Unusual Modes of Transport in the British Isles
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Unusual Modes of Transport in the British Isles

Below is a list of modes of transport which are considered unusual or rare within the British Isles, although they could well be common place in other parts of the world.The list includes six aerial lifts, three gondola lifts, various horse drawn vehicles, some unusual and unique railway lines, a reaction ferry and two sea tractors.

Below is a list of modes of transport which are considered unusual or rare within the British Isles, although they could well be common place in other parts of the world.

The list includes six aerial lifts, three gondola lifts, various horse drawn vehicles, some unusual and unique railway lines, a reaction ferry and two sea tractors.    


Although common place all over the world, aerial lifts, which are known as cable cars in the U.K, are something of a rarity in Britain, with the country having only six of them in total.

There are two located at the Alton Towers and Drayton Manor theme parks in Staffordshire, and three used as mountain lifts, one on the Great Orme at Llandudno in north,Wales, one on Ben Nevis at Fort William in Scotland and one on the Heights of Abraham in Derbyshire, England. 

The most recently built cable car is a public, urban mode of transport, known as the Emirates Air Line Cable Car. Constructed in 2011 in readyness for London's Olympic Games. This urban, gondola type, cable car is the first of it’s kind in the U.K, and takes foot passengers and / or cyclists the 0.62 miles across one of the meanders situated on the south side of the River Thames, between it’s two stations located on the Greenwich Peninsula, situated on the west side of the meander and the Royal Victoria Docks situated on the meander’s east side.


A gondola lift is a metal frame or cage attached to a runner situated on the underside of a bridge. The gondola is put in place to link a road or pathway to either side of a river. Gondola lifts are built upon bridges that span navigable waterways where room for a ship to pass below it is required. A bridge with a gondola lift inplace is technically known as a transporter bridge. 

There have been less than twenty five of these types of bridges built worldwide with only seven of them still in use today. Five transporter bridges were built in the U.K, three of which are still in use, they are - .

The 645 foot long, Grade I listed, Newport Transporter Bridge, which links the B4237 road in Newport, south Wales across the River Usk, which was built in 1906.

The 851 foot long, Grade II listed, Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge, which links the A178 road in Middlesbrough, Tyne and Wear across the River Tees which was built in 1911. This particular  bridge is the longest of the world’s remaining seven transporter bridges.

The 418 foot long Royal Victoria Dock Transporter Bridge in London, a foot passenger only, transporter bridge which spans the River Thames between Dockland’s Eastern Quay and Brittania Village, which was built in 1998.   


Britain’s barges were built primarily for use upon the country’s two thousand miles of canals and were at first powered by horses, although today they are generally fuelled by petrol. 

Seven canals around the country still use this old, tried and tested method of transportation as tourist attractions during the Summer months. 

They can be found on the -   Tiverton Canal in Devon, The Llangollen Canal in north Wales, The Kennet and Avon Canal between Bristol and Bath, the Foxton Canal in Leicestershire, the Godalming Canal in Surrey, the Peak Forest Canal in Ashton – under – Lyne near Manchester and the Newbury Canal in Berkshire.


The oldest type of taxi in the world is the horse drawn taxi, and they can still be found all over the world. In the U.K they are officially known as Hackney Cabs, the same name that London's iconic black cabs are known by, but the few horse drawn taxis that remain today in Britain are found mainly in the counties of Cornwall and Devon.

These olde worlde, horse drawn taxis are still a regular mode of transport in the village of Polperro in Cornwall and the Devon villages of Cockington and Clovelly, due to the very steep inclines on which these three seaside, villages were built.


A hundred years ago a horse drawn tram upon the streets of any city in the world was commonplace, today however they are a rare sight with only a few remaining worldwide.

Today within the British Isles there is only one city which uses horse drawn trams.

The Douglas Bay Horse Tramway, situated on a 1.6 mile stretch of the promenade on the Isle Of Man’s capital Douglas, has been in continuous use since May of 1876, making it the oldest, continuously used, horse drawn, tram service in the world.


The British invented the railways, they also built the world’s first underground, metro system and they were instrumental in constructing some of the longest rail networks around the world.

Today Britain’s 10,261 mile long railway network is considered to be the busiest in the world. 

Britain also hosts thousands of miles of private rail lines which include heritage lines, steam train lines, narrow gauge railways, mountain railways and funicular railways.

Of all these railways the funicular railway is possibly the most unusual and ingenious.

A funicular railway is a rail track situated on a steep incline which is powered by two cars which counterbalance one another as they make their way up and down a mountain or cliffside. The two cars are are attached to one another by rope or steel cable and have wheels which run on rails.

Originally funicular railways would have been powered by water, by way of a water tank fitted to the underside of each car, which would fill or empty in order to give the respective car balance.Today most of these types of railways have been converted to electricity.

All but one of Britain’s thirty remaining funicular railways were built on the coast, many of which became known as cliff lifts. Britain has four interesting funicular railways, they are - 

The Grade II listed, Leas Cliff Lift in Folkestone in Kent, which is one of the few in the country still powered by water.

The Saltburn Cliff Lift situated at Saltburn – on – Sea near Cleveland, which was built in 1884 making it the oldest of it’s type in the country.

The Aberystwyth Cliff Railway, which runs to the summit of Constitution Hill in Aberystwyth, in north Wales. The railway is 778 feet high, making it the country’s highest funicular railway.

The Bridgnorth Cliff Railway, situated between High Town and Low Town in Bridgnorth in Shropshire, which is the country’s shortest funicular railway at 111 feet high and the steepest, with a gradient of 64 %.

Other interesting British railway lines include - 

The Snaefel Mountain Railway, a tourist, heritage line situated on the Isle of Man, between the village of Laxey and the summit of the island’s highest peak Snaefell, which is the only electric, mountain railway in the British Isles and the Snowdon Mountain Railway, another tourist, heritage line situated between Llanberis in north Wales and the summit of Wales’ highest mountain Mount Snowdon, which runs on the country’s only public, rack and pinion railway track. This unusual, narrow gauge track is 4.7 miles long and was built in 1896. 

The country’s narrowest gauge railways measure just one foot and eleven and a half inches wide.There are just three of these tiny lines left in operation today, all of which are situated in Wales. They are the 13.5 mile long, Ffestiniog Railway, the 25 mile long, Welsh Highland Railway and the 12 mile long, Vale of Rheidol Railway

Britain’s highest railway line is the Cairngorm Mountain Railway, situated along the northern slope of Scotland’s Cairn Gorm Mountain, in the Cairngorm National Park near Aviemore. This 6,460 foot long track rises by 1,516 feet from it’s base camp, situated at an elevation of 2,083 feet to it’s highest station situated at 3,599 feet.  


A reaction ferry is a type of cable ferry which is propelled by the reaction of a river’s current. These types of ferries are used on fast flowing rivers all over the world and are made up of a single hull or pontoon which is tethered to guide ropes situated on either side of the river which uses the tide or current of the river as a form of propulsion.

Just one of these types of ferry exist in Britain, the four hundred year old, Hampton Loade Ferry, situated on the River Severn at Hampton Loade in Shropshire. This reaction ferry is unique as it is steered by way of a punting pole, unlike other types of reaction ferries around the world, which are steered by a rudder or bridle cable.


Sea tractors are a very rare sight in the U.K in this day and age, but there are at least two which have stood the test of time which are still in regular, everyday use.

The South Sands to Salcombe and the Bigbury - on - Sea to Burgh Island sea tractors, both situated on Devon’s south coast and both of which make journeys of just a few hundred yards, are the preferred mode of transport at these four sites owing to these small, seaside locations having no quayside or jetty, which make travel by boat impossible.

                Title image – The Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge over the River Tees, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

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Comments (8)

Interesting report on these unusual modes of transport within Britain.

Impressive and interesting topic to share. Thanks DeeBee

Excellent. I know the Transporter Bridge in the Boro very well.

Never heard of sea tractors. I know that the early cruel treatment of carriage and work horses in London is what inspired Anna Sewell to write Black Beauty.

Interesting information on unusual transport. Voted up. Thank you Dee Bee. Thank you also for support.

interesting article

An interesting read with lots of great detail!

Wonderful article. I've ridden the mountain lift on the Great Orme at Llandudno. Very peaceful up there.