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Ghostly goings on at Harperley halt
3:36pm Wednesday 1st February 2012 in Darlington
FINDING A PLATFORM: The station and signalbox at Harperley were demolished in 1964, although you can still make out one platform.
A train arrives, a lady alights and climbs into a waiting horse-drawn carriage - what follows is so terrible it will haunt any sensible reader.
The station at Harperley was in the middle of nowhere. It was a private halt, down near the River Wear, at the bottom of a long track. It was built for the railway director who lived in Harperley Hall.
ONE day, a horsedrawn trap was sent down the track from the hall.
An important lady visitor was expected.
The trap met the train. The lady got off the train. She climbed into the trap.
The train announced its imminent departure by blowing its whistle. This startled the horse which reared up in the air in a great commotion, overturning the trap behind.
The lady was thrown out, and she landed on the rails right in front of the departing train.
There was nothing that could be done to stop the train; there was nothing that could be done to save her. She died a terrible death beneath the engine’s giant wheels.
Now her ghost haunts that remote halt on the edge of Weardale. The old signalman who lived in the Harperley station house in the mid-Fifties was aware of her. He was very shaken when he returned home one day and found all the doors and all the drawers wide open. He knew it wasn’t a burglary.
He knew it was the work of the ghost.
This may well tie in with the terrible apparition that used to haunt the road – now the A689 – between Harperley and Wolsingham. As we told a fortnight ago in Memories 66, a ghostly black coach pulled by a pair of black thoroughbreds was once a common sight on the road.
Lashed on by a wizened driver, dressed in black but with a gnarled white face, the horses clattered along the road, sweat streaming from their bodies, eyes staring from their sockets, nostrils flared and flecked with red.
And in the black coach that they pulled were four strange passengers dressed only in black.
Or so the stories go.
Of course the stories are not true.
And yet the stories reverberate through time like the clattering of the ghostly horses’ hoofs along the Weardale road.
Several people who have had a connection with Harperley over the decades have mentioned that they were aware of stories of ghostly coaches careering through farmyards.
John Askwith, a sober historian of the Weardale Railway, has kindly helped with this article.
He says: “I was travelling to a railway meeting with two colleagues about ten years ago. I was driving, and at Harperley Bottoms, just after the lodge, my two passengers were startled by a man standing in the road.
“I didn’t see him and just carried on driving.
“I can’t explain any further.”
Harperley most haunted.
FOR Dave Williams, Harperley is haunting for different reasons.
“It is a beautiful place and will always have a place in my heart,” he says.
He was born in 1944 in 2 Station Cottages, and with his three brothers and three sisters grew up like the original railway children.
“We spent many hours playing around the signal box and station, although we were told never to come near when the dreaded inspector was there,” he says. “We would help pull the levers in the signal box and when the goods trains passed through, we would have the honour of standing on the platform and holding out a hoop with the points key on it.
“The fireman would reach out and collect it, and when the train came back down the line we would collect the hoop from the fireman as it went speeding past – there was no thought for health and safety.”
A morning train would stop outside the cottages – about 400 yards from the station – to collect Dave’s sister, who went to Darlington Grammar School.
Dave remembers operating the level crossing gates at the foot of the track, collecting pennies from drivers as they passed through.
“The best customers were the Brown family, who lived in Blackbanks, a house in the forest on the west side of the river opposite Harperley. They had two cars – one which they used and garaged on our side of the river and another which they drove up to their house on the west side,” he says. “They crossed the river on foot on a rickety old wooden bridge which would not take the weight of a car.”
Dave’s brother Derek, who is 80 this year, recalls a train derailment near Station Cottages in the late Forties.
“The River Wear, which runs alongside the track, had flooded and washed the bankside away,” says Dave. “The first train from Wolsingham the next day came off the rails. Derek and another of my brothers went to look.
They climbed into the guard’s van, and found that the guard had left his lunch box which contained two boiled eggs.
They ate one each.”
Dave’s reminiscences of the cottages, the small wooden chapel beside them and the river and the railway are delightful.
They can be read in full on the Memories blog.
AS you will remember from a fortnight ago, the Weardale Railway between Witton-le-Wear and Wolsingham opened on August 3, 1847. A private halt on the single track was built for the use of George Hutton Wilkinson, colliery owner and chairman of the line, who lived in Harperley Hall (which is now the National Policing Improvement Agency, owned by Durham Constabulary).
Darlington architect John Middleton designed the pretty station.
The halt became busier after 1892 when a clay pit was opened nearby. This stimulated the building of the cottages and the wooden chapel.
The most dramatic day was July 5, 1901.
A mineral train of wagons of limestone was coming down the dale. An excursion train from Whitley Bay was going up the dale, returning 500 passengers – mostly children – to Wolsingham after a day out at the seaside.
The mineral train was directed into a siding at Harperley where it was expected to wait while the excursion went by. But it was going too fast with the heavy wagons – troublesome trucks – pushing it onwards.
“Instead of being able to stop at the required place, she dashed into the dumb end (the buffers at the end of the siding), which was carried awaw,” The Northern Echo said a couple of days later in a curiously worded report.
Engine and dumb end ended in a wood, at least 30 yards from where they should have been.
“The engine was overturned on to her side, the chimney knocked off, whilst the limestone fell onto the engine like a miniature storm of hail from the trucks,” said the Echo. “The engine driver and stoker had jumped off so that no lives were lost.”
The excursion train was brought to a halt by hand signals before it could come galumphing through the debris.
“Yesterday,” said the Echo, “there was a large number of persons visiting the spot.”
DIVERSION: while looking for the above report, the eye alighted on another headline in early July 1901. “Shocking railway accident”, it said. “Girl’s dress set on fire.”
The article was read in that hope that it would be the Weardale accident. It wasn’t.
It occured in Berlin. But the paragraph is worth repeating.
“A young lady sitting at the open window of a carriage had her light summer dress ignited by some sparks from the engine. The girl was so terrified that she opened the door and sprang from the train, sustaining such terrible injuries from the fall that she died almost immediately.”
BACK ON TRACK: There have been a number of crossings of the Wear at Harperley. Still today a footbridge goes over.
The most famous, though, is the stepping stones.
In 1904, a photographer from Bishop Auckland approached 18-year-old Lucy Proud, who lived with her family in Low Shipley Farm on the west side of the Wear opposite Harperley.
He asked if, chaperoned by her brother William, he could take some photographs of her tripping happily over the stepping stones.
So William took the horse and trap down to the river to watch over affairs.
It was important to the photographer that Lucy carried a basket with some heather in it.
The resultant image is one of the most famous in the North-East. Lucy had some heather – or ling – and she was crossing a ford, and so she became the icon of Lingford’s baking powders.
Lucy, who died in 1969, remained on Lingford’s tins and packets until the Bishop Auckland company closed in 1973.