UK: Folk Tales on the Settle-Carlisle Railway

Craven Herald & Pioneer 10 September 2015
RIGHT up until 1961, toilet facilities at a cottage on Blea Moor, referred to by the 19th century excavators as "that terrible place ", was just a hole in the ground with a seat over the top.

Before World War Two a North Ribblesdale signalman paid five shillings and four pence to rent a cottage at Salt Lake. There was no running water and residents used a tap at the end of terrace to draw water from a tank. Some tenants preferred to use water from a fellside beck.

There was a tradition of laying off men just before the year was up and then re-hiring. It was to avoid giving them a holiday. Only permanent staff had such a privilege.

These are true tales illustrating the life of railwaymen and their families who kept the highest railway in the country operating and are told by Settle-Carlisle Railway guru, Bill Mitchell, in his latest offering Folk Tales on the Settle-Carlisle Railway.

This man is a mine of information, gleaned over decades of dedication to the cause of preserving the heritage of the spectacular rail line.

His book follows rapidly in the tail stream of his last book Ribblehead, the story of the Great Viaduct at Batty Moss on the Settle-Carlisle Railway. It is 80 pages of glossy colour photographs and detailed copy telling the tale of the construction and preservation of the line.

His latest publication, a paper back published by Fonthill Media at £14.99, looks at the minutiae of life on the railway focusing on the day-to-day lives of the workers, their life at work and home and the hardships they faced.

His book though is not just a recipe for grimness and hard labour but recalls the happier times and serendipitous incidents that coloured the lives of these hardy people. Like that relating to the Blea Moor signal box which was rumoured to be haunted.

It scarred stiff a group of ramblers, who lost on the fell, arrived at the signal box seeking assistance. The signalman could not resist telling them of its ghostly visitor who often stood at the doorway. When a howling wind blew open the door the gullible ramblers fled in terror.

Mitchell divides his book into 12 chapters and illustrates it with 32 black and white photographs which range from images of men seeming to flock to board an armed services vehicle at the outbreak of World War One, a shot of Bill Sharp and his son, the last uniformed staff at Ribblehead and Mitchell himself officially unveiling a plaque to mark the restoration of Hellifield station.

He looks at the railway in its earliest days, the construction of the line, viaducts and tunnels, its drivers and firemen, signal boxes, life at home for railway workers, the wild weather, wartime memories and accidents.

Such a disaster happened at Easter, 1952, near the home of 14-year-old Nancy Dawson who at the time was sunbathing on the roof of the pigsty when the Thames-Clyde express derailed .

She heard a scraping sound and then the noise of gushing steam. When she looked up, she saw a locomotive on its side and the first three coaches laying at angles.

The following four coaches were derailed but remained upright and when Nancy got to the scene she found a baby in a carry cot, thankfully unharmed. Indeed, nobody seemed to be badly injured although they suffered from flying glass.

And when the rescue team arrived they had a shock. It was a hot Easter day and those passengers not hurt were laying supine sunbathing.

Mitchell reminds readers of how the railway came about and how the first workers were housed in the four-wheeled, horse-drawn van, towed from London by steam engine, that came to rest at Ribblehead in December 1869.

It was to be the temporary quarters of engineers who would supervise the experimental borings for the piers of of what would become "the mighty Ribblehead Viaduct" and the major tunnel excavation at Blea Moor.

Later, when families arrived they were set up in shanty towns on Blea Moor, named Sebastopol and Inkerman, implying that some of the residents had been involved in wartime work in the Crimea.

In his appendix, Mitchell explores the way the railway has inspired people to song, referring also to the value of music and song to kept up the spirits of the workers.

He pays particular praise to two more recent songsters, Mike Donald, an area manager for a supplies and publishing company, and Dave Goulder, who spent his life as a railwayman.

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