Famously stuck in a snow drift at Bleath Gill, engine 78018 has been in out of the cold much too long.

THE Welsh town of Barry was the locomotives’ graveyard, their condemned cell. Darlingtonbuilt 78018, an evening star among steam engines, spent 11 years and four months there before finally being reprieved.

It made the State of California look almost humane by comparison.

It wasn’t the end of the story, nor even of the sentence. After two years with another group, 78018 was bought in 1981 by the Darlington Railway Preservation Society in the hope that once again there might be fire in its belly.

Thirty years later, it has still to see the light of day. The green, green grass of home remains a boiler pipe dream.

Organisers of the Stainmore Railway’s 150th anniversary celebrations were therefore much too optimistic to hope – and last week’s column rash to reflect the hope – that 78018 might return to its old steaming ground for this August’s festivities.

Already £170,000 has been spent.

Maybe another £80,000 is needed to finish the job. “I’m afraid there’s no chance by August. We’re just out of funds,” says Preservation Society chairman Barrie Lamb, a former mayor of Darlington. This may be the longest correction in journalistic history.

The Standard class locomotive was built in 1953 for £14,809, expected to have a 40-year working life. It started work out of West Auckland shed the following March, transferred soon afterwards to Kirkby Stephen to serve the Stainmore line from Barnard Castle to Tebay.

At 4.20am on the bitter-cold morning of February 23, 1955, it set off westwards from Kirkby Stephen with a goods train. Forty minutes later the train was trapped in the infamous Snow Drift at Bleath Gill.

It took five days and hundreds of workmen to free 78018, even longer to reopen the line. Among them was Jackie Leng, now 88 and still a Preservation Society member.

“He still does an occasional shift but at that age it’s more about knowledge than hard graft,” says the chairman, who at 72 remains a little boy in the family toy shop in Cockerton.

“Unfortunately, it’s computerised and I’m not,” he says.

Snow Drift at Bleath Gill became the title of a much-loved and stillsought British Transport Film, its narration by Deryck Guyler who played Corky, the polliss in Sykes.

Guyler talked of the 30ft drifts being cut up into smaller sections.

“It’s a bit like eating landlady’s cake,” he said. “The more it’s divided, the easier it is to get through.”

The RPS website talks of “one last push.” They probably said much the same in those bleak February days up on the top of Stainmore.

DARLINGTON Railway Preservation Society’s collection of locomotives, cranes and sundry other nuggets of railway nostalgia is housed near North Road station in and around what’s believed to be the world’s oldest railway building still used for railway purposes.

It’s listed, it leaks, its lighting’s not good and it’s a constant target for thieves. “Every £1 worth of metal they take costs is £20 to replace,” says Barrie, chairman for 30 years. “The other day they took £1 worth of brass nuts from the toilet. That cost us £200.”

Chicken and egg, running tender first, they can’t get further Lottery grants towards the restoration because the 1833 building needs substantial repairs and they can’t get repair funding because the council’s having to make cuts.

“The mechanics are just about complete but there’s still a lot of work to do on the pipes and the boiler.

“It’s a Darlington engine, a famous engine, and the town should be very proud of it. Like 78018, I’m sure we’ll get there eventually.”

TUESDAY afternoon and just a single car’s parked outside the Preservation Society’s headquarters, the sound of Radio Gaga emanating from within.

“Well, I have to have something to keep myself entertained,” says Malcolm Simpson, a 68-year-old retired Durham County fire brigade station officer who commutes from Kelloe, near Durham, to head the team of volunteers.

Officially he’s chief mechanical engineer, effectively the man who took a step forward.

He’d kindled a steam engine interest when an apprentice at Langley Park coke works, looked into the Darlington site 20 years just to see what was going on. “They told me if I was interested to bring my bait box and a tea bag the following Monday morning. I’ve been here ever since.”

He’s also a driver on the Weardale Railway, a volunteer on the NYMR and a member of the Wensleydale.

“My wife thinks I’m best out of the house,” he says.

“Seeing 78018 back in steam has become a passion. It’s very frustrating because we’re really quite close.

I’m qualified to drive her; I’d love to do it one day.”

Were it not for the missing boiler, lain like an out-of-body experience elsewhere, 78018 would look almost pristine. Instead they’re working on Northern Gas No 1, a saddle tank whose unglamorous history embraces the Stockton and Darlington Gas Company and St Anthony’s tar works in Newcastle and which will be hired in the spring to a preserved railway in Oxfordshire.

“It’s a lovely little engine,” says Malcolm, affectionately, “but 78018 is a main line engine. It needs to be given its head. We’ve asked all kinds of people for help, but so far not a thing.”

If funds were available, he reckons, if a fairy godfather were to arrive on the next train past North Road, the job could be finished within two years.

When dawns the day and drives the donor, it’s likely that 78018 will acquire a name for the first time.

There’s talk of Borough of Darlington, though the chief mechanical engineer demurs. “The council seems to have lost interest in steam.

There’s only one thing to call 78018.

It should be named Bleath Gill.”

* Darlington Railway Preservation Society would welcome all offers of help or ideas.

Malcolm Simpson’s on 07817-084497, Barrie Lamb on 01325-466042 and the shed on 01325-483606.

LAST week’s short piece on the Stainmore Railway’s impending 150th anniversary – to be marked in a big way at Kirkby Stephen East, last weekend of August – lamentably supposed it to be a tercentenary. No it’s not, it’s a sesquicentennial – the mistake more foolish yet because we’d already correctly used the word in last week’s Eating Owt column.

Thanks both to Martin Wood, who recalls the 1975 sesquicentenary of the Stockton and Darlington, and to Dr Ian Taylor, in Aycliffe Village.

“Sesquicentenary is one of those words you come across in life and wonder whether you’ll ever find an opportunity to use it,” writes Ian. “I’m sure that you knew its real meaning already, but were probably writing your column on the No 1 bus, as usual.”

“Sesquicentenary” or “sesquicentennial” has appeared 16 times in the Echo in the past 20 years, 150th birthdays ranging from the White Horse at Kilburn to the dear old Coundon Society for the Prevention and Prosecution of Felons.

On almost every occasion it’s been in these columns – and much of this one was written on the No 1 bus, too.

The Robeson story in song

FAMILIAR on stages and on cricket fields throughout the North-East, our old friend Eddie Gratton – otherwise the Singing Seamer – has been perfecting the Paul Robeson story.

“I think he’s my favourite character, not just my favourite singer,”

says the 18-stone baritone who swears he gave up cricket at 58 because he kept being mistaken for the sightscreen.

He’s joined in recounting Robeson – as at Durham Cathedral on February 25 – by pianist George Hetherington, another hugely familiar musician in these parts.

Both were born and raised in Thornley, east Durham, a couple of hundred yards and several years apart. George, 80 next, went to the Chorister School; Eddie, 72, was at Wellfield Grammar. “I’m still doing three or four appearances a week,”

says George. “People have started getting me to open things. It’s not because I’ve grown to be distinguished, it’s because I’ve grown old.”

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an African-American bass baritone, son of an escaped slave, who became a barrister, American football star, singer, actor and civil rights campaigner.

He was also the first black actor in the 20th Century to play Othello on Broadway.

“Despite all that, you mention his name to someone and they say ‘Oh yes, he sang Old Man River’,” says George, a retired teacher. “Our performance about him has proved really popular. We’re going to have to start putting the lid on it a bit.”

The performance in the deanery at the cathedral (7.30pm) is to raise funds to send the cathedral choir on a return tour of France. Tickets are £10, available from the Gala Theatre, the Chapter House or on the night.

MUCH of last week’s column was devoted to an appreciation of Arnold Hadwin, editor of the Evening Despatch in Darlington from 1964- 73 and the man who gave me my first job.

“In four words, he was a gentleman,”

recalls Charlie Westberg, this company’s former chief photographer, who’ll be 90 in May.

Shelagh Harnby, a neighbour when the Hadwins lived in Hurworth, recalls the summer of 1966 when Arnold looked after their cat – “a character called Fred” – while the Harnbys took a holiday on Anglesey.

“During the holiday, my husband and a friend were swept out to sea and the dramatic rescue was picked up by the Echo, who sent a reporter out for the story.”

Forgetting the sororial rivalry – and there was real rivalry – Don obliged. Arnold was indignant – “and to think,” he said, “that I looked after your bloody cat.”

ONE of life’s little coincidences, I’m reading a biography of Ian Ramsey, Bishop of Durham from 1966-72, when out from it leaps the name of Arnold Hadwin.

Dr Ramsey, remembered wholly affectionately as the Diddy Bishop, was in Bishop Auckland General Hospital after a major heart attack.

He’d just been given the bedpan, records his diary of April 3, 1972, when the “little student nurse”

asked if he’d like the paper. The bishop thought she meant something else; the nurse meant the Despatch.

It proved serendipitous.

“Arnold Hadwin wrote a most touching appreciation of my work – ‘a wider concept of pastoral care’, he called it. It is words like these, which in this part of the world I know to be genuine, that bind me closer and closer to the faith and hopes and lives of the people both within the Church and beyond it.”

Just a few months later he died following a second heart attack, aged just 56. Much more on Ian Ramsey, the bishop who couldn’t say No, in next week’s column.

AFTER last year’s mini-triumph, second out of 50, an invitation has again arrived to attend the Thirsk Gentlemen’s Domino Dinner, held every March since 1915 – it started as a wartime morale booster – and every year with an option of beef or beef.

Still the dress code’s best bib.

Still. too, they dig out boxes of Imperial Dominoes, knocking about since the map of the world was red.

Unfortunately the date is already claimed. The Yorkshire lads will have to get by without the Durham challenger at their elbows. That may be the biggest morale booster of all.

IAN Andrew, a good friend of these columns, is again raising funds for the Willow Burn Hospice in Lanchester by selling the little booklet of his walking group’s outings last year.

Mostly they’re five miles or so, north-west of Durham.

Once or twice they went up the dales, once to the Lakes. All too often the date is marked “cancelled”; meteorologically, it was a pretty miserable year.

Each walk has a detailed map. The suggested donation is £3. Cheques made payable to the Willow Burn Hospice should be sent to Ian at 15 Watling Way, Lanchester, County Durham DH7 0HN.