Shildon Works

The Stockton and Darlington Railway operated in north-east England from 1825 to 1863. The world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives, it connected collieries near Shildon with Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington, and was officially opened on 27th September 1825.

Shildon Railway Works’ first locomotive superintendent, Timothy Hackworth, was born in Wylam in 1786, five years after fellow railway pioneer George Stephenson had been born in the same village The S&D locomotives which shared the line with horse-drawn carriages were by far the most unreliable of the two and the company directors came close to abandoning steam altogether.  It was  Hackworth who persuaded the company to give him a free hand to build a locomotive of his own design and, in 1827, built the Royal George, followed by the “Globe” in 1830, the first specialist passenger engine. Ten more locomotives were built between 1863 and 1867, but most of the work was transferred to Darlington and in 1871 all locomotive work ceased while Shildon became a centre for wagon building, surviving until 1984.

The Locomotion Museum is built on the site of the old Shildon Works and contains an impressive array of preserved locomotives and wagons, many of the latter built at Shildon.  It was here I escaped to earlier this week while the Good Wife did other womanly things – I am always content when in or around machines, particularly those emitting steam or Castrol R, the two finest smells in the world.  Eat your heart out Chanel.

Green Arrow, LNER Class V2 4771

Green Arrow, LNER Class V2 4771

Winston Churchill, Battle of Britain Class, BR 34051

The Bulleid Firth Brown wheel

E5001 in the workshop

Hardwicke, built at Crewe in 1873

Green Arrow and Winston Churchill

 

 

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The First …

I can be fairly certain this was the first photograph I ever took.  It is in the back garden at Alstead Avenue and I would be using the only camera the family owned for years – the Kodak Brownie 127” Be careful, don’t drop it, press the shutter once, don’t forget to wind it on” would have been just a selection of the instructions received from my ever-vigilant mother.  In perfect nosey-neighbour fashion, Mrs Hillier is watching proceedings from an upper window.  She would have felt very much at home in the Stasi.

The trellis fence in the background divided east from west and would take my weight for all the years it was necessary.  Retrieval of footballs, tennis balls, paper aeroplanes and cricket stumps/harpoons was a constant necessity and inevitably resulted in shouted orders from either side of the divide.  Children in the 1950s were at best tolerated, always mistrusted, invariably harshly punished.  We knew our place.

Mr Hillier was ex-RAF and ‘affectionately’ known as “Hillybum” – I have no idea why. He drove a cream Mk VIII Hillman Minx at a time when all cars were black.  The connection between Hillman, Hillier and Hillybum was reassuringly alliterative, entirely logical.  He would pass away not long after this was taken but not before we all ended up on the same beach in Wales one bright summer.  This was entirely by coincidence, happy or otherwise.  The gathering from left to right comprises Mrs Hillier (taking notes), their daughter Joy (eternally single), me (performing cat impressions), sister Pat (eating as always), mother (presiding over the sandwich tin), ‘Hillybum’, cousin Brian, uncle Ed and aunt Bet:

I learned to keep a distance from mother – an arm’s length being the absolute minimum.  I seem to have been caught off-guard in this frozen moment.  I am dangerously within striking distance.  My behaviour was a constant cause for concern and always threatened the involvement of a third party if my dad was not immediately available.

In my teenage years, the dynamics had not changed. I can’t remember which particular boundary I had crossed or to which mortal sin I had succumbed but, mother was determined to fetch an outsider ‘to sort me out’.  I was used to these threats and was fairly sure this one was empty but I made my escape regardless.  A few minutes later, Kent cigarette in hand, from the darkness of the alleyway across the road I saw my mother return, alone and without a house key.  Hysterical shouts echoed across the street – “What are you doing in there, don’t play with matches, you will set the house on fire – ROBIN, LET, ME, IN!”  Her leaps of the imagination finally overwhelmed any sense of reason as the night air filled with the sound of breaking glass.  If I wasn’t before, I was certainly in trouble now.

A summer with Joan …

The White AlbumWhere I Was FromSlouching Towards Bethlehem – all stories of distant places in a distant time – scattered with searing observation that make place, time and distance irrelevant.  Joan Didion has the capacity to invade your thoughts, for days on end:

Notes from a Native Daughter (Slouching Towards Bethlehem)
Perhaps in retrospect this has been a story not about Sacramento at all, but about the things we lose and the promises we break as we grow older; perhaps I have been playing out unawares the Margaret in the poem (Spring and Fall – Gerard Manley Hopkins):

Margaret are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving? …
It is the blight man was born for
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Where I was From – Part Four
Flying to Monterey I had a sharp apprehension of the many times before when I had, like Lincoln Steffens, “come back”, flown west, followed the sun, each time experiencing a lightening of spirit as the land below opened up, the checkerboards of the midwestern plains giving way to the vast empty reach between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada; then home, there, where I was from, me, California.  It would be a while before I realized that “me” is what we think when our parents die, even at my age, who will look out for me now, who will remember me as I was, who will know what happens to me now, where will I be from.

…  We kissed, we had a drink together, we promised to keep in touch.  A few months later Nancy was dead, of cancer, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.  I sent the recital program to Nancy’s brother, to send on to her daughter.  I had my grandmother’s watercolor framed and sent it to the next oldest of her three daughters, my cousin Brenda in Sacramento.
I closed the box and put it in a closet.
There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.

It has been an obsessive and busy summer.  When thoughts jostle for space, I escape – two wheels at speed empties the head, concentrates the mind and lifts the spirit.  I seek out empty and abandoned places – I want no distractions.

Border Park Services

Abandoned years ago

Where the fuel prices are frozen in time

Before departing I had worked out a circular route going north along the A68, into Scotland towards Selkirk and then south to Kielder. Not for the first time, I was thwarted by road closures, this time the B6357. When did this become the norm rather than the exception – much to my annoyance, I was briefly distracted 😉

Dead Man’s Fair

Winter has returned with a vengeance.  Ever since Michael Fish and the great storm of 1987, the Met Office and the BBC et al have taken to issuing a variety of coloured weather warnings and individually naming every balmy breeze that blows in from the Atlantic. Much like out-of-date motorway hazard displays, the effect on the population is that we believe less and less and are totally unprepared when something genuine turns up.  The Boy Who Cried Wolf should be compulsory reading.

On this occasion I am not complaining, I love the snow.  Over the winter I have been scheming how to get back to the Lofoten Islands but, as it turns out, the Lofoten weather has come to Hexham.  Some of this ever-present desire to head for Scandinavia has been enhanced by my reading of Peter Davidson’s, The Idea of North.  This learned, encyclopaedic work is full of gems.  Housman’s A Shropshire Lad is deservedly renowned but I had never come across this extract from his Last Poems.  Some poetry has the power to get under the skin:

In midnights of November,
When Dead Man’s Fair is nigh,
And danger in the valley,
And anger in the sky,

Around the huddling homesteads
The leafless timber roars,
And the dead call the dying
And finger at the doors.

To quote Davidson, Dead Man’s Fair is the crucial phrase and its original meaning is specific – the last fair of the year at Church Stretton was held when winter weather made the homeward journey dangerous.  But the phrase moves out from its local English meaning to the idea of the first days of November as the point where the divisions (or defences) between the living and the dead are at there most abraded – All Soul’s Day, le jour des morts.  It acquires both the meaning of the annual time of the dead but also an extraordinary momentary implication of a fair attended only by the dead.  This implication is as disquieting as the heterodox medieval idea of the compagnie des morts, the lonely company of the dead passing in the dark on the winter roads:

Lonely roads behind the castle

Looking north east

Looking east across the field

From the road to Fawcett Hill

These images were taken yesterday, since then the weather across Northumberland has deteriorated – the first is the usual time-lapse across the field and the second is various views from indoors – the best place to be 🙂

The Far North

Wick has been on my agenda for some time, almost five years to be precise, ever since my Highland Railways post from February 2013.  The ScotRail Club 55 discounted price has expired but with enough forward planning, you can still go a very long distance for not very much – in this instance, from Hexham to Wick and back for £66, a journey not too far shy of 1000 miles.

I set off with some trepidation – Wick and I have form.  Back in the summer of 1987 I flew there from Edinburgh on a business trip.  It is one of those airports that is disconcertingly close to the sea.  For the last half mile approach, there is the distinct impression that the plane is about to do a Captain Sully on the Hudson.  As it turned out, it wasn’t the landing that was the problem but the take-off a few days later.  Around 15:00 on a Friday afternoon, Loganair unceremoniously cancelled the return flight and left me stranded.

Taking to the railways was also full of uncertainties – the Far North Line, from Inverness to Wick, has a well documented poor reliability record.  Aging rolling stock and a single track with insufficient passing loops means that disruption to one service snowballs across the rest.  The occasional thump of shrubbery against windows also testifies to poor trackside maintenance.  I need not have worried.  All seven of the connecting services over four days ran exactly to time, the Inverness to Wick sections included.

The problem with the Far North Line runs much deeper than reliability.  Travel by car from Wick to Inverness and under normal circumstances it will take about two and half hours.  Travel by rail and it takes over four.  It is all down to geography.  The line takes the long route around three firths: Beauly, Cromarty and Dornie such that the distance by rail is roughly twice that of a well trained crow on a still day.  All three firths are crossed by road bridges with no accommodation for rail.

At least these rail routes to the heads of the firths take in modest areas of population.  This is not the case north of Helmsdale where the line wanders inland to avoid the major civil engineering challenge and associated cost of constructing a line over the Ord of Caithness.  The consequence of this 19th century decision is that the line travels remarkable distances to go to the very epicentre of the middle of nowhere.  For the idle rail enthusiast with no desire other than to observe the empty majesty of the Flow Country, this is heaven.  For the good people of Wick and Thurso and a commercial enterprise dependent on attracting passenger traffic, it is not what the doctor ordered.  To have survived post Beeching is a minor miracle.  I am just grateful it has and with the support of the Friends of the Far North Line, I trust it always will.

Kildonan Railway Station

An overnight stay provided the opportunity for only the briefest impressions of Wick.  Seen in a dull, clouded January light, it is a monochrome austere town.  There is no graffiti, no primary colours and no evidence of the too-familiar chain stores.  This creates an air of independence and self-reliance.  Grey stone and grey pebble-dash is contrasted by brown woodwork; individuality is expressed by the shade of brown wood stain. Everywhere there is solid 19th century architecture which will outlive its original purpose; the place has a curious magnificence.

It also seems prosperous – there is major construction work down by the harbour whilst oil rig support vessels are moored to the quayside alongside modern fishing boats, although nothing like the herring fleet numbers that crowded these waters in the 1800s.  In the busy harbourside cafe, Wickers World, the preferred choice of dress is hi-viz and hard hat.  If ownership of German SUVs is a reliable indicator of general prosperity, then the people of Wick are doing just fine.  This is a collection of images taken on the evening of my arrival and the morning of my departure.  Before too long I will return – by car and with golf clubs.  The links course, three miles north of the town, is just too tempting.

Cutting Edge Barbers

Ronnies Restaurant

The Camps Bar.

In 1651 Cromwell’s Army formed an encampment before moving on to invade Sinclair and Girnigoe Castles.  This area of the town is called The Camps.  Temperance (Scotland) Act closed all licenced premises in Wick for 25 years from 28th of May 1922 until 28th May 1947, with the Camps Bar being the first to open its doors.

Birons Ironmongers

The Post Office – Pulteney Town, Wick

The harbour, Wick

The lifeboat – Wick harbour, late afternoon.

The lifeboat station – Salmon Rock – no longer in use.

Fishermen’s huts Wick Harbour

Catherine, out of the water, Wick Harbour

Wickers [sic] World Cafe – Wick harbour.

Across the road from Wickers World.

Farewell to Wick – the train back south

… No sooner has the sun,
Swung clear above the earth’s rim than it is gone.
We live as gleaners of its vestiges.

Damon’s Lament for His Clorinda, Yorkshire, 1654
Geoffrey Hill – 1978

Sunrise over Wick harbour.

Travelling by train, particularly on the near-empty carriages of the Far North Line, is one of the most relaxing modes of transport devised by man, with or without the clickety-clack of sleep-inducing rail expansion gaps. However, there is mild frustration for the photographer – a fine landscape is only visible through mucky windows which reflect the carriage lights. This is the near-best moving image I could manage – a video of the Inverness to Edinburgh line heading south on the final day:

(dig around on this site and you may find various tweeted phone images from the same journey).

Anything could happen …

In the summer of ’41 a year had passed since the Dunkirk evacuation and the immediate scare of invasion had subdued. In the east, the Germans were encircling Leningrad for the beginnings of a siege that would last 872 days and cost in excess of 632,000 lives.  Nothing was certain, none of the outcomes we now take for granted were known.  Anything could happen.

My father was completing his final year at university, evacuated to Cambridge from Queen Mary College, London the previous year. At some point in late 1940 or early 1941 he had applied for a position at ICI, Manchester and made the trip north for an interview.  That war time rail trip resulted in an offer of employment from Hexagon House, Blackley on 25th March subject to him obtaining a first or second class honours degree.  Dad’s commencing salary as an industrial chemist would be £275 per annum with a £24 war supplement, working for either the Explosives Group (Billingham or Ardeer) or Dyestuffs Group (Blackley or Trafford Park). The offer letter also included this standard caveat:

In view of the Company’s promise to make every possible effort to reinstate those of its employees on 3rd September, 1939 who serve with the Colours, the question of retention in the Company’s service after the war of any employees engaged since that date must be subject to the prior claim of those individuals.

Nothing was certain.

In the early summer of ’41 he would pack up his few belongings and return to his parents home in Andover to await the exam results.  A short bike ride across town to his girlfriend’s house would have helped fill the waiting hours, a welcome simplicity after the years of wartime travel to and from Cambridge.

I am bewildered by what happened next, just a few days after his girlfriend’s eighteenth birthday.  Dad was extremely capable, studious and meticulous.  Popular, good at games and fiercely loyal he was nevertheless a reserved character who never drank; there would have been no distractions.  I can only imagine the disappointment and foreboding when the news came – he had only achieved a B.Sc. pass degree.  A telegram was sent to ICI Blackley.

Agonising days later, a letter postmarked Blackley, Manchester 23rd Aug 41, landed on the doormat at Rooksbury Road, Andover:

Dear Mr Down,

We are writing to thank you for your telegram and confirmatory letter dated 20th August advising us that you only obtained a pass degree in your recent B.Sc. examination.

In normal circumstances this would disqualify you for a position with us, but we have referred to the notes which we made during the interview and have decided to make an exception in your case.  In the attached formal letter we are making you a conditional offer of a post at our Trafford Park Works, and if all is well we will expect you start with us on Monday, 1st September.

We feel sure that your work will justify the confidence we are placing in you …

The formal letter contained some further conditions: the aforementioned reinstatement priority for staff who served with the Colours, a medical examination and the following:

It is understood that our offer and your acceptance of employment are subject to your final allocation to the company by the Allocation Committee of the Military Recruiting Department of the Ministry of Labour.

In the dark days of ’41, this vaguely Orwellian government department was tasked with balancing the manpower needs of the Register of Protected Establishments with those of the armed forces; that summer both were suffering significant shortages.  On August 23rd 1941, final allocation to Imperial Chemical Industries was by no means certain.

Ultimately Dad justified the confidence placed in him.  Starting on 1st September 1941 he stayed with the company until his retirement, forty years later.  He married his Andover girlfriend in 1943, and one year later my sister arrived.  The war ended and eventually, perhaps with some reluctance on my mother’s part, I made my appearance.  In August 1941 none of this was known.  Anything could happen.

 

It don’t snow here …

it stays pretty green.  Except this year it has and it doesn’t.  These last few days, winter arrived early in Northumberland and elsewhere across the UK.  It never used to snow much in Cheshire either, except in the long winter of 1963 ‘when it felt like the world would freeze, with John F. Kennedy and the Beatles’.  I remember rare nights in the 1950s, staring out at the dim glow of gas street lamps as they lit up huge flakes falling out of the dark night. The rarity made it even more special.  Nothing changes the world quite so dramatically.

If we get no more snow this winter then we will still have had more than the last couple of years which have been monotonously grey and wet.  The British like nothing more than to discuss the weather, perhaps because we get so much of it.  Even the trees shiver …

Snow gets me out, or at least it gets me out with a modicum more enthusiasm than when it is simply cold and wet. We have lived nearby these country lanes for more than twenty years so I have taken countless images of the same things and many have appeared on this blog. The challenge comes from seeing things differently – modern RAW processors provide endless possibilities for variation.  These were all taken on the same short walk to Sandhoe postbox – Saturday 2nd December 2017:

… the north side of Beaufront Castle.

… the north side of Beaufront Castle

… the dead of winter

… Sandhoe postbox

Oh the bitter winds are coming in
And I’m already missing the summer
Stockholm’s cold but I’ve been told
I was born to endure this kind of weather