TIME sweeps along the valley of the Greta and labours into the east like a goods train burning second-rate coal. This is a place where cinders crunch beneath boots and buildings stand empty at the side of a railbed that has, in parts, been reclaimed by the bog. Up here in this godforsaken Pennine emptiness the ghosts of railway workers bend stoically before the wind on Stainmore Summit, waiting for trains that will never pass. Sorry lads, but the last loco to Bowes and beyond clanked through in 1962. Lay down your shovels and sleep.
Things may come and things may go, but very few things go on for ever. The Stainmore Railway came in a triumphant blaze of engineering glory and it went in a jangling of dodgy tills and a flurry of unbalanced balance sheets. The same fate befell the majority of our proper industries. Nowadays, the obvious objects to wreck having run out, it happens to aircraft carriers, Gurkhas and libraries. Like someone once sang: It’s the same old story.
Pardon me if I’m in a cynical mood but I’ve just received my third notice of redundancy in less than three years from a North-East newspaper that purports to champion altruistic, moralistic and social values while hiring, firing, rehiring and refiring its staff like a Victorian industrialist at the factory gate. But you don’t need to know this because you’ve probably got worries of your own. So, like time and Olivia Ong, I’ll move on.
Today is an adventure because I don’t know where I’m going – it’s a bit like life in general. Having recently walked west from Stainmore Summit along the trackbed of the abandoned Stainmore Railway to Bleath Gill and the remains of the Belah viaduct, today I’m heading east into County Durham and a vast bogland that stretches, seemingly, to eternity. It’s peculiarly reminiscent of the opening credits of Ben Gazzara’s Run For Your Life only with peat haggs instead of salt flats. Come on. I can’t be the only one who remembers Run For Your Life.
The trackbed is a walk through history. It has been washed away in places and returned to bog in others, but for most of its length has retained its original dimensions and foundations. Railway workers’ sheds still stand in isolated locations, their doors open to the wind and fireplaces cold. A scattering of floor tiles betrays the site of a long-demolished signal box. Strange railway-related objects thrust from the turf.
I was too young in 1962 to form a rational opinion of Transport Secretary Ernest Marples’ manic rush to close down vast tracts of Britain’s railway system, leaving rural communities such as Kirkby Stephen and Barnard Castle – both on this line – virtually devoid of communications in the days before ordinary people had cars. I was much more interested in Supercar and Four Feather Falls.
But it must have been really hard for the Tories, who had been in power eleven years, to come up with a half-hearted excuse, because the old “there’s no money left”, “Labour’s record deficit”, “the worst recession in living memory”, and “we’re living beyond our means” mantras just wouldn’t have stuck. This was, after all, the very era where Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said we’d never had it so good. So I’ll just have to settle for Marples being a ruthless, granite-faced, money-grabbing, trough-hogging crook with a vested interest in closing railways and boosting his road-building empire, and being allowed to get away with it by the ruthless, granite-faced, money-grabbing, trough-hogging crooks around him.
The same level of grotesqueness couldn’t happen nowadays, of course. But don’t, for a minute, think our forests are safe yet. Or the NHS. Because they’re not. Sorry about this, but I’ve got some steam up. Jesus. I don’t half walk fast when I’m in a strop. You should see me go when I’m really angry.
The ruined Spital High Cottages stand at the side of the track, faded curtains still hanging in broken windows. I don’t like using the word “remote” because it’s banded about too readily. You want “remote”, you look at St Kilda or Terra del Fuego. They’re pretty damned remote. But there’s no road to Spital High Cottages, just a railway line that was ripped up fifty years ago. That makes them sort of remote. Especially if you lived here and had to carry a week’s shopping from the nearest farm track to your front door.
Ruined buildings with curtains hanging in the windows are sad places. I remember camping near an abandoned croft house on North Uist in 1977. It still had curtains in the windows. And inside, on a dusty table, was a Gaelic bible opened at the psalms. Someone had been born there, lived there, and probably died there. And all that was left was decay and a bible. And all that’s left here, at Spital High Cottages, is decay and curtains – and a railway line where trains no longer run, and the muffled rumble of traffic on the A66 across the moor to the north.
Just beyond the cottages I reach the end of the line. The trackbed continues to Bowes – but it does so on the far side of a barrier of tin sheets and barbed wire. I’ve reached farming country and an interesting concept.
What happens when a railway line gets ripped up? Who owns the trackbed? Is it sold off bit by bit through a painstaking and transparent process? Or do farmers who own land alongside it just – when nobody’s looking – plant a few posts, nail up a few sheets, and uncoil a few rolls of barbed wire like settlers on a prairie? We need to know the answer to this.
I turn west and face the several miles of trackbed back to Stainmore Summit. I’m on a tight schedule because I’m working tonight. From 5.30pm to one o’clock tomorrow morning I’ll be sitting in The Northern Echo building, in Darlington, with a load of dispirited people who have been told their jobs are under threat. Meanwhile, in a head office on planet Chaos, a bunch of boss-eyed, wine-supping, myopic, intellectually-challenged aliens who don’t know one end of a newspaper from another but are quite good at giving themselves bonuses are, like Ernest Marples, maximising profits by sacrificing my future. Not that I’m bitter.
Railway lines, collieries, aircraft carriers, Gurkhas, libraries, RAF jets, police stations, clinical technicians, nurses, newspapers. The list goes on. Great country this. Innit.
- To watch the opening and closing credits of Ben Gazzara’s Run For Your Life, CLICK HERE. Go on. Do it.