Northumberland Farming History - a village childhood remembered.
By Clive Dalton
The trains were a major part of our lives so “playing trains” was another serious game. I was never the greatest sportsman, but by heck I knew about trains with my father being at guard at that time on the Wanny line which ran from Redesmouth to Scotsgap and exotic place beyond like Morpeth!
Trains were very much part of everyone’s life and for example we always knew the time of day by the train that had just gone up the Tyne or gone doon. There was plenty of choice from the “forst” trains up and doon from Newcastle to Riccarton in the morning at 7.30am, to the midday trains down at 11am and up at 1pm, the 4pm Wannie from Bellingham to Scotsgap, and the 6 oclock up and doon trains again.
When I arrived on this planet upstairs in No 6 Noble Street, Mother told me the 1pm train went up, so that must have had some effect on me. She must have had other things on her mind not to notice which engine was pulling it!
The fell was no good for playing trains but the back lane was ideal. Our trains were long bits of rope which we laid out and pulled along the back lane which was our track. The length of rope depended on which train you were, and which engine was pulling it. You could join bits of rope as you shunted carriages or wagons on or off from the siding.
But before all this you had a major decision to make. You had to decide which engine you were going to be and there was a range of choices because the engines on the Newcastle-Riccarton route were the “Scott class” which apart from their engineering and wheel configuration of 4:6:2, were named after the works and characters of Sir Walter Scott.
So you could be driving Wandering Willie, Quentin Durward, Meg Merrillees, Dougald Dalgetty, The Rufford, The Percy, Caleb Balderstone – all of which passed through Bellingham station. I never studied Scott’s works but the names of those engines have stuck for 65 years.
Another technical feature we had to deal with was the “tablets”. On a single-track line the way to avoid two trains on the one single line at the same time was by using a “tablet”. It was a circular metal disk which acted like a key, and until it was put into what looked like a slot machine in the signal box at the station where the train had just arrived at, and a new one issued, then the train could not proceed to the next “block”.
The business of putting in and taking out had to be accompanied by hitting a plunger on the unit which rang bells – in a sort of morse code which sent messages to the next signal box to let them know what was going on.
The tablet was carried on the engine in a leather pouch held on a wire loop covered in leather. As the train came into the station, the fireman leaned out of the cab holding his tablet, and the signalman stood on the platform with the exchange one to go to the next signal box.
The exchange was tricky. The fireman held his tablet low with his left hand, and held his right had above it to go through the loop of the signalman’s tablet. The signalman did the opposite – left hand high and right arm low. If the train was coming in at a fair speed, this was a very fast changeover, and the signalman could expect a whack on his back with the momentum unless he rotated to the right to lessen the impact.
Now we kids knew all about this tablet technology and the changing routine, so we had to make our tablets. This was easy as on the side of the road near the Blue Heaps was a pussy willow tree with nice long shoots that we cut strip and bent into loops to make tablets. We tied them with a bit of string, and each of us engine drivers had one. We were dab hands at exchanging tablets as we passed each other at speed.
As my father had been a guard at Redesmouth before being signalman at Bellingham station, I was well equipped. I had an old Guard’s lamp lit by paraffin which could show plain light, red or green. I also had a red and green flag, a genuine “Acme Thunderer” whistle (with a pea inside it), and of course an old railwayman’s hat. One of the Benson kids had a railway hat too as their Uncle Eddie Laing worked at Redesmouth station as a guard on the Wannie line too. What more could you want?
We had the choice of being an L.N.E.R (London and North Eastern Railway) train which was our local line, or L.M.S. (London Midland & Scottish). If Carlisle was one of your destinations, it was always good to say you were an LMS train.
The beauty about playing trains was that we could play in the dark of winter, and darkness was important for my lamp to show. After the signal, our trains took off with a whistle or hoot, and we’d pull our long lengths of rope along the street and down the bank to the Woodburn road. Here we had to shunt, walking backwards of course, to hook on to the other end of the rope to pull the train back up the hill and along the street to Cowan’s end, where there was a small turning circle which acted as our turntable before hooking up again for another journey to some exotic place like Hexham, Newcastle or Rothbury – or even Carlisle.
Photo 1: Harry Dalton, signalman (and gardener) at Bellingham station which won the prize for best station gardens.
Photo 2: Geoff Dalton with younger brother Clive (c1936)