FIFTY years ago, at the top of Crawleyside bank, shrouded in mist, about 500ft above Stanhope at the start of a two-mile descent down the one-in-five incline, the brakes failed on a coach carrying 42 mostly elderly members of a bowls club.

“It just seemed to go away from me,” said driver Victor Watts.

“I yanked the handbrake and operated the foot brake, but seconds later, I was going like a rocket.”

On August 14, 1969, the bus was taking the Blackhall pensioners’ bowls club home after the members’ annual match against Consett.

It seems that, after winning the match, they were in good spirits and wanted to go home the scenic route via Derwent Reservoir, which had been opened two years earlier.

At shortly after 6pm, the bus began picking up speed, the passengers fell silent, sensing something was very wrong. As it rocked from side to side, bags and bowls began to fall from the overhead shelves onto their heads.

“It flashed past me at a hell of a speed,” an eyewitness told The Northern Echo. “They didn’t stand an earthly.”

Driver Mr Watts, of Peterlee, told the inquest three months later: “When I came out of the mist, I saw the houses and ploughed straight into them. I never seemed to have a chance.”

The toppling, out-of-control bus careered at least 40 yards through five front gardens, their stone walls tearing away its flimsy metal sides and then ripping out the nearside passengers, until it finally embedded itself in a house wall just beyond the Campbell Arms.

“Many of the dead and injured were trapped in the tangled framework,” reported The Northern Echo from the scene.” The coach lay on its nearside among piles of rubble from stone garden walls it had crashed through. All the left hand row of seats had been torn away and completely flattened.”

Tommy Gill had been watching television in one of the houses which no longer had a front garden. He told the Echo’s reporter: “We heard a terrific bang and thought a jet had crashed. I tried to get outside but I had to clamber over the debris.

“It was terrible, just like a battlefield.

“There were bodies wedged between the coach and the house – bodies all over.

“Some were obviously beyond help, but others were screaming and crying.”

Poor Mr Watts was in a terrible state. “The driver was running round screaming for someone to get his daughter out,” said another Crawleyside resident, Bill Harrison. “She was lying in the front of the coach.”

Beside 12-year-old Linda was an unbroken bottle of orange squash.

“I carried her into the house but she died almost immediately,” said Mr Harrison. “It was terrible to watch.”

Another 15 were killed outright with Linda; a further four died in the days after in Bishop Auckland hospital.

Linda was the youngest. Nearly all the others were pensioners – one eyewitness was struck by seeing at least ten sets of false teeth on the roadside and several pipes.

It is amazing, looking at the lightweight aluminium-and-plywood construction and at the tangle of screwed-up wreckage, to think that anyone could survive. But those in the driver’s side seats managed to hold on, and some were flung clear to safety.

“As daylight faded, searchlights were brought out to help the clearing up operation,” said the Echo’s reporter, who was joined at the scene by a young Kate Adie. “Police trying to keep traffic moving faced an additional hazard as dozens of sightseers arrived to look at the tangled blue coach. Cars parked on each side of the road for almost a mile both above and below the hill where the accident happened almost blocked the road and police appealed for all cars to be moved.”

The accident had a profound effect on Weardale and Consett, and stunned the east coast mining village – population 7,000 – from where the bus had set out that morning. “Blackhall’s day of horror”, said the Echo’s headline.

“Crowds of people flocked to Blackhall police station for news of their relatives and groups stood about in thick mist mourning the tragedy,” said the paper. Nearly everyone knew someone involved; six of the victims were married couples – Reg and Mabel Brown, Bill and Florence Henderson, and Bob and Eva Humphries – and nearly all who died were grandparents.

The pit was shut for its annual fortnight holiday so several on the coach were just there for an enjoyable ride out; many of the male victims were retired miners, still living in colliery terraces or in the Aged Miners’ Homes.

It is said that unlike many Durham mining communities, Blackhall never experienced an underground disaster – but the Crawleyside bus crash was their equivalent.

THE village of Crawleyside is about a third of the way up the bank and it is a quarryman’s settlement: Lanehead Quarry is to the east and the Ashes Quarry to the west. The limestone was taken from the quarries to the River Tyne at South Shields by the most extraordinary railway, the Stanhope & Tyne which opened in 1833.

First of all, the railway had to get the stone up Crawleyside bank, which we have already established is pretty steep. It positioned one stationery engine at Crawley which drew wagons 934 yards from the quarries. Then more ropes were attached to the wagons, and an engine more than a mile away at Weatherhill pulled them along.

At Weatherhill, the wagons were connected to the Parkhead engine about half-a-mile away which drew them up to 1,474ft above sea level – the highest point on a railway in England. As the quarries at Stanhope were 796ft above sea level, the wagons had climbed nearly 700ft.

Horses worked the line on the summit at Waskerley before the wagons rolled down Nanny Mayor’s Incline, were dropped down Howns Gill by an amazing contraption which also lifted them up the other side. Eventually, a steam locomotive collected them near Chester-le-Street for a run to the Tyne.

The first section of the line, from Stanhope up to the Crawley engine, passes through the 121ft long Hog Hill Tunnel (also known as the Crawleyside tunnel). Although incline working ceased in 1949, the tunnel still survives and its entrances are Grade II listed buildings.

At perhaps the steepest point in the bank, the tunnel runs beneath the B6278 down which the coach careered on August 14, 1969 – but the terrified passengers were most certainly not thinking of the railway history beneath their tyres.