East is East from Stainmore Summit

TIME sweeps along the valley of the Greta and labours into the east like a goods train burning second-rate coal. This is a place where cinders crunch beneath boots and buildings stand empty at the side of a railbed that has, in parts, been reclaimed by the bog. Up here in this godforsaken Pennine emptiness the ghosts of railway workers bend stoically before the wind on Stainmore Summit, waiting for trains that will never pass. Sorry lads, but the last loco to Bowes and beyond clanked through in 1962. Lay down your shovels and sleep.

Things may come and things may go, but very few things go on for ever. The Stainmore Railway came in a triumphant blaze of engineering glory and it went in a jangling of dodgy tills and a flurry of unbalanced balance sheets. The same fate befell the majority of our proper industries. Nowadays, the obvious objects to wreck having run out, it happens to aircraft carriers, Gurkhas and libraries. Like someone once sang: It’s the same old story.

Pardon me if I’m in a cynical mood but I’ve just received my third notice of redundancy in less than three years from a North-East newspaper that purports to champion altruistic, moralistic and social values while hiring, firing, rehiring and refiring its staff like a Victorian industrialist at the factory gate. But you don’t need to know this because you’ve probably got worries of your own. So, like time and Olivia Ong, I’ll move on.

Today is an adventure because I don’t know where I’m going – it’s a bit like life in general. Having recently walked west from Stainmore Summit along the trackbed of the abandoned Stainmore Railway to Bleath Gill and the remains of the Belah viaduct, today I’m heading east into County Durham and a vast bogland that stretches, seemingly, to eternity. It’s peculiarly reminiscent of the opening credits of Ben Gazzara’s Run For Your Life only with peat haggs instead of salt flats. Come on. I can’t be the only one who remembers Run For Your Life.

The trackbed is a walk through history. It has been washed away in places and returned to bog in others, but for most of its length has retained its original dimensions and foundations. Railway workers’ sheds still stand in isolated locations, their doors open to the wind and fireplaces cold. A scattering of floor tiles betrays the site of a long-demolished signal box. Strange railway-related objects thrust from the turf.

I was too young in 1962 to form a rational opinion of Transport Secretary Ernest Marples’ manic rush to close down vast tracts of Britain’s railway system, leaving rural communities such as Kirkby Stephen and Barnard Castle – both on this line – virtually devoid of communications in the days before ordinary people had cars. I was much more interested in Supercar and Four Feather Falls.

But it must have been really hard for the Tories, who had been in power eleven years, to come up with a half-hearted excuse, because the old “there’s no money left”, “Labour’s record deficit”, “the worst recession in living memory”, and “we’re living beyond our means” mantras just wouldn’t have stuck. This was, after all, the very era where Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said we’d never had it so good. So I’ll just have to settle for Marples being a ruthless, granite-faced, money-grabbing, trough-hogging crook with a vested interest in closing railways and boosting his road-building empire, and being allowed to get away with it by the ruthless, granite-faced, money-grabbing, trough-hogging crooks around him.

The same level of grotesqueness couldn’t happen nowadays, of course. But don’t, for a minute, think our forests are safe yet. Or the NHS. Because they’re not. Sorry about this, but I’ve got some steam up. Jesus. I don’t half walk fast when I’m in a strop. You should see me go when I’m really angry.

The trackbed of the Stainmore Railway passes Spital High Cottages

The ruined Spital High Cottages stand at the side of the track, faded curtains still hanging in broken windows. I don’t like using the word “remote” because it’s banded about too readily. You want “remote”, you look at St Kilda or Terra del Fuego. They’re pretty damned remote. But there’s no road to Spital High Cottages, just a railway line that was ripped up fifty years ago. That makes them sort of remote. Especially if you lived here and had to carry a week’s shopping from the nearest farm track to your front door.

Ruined buildings with curtains hanging in the windows are sad places. I remember camping near an abandoned croft house on North Uist in 1977. It still had curtains in the windows. And inside, on a dusty table, was a Gaelic bible opened at the psalms. Someone had been born there, lived there, and probably died there. And all that was left was decay and a bible. And all that’s left here, at Spital High Cottages, is decay and curtains – and a railway line where trains no longer run, and the muffled rumble of traffic on the A66 across the moor to the north.

The view east from the front step of Spital High Cottages

Just beyond the cottages I reach the end of the line. The trackbed continues to Bowes – but it does so on the far side of a barrier of tin sheets and barbed wire. I’ve reached farming country and an interesting concept.

What happens when a railway line gets ripped up? Who owns the trackbed? Is it sold off bit by bit through a painstaking and transparent process? Or do farmers who own land alongside it just – when nobody’s looking – plant a few posts, nail up a few sheets, and uncoil a few rolls of barbed wire like settlers on a prairie? We need to know the answer to this.

I turn west and face the several miles of trackbed back to Stainmore Summit. I’m on a tight schedule because I’m working tonight. From 5.30pm to one o’clock tomorrow morning I’ll be sitting in The Northern Echo building, in Darlington, with a load of dispirited people who have been told their jobs are under threat. Meanwhile, in a head office on planet Chaos, a bunch of boss-eyed, wine-supping, myopic, intellectually-challenged aliens who don’t know one end of a newspaper from another but are quite good at giving themselves bonuses are, like Ernest Marples, maximising profits by sacrificing my future. Not that I’m bitter.

Railway lines, collieries, aircraft carriers, Gurkhas, libraries, RAF jets, police stations, clinical technicians, nurses, newspapers. The list goes on. Great country this. Innit.

  • To watch the opening and closing credits of Ben Gazzara’s Run For Your Life, CLICK HERE. Go on. Do it.

About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
This entry was posted in Environment, Ghosts, Hiking, History, Life, Mountains, Newsquest, Northern Echo, Politics, Ranting, Walking and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to East is East from Stainmore Summit

  1. Greg says:

    If you write as well in the newspaper as you do in your blog then they would be mad to get rid of you.
    You should do a journey, like Nick Crane in Clear Water Rising , and write a book. At least you wouldn’t be carrying that poncey umbrella.


  2. Alan says:

    Interesting article and great photos.
    The line was actually closed a year before Beeching so we can’t blame him for that.
    And although Beeching was commisioned by the Tories, Wilson promised to halt railway closures then reneged on his promise thus the majority of closures were carried out by Labour. Likewise the Tories stated the Privatisation fiasco , Blair promised to reverse it but reneged on his promise.
    Sorry to hear about your job and hope it all turns out alright.


  3. David I'Anson. says:

    In the early 1990’s I parked my car at Bowes and used the Primrose bus service to Kirkby Stephen before walking back along the line from Kirkby Stephen to Bowes, and the only physical barriers were around Barras station.
    I did get apprehended by a farmer to the west of Bellah, but he did let me continue.
    It appears that the Cumbrian section of the line from Kirkby to the summit is now open as a conditional permissive path, lets hope the Durham section follows suit, as it makes a great day out.
    In this day and age where the people in power profess to be trying to get us all back on our feet or bikes, they should be seen to be taking the initiative and give funds to open such projects as this up the public.

    Also in 1985 in a reply to an enquiry by me, Durham County Council claimed to own the entire trackbed of the Barnard Castle to Bishop Auckland line, stating that they bought it from BR with the intention to develop it into a cycle/walkway when funds permitted (as they had already done with lines north of Bishop Auckland), but I was welcome to walk the line as it was.
    in November 1985 I walked the line without any problem as there were no obstacles except to give privacy around Cockfield and Evenwood stations and scrapyards encroaching at Bishop Auckland, which I reported to DCC, who gave a grateful reply and said they would act on my findings..
    I again walked the line in December 1992 and this time I found fences, barriers and notices erected mainly between Barnard Castle and the B6279 Egglestone to Staindrop road, this section was also being reclaimed by nature with bushes and saplings causing dense obstructions.
    When I reported this to DCC Environment Department I got a curt reply saying I should not be accessing the line as they had not the money to develop it. I got the feeling that DCC also wanted to disown it and would willingly allow farmers to claim ownership and responsibility.
    If so we are losing an asset with the marvellous potential to link all of the disused lines in the county to form a large continuous network, stretching from Middleton Teesdale to the north of County Durham.
    Regrettably within the reply from DCC in 1985, they said that local farmers had bought from BR the entire trackbed of the Darlington to Barnard Castle line beyond the Darlington town boundary and there was no public access.
    lets hope for some funding
    David I’Anson


    • McEff says:

      Hi David. Thanks for that information. I haven’t been on the trackbed east of Stainnmore Summit since I wrote that article so I don’t know if anything has altered. What I do know is that Spital Cottages have been renovated in the past couple of years, but whether this has affected access arrangements I don’t know. On the western section, I too have encountered obstacles around Barras station, and before that at Bleath Gill walls and fences have been erected across the trackbed. These can be climbed but that’s not the point.
      It’s a damned shame that these old trackbeds are being snapped up by landed interests. I can’t help but think that some of them are just trying it on and erecting barriers to obtain a bit of extra land free of charge, knowing that the owners haven’t the will or resources to respond, or just can’t be bothered. The other side of the coin is that, without maintenance, sections of track are reverting to quagmire or becoming impassable because of self-sown woodland.
      I agree with you about the prospect of an unhindered walk from Kirkby Stephen to Bowes. I’ve often though of doing it myself and just climbing the fences. I might even do it this summer when I’ve got some time on my hands.
      Cheers, Alen


  4. Andy Bishop says:

    Very good article, I walked part of the line from Stainmore Summit to the ‘Snowdrift at Bleath Gill’ site this week (August 2014). I also went to see the site of Belah Viaduct. For anyone interested you can virtually drive to the viaduct, the road goes through a farm but it is a right of way.
    I presume the site of the snowplough train in the film charging the drift is to the west side of the bridge?
    I’d cautiously disagree about your Beeching comments, as another contributer has said it was a pre-Beeching closure, sadly most of the lines he closed were financial no hopers and if they lost money who would pay the difference? (Oh yes, the taxpayer!)


    • McEff says:

      Hi Andy. Thanks for the comment. I don’t know about the direction of the snow plough train. I was thinking of taking another walk up there sometime because it’s a couple of years since my last visit, so I might try to work that one out. It’s a fascinating area with a fascinating history. I shall revisit the Beeching stuff.
      Cheers, Alen


      • Andy Bishop says:

        Thanks Alen,
        The film states the rescue train is coming from Darlington (from the East), so I am not sure where the famous scene of the train charging the drift is, any info appreciated.
        Re Beeching, I used to be against all the closures, however after reading quite a lot of material on the subject I have changed my opinion somewhat. Beeching was one of the first people to actually look at the railways role in the modern era rather than trying to sustain the pre-war system. At the time of the Modernisation Plan (1955) the government were perfectly aware there would have to be closures of lightly used lines but at that time it would have been politically unacceptable to implement such plans. It was left to Beeching administer the medicine.

        I have a website of my railway phot’s you are welcome to look at, the earliest shots going back to BR steam:-




  5. sally evans says:

    enjoyed this, was trying to find refs on google to the Primrose bus service, drawing a blank, I used to get the Primrose bus from Kirkby Lonsdale to Newcastle in the 1960s do you happen to know where it operated from and if/when it was taken over/off? anyone know?
    for some reason couldnt register via facebook sally evans or twitter @sallyevanz1


    • McEff says:

      Hi Sally. Thanks for dropping in. Unfortunately, I don’t have any information about the Primrose bus service. I don’t think there are any cross-Pennine bus services in this area because I looked into it once. Sorry I can’t be of any help.
      All the best, Alen


  6. David I'Anson says:

    Primrose ran a daily service to Blackpool, I think it started at Newcastle. I am unaware of what was the exact timetable, but I think there was one bus in each direction per day, leaving the North East in the morning and returning in the afternoon.
    My records show that I used the service on Saturday 26/3/94, boarding at Bowes and arriving in Kirkby Stephen at 11.15am and I arrived back in Bowes after walking the line at 6.30pm.
    I don’t know if Primrose still exists, or if there is another operator in service.
    If all else fails try hitching from the Bowes slip road leading onto the A66 bypass of the village.
    In my opinion the walk would be best done East to West having the best view in front of you.

    Also it was in the Teesdale Mercury that some limited progress is imminent on the restoration of the Barnard Castle to Bishop Auckland line, so here’s hoping for a full length reopening.
    David I’Anson


  7. Dave Middlemas says:

    Hi Alen
    Happened across your work here today – although I appreciate I’m a bit late! For what its worth I walked the entire line from Bowes to Kirkby Stephen in 1991. I did a fair bit of trespassing but no one seemed to mind. Of course I had to make a couple of minor diversions where the bridges had been taken out but was able to more or less stick to the route. Spital cottages were empty then – the doors tied up with string although the weather and sheep had got in. One of the staircases had collapsed but the roofs and windows were all more or less secure. I couldn’t help having a snoop in and saw that the two houses each had a cast iron period kitchen range in their front rooms. I later negotiated with the owners at Valley Farm and removed the range from the western house and installed it in my home at Darlington. At this time (now about 1993) they had completely neglected the cottages which had been let out until a few years earlier as holiday homes – although by their own admission for a nominal fee given there was no road or electricity. The bungalows were in a better condition – they still had some musty old furniture in which was rotting away. A couple of years ago a road was put in via the farm and the dwellings extensively renovated – the two houses apparently being knocked into one. There is still no right of way certainly between the summit and Bowes and although the good folk at Valley farm weren’t bothered back in the early 1990s – I cant vouch for now!
    I think when British Railways sold the trackbed off in 1962 they passed it to any adjacent landowners for a nominal fee in the hope that the more disjointed the divvy-up was, the less likely it was for anyone to reinstate the line! I know that the iron viaducts were sold and dismantled as scrap but the missing stone ones were given to the army at Warcop to blow up as practice which they did with great success and undue haste! Its a shame that no one was far-sighted enough to think of a footpath or sustrans track back then.
    Further reading (If anyone fancies becoming a true Anorak) I would recommend The Stainmore Railway (Dalesman) by Ken Hoole (long out of print from the 1970s but you might find a copy somewhere) or The Stainmore and Eden Valley Railways (Oxford Publishing) by Peter Walton (1992 and reprinted).


    • McEff says:

      Hi Dave
      Thank you for that wealth of information. I’ve had my eye on Spital Cottages ever since that walk and have noted developments in recent years. Every time I drive across the A66 I make a vow to revisit that area but, to date, have never got round to it. I’m glad you mentioned the road being put in, because I think I mentioned that there was no road to the cottages – but I see there is one now! They must have been hard places to get to at one time.
      Shame about the viaducts. I’ve read about the metal ones being sold for scrap but I didn’t realise the Army had a hand in it as well. And I’ll keep a look out for the books.
      All the best, Alen


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