STAINMORE Summit is a place where arteries of British blood, history, endeavour and fortitude have been pinched together in a tightly-throbbing bundle. It might look like a bleak place with a couple of lorries parked in a lay-by and not much else, but there is drama here. Beyond the tarmac of the A66 and the snow-poles that mark its length, past the furthest Coca-cola bottle and the faded carrier bags snagged on roadside fences, is a vast bogland that cloaks a human journey across several millennia . . .
The sharp-eyed might note that the summit of this Pennine pass sits squarely in the line of fire of a Second World War pill-box on a bluff to the south, its gun ports battened shut behind hinged iron plates – except the one directly facing the highest point of the road, which is open . . . and watching.
The grassy track on the northern side of the dual-carriageway that climbs an escarpment from the Cumbrian side and cuts down into Durham, that’s the Roman road from Verteris, the fort at Brough, to Lavatris, the fort at Bowes. Soldiers from Thrace were stationed at Lavatris. Their blood is in the Stainmore turf along with the blood of Brigantes. That’s why the bog-water’s brown.
Just east of the summit is a place called Spital. A common element in English place names, Spital is a corruption of “hospital”, and can mean exactly what is says on the label or, alternatively, can derive from a place where “hospitality” was proffered during mediaeval times to weary souls traversing a hostile environment. The old coaching inns on either side of the summit continued this tradition into later centuries.
But we’re not concerned with Romans or mediaeval travellers. And we’re not concerned with the Tommies who manned what has been described as “the country’s most bleakly located pill box” (a Type F/W24, apparently), although they must have had fascinating stories to tell. What we’re interested in is another major artery that squeezed through this notorious gap – an artery made of iron – and an incident that occurred during the winter of 1955 that was enshrined on celluloid and gave Stainmore Summit precisely nine minutes and 37 seconds of fame.
From where I sit on my collapsible stool, sheltering behind the car from the blast of a westerly wind as I pull on my boots, I can see the line of the Stainmore Railway descending from the pass on its zigzagging course to Kirkby Stephen. The trackbed is easily discernable on the Cumbrian side – a grassy shelf skirting the moor, a concrete hut with a gaping doorway, tell-tale embankments and the odd cattle arch. On the Durham side, all that can be seen is the distant slit of a railway cutting that melts into bogland and history. The last train ran in 1962. I’ve missed it.
What I haven’t missed is the nine minutes and 37 seconds of British Transport Films documentary that was shot a few hundred yards across the moor. It was filmed in the days when the British worker was regarded – rightly – as a decent chap who would willingly turn his hand to anything and do a first-rate job; not – wrongly – a vacuous moron in a fluorescent jacket who is incapable of filling a pothole without completing a risk-assessment form. This 1955 film tells us as much about ourselves today and what we have become as it does about the ruddy-cheeked, cap-wearing, tea-drinking, tab-smoking people we were back then.
Snowdrift at Bleath Gill documents the rescue of a goods train pulled by engine number 78018, which became snowbound just below the summit on February 24, 1955. Abandoned to the elements, the engine cools and freezes to a solid block of ice. Locos with snowploughs are despatched from Darlington to clear the track, but they too are defeated. Five days later, after digging night and day as the winter wind whips spindrift across the fells, a team of workmen from West Auckland and Darlington clear the way sufficiently for a plough to charge through. They then defrost the 78018’s wheels and valves with steam hoses and bundles of blazing cotton waste soaked in paraffin.
Snowdrift at Bleath Gill is British newsreel cinema at its best and most poignant. Yes, the Soviets could do proud working women clutching hoes in one hand and babies in the other, and chisel-featured miners wielding pneumatic drills like rifles as they march beneath scarlet banners – but we had blokes in old macs and flat caps digging snow on what was, in 1955, the highest mainline railway in England with little sustenance other than tobacco and sandwiches sent up from the “refreshment rooms” in Barnard Castle. We had the vanguard of the nationalised industries showing the world how to pull together and fight and win. We didn’t need flags and military music; our hearts were stirred by honest workmen doing their bit with a grin and a cheery wave.
So I’m off across the moor with the A66 behind me, marching along the trackbed of the Stainmore Railway in search of Bleath Gill and the place where engine number 78018 sighed its last breath of steam before the February night turned its heart to ice.
If you’ve stuck with me this far you’ve reached a good place to put the kettle on and watch the film, because I’ve two or three sidelines to steam along before I’m through. I’m expecting to have a hearty walk and a bloody good rant, because there’s more to this Bleath Gill incident than meets the eye. So make a brew of strong tea – preferably in a pint mug with blue stripes – and allow Deryck Guyler to transport you back to 1955 with Snowdrift at Bleath Gill.
THE section of track where the 78018 wheezed to a halt is only a few minutes’ trudge along the spongy trackbed from the A66. I’ve passed the concrete hut with its gaping doorway that can be seen from the dual carriageway, walked under a bridge that carries a minor road to Barras, and am steaming along an open stretch of line beneath Bleathgill Farm where the drama took place. The day is cold and blustery, with an evil wind rasping off the Lakeland fells and scouring the Pennines. But it’s not as cold as it was during those long, dark nights in February 1955 when men shovelled snow by the light of pressure lamps.
Apparently there’s a chap on Tyneside who runs guided walks around locations that featured in Michael Caine’s epic gangster movie Get Carter. No one performs a similar service for Snowdrift at Bleath Gill, so pinpointing the exact location of where the engine was stuck is not easy. There’s no blue plaque, no memorial. Another disappointment is that where Get Carter has spawned any number of budding Michael Caine impersonators drawling: “You’re a big man but you’re in bad shape,” there’s no one up here mimicking Deryck Guyler saying: “The thing is, to give the ploughs a reasonable chance of getting through a drift without getting stuck, we have to cut the snow up into chunks. Like eating landlady’s cake, the more it’s divided, the easier it is to get through.”
I tarry a while in the area where the engine came to a standstill then carry on down the track. My plan is to walk as far as the Stainmore Railway’s second claim to fame, the Belah viaduct – the country’s tallest railway bridge – bearing in mind much of the trackbed is now in private ownership and partitioned off behind unfriendly walls and unfriendlier barbed wire. What once belonged to the public is now in the hands of farmers. Not that stuff like that should deter a determined walker. As Deryck Guyler says: “When this sort of thing happens we get stuck into it – and then dig ourselves out.”
So I walk on down the line, leaving the 78018 to be towed in the other direction over Stainmore Summit and into history. Incidentally, the 78018 was built in Darlington in 1954. It was virtually brand new when it got stuck in the drift. It survived the Stainmore Railway by several years, being despatched to the scapyard in November 1966. The line was closed in 1962, not by Dr Richard Beeching, the Tories’ infamous railway hatchet man, but by the Minister of Transport – road and motorway builder Ernest Marples.
Hold your stripy mug a minute while I apply the brakes. Pardon me if the wheels screech a bit on the wet rails, but did you note that rather pertinent point or did it flash past like a telegraph pole at the side of the track? The Conservative government’s Transport Secretary, the man responsible for closing the Stainmore Railway and appointing Dr Beeching to axe many more, was a road and motorway builder. Do you detect a rather significant conflict of interest here? A man who runs a company that builds roads, whose fortune has been amassed by the application of tarmac across the length and breadth of Britain, was the man who initiated the programme to tear up Britain’s railways, close stations and deprive rural communities of their transport links.
Yes, there was a conflict of interest, so much so that Marples was asked to dispose of his shares in his own company – Marples-Ridgway. So he sold them . . . to his wife. Wikipedia has this to say on the subject:
It is quite astonishing, with even a little thought applied to the matter, that the person responsible for closing the railways was also getting the contracts to build the roads that would have to replace them. It was Ernest Marples who closed one third of Britain’s railways, not Beeching, who was merely the civil servant who wrote a report on the subject.
To cut a long and extremely colourful story short, Marples was elevated to the Lords but fled the country in 1975 to Monaco, avoiding an array of tax bills and legal problems. There were also claims he was involved with prostitutes and had been tangled up in the Profumo affair. The Treasury froze his assets. Peculiarly, no chaps from West Auckland and Darlington rushed forward to thaw them out with steam hoses and cotton waste.
Marples was a crook in high office who closed the railways for private gain while parroting the excuse that the country could no longer afford to run them. There are no crooks in high office pulling similar stunts nowadays, of course, because we live in an age of transparency and accountability. But I’ll bet you my last £5 there are any number of puffy-palmed businessmen and slimy-tongued lobbyists creeping through the corridors of power – sharp suits representing private health providers, care providers and service providers – whispering in the ears of influential people: “Cut this. Cut that. Cut the other. Tell them there’s no money left. They always fall for that one.” Thirty years down the line, when the records have been made public and the history books on the Age of Austerity written, just see if I’m wrong.
WHOOPS. A farmer’s wife is watching me clambering over a fence. She’s standing in the road near Barras station (formerly England’s highest mainline station, a title that has been shunted across the hills to Dent), which is now a private house. She has a look of grave concern carved into her face and her collie is straining on its lead. To make things worse, I discover I have clambered into a section of trackbed that is hemmed in on all sides by barbed wire and walls – so I am obliged to climb out again. This I accomplish as nonchalantly as possible, like a man who has made a mistake that anyone can make. I even whistle as I am doing it.
She asks me if she can be of assistance. I tell her it’s my intention to reach the site of the Belah viaduct by the route of the old railway line, but progress is being hampered by obstacles that weren’t in evidence when the last train steamed through. So we discuss other options. Then we discuss the weather and the curtains she has just finished washing in her farmhouse kitchen. Then we discuss the Cumbrian quarrying industry, Italian stone saws and the price of roofing slate. Then we discover we have a mutual friend who lives near Appleby. And so a pleasant fifteen minutes elapse before we part with a wave and a smile, and I follow her suggested route along quiet lanes to New Hall Farm, and a footpath that cuts down to the river Belah and the imposing buttresses of the Belah viaduct.
No one, so far as I am aware, has ever written a poem about the Belah viaduct. It no longer exists, by the way. It was demolished in 1963 by a company from County Durham called Golightly. They took away the 196ft-high Meccano-like structure as scrap, leaving only stone bastions that stand like Tolkienian watchtowers on either side of the ravine. Someone did, however, write a couple of poems about the River Tay railway bridge, which was designed by the same engineer. That poet was William McGonagall, and his poems possess all the rhythm and metre of a steam engine with three square wheels:
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
McGonagall has been described as the world’s best bad poet. His poem, The Tay Bridge Disaster, was penned in the wake of the most notorious episode in British railway history, and followed a celebratory composition called The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay, which has the following verse in praise of the designers:
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Messrs Bouche and Grothe,
The famous engineers of the present day,
Who have succeeded in erecting the Railway
Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
Which stands unequalled to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.
Belah viaduct was designed by Thomas Bouche, a chap from Thursby in Cumbria. Unlike his unfortunate Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay, his Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Bog-coloured Belah stood the test of time and didn’t tumble down and kill lots of people. We native Cumbrians should be thankful.
So I scramble up a breathless 196ft from the fast-flowing Belah to the most southerly watchtower and discover a veritable wonderland of railway history. Not only does the southern buttress rise magnificently in the peace and solitude of this Pennine backwater, but a few yards down the track stand the ruins of the Belah signal box. Oh, what joy. Most boys – in my generation at least – dreamed of being engine drivers. I extended that dream into my teenage years when I retired from the footplate and took up residence in a signal box, complete with its ringing bells, ticking clock, coloured levers and – most importantly – fireplace chock-full of hissing coal. What better place to play with trains and dream of climbing mountains? Throw in a level crossing and a big wheel to open the gates and the dream’s complete.
My walk – this walk, our walk – hits a set of points here and diverges. In reality I continue down the track to Howgill Foot Farm, passing the ruins of a wooden trestle bridge that spanned the line. But there are more obstacles at Howgill Foot, and that’s as far as I get. So for convenience we’ll cut up a pleasant road just west of the viaduct to the delightful Wrengill Farm, recross the Belah on a public footpath to High Ewebank Farm, and drop down by another path to the northerly viaduct buttress – where I have a cuppa and a quick kip in soft grass.
From the northern buttress a number of return options present themselves. I opt to walk north along the trackbed through a boggy cutting, where I chance upon a lump of coal that has lain there for at least fifty years, then, finding my way barred again at the old Belah station, cut up the fell through abandoned quarries and return to Bleath Gill along empty minor roads. And at Bleath Gill, where the old stone bridge crosses the railway line, I stand with elbows on the parapet surveying the place where the 78018 froze to the rails and an army of shovel-wielding, swearing, smoking, laughing, salt-of-the-earth-type fathers, sons, uncles and brothers dug it out. And it was all in a day’s work.
We don’t do heroes in this country any more – with the exception of the boys flown back from Afghanistan in boxes, god bless them. Instead, we pour scorn on the people who keep this country moving. When a train service fails in a blizzard, the national press – staffed by people who wouldn’t know one end of a shovel from the other – trot out “wrong kind of snow” headlines with a regularity that is as predictable as it is unprofessional. Road workers are depicted as being so incapable they have allowed our highways to become pitted with potholes and choked with traffic cones. Firefighters are maligned because some supplement their wages with second jobs. Town hall officials are jobsworths with gold-plated pensions. Teachers are whingers. Plumbers are all Polish. Builders are all cowboys. And in a barrage so ruthless it has changed perceptions almost overnight, public sector office workers – wages, pensions, health, social security, social services, local authority personnel and police ancillary workers – have become “back office staff”, which somehow renders them dispensable. That’s what we do in this country. You want to save money? You want cuts? You want to push through a programme of austerity? Then denigrate the people you’ve targeted and cut them down like brambles in a railway siding. If they complain, just tell them they don’t understand the economic realities and they’re being led by union dinosaurs. Because the people at the top always know best. Like Ernest Marples.
But the heroes are still out there. Looking north from the railway bridge, the A66 slants down from Stainmore Summit absolutely chock-a-block with lorries. During the past two winters it has been closed several times for days on end as blizzards raged. During those blizzards, and in the darkness of night while the rest of us were in our beds, blokes in snowploughs were fighting a losing battle to keep the traffic flowing. They were up there at an elevation of 1,300ft in two of the worst winters on record, doing their bit without thanks or praise. Those men are heroes, just like the flat-capped railwaymen who dug out the 78018 in the teeth of a 40mph wind. Just like the nurses, the trawlermen, the roadworkers, the steelworkers, the dinner ladies, the refuse collectors and the countless hundreds of thousands of others who keep this country moving. We just don’t make films about them any more.
DON’T go yet because there’s a happy ending to this story. In fact, it’s the happiest of happy endings. The ending is so happy that if Walt Disney made a sequel to Snowdrift at Bleath Gill, no one would believe it. They’d think the director made it up.
Let’s go back a few years to when England won the World Cup. In November 1966 the 78018 was decommissioned and ended up in the most famous of locomotives’ graveyards – Woodham Brothers scrapyard in Barry, south Wales. There it rotted for more than 11 years before being hauled away by a group of steam enthusiasts who took it to Shakerstone, Leicestershire. But very little work was carried out, and again it sat rotting in a siding.
Then in 1981 a group of railway enthusiasts from a North-East town bought the 78018 with a view to getting it back into working order. Thirty years later, that work is nearly complete. That group is the Darlington Railway Preservation Society. And someday soon the 78018 will steam out of the shed it has occupied for three decades – only a few hundred yards from where it was built.*
Told you. Endings don’t come much happier than that.
* Much has happened since this article was posted, and I am glad to report that the 78018 has been fully restored (although not in Darlington) and re-entered service in Loughborough in September 2016.
- Take a look at the 78018 on the Darlington Railway Preservation Society website
- Chris Lloyd in The Northern Echo, November 11, 2009, interviews Jackie Leng, one of the workmen who dug out the 78018
- Mike Amos in The Northern Echo, May 27, 2009, recalls the last train over Stainmore Summit
- Mike Amos in The Northern Echo, January 27, 2011, a 78018 update
- History of the Eden Valley and Stainmore Railway