The Station Clock
A railway story by Paul Salveson
Part 1: The Station House
Grange-over-Sands on a wet evening in early January; rain mixed with sleet driving in across Morecambe Bay. Dave Little and his partner Jane Bradshaw had been for a walk along the promenade before combined common sense took over and they retreated back towards the hotel. They walked down High Street, taking shelter in the doorway of an estate agent to escape a particularly torrential downpour.
The couple had decided to take a short break over New Year. Thanks partly to Covid, It had been a hard year for them both. Dave’s lecturing job at Leeds University had lost much of its intellectual attraction thanks to Microsoft Teams taking over from human interaction. Jane’s life had been harder, working as a consultant for the NHS in Bradford. Both were coming up for retirement and were ready for it; the stress of the last year was getting to them. A much-needed break in the South Lakes would allow them to see Jane’s mum Agnes, in Barrow.
They waited for the rain to pass and scanned the properties for sale.
“It’s more pricey than Leeds,” Dave thought out loud.
“Well, we’re not thinking about moving – are we?” Jane responded.
“No, course not. But there could be worse places to live if we ever wanted to.”
“You’re joking! God’s waiting room they call this place – very nice to visit and use as a base for walking but it’d drive us both mad if we had to live here.”
“Aye, you’re right Janey. But hey, look at this – ‘Station Master’s House, Kirkhead Crossing – needs renovation but would make a superb home for couple or single-person seeking a quiet life.”
“Show me – God Dave it looks a bit of a wreck don’t you think? Even an over-grown train-spotter like you should know better.”
He took another look. “It’s going pretty cheap – £150k or near offer.”
The rain had stopped and Jane grabbed Dave’s arm pulling him towards the hotel and the promise of a last glass of wine before bed.
The room had a fine view across the bay towards Morecambe, the Midland Hotel – and the nuclear power station. Gazing through the window they could see the Isle of Man ferry coming in to dock at Heysham. A train rumbled past, slowing down to call at Grange, then re-starting and curling round the bay towards Kents Bank and Wraysholme. The red tail light flickered then disappeared in the distance, leaving only the sound of the train’s horn as it approached the crossing before Kents Bank.
“Jane… we were planning to do a walk over towards Cartmel tomorrow, why don’t we see if we can get an appointment to call in and see that house, just out of curiosity…it’s sort of on the way?”
“Bloody hell Dave, you know what curiosity did?”
“Yes, I know, killed the cat…but we don’t have a cat.”
“You’re incorrigible…come on, let’s get to bed. I’ll ring the estate agent first thing but I bet they won’t be able to fix anything before we leave on Wednesday.”
She rang the estate agents at 9.15, before they went down for breakfast. The woman on the other end of the phone explained that the house was empty and they could only do accompanied viewings. She’d check the diary.
“You’re in luck – we’ve had a cancellation this morning. Could you make 11.30 at the property? Otherwise it would have to be Thursday.”
“Thanks – we’re heading home on Wednesday but it’s OK, if you can do this morning that’d be great. We’ll see you there.”
They set out just after 11 along the winding, hilly road to Flookburgh. The rain had cleared and the morning sky over the bay was dramatic, changing by the minute with clouds scudding across the morning sky. They turned off the main road and along a single-track lane dropping down towards the sea. The railway came into view and they could see the house as they approached, past the old tower, an historic landmark now partly in ruins, used as farm buildings.
They were a bit early so they parked up by the house and had a look round outside.
“I see what they mean about requiring renovation!” groaned Jane. “It’s a bloody wreck.”
Conversation was drowned out by the sound of warning sirens as the barriers just beyond the house came down across the road. A minute later a train came into sight and shot over the crossing. The gates lifted, silence returned.
A car was approaching down the lane and stopped next to theirs. A well-dressed young woman carrying a file got out.
“Hello, I’m Margaret Postlethwaite – or just ‘Mags’ – nice to meet you. As you can see, the house has seen better days. The last resident – Mr. Benson, the tenant – sadly passed away four years ago and he’d not kept it in very good condition. The owner has been sitting on it since then but finally decided to sell. I know it’s a mess, but that’s reflected in the asking price. It’s got great potential though!”
Margaret struggled with the door key, an old mortice lock that had got rusty. It finally turned and she opened the door to find a mountain of junk mail piled up behind.
“I think the electricity is still on, let’s see if we can get some light!”
The lights came on to reveal two downstairs rooms with an adjoining kitchen. There was a bit of a garden at the side. The front window directly overlooked the line, with distant views of the bay and Humphrey Head beyond.
The stairs led to a couple of small bedrooms and bathroom, very 1970s style. The windows were UpVC and the downstairs fireplace had been replaced by storage heaters. Whoever had been here, they weren’t too interested in preserving heritage features. Not much apart from the shell of the house had survived. But one thing had – the old clock on the outside of the house, fixed above the front door and sheltered by a decaying timber canopy.
It was fixed at 11.45 – the face was in Roman numerals, the traditional railway style.
“The clock’s a nice feature isn’t it?” the estate agent commented, “doesn’t look like it’s worked for years though. The station closed years before I was even born, don’t think there’d have been much need for a station clock, nobody ever used it.”
Dave and Jane drove back to Leeds on Wednesday; most of the conversation centred on the house.
“We could always buy it as a holiday home, maybe even make a bit of money from renting it out?” suggested Dave.
“Well, the red-hot socialist has turned all capitalist now! But there’s the small problem of getting the money to buy it in the first place. Capitalists need capital.”
“Jane, if we pooled some of our resources we could afford it – just.”
“And what about the £30,000 – and maybe more – to make it liveable?” Jane responded. “Listen, if you really want it, let’s sell up and go for it. But after we’re both retired. My mum would be delighted, she always complains we never see her.”
“So that’s a ‘yes’ then?” said Dave, swerving to avoid an oncoming lorry on the Settle by-pass.
“Yes, if we manage to live that long…”
The sale was agreed and their solicitor said she expected completion by June, fitting in well with both their retirement plans. As they signed the contracts, she wryly commented that they’d both need to get proper station master’s uniforms to go with the house. “But won’t it be noisy with the trains going so near? Good luck, anyway.”
The sale was completed on time. They sold their house in Leeds with no difficulty and decided to stay a few weeks at a nearby pub – The Railway, appropriately enough – while they got stuck in with cleaning and painting, using local tradesmen to do the bigger jobs. They put their furniture into store for the time being.
Jane went at the task with the zeal of a convert, coming up with grandiose ideas for timber-framed doors and windows and Victorian fireplaces in the downstairs rooms.
They got on well with the people who ran the pub – Jack and Brenda Robinson. The family had had the pub for years, Jack inheriting it from his dad.
“It’s good that someone’s taking the Station House on”, said Jack, as he served Dave a pint of his new-found favourite, Loweswater Gold. “It’s not had a happy history but don’t let that put you off.”
“What was that?” picked up Jane. “What happened?”
“Over the years there’ve been a couple of accidents on the crossing,” replied the landlord, warming to his subject. They sen as there’s ‘blood on those tracks’. My dad remembers George Huddleston, a platelayer who lived with his family, getting run over right outside the house. Was distracted by something and a train hit him. Left a widow and three kids, though she – I think she was called Edith – carried on as crossing-keeper and kept the house. More recently there was a nasty accident late one night when one of the local lads drove over the crossing without looking. A train went right into the car and killed him outright. It was after that they put those automatic barriers in.”
“Huh, the estate agent said nothing about all that,” sighed Jane.
“It’s not like you to be superstitious,” said Dave, putting his arm round her. “Maybe we’ll get to know the ghost of the old station master, like ‘Ben Isaacs’ in that Arthur Askey film, ‘The Ghost Train’ – or the signalman in the Dickens’ story.”
“Oh sod off Dave. And don’t blame me if it all goes pear-shaped, if there’s any ghosts around I’ll be away off to mum’s in Barrow.”
They made good progress on the house; no ghosts were spotted and the incidents recounted by the landlord were put aside as they grew more excited about ‘moving in’ day. They’d filled two skips of rubbish, got local builders to put in a new kitchen, bathroom and – Jane won the argument – traditional timber-framed windows.
Searching the internet, they had dug out some original photos of the Station House, taken around 1900, which they used to get the new fittings as close to the original as possible, which dated back to the line’s opening in 1857.
“Look at that one, with the family group in front of the house,” said Jane. “’Mr and Mrs George Huddleston and family, Kirkhead Station House, 1901.’ That was the man Jack told us about in the pub, who was killed on the crossing. Poor chap, and leaving a wife and kids as well.”
“…and a crossing-keeper’s wage wouldn’t have stretched far then, if you’ve three kids to bring up on your own. But at least she was able to stay on here.”
The local joiner and plumber had turned up on time, did a good job and didn’t charge the earth. “Would still be waiting for them to come if we were back in Leeds,” said Jane, as she lugged the dining table chairs out of the removal van.
“There’s just one thing we should think about,” said Dave as they stood outside by the front door, enjoying a break between the unloading. “That clock.”
“What do you want to do with it,” said Jane. Can’t see it ever being made to work, it’s OK where it is.”
“Well let’s have a look anyway.” He got the ladders out and climbed up to the clock. It was screwed into a wooden panel that was rotten and the whole thing came off easily. Dave triumphantly carried his trophy down the ladder steps.
“Let’s take it inside and have a proper look.”
They were approaching the front door and a sudden wind slammed the door in Dave’s face.
“Where the hell did that come from?” Dave asked himself. Looking round, it was a calm, sunny July day.
“It’s that ghost o’ George Huddleston, I told yo’,” grinned Jane, lapsing into her mum’s Barrow accent.
Dave cleared some space on the kitchen table and started unscrewing the back of the clock. The screws were rusty and needed some WD 40 to encourage them, but eventually it pulled off. The mechanism looked as though it was still intact but badly rusted.
“There’s no way we’re going to get that working,” said Dave. “We’d be better off taking it to a clockmaker’s and having the old mechanism out and putting in entirely new battery-operated gear into it. I saw an advert for a place in Grange, shall we see if they can do it?”
“Well, if you want, but let’s keep the old mechanism, it’d be a shame to throw it away,” said Jane.
The face of the clock was pock-marked with stains from being exposed to decades of harsh weather. But cleaning round it he could make out the words ‘Furness Railway’ and a serial number.
“Bet this is worth something Jane, if we get stuck we could always sell it on e-bay.”
“Oh no we won’t,” responded Jane. “It’s one of the few bits of originality about the place, apart from the stone and mortar. It stays here – but if you want to get it running, try that place in Grange.”
The clockmaker – another Postlethwaite, Harold, who it turns out was Mags’ dad – was fascinated by it.
“Well I never. Furness Railway! It’s a fine clock but as you say there’s no way that mechanism will ever work. A shame to take it out, but don’t be too sentimental. A clock’s like a dog – made to work not be an ornament.
As he spoke, Ella, a retriever, came bounding out of the back room. “Though there’s always exceptions to the rule, I suppose.”
“Right, well if you can go ahead that’s great. We want to keep the old mechanism as part of the history of the house but having the clock working again would be the icing on the cake of everything we’ve done.”
“Aye, it’ll be a nice touch. Our Margaret told me about you and your wife buying the place. Good to get it occupied after all that trouble.”
The clock was ready in just a couple of days. Harold had done a decent job, even to the extent of giving the clock an artificial ‘tick-tock’ to make it seem a bit more ‘real’. Jane wasn’t convinced but it appealed to Dave.
Why don’t we keep it in the house? asked Jane. “It’d look good in the kitchen and nobody would see it outside above the door. There won’t be any passengers turning up for their train to Carnforth or Barrow, checking to see if they were in time.”
“OK, let’s try it in the kitchen. I’ll get a few rawl plugs and screw it into the wall above the dining table.”
After weeks of hyper activity – and stress – trying to get everything done, it seemed strange to be able to just relax and do nothing much. A few friends from Leeds came over to see the new place and Jane’s mum drove across from Barrow.
“My, it’s lovely. And what a great job you’ve done on it. I love that clock, where did you get it from?” she asked Jane.
“It came with the house – we’ve had to have the mechanism changed – no way it could’ve been repaired. But it looks a treat, doesn’t it?”
“It does. They say clocks can bring you luck – good and bad, it has to be said. But I hope that’s a lucky clock.”
Summer gradually progressed into Autumn and the winds coming across the bay got stronger. They discovered they had a few neighbours, some of whom they’d met during their three weeks’ stay at the pub.
David Braithwaite was a local farmer, one of the few regular users of the crossing. He had two sides two him – the taciturn north Lancashire farmer but with a kinder welcoming side.
“I’ve brought you a few eggs – and some jam the wife has made. A sort of house-warming present though I know you’ve been here a few weeks now. Settling in alreet?”
“Oh yes,” responded Jane. “And thanks so much for the eggs. I was just going to pop into Flookburgh for some things so I can cross them off the list. Lovely.”
“Aye, they’ll taste better than those eggs you get in supermarkets from battery hens. Wouldn’t touch ‘em. Now then, I see the old clock’s gone?” he said, looking up to the blank space where the clock had been fixed.
“Well not exactly, Dave took it down and it’s in the kitchen. We got a new mechanism put in – it works now.”
“Well, I’m glad it is. They sen as that was what, indirectly like, killed George Huddleston.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, this is just hearsay passed down but my fayther told me as George had had a few bottles of ale an’ he decided he’d go out and wind up the clock. Silly bugger, it were well after 11 o’ clock at neet and pitch black. Wind blowing like mad. His wife begged him to stay in but he’d have nowt of it. The next thing we know is the sound of a train whistling – and a shout. They found George’s body further down the track. A bit of a mess by all accounts. Sorry lass, hope that doesn’t upset you. Long time ago, before the Great War. But time moves slower round here.”
Part 2: The Coach and Horses and the Airport Express
Dave and Jane had time to explore the area, making the most of the fine walking country around Cartmel and Grange. A stroll down to Humphrey Head was a regular afternoon outing, by the ‘holy well’ and up onto the headland where legend says the last wolf in England was killed. Standing on the headland looking out across the bay you could see Morecambe, and round to the west was Ulverston and the Hoad Monument; Barrow further along.
Before the railway was built there was a regular coach service across the bay. It was a dangerous experience and a journey that had claimed many lives over the centuries. It was discontinued after the railway opened in 1857 though people carried on walking across, using the services of The Guide who lived further round the coast between Kents Bank and Grange.
It was a typically wet and windy night in late October. The last train of the day was the Manchester Airport to Barrow, reporting number 1C50, powered by one of the new class 195 trains – ‘Pride of Cumbria.’ The last train from ‘the south’ to Barrow has been known by generations of railway folk and locals as ‘The Whip’ – though nobody knows why.
The driver was Jimmy Helm, an old-hand Barrow man who had started on the railway as a cleaner at Carnforth, not long after the end of steam. He’d been booked as a driver at Barrow for 25 years and was coming up to retirement. Jack had company from Preston – his old mate Derek Graham who was booked to return to Barrow ‘as passenger’ after bringing in a train from Windermere. He was sat in the front coach behind Jimmy, and joined him – against the rules but no prying eyes would be around at that time of night – after they left Carnforth. The train gradually emptied, small handfuls of people getting out at Silverdale, Arnside and Grange.
At Kents Bank a couple of regulars got on, heading home to Barrow after seeing friends. They waved to Jack from the platform as they joined the train, thankful to get into the warmth. After the doors had closed he got the ‘right away’ signal from Jenny.
It had started to rain – hard. That sort of icy, horizontal rain that comes in off Morecambe Bay when it has a mind to, which is frequently.
“Well Derek, just a few months to go and that’s it. Job’s not what it was, I’ll be able to get me feet up or do a spot o’ fishin.”
“Aye, an’ I won’t be far behind you! I’ve had enough o’ 4 a.m. starts and late finishes like this.” Derek agreed.
The train gathered speed and swept round the curve past Humphrey Head and the farm buildings to the left, rain lashing across the train’s windscreen making visibility difficult. They’d left Kents Bank on time at 23.43 and were hoping for a slightly early finish at Barrow.
It wasn’t to be.
Jack had expected the signal controlling Kirkhead Crossing to be showing ‘green’ – and it was, together with a flashing white signal to tell the driver that the crossing was working correctly.
A couple of seconds later Jack looked through the rain-spattered windscreen in horror. The gates were open to the road and there was what looked like a horse and cart, or carriage, galloping towards the crossing.
“Bloody’ell! What in f…’s name…..” shouted Jack as he threw the train brake into a full emergency application. He felt the train rock violently.
Derek had instinctively crouched down behind the control panel to avoid any shattered glass hitting him. Jack just looked on in shock. The next moment there was a loud bang and a flash, with the snorts of a distressed horse. In the train there were shouts of panic as the train slowed to a violent halt.
The train’s brakes had taken effect quickly and the three-coaches shuddered to a stand about a hundred yards beyond the crossing.
“You alreet mate? Derek asked.
“Well I’m not hurt. But f….n’ hell, what was that?”
“B…..d if I know but we’ll go and see. Better get the ‘red button’ pressed so the signaller and Control know we’ve a problem. We could be here a while.”
The conductor, Jenny Johnson, had been issuing a ticket to the couple who’d got on at Kent’s Bank when she was thrown to the floor when the train lurched to a stop. She was just behind the cab door.
“You guys OK? What happened?”
“I wish we knew – we had a green – didn’t we Derek? – yet the gates were open and some sort of horse-drawn carriage ran across. We hit it, I’m sure. That’s as much as I can say. Let’s have a look at the train and see if there’s any damage. Jenny, tell the passengers what’s happening and put some clips down on the up line to mek sure we’re protected.”
She put her ‘hi-vis’ jacket on and jumped onto the track with the regulation pair of Track Circuit Operating Clips, fixed across the rails to put signals to danger, if they weren’t already. Just to make sure they were on, she gave each clip a good stamping with her boots.
The Ulverston ‘bobby’ had been alerted by the emergency signal – the ‘red button’ – and the cab telephone rang within a few seconds.
Arthur Pickstone, the signaller, had been expecting a quiet night.
“Hello Signaller. This is an emergency call. This is the driver of IC50 stopped in advance of Signal U24. I think we’ve just struck summat at Kirkhead Crossing. Can you confirm signaller that all lines are blocked so I can go down and safely inspect. Thank you.”
“By the hell, I wondered where you’d got to,” Pickstone replied. “Is everyone OK? Control is aware of the situation and all I can tell you is wait for further instructions. There’s nothing on the ‘up’ now until the 5 a.m. Airport but take care all the same. I can confirm that both lines are blocked. It’s bloody strange, everything was working OK at this end, the gates were shown as down and you had a green signal.”
“You’re telling me it’s strange – I had a green and the flashing whites but the barriers seemed to be up – and this horse and cart, or something, went across and it sounded as though we’d hit it. Anyway, stay awake and I’ll let you know if we find owt. I’ve got a driver travelling home passenger with us and he’ll assist, as well as my guard.”
Jack climbed down onto the track with his lamp to see if there was any damage, or sign of what he might have hit. He was prepared for the worst, having been involved in another crossing accident years ago near Millom. Some poor old demented sod had wandered onto the line and the train hit him full on. There wasn’t much of him left. It made an awful mess of the train too.
This time there was no scene of squashed bodies with blood, skin and bone smattered around the front. Nothing at all, as far as he could see. Derek had gone back with Jenny reassuring the few passengers on the train that everything was OK but they could be stuck a while. Most of them took it well, though one character who’d been on the ale at Lancaster started shouting the odds about compensation.
“Everyone will get compensation, don’t worry about that – I’ll go round with forms for you to fill in and claim, we’re just checking there are no casualties,” said Jenny. “A…….e”, she thought to herself.
Derek looked round towards the crossing and sure enough the gates were down – the train had stopped within the overlap before they would go back up for road traffic – not that there’d be any at that time of night.
The Control duty manager at Manchester, Dave Parkinson, rang Jimmy a few minutes later after Jimmy’s initial check round the train – which had revealed nothing. He’d started his railway career at Carnforth so knew the line well.
“Hello driver – that’s Jimmy Helm isn’t it? I knew you when I was Signalling Manager at Barrow back in the 90s. You OK? What’s happened?”
Jimmy explained, as best he could, what he’d seen and how he had reacted, adding that he’d done as good an inspection of the train as he could – it was a dark night and the rain was still coming down in buckets – and nothing had been found.
“Bloody hell Jimmy, that’s some story. Listen, I’m going to send out some relief for you – you’ve had a nasty shock. Cliff Rudge was just signing off and he owed me a favour, so he’s on his way in a taxi – just hope the driver can find you. Des Melia, the on-call DTM is with him and Network Rail has been informed; their Mobile Ops Manager is on his way from Lancaster so you’ll have quite a party! How’s your conductor? Is she OK? I’ll try and raise her on-call Conductor Team Manager if need be?”
Jenny responded saying she was fine apart from a bit of a bruised knee after the sudden stop and dragging the on-call CTM out on a night like this would be over-kill.
“Good, it was starting to get a bit over-crowded. We’ve sent out for technicians from Newton Heath to have a closer look under the train – as close as possible on a dark night anyway – and that’s going to take some time. The taxi will take the five passengers; you and your mate go back to Barrow on the train with your conductor, which will run as empty.”
Derek managed to walk down the four-foot, in the driving rain, towards the Station House, which was in darkness, though Dave and Jane’s car was outside suggesting the occupants were at home in bed. He thought it wise to let the occupants know what had happened – and there might be a brew going, though they might not appreciate being woken up at half past midnight.
He rang the door bell and after a couple of minutes some lights went on and Dave opened the door.
“I’m really sorry to disturb you sir. I’m a driver on the Barrow train and there’s been an incident here at the crossing. We can’t see anything amiss but we’ve had to make an emergency stop. The train is just down the line.” Derek pointed to the red tail light of the beleaguered express.
“Did you hear anything, about fifteen minutes ago? We seemed to hit something, looked like a horse and carriage of some kind, and it made a huge bang.”
Dave looked nonplussed. “I’m quite a light sleeper but I didn’t hear anything. Look, would you like to come in and have a cup of tea? You look in a bit of a state. If there are others bring them down and we’ll get the kettle on.”
“That’s very kind but the rules say we’ve got to keep the passengers on the train for the time being – if we have hit something we don’t want to give them any nasty shocks. But we will need to get the passengers out of the train eventually, when the taxi arrives to take them home; we could be stuck for hours. It’s not a nice night to be standing around in the middle of nowhere – if you don’t mind me saying so – with no shelter.”
“Sure, fully understand. Tell you what – we’ll get the kettle on and make a pot of tea and you can take it back to the train, cups and milk provided as well!”
The five passengers, as well as Jimmy, Derek and Jenny, appreciated the cups of tea and biscuits. Even the drunk – who’d sobered up a bit by now – was appreciative of Dave and Jane’s hospitality.
“We’ll keep an eye out for the taxi,” said Jane, before Derek walked back to the train. “A lot of taxis don’t know the area, just hope he’s not got lost and ended up in Grange. What time is it Dave?”
Another half hour passed; Dave and Jane stayed up to greet the taxi. “Oh shit, the clock has stopped. It’s still showing 11.45. Hang on, I’ll get the phone out. It’s 1 o’clock now and I think I can hear something coming down the lane – must be the taxi.”
The cab stopped just short of the crossing, with a Network Rail 4×4 just behind with Cathy Huddleston, the on-call Ops Manager; Cliff Rudge and Des Melia got out, offering to help the train crew get the passengers safely down the track to the crossing.
Knowing the ‘up’ line was blocked the small group of passengers and railway staff was led down the track by Jenny, using her torch to show the way.
She saw the passengers into the taxi and told the driver to drop off two off at Ulverston then head direct for Barrow with the rest. Checks had been made at Cark and Dalton just in case anyone was waiting and luckily there wasn’t – or they’d given up and ordered a cab.
Jimmy got onto the signalman at Ulverston and told him the taxi was on its way to Barrow. “Thanks driver. Control has said the rolling stock technicians should be with you soon.”
Clive Draper and Ash Patel were there by 2.15 a.m., greeting Clive with characteristic Manchester humour.
“Hello driver, what have you got for us then? Hope it’s not too grisly because we’ve only just had our supper.”
A more thorough inspection produced the same result as Jimmy’s. There was nothing apparent. “What they’ll probably do,” said Ash. “is send the train to Newton Heath for a more detailed inspection tomorrow. If this train has hit anything – and we can’t see a thing – they’ll find out.”
Cliff Rudge, now the driver of the train, rang Ulverston box to say that the train was ready to proceed following the inspection. Cathy had checked the gates as best she could in the darkness and they seemed to be working OK.
“Thanks driver, you’re right away to depot then. And I can catch up on my night’s reading – it’s a ghost story! But mebbe yours is better!”
Derek and Jenny thanked Jane and Dave for their hospitality. “We’re really grateful for all your help; some folk would have slammed the door in our faces and told us to get lost!”
“I’m really glad we could help and hope you get to the bottom of the mystery. Let us know if you hear anything,” said Jane as Derek turned towards his train, feeling ever more baffled as to what he and Jimmy had experienced.
Cliff took the controls and the train moved forward – Jimmy and Derek sat at the table behind the cab door.
“So you’re telling me that you saw a horse and carriage galloping over the crossing and you think you hit it – but there’s no trace of any damage? Had you two been on the piss in Preston?” shouted Cliff from the cab. “You couldn’t make it up though, I’ll give you that. And to be honest, and seriously, I know you two aren’t ale cans.”
Jimmy, Derek and Jenny signed off at 3.45 after each completed an incident report. They knew they hadn’t heard the last of it. The duty supervisor told them Control had said they were to phone in at 12.00 and they’d take it from there, but they were not expected to take up their booked work. “For your own good – you’ve had a fright, especially you Jimmy,” Eddie Wilson, the supervisor added.
They were asked to appear the following afternoon before their Driver Manager at Barrow. It was Mary Harrop, an experienced manager with ten years’ driving experience, but half the age of both the drivers.
She was suitably deferential to Jimmy and Derek, seeing each individually, offering them cups of tea. They told the same story of what they’d seen happen. Derek was the second interviewee.
“Derek, you and Jimmy have had unblemished careers and I know you’re both coming up for retirement. All we can see is that you made an emergency stop at Kirkhead Crossing. That’s OK, you didn’t go through a red, nothing untoward happened. If I was you, off the record, I’d keep quiet about this ‘horse and carriage’ story. I’m not saying I don’t believe you. I don’t know what to believe. But if it went to Rail Accident Investigation Branch I can’t see them swallowing it. Can you?”
“No, Mary, you’re right. But it’s a queer do that we both saw this bloody nag, and heard one hell of a bang. And both of us saw the barriers were up. What d’you mek o’that?”
“We’ve had a preliminary report from Network Rail on the barriers at Kirkhead and they say they’re working normally and no fault has been detected. Same with the signal that protects the crossing. So we’re still none the wiser. The 195 has been sent to Newton Heath for examination, let’s see if they can find any trace of it hitting something. For now, I’m giving both you and your mate a week’s sick leave. Whatever did happen that night it might have an effect on you and your alertness so we’re not taking any chances. In fact, let’s make it two weeks. OK?”
It was coming up to Christmas so a couple of weeks paid leave wasn’t unwelcome to either of them. Jenny was given two days off.
“I’d give you a bit longer chuck but we’re short-handed and we’re already having to cancel trains because we’ve no guards,” the CTM Janice Pickering explained.
Jimmy’s wife, Alex, had been saying she fancied a trip to Grange to visit Higginson’s the famous butchers, so how about a run out in the car next week?
That gave Jimmy an idea. It would be nice to call in at the Station House and personally thank the people there – David and Jane he remembered – and have a look at the place in daylight.
The car meandered down the lane from Allithwaite and pulled up outside the Station House. Dave was doing a bit of work outside, making the most of the mild November weather.
“Hello, I don’t know if you remember me but I was one of the drivers on the train that made the emergency stop last week. Just called round to thank you for your hospitality. It was really appreciated.”
“No problem at all, we don’t get much excitement round here and it has certainly given us something to talk about. And we’ve been doing a bit of our own research. Come in and have a cup of tea.
Jimmy and Alex went into the sitting room where they’d been on ‘that night’, feeling much less stressed than Jimmy had been then. Jane joined the company.
“I’m glad you called round,” Jane said as she placed the coffee and cakes on the table. “After last week we’ve been doing a bit of research on the area and found some things that might interest you. Back in the 1850s, when the railway was being constructed, there was still a horse carriage service, a few days a week, from Ulverston to Lancaster, ‘over the sands’. It didn’t last long after the railway opened – it was unreliable and dangerous. What probably killed it off was a terrible accident that happened in November 1857 when it tried to cross the bay on a stormy night,” Jane explained.
“The Westmorland Gazette had a lot to say about it – the carriage, carrying four people, a driver and guide, got lost in the sands and it was only a couple of days later when the bodies started to appear, washed up at Kents Bank and by Humphrey Head. The coach driver was never found, probably got washed out into the sea. The route the coach took was this crossing by our house, then round by Kirkhead Hall to Kents Bank – and then headed across the sands. It was a stormy night, the driver took a big risk, and sadly paid for it. The coach left Ulverston at 11.00 pm so would have been at the the crossing by around 11.45 – the time when you saw what you thought was a horse-drawn carriage.”
“Well, thanks, that’s really very interesting. I’ve seen paintings of the carriages crossing the sands, led by teams of horses. I thought that had finished by the early 1800s.” Jimmy gazed into his coffee.
“Have another biscuit James – they are very nice – then we’d better get on our way,” announced Mrs Helm, lowering the tension.
“Thanks once again for your kindness,” said Jimmy. If I hear anything from the examination of the train I’ll let you know.”
Two days later his mobile rang. “Hello Jimmy, it’s Mary here at Preston. “We’ve had some results back from Newton Heath. The examination of the class 195 unit didn’t produce much more than the usual bits and bobs that trains pick up – remains of birds that had got in the way, a few branches, general muck. But they did find traces of timber – polished wood to be precise – at the front end. One of our ‘Year in Industry’ students said she could take a sample of the wood to the university and ask one of his mates in the labs if they could do an analysis of it. Now this is where it does get interesting. The bit of wood was well over a hundred years old. Probably 150 years or even more. There was some lacquer on one side, used by coach makers back in the 1840s, on both traditional horse-drawn carriages and early railway carriages. This sample also showed some trace of, well, to put it crudely, horse shit. So you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to think it was the remains of a horse-drawn carriage from the 1850s which our 21st century train had managed to hit. Or might have done. Maybe. What do you think of that then?”
There was a long silence on the phone at Jimmy’s end. “So d’you think my story – and Derek’s – about hitting a horse and carriage isn’t such a fantasy after all?”
“I’m not saying I’ve changed my mind – and I don’t see how we could take this to RAIB and expect them to believe us. And it wasn’t a reportable accident anyway. But I thought it might give you and Derek some peace of mind. As far as the company’s concerned, case closed. Enjoy your leave and please don’t see any more ghosts, OK? And by the way, you know the company takes a dim view of unauthorised members of staff riding with the driver?”
The following day – Jimmy was still on his enforced leave – he decided to call round again at the Station House and tell the couple what he’d been told. Dave was out – Jane said he’d been at the clockmaker’s getting the old clock mended after it had stopped the other night. Dave came through the door, holding the ancient time-piece.
“The clockmaker said there didn’t seem anything wrong with it – put a new battery in but it was working alright before. Just a quirk.”
Blitz over Barrow
Dave and Jane settled into life at Kirkhead. Christmas came and went and they were able to get out and do more exploring around the South Lakes. Retirement was doing both of them good – no more of the occasional rows, no stressful ‘Teams’ meetings. And the clock was keeping perfect time. Spring came round, one of those magnificent Springs where the valleys of the Winster, Duddon and Rusland Pool were full of colour and warmth.
It was a Saturday, May 7th. Dave and Jane had been out for a long walk over Hampsfell, getting home in time for a late supper followed by an early night.
It was Dave who first heard something, at about quarter to twelve.
It seemed to be coming from Ulverston way. Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw. The sky was completely ablaze and opening the window he heard a seemingly endless succession of explosions and what sounded like heavy gunfire.
“My God! Jane, come here…I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Where’s it coming from? It must be Barrow – it’s well beyond Ulverston. It looks like the whole town’s on fire……What’s going on? There was nothing on the news. Are we at war? Or at the receiving end of some sort of terrorist attack? If one of those nuclear subs goes up the whole of Cumbria could go with it.”
Dave stood at the window, staring in shock. The explosions continued, with the sound of counter-attack fire coming from below. What looked like an aircraft burst into flames, downed by the ground fire.
The next moment they heard loud banging on the front door.
“Help! Please let us in! Help!”
Dave dashed down the stairs and opened the door – to find nothing. The rain was lashing against the porch and he checked up and down the lane – there was no sign of anything.
He went back upstairs. The sound of explosions in the distance continued and through the rain they could see the flames getting higher. After two minutes the banging started again. “Please help us! Let us in!”
This time they both went down, with a torch and some trepidation. The door blew open with the wind, Jane was drenched by a squall of rain. There was no-one to be seen.
“Look, let’s make ourselves a brew – we’re not going to get any sleep with all this going on – and if we do get any more visits at least we’ll be downstairs. Maybe it’s kids playing stupid games.”
“Dave, come off it. What kids? And at half past midnight? Any naughty boys will be safely packed up in bed. We’re not in Headingley now!”
It was then that Jane made a sudden realisation. “Mum! Oh my God Dave, she could be in the middle of all that. I’ve got to ring her.”
She rushed downstairs picking up the landline which was placed on the kitchen table below the clock. The phone rang for what seemed an eternity until at last she heard a voice.
“Who’s that ringing at this time?”
“Mum, it’s me, Jane. Are you alright?”
“Course I’m bloody well alright, at least I was before you woke me up. What’s the matter?”
“Oh, well…. nothing really, we just keep hearing explosions that seem to be coming from Barrow way. You sure you’re OK?”
“Yes love, I am. Have you been on the wine again? We’re alright here, get some sleep,” as she put the phone down.
Jane stood still for some time. She noticed that the clock had stopped again, at its usual time of 11.45. Bloody clockmaker! It would have to go back in the morning. Hopefully he wouldn’t charge.
She went back upstairs; the fires had disappeared and the explosions had stopped. All that remained was a gentle whistling through the trees and the sound of the barriers coming down as a slightly-delayed Barrow train came rattling over the crossing.
Jane and Dave settled back down to bed; neither could sleep. She mentioned the clock stopping again.
“I’m sure that clock has something to do with all this. All the bad things here have happened at 11.45. It can’t be a coincidence. Come on Jane, we’ve both got PhDs, we should be able to get to the bottom of this.”
That morning, before taking the clock back to Grange, Jane got on the internet and googled ‘Barrow – bombings’. Wikipedia described the events of May 1941:
“The difficulty of solely targeting Barrow’s shipyard meant that many residential neighbourhoods were bombed instead; 83 civilians were killed, 330 injured, and over 10,000 houses were damaged or destroyed during the Blitz, about 25 percent of the town’s housing stock. Surrounding towns and villages were often mistaken for Barrow and were attacked instead, while many streets in Barrow were severely damaged. Bombing during mid-April 1941 caused significant damage to a central portion of Abbey Road, completely destroying the Waverley Hotel as well as Christ Church and the Abbey Road Baptist Church. The town’s main public baths and Essoldo Theatre were also severely damaged, however they were repaired within years. Hawcoat Lane is a street that is most noted for taking a direct destructive hit in early May 1941. Barrow has been described as somewhat unprepared for the Blitz, as there were only enough public shelters for 5 percent of the town’s population; some people who lived in the town centre were even forced to seek refuge in hedgerows on the outskirts of Barrow. This shortage of shelters was believed to have led to excessively high casualties.”
The worst of the bombings took place on May 7th, with the bombardment starting the previous night, just before midnight. Other reports told of terrified Barrovians fleeing the blitz, getting trains or buses – if they could – to surrounding towns and villages where they hoped they’d be safe. A train left Barrow that evening bound for Carnforth, packed with people escaping to wherever they could – Dalton, Ulverston, Cark – and Kirkhead. It departed minutes before the station suffered a direct hit. Many families were said to have taken shelter in strangers’ homes, barns or just on roadsides. Anything would be better than what they’d experienced that night.
“Look at this Dave. This is what we saw last night. Or imagined what we saw. 80 years to the day. I remember mum talking about it all, stories her mum had told her. She lived at the bottom of Abbey Road which took some of the worst of the blitz. She was lucky, but some of the houses nearby were destroyed and several of her neighbours died. She helped pull some of the bodies out of the rubble, including little kids. Grandad was away in North Africa, with the Lancashire Fusiliers. When he came back and saw the town he said it looked like they’d had it worse than anything Rommel threw at them. And that hammering on the door – was it something to do with those poor people fleeing the bombing – eighty years ago?”
The series of events was starting to take its toll. Rows between Dave and Jane become more common, almost as bad as when they were both doing stressful jobs. Jane was starting to think they should put the house up for sale. They’d get their money back, even with all the extra work they’d done.
Dave took the clock back to Postlethwaite’s. He had some sympathy for what Jane was saying.
“Good morning David,” Harold looked up from his current ‘patient’ as he called them and put down his pipe. “Not more problems with that railway clock? Let’s have a look.”
The battery was tested and was OK; the clock had started working that morning, after Dave had re-set the fingers.
“Do you think there’s something odd about the clock?” Dave asked. “I mean…something supernatural. Sounds weird I know. We’ve been doing some digging and it seems that all the bad things – fatal accidents, imagined fires and explosions, seem to happen around the same time of night – 11.45 – and the clock stops working. I’d have said it was just coincidence if it was a couple of times, but it’s more than that.”
Postlethwaite sat down on his bench and re-lit his pipe, aping his hero, Harold Wilson.
“Strange things happen Dave. Have you ever heard of the Timberbottom Skulls, over Bolton way? They’d been displayed in a farmhouse for many, many years, with a legend that they should never be moved. Then some bright spark came along and moved ‘em. They didn’t like it. They created havoc. It was only when they were put back in their original resting place that the trouble stopped. It may sound a mad idea, but why not put the clock back in its original place; I’ll fit the old mechanism – happy to do it, as favour, and I’ll sort you out with a nice retro-style Victorian clock for the kitchen.”
Dave returned the following day with the clock and the old mechanism which they’d been lucky enough to keep in a bottom drawer, following Jane’s intervention. Postlethwaite took out the new battery-powered mechanism there and put back the old clockwork machinery.
“Pity it’ll never work. But good luck – let’s hope these strange goings-on come to an end. I’ll order one of those repro railway clocks for you. They cost about £60 and look OK.”
Jane had already been up the ladders and fixed a new wooden batten on the wall above the front door. She was a better DIY-er than Dave, though he wouldn’t admit it.
“Well done love! Let’s give it a coat or two of paint to protect it from the weather and we’ll mount the clock tomorrow.”
It was another fine day and after breakfast Dave volunteered to fix the clock back into place. Three long screws went easily into the batten, fixing the clock firmly in place. Dave went back down the ladders, pleased with his efforts.
Neither of them noticed that the clock had started to work.
Tick-tock-tick-tock – tick-tock
January 9th 2022
Many thanks to all who have helped with technical advice, particularly Chris, Jason and Tim.
Note that this is a work of fiction, loosely based on a particular part of the Furness Peninsula. The characters are entirely fictional. Barrow was badly hit during the Second World War and the story is told in detail through displays in the town’s Dock Museum. Barrow station did suffer a direct hit but the part of the story about a train taking people out of the town is imagined – but may well have happened. See The Barrow Blitz, by Bryn Trescatheric.