Easter Saturday on the North Yorks Moors Railway (May 2012)
by Neil Hughes
“We’re going to the beach!” the anxious little girl, who had been trying to get into the adults’ conversation for some time, announced in a shrill voice.
Was it Scarborough, maybe? That was not where I was about to head off for that day but one look around the small group of us gathered in Helmsley youth hostel (in East Yorkshire) that doubtful, overcast, Easter Saturday morning convinced me that none of us was likely to stay warm that day. A little fitful blue sky rifted the corner of the mostly grey horizon. A small bird sang tunefully—albeit that a little mournfully—of possible Easter rebirth.
The previous day it had poured. Morning quiet – stations of the cross at church – then an afternoon cloudburst. I had spectated at a diligently-performed street presentation of a trial-and-crucifixion passion play in Kendal before the heavier precipitation, moving then through the rain-soaked dales—Sedbergh, Garsdale Head, Hawes, Aysgarth—to Thirsk and then after this to Helmsley. No-one really thought that today, the culmulation of such a long north country of England winter, would be any better. Though I was going to Whitby, ancient home of St.Hilda, her convent and its conciliatory, epoch-making synod, and also terminus of the North Yorkshire Moors railway, neither held any especial prospect in themselves of presenting me with glittering sunshine upon arrival.
It had been a silent winter—certainly for me in Cumbria. The silence of the snow, when it falls; the silence of mountains; the silence of the economic recession gradually enveloping the country; the silence of…silence, punctuated only by the occasional howls of countries that were being dragged into war, famine or the autocratic rule of dictators: South Sudan, Nigeria, Syria. I was relatively little aware of this where I was, of course, surrounded by fields, streams, owls and the rugged Cumbrian mountains. And I had a general disillusionment with politics too: was the British coalition government going to bring us out of the mess? Probably not in any way.
The previous evening at the youth hostel had been silent too, pierced only by the intermittent outbursts of chat from the individuals and from two or three families gathered around squat Formica-topped tables in the members’ kitchen, with that same optimistic, diplomatic little child and her parents among them. The cosy electric lamps glowed quietly, that same presumptuous bird hesitated a careful, cautious note or two outside in the dark once the drizzle stopped; punctilious drops of rain descended from the roof each time it started again. The immediate agony of Easter suffering was over; quiet calm announced itself once more.
But now each was off to Scarborough, Whitby or somewhere over a rainbow.. First thing in the morning I walked into the neat, limestone-walled town centre, buying bread and seeking travel directions. I had been before to the North Yorks Moors; I was just seeking, I suppose, some assurance that things were still pretty much now as they had always been then.
The day, in more ways than one, was undeveloped: still, hopeful, clear. Levisham station is in a hollow, reached by a tortuous, single-track road that winds down a valley side amongst trees, past a camping and picnic site, then over a level-crossing. On the way I stopped briefly to look at Lockton youth hostel, noting the friendliness of more than one local person who each helpfully guided me to where its agilely-concealed entrance lay. At Levisham station platform, amongst well-preserved Victorian buildings, I identified first, the booking office, then purchased a ticket: a rover for the whole line. In the end, I never visited Pickering down at its south end, though.
In experiences like this, is not the waiting as important as the event itself? One is waiting, hoping, maybe imaging; then finally the superbly well-preserved steam train, its column of smoke and prospectively a whistle, approaches the station. But first, the signal clatters up (indeed up, on the NYMR, not down). But it’s a diesel! I can’t say I’m overly disappointed, though; the day has only just started and it’s all part of the adventure. The multiple-unit diesel is quite a vintage one, too…
I sat down close to an Asian family and then exited at Goathland, the next halt along the line. Enough time was available here for a brief moorland walk, stroll into the picturesque village and visit to the veteran Hull and Barnsley railway carriage secreted behind the platform. The sense of proximate history is palpable. This is why so many families, couples, individuals and children are here to try to recall it as a small part of their past too. An ebullient stream runs underneath the solid brick station itself. In the waiting-room, although it is a little chilly and musty, a freshly-lit coal fire burns in the grate and there is a welcoming presence of staff. I emerge and sit awaiting a southbound train, a mite diffidently inspecting facial features. The motorbikes, the sirens, stress of potentially anti-social, threatening neighbours and other ills of modern life are ephemerally, critically forgotten, though not altogether. Waiting for a fascinating object, steam-hauled, to pull in one transiently experiences a real-life encounter with the past. Is there even a tear in one or two eyes present, maybe?
As its stentorian equivalent arrives on the opposite platform, my own means to proceed to the next station north, Grosmont, pulls in. It is fronted by a sparklingly-clean, green ex-Southern Railway loco complete with prototype smoke deflectors. Both I and other customers—even though this resplendent specimen is facing back-to-front—are delighted and jump in. Were I a trainspotter, I would note that this is certainly not one that I have seen before.
At Grosmont we discover the reason for this surprise, novel occurrence. A full wedding train, soon to be appropriated by an authentic bride and groom, stands prepared in the bay platform. Our own de-coupled locomotive, now crowded around with supporters, young and old, backs away down the line and then is reconnected to the front of the standing matrimonialised Pullman coaches. In a short time the bridal party arrives. I enquire tactfully of a member of staff how much it costs to hire the Pullman train. He immediately, with a sympathetic smile, gives me a leaflet. One cursory look inside decides for me that this is not something I’ll be making a project of to celebrate my sixtieth birthday.
Crowds gather inquisitively, not wanting to appear too prurient. Through a gap between coaches on the other platform—I have now crossed the track—I see bride and groom express a grateful embrace, the green locomotive being the wider frame, for the benefit of photographers. A few shafts of sunlight, piercing through, brighten the day. I then swallow down a sandwich on the fourth platform that is used only by the intermittent BR (Northern Rail) trains between Whitby and Middlesbrough. I have just witnessed an argument. Amongst a dysfunctional family, two adults and two children, one a teenager, one younger. Life as it is, I suppose; one day you’re married – as I may yet be—then, before long, arguments like this one. So when does true life actually begin?
My train for Whitby duly having arrived, I step in and spend most of my time aboard peering out of the end-of-carriage window, imbibing smoke, especially in one tunnel. People aboard are contented; now we are all going to the beach (or the seaside, anyway) notwithstanding the fitful weather. At Whitby I disembark as do many others, though together with a good proportion of people and a fresh influx of day-trippers who had newly gathered. I remain on the lengthy, harbour-side platform, watching the locomotive turned around and gazing, in so marking time, across a flotilla of yachts and busy engineering sheds to the hill where St. Hilda’s monastery still outlines erstwhile holy austerity, though more like a skeleton today than an edifice likely to influence the day-to-day running of modern political economy. In the secular world of 2008 and its aftermath, motorcyclists, scooters and other joyriders buzz about like angry bees on the surface of any credible, authoritative attempt at piety.
As the transformed locomotive, now attached to the front of the eight carriages and facing the correct direction, recesses then back into the station, a scurry for places is triggered. I find myself edging forward into a compartment in the front coach – probably not the one I would have chosen. The prevailing mood inside now did appear to be something like: ‘Fantastic – we’re in! Now let’s get the windows open and enjoy the view!’.
In my own compartment (Remember compartments? They still have them in France, Italy and elsewhere.) I find myself in the company of Jack, Sarah and Tom (the latter is Sarah’s boyfriend or maybe even husband and these are not their real names). Jack, from Peterborough (a lifelong rail enthusiast) had suffered a stroke some twelve months ago and had partially lost certain of his speech powers. In the manner of those, who of necessity, have to express themselves in this way, he used elongated speech patterns which the patient Sarah—a daughter and also perhaps a nurse—and the putatively, long-suffering Tom, do their best to translate and re-configure into acceptable English. Jack, although he doesn’t appear to have lost any of his intellectual capacity and, indeed, was at pains to be communicative, also tended—no doubt as a result of his stroke and perhaps also because he was now unleashed for one day—to be a little childlike in a capacity for also wanting to wander off and stand at the end of the coach, where anyone attempting any kind of confrontation or even interlocution would meet with pure gobbledegook. Sarah’s great worry—not perhaps unreasonable—is that Jack might perhaps inadvertently step out of the train at the wrong station and not be able to climb aboard again before it moves off. She keeps urging the good-humoured Tom to check that dad’s alright, which he duly did each time that Sarah requested it, even though the corridor is quite populated with many other enthusiastic passengers.
The only occupants of the compartment, we struck up an amiable relationship. Jack, it turned out, had been a rail driver himself and it was sad that he could no longer express himself as self-assuredly as he might once have done about many aspects of the railway operation here and railways today in general. Even so, as we pulled out of Grosmont an audible, even if frank, argument erupted between two members of staff about how a valve should be opened whilst water was being pumped into the locomotive’s tank. Jack, in his broken, curt and truncated language freely and readily joined in, sobering the participants down and ultimately needing to be restrained by Sarah (She feared, perhaps, that he might perhaps be inadvertently sanctioned—or even sectioned—by well-meaning though zealous bystanders). I had been about to doze off in the declining afternoon sun, but now was wide-awake. Jack, too, was delighted next as a previously unnoticed heavy freight locomotive was now attached to the front of the train.
“It’s a ‘ten’ – a ‘ten’,” he kept singing.
Following the locomotive change, however, the train remained in the station for a while; no one was quite sure why until an ambulance arrived. Jack, head out of the carriage window, observed this new happening with meticulous candour.
“A stiff, a stiff,” he soon announced through Tom, his attention not unnaturally aroused by the incident, soon assured us that this was not actually the case.
“Still breathing,” was his terse assertion after a quick scan outside—a less fundamentally morbid but still not wholly (in itself) reassuring comment. A wheelchair/stretcher was bundled across to the waiting vehicle; shortly afterwards our train’s own departure ensued.
“We’re going more further now,” Jack told us. The trio were up in Yorkshire for three days, staying at a B & B. The previous day they had visited the York Railway Museum and the ex- train driver had delighted in taking a steam-led trip along two hundred yards of track. Equally Jack’s eyes now shone as, ephemerally lifted from the debilitating rigours of his moribund condition, he was re-immersed in the world of pistons; motion, the thrill of a certain kind and, principally, a sense of mutual duty that he knew only too well gripped him now again, inexorably and comprehensively.
Momentarily my own thoughts regressed back to my own father, Allan. Brought up adjacent to or within the proximity of a railway line in two separate and discrete inner-city Liverpool dwellings he had acquired a rich love of rail and all its related paraphernalia,, transferred later to both his sons, my two-year younger brother Grahame and myself. He, Allan, had died of cancer, the prostate version of the latter that can affect even the fittest (and he was very fit). He played tennis, in fact, even until the last year of his life. As his newly indoctrinated children, my brother and I had been taken all over the country staring into countless rail sheds and goods yards, taking down numbers, seeking permitted entry into signal-boxes, sometimes to work the levers themselves. But now he, too, was dead and his memories and pleasures taken with him.
One night, as a child, I’d had a high temperature and been unable to sleep. My mother and father both attended the bedroom, uncertain of whether to call the GP, but principally trying to devise ways to calm me. Intermittently in the background of a still, frosty winter night we could hear a ‘mixed-traffic’ steam locomotive slipping as it tried to make the gradient of the semi-circular Liverpool dock route about a mile from our house. My father – just as much interested in the railway context as in what was happening in my bed – kept us both informed.
“They’ll be putting down salt,” he said. And my mother, being the quick-thinking maverick genius that she was, soon began likening my situation to that of the train.
“D’you think it’ll get up the bank? It’s trying quite hard. That’s what you have to do. Despite everything that’s stopping you, you have to try to get to sleep.”
Searchlights were put out along the track whilst my father continued watching intently from the bedroom window. Three tentative, tenacious exertions forward; then two back. Occasionally one could hear the semi-distant clang of an iron bar being moved or a briefer peal of a man’s voice. Inexorably—for me, imploringly—the heavy-laden goods train began moving up the hill, first like a spider scaling a sheer bathside wall, then gradually more confidently. It passed out of detection and moved on into the night. Within a few moments, the passion of my illness surmounted and metamorphosed into an incident of a far greater and enduring human scale—and its proper angelic overcoming too—I was asleep.
Our North Yorks Moors Railway train hurried Jack, Sarah, Tom and I each to our respective destinations. Afternoon sun now illuminated the entire landscape.
“Look, Sarah said, at the shadow of the smoke on the field.” Indeed, one confident billow after another was outlined on the tufty grass and moorland at the track-side. It was indeed a quaint, beautiful—and because we were all gazing at it momentarily at once—a uniquely uplifting, uniting and confidence-building sight despite the speed at which, as an historic remnant, each fresh puff rapidly disappeared from our vision.
And so on now—each to our own cars and homes. In the station at Levisham our train overshoots the platform. I earn admiration—not unmingled with perplexity—as I jump from the isolated carriage down on to the gravel.
“Couldn’t you have just walked down the train?” asks a liveried, exasperated guard as I pass (though not unkindly). Then I am ascending the hill in my car, which has emerged unscratched from the car park despite the exponential increase in the number of vehicles parked there since I deposited my own earlier in the morning. I ultimately wrest my neck to cast one final look at the shy cluster of pre- rail-grouping heritage buildings before I turn my back upon them until next time.
So away goes the train: away with Jack, Sarah and Tom, its argumentative crew, possibly the Asian family I met earlier or the disputatious trio at Grosmont, maybe even the little girl from Helmsley youth hostel. It’s been a good day for all and maybe I’ll meet them all again somewhere, sometime.
Maybe we can all love and respect one another better now too. Here today were, in tiny microcosm, many ingredients needed for a more understanding outer society too. I sit now in the cafe at Lockton, drinking coffee and eating a piece of cake. And I look out, thinking through these and many much profounder thoughts too.