Thursday, 31 March 2011


Here is a photo that I took on Monday in the car park of the Aeon Shopping Mall in Hiroshima. That locomotive gently rusting away behind the palm trees is a Japan National Railways Class C11 2-6-4T. There were 381 of these engines were built between 1932 and 1947, and the last was withdrawn from service in 1975. They are the equivalents of our own British Railways Class 4MT 2-6-4 tank locomotives and their Fowler and Fairburn predecessors, and they performed much the same work hauling suburban and rural passenger trains.

A pity that it is the wrong gauge for our track at Kirkby Stephen East! In Japanese public parks and town squares there are more than 400 steam locomotives like this rusting away in the sunshine, presented forty or fifty years ago by JNR management to local authorities as monuments to steam. That is the equivalent of three 'Woodhams'! - the  famous scrapyard at Barry Island from where many of the locomotives restored and working on Britain's 'Heritage Railways' were 'rescued'.

You might think this has little to do with our Stainmore project. But here is the difference. In Japan   the surviving steam heritage is still owned and run by the national railway system, there is very little tradition of private conservation and restoration by volunteers. Sadly all these locomotives like 'C11 189' here will never be rescued and steam once again. They will still be rusting on the same plinths a hundred years from now.

In Britain, starting back in the 1950's with projects like the Talyllyn, the Ffestiniog and the Bluebell Railways and then the North Yorkshire Moors and the Keigthley and Worth Valley, there began a long and very successful tradition of the voluntary restoration and development of 'Heritage Railways' that is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Our Stainmore Railway Company has now also become a part of this proud tradition. But it can only flourish if we put down strong roots and attract enthusiastic -and perhaps especially young supporters that will continue to take responsibility for 'making things happen'. Now that we are beginning operations as a working railway we will need the active support of many, many more volunteers.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Taking the Tablet

I wonder if amongst the local memorabilia that still survives from the Stainmore Line there are any more of these around - and if so if they will turn up at our exhibition of memorabilia at the 'Stainmore 150' event at Kirkby Stephen East  from 27-29 August.

Railwaymen knew these heavy metal discs as 'tablets' and in signal boxes they were locked into a machine known as the "Tyler Patent Tablet Apparatus". They were the critical link in a safety system to ensure that two trains couldn't collide head on when using a length of single track between stations. The system worked by having a tablet  machine in the signal boxes at each end of a section of track - in this case between Kirkby Stephen and Warcop. You could only ever have one tablet out of the pair of machines at any time. The driver carried it with him in the cab of the locomotive and it was his guarantee that he wouldn't meet a train coming the other way, a disaster known to American railwaymen as a 'cornfield meet'!

'Tablets' were handed between signalman and driver in a black leather pouch attached to a white hoop, and you often see these in collections of memorabilia too. There was quite a knack to hook it over the arm of a driver high up on the footplate of a passing locomotive at night, and if you missed and he dropped it there would be a great deal of cussing from the footplate as the brakes were slammed on and the fireman had to clamber down and retrieve the dropped item from the trackside. But there was no question of carrying on without that all important tablet in the cab.

Do you have a tablet from any of the sections of the single lines on which they were used around Kirkby Stephen, or east of 'Barney'? If so we would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Hands to the Plough

A couple of days ago I mentioned the exhibition of 'memorabilia' that we are planning to hold at Kirkby Stephen East over the 'Stainmore 150' weekend in August. There is one item I would love to see again if it is still somewhere around the district and I wonder if anyone knows its whereabouts ...

Some time around 1962 or 1963 the late Freddie Marshall from Nateby showed me a 'hand snowplough' that had come into his possession. I think that he said that it had once been used at Warcop Station - certainly it had come from somewhere down the Eden Valley Branch. It was a bit like those big wide brushes that school caretakers used to wield except that in place of the broom head it had a pine board that you could use to push the snow off the station platform and onto the track.

In those days I guess part of the country station porter's lot was to clear the station platforms in wintery weather.

What was so interesting about this hand snow plough was that it had the initials S&DR carved into the back of the board. So it must have dated from the 1860's or early 1870's when the line was operated by the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Maybe someone is still using this antique to push snow off their drive!

If you own it or one like it please let us know and volunteer to bring it along to the memorabilia exhibition in August!

Monday, 28 March 2011


The railway and the A66 were not the only users of the Stainmore Gap. One thing that I remember as a regular visitor to the Summit Box during my childhood was the extraordinary number of birds that used the pass on migrations. I wonder if any of our friends in the Cumbria Wildlife Trust have made any scientific studies of this?

One winter afternoon maybe in 1958, an hour before dusk with no trains due until the teatime train from Darlington to Penrith, I tramped along the track to the stone farm accommodation bridge that crossed the tracks as they started to dip downhill towards Barras and just before the derelict platelayer's cottages. It was a dull gey world with flurries of snow and standing on that bridge I was surrounded by millions of starlings migrating west to east.

I just couldn't resist the temptation to throw an odd snowball in their general direction; of course they just parted and flew either side of it. But the flock literally was that dense - so many many starlings that they had to veer to left and right to avoid a single soft ball of snow. And those feathered squadrons must have been passing for at least an hour. Amazing!

Does this still happen I wonder?

Sunday, 27 March 2011


One thing that was very unusual about Kirkby Stephen East - in fact unique I belive on the old North Eastern Railway - was that it had electric lighting. I don't have the date of installation to hand - it is in Keith Richardson's book - but I seem to remember that it was installed around 1906 and it was driven by the little hydro-electric generator at Stenkrith.

This wasn't just an advantage in terms of better lighting at the station building - although 'Barnie' had gas lighting well into the 1950's. It was an even bigger boon to signalmen who everywhere else on the Stainmore line had to go through the  daily ritual of 'lamping' - filling up the old paraffin lamps and then climbing those narrow iron ladders on signal posts in all weathers to change the lamp and ensure that the lights kept burning.

On a sunny June day 'lamping' was fun, but of course if a lamp blew out on a stormy December night - and they often did! - then the signalman had to light a new one and struggle along the track in the storm and up that iron ladder and change the lamds over in the dark. A difficult and dangerous job and a lonely one too at a box like Stainmore or Belah where you were probably the only soul for three or four miles around.

Down in Kirkby Stephen East Box or the Junction Box I guess they just switched the electric lights on at night. But there must have been the occasional bulb to change in the dark. I wonder if anyone can remember how it was done?

Saturday, 26 March 2011


Here is something that usually lives in my desk drawer. It is a North Eastern Railway guard's whistle dating from around 1905, and it was used by a guard on the 'Stainmore Line' back before World War I. It was given to me by my grandfather about fifty years ago.

It still works too! If  I see any of the dogs in our neighbourhood trespassing onto our vegetable allotment I occasionally give them a good blast on it from the study window! Even from 200 yards it soon gets their attention and they slope off with a "It wasn't me guv'nor! Honest!" look about them. Dogs the world over always know when they are where they are not supposed to be ...

There must be thousands of such items around that people keep to bring back memories either of the line or these days perhaps more likely of members of their family that worked on the railway.

In August during the 'Stainmore 150' weekend we will be holding an exhibition of memorabilia associated with the railway and if you do have such items we would love to hear from you so that you can bring it along to be displayed over the three days in a secure environment. To plan the exhibition and get display cards made we need to know in advance what you would like to bring. Drop me an e-mail to and I will forward it to the organisers, or drop in any Saturday or Sunday at Kirkby Stephen East and chat to Mike or Sue.

Friday, 25 March 2011

'First Sod' Poster

Ann Sandell sent this me this facsimile of a poster recently. It is  a copy of the announcement of the ceremony for the 'cutting of the first sod' - an event which took place at the site of what is now Kirkby Stephen East station on Tuesday August 25th 1857.

On that day, and led by the Kirkby Stephen Brass Band, the assembled dignitaries, the directors of the Stockton and Darlington and South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway, and townsfolk met in the Market Place at 11:00 AM and processed to was then just a field well to the south of the town. Henry Vane, the Second Duke of Cleveland made the trip over from Raby Castle to perform the ceremony of cutting the first sod. I wonder if he was dressed in the finery of his uniform as a General of the British Army. No doubt, in best Victorian tradition, there were many and long speeches made.

The Duke of Cleveland was a recent convert to the profitable cause of railway development. He had given the directors of the Darlington and Barnard Castle Railway a very hard time during the preparatory work for building that line. On one occasion his gamekeepers had caught the railway's surveyors trespassing on his estates disguised as miners. The engineer, Thomas Bouch, was summoned to Raby Castle to apologise and explain himself and must have been quaking in his shoes. But it seems that Henry Vane took a liking to the young engineer and later became closely involved in the Stainmore railway project.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Oral Histories

Mike Thompson has asked me to remind 'diary' readers that over the next few months we will be recording the memories and reminiscences of people who worked on the Stainmore line.  A number of ex-employees have already volunteered to share their recollections of working on the railway, and the work of recording and transcribing these will be carried out by members of the Kirkby Stephen Family History Group throughout the summer. We will also be making recordings at the 'Stainmore 150' Festival in August.

Did you work on the line, or do you have a friend, relative or neighbour that did so? If so please let us know and we will arrange for one of the project team to talk to you and explain what the programme is about and how you can take part. If you would rather that your memories weren't publicly shared during your lifetime it is possible to record them but have them held in confidence to be retained in the archives for use by future researchers.

We also plan to capture the memories of those who used the railway regularly in their daily lives

Please e-mail me at and I will pass your details on to the research team

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Ride on a 'Wickham' trolley

Although a lot of material around the 'Stainmore 150' celebrations is likely to focus on memories of the Kirkby Stephen end of the line, this year's events are concerned with remembering the whole route. We shouldn't overlook connections between the railway and other towns and villages. 'Barney' had a large railway community in the town, West Auckland and Darlington sheds had many staff who worked most of their lives out on the line, and there were employees scattered in many communities along the route.

Here is a picture that I took at Bowes in 1959 of the local 'PW' ('permanent way') gang on their 'Wickham' trolley. I remember the day well because it was just before they gave me an illicit ride up to Stainmore Summit on their 'trusty steed' as they made a trip to check out some problems with the track drainage. It was a noisy and draughty trip 'up the bank', but coming back was a 'whizz' -  they didn't use the engine at all. Just 'rowed off' with their boots and settled back as that trolley rocketed silently downhill under the force of gravity. Scary stuff!

Do any of the people on this trolley still live in the Bowes area I wonder? If they do, then they must be in their 'seventies' or 'eighties' I guess ... If you do then I hope you will be coming along to the ex-employees reunion on 29 August at Kirkby Stephen east!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Smardale Railway Track

One of our researchers has been looking at some back numbers of the Kirkby Stephen Grammar School Magazine and in 'Phoenix 1974' came across some poems about the railway by students including this one about a visit to Smardalegill 

Interesting to realise that even thirty six years ago to local teenagers the Stainmore line was already something from history ...

We ran up the banking at top speed

On the top, lay gasping
Hearts beating fast
There’s the sound of a tractor
Spreading manure!
In the distance were the blue hills near Kirkby Stephen
On the track was a decayed rabbit
Bones whitened in the sun
Myxomatosis or dinner for a fox?
On rushed Form 2I
Past bridges, ditches
On to the cottages
They put on their brakes
In days gone by these were nice homes
And snug
Now – empty broken windows
Holes in the roof
Snails on the wall
Hay on the floor
No more fires to keep the house warm
Moving on to the blackened Lime Kilns
Gathering Speed
Round the mossy viaduct
Through the ferns, past the silver birches
Down the long sloping valley
And on to the crossing

David Hunter 2nd Year KSGS 1975

Monday, 21 March 2011

New platform takes shape

During March a new platform extension has been taking shape on site at Kirkby Stephen East station. The work was one of the improvements requested by Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate and needed to be carried out before we begin to operate trains for the public in August.

The work will extend the former eastbound  'Darlington Platform' of the station by 155' (50m) which will mean that we can draw up two coach trains outside the train shed that we are currently using to display two of our Gresley coaches and the 0-4-0 Peckett 'saddle tank' locomotive 'F.C. Tingey'.

Last weekend work on the retaining walls of the platforms was well advanced and the new walls are beginning to make an impressive site as they curve away to the west.

The work is being funded thanks to the generous assistance of four grants which the Stainmore Railway Company received last summer. You can find more details about the the project here