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Quakers and Railways — A Day in Darlo.

26 Mar

 For many people, Darlington just means an intermediate railway station on the East Coast mainline between London Kings Cross and Edinburgh Waverley. Passengers travelling to bigger and more exciting destinations may glance out of the coach window, see a fairly nondescript industrial town and then quickly return to their books, newspapers or i-Pads. I had visited it a couple of times to see football matches featuring my home town team of Chesterfield. But the football ground is stuck out on the ring road so I did not get a chance to see the town. I did however, wonder why the local team was nicknamed “The Quakers.” A bit of history to unearth there I had thought.

 But the main reason I ever went to Darlington for many years was because of the railway. As well as being on the mainline, the route of the “Flying Scotsman”, it also has links to Bishop Auckland to the west and Redcar and Saltburn- by- the- sea to the west. Darlington is the mainline link for the much bigger town of Middlesbrough, which is stuck out on the Saltburn branch line. Although I have just referred to it disparagingly as a mere branch line, this route is actually that of the world’s first public railway: The Stockton to Darlington, opened in 1825. It, in fact, went on to Shildon, a few miles to the west. The main idea was to move coal from the south Durham mines around Darlington to the river port of Stockton on Tees, where it could then be shipped further afield. However, passengers were also carried on some trains and so it became a trailblazing world first. This is why Darlington, far from being an anonymous intermediate station, has been christened “The Cradle of the Railways”. Initially, horses pulled the waggons and coaches, preceded by a man walking with a red warning flag in his hand. Then it’s builder, George Stephenson, introduced one of his first stream locomotives, “Locomotion No 1” to pull the trains, gaining speeds of up to 20 mph, which was frighteningly fast for the time. Stephenson is sometimes known as the “Father of the Railways” so it was very apt that he was standing proudly by the “cradle” as public railways were “born.”

  The original Locomotion No 1 is still displayed at Darlington’s “Head of Steam” railway museum, which has taken over most of  North Road Station, the town’s earliest rail stop. The main station now is called Bank Top, which as the name suggests, sits on a hill above the centre. Some towns are overlooked by a castle or a cathedral, Darlington has its railway station. It’s tall clock tower and long, curving glass and iron roof are impressive and can be seen from many parts of the town centre below.

  It was the railway connection that brought my friend, Ian, and I to Darlington one day in March, 2013. We intended to visit the aforementioned “Head of Steam” museum, following in the footsteps( or railtracks) of the popular TV railway traveller, Michael Portillo. However we had not our research properly, and found to our dismay, that the museum was closed on the day of our planned visit. It seemed we were really stymied! We were now faced with a whole day in Darlington, a town not noted for its tourist hot spots. However, I have a theory that just about anyplace is interesting if you are willing to be interested in it. And so it proved with Darlington, or “Darlo” as the locals call it.

  We walked down from the rail station and once we had negotiated one of the busy roads that encircle the centre, we entered the more tranquil environment of  St Cuthbert’s churchyard, by a little river, followed by a sloping, impressively large market square. We picked up a Heritage Trail from the library and proceeded to have a very interesting potter round the town, punctuated by cafe stops.

  Darlington has spent most of its history as a small, market town. It was founded in Anglo-Saxon times and was originally called Dearthington– the settlement of Dearth’s people. Much later, it became an important centre for the wool and linen industries .It specialised particularly in bleaching and material was sent from as far away as Scotland to be processed there. The wealth generated by this enterprise enabled local businessmen to invest in other industries such as: mining, iron, engineering and, most significantly of all: the fledgeling railways of the early 19th century. Many of the most notable and influential businessmen were Quakers or members of the Society of Friends. So that’s where the football team get its nickname from! At the centre of the town, next to the Victorian market hall stands a statue of Joseph Pease, the UK’s first Quaker MP. His father, Edward Pease, was the main instigater and backer of the Stockton-Darlington railway. Edward neatly personified and brought together the two things that came to symbolise the town — Quakerism and railways. It was he who employed the Tyneside engineer, George Stephenson, to build the ground-breaking railway.

  The Society of Friends is a non-conformist church founded in the mid 17th century by a religious visionary, George Fox. They dressed plainly, addressed each other as “thee”, refused to swear oaths, opposed war and slavery and were strict teetotallers. They had to endure discrimination and persecution right from the start as they were seen to be subversive and challenging the foundations of society. ( ie the Establishment.) In Charles 11’s reign laws were passed stating that everyone had to swear an oath of loyalty to the crown ( which the Quakers refused to do) and that worship was illegal in any place but the Anglican Church. So Quakers got thrown into prison, had their meeting houses seized or destroyed and were generally made to feel unwelcome. Even in Darlington, up to the 1830’s, they were discriminated against and excluded from many areas of public life. Although their first meeting house in Darlington was built in 1668, they generally had to meet secretly in private houses , risking harsh penalties. I imagine this is why they formed such a close-knit and supportive community and why they developed into such strong, determined characters. Football managers use this scenario to make their teams strong in character — it’s called developing a “siege mentality.” I wonder if Alex Ferguson has Quaker roots?  On second thoughts — probably not!

  Successful Quaker businessmen in Darlo, such as the Pease and Backhouse families employed Quaker architects to design their business premises and modest houses. They also linked up with Quaker bankers to finance their projects. Both Barclays and Lloyds banks were founded by Quakers. Quakers became major employers in the Darlington area, and important philanthropists. Joseph Pease’s statue has on its plinth 4 panels illustrating the key causes that he and his family were heavily involved in. They were: politics, industry, education and the Abolition of Slavery. Near to the statue stands the prominant clock tower which Pease donated to the town.

  Thus it can be said that Darlo in the 19th century was as much a Quaker town as a railway town. Evidence of the Friends’ presence is still common. There is the simple Georgian Meeting House. There is the more ornate Backhouses bank which looks like a Venetian palace. ( a bit un-Quaker like.)  James Backhouse and his sons were prominant Quaker bankers and commissioned the famous Quaker architect, Alfred Waterhouse, to build their impressive bank which still stands proudly in High Row, one of Darlington’s main shopping streets. Waterhouse also built the Victorian Market hall as well as more famous commissions such as Manchester Town Hall and The Natural History Museum in London. We picked up our town trail from the Edward Pease Free Library. It’s a striking red-brick building paid for by a £10,000 bequest in Peases’s will.

  The most memorable Quaker location in Darlington, in my opinion, is their traquil and beautiful Burial Ground. It is hidden away down a narrow lane off Skinnergate. Neat rows of small, identical, rounded headstones sit in a quiet, grassy space shaded by trees. The spring sun shone as we entered and we were far enough away from the traffic to hear the birds singing. Lovely clumps of snowdrops decorated the areas between the graves. Along a retaining wall was a collection of graves belonging to the Pease family, including Edward and Joseph. It was a calm and peaseful place, if you’ll excuse the pun.

  Another impressive place with a Quaker connection was the Imperial Centre, which was originally a Temperence Hotel from the mid-19th century. This was when the Friends dominated the town and drinking was frowned upon. The battle against the “evil drink” was lost however as it is now a restaurant and bar!

  The most interesting and atmospheric streets in Darlington, in our opinion, were High Row, Skinnergate and the narrow, cobbled lanes that connect them. These are known as wynds or yards. There are 4 of them. To be corny for a moment, entering these lanes was like stepping back in time. The wynds and yards contain buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries with no modern intrusions. They have a strong medieval flavour and many buildings are listed. The upper stories were built wider than the ground floor so as to create more space which wasn’t available on the ground. Some have kinks or finkles halfway along them. “Finkle” is the Scandinavian word for “elbow” or “bend”. The name is a reminder that Darlington has a Viking heritage as well. Another clue is all the street names ending in gate, such as Skinnergate, Bondgate, Priestgate, Northgate etc. This comes from the old Danish word for street ie “gata”. In Clark’s Yard two buildings facing each other have been chamfered or scooped out at ground level to allow horse-drawn carriages to pass down the lane. It’s a nice historical scene to conjure up.

  Street names often conjure up evocative images from the past. For instance Darlington’s Horsemarket and Salt Yard give us a strong clue as to what used to happen there. Similarly Bakehouse Hill reminds us of the days when towns and villages had a communal oven. The Pennyweight Pub now stands on the site of the 18th century common bakery. People would bring along their loaves and pies to put in the oven and they would pay by weight. Hence came the term: “penny weight.”

  What is fun about doing these town trails is spotting buildings that have changed their functions over the years. Sadly you also hear about the ones that have been demolished, to be replaced by a modern equivalent, in the interests of “progress.” Those that have survived are not always in the best of “health” or in their original format. For instance, the 1902 Todds Brothers Drapery and Soft Furnishings with its eye-catching, large display windows and decorative external tiles, has now metamorphasised into 3 separate business premises — a clothes shop, a cafe and a barbers. This artificial division of a once fine building looked strange. We had a drink in the cafe and to our disapointment, found that the original late-Victorian decor had been buried under a false ceiling, plastic panelling and modern lights. Any sense of history had been wiped out. Still they served a nice cappaccino. I wonder whatever happened to the Todd brothers?

  In numerous places, brash modern shop fronts clashed with a Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian building above. In one insensitive case, a gaudy shopping centre and amusement arcade had taken over the ground floor of a wonderful Art deco building from the early 1930’s. At least they had not knocked it down but it was sad to see a once proud building looking neglected and partly vandalised.

  Of course towns cannot stand still and exist solely as historical theme parks. Darlington is no exception. The Great North Road no longer runs through its centre and horses no longer clip-clop across its cobbles. The coaching inns have had to reinvent themselves as pubs, clubs and restaurants.  Great animal markets no longer feature in the centre of town. One red-striped modern water feature was supposed to remind people of the blood of the animals that used to be slaughtered there. Now the same streets are full of shoppers enjoying the relative peace and safety of the pedestrianised centre. So “progress” has banned the cars as well as the farm animals, so cannot be viewed as a wholly bad thing. Inevitably there is a Mall, the building that is now ubiquitous across the western world. OK — malls keep you warm and dry in winter and are very convenient, but it’s a shame that they often lack character and end up making every place look the same. To be fair, Darlington’s Cornwall Shopping Centre  tries to blend in with the surrounding older buildings. However, when we went inside ( to use the facilities), it was the usual mix of High Street stores. franchised food-chains and bland canned music. We could have been visiting “Anytown.”

  Ian and I finished back in St Cuthbert’s churchyard by the River Skerne.( a tributary of the Tees nearby.) The Grade 1 listed church itself was closed, no doubt to avoid theft or vandalism. But we did notice an interesting Boer War Memorial from 1905. I thought the helmet on the soldier looked different! Then we tracked back up the hill to Bank Top station, the building which best represents Darlington in the eyes of the outside world. Darlo was one of the World’s first railway towns but now that I’ve actually got off the train and explored it, I know there’s a lot more to it than just a stop on the east coast mainline. I realize now that all the railway pioneering and industrial success was built on a firm foundation laid by hardworking, clean living and forward thinking Quakers. Seemingly unassuming Darlington was the place where industry, entrepreneurship and religious non-conformism  combined to produce a World first!  Darlington’s football team may have been relegated to the lowly Conference league now, but their nickname provides a constant reminder of their town’s proud history.



16 Apr

OK, I admit it – I was a trainspotter! Yes, I was that “anorak”! Today the humble anorak is a source of amusement, even derision, supposedly symbolising sad people who hang around train stations recording numbers. However, when I wore one in the early 60’s, it was a practical and affortable garment for those of us who didn’t have a lot of money, and very adaptable too. It kept me warm and dry on wintry football terraces and draughty stations while  waiting for trains. Later it stood in for the more expensive parka when I was trying to be a Mod on my dad’s old Lambretta, and even served me during my “All You Need Is Love” phase through the ingenious rouse of attaching Hippie bells to its toggles! But it is with trainspotting that it was ( and is) most closely associated, and I am proud to confess that for a period in my early adolescence, I was an ardent spotter.

I might moan about getting old now, but I have to admit that I was born at a pretty fortuitous time. I missed the horrors of the war by just 4 years, belonged to the first generation to enjoy the considerable benefits of the National Health Service, was there at the birth of Rock ‘n Roll and was a young teen when The Beatles and Stones exploded on to the scene. I am a member of the much envied and criticised ” Baby- Boomer” generation, as if we can help when we were born. Unbelievably I was also lucky enough to be there at the start of the nationalised British Railways and was around to witness the final, spectacular hurrah of steam locomotion. By the time I was 18, steam had disappeared from our rails forever, but before that I was there — on the stations, in the sheds, on the bridges, experiencing it’s final, unforgettable flourish. After that it gave way to diesels and electrics — quieter, quicker, cleaner, safer — but infinitely more boring.

It is 1962 and I am about 12 or 13. It is early evening and school has finished for the day. I’m sitting on a high footbridge which straddles the main LMS railway line near Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I am with a few of my mates. We are all armed with pens and notebooks. We also clutch our trainspotters’ Bibles — the Ian Allen Combined Volume, which lists the number, name and technical details of every locomotive in the land. We called it a ten and sixer because it cost the princely sum of 10 shillings and six pence, a lot of money for schoolboys in 1962. Suddenly 2 signals on the nearby gantry clatter into the up-position. An important passenger train is due. It will be the Thames-Clyde Express from St Pancras. Stuck in a dead-end East Midlands town, we thought of London and Glasgow as impossibly remote and romantic destinations. The train arrives and stops at the station down the line. Passengers disembark and board in a flurry of greetings and farewells. Then a shrill whistle sounds, followed by the slow chug chug of the locomotive as it hauls its heavy load away from the platform. The sky fills with clouds of smoke pothering from the chimney. As the train picks up speed and nears our bridge, it is like an elemental force — noisy, dirty, powerful, a spectacular mechanical monster. It pounds our senses; we see it, smell it and hear it’s deafening roar. Maybe the Victorians should have called it the Iron Dragon rather than the Iron Horse. We narrow our eyes to focus in on the number and name. Will it be a “cop”? ( first time seen.) The noise reaches a resounding crescendo, then the whole bridge erupts into an inferno of smoke and steam as the train rushes beneath us. The passenger coaches clatter quickly and rhythmically over the rails and points. We are engulfed by the sound and the smell and are momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer thrill of it all. Then the sound fades, the steam dissapates and the train shrinks into the distance, getting smaller and smaller until it disappears altogether on its journey to places unknown to us. All is quiet on the bridge now except for the residual ringing in our ears.

That’s train-spotting!  It’s much more than merely ticking off numbers. It could be an all-consuming experience. In the days of steam it was a passionate and theatrical event, a brief escape from the comparative monotony of everyday existance.

I have deliberately over-written that section to try to get across the drama and spectacle that train-spotting in the steam age represented for young lads who had yet to discover girls. We couldn’t afford to travel much ourselves. We felt trapped in a boring, back-water town. We had yet to discover pop music and couldn’t afford the records anyway. So train-spotting was our escape. It was a valuable way of meeting and socialising with others. We could vicariously travel to all the places that the trains were going to. We journeyed in our imaginations and the seeds of future wanderlust were sown.

I had a head-start over my fellow train enthusiasts because my father, Maurice, actually worked on the railways. After delivering repaired shoes on a bike with a basket, he worked in a freezing factory making light bulbs ( 13 colds in 13 months!). He was then relieved and delighted to be taken on by British Rail as an engine cleaner at the tender age of 15. ( he had left school at just 13.) He progressed on to being a stoker or fireman, a tough, dirty but important job which he did for 17 years. Finally at the age of 35 he became a fully-fledged engine driver — which used to be every schoolboy’s dream before they switched to wanting to be Astronauts. Dad’s work was very hard with long hours and unsociable shifts but it was a career for life on the newly nationalised “Peoples’ Railway.”

When I was little, dad sometimes took me down to the shed where he worked and I saw the huge locomotives arranged in a circle around a giant turntable. It was like the one in the National Rail Museum in York except much dirtier and smellier. The locos were covered in layers of grease and grime and dripping with oil. Men worked on them constantly — cleaning, lubricating, checking, repairing. Steam locomotives were high maintenance and soaked up a lot of man hours. Dad would lift me into a cab — the Holy grail for every trainspotter, and I would stand on the foot-plate, mesmerised by the complex array of: knobs, levers and gauges and pretending to be the driver. My father mainly worked on unglamorous good trains, taking long loads of coal trucks from the pits to the power-stations. However, he occasionally drove passenger trains, especially holiday specials to places like Blackpool. These were very popular once holidays with pay came in and before the inexorable rise of the private motor car.

So railways were in my blood, so to speak. My family travelled on them at least 3 times a year, taking advantage of dad’s free passes, one of the few perks of the job. We travelled to a different seaside resort every summer and also went to Blackpool in the autumn to catch the Illuminations.( a family tradition.) We annually visited friends in Liverpool, where we took the ferry ‘cross the Mersey before Gerry and the Pacemakers immortalised it. All this was done on exciting steam trains, puffing and snorting their way across the land.

Steam trains were relics from a bygone era. They were invented in pre-Victorian times and had been going for over 150 years by the time I was born in 1949. To all intents and purposes, their job was done by the end of the Second World War. They had served the country well and now it was time for them to gracefully retire. The day of the diesel had arrived. On the continent, in France, Germany and Italy, the war-wrecked railways were rebuilt on the basis of modern electrification. However, in Britain the railways had not been destroyed outright and it was possible to patch them up and keep them running with steam. At the time ( late 40’s) coal was plentiful and cheap whereas oil for diesels was expensive and would have to be imported. This was before the discovery of North Sea oil. Also, diesel locomotives were at first unreliable and electrification was deemed too expensive by the post-war Labour government, which has higher priorities such as: bringing in the National Health Service, housing bombed out families and rebuilding the shattered steel industry. Thus, steam defied and out-lived its sell-by date and 2500 new locomotives were built between 1948  and 1960. It was a miracle for history buffs and railway enthusiasts alike — a rare example of the PAST living on into the FUTURE. The great variety of locomotives ranging from small, fussy tank engines to majestic, mainline giants, made for an endlessly fascinating spectacle. The drama and romance even attracted the film industry, which immortalised the steam trains running through Carnforth station in David Lean’s classic: “Brief Encounter.” This in turn had powerful echoes of the unforgettable, steam-drenched final drama of Leo Tolstoy’s great novel: “Anna Karenina”, a century earlier.

All the history, spectacle and glamour of steam travel created a powerful and magnetic spell that held sway over thousands of enthusiasts ( and still does.) As I got older, I travelled further afield to spot locomotives from different regions. I went to London to see Southern Region trains at Waterloo and the Western Region at Paddington. We went to Tamworth, Crewe and Carlisle for the West Coast Mainline. Best of all, my mates and I would go to Retford and Doncaster to see the spectacular Kings Cross to Edinburgh expresses on the east coast mainline ( the old LNER), including the legendary “Flying Scotsman.” They were pulled by huge, immensely powerful “Pacific” locomotives — the A1’s, A2’s and A3’s. The undoubted highlights however were the “iconic” A4 Pacifics, designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, looking like sleek rockets in their resplendent stream-lined, aero-dynamic casing. We nicknamed them the “Streaks” because they went so fast. The most famous “streak” of all was The Mallard, 6022, holder of the World speed record for a steam locomotive. In 1938 it reached a top speed of 126 mph, to smash the record of 124.5 held by a German loco since 1936. Mallard’s record remains unbroken.

The trainspotting craze took such a hold over us that we started to take risks and even flirt with danger. We risked arrest and prosecution by sneaking into railway sheds, leaping over the lines and dodging amongst the locos, to scribble down as many numbers as possible before being spotted and chucked out. Once I even scaled a high wall under cover of darkness to gain access to the engines in York’s prized sheds. We darted between the resting giants until a searchlight suddenly picked us out and a loud voice over the tannoy ordered us out. It was like a scene from Dr No! ( you know — the bit when James Bond and his companions are discovered to be on the sinister Doctor’s secret island and are caught in dazzling spotlights.) Alright, I exaggerate, but I you know what I’m getting at.

Steam locomotives continued to be built up to 1960, but as coal became more and more expensive, the rail system began to lose a lot of money. People and freight then started to desert the railways for the roads, including the newly built motorways. The days of steam were now increasingly numbered. A modernisation plan in the mid 1950’s recommended diesels and electrics. The last loco to be constructed was the evocatively named “Evening Star”. The launch ceremony at the famous Swindon works established by Brunel a century before, was a sombre and serious affair. Everyone present knew it was the end of an era.

One of the final nails in the coffin of steam was hammered in by the infamous Beeching cuts in the early 60’s. The railways were now to be regarded as a profit seeking ( or loss avoiding) industry rather than a public service. ( An early example of Thatcherism) Unprofitable branch lines were closed en masse, leaving remote, rural communities even more isolated. Suddenly, lots of locomotives were surplus to requirements and there was an unseemly headlong rush to scrap steam. Sidings up and down the country started to pile up with redundant steam locomotives that had literally reached “the end of the line.” These final resting places were like the graveyards of steam. In one year, 500 locomotives were scrapped without sentiment. Even Evening Star only lasted until 1965, although after its withdrawel it was preserved rather than destroyed. It wasn’t just the locos. All the coking plants, watering points, firemen and many of the smaller stations suddenly became redundant. My dad had to re-train to learn how to drive the new diesels. Actually he didn’t view the end of steam through misty eyes like me. When I recently asked him what he felt about the end of steam locomotives, his reply was : ” they couldn’t get rid of them quick enough.” He told me that the steam locos he drove were getting increasingly unreliable and were always breaking down. The last steam pulled passenger train ran from Liverpool to Manchester and on to Carlisle in August, 1968.

Except for a select band of engines to be preserved for posterity, most steam locomotives now lay corroding in scrapyards, waiting to be dismantled. To me, ( if not my dad) it was a sad and pathetic sight. My friends and I visited line after line of pitiful, rusting hulks in our local sidings. Even my younger sister, Glenys, got caught up with the emotion and accompanied me down to the shed to catch a last glimpse of a vanishing age. We climbed into the silent, empty cabs. A sad, eerie atmosphere pervaded as we wandered amongst the ghosts of this poignant graveyard. Our voices were hushed as if we were attending a funeral.

My trainspotting days faded with the steam. Other interests and pursuits crowded in and took over my life. However, my love of steam trains has never completely died. Thanks to the many Heritage Railways which rescued and restored numerous locomotives, I can still go back and relive the sights, sounds and smells of the last glorious days of steam. The fabulous North York Moors Railway is nearby and only last week I went on a short steam train ride at Beamish Museum, County Durham with my daughter Joanna and grand-daughters Esme and Nina. I still cling on to my prized Ian Allen’s “ten and sixer”, but I regret to report that the anorak is long gone!