltburn Cliff Lifts

Our Cliff Lift has an honourable history. Soon after the railway came to Saltburn in 1861, the town’s first pier was built and then a year later in 1870 a vertical Hoist (over 120 feet high) was erected to link the town with the beach down below. This wooden Hoist was fastened down with guy ropes and carried passengers up and down in a cage. It used the same counterbalancing principle that today’s Cliff Lift uses. However, it was, by today’s standards, a pretty ramshackle affair. Really, the Hoist was potentially very dangerous and in 1883 it was declared unsafe and it had to be demolished.

Saltburn lift base and pier
Saltburn lift base and pier

Yet the Hoist had been so popular that it was immediately replaced by a safer structure, the present Cliff Lift that is still in use today. It was opened on 28th June 1884 (127 years to the day before John and Nancy gate-crashed) and it operates on the same water-balancing principle of the old Hoist.

The system works like this. At the top of the slope, water is poured from a hidden reservoir into a tank on the tramcar waiting at the top of the track. When the tank is full enough, the extra weight causes the tramcar to descend the incline. At the same time, this makes the second tramcar (with an empty tank) to be pulled up the tramway in the opposite direction. When the descending tramcar reaches the bottom, it empties its water into the lower reservoir. What happens, you might ask, as the top reservoir keeps losing its water? Ah! The answer’s easy; we simply pump the water from the bottom reservoir back up the slope to the top again.

For those who have a mind for figures, the top reservoir holds 18,500 gallons, the bottom one takes 30,000 gallons and the holding tanks on the tramcars 350 gallons each. We like to think that the Saltburn Cliff Lift is the oldest surviving water-balanced lift in the world.

As you can imagine, we’re very proud of our Cliff Lift. Sometimes we are described as a ‘funicular’ tramway. This is the name given to any transport system that uses cables for hauling its rail cars up an inclined slope. We’ve even got a fan club with its own magazine called ‘Funimag’ and once we had a visit by a man from Italy who had been on 120 funiculars all over Europe.

Neville Burdett and Richard Yoxall
Neville Burdett and Richard Yoxall

So, if you fancy visiting us on our birthday (28th June) next year and you can prove that you have read this Cliff Lifters’ Tale, we’ll see if we can give you a free ride. That all depends, of course, on our management’s permission but (here’s the party line we always trot out):

“Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council are a wonderful employer to work for!”