End of steam at the locomotive depot.
We relieve a lot of trains coming from the Middlewich branch: coal slack going to the steel works at Shotwick, or tanks going to the refineries at Ellesmere Port. Often they are worked by Class 9's and when we reach the destination we usually have to take the locomotive to Birkenhead and travel home on the passenger service.
We set off on the line towards Chester and at Mouldsworth we collected our single line token from the signal box before continuing onto the branch line to the right. It's downhill from here through tree lined cuttings and embankments with pleasant views across the Cheshire plain to the Welsh hills. After passing through the disused station at Helsby we join double tracks again for the last leg to Stanlow.
There is plenty going on at Stanlow with all the oil companies bunched together. It's a massive works and the smell of oil fills the air. We leave the train of tanks in the sidings and set off light engine for Birkenhead.
I was on this line when one of the two gauge glasses popped, and it would be the one on my side. Imagine the pop from a party popper and multiply it by fifty and that's how it sounded followed by a whooshing sound and steam everywhere. Frightened the life out of me I can tell you; I dashed to the locker ready dive out of the cab door. The driver though had seen it all before and he held his coat against the glass protector and shut off the valve. He changed the glass while I looked out for the signals, then he opened the drain to run some water through before closing both cocks, job done. I knew what to do now, but luckily it never happened to me again.
In the other direction, The Middlewich branch had always been busy, with empty coal or slack trucks from Shotwick or Northwich, and fuel tanks from Ellesmere Port (Stanlow). It was a nice run with no really hard gradients. It was a single track to Sandbach where the Stoke traffic would join the main line through Sandbach station before branching off on another single line through Wheelock to Kidsgrove. (The line from Sandbach through Wheelock has been dismantled, but like so many other places the canal through the village, which is considerably older, is still in use.). We would then carry on through the old Harecastle tunnel at Kidsgrove and on into Stoke-On-Trent station where you usually got relief. It was quite normal in those days to take a light refreshment break over in the railway club, before reporting back to control for your return working.
The Silverdale empties used the same route until Sandbach, but then carried on down the main line through Crewe and on towards Stafford for about seven miles before turning right onto the branch line. There was no turning facility at the mine so the engine usually went tender first outward, returning engine first with the loaded trucks. On the branch line, you would have to run round the train and go engine first back over the top of the main line and on to the Silverdale Colliery. After a break, and a visit to the well-equipped miner's canteen, it's tender first with the loaded trucks to the main line junction, ready for the engine first run back to Northwich. We'd travel quite fast on the slow line, but we were frequently overtaken by the Main Line, Electric Flyers which, at that time, seemed to be travelling at amazing speeds.
Late 1967, and flower power is being knocked into place by Engelbert Humperdinck with his Last Waltz topping the charts for five weeks. I was eighteen and a fully qualified and experienced steam locomotive fireman, but there is a lot of dieselisation going on now and a lot of the jobs that we are relieving are turning up with a diesel locomotive on the front. There is also a decline in the condition of the steamers. It is quite common to get on an engine with water leaking from the tubes or steam escaping from the pistons. When the defects get too bad the engine is just withdrawn from service and replaced with one from a recently dieselised depot. Our lovely little Class 2 pilot engine has gone for scrap and has been replaced by a diesel shunter.
We have lost a lot of our work due to dieselisation and I'm put back into the shed link. It's a bit different on shed now with the amount of diesel locomotives about you don't get the same build up of jobs to be done, so it's taking longer for the driver to fill his work ticket. We still get away early, but nowhere near as much as before. The steamers are coming on shed now in a terrible state. We dispose of our engines properly, but we rarely bother to open the smoke boxes of foreign engines. Other sheds seem to be doing the same because when our own engines come back from other depots the smoke boxes are often full to the blast ring.
The end of February 1968 was the week of dieselisation at Northwich. It happened pretty quickly once it started. As the diesel locomotives arrived the steamers that they replaced had their connecting rods removed and stowed in the tenders. They were then lined up on the back road of the shed, awaiting disposal. In my opinion, the drivers generally accepted the change as progress, as if it were an improvement in their status. The firemen were not so happy, wondering if they had a future at the depot, or even in the industry. The shed men were reduced from two crews per shift to one, so at the end of the week, I moved back up into the now extended spare link.
I had been in the spare link over a month and it had been all diesel work. I hadn't been given a job and was sitting in the rest-room playing cards with some of the other lads. The foreman walked in and asked a driver to relieve a Runcorn train that was approaching the station. "Take him with you," he said and pointed to me. "It's a steamer, do you think he can still manage it?”
"If he can't then nobody can," came the reply.
This was quite a compliment and made me feel terrific and perhaps a little embarrassed, but not for long as I was up like a shot and eager to go.
We arrived on the footplate, it was a Class 8, and we set off for Runcorn. We were in no rush, the driver opened up a little from Hartford Junction to Weaver Junction, but other than that we just chugged along. We both knew that this would be our very last trip on a steam engine and we wanted to enjoy every minute.
There was a line of dead, Class 8, steam engines on the back road of the shed. They had all had their side rods removed, ready to be towed away for scrap. A Type 2 diesel was booked to take three of them: 48151, 48639, and 48421, to Crewe for storage awaiting disposal. I was put on the one at the rear to act as brake-man. The engines had started to rust and had been attacked by souvenir hunters. I had fired these engines many times and it was sad to see these once powerful machines in such a state. We set off for Crewe down the Middlewich branch line. It was strange to be sitting on a dead engine, my mind wandering back to happier working days. However, 48151 never reached the scrap furnaces, it was bought for preservation and can still be seen today hauling enthusiast specials (google: 48151).
Two weeks later I was booked on as brakeman again with three more Class 8 engines. We were to take them Tibshelf in Derbyshire, ultimately ending up for scrap at George Cohen of Kettering. These were the last of our steam engines to leave Northwich.
After Work. Another Bike.
Drinking beer and riding motorcycles is not a good combination. One Saturday afternoon I pulled up at the traffic lights in the Bull Ring on my way home. My brother was on the back and we had just finished a drinking session with some friends. There we sat, a couple of rough, tough young motorcyclists, dressed in white jeans, (a nightmare for our poor mother) and black leather jackets, mine heavily studded with a large star on the back; my brother's painted in a laurel leaf horseshoe pattern. We posed, me combing my hair, my brother calling out to the young female shoppers. When the lights changed to green we lifted our feet onto the footrests and the engine revved as I let the clutch out and tried to pull away, but the bike was not in gear and we just keeled over, much to the amusement of the young female shoppers.
The next time I was not so lucky. Riding home in the rain, from Mr Smith's club, at two in the morning. A rabbit ran out in front of me and then stopped as if frozen. The next thing I saw were the lights above the stretcher in the local hospital. My lips were badly swollen and there were stitches in them, there were some more stitches above my eyes, and more in my gums where my front teeth used to be. My James motorcycle was a wreck and I was to receive bills for the wreck truck and the ambulance.
One of the firemen was selling a motorbike, a 350cc BSA. The James motorbike was still in bits and I thought I'd like a bigger bike anyway, so I bought it. It was totally different to the James. Not very fast, you'd struggle to do 70mph, but it could tow a car. It had a monobloc carburettor fitted and a Gold Star silencer, but what I liked best was that the timing was slightly out. You could travel at 30mph, pull in the clutch, rev up the engine, and then completely shut off the throttle. A two-foot flame would shoot out of the exhaust pipe accompanied by an enormous bang. I must admit I enjoyed frightening the daylights out of many an unwary pedestrian.
One evening I was with my friend Stan and we decided to set off for a drink in in the neighbouring town of Winsford. We had just passed a local bar and I performed the old exhaust explosion on two young girls who were walking along the pavement. As our laughter died down towards the arches we noticed a car had run into the back of another. Two elderly men were arguing and it looked like they were about to come to blows. We laughed as we looked back at them. I looked forward again just as we hit the kerb. Stan finished up lying on the pavement and I was lying in the road with the bike on top of me. The faulty ignition timing as well as allowing the exhaust trick also caused the front of the exhaust to become very hot and it would glow a purple/blue colour. That was the bit that was resting on my leg. I couldn't move the bike, but Stan came over and pulled the thing off of me, still laughing of course, but I was not in the mood for laughing with the great golf ball sized blister on my leg. We changed our mind about Winsford and called across to The Bowling Green Pub instead, and I decided to retrieve my motorbike the following day.
I was on Wallerscote tripper with a Type 4 diesel. We were just approaching Hartford Junction (CLC) when I burst into song like I often did. "Yummy Yummy Yummy I got love in my tummy," was as far as I got. Ernie burst into hysterics. "Yummy Yummy Yummy, Bloody hell, Yummy Yummy Yummy." followed by laughter. That's all I got for the rest of the day. I always found this driver to be a funny man. I liked working with people like him during the diesel days. The light-hearted humour gave a bit of relief from the disappointing loss of an exciting and worthwhile career, replaced by a being a dummy almost, sitting in a diesel cab doing nothing all day. In theory, it could be said that the firemen were route learning for when they became drivers, but most firemen knew the routes quite well already. Looking out of the window at the scenery was pleasant for a little while, but it soon became repetitive and very tedious.
I never had any inclination to join the services, but I was sitting in the crew room reading the paper and there it was. A "Man On The Ground" advert. I filled in the coupon and sent it off. I knew that I would eventually be offered redundancy money, but I couldn't stand the boredom any longer and decided to go ahead and join the Royal Air Force.
When I received my interview appointment at Stoke on Trent, I told my parents. My Dad hit the roof. My Mother said it wasn’t such a bad thing and my Father replied with things like: if you saw some of your friends blown to pieces before your eyes, you might not think it such a good idea. I had never seen the ole man so angry. He had hardly ever spoken about the war, and when he did it was mainly things like keeping your shoes clean and eating potato peelings. I knew he arrived in Normandy with his twenty-five-pound field gun and went through France, Holland and into Germany as far as Bremen, but that was it. Anyway, when I set off for RAF Swinderby with my toothbrush, he had come round to the idea, a little.
I had just started dating Tish from Knutsford. A lovely and very classy girl that I met when me and Gordy began calling at the Cool Spot Coffee Bar in Knutsford town centre. Unfortunately, the relationship wasn't to last because I was already committed to joining the RAF. We had a few good times together and I was supposed to write to her from the RAF, but never did.
I worked my last second man duty on a small diesel shunter working a ballast train for the track maintenance gang at Greenbank. The next day I would be off to Lincolnshire, to start my military recruit training.