Recollections and photographs of the final days by Stephen McGahon
The Alston Branch rekindled my interest in railways. After the trainspotting years of my early teens I had moved on to other things, mainly football. In 1974 the line was in the news as being under threat, so I decided I had to take a look at one of the last surviving rural branch lines of the North Eastern Railway.
A frosty February morning saw me set off clutching the family Ilford Sporti camera loaded with Trifca (remember that?) 120 roll film on my first railway photographic expedition. Changing to the branch line train at Haltwhistle I took a seat in the former first class section with a view of the line ahead as the two coach diesel unit clattered along the scenic South Tyne valley. Alston station, with its remnants of once extensive sidings and large station building shorn of its overall roof, was a monument to past prosperity. Wayside stations were a step back in time – oil lamps on platforms, original wooden buildings and the remains of an ancient weighing machine decaying quietly in the corner of a waiting shelter.
After riding through to the terminus I returned down the line alighting at the remote Lambley station, picturesquely perched high above the valley and accessed only by footpath or a rough track half a mile from the nearest road. The early frost had given way to a sunny spring-like afternoon prompting a decision to walk to the next station, Coanwood, via a footpath which descended into the valley and crossed the river below the line’s major engineering feature – the tall, spindly single track Lambley viaduct.
Negotiating muddy field paths proved a bad idea in unsuitable 70s clothing and footwear but I reached Coanwood station with enough time to scrape the mud from my shoes before catching the next train back to Haltwhistle. My photographic efforts that day were mostly poorly composed and unsharp (I blame the equipment) but I still have the (triple) prints to this day.
Later visits to the branch revealed some less than standard operating practices, probably common on rural lines in bygone days, which would have been frowned upon by the authorities in distant Newcastle. On several occasions I witnessed the train stop between stations, simply halting beside a road overbridge to decant passengers into a waiting car.
At Lambley I watched a lady hand over a large box of eggs to the train guard – a thank you for good customer service, or an unofficial delivery to someone further down the line?
The death knell finally sounded in 1976 and on the penultimate day of services I made my way to a bunting bedecked Alston station to witness some of the line’s final hours. The branch train had been increased from 2 cars to 4 to accommodate like minded travellers. I followed the line, walking on nearby roads and footpaths recording the passage of enthusiast laden trains. My wanderings ended, as on my first trip, at the green painted shelter of Coanwood station where I took my weary legs “on the cushions” back to the junction.
The afternoon of Saturday 1st May saw sunshine and celebrations at Wembley as lowly Southampton slew the giants of Manchester United but in the evening there was a sombre mood at a damp and drizzly Haltwhistle station as the mourners gathered for the last rites of the Alston branch.
The branch train was supplemented by the appearance of a special from Carlisle, complete with commemorative headboard, organised by the Border Round Table which coupled up and headed the final service towards Alston. Dusk was falling as the packed train arrived at Alston station and I joined the throng on the platform trying to snatch some photos in the twilight gloom. The final departure was accompanied by a bagpipe lament and a fusillade of exploding detonators.
At Slaggyford the small steam loco bought for the preservation project was steamed up and whistling a forlorn farewell from it’s isolated few yards of track. Other stations bore wreaths and messages on the platforms as the train returned slowly down the valley. Arrival back at Haltwhistle was in darkness and pouring rain but there was not much time to linger and I managed only a few rain spotted flash photos before having to catch my connection back towards Newcastle and Durham.
I kept my ticket bought on the last train. It was just a standard pink Paytrain ticket showing the date and the price and I can’t find it now. When I last saw it the ink had faded and it was just a pale pink square of paper. Can’t think why I didn’t buy a proper card ticket from a booking office – it would have shown the date, price and destination and would probably have lasted a lot longer.
My last visit to the standard gauge Alston branch was a couple of months later. I was hoping to see and photograph a track removal train but there was nothing but the rails rusting lifelessly on a muggy, oppressive, summer afternoon. Driven back to the shelter of Haltwhistle station by a sudden thunderstorm I gave up and went home. Preservation that day seemed a distant prospect and it would be thirty years before I would return to witness the revival.