The time-travelling steam machine

Peter Williamson, 07 June, 2017
To celebrate 50 years since the formation of the North York Moors Railway Preservation Society, Peter Williamson takes a ride back in time on the UK's premier heritage railway...

I’m standing on platform no.1 at Pickering railway station in North Yorkshire. It’s hectic and noisy with whistles blowing, people shouting, doors banging and clouds of steam hissing loudly from the engine. There’s something very nostalgic about travelling by steam and my mind is instantly filled with black and white images from the heyday of British cinema when steam trains played more than just a starring role. They provided the atmosphere and platform (ha!) upon which many a romantic, mysterious or sentimental melodrama would be played out.

A figure looms out of the swirling haze and I’m sure it’s Iain Cuthbertson standing there. I look round for Jenny Agutter but I’m disappointed not to see her. The tall figure, too, has gone and in his place stands a group of uniformed railway staff, just a few of the hundreds of people, many unpaid volunteers, who make this heritage line the most popular in Britain – the North York Moors Railway carries more passengers than any other standard gauge heritage railway in the UK and is (possibly) the busiest steam heritage line in the world.

I’m excited by the prospect of heading up the line to Goathland, and my imagination is running wild. Time for a quick coffee in the platform café before I board the train. It’s busy with the excited chatter of fellow passengers eagerly anticipating the ride. The lady in front of me has something in her eye, but fortunately there’s a handsome young doctor on hand who helps relieve her discomfort with the corner of his pristine white hankie. A timely albeit brief encounter.

With a loud toot of the whistle, the driver signals that it’s time for us to get on board. There’s something about all the visible moving mechanical parts, and the steam and noise that gives a steam train not just life, but a character and soul, too. I step up into the carriage and plonk myself down into an aisle seat. Easy access, once we’re moving, for me to go and stick my head – and camera – out of the window.

You might think that travelling on a steam train is like being on any other train. Not so. There’s the clickety-clack of the wheels on the track, the shrieking of the whistle and clouds of steam passing by the window. I walk to the end of the carriage and stick my neck out. Ahead of me, the engine is pulling the carriages in a slow, graceful curve around the bend. It occurred to me that steam trains do have one great advantage over their modern counterparts – their speed. Or should I say, lack of it.

The pace is so leisurely that I really do have time to enjoy the views; to appreciate the wonderful countryside of the North York Moors, from the winding, wooded valley of Pickering Beck and purple heather-clad moors of Goathland, to Grosmont and the Esk Valley and, finally, the sea. I see a couple of figures standing beside the stark ruins of Skelton Tower, high above on a grassy headland watching our progress. Walkers, perhaps. We see picnickers eating their sandwiches on the bench at Newtondale Halt. They pause to wave and we all wave back. Now, that just wouldn’t happen on a ‘normal’ commuter train, would it?

Locomotive ‘76079’ is making steady progress up the narrow valley that winds its way firstly to Levisham and then Goathland and Grosmont. (She's celebrating her 60th birthday this year, having been built in Horwich in Lancashire in February 1967.) It’s hard to imagine that the early pre-train entrepreneurs actually surveyed this route with the view to building a canal along here to the sea. State-of-the-art travel infrastructure it may have been at the time, but fortunately a Scotsman, a Cornishman and a Geordie between them developed an engine powered by steam that could run on rails at hitherto unheard of speeds.

As we trundle over a recently refurbished and rebuilt bridge, clouds of steam encase the carriage and a shadowy monochrome figure slips by. I didn’t give him a second thought, as I was distracted by three children sitting on a fence waving. Again, we all waved back.

Forget DeLorean – if you really want to travel back in time, head to the North York Moors and get on a train. Each station is carefully styled in a different era, from 1930s’ Pickering and Edwardian Levisham to 1950s’ Grosmont and 1920s’ Goathland. Here my journey ends.

On reaching Goathland, the younger generation leap out hoping to catch a glimpse of a young bespectacled wizard heading along the platform (scenes from Harry Potter were filmed here); while those of more mature years, like myself, head up into the village for a pint of 1960s’ beer at the Aidensfield Arms.

I leave the railway behind. I’m walking back to Pickering for a totally different perspective of these moors. I pass ‘Scripps garage’ and ‘the Doctor’s house’ and then it’s along by the church and up onto the moor. Suddenly I see that man again, the shadowy character from the train. He’s being hotly pursued by two men in trenchcoats and fedoras. But he always keeps a few steps ahead. 39 to be precise. Now I remember where I’ve seen him before...

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