Take a look behind the scenes at the North Yorkshire Moors Railway

Arriving in Grosmont is, to borrow a well-worn phrase, like stepping back in time.

Tucked away in the verdant Esk Valley, this peaceful village with its quaint cottages and traditional grocery store harks back to a more genteel, less uncertain world. But it wasn’t always like this. Rewind to the 19th century and the village was a hive of industry. The landscape was pockmarked with industrial chimneys and furnaces that belched out plumes of black smoke skywards.

Its prominence at that time was due to the discovery of ironstone in 1836, when George Stephenson’s original railway from Whitby to Pickering was being built.

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Today, the ironstone works may have gone, but the railway remains.

Engine driver Charlie Wood, 78, is one of the volunteers. (James Hardisty).

Grosmont Station is the engineering heart of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (NYMR), and a short walk from the village takes you to the old horse tunnel which leads to the engine house where the railway’s steam and diesel locomotives are maintained and repaired.

The NYMR is the UK’s most popular heritage railway and requires significant manpower behind the scenes to keep the trains looking spick and span.

Its season usually starts at Easter and runs until the end of October. But this year, of course, it’s all been very different.

When I visited the engine sheds earlier this year before the pandemic struck, I was shown around the inner sanctum of this Aladdin’s Cave for train lovers.

One of the volunteers, Ian Cook, working on a locomotive in the engine shed. (James Hardisty).

There are around 30 paid members of staff, all engineers, based at the shed, plus numerous volunteers who help the fitters. The volunteers come from all kinds of backgrounds. “During the week it tends to be retired engineers, but we also have school teachers and quite a few younger lads and lasses at weekends,” says Barney Casey, who is in charge of the day-to-day running of the shed.

They have 10 locomotives based at the shed and during the winter months is when the bulk of the maintenance work is carried out. “It’s a bit like an MOT and service, just on a much bigger scale,” says Barney.

There is something about steam engines, a combination of engineering awe and nostalgia, that still captivates people in a way perhaps only the fabled aircraft of the Second World War can match.

Barry Nesom, from Pickering, is in his mid-60s and started volunteering back in 2004 having worked as an engineer in the oil and gas industry.

Josh Smith came through the volunteer programme scheme. (James Hardisty).

“I saw an advert in a local paper calling for volunteers so thought I’d go and have a look and when I came in I thought, ‘I can do this’ and I couldn’t wait to finish work so I could spend more time here.”

Before lockdown he worked two days a week in the machine shop. “I used to make a lot of hi-tech things and never knew what they were for. Here I see it, make it and then there’s the satisfaction of seeing it working,” he says. “I do what I used to get paid for and now it costs me money to get here, but I don’t mind because I really enjoy it.”

Unlike some of the volunteers, Barry wasn’t a train buff growing up. “I have a bit of a laugh with some of the lads. I’ll say to them, ‘what am I working on today? A big green one, or a big black one?’”

He has grown to admire the craftsmanship and beauty of what are remarkable pieces of engineering. “What a lot of people don’t realise is the amount of work that went into making these locomotives and now what it takes to keep them running.”

Some of the volunteers who work for NYMR. (James Hardisty).

Many of the paid members of staff, like boilersmith Paul Whickham, started out as volunteers. Originally from Kent, he worked in the hospitality industry before retraining and has worked as a paid member of staff at the engine shed for the past seven years. “I blame my dad,” he says. “He was into railways and we came up here on holiday in 1993 and I liked the area, liked the railway and started volunteering and moved up to Yorkshire.”

For people like Paul it’s a labour of love. “No two days are the same and you’re working on unique pieces of machinery, they don’t make things like this any more. You can’t go to a supplier and get a boiler for a West Country [locomotive]. You’ve got to make it, so it’s all very bespoke.”

Heritage railways depend on skills being passed on from one generation to the next and you might assume that younger generations are more interested in their smartphones than the mechanics of a 500-ton locomotive, but you would be wrong. The NYMR has a popular apprenticeship scheme and numerous junior volunteers (there’s even a waiting list for the latter).

Josh Smith is among those who came through the volunteer programme. He’s a diesel fitter who also works on the steam engines. He started in 2009 as a junior volunteer at the age of 13 and four years later was taken on as an apprentice. He has been a paid member of the team since then. “You learn all sorts of engineering skills and it’s very hands on. It’s different to what you often see in the modern world, and I like that.”

Charlie Wood is a volunteer train driver and, at 78, one of the oldest volunteers. He has been involved for the past 20 years since retiring as an electrical engineer. For Charlie, working here is a chance to relive a boyhood dream. “As a youngster I was really keen on steam engines because they were running when I was a lad.”

Within two-and-a-half years of starting as a volunteer, and having gone through the rigorous training programme, he was driving a steam engine. “These things talk to you,” he says, gently tapping the cab. “You drive them with your ears, the seat of your pants and the sole of your feet. You get a feel for them and each one is different, and some of them are different on different days,” he says, with a chuckle.

He lives in Guisborough, but some volunteers travel much further. “We have two drivers that live in the Netherlands. They come across on the ferry to Hull and they’ll come for five or six weeks and use their annual holidays, and we’ve got people who come up from Cornwall,” says Charlie.

“It’s a privilege to be able to drive them. When you think of the rarity of the machine and the actual mechanical workings of them, they’re incredible really.

“When we’re going down to Whitby on a lovely day it’s just marvellous, and sometimes I’ve still got to pinch myself that I’m driving a steam engine on network rail as a volunteer.”

To support the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, or to pre-book a visit go to www.nymr.co.uk

Public rallies to support the railway

The North York Moors Historical Railway Trust is a not-for-profit charitable organisation. The charity operates its train services through a core team, along with 100 full-time staff and 50 seasonal staff, and more than 550 volunteers.

Through its Crisis Appeal, launched in the wake of the pandemic, and the support of its members and supporters, the NYMR has raised over £400,000 in donations, which has helped to secure the future of the railway.

Having been closed during the summer it reopened last month having introduced a number of social distancing measures and additional cleaning regimes, and then started its new service – the Optimist – which runs non-stop from Pickering to Whitby.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson