Remember When – Enthusiasts who are paying tribute to region's rail heritage
It wasn’t all that long ago that folk could hop on a train and head out west across Stainmore. Committed volunteers are keeping the locomotive dream alive. Reporter Alex Metcalfe spoke to them in the wake of their 20th anniversary.
MIKE Thompson is keen on trains. The former bio-chemist is one of more than a dozen committed volunteers who’ve restored the old Kirkby Stephen East railway station with the Stainmore Railway Company.
The group celebrated its 20th year in 2017 and boasts members from Teesdale and beyond – all drawn by the locomotive romance of the Stainmore Line.
Less glamorous than its Settle to Carlisle neighbour, the line was an artery of the industrial revolution providing coke and coal for the steel plants of the North West before it carried passengers.
The Beeching axe ended all that in the 1960s.
After being flagged down from his work on the towering new shed, Mr Thompson met me in the icy station building for a brew in front of a fire.
The snow hadn’t stopped anyone – dirty-faced OAPS with blackened fingernails wandered in and out, hunting for a spanner or a tin of paint.
And there were precious few signs of any mod cons.
He says: “For now, we’ve had to keep our steam locos in the station building which isn’t ideal when you have jobs like metal welding and grinding which you cannot do when there are members of the public about.
“We’re having a properly designated building to do all that so we can do it at weekends or whenever.”
The Stainmore Railway Company team secured £954,000 of Heritage Lottery Funding last year and is now on the brink of completing it’s new maintenance shed.
The roof was due to go on at the start of March – but, as ever, the weather has had it’s say. Once the Lottery Grant money lands there will be two part-time posts created at the site – one for project planning and another to reach out to schools in the area to promote the work.
He says: “Theoretically it could get to Appleby – that’s always been the stated long term plan. When we came here this place was such a state and we’ve concentrated on having a base established.
“It’s all been a key driver towards the new shed – the big problem is we’ve got to have somewhere dry.
“It can be done – we need quite a lot of money. We’ll have to see if we can put in rolling stock once we have a building to put it in.”
Mr Thompson is the son of a railwayman and grew up in Peterborough “with all things ELER and NER”.
His love of locomotion has endured through his student days and after working at Newcastle University the Stainmore Line provided him with an outlet for his passions.
“It’s bred into me,” he says.
Notices adorn the walls of the working museum telling of the line’s function – including some lesser known tales.
The Durham Miners’ Special carried injured miners across to convalescence on the Cumbrian coast every Friday for 70 years – a service which never appeared on the public timetable.
And the line was almost given an extra station cum hotel at the tiny hamlet of Barras on the way to Tan Hill from Kirkby Stephen. Folk still ponder why.
Mr Thompson says: “The Pease family, of Darlington, were quite keen that it should have a station and have it laid out in such a way so it could function as a hotel.
“Perhaps they saw Barras as a tourist destination or as a base in the shooting season.”
Teesdale’s railways remain a rich untapped seam of social history. Efforts to restore the old lines in the dale have cropped up sporadically but nothing on the same scale as Stainmore.
It’s something Mr Thompson thinks is ripe for the taking.
“They did all the officer training there and that’s a huge untold story across the railway line,” he says.
“If someone was prepared to put that story together I am sure there would be a lottery grant available.
“There must be people in Barney who know about it – but if you don’t do it soon we’ll lose all of that oral history.”
Winston Churchill visited Teesdale on the J21 65033 which worked the line between Barnard Castle and Kirkby Stephen.
But some of the best stories come from the rank and file who used the line.
Mr Thompson says: “The last time I was back across the old crews were saying how on Friday nights the train would stop at Broomielaw.
“One passenger would get out on the platform but more than 20 squaddies would jump out the other side to avoid having to pay for a ticket.
“One of the drivers watched one night as a one of them, who must have been worse for wear, headed off the train towards the coal drops.
“He’d forgotten where he was and dropped head first into one of them.
“It’s a huge part of Barnard Castle and Teesdale’s history
“It’s just someone being prepared to do the legwork and record the oral histories before these people go.”
Meanwhile, the Stainmore group is already planning its next moves “post-shed” – installing a turntable it got from Darlington Bank Top last year and talking to kids in the region’s schools.
Inspiring the next generation of engineers is just as important to Mr Thompson.
He says: “We have got the nucleus of 16 to 19-year-olds that we are now starting to train up for what we call safety critical work.
“We also have youngsters who do the Duke of Edinburgh awards and we’d always welcome more if they want to come along.
“It’s important to work as closely as we can with groups like that and because all the work we’re doing is for nothing if we’re not training youngsters.
“To have a succession plan is vital and is part of what we do so we shuffle off to the great shunting yard in the sky they are there to keep the project going.”