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Back to Barrow Hill –Thinking about dad.

10 Oct

Last month I returned to Barrow Hill. It’s a small Derbyshire village near Staveley and not far from Chesterfield. It’s where my dad, Maurice Reuben Bates, was born and grew up. Dad died nearly 5 years ago, aged 91 and a bit. I live in Teesside now and haven’t visited Barrow Hill since I was a child. It sounds like an interesting, ancient place doesn’t it? Being a retired history teacher, I have a fertile imagination, especially to do with artefacts from the distant past. Was my father’s birthplace the site of an important Neolithic grave? Had there been any significant excavations there? In the dictionary, “barrow” is defined as a “grave mound” or “tumulus”, an “ancient, sepulchral mound.” I had always thought of barrows as long, oval mounds where stone age or bronze age people interred their dead. Only a few months previously I had been crawling into such tomb chambers on a visit to the archaeologically rich Orkney Islands. Had I missed out on an exciting historical site right on my childhood doorstep?

Well, the short answer is “no”! Barrow Hill was in fact a Victorian creation, built to house the workers in collieries and ironworks owned by Richard Barrow.  It was a dormitory village for local industry. The houses were built in blocks up the side of a hill.  In fact, they were referred to as “the blocks.” The ironworks were locally known as Staveley Works, after the little nearby town of that name. Later, a chemical works was added. The result was a sprawling eye-sore. It also led to my nostrils being frequently invaded by the “bad-egg” smell of sulphur as I waited for a bus or went shopping. That’s if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. But it was this same industrial complex that provided essential employment for many people living in this north-east corner of Derbyshire and put food on many tables for many years. It was the reason why my paternal grandparents lived there, the reason why my dad was born there and the reason why I entered the world just a couple of miles away from the glowing furnaces and the belching chimneys. My other grandad worked at the iron and steel works as well. Barrow Hill, although disappointingly having nothing to do with ancient archaeology, and not at all picturesque, is still a fundamental  part of my roots.

So why did I return there after all these years? The answer will quickly be revealed if you google Barrow Hill on the internet. It is the site of a unique and notable railway heritage centre — the Barrow Hill Roundhouse. This is where my father worked for much of his life. He was a railwayman.” Roundhouse “again sounds like a bronze age dwelling  but in this case, it is the name of an early type of railway engine shed. It was a place where steam locomotives were: cleaned, repaired, watered, coaled and turned around before going back out on the line. Early Victorian railway sheds were known as “roundhouses” because of their conical roofs. In the 1860s, roundhouses grew larger and lost their circular roofs but the name stuck.

Barrow Hill Roundhouse was operated by the former Midland ( LMS) Railway until 1948 when the rail network was nationalised. From then on it was known simply as Staveley Shed.( code name 41E.) My dad worked there under both regimes. Maurice started as a locomotive cleaner. He progressed on to being a fireman or stoker. When the TV railway celebs, Michael Portillo or Chris Tarrant shovel a bit of coal into the loco’s furnace as it chugs along, it looks easy and good fun. However, the fireman’s actual job was much more important and complicated than that. He had to check that the fire and water tanks were at the right level. He had to know the route and control the fire, as more power would be needed in certain places. He also had to know the driver as different drivers had different styles. Some required more steam than others. After doing this for about 10 years Maurice qualified to be a driver. Around 1960, when steam was quickly being phased out and diesels brought in, he went back to school and studied how to drive the new locomotives. He succeeded is qualifying to drive Diesel-Electric locos which was a great achievement considering he had left school when he was 13 and had always struggled a bit with reading and writing. Many sheds were closed down when the steam era came to an end, but Barrow Hill was adapted for diesel trains which continued to move coal from the local mines to the power stations. It finally closed in 1991.

I remember dad taking me there when I was a young child. In the centre of the shed was  a large round, turntable surrounded by a circle of giant, black locomotives at various stages of maintenance. The turntable is still there today and forms the centre-piece of the museum. It’s welcoming notice board proclaims that it is ” the only operational roundhouse in Britain.” When dad took me there I vividly remember the mixtures of smells — steam, smoke, soot and oil. I remember the floor and the engines being sticky with grease and grime.  I recall being thrilled when dad lifted me up into the cab of one of the steam locomotives and I pretended to be an engine driver, just like him. I suppose, after that, it was inevitable that I would become an avid train spotter and a life-long railway nerd with a particular, nostalgic affection for steam trains. I feel fortunate that I now live just half an hour’s drive away from the North York Moors railway which regularly features steam locomotives on its scenic run from Whitby to Pickering. Once a train spotter, always a train spotter. It’s surprising how many people, usually men of a certain age, feel the same.

In the early 90s, Barrow Hill roundhouse was due to be demolished, its long working life finally over. However, it was saved by a far-sighted railway heritage society. Thanks to their campaign it became a Grade 2 listed building. Now it has been restored and given a new roof. It has had a modern new entrance, a shop, a café and an information centre added. But the old shed with its big, rotating turntable is still its centre-piece, just as it was in Maurice’s time. Next door to the shed, the foreman’s office has been beautifully preserved. On the desk are his papers, a pipe and a round, white, metal container for tea. It is as if he has just popped out and will be back in a minute. I think the tea container was called a “snap-can”. I remember dad taking one with him on every shift, along with the metal “snap” box containing his sandwiches. It was oval and flat, and the top slid off to reveal the food. This was before the era of Tupperware!  The foreman’s office was where the men would come to clock-in and get their job for that particular shift. It was weird and slightly emotional standing in the same room where my dad had signed on for thousands of shifts, at all times of day and night. He was pleased to be a railwayman, as in the 1930s it was regarded as a job for life. Previously he had delivered Coop shoe repairs on his bike with a basket on the front and he had then worked in a light bulb factory . He told me it was either too hot or too cold in that factory and he hated it. In 18 months, he said he caught 18 colds. (Coincidentally, that glassworks has now been knocked down and is the site of Chesterfield FC’s modern football ground, the Proact Stadium.) Maurice , miserable in his factory job, constantly called in to the railway shed just down the road from his home, to beg for a job. I think they eventually must have been impressed by his stolid persistence and finally told him to report in on the following Monday morning. His life as a railwayman had begun. I think this must have been around 1938.

That railway job prevented him from being conscripted for the war. It was an essential service, keeping the power stations fuelled, which in turn kept the factories running, to support the war effort. Dad told me he wanted to join the Navy but didn’t pass the medical. That decision, although disappointing at the time, possibly saved his life and enabled yours truly to be born! In the war, he told me that they had to have a special cover to hide the glow of the engine’s fire, just in case it was spotted by a German bomber crew in the sky above. One night, his coal train was directed into a siding to allow an express to come through on the mainline. As he waited in the dark with his mate, they heard the drone of German planes returning from a bombing raid on nearby Sheffield. One of them dropped a spare bomb on the railway and it exploded on the main-line where dad’s goods train had been only a short time before. The express never got through!

Dad worked all sorts of shifts, many of them very anti-social. His worst shifts were nights, early evenings and early mornings. As a child I would sometimes hear the front door click in the middle of the night. It was dad going to work on his bike. The constantly changing shifts must have played havoc with his body clock and largely destroyed any social life he may have had. I think he was very tough to stick at it for 50 years. Mum was tough too, for putting up with such a marriage- wrecking schedule. The marriage stayed solid however, despite the occasional argument and rocky patch, especially when my sister and I were very young and crying in the night. Dad must have sometimes suffered from sleep deprivation and it may well have contributed to the impatience and short temper that he sometimes displayed. Me whining away because I had lost my cowboy hat or  broken my toy six-shooter, must have been the last straw for a man who was already short of proper sleep and had to get up for work in the early hours of next morning. I think my patience would have snapped too.

When I walked into the original part of Barrow Hill shed the other week, I felt my heart pounding. I hadn’t been there for 60 years but it was almost exactly as I had remembered it. I was ashamed that I had never bothered to go back before. I should have gone with my dad and collected a few more of his precious memories. My sister tells me he did go back a couple of times with her grandson, my niece’s son. ( My grand-nephew?)  But it wasn’t a particularly comfortable experience for him. Some of the guides at the museum were ex-colleagues whom he had fallen out with at the end of his career.

Unfortunately, sadly, his long career at the roundhouse ended on a very sour note. In 1984, during the hugely controversial and distressing national coal strike, he had disobeyed his union’s orders and driven trains from the Nottinghamshire mines to the power stations. The Nottinghamshire miners had defied the NUM’s call to strike because their pits were more productive, and in many people’s eyes, betrayed their striking colleagues. They were probably given incentives to do so by Mrs Thatcher’s government in a cynical policy of divide and conquer. Margaret Thatcher was determined to smash the power of the miners after her uncomfortable experiences in the early 70s when their strikes had helped to bring the Edward Heath government down. ASLEF, my father’s rail drivers’ union, had ordered all its members to support their trade union colleagues in their fight and refuse to transport coal. Maurice, who had clashed with the union bosses on many occasions, now ignored their orders and worked on. I know he had grown to hate the ASLEF officials whom he believed had too much power over people’s careers. They had successfully organised a “closed shop.” Anyone who worked on the railway had to be in a Trade Union whether they wanted to or not. I know my dad deeply resented this. I had some uncomfortable conversations with him at the time as I was a loyal member of the National Union of Teachers . But I sympathised with Dad over the closed shop. At least, in teaching, we had the choice whether to join a union or not. So, my father deliberately undermined the miners’ strike and helped the Conservative government to defeat it ( and eventually close all the pits). In the union’s eyes he was a “black-leg”, the lowest of the low. The local ASLEF officials never forgave him for that. As Maurice got into his early sixties he was really surplus to requirements at Barrow Hill as the shed was running down and it needed to shed staff.  The management offered him a decent early retirement package, a reward for his long, faithful service. However, the union officials, out of spite, blocked this time and time again. They also used their considerable influence to make sure he got all the rubbish anti-social shifts which proved to be an increasing strain as he got older. Dad finally got his retirement just 2 days before his 65th birthday. He paid a terrible price for his defiance in 1984.

I walked round the roundhouse slowly, trying to take it all in. I tried to retrieve the memories from all those decades ago. If I blocked out the museum information boards and the sprinkling of tourists wandering around, I could still sense the spirit of my dad moving around that atmospheric room. Even after all those years, it was a moving moment. Our deceased loved ones live on in our memories and being back in Barrow Hill magically conjured up some vivid ones for me. I reflected on this as I had a snack in the new museum cafe and witnessed all the volunteer engineers in their oily, blue serge overalls ( just like dad’s), coming in for their lunchtime burger and chips.

I had a last wander around, inspecting all the steam, diesel and electric locomotives that had been saved from the scrapyard. The railway heritage movement had  appeared just in time in the late 1960s to save them, although many of their fellow locos had already disappeared into oblivion. Railway enthusiasts get all dewy-eyed about the age of steam and I know some people who even get emotional about diesels. I suppose it’s because, stupid as it may sound, individual locomotives seem to have a more distinctive identity that the anonymous  and ubiquitous multiple units that have now invaded almost the entire rail network. However, British Rail made the hard, ruthless business decision to scrap most of their steam locos. I remember going down to the shed with my sister and seeing a forlorn line of rusting, decrepit locomotives waiting to be broken up. It was a sad sight for a keen train-spotter even though by then I had become more interested in girls, pop music and football. Later, I asked my dad how he felt when the age of steam finally came to an end. I expected him to get all nostalgic and a bit emotional, but he simply said he was glad to get rid of them! Steams locos to him were dirty, temperamental and a lot of hard work! They were always breaking down, usually in the middle of no-where on a cold, winter’s day. He much preferred the warmth, comfort and reliability of the diesels. So much for the romance of the age of steam, which we now look back on through rose-coloured glasses.

I left the railway centre and wandered off into Barrow Hill. This was going to be another emotional, nostalgic journey for me I thought. When I was young, the family went there every Sunday to visit grandma and grandad and attend the Methodist Chapel Sunday School and evening service. My parents were both keen, lifelong Methodists. What would the Victorian “Zion”, Primitive Chapel ( built in 1869) look like now? Would I be able to find the street where my father was born? What would the modernised house look like now? Well, it had all gone and I found the village virtually unrecognisable! The old “blocks” had been knocked down and replaced by small blocks of new flats and modern semis. Even the streets seemed to have different names. I certainly didn’t remember any of them. I walked up the hill where the Zion Chapel had been and found in its place, a large detached house. I later found out that the chapel that had featured in so many of my childhood Sundays was actually demolished in 1966. By then our family had moved house and was attending another Methodist Church a few miles away. A few years ago I drove through my mother’s birthplace in New Whittington, a couple of miles away from Barrow Hill, and found that the red-brick, 19th century chapel there, where I had also spent many hours, had been reduced to a pile of rubble. I felt like an important part of my life had been rubbed out.  The chapel has now been replaced by a small apartment block. Methodist churches, suffering from severely diminished and ageing congregations, are now rapidly going the same way as the steam ( and diesel) locomotives. They are disappearing into the past.

Inevitably Grandma and Grandma’s end-terrace house had gone as well. It had been in a block of 3 houses, opening straight on to a raised pavement and a gutter. At the back was a long garden in which grandad grew masses of vegetables and fruit. He also ran an allotment and reared pigs and hens on a small-holding, so he was always busy. It now only exists in memory. I wonder if my sister or our few remaining cousins ever think of it?  I remember going there every Sunday for tea. ( we visited my maternal grandparents every Saturday.) The family went there in between afternoon Sunday School and the long, “boring” evening service which I learnt to dread. I remember Grandma’s biscuit barrel which was always a treat for us children — custard creams, “Nice” biscuits ( that was their brand name) and malt biscuits with pictures of stick people playing various sports. When you’re a young child, you’re easy to please. Grandma was kind, gentle and loving but I wasn’t so keen on my dad’s dad who was very rough and ready and had a sinister looking glass eye. Going to the toilet was an experience as well, as it was at the far end of a wash-house, stacked high with smelly sacks of pig-food. The toilet paper was ripped up pieces of newspaper stuck on a nail! Those were the days. One day Grandma, when making us some tea, put the tea-leaves in the kettle and the water-filled tea-pot on the coal fire. It was the beginning of her dementia, something we are a lot more aware of these days. Both my parents suffered from it in their  last years. As my grandparents got older, my Aunty Harriet moved in to look after them and our regular Sunday visits ceased.

So the nostalgic thrill of returning to Barrow Hill Roundhouse was tempered by the sadness and shock of the disappearance of much of the village I used to know. I drove to the other Methodist Church, the Ebenezeer, where the Zion congregation decanted after their own chapel closed. This is still clinging on but has a highly neglected air . It now doubles up as a community centre but when I went, I saw many of its windows boarded up and it looked more like a place of worship for the local pigeon population. I suspect it will no longer be there if I revisit in a few years time. The Ebenezeer stands just up the hill from Barrow Hill/Staveley Works railway station, but that has been closed down and demolished as well. The iron and steel and chemical works have all gone too. Only the clock tower and the former admin building remains, now converted into modern offices.  Inevitably life goes on, but it’s still sad to see important places from one’s childhood now consigned to the past. When I was a kid I always thought of Barrow Hill as a bit of a dump, but now, having been back, I realize it is an important repository of many precious memories. Thank goodness that the now unique Roundhouse was saved! In a funny sort of way, I think of it as an enduring memorial to my dad and his long career as a railwayman.

Another Crazy Away Day.

5 Apr

It was another crazy idea. I planned to travel by notoriously unreliable public transport on a 250 mile round trip to watch a low-quality, non-League football match. Against all common sense, I wanted to support my home- town team of Chesterfield FC, even though they had sunk to the 5th tier of English football and even though I had not seen them win or even score a goal all season. In fact it seemed as if they reserved their worst performances for when I went to see them! Maybe they sensed my presence and would then crumble under the extra pressure of my expectation. My friend, V, a fellow “Spireite” supporter, had threatened to take out an injunction to prevent me from attending matches, as it definitely seemed that I was the team’s bad luck charm. However, in theory, I am not superstitious and so decided to go again anyway. The team’s results had improved under a new manager, so surely, they wouldn’t lose and fail to score yet again? It was to be a day of crazy ups and downs. All real football fans are masochists and this was to be a typical masochistic day out.

I live near Teesside on the North Yorkshire coast, so even a Chesterfield home fixture is a time consuming away- day for me. I like the relaxation and adventure of train travel rather than the boredom of motorway driving. However, the relaxation only materialises if the journey goes to schedule, with no late trains and/or missed connections. A lovely day of reading my book and looking at the scenary, can easily turn into a nightmare of uncertainty and stress. Unfortunately, this was to be partly one of those days, but it did have a couple of wonderful surprises as well.

The alarm clock rudely awoke me at 7am and by just gone 8am my wife was dropping me off at Saltburn rail station, a couple of miles down the road. Even though in early March, the worst of the winter was supposed to be behind us, I stepped out of the car into freezing temperatures and driving sleet. The station looked ominously deserted as I approached it. Was I the only passenger daft enough to venture out at this time on a cold weekend morning? I looked at the departures screen and then I understood the reason for the lack of fellow passengers — the 8.17am train had been cancelled due to engine failure. The next train was not due for a whole hour. I would miss all my connections and maybe even miss the match! What to do? I hastened up to the nearby bus stop in the forlorn hope that there would be a bus to transport me to Middlesbrough, the town where the cancelled train would have taken me. By a stroke of sheer luck ( not that I’m superstitious!) there was a bus in ten minutes. Miraculously it appeared out of the sleet on time, and I boarded it along with 3 or 4 other shivering passengers. It was a tedious journey, diverting through housing estates and ploughing through ominously large lakes of standing water left by recent heavy rain. It seemed that we were finally nearing Middlesbough when yet another detour took us to a desolate bus depot on the edge of the town. Our bus had developed a mechanical fault so we all had to troop off and board another vehicle! You couldn’t make it up! Another 5 to 10 minutes wasted.

By the time we got to Middlesbrough bus station, I had already missed my connection for Darlington, the next stop on my “exciting” journey to the north midlands. I ran in the rain through the town centre to the train station but I already knew I wasn’t going to catch a train. The connection I had missed was a dreaded bus-replacement service. There were weekend engineering works on the line. I had to stand and shiver for 25 minutes in a windy subway until my bus finally came. I had missed the previous bus by 5 minutes. More time lost! When the coach finally rolled up it was comfortable and warm but we set off over 5 minutes late because an African lady turned up and wasn’t sure which bus she had to catch. The driver and an inspector had great trouble in understanding her accent so took an inordinately long time to advise her to get on.

I hate bus replacement services! They never go their destinations by the most direct route because they are constantly detouring to visit the next rail station. We ground through housing estates and past retail parks, constantly stopping at traffic lights and getting stuck in traffic jams caused by temporary road works. It was tedious! We visited 5 intermediate stations with no one getting off and only one person getting on. We all sat there, anxiously looking at our watches because we knew we were almost certainly going to miss our mainline connections at Darlington. I missed mine of course. I finally got to Darlington station a full 2 hours after setting off from Saltburn. The journey usually takes about 55 minutes.

I trudged disconsolately into the station, resigned to being held up for at least another hour. However, to my amazement, on the far platform, I saw a train in the red and grey livery of the Cross Country rail company. All those trains stop at or near to Chesterfield on their journey south. I broke into a 69 year old’s version of a sprint. As I neared the platform I heard the guard’s whistle blow. Was I going to miss it by a matter of seconds? I went into overdrive and hurled myself towards the nearest door. Luckily the guard spotted me and waved me on. Another big stroke of luck was that this train had old-fashioned manual doors. If it had had the automatic, electric doors of more modern trains, they would have been closed 30 seconds before departure. I made it on to the train with 10 seconds to spare! I slumped exhausted but elated into a seat. Not only was the train nearly empty but it was also stopping at Chesterfield! I didn’t even have to change at Sheffield as I would have done on the service I had missed. My luck had suddenly changed and I was now almost back on schedule despite all the mishaps on the way to Darlington.

It was a lovely, quiet, smooth journey. I read my book and admired some of the countryside outside the window as the wet weather had now cleared. The only disappointment was that there was no refreshment trolley service because of staff shortages. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that announcement. However, I got a thrill at York when I saw the famous locomotive “The Flying Scotsman”, in full steam just outside the National Railway Museum. Being the son of a British Rail engine driver and an avid train spotter in my youth, I still feel a genuine quiver of excitement run up my spine when I spot a steam locomotive. The day was at last looking up!

We slid quietly into Chesterfield only about 25 minutes behind my original schedule. It was now that I got the most incredible and fantastic surprise of the whole day. The station platform seemed to be unusually crowded with men of a certain age. Most of them had cameras and some had even erected tripods. What on earth was happening? Surely Chesterfield was not going to be blessed with a Royal visit? Thankfully the answer to that question was “no”. The truth was actually much more exciting. On a little used side platform of Chesterfield station stood a magnificent steam locomotive  — huge, red, with a gleaming name plate and striking smoke deflectors (or shields.) It was at the head of a steam enthusiasts’ special and was about to depart. As it slowly started to ease forward I heard that familier ( and thrilling) “chuff, chuff” sound as it momentarily disappeared into  spectacular, swirling clouds of  smoke and steam. To me it looked like the famous LMS express locomotive The “Royal Scot” which I had only seen once. However when I enquired of a fellow “anorak” poised behind his tripod, I found it was the ” Duchess of Sutherland”, number 6233, a very rare and special locomotive from the 1930s that I had never seen before. It was a “Coronation” class of locomotive built at the time of the crownings of Kings Edward VIII and George VI in 1936. It used to pull the London Euston to Glasgow expresses on the West Coast mainline. It was the LMS’s answer to the East Coast’s famous A4 Gresley Pacifics, the Mallard et al. I had seen a “Coronation” locomotive at the National Railway Museum, but had never, ever seen one in steam and in action before. For an ageing trainspotter like myself it was a thrilling and unique moment. Little did I know when I was waiting for my bus in the early morning sleet that I was actually heading for this wonderful moment. If I had gone on my scheduled train or if I had been a few seconds later at Darlington, I would have missed seeing this altogether. Suddenly, despite my athiestic tendencies, I said to myself: “There is a God afterall!” I quickly put my smartphone into camera mode and rattled off 4 shots of “Duchess of Sutherland” as “she” chugged majestically past me.  Now I had something to prove that this incredible surprise was not really just a dream. ( and something to bore my friends with.)

Still stunned, I marched up into the town of my birth, heading towards the striking sight of Chesterfield’s wierd but wonderful crooked spire. Although I grew up with it, this strange church spire still has the capacity to surprise me. As I got close up to it, the 13th century spire reared up in front of me, twisting like a giant corkscrew towards the sky. Apparently, the spire twisted as a result of being built with unseasoned timbers which subsequently warped over time. Local legend has it that the spire of St Mary’s will straighten on the day a virgin goes in to get married! Remedial work had to be carried out 20 to 30 years ago as the spire was in danger of collapsing. The work kept its crooked or twisted shape, thus preserving one of Chesterfield’s main claims to fame. It wouldn’t be the same if it was boring and straight like every other church spire in the country.  Imagine visiting Pisa and finding the famous tower wasn’t leaning anymore. It’s their unusual imperfections that make Pisa’s Leaning Tower and Chesterfield’s Crooked Spire so memorable and special.

I now settled comfortably into my usual Chesterfield away day routine. I had a lovely lunch at the Stephenson’s Coffee and Tea Rooms where I am greeted like an old friend — the strange, grey -haired man who travels from the north east to the north midlands to see a lower league football match. Who are they playing today? Do you think they’ll win? I’ve been going there for several years now. The Coffee and Tea rooms are named after George Stephenson, the “Father of the Railways”, who spent his later years in the town. There is a statue of him outside Chesterfield’s rail station. He is shown holding a model of his first successful locomotive: Locomotion No 1. Next I have a wander through the town centre, a familier mish-mash of old and new. A highlight is the sloping, cobbled market place, the largest open- air market in England. Overlooked by a grand, clock-towered Victorian market hall and bordered by some of the town’s oldest buildings, it gives more than a hint of a Flemish, medieval market square.  Grabbing a sandwich to eat on my return journey I now walked out to the football stadium about 2 miles out of the centre. The modern Proact stadium is built on the site of an old glass works where my dad used to work before he joined the railways. The walk out there is along a dreary, noisy main road but I do it anyway to get some exercise and fresh air ( apart from the traffic fumes.)

At the ground I sought out my cousin and his friend for a chat. They drive up from Malvern, south of Birmingham, to see the match. I also caught up with the Methodist Minister of my parent’s chapel as he has a season ticket and keeps me up to date with football as well as chapel news. I then took my seat in the east stand and the match began. We were playing Eastleigh, a team I had had never heard of before Chesterfield dropped down into the obscure depths of non-league football. Apparently they are based in the Southampton area. They were doing very well and were a lot higher than Chesterfield who, despite an improvement, were still dangerously hovering just above the relegation zone. Would my luck change? Would I at last see a Chesterfield goal? Was there a God afterall?

Well reader — we scored after 20 minutes! A huge roar erupted around me as we all leapt to our feet and punched the air. Perfect strangers slapped each other on the back and shared exclamations of delight. I was thrilled. My duck had at at last been broken! I had seen a man in a blue shirt put the ball into the net. All the trials and tribulations of the journey were suddenly worth it. Chesterfield scored again early in the second half. Surely I was now going to witness a victory? It would be a truly memorable day! But it wasn’t to be. Our defence collapsed and we conceded three. The last goal, in the 84th minute was like a sickening punch in the stomach. It had been another emotional roller coaster of a match. Even though we eventually lost ( again!), I had experienced adrenaline rushes and warm camaraderie with perfect strangers. That would never have happened if I had stayed at home to read my paper or watch the telly. It’s what live sport is all about!

And so came the return journey — the walk back into town, a smooth train journey back to Darlington. However, problems with the line around Northallerton meant we got in late. Once again. I missed my rail replacement bus service to Middlesbrough. A group of us hung around in the evening cold, starved of any information about the next bus. People in high-vis yellow jackets gave us conflicting information. After 20 minutes or so, a coach came in and after an inexplicable wait of 15 minutes , the driver finally let us get on. The trouble is, as soon as we all got on, the driver got off! He was going for his statutory rest break. It was now 8.30pm and the coach wasn’t due out until 9.09pm. One of my fellow passengers got angry and became embroiled in an argument with one of the female yellow jackets. She was given chapter and verse about the rules governing rest breaks, something the yellow jacket was an expert on because she used to run a haulage company. That seemed to miss the point that there should have been more buses and more drivers so that the poor, suffering passengers didn’t have to wait up to an hour before they could continue their journeys!

I was fed up and worried. All my previous elation at seeing the steam locomotives and seeing my team score 2 goals had now evaporated. If I waited on the bus for the next 40 minutes, it would then take about 50 minutes to grind its way to Middlesbrough, by which time it would be 10pm. Would there then be a train to finally get me back to Saltburn? I didn’t know. I was now tired as well as cold and fed up, so had a sudden rush of blood to the head. I got off the bus, visited a cash point on the station concourse then blew 30 quid on a taxi to Middlesbrough. It was an expensive, reckless act I know. Sometimes time and comfort are more important than money. I then picked up a bus within 10 minutes and was walking into the house about the same time as the bus replacement service would have been arriving at Middlesbough.

It was a day of exhilerating ups and dispiriting downs. My wife thought I was mad. You probably think I was mad. But I’m glad I did it. It was a big adventure — another crazy away day! Thanks for reading this.

A Wander round Wakefield.

23 Mar

Once it was a mere field owned by an Anglo-Saxon called Waca. Waca’s field has long since disappeared beneath concrete, stone and bricks. It is now the West Yorkshire town of Wakefield. Correction — Wakefield is officially a city and has a Cathedral to prove it. But it doesn’t feel like a city. It is only the size of a large town. My friend, Ian, and I like to wander round old towns.  It’s one of our post-retirement hobbies. Towns are more manageable than cities but usually have more to offer than a small village. They are the perfect size for a day trip.

Up to this week, Wakefield, was just a place I glanced at from a train window, as we briefly stopped at Westgate station. A cluster of towers, cupolas and spires caught the eye as the town spread up a low hill. But then, when the train moved away, they quickly slipped out of  sight and out of mind. I had actually been there a couple of times in the 1960’s. I had acquired my dad’s Lambretta ( I was desperately trying to be a mod) and the Leeds conurbation was a comfortable 50 mile run from my home town. With a friend on the pillion we went out searching for adventure, and somehow we ended up in Wakefield. ( I don’t know how.) In fact we had a puncture there and a kindly garage mechanic helped us mend it. It was in the new 60s market hall of Wakefield that we discovered our version of paradise. It was a stall selling old juke-box singles. Everything we had heard on Pick of the Pops was there at a very cheap price. We were like little kids let loose in a sweet shop!  We would then chug back down the A61 to Chesterfield with huge grins on our faces, happy to be laden down with hits by  The Beatles, Stones,  Kinks et al. After that though, Wakefield disappeared from my radar until my recent visit.

Ian and I travelled on the struggling train system from the north-east of England to West Yorkshire. In this way, we made the journey part of the “adventure.” This time Ian had a train cancellation at Chester-le- Street to delay him so by the time I met him at Leeds we had already missed our connection and only caught the next service by the skin of our teeth. I have lost count of how many times I have had to run for trains at Leeds, across the busy connecting bridge, fighting through the crowds and running down  seemingly endless sets of stairs, seeing my train waiting to depart. It happened on my way home as well. But thankfully we made it on to the LNER London train — first stop Wakefield Westgate, 9 miles to the south east of Leeds. It was time to relax and look forward to the day. Once again the familier towers and spires slid into view, but this time I was going to afford them more than a passing glance.

As I looked at the cluster of buildings spreading out from the station, I thought of all the people to whom this is home and all the full, eventful lives that have been lived there over the centuries. If a town (or city) could talk wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what it had to say? One of my favourite singers-songwriters, Mary Chapin Carpenter, had exactly that train of thought. One of her songs is titled: ” I am a Town.” An ordinary American town by the side of the highway, introduces itself. ” I’m a blur from the driver’s window”, “I am a church beside the highway, where the ditches never drain”, “I’m the language of the natives, I’m a cadence and a drawl”. It’s such an evocative song.  A humble, ordinary town trying to catch the attention of the travellers passing through. This idea has caught my imagination and came back into my mind as we wondered up to Wakefield’s centre. What would the bricks and stones tell us if they could speak?

Yes, an ordinary town ( or city) it was. We wanted to catch a slice of everyday life rather than visit a list of starry “sights”. As we followed city centre signs we were struck at how quiet Wakefield was. It was almost eerie. Then we realised that it had 2 major malls — The Ridings and Trinity Walk — and so presumed that many of the shoppers were there. Such malls are very convenient and provide shelter in the winter, but, at the same time, they suck the life out of the surrounding streets. We didn’t go in as most shopping malls are roughly the same, irrespective of the place and we were seeking buildings that were more characteristic of the area. Thus we resisted the lure of central heating and canned music and pressed on towards the cathedral. Wakefield’s cathedral is right in the centre of the little city, unlike say Doncaster Minster which has been severed from the town by a busy dual-carraigeway. The Cathedral has the tallest spire in Yorkshire. It is a beautiful building in the Perpendicular style of the early 15th century. The original 11th century Norman church replaced an earlier Anglo-Saxon place of worship. In the 19th century it was re-designed by the famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. Extensions were then added in the 20th century to honour two of Wakefield’s most famous bishops — William Walshaw How and Eric Treacy. The cathedral is a very beautiful and impressive space. When we entered an organ was thundering out but when the music finished, a serene peace descended. We saw a lovely modern altar, pulpit and font but there were still medieval remnants such as the strange , carved mythical beasts in the choir stalls. There is an abundance of attractive stained glass windows from late Victorian times.

Attached to the cathedral are: a cafe, a shop and the tourist information centre. However, when we arrived asking for street maps, heritage trails and guidebooks, the 2 nice ladies we spoke to didn’t have much to offer and seemed genuinely bemused that tourists had actually decided to visit the tourist office. Obviously, Wakefield does not experience heavy tourist tread. We ended up with a blue-plaque guide-book which turned out to be out of date and which had a very confusing map. Ian and I specialise in going to places that few people want to go to. When I tried to prepare for this trip by consulting the latest Rough Guide to England, Wakefield wasn’t even mentioned! This is despite it having an impressive cathedral and the award winning Hepworth Gallery down by the river. Barbara Hepworth, the famous 20th century sculptress, came from Wakefield.

We left the information centre and retreated to a cafe to make our plans. We couldn’t resist going into “Marmalade on the Square”, such a wonderful name. It was a spotlessly clean cafe with very large, tall windows letting the light stream in. The coffee and cake were excellent too. This cafe and 2 others is in an early 20th century building (1907) formerly known as Central Chambers and before that the “Grand Clothing Hall”, the HQ of the outfitters, John Manners Ltd. It’s an elegant building in light stone with domes , gables and subtle ornementations. It also has smooth, curving corners rather than sharp right angles. It stands on a triangular site between two open spaces — the Bull Ring and Cross Square. It made a lovely photo with the spire of the cathedral in the background.

After our enjoyable repast, we decided to go down to the river area. Wakefield sits on the north bank of the River Wharfe, nestling to the south east of the Pennines. It was once a thriving inland cloth and grain port. As well as the river, various canals linked it up to Britain’s once busy inland waterways system. There were the Aire and Calder, and Calder and Hebble Navigations plus the Barnsley canal going to the south. This transport system was eventually replaced by Turnpike roads. The town stands at an important  junction where the main road from the midlands to the north meets a major road coming from the Pennine Hills to the west. Later, when the railway came in the 1840s, Wakesfield’s Kirkgate station was an important stop on the Leeds to Manchester line. Today, the city has 2 railway stations ( Westgate and Kirkgate) and is situated very close to the M1 motorway, but its river area is now very “quiet”, or rather it would be if it wasn’t adjacent to a bridge carrying a busy 4-lane highway across the Wharf. Down in this area are the well-preserved, 18th century offices of the Aire and Calder Navigation, like a small, classical Greek temple. Also here, south of the river, are the remains of 2 old mills and an 18th century warehouse. They are adjacent to the ultra modern Hepworth Gallery. Inside, it’s display rooms are spacious and flooded with light, but outside it looks like a jumble of sombre grey cubes. We thought it looked more like a prison than an art gallery. Wakefield of course does have a well-known prison but we didn’t include it on our itinerary.

When we got down there, the river was in full spate. After a recent period of stormy weather, the Wharfe had been turned into a raging torrent. A barge had been wrenched from its moorings and had become jammed between the fast flowing water and one of the arches of the road bridge. I hope nobody was on it at the time! Our destination was an ancient 14th century bridge which lay beyond the busy road bridge. At the end of it is a very rare 13th century Chantry Chapel.  The Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, is one of only four surviving bridge chapels in the country. It sounds exciting doesn’t it? Well, to tell you the truth it was a bit of an anti-climax. First of all we had great trouble getting across to it because of the incredibly busy 4 lane main road that lay inbetween. There didn’t seem to be much thought for pedestrians and the nearest lights appeared to be at least a quarter of a mile away. We eventually plucked up courage and dodged across when the main stream of vehicles was temporarily held back by lights. I imagined  them all impatiently revving up as if at the start of a Grand Prix. The medieval bridge beyond was deserted — no visitors except us, despite it being trumpeted as one of Wakefield’s most famous sights on its website. The medieval chapel at the far end of it looked sad and forlorn. It’s windows were screened by anti-vandal wire mesh and its roof was protected by lines of anti-pigeon spikes. To my disppointment, I found out that only its base was original 13th century. Much of the upper part had had to be rebuilt in 1847-48, and even some of the Victorian replacement was restored in 1939 because the architect had chosen a stone that quickly weathered and deteriorated. The chapel is still a grade 1 listed building however. It is occasionally used for special functions but mostly it is neglected and ignored. Chantry Chapels were paid for by wealthy people so that others could pray for their souls as they passed through Purgatory. I doubt that even if prayers were still being said at this one, they would be heard above the constant din of the traffic on the next door bridge. Ian and I thought it was very sad. We also abandoned a plan to stroll along a riverside path because it was muddy and strewn with litter. It was disappointing.

We returned to the city centre alongside the busy road. It wasn’t eerily quiet here! This area was scruffier and had down- at- heel little shops and businesses. We noticed a couple of East European food shops featuring Polish, Czech and Slovakian produce. We didn’t notice an Asian presence though, unlike in nearby Dewsbury which we visited last year. However, I am aware that an impressive mosque was constructed there in 1995, although we didn’t spot it because it is a bit outside the centre. Thankfully we soon regained the cathedral area and walked away from the torrent of traffic. Up one side of the cathedral is an attractive , pedestrianised area. It has avenues of trees, raised beds of plants, art deco globes acting as street lamps and attractively patterned block paving beneath our feet.  On our left was a line of 1930s large stores but only a rather diminished Marks and Spencers seemed to have survived the arrival of the malls and internet shopping. From old photos from the 60s it seems that this was one of the major shopping streets in Wakefield. I looked at scenes which showed it busy and bustling with shoppers and traffic. Earlier photos showed that trams used to trundle up and down the main streets of the city. Now this area, although pleasant, is fairly quiet. Much of the retail activity is now being done elsewhere. Wakefield is not alone in experiencing this fate of course. The centre is struggling to maintain its relevance.

Ian and I started our blue plaque exploration. It was quite interesting but a bit confusing as new plaques had been added since the guide was printed. Basically, we ignored the non-descript and badly deteriorated 60s and 70s buildings and sought the stone Victorian edifices of the city’s 19th century heyday. They are mostly clustered on Wood Street and Westgate. These were largely impressive and in good condition. A couple were hidden behind scaffolding  and sheets screening the restorers busy at work. There must still be a lot of work for stone masons in the town (city). On Wood Street we were impressed by The Mechanics Institute, the Town Hall and at the very top: County Hall. The Mechanics Institute, paid for by public subscription, included an assembly room, a library and a news-room. This reflected the rise in literacy levels once compulsary schooling was introduced in the second half of the 19th century. The Institute is  graced with Georgian style windows and a line of 6 classical- style Ionic capitals. It is still a venue for large functions. Next to it is the impressively large Town Hall with a striking clock tower ( no pun intended) which has become another major feature of the Wakefield skyline. Finally, at the top of the hill is County Hall, built in dramatic Gothic style in 1898. It has towers, pillars, gargoyles, stone reliefs , pediments and big windows on all sides. It is a very large, impressive structure. At the top is a graceful cupola which makes its own distinctive contribution to the skyline. OK, it’s not exactly Rome, but this ensemble of Victorian public buildings made for an attractive and impressive sight. In the middle of them was another building hidden away behind restorers screens. When that is finished, Wood Street will be a memorable sight for lovers of Victorian architecture.

Inside County Hall , which is the administrative HQ for West Yorkshire ( formerly the West Riding), it was even more impressive. One might call it Wakefield’s hidden gem. It looked more like a beautifully decorated Gothic church, with multiple Norman style arches, large windows, a grand sweeping, snaking staircase, lovely Delft- style tile-work, delicate wrought iron banisters, mosaics and very unusual, colourful murals. One depicted a Viking longboat for reasons I never found out. I would like to return and have a proper guided tour sometime, on an heritage open day. As it is, the kind lady on reception just let us have a quick peek at the vestibule and the staircase. We thanked her and remarked that it must be very nice to work in such a sumptuous environment. She agreed she was lucky, but then complained that it was too cold in winter and too hot in summer! Some people are never satisfied!

Westgate also has impressive Victorian buildings. Primarily there is the Theatre Royal and Opera House designed by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1894. It replaced an earlier theatre at that site. In the 20th century it served as a cinema and then a bingo hall but then returned to its original function as a theatre in the 1980s. It is a Grade 2 listed building. Opposite it is the equally impressive Unity Hall which was formerly the Victorian Co-operative building of Wakefield. It has now been restored and is used for events, weddings and conferences. It’s good that it has been given new life but sad to see that even the venerable Coop has become a victim of modern shopping habits. Unity Hall, like the theatre is made from red brick decorated with stone patterns and pictoral reliefs. It has large, curving, church like windows. Another striking street in Wakefield centre is Cheapside which features old, early 19th century wool-staplers homes and warehouses. Today they are mostly occupied by soliciters’ offices but the top floor hoists for the wool sacks can still be seen.

I’m sure that in just a few hours we didn’t see everything that Wakefield has to offer. We didn’t go into the museum for example and somehow missed the Gissing centre, the former home of the famous Victorian novelist George Gissing. We didn’t venture into the Hepworth Gallery either because of the usual time constraints. We had to make time for a late lunch at Cafe Lounge 46 back near the cathedral. It is a pleasant eating place with good food and friendly service. I don’t know where the idea that all Yorkshire people are dour and brusque came from. Everyone we met was perfectly charming. Ian marked the service in Cafe Lounge 46 as 12 out of 10. I think it was because the waitress kept calling him “my love.”

Finally it was back to the train station for another thrilling chain reaction of delays, missed connections and, surprise, surprise, sprinting across the bridge and down the stairs at Leeds station. It had been another fascinating town trail revealing the usual mix of delights and disappointments. We missed out the mind- numbing malls ( being men, we are not great shoppers) but acquired some sense of its Victorian hey-day. I imagine that many of its citizens commute into nearby Leeds, but Wakefield, as a small city , still retains its own identity. It seems mostly proud of its past and makes sure it takes good care of its important public buildings.  Wacu’s field may be long gone, but in another sense, it is still going strong.

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!