The column’s back from Scotland with tales of preservation – self-preservation, too

STILL full steam ahead, the North East Locomotive Preservation Group is marking its 50th anniversary. Smutty perforce, nutty perhaps, it represents a remarkable success story, nonetheless.

We catch up at Fort William, Railroad to the Isles. One-track minded, don’t they ever get a bit fed up with all that mucking about?

“Put it this way,” says Nigel Bill, up from Sedgefield, “I’d rather be up here doing this than sitting at home with the wife.”

A bit surprisingly, he wears a white T-shirt beneath engineman’s overalls. “Changes it every week, whether he needs to or not,” says Jonathan Wilkinson, another of the four-member support crew on the class K1 loco, built to last in 1949.

The group was formed on October 28 1966 in the Bridge Hotel in Newcastle, ten months before the last steam engine ran on North-East metals. Half a century to the day, they’ll again raise a glass there.

Darlington based, volunteer run, NELPG now owns and operates four steam engines – including 62005, the K1, which every summer works the jam-packed Jacobite service on the 48 memorable miles between Fort William and the former shoals-of-herring port of Mallaig.

The locomotive runs seven days a week. Nigel and Jonathan stay with others of the support team in a camping coach in Fort William sidings.

They’ve been up since shortly after five, will knock off 15 hours later, love the haul and the Highlands and are pretty fond of the K1, too. Without exception, the locomotives are addressed, affectionately, as female.

“The difference between the K1 and the wife,” a driver once told the column, “is that you can lock the K1 in a shed for a month, come back and she’ll still be a good as gold.”

Jonathan goes further. Though the K1 sometimes carries the nameplate Lord of the Isles, to him she’s just Betsy. “Mind,” he adds, “I call all of them Bets. It’s the only way, you have to be nice to them.”

Nigel agrees. “She can be a bad bitch, but she still has a lot more good days than bad. You have to be nice to her.” He was the North-East fleet manager for a waste disposal firm. He’s nice to his wife, too.

Last Thursday’s thronged. Natural splendours notwithstanding, the Jacobite route has become yet more popular since J K Rowling rebranded Glenfinnan viaduct as Harry Potter’s Bridge.

“When the train stops on the viaduct you can almost feel it tilt with everyone rushing to one side to take photographs,” says Nigel.

Many are Chinese and Japanese – they’ve even seen Japanese in kilts. “You can tell where they’re all coming from,” says the Lady of This House on a saunter around Fort William. “Even the Chinese restaurant menu’s in Chinese.”

FREQUENTLY the K1 runs with a sprig of heather tied to the buffers. On successive days last week there was a wreath on the smoke box – in memory of NELPG volunteers Richard Campbell from South Moor, Stanley, and David Holroyd from Durham on the day of their funerals.

NELPG also held a minute’s silence at Glenfinnan viaduct, and at Mallaig. There were a few tears, admits Nigel. “Great lads, great volunteers. We can’t afford to lose volunteers.”

THE group’s first locomotive was a class Q6, 63395, once familiarly delivering the goods throughout the North-East but now almost extinct.

NELPG folklore has it that, the night before 63395 was in turn to become taken on the tumbril to the torch bearers, members got the driver so drunk that he was unable to work the following morning.

By the time that the cortege could be re-rostered, they’d raised enough money to save it from the scrapyard.

Ugly duckling no longer, 63395 will be among the supporting cast when the Flying Scotsman steams into Shildon for a nine-day stay from this Saturday.

An also ran? Jonathan insists it’s also a smokescreen. “There’ll be thousands there,” he says, “and really they’re coming to see the Q6.”

NO local connection, unless he has a granny in Ferryhill or somewhere, but Mallaig’s monthly magazine carries a story of human indomitability which warrants brief reproduction.

Casting – cowping? – his creels, local prawn fisherman Jamie Baillie became wrapped in a rope and was pulled overboard, while his boat headed in the opposite direction.

He had a knife, freed himself, divested boots and oilskins, swam for four-and-a-half hours to a beach, walked barefoot and in soaking clothes four miles to Arisaig and comforted himself with a curry and five pints of blackcurrant cordial. “I was too thirsty for beer,” he told West Word.

The following evening, he took another boat to Eigg and jigged the night away at the ceilidh.

TOP to bottom, a reader in Scotland’s nether regions sends a copy of Jed Eye – Jedburgh’s monthly community newspaper – with news of Yvonne Ridley.

Remember Ms Ridley? Born in Stanley, she was the former Northern Echo reporter who in 2001 was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan while working for the Sunday Express. Freed after 11 days, she herself subsequently converted to Islam – “Islam is perfect, people aren’t” – has written and broadcast much about the Middle East and stood in parliamentary and European elections for the Respect party.

Last month, however, she opened the Scottish Borders Peafowl Sanctuary and Rescue Centre – honest – another venture which might require considerable diplomacy.

“They’re wonderful creatures but you need lots of space and tolerant neighbours because during the mating season the peacock emits a death-curdling (sic) shriek throughout the day and night,” she writes in Jed Eye – edited by David Pike, another ex-Echo man.

Since the sanctuary opened she has been “inundated” with requests for help, including an enquiry from Durham County Council about the peacock problem out Esh Winning way.

She’s now 58, has been married five times, has her own website. Though there’s much of a contentiously political nature, there’s not a peep from the peacocks.

STILL in the borders, last Saturday’s Telegraph carried an affectionate obituary on the 13th Earl of Haddington, Berwickshire based but educated at the monastic Ampleforth School in North Yorkshire – where he held, may still hold, the record for punitive line writing. One boyhood jape involved emptying “an industrial quantity of laxatives” into the school reservoir. Sadly, notes the obit, it failed to work its way through the system.

….AND finally, the column was sadly unalone in spotting that both Theresa May and future LibDem leader Tim Farron had both contested North West Durham in the 1992 general election.

The Northern Echo: K1 in a million

Emails followed to both and to Hilary Armstrong, Labour’s landslide victor. Only Baroness Armstrong has replied. “My people used to call her Cruella de Ville,” she says of her much changed Tory opponent.

The Echo seemed to have heard little from Mrs May back then, though she was “appalled” at the state of the pavements in Shotley Bridge.

Tim Farron was 21, fresh out of Newcastle University. “He looked about 12,” says Hilary, who also draws attention to a Twitter post reproducing the candidates’ mug shots from a 1992 Weardale Gazette.

Atop it, Jim Waterson has posted: “All we need is a Hilary Armstrong coup and the 2020 general election can be a re-run of North West Durham in 1992.” Hilary thinks the coup unlikely.