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STORYLINE - 11: STUCK SOLID - Cutting Through Drifts On The Eskdale Railway In Yorkshire

Updated on August 8, 2017

White-out around the edge of Cleveland, (North Yorkshire)

Battersby Station, February, 1963. Chunks of frozen snow had to be dug away from the rails before being whisked aside by the snow plough - job done, where's the tea'n'sarnies?
Battersby Station, February, 1963. Chunks of frozen snow had to be dug away from the rails before being whisked aside by the snow plough - job done, where's the tea'n'sarnies? | Source
Digging out - at least the rails are still there!
Digging out - at least the rails are still there! | Source
Inundated snowplough - this one is one of the Darlington allocation at Stainmore, (highest railway line in England)
Inundated snowplough - this one is one of the Darlington allocation at Stainmore, (highest railway line in England) | Source

Tools for the job

Cascade of snow over a plough being driven through a drift
Cascade of snow over a plough being driven through a drift
Ex-North Eastern breakdown crane - needed to lift derailed locos after wheels 'misguided' by packed snow against the rails on pointwork
Ex-North Eastern breakdown crane - needed to lift derailed locos after wheels 'misguided' by packed snow against the rails on pointwork
Loco crewman hooking up before starting duty
Loco crewman hooking up before starting duty
North Eastern snowploughs high up on the Durham Fell at Waskerley before Nationalisation in 1948  - waiting for bad weather
North Eastern snowploughs high up on the Durham Fell at Waskerley before Nationalisation in 1948 - waiting for bad weather
Doubled-up: locos with snow ploughs back-to-back for additional strength
Doubled-up: locos with snow ploughs back-to-back for additional strength

We'd been snow-clearing out towards Seamer near Scarborough and I had'n't got my head down before my old Mickey Mouse alarm went off.

I've had about six hour's worth of kip, but it feels like I'd only gone to bed a minute ago. Dad hasn't lagged the tap in the back yard, but even if he had it wouldn't have made a ha'pennorth of difference. It's cold enough to freeze penguins or polar bears out there! So I'll have to wait 'til I've got back to the Depot before I can swill my head to take the tide mark off my neck and wake up.

After a 'breakfast' of bacon, eggs and sausage, a pint mug of tea and a quick look at the 'Northern Echo' (yesterday's, as the van hasn't dropped off any new papers since then) I'm off again, back to work. No sign of the York Evenin' News or Yorkshire Post since a few days back either. Lines are blocked towards Leeds and there's been no newsprint come through from down south to print the York papers.

The bush telegraph says a message has come through from the station master's office at Castleton, to Mister Netherfield's office at Clifton for another snow plough. As the lad in the shed office who took the call told the foreman,

'The ploughs are stuck somewhere west of Danby!'

Two York engines, 'Antelope' Class B1 4-6-0 61002 'Impala', went out from York Yard this morning at six, back-to-back with ex-WD 2-8-0 90230, snow ploughs at either end. They'd only got as far as Danby by way of Malton, Pickering and Grosmont before getting stuck solid - like our teeth trying to work through the landlady's fruitcake at Scarborough last summer. It was bad enough getting past Newtondale and Goathand, let alone the Esk Valley railway from what the pen-pusher said. Now we were on our way to get them out of the mess!

Our day shift started early, at seven instead of eight, and we'd been out about twelve or thirteen hours the night before, five hours or so on top of the usual shift. Shovelling snow by the light of flickering hurricane lamps isn't anybody's idea of fun - the wind's got up nearer the coast - but we get paid and there'll be the overtime at the end of the week. Ten hours so far this week, and we've only got as far as Wednesday! That ought to be worth an extra tenner after tax and PAYE, the new scheme for paying tax and state pension contributions.

Right now we're being shaken about, lurching from side to side in this snow plough cabin behind the 2-8-0 at the end of a short train. A lot of the ploughs we have were converted from redundant tender bodies fifty years or so before by the North Eastern Railway. Even as tenders the ride would have been rough, but the weight of the underframe plus the weight of the cabin and plough are mostly enough to keep it on the rails. So here we are, shaking from side to side, tea slopping in the can, plough, 4-6-0, tool van, 2-8-0 and another plough! If this can't get through, we'll have to wait 'til it all thaws! That won't be for another two months, and meanwhile there's folk with livings to earn, kids to get to school. They need the trains to get to Whitby from as far west as Castleton. Any further west of that and they've got to take the train west to reach the Friends' School on Ayton Green.

We were still at school, Billy and me, up to a couple of summers ago. The school careers officer came and asked what we wanted to do with ourselves once we'd left. We were fifteen at the time, and lived close to Clifton Depot in the north of York. The area's all terraces with short back yards, front door leading straight into the front - or 'best' - room, middle room, kitchen and scullery with the toilet out in the yard. We'd been at the Secondary Modern - no brains for learning, Billy and me, the Eleven Plus was only any good if you could spell properly or add up - and only just into the 'Swinging' sixties we'd had to find work. The careers officer just shook his head and ticked the 'Manual' box. After that it was the big wide world. No National Service any more, either. The Military had enough manpower without scraping the barrel.

'Well', I told the careers man during the ten minute interview, 'Grandad works for the railway, Dad works for the railway, Uncle Jack works for the railway...'

He'd stared at me, probably wishing for the floor to open up under me and Billy, who'd told him the same. We were wasting his time. Like as not he was looking for lads who'd tell him they wanted to be spacemen or something. So like I said, his having ticked the 'Manual' box we were out on our own Anyway, we went the following Monday morning to see the Shed Manager, who took us across the road to the Permanent Way Depot where the foreman, Jim Overby was talking on the 'phone to someone over at Ripon. We knew Jack from when he came to Uncle Jack's wedding, and he nodded to the Shed Manager to leave us, then put the 'phone down.

'When are you leaving school, Derek?' he asked me. He didn't need to ask us both, as the answer would be the same. 'Come back in a couple of weeks and the boss'll talk to you. He'll hand you over to me again and I'll get you fixed up with overalls, flannel shirts, work coats and what-not. See you then'.

That fortnight soon passed, and we from being schoolboys to working men. We were asked by Mister Netherfield, the Depot Manager, about when we wanted to start,

'Give yourselves at least a week off before you come back', he told us both.

'We'd like to start now, sir', I'd said. With no cash in our pockets, what was the point of taking a week off?

That was then. Two summers on and we are shaking about in this old snow plough. We're all sweating with the stove belting out heat like we were in Africa! Billy's looking a bit peaky, like he was seasick with the motion. Dad would have loved it, having been on the Navy escorts looking for U-boats - you'd have thought he won the war single-handedly, the way he talked - and being flung all over the show by waves as high as the Minster, so he said.

I count the junctions. Malton comes and goes and we're closing on Rillington Junction with the W.D engines' exhausts blasting away like a smoker's cough. Over the level crossing past Marishes, then Kirby Misperton passes quick enough on the way north into Pickering. A ten minute stop at Pickering for signals, enough time to stretch our legs on the platform. The old overall roof had been taken off by this time - like the one at Whitby - so the snow was being blown across the tracks from the north-east. The two-tone horn from a multiple unit sounds from somewhere near New Bridge. Its not long before it breezes into the station like a long wedding cake on wheels, and we have to pile back into the snow plough cabin. From freezing to roasting again. There's got to be a happy medium, but it won't be for a while yet!

Levisham and Goathland are fairly white, but no problem. Our short cavalcade trundles down into Grosmont and we pass the junction under the weird-looking signal box that stuck out over its plinth by the entrance to the goods and coal yard. On the Whitby side of the junction we change direction and run head on for Glaisdale, us being at the front end of the train this time.

It's not exactly smooth running, either! Billy almost throws up when I thump him on his back and tell him,

'Soon be there now, Billy lad!'

It's all he can do to hold in his tea and bacon sandwich.

At Glaisdale we're held again, but this time it's not for a train going the other way. The one into Pickering had been late, well late. No trains are going west past Grosmont now. That's it. It's all spooky and white out here, deep with it! We'll have our work cut out for us, going down to Battersby.

'Time for a mug of tea, lads!' Percy Harrison laughs out gleefully. He'd drink Assam dry if he got there! He's been in the army out in India, a sergeant major who believes in tea strong enough to stand your spoon in! They called it sergeant major's tea in the army out east - strong with enough leaves in it you'd think a whole tea plantation had been cut for it, and sugar! God, Percy put five spoonfuls of it in his! Not much for the rest of us, and we need a bit for the energy.

'Now then, Del, get this down your gullet!' he tells me, handing me an enamelled mug. Billy shakes his head when Percy reaches out a mugful to him. 'Go on, lad. You'll need it before long!'

'Aye, bloody right he will. Got some sandwiches with you, Perce?' Tom Kenneally asked. Tom had been in the army as well, but up through Italy with the Eighth Army. They'd been stuck with a Scots' regiment one side of them - 'Bagpipes until two in the morning!' - and an Indian regiment on the other. He got the taste for hot, sweet tea from them. The stocky little Gurkhas enjoyed his tea, Tom said. I believe him.

'Back in!' came the call from Jack Overby. He's with us tonight on our shift, seeing we do the job right. Last year we hadn't had so much snow shovelling. Mother Nature's making up for it this time. 'We've got to get on to Castleton. That's where the trouble is!'

Billy pees over his boots in the rush to get back to the snow plough. He'd gone to the Egton end of the platform, where it was dark, and was stood melting the snow when the call went out. He's breathless when he clambers back up the steps.

'The job should be that easy!' Jack laughs, Percy and Tom grinning from ear to ear either side of him. 'We should all stand melting the snow down there at Castleton - the job would be over in a flash!'

We all laugh, even me. I know it was rotten, laughing at my best mate, but you couldn't help it. It was that sort of situation. Everything slows down before we get to Danby, the engine behind us rolling along with the typical clanking noise of a Riddles' WD. We can hardly hear the 4-6-0 behind it. The snow plough starts rocking sideways and we grind to a halt with a screech that sets my teeth on edge.

'The B1's in front - everybody out!' Jack yells after looking out past the door, letting cold air in. We all pile out again, Jack going back to the toolvan for the shovels.

Another eight hours of back-breaking shovelling, with the wind whistling across our backs, and the B1 is almost free. Percy calls us back to the snow plough, plies us with tea again - even Billy drinks like an elephant with his nose in the mug - and the early sunlight begins to creep over the landscape from the east. We have to jump out of the cab to let the engine push the plough over the snow we'd broken up down past the B1 with its plough, and watch as the snow flies high over and past the snow plough roof like a bow wave from a ship in the sea swell. It looks great against the sun!

With another couple of hours' hard graft the engine and its plough are free, back on the rails with help from the York breakdown crane that had come up behind us in the early hours. Everything has to roll on to Battersby now, past Castleton station, Commondale - with its single platform, and pathetic little brick shelter - and through Kildale.

The Middlesbrough ploughs stand in the through roads, two big 2-8-0's, a toolvan and mess coach between them. The sun streams across the Cleveland Hills escarpment beyond Ingleby, and across blinding white snow flurries that look like ice rain. If anybody had said they'd go snow-blind in North Yorkshire nobody would have believed them!

Back in York by ten we're ready for bed, counting the overtime money in our heads! Bed first, though. Thursday, and the Minster bells are belting out for a wedding or something! At least my bedroom looked out over the other way and I don't hear them as much as Mam and Dad would. Soon enough, though, it'll be,

'Derek, get up - it's time to go to work!'

Snow, eh. Who wants it?

The North Eastern Region of British Railways in glorious Technicolor, warts and all! Lots of industrial shots, rural scenery and urban delights (smile please), wind and rain, cold or hot the railway kept up the pace until extremes set in. Then it became 'let's see' time. What with howling gales coming in from the Arctic via the North Sea on one side and torrential rain on the other side flooding the rivers that lead through York or Newcastle, railway travel could be taxing between the Borders and the Humber. See how we coped in steam days.

A History of British Railways' North Eastern Region

Railway Snowploughs in the North East

A book was published in January 2014 by the North Eastern Railway Association, thoroughly researched and written by David and Claire Williamson. Titled 'Railway Snowploughs In The North East', the book is well illustrated with colour and b/w images, diagrams and drawings, exhaustively complemented by data and dates. Well worth looking into.

Write to Sales Officer,Janet Coulthard, NERA, c/o 15 Woodside Drive, Darlington, DL3 8ES, County Durham, (United Kingdom), E-mail:; Tel: 01325 480009

* See also RITES OF PASSAGE FOR A MODEL RAILWAY - 23: Snow Ploughs

Line clear! What all the huffing and puffing was in aid of
Line clear! What all the huffing and puffing was in aid of | Source


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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Not likely to happen in Oz, is it. This part of the world can turn Polar at times (watch out for cuddly-looking white bears).

      I had to travel across the North Yorkshire Moors in the winter of 1962-63 (started snowing heavily just before the New Year), and because the buses were stopped at one stage I had to take to the rails. Passed a couple of engines between Battersby and Whitby with snow ploughs on either end. This is a sort of re-enactment seen through the eyes of a youngster (as I was at the time, around 16). Even close to the coast it was cotton woolly - they had to replace the d.m.u's between Scarborough and Whitby with steam tank engines and old Gresley corridor coaches (for the weight, there was a risk of coming off the rails on the inclined bends between Ravenscar and Robin Hood's Bay [1 in 39 at the tunnel]).

      See STORYLINE - Winter Story.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This was an extremely interesting hub Alan, great photos too. There is no mistaking the British tone in your characters' dialogue either, and the story was engaging. I have never seen a loco with snow plow before so that was interesting too. Voted up.