FIFTY years to the day since the seemingly impossible enterprise was begun, and in the same upper room, the North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group began its golden jubilee celebrations.

A new book talks of “a remarkable story” and in so doing still undersells NELPG’s quite extraordinary achievements.

They gathered, then as now, at the Bridge Hotel in Newcastle, determined to save at least one of the few surviving steam engines from the scrapyard. British Rail would sell for £1400; a collection raised 5/6d.

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Back then, October 28, 1966, they might still have looked out of the pub window and seen a grimy old steam loco chuffing a coal train across the High Level. Within ten months, North-East steam would forever be evaporated. Time, like funds, was tight.

The inaugural meeting had attracted 19 people, mostly schoolboys and students for whom even a 1/9d bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale might seriously stretch the budget. Of the three who first fuelled the idea – Kevin Hudspith, Kevin Gould and Peter Proud – two were still doing A-levels in Sunderland and the other had started a painting and decorating apprenticeship.

Kevin Gould couldn’t make the golden jubilee because he was restoring a steam engine somewhere in the Arctic but recalled the unlikely outset. “Two schoolboys and a young painter. What could stop us?” he added.

Within a year, however, they’d bought No 65894, a class J27 workhorse built in Darlington in 1923 and flogged ceaselessly ever since. Approaching its century, restored and revived by NELPG, it still goes strong.

The following year they saved a Q6, 63395, said to be in “quite appalling condition”. NELPG folklore has it that on the evening before it was due to be taken to the torches the rostered footplate crew got drunk and failed to turn up, giving the fund raisers a vital extra 24 hours.

Such their success that in 1972 they were given a K1, 62005, later acquired a J72 tank Engine – Joem, bless it – and have also worked on the restoration of other locomotives.

They have a main workshop in Darlington and another on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway at Grosmont, run the K1 – “the goose that laid the golden egg,” it was said – each summer on the glorious line from Fort William to Mallaig and the other three, once fated now feted, on preserved lines across the country.

“A 50th anniversary would have been the last thing on anyone’s minds,” said John Hunt, the chairman. “It wasn’t a dislike of diesels, it was a passion for steam. I still think we’re a bit surprised to be here.”

ABOUT 70 are gathered, of whom only one is female and few very much younger than the locomotives they saved. John Hunt’s 71, still driving and still driven. The great worry, he says, is the absence of more young men of vision. “We’re desperate for youngsters. If we don’t get them, these engines will just end up in a museum.”

They talk of piston rods and of saturated boilers, of grit and gradients and of the deviation shed, where men fulfil their fantasies. The deviation shed is at Grosmont, the fantasies – without exception – involve steam engines.

There’s also what once would have been called a slide show, a trip down memory line. There are steam-shrouded images of Hendon Gas Works and of South Bank Coke Works, of Seaton Bank, one-in-40, and of Shildon Cavalcade.

These days the upper room is home to everything from the North-East Humanist Society to the Sacred Harp Singers. Two Fridays ago it once again throbbed to a mystic, mesmerising beat.

It was a warm evening, a crowded gathering. Though only the windows were steamed, it seemed altogether appropriate.

  • Keeping North Eastern Steam Alive, nostalgically written and superbly illustrated, is published by NELPG at £20. Details at nelpg.org

OCTOBER 28 1966? Distant Drums by Jim Reeves was No 1 in the charts, a new Ford Cortina cost £750, celebrity hairdresser John Hunter – “of the North” – had just joined the board at Darlington FC, the Zetland cinema in Richmond was showing I Was a Female Werewolf and at the Clareville Stadium in Middlesbrough an “All Star” football match in aid of the Aberfan fund had been joined by Freddie and the Dreamers, the Rocking Berries and by Napoleon XIV, before they came to take him away.

IT’S also 50 years since Simon and Garfunkel released their Sound of Silence LP and, almost to the day, since Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme – excuse enough to attend a tribute concert to the folk/rock duo at Billingham Forum last Wednesday.

They’re all-time musical heroes, perhaps jointly with the late Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, though Mary had the distinct advantage of being a long haired blonde.

These guys were good, Joe Sterling perhaps the more authentic sounding. Sterling dressed like Art Garfunkel, held the microphone like Garfunkel, put hands in pockets like Garfunkel, humped an Ikea bar stool like Garfunkel and even scratched his nose like the bloke.

Clearly he’s versatile, too. Before he was Art Garfunkel, he was Buddy Holly.

Tickets were an early Christmas present from our kidder who, acknowledging long legs and short sight, sat the three of us in the front row.

It peaked, inevitably, with Bridge Over Troubled Water, the 1970 album which won eight Grammy awards and in the UK album charts held top spot for 35 weeks.

The original Simon and Garfunkel were school friends, split after countless disagreements in 1970, largely unsuccessfully tried to build bridges thereafter. Both are now 75, perhaps reluctant to recall a line from Old Friends – “how terribly strange to be 70”.

Maybe they have a point, but from life’s front row I’m really rather enjoying it.

IT must be 40 years since last the column trod the boards at Billingham Forum – it doesn’t seem to have changed much – though appearances in the 1970s were altogether more frequent. They had a show to promote, I a page to fill. Two interviews remain in the memory.

One was with Fred Emney, a lugubrious (ie grumpy) comedy actor perhaps best remembered as Pinky and Perky’s straight man, though he’d also had an unspecified role in Up the Chastity Belt.

Emney proved monosyllabic, misanthropic, miserable. Exasperated, I finally asked how he’d describe himself if the journalistic boot were on the other foot.

“A bit fat overpowering old sod,” he said and, next morning, I did. The phone rang at home at 7 30am. “Best interview with me I’ve ever read,” he said.

The other was with the lovely David Kossoff, remembered for his role opposite Peggy Mount in The Larkins and, inexplicably, in pantomime at Billingham.

How would he be spending Christmas? “Like all Jews, I adore Christmas,” said David. It was another 20 years before I realised the comedy actor was being entirely serious.