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Pickering To Whitby By Train
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
NYMR. Photo by mattbuck
Anticipation hangs in the air among the wreaths of smoke. She’s coming in slowly, beautifully begrimed, the way a working steam engine should be. Locomotive 76079 has earned her affectionate nickname, Pocket Rocket, on account of her versatility. She belongs to the Standard 4, ‘mixed traffic’ class and can pull freight or passengers, long or short distances. She’s a magnificent creature and everybody wants to admire her, photograph her, stand next to her.

The clock is showing nine and another day beginning in Pickering railway station. In a way the hour might have been turned back fifty years to the last time British Rail ran steam trains for real before they were brutally axed.

Malcolm originally from Prestwich, Ayrshire, is going about his business as Station Foreman for the day, personally responsible for passenger safety. He’s a volunteer and takes his job very seriously, watching lots of other men in smart dark blue uniforms putting yellow steps under carriage doors to make getting on easier. ‘We have to be so careful in this day and age,’ he tells me, earnestly, ‘with everybody so concerned with health and safety’.

In the crowded carriage lots of different accents are babbling away excitedly. People have come from far and wide to enjoy a day on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, on one of the most scenic routes in the country, aboard the train from Pickering to Whitby. Right on time, 9.25, the guard’s whistle blows, Pocket Rocket snorts as though perhaps a little miffed at being asked to go in reverse (there being no turntable), and we start to pull away, gently, gently.

Hardly are we out of the station crawling alongside the beck, the castle up on the hill, than we are being offered Douwe Egberts, very reasonably priced, by a paid employee, anxious to get on and no time to talk. Neither really has Ernie, a former merchant seaman, another volunteer, selling very informative guidebooks at three pounds a go.

We pass, on our left, 80136, a Standard tank engine, standing idle in a siding. We pick up a little steam, passing cows in fields and stretches of woods before the moors emerge magnificently all round and soon we are coming into Levisham, a beautifully appointed Edwardian Station, a veteran of countless films. It’s kept in immaculate order by the ‘Wombles’, as the local Station Group volunteers call themselves, on account of their capacity to make and mend using anything to hand. We briefly stop to pick up more passengers and a beautiful black-spotted Dalmatian wearing a bemused expression. Maybe she’s wondering about the five-pound fee her owners had paid for a space on the floor.

The Moorlander Express at Pickering Station. Photo by Glen Bowman
Norman, the ticket inspector, is suddenly before me, all smiles if looking slightly anxious. It turns out that he is being inspected by Gerald , a ‘senior ticket inspector’. For the first time since we set off the modern world intrudes with Norman ‘undergoing a routine check on how he interracts with passengers, demonstrates his understanding of routine and shows customer care’. No doubt he will pass with distinction because he is most careful to direct me to the front carriages to make it easier to alight at Grosmont.

We are travelling slowly through a wooded valley, dappled with pale sunshine The hedgerows are wearing their autumn colours. Passengers get on at Newton Dale Halt, where the train stops by request.

Although this carriage is crowded, Norman tells me there are only about 80 passengers aboard, although room for 350. Does this make today unviable? He shakes his head. ‘That’s not really the consideration. We are a registered charity, providing a service. From June to August, you’ll find the train at capacity.’ Next week, he’s going on his holidays – on the Swiss railways. He points out the Fylingdale early warning system high on the hill. ‘It used to resemble golf balls,’ he laughs, ‘now it looks like a toaster.’

Goathland is obviously the big attraction, quite a celebrity, having doubled as Aidensfield in Heartbeat and as Hogsmeade in the first Harry Potter film. Lots of people get off and start walking purposefully up the hill to the tourist village. There we find crowds arriving by coach, being photographed in front of cars from the 1960s, including a Ford Anglia police car used in the television series.

Had I time, I might well have taken the popular Rail Trail, following the original course of the track to the next station, Grosmont, now a picturesque four-mile pathway. Instead I return to the station, have cup of tea in the café and find Aussies, Canadians and Norwegians, holidaying in Yorkshire, crowding the souvenir shop in search of Potter souvenirs. I walk across the footbridge, look at some ancient varnished wooden carriages bearing the H &BR legend. They must be pre-1923 when the Hull and Barnsley Railways closed, but a pinned note tells me they date from 1907 and are due for restoration.

Back on platform one, I run into a very important person, Chris Price, the General manager, out and about, ‘maintaining visibility’, as he puts it with a chuckle. He brings me up to speed on a few facts and figures. The railway has a staff of 115 and more than a thousand volunteers. It has an annual turnover in excess of 7 million, carries more than 300, 000 passengers into Whitby, more that is than does British Rail – and, staggeringly, brings between 35 and 40 million pounds of revenue into the North Yorkshire economy. A railways buff, himself, with 36 years of voluntary service on preserved railways, he knows he has a job to die for.

Right on time the 10.50 for Whitby steams into sight. It’s 80136 seen earlier outside Pickering. It dates from as recently as 1956 which makes it young in engine years. This time it’s a compartment train and I’m in the company of a couple from Norfolk who make an annual pilgrimage to take this ‘beautiful journey’. As soon as we emerge from the tunnel and cross the Esk for the second time we are coming into Grosmont where the engines are shedded and maintained. Old locos, 44806 and 65894, are lining the way and rusting boilers are up-ended waiting to be restored.

On the platform an army of volunteers is at work, painting. Victor first worked here as a student in the 1960s and has been in love with the place ever since. Although he lives thirty miles away he comes weekly to do whatever is required. As I walk down the long tunnel to the sheds, I bump into young Chris, who’s been volunteering here for the last eight years since he was ten. He is a little coy about what were his first duties. It is this locally famous subterranean walkway, 130 yards long, built by George Stephenson, in 1835, that first got the village the name Tunnel when most of the buildings went up in the 1840s.

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In the shed, David, from Durham is hard at work. He’s gladly dedicating a week’s holiday to major restoration of 92134. Built in 1957, it had less than ten years of active service before being sent to Barry Island for scrap. Mercifully, like many others there, it survived. ‘It’s a never-ending job’, he sighs, ‘with engines needing a major overhaul every ten years, as fast as we finish one we need to start another.’

Back at the station I chat to another David, the booking clerk, who between making announcements tells me soberly about the ‘massive appeal’ going on for more volunteers and financial help. ‘We’ve got eighteen miles of track to maintain, forty bridges not to mention the engines and rolling stock. We need urgently to raise more than 9 million. Fortunately the heritage Lottery Fund will match us pound for pound and we’re off to a great start but there’s still a long way to go.’

He dashes off to announce the arrival of the Whitby train, which turns out to be pulled by the most glamorous engine seen so far, 926 , Repton, built in 1934, one of the Schools Class, immaculate in the Southern Railway apple green livery. They never came up north and consequently I never saw one in service. I look at its sleek lines with a mixture of awe and regret.

We are now joining the British Railways line from Middlesbrough, for much of the time crossing and re-crossing the beautiful Esk. Lorne and Zoe have got engaged today and come up from Nottingham to celebrate in style. She proudly shows me her ring and he gives her a kiss. Everybody on the train is happy for them.

Passing through the pretty river-side village of Sleights, we pause for photos and to allow the driver to phone for permission to continue.

At Ruswarp we clank over an iron bridge and note that the tide must be in, the river being at its widest, following its course to the magnificent Larpool Viaduct, 120 feet high and 915 feet long. Ernie’s guide book says it took 5 million bricks to build the 13 arches. Suddenly, we see the iconic bare-ribbed silhouette of Whitby Abbey, high on the hill, and know we are about to arrive. It’s 1.45 which leaves plenty of time for sightseeing in Whitby and a choice of going back on the 16.40 or the 18.00.

It’s a journey that should be on everybody’s bucket list!

Pickering To Whitby By Train, 5th November 2018, 16:50 PM