STORYLINE - 7: DRIFT-BESET - Country Vet Cut Off By Deep Snowdrifts (Faction)
Looks idyllic, doesn't it. Try coming this way in six foot drifts
Battersby Station in February, 1963
Battersby, Wednesday February 6th, 1963
I looked out of the window and froze at the sight. There was snow everywhere, a fair bit of the stuff as farmers in these parts might say. As far as I could see from the bay window looking south from our house the Cleveland Hills were thoroughly covered. So far, though, the roads were clear enough to drive north or east, to Ayton or Kildale.
Being a vet has its ups and downs in this neck of the woods, but thinking of my fellow students who finished with me, I would say I got the better deal. True, all they had to deal with everyday were perky Pekes, sad-looking Spaniels and yappy Yorkies. I had bulls and porkers. No comparison, really. But I get the open countryside, and I get friendly farmers who can't always pay for what their animals need. Come market day I get a cut in the sale price of livestock, though. Well it's not exactly like that. They get their cash for the beasts and settle up with me afterwards. I'm told even the best vets don't fare much better - I only have to think of Alf Wight, my writing colleague at Thirsk who calls himself James Herriot in his books because of the rule we can't profit from non-veterinary proceeds - and some of my townie colleagues have to practically pull the cash from the pet owners' pockets!
Anyway, I have visits to make at Bank Top Farm near Ayton and Low Terrace just outside Kildale so my kit needs to be dropped into the Wolseley. It's got gour wheels, and the gear box was seen to at Stokesley by a good workshop mechanic. So far this year North Yorkshire's missed the worst of the snows. North Norfolk was badly hit, stuck out as it is into the sea between Cromer and North Walsham. I'd hate to be a vet there, they'd need helicopters to get about...
The snow's piled up along the walls and hedgerows on the north and east sides, even as far in as Ayton and right now I've got to get round to Kildale. Jack Metcalfe at Bank Top said it's going to close in soon. I bow to his knowledge; you don't get to the age of sixty-seven without knowing what the weather's getting up to in your own back yard. He might be right about what he says. Although the sky looks like lead to the north-east and it might have stopped for the time being, I think we're due for something we haven't had since '47-'48. That was a stonker of a winter! Where was the Gulf Stream Drift when you needed it? I was still a kid then, still at school down in the deep south. My school-days had begun crash-bang-whallop with the Blitz in South London, then the flying bombs came over and I thought I'd seen the lot! Is this going to be worse than that?
...At least it's held off until I reached Kildale, and Pam Winter's donkey seems to be getting over its trials. She bought him from some old fellow near Whitby. The hooves had grown deformed, but with some trimming and work by the smith to remove its bent-over hoof-irons - as she called his shoes - he was up on his feet again by the time I left.
I treated myself to a tea Glebe Cottage by the station, and I was going to look at Harry Webster's ewes behind the church, but one look at the moortops told me to get my hide back to Battersby before the roads closed up under drifts. My sister Kate's supposed to be visiting from Lewisham in South London and she'll expect a lift from the station, even though we're just a hop and a skip away down the road. But she won't be happy if we get boxed in by the weather!
As I come over the railway from Kilburn I can hear the horn of the multiple unit near Ayton. I've got to get a move-on if I'm going to save her from the weather and I've got to drive along the road in a wide arc through the village to get there! There it goes again, the two-tone horn, and it sounds closer to Battersby, near where the railway goes under a farm road. There's a cutting before the train rolls over the level crossing and westward into the station past the signal box. I've got my work cut out! Hopefully the waiting room will be open still. Barry, the porter signalman might have kept the fire going... Hopefully!
When I roll into the car park the train's just clack-clacking away east to Whitby over the junction with the line through Ayton from Middlesbrough. The sky still looks like lead, only now it's more blue-grey. It's only four in the afternoon and it looks almost like midnight! I can see the dim light in the signal box, Jim's striding between his levers, busy setting the points for the 'schools' train back from Whitby. By the time that gets here, in around another fifteen minutes' time, the line to the east will be shut down for the night. Only the train that's just left will still be in the branch, the other side of Glaisdale. Once it reaches Grosmont it's near enough safe, with just Sleights and Ruswarp before it reaches Whitby.
'Hi Kate!' I push open the waiting room door.
'God, Tony, this weather's closing in!' is the first she says to me, not 'Hi Tony, nice to see you!' Mind you, the weather's going to be uppermost in everyone's thoughts. Outside the snow is over the toes of my rubber wellies. Who knows what it will be like tomorrow.
'Let's get to your car, Tony', she gives me a peck on my cheek as she swishes past me through the open door. She calls out a farewell in the near dark to Barry, now on his way back to the signal box. 'The young lad here was just about to damp the fire down, but when i came in he put another lump of coal on. He told me he didn't know how long it would be before you showed up, so just make myself comfy! What a darling, what's his name?'
'That's Barry', I tell her.
'Bye Barry!' she calls out. He waves back as he climbs the steps up to the door of the cabin.
'You still got that old Wolseley? Your schoolmates are all driving around in E-types and Ford Zodiacs, did you know that?' Kate's scathing about my car, but not sneering. Anything with four wheels that can move through the snow is good enough in this!
'I'm saving up for a Landie', I tell her.
'A what? Oh, a Land Rover! What for, of all things. You need something more like a Merc, surely?' Kate flashes a smile, the only thing I can see clearly in this light.
'Not around here', I tell her, looking briefly in the mirror. The car slides sideways.
'Whoa! What was that?' Kate's eyes are wide open in sudden fright. I say nothing and wrangle with the steering wheel to get the car straight again after turning a bend in third gear. Too fast!
It's not long before we're at the front door. Isabelle, my wife, has warmed the house up well.
'Tony Junior nearly got stuck in school!' my young daughter Penny laughs, and greets my sister, 'Hello Auntie Kate! Shame you couldn't come for Christmas!'
'I was with Grandma and Grandad in Penge for the season', Kate sings out, and greets her sister-in-law with a hug and a kiss, ruffling young Tony's hair when he runs into the hall . 'Hello Isabelle - Tony, nice to see you again! Isn't this snow something to look at!'
'I wouldn't sound too happy, Auntie Kate', Penny cackles like an old witch. 'You could get stuck here for the duration!'
Penny's only seven, but she's a budding actress, as Kate reminds me,
'You'll have to get her into Rada when she's sixteen, Tony!'
'You really think so?' Penny's wide-eyed screech is put on. She's a bit forward for her age, but she's spoilt by Isabelle. Most kids in these parts are reserved, like their fathers, mothers and grandparents before them. They open up only to their close friends and family, Penny will talk to anything with a mouth, even the sheep don't get off scot free!
By morning everthing's struggling to cope. A loud bang can be heard nearby
'What's that Dad?' Young Tony is startled. He can't get to school. There are no trains or buses. Standing outside I can see why. In the distance there is a tall column of smoke in the lull between the gusts that push the snow horizontal through the still leaden sky.
There's a big engine with a crane behind, trying to lift something.
'What's up?' I ask Barry when I get to the station
'Engine's come off the rails, Mister Simms. The wheels took the ice for rail, and then it was off! There won't be much coming through here today, I'll warrant! This'll take some hours to clear. The engine's down in the cutting, near the bridge. You can't see it from here, and they've had to radio for the York plough. There's a crane coming from there as well!'
'The long way round, eh?' I stroke my chin. The cold is biting in the wind, maybe I'll grow a beard for the winter..
'Aye', Barry sighs. 'They can't get through from Middlesbrough the way things are. Anyway, the snow between Ayton and Nunthorpe is as high as the cabin at Nunthorpe Junction. No trains have gone through either way between Nunthorpe and Guisborough since the last one yesterday!'
Kate is indeed stuck with us. When I look along the platform towards Whitby there's a fellow taking photographs at the end of the platform.
'The points are frozen, set for Ayton', I hear one of the two railwaymen with him, standing waiting for him to finish before talking again.
'Hello Mister Simms', Jack the stationmaster looks my way. 'This is the railway writer, Peter Semmens. Mister Semmens, this is Tony Simms the vet'.
'Oh, hello Mister Simms', Peter Semmens greets me and lifts his camera again to take another picture. 'I'll have to get these developed soon, Jack. The cold might break the film'.
If it is that cold, there has to be danger for the animals the farmers couldn't have rounded up last night. Any animals still out will have to be got in under cover before long or else be considered dead. They might live for days under the drifts, near to walls or hedges. For a short time they'd get by licking the moisture on the walls, but they would starve soon.
'What's it going to be like getting food out to the sheep on the moors?' Mister Semmens asks me when he has packed his camera away. I think he's asked because he's been told I'm a vet. But I'm the wrong one to ask. The farmers would know better... Or not. Some have tractors, but they would sink in the drifts and then they'd be no use to anyone.
'I think the army's going to have to do something', I offer.
'Sooner them than me', he answers, and then calls out to one of the drivers standing watching. 'When are we off to York, Sam?'
'Another hour or so yet, Peter. The engine's nearly been re-railed. Another half hour and we'll have her right as rain, ready to tow away. No fire left. y'see. Half an hour on and the tool van will be loaded up again, and you can be off when the York engines've got steam up again Whitby branch should be open by now past Danby'.
Sam waves to one of his colleagues and makes his way along the track, back towards the crane that's half visible in the cutting. I can hear the steam jets as the jib is drawn to its height for a last time.
'How long this will last is anyone's guess', Jack the stationmaster says to no-one in particular, meaning the freak weather, and trudges through the snow back towards the waiting room, no doubt to warm his hands on the fire.
His colleague leaves with him and Mister Semmens shrugs his shoulders.
'At least I'll be back in York by teatime', he laughs and trudges after Jack, adding, 'Hopefully'.
Sam will probably let Mister Semmens know when he is ready for the 'off'
This is my cue to get back to the house, back into the warm. I'm going to have to get a tractor to get about around here, never mind a Land Rover! I'll also have to listen for the phone, although what I'm expected to do is anyone's guess!
Meanwhile, down at the station
This is a reconstruction of events in early 1963
The whole of Britain was adversely affected by this long cold snap that began shortly after Christmas and worsened in the new year. By February much of Britain lay under a thick blanket of snow and more was to come. Worse, deep drifts cut off upland rural areas - just as in 1947-48 - and livestock died in large numbers. The cold intensified, so much so that the English Channel froze to a mile out from land. By April winter's grip eased, but it was by no means over. Mid-April saw the weather improve.
The military helped feed isolated livestock by helicopter, and many of the elderly found the weather too much, especially those away from towns or cities. The worst affected areas were the North, Wales and Scotland with the highest land areas. When the snow melted flood alerts went out in the lower areas and the flood plains of rivers.
Peter Semmens would be deputy curator at the National Railway Museum close by York Station in 1974.
See the local routes around Cleveland introduced piecemeal throughout the mid-late 19th Century initially to move iron ore to the steel works at and near Middlesbrough. The route through Trenholme Bar near Picton to Ingleby came first, followed by the laying in of a junction at Ingleby, renaming it Battersby Junction and then Battersby - all within 80 years - to be cut in 1954 between Stokesley and Picton; Nunthorpe Junction to Guisborough went over ten years later, and on to Loftus. Before long journeys between Middlesbrough and Whitby would be roundabout via Battersby instead of more direct along the coast.