Chapter 3

 Steaming Along

 

The eastern sky glowed with a golden fire as Percy Jackson dressed in the front window of his hillside cottage. He threw wide his windows and drew in a deep breath of the fragrant fresh air, heavy with the scent of ripening corn and wild flowers. Looking out over the fields his eye was first drawn to the new line of molehills which had appeared overnight. They ran almost dead straight from his front wall to the crest of a small rise some two hundred yards away and stood out starkly brown against the silvery green of dew laden cobwebbed grass. Close to the top of the hill a cow was nuzzling at one of the mounds as if puzzled by their cause. In the distance the church clock struck six. Today was going to be a good day!

Finishing dressing, Percy went downstairs and made breakfast. He had been a widower for almost ten years and now lived alone in his small cottage about a mile outside Brassford. Alone, that is, apart from the two dogs who were now anxiously fussing round his legs lest he should forget their morning snack. Both dogs were getting on in years. They had been sheep dogs on local farms but had, for one reason or another, outgrown their usefulness. Bess, the older of the two, had been a champion when she was younger but had met with an accident which had left her with a decided limp and a tendency towards arthritis in the winter. The younger dog, Bob, had started off well but had never calmed down from his puppy like exuberance. This disquieted the sheep and the harder he tried to master them, the more wild they became. The farmer had persevered for quite some time to train him and steady him down but had finally admitted defeat and had passed him over to Percy as a house dog just after Percy's wife had died. Even age had not dulled Bob's energy and he now beat a tattoo with his tail on the cupboard door as he wagged all his back end in anticipation. Percy gave in and fed the dogs a small bowl of meal while he drank from a steaming pint mug of tea. Sausages and bacon sizzled in the pan as he finished reading last night's paper. He always saved the middle articles of the paper for the next morning as he was always up well before any of the local paper boys.

Finishing his breakfast and piling his crockery into the small stone sink, he pulled on his old boots and set off with his dogs across the moor. He only had to walk about a quarter of a mile up the hill to be in bracken and heather which cracked under his feet releasing the heady smell of honey. The dogs ran on ahead, heads down, bulldozing their way through the intertwined stems, only occasionally raising them to sniff the wind and make sure that Percy was still in sight. As he reached the crest of the hill, the valley opened up before him and he looked down on Brassford as he had every morning for the last thirty-seven years since moving into the cottage on his wedding day.

This morning there was unusual activity in the village. Even Percy, used to the early rising of a country life, was surprised to see so much happening this early. But this was a special day for the village and the whole valley. Exactly one hundred years ago the railway had arrived and this was the centenary day of the first passenger train to run between Brassford and Castledale at the head of the valley. On that day in 1894, Brassford Band had been given the honour of playing at the new Brassford Halt as the line was dedicated and then accompanying the directors on the first journey to Castledale, playing for them en route. Bands from the other villages along the way had been involved also, playing on their respective platforms as the train steamed slowly past, but Brassford's honour had been the greatest and they were all given a commemorative medal at the end of the ride much to the disgust of some of their more competitive rivals. Now, one hundred years later, history was to repeat itself and Brassford Band had been invited, no, commanded, to help re-create as closely as possible those original events. Down in the village the streets were festooned with bunting and garlands of flowers. The station platform was awash with geraniums, chrysanthemums and pelargoniums. Flags and bunting were everywhere and Percy could see a white line appearing as the edging stones of the platform were whitewashed. A gaily coloured awning was being erected against the small waiting room for it's use as a refreshment hall after the ceremonies. Not for many years had so much activity been seen on this quiet line. These days only local hikers' trains ran up and down the valley and then only in the summer. Regular services had ceased over twenty years ago during the cuts which had severed the links of many country hamlets with the big towns. However, today the station was bustling and Percy easily recognised the portly figure and shambling gait of George White, its last Station-master, once again attired in his splendid, if somewhat antiquated, uniform. Also to be seen were seven or eight people clad in porters uniforms roughly in the style of the turn of the century. These he assumed to be the railway enthusiasts who had joined with the County Council to stage the event and who had been instrumental over the years in keeping the line open.

As he sat on the low rock which had formed his regular seat for so many years, Percy's mind took him back to the days when he too had been a porter on that same station. He had started there straight from school at fifteen and had worked on the station until it had become just another unmanned 'bus stop' for diesel rail-cars and redundancy had ended his families involvement with the line. His father had been an engine driver on the line and would often pass through the station on his way over the Pennines. If he was due at around lunch time, Percy's mother would send down a fresh flask of soup for Percy to give him as they paused for water or to take on sheep or cattle for market in Manchester. Old Mr. Jackson had retired a few months before the station closed but Percy had received his notice out of the blue and had been quite indignant for some years. Time, however, had eased the pain and he now looked back on his time there with some fondness. He had always liked the old steam trains and had often gone up to York museum just to be with them. Now, today, he was going to ride on one again and be the centre of attention at the same time.

After sitting for some time, letting the dogs wander and forage in the heather and between the rocks, he pulled himself up against his stick and set off home. The ceremony was to be at twelve o'clock sharp and he had several jobs to do in the house before then. For one thing his uniform trousers needed pressing and his jacket would have to be brushed down to remove the dog hairs which seemed to get everywhere these days. First of all though, he must service his instrument. This was no easy task as he played the largest instrument in the band, a double B flat bass. It only normally got cleaned just before important events as to do so could take quite some time and effort and used almost a whole tin of silver polish.

The first thing was to strip it down and the four valves were carefully taken from their housings and placed in a plastic washbowl with warm soapy water. These were followed by the five tuning slides, each slightly different in size and shape which made their replacement in the right places easy. Then he took the main part of the instrument outside. He had found that, to wash out the inside of the pipework, it was easiest to prop the instrument against a fork in the jasmine bush which grew by his garden shed and fill it with soapy water from buckets. This was quite a laborious process requiring several pans of water to be heating on the Calor gas cooker at the same time as he attacked the inner contortions of the tubes with a long bottle brush.

After about half an hour and no small amount of bad language as the Bass had toppled over and drenched his feet, Percy was satisfied with that part and turned his attention to the smaller parts. These were again bottle brushed, rinsed, wiped down and left to dry on the draining board. Now came the hard work. It never ceased to surprise Percy just how much surface area of shiny metal could be compressed into such a small space. The more metal he polished, the more there seemed to be and most of it seemed to be hidden away in difficult corners which required ingenuity to reach with the polishing cloth. But he would not skimp the job, he never skimped a job, that had been his one failing in life for he could not bear to leave anything he tackled until he had achieved what he perceived as perfection and thus was often late for other things. It took over an hour to polish the instrument and the tuning slides and only then did Percy allow himself a sit down and a glass of his home made beer. As he sat drinking it, he greased the tuning slides and refitted them, being careful to avoid getting greasy finger-mark on the newly polished metal, and oiled and reassembled the valves, checking that each was in its correct position and was seated properly before screwing home its cap. Noting with some disdain that much of the grease had transferred itself to his glass, he wiped it off with the rag on which he had cleaned his hands, drained it down and set to testing the instrument. The deep bass notes rolled back from the hill and after playing a few scales Percy put down his instrument and sat back with a satisfied grin. Now it was time for the ironing.

Electricity had not yet reached Percy's cottage or, at least, it could have done had he been inclined to pay the cost of installing a wire across the fields from Russett Farm, but having lived all his life without that luxury, he didn't see the need and so he put his two old flat irons on the gas rings and turned his attention to the table. Not finding the need for an ironing board either, he turned back the oilcloth covering of the kitchen table revealing a thick brown protective felt underneath and simply covered this with a worn cotton sheet. One of the irons was beginning to 'sing' which told him instinctively that it was ready and so, spitting on it's sole and receiving a reassuring hiss in reply, he laid into the black serge trousers with gusto. When he had finished, his whole uniform looked brand new. He had re ironed his white shirt, starching the collar and cuffs so that they now shone like polished plastic, the creases in the front of his trouser legs looked as if they would cut anything they touched and he had pressed his jacket so that there was not a crease on it. Brushing the crown of his uniform cap and fixing his gold and silver epaulets back on to his jacket he now declared himself ready to meet his public.

The band began to assemble at about 10:45 a.m. in the car park at the far end of the village. Before the main ceremony at the station there was to be a grand parade through the village to escort the High Sheriff of the County and other local dignitaries to the station. By eleven o'clock quite a crowd had formed. There were several floats on lorries and carts pulled by tractors all decorated with multicoloured flowers and carrying pretty girls from all the surrounding area. It was just like the May Queen Carnivals except that most of the floats had a railway theme. The largest had the coat of arms of the old Midland Railway Company standing about ten feet high on each side, made of mud filled frames covered with appropriate coloured flower petals, and the cab of the lorry was made to look like the front of a steam locomotive complete with tall chimney dressed in black crepe.

Another float, pulled behind a tractor, was a faithful replica of the first station building which had been built on the back of a large haycart in wood and then covered all over in flowers. The colours of these flowers had been very carefully chosen and intermixed so that, from a little distance, the building looked real and appeared to have the grey rough stone walls so characteristic of the area and the usual browner sandstone roofing stones. The windows and doors were depicted in geranium and rose petals of a dark red which matched the famous Midland red exactly. Even the curtains to the windows and the hanging baskets outside the doors were exactly as depicted on the original painting hanging in the County Library from which the design had been taken.

Between the floats were people in fancy dress and a group in giant costumes of a train driver and fireman, the Station Master and a porter all in the dress of a hundred years ago. The civic delegation arrived at ten past eleven in two open backed Rolls Royce tourers of the 1920's and took their place in the centre of the procession. Just as the church clock struck 11:15 the band launched into the first march and the procession set off. The large float led the way just behind a police motor cyclist with the band coming next. Then came a float with large boards on each side showing a map of the railway line through the valley picked out in flowers on a mossy background. The villages and higher hills were shown pictorially in bark or seeds and name labels indicated all the important places. Following this were the giant figures and the other floats intermingled with groups of the local school children who had been doing projects on the anniversary and had made suitable banners which they carried along proudly.

The procession passed slowly down Main Street amid crowds of cheering people. It seemed that the whole of Derbyshire had turned out for the event and, as the parade made its way towards the station, all the onlookers joined on behind or scuttled through the side alleyways to watch the spectacle again as it reached its destination. By the time the station hove into view, the extra police drafted in from all the outlying communities were having trouble maintaining a clear path for the procession to pass. There were so many people. All along the way the streets and adjoining buildings were decked with flowers, bunting and garlands and now the station approach was surmounted at frequent intervals by arches of flowers right across the road.

The station itself was a picture. Gone was the dismal air of an unmanned rural station which had pervaded the dilapidated buildings and abandoned ticket kiosk for over twenty years and in its place had returned the bright friendliness which had once made it a place for the community to be proud of. The buildings had been scoured of graffiti and given a new coat of paint - Midland red of course - and the grimy, stone flagged platforms had been steam cleaned and brushed until they appeared freshly quarried. The platform edges sported a coat of pristine white paint and every wall seemed to be home to troughs of brilliant flowers. It was a truly amazing transformation. A large stage edged with floral baskets had been set up over one of the two lines with a dais facing the platform on which the public were now jostling for places. Adjacent to the dais were chairs for the band to the left and for the civic and other dignitaries to the right.

The band were to play a couple of numbers to set the mood before the speeches began and struck up with the march Belphegor which had been played at the original opening ceremony of the line which they followed with an arrangement of Coronation Scot, the well known radio tune. Then started the speeches, the first by the local area controller of British Rail who declared his delight that such a beautiful line still existed in such wonderful condition; presumably he believed its present decorous state to be the norm and wished to take all credit for it. This obviously began to irritate some of the local enthusiasts who had given up a great deal of spare time to achieve the transformation. The events in the station were being relayed to the throng outside the station and along the adjoining embankment by large horn speakers which produced a most interesting echo effect from the surrounding hills which totally confused the Speaker. Fortunately this persuaded him he could not really compete. By the way his speech was progressing and the growing unrest of the crowd, this was probably a blessing and may even have saved him from physical injury.

The other speakers passed through with little to note until the High Sheriff took his turn. Never a man to mince his words, he praised highly all those who had transformed the station and village for the event before settling in to lambast British Rail, the Government and anyone else involved for their lack of perception of and funding for the possibilities of the area. "This is an area of outstanding natural beauty which should be enjoyed by all!", he boomed, to the yells and applause of the crowd, "If it wasn't for the work of our voluntary enthusiasts, this line would have closed years ago and yet here we are today, celebrating the fact that their perseverance has kept it operating, sometimes even at a profit, despite government's attempts to close it. Where would we be without it? How would the farmers of Castledale get their produce to market or obtain supplies during the bad weather? We know the Government won't fund a new road down the valley and yet those living in the further settlements can so easily be cut off by snow or flood." The crowd were going wild, this was the kind of talk they liked to hear.

The faces of the other dignitaries were a picture. The man from British Rail looked very pale as he sat with his head bowed, whilst the local MP was almost purple in the face and was chattering and gesticulating wildly to his companion. The press, who were surprisingly well represented, were delighted at the thoughts of headline possibilities and their cameras flashed incessantly.

At precisely 12 o'clock the train pulled into the station. Its smoke had been visible for some time along the line where it had been waiting by the old signal box but now it's full beauty was revealed. It was headed by an 0-6-0 tender locomotive resplendent in a fresh coat of Midland red paint with buffer beams and chimney cap in glossy black and steam couplings picked out in pristine white. The steel connecting rods and handrails shone like burnished silver, even the coal piled high in the tender sparkled. It could well have been this engine's first day at work! Behind the engine came three open coaches, four of the small enclosed carriages which used to be so familiar on rural trains and a guards van. The whole assembly was so perfectly reminiscent of Percy's early days on the railway that he felt a tear of joy forming in the corner of his eye. On the front of the engine was fixed a board saying 'Midland Railway: Brassford - Castledale: 1894 - 1994' and this was surmounted by a bouquet of flowers. As it hissed to a stop between the stage and the far platform the press descended in a flurry of activity, cameras clicking and one of the television news crews pushed forward to try to obtain interviews with the dignitaries.

For a few minutes it seemed the stage was in danger of collapse but order was soon restored and the dignitaries quickly sought refuge in the third of the open coaches. The band were directed into the first two coaches which, on closer inspection turned out to be converted coal trucks. These had been scrubbed clean and painted overall and had been fitted with chairs all facing backwards and fixed music stands. Someone had obviously done his homework!

By the time the band and dignitaries were settled, the carriages behind had filled with the enthusiasts who had paid a substantial sum for the privilege of travelling on this historic journey and it was time to leave. The band struck up with a rousing march which was almost instantly drowned by the train whistle which started blowing continuously as the train pulled away from the station. "Well, that's a good start," thought Percy, struggling to keep his eyes fixed on the music as the train bumped over the uneven track, "I hope the driver's not going to carry on like that all the way or we may as well not bother playing."

The station had only just disappeared around a bend in the line when the train slowed almost to a standstill to allow a group of enthusiasts to take photographs from the top of an embankment. This process of starting and stopping was continued all the way to the next station at Midford where they were greeted by another heaving crowd. Each time the train slowed, the driver blasted his whistle, wreathing the engine and coaches in moist, humid, clinging steam.

As they pulled into Midford and squealed to a stop, the local band, who were assembled on the platform with more local worthies, launched into a slightly untuneful rendering of "For he's a jolly good fellow". Midford Band was another old established band but had fallen by the wayside for some years and had only been re-formed some five years ago. They had acquired sponsorship from the owners of a local quarry and wore blue uniforms with the company logo on the pockets. This, they felt, gave them an advantage over Brassford Band which they liked to air at every opportunity. Unfortunately, their standard of music did not match their splendid attire and, on this occasion their ragged start gave Brassford a source of much mirth. Midford had been annoyed not to be given the honour of playing on the train as much of the line passed through land now owned by their sponsor and this anger now seemed to be appearing in their playing as, to the glee of the Brassford players, more and more wrong notes began to creep into their performance until they abandoned the second number altogether about half way through and sat scowling at the train whilst the Managing Director of the quarry tried to salvage the situation by an impromptu speech through a megaphone which had been produced from somewhere.

After about five minutes the train resumed its journey with more whistling and jolting and the music was again Brassfords.

Just down the line from Midford was the one real engineering feat on the line. The line of hills which bordered the right side of the valley suddenly veered to the left and blocked the railway's path along the river side. At this point the valley formed a gorge with steep cliffs to the river and it had been necessary to form a tunnel through the hill to reach the head of the valley. This task had been undertaken by a team of about fifty Irish navvies and had been completed in record time. The feat was all the more impressive as the rock from which the hill was formed was the local limestone and was both porous and friable, making the possibility of rock falls all the more likely. Indeed, several men had lost their lives in the construction of the tunnel and a memorial to them stands at the tunnel mouth. As the train entered the tunnel, the band were playing a selection of modern dance tunes. No sooner had they begun to consider how much better the music sounded in the resonant vault of the tunnel than the fatal flaw in the arrangements became evident. It started to get dark! They tried in vain to struggle on, playing half from memory and half by the light of the sparks from the engine's funnel but soon gave up and settled back in the gloom. By this time they were also experiencing that other joy of early travel as, sitting as they were in their open coach, they were enveloped in wreaths of choking smoke and ash from the locomotive. The distant glimmer of daylight at the far end of the tunnel could not come soon enough and by the time they reached it everyone was coughing and covered in black smuts. Percy looked down at his jacket and shirt which had started out so pristine and at his bass on which the shine had been replaced with a dull oily film and shook his head. Perhaps the days of steam should remain only a fond memory after all!

  This work is Copyright to Ian W. Wright 1994. You may use it for your own private purposes but reproduction by any means or its use for commercial gain is strictly forbidden without the written permission of the author.

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