It was a chance conversation four years ago, while working as a volunteer on the Ripon Canal, that led to Sue Threadgold becoming a guard on the Wensleydale Railway.
“I said I quite fancied being a driver and he told me I would have to start lower down as a level crossing keeper.”
So she did just that, joining the railway as a volunteer and becoming a level crossing keeper. Then last summer, after completing her training, she qualified as a train guard on the Wensleydale Railway – the first female guard in its 171-year history.
Sue featured in the BBC TV series The Yorkshire Dales with Paul Rose, which was screened earlier this year, and still hopes to become a train driver on the line in the future. “That’s still my ambition, it just might take a few more years,” she says.
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Her background is in financial software but she has recently stepped back from full time work to spend more time with her elderly parents. Even so, she keeps up with her volunteering work on the canal and the railway, where she averages around three shifts a month. She’s also a former police special constable and works once a month at the Harrogate and Ripon Talking Newspaper, which helps visually impaired people.
Sue has found volunteering a hugely rewarding experience. “It’s like that old saying, if you want something doing then ask a busy person. I’ve always been on committees or been a treasurer or secretary of clubs I’ve been involved with. I enjoy doing different things, and volunteering is a great way of meeting new people and getting out into the community.”
She’s found that she’s learned new skills working on the railway, even helping when a boulder crashed onto the line following the floods a few weeks back. “I wasn’t interested in railways when I was younger, but it’s really rewarding – plus we’ve got some of the most scenic countryside on the Wensleydale line.”
The railway attracts around 40,000 visitors a year, mostly tourists. “Some people are real steam enthusiasts, but there’s a lot of people who like the diesel trains and then you get the mums and dads and grandparents with their children and grandchildren taking them for a day out because it’s holiday time, there’s a real mix of people.”
There’s pride, too, in being the first female guard on the line – though she’s quick to point out that she’s recently been joined by a second female guard. “It’s interesting because we’ve got a steam engine this month and there was a young girl here the other day and she was fascinated by the engine and the steam and hopefully by seeing me it will show her, and others, that girls can do these jobs and that there’s nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it.”
Sue is one of the 250 volunteers who help run Wensleydale Railway, a 22-mile heritage line that goes from Northallerton to Redmire. It’s certainly a picturesque line, passing through Bedale and Leyburn and taking in a landscape that stretches from the arable farmlands of the Vale of Mowbray in the east, to the verdant hills of the Dales in the west.
The charity-run railway is a not for profit organisation with all the money ploughed back in to pay for things like maintenance costs, repairs and wages (there are seven paid members of staff).
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Robert Carter is a trustee and has been a member of the Wensleydale Railway Association that runs the railway for the past 15 years. He’s a former army man and, like Sue, one of the volunteers.
This month, the railway has brought in a steam engine, which always pulls in the crowds, though as he points out, the diesel engines are no less historic. “The diesel engine that’s been running today was one of the first diesel engines designed. People sometimes think if it’s heritage then it’s got to be steam but that’s not true, some of the diesel engines are older than some of the steam engines.”
The carriages used on the Mark 1 and Mark 2 diesel trains date back to the 1950s and 60s and watching them trundle out of the station at Leeming Bar takes those of a certain age on a trip down memory lane.
However, finding volunteers with the skills to repair them is one of the constant challenges for those who run heritage railways like this. “They were built to a high standard using skilled joiners and carpenters, and the people who can repair them now are few and far between,” says Robert.
The volunteers work as everything from crossing keepers and guards, to those who run the buffet cars and drive the trains, says Helen Ashworth, the railway’s volunteer coordinator and lead fundraiser. And they come from all walks of life. “We have people who love trains and we have people who just love volunteering. Our cafe at Leyburn station is run by volunteers. The gentleman that runs it enjoys working there and it has nothing to do with what he did before he retired, and the woman loves baking. She makes all the cakes, so we’ve ended up with this fantastic homemade cake cafe and she just charges us for the ingredients. She has no interest in railways but wanted to get involved and help in her local community.”
Most of the volunteers are retired, but Helen says they’re actively trying to encourage more youngsters to get involved – with volunteers able to start training as travelling ticket inspectors from the age of 14.
“We had a volunteer who came through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award at the age of 14 and became a ticket inspector and then a guard. He went to university to do a related degree and is now the transport manager at Harrogate bus station and is one of our trustees. So coming here has ended up shaping his career and it shows you can engender a real passion in young people.”
The railway wouldn’t be able to operate without volunteers and they’re always on the lookout for new recruits, with each new person having to undergo PRS (personal rail safety) and health and safety training before they start.
Helen believes it’s a worthwhile experience. “The railway is run by volunteers, but it’s a bit of a myth that you have to be a train geek to volunteer here because we have a lot of people who aren’t. It’s about getting involved in your local community.”
It’s also about tapping into a sense of nostalgia and better understanding our past. “This railway is part of the history and heritage of the nation and it’s got stories to tell and we can learn from it.”
For more information go to https://www.wensleydalerail.com
To support the Wensleydale Railway or become a member go to www.wensleydalerailway.com/volunteering, or email the volunteer co-ordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org
A brief history of the Wensleydale Railway
The first section of the line, between Northallerton and Leeming Bar, opened in 1848, though the stretch between Leyburn and Garsdale wasn’t finished until 30 years later.
The branch was predominantly used for transporting farming produce and materials from local quarries, along with a few passengers. Regular passenger services came to an end in 1954 (a decade before Dr Beeching took his axe to the country’s rail network), with Bedale and Leyburn stations remaining open to accept freight and coal traffic.
By 1992, the line was under threat because it was deemed uneconomic and British Rail announced plans to close and sell off the line until The Ministry of Defence stepped in, using the branch for occasional transport of military vehicles.
The Wensleydale Railway Association was formed in 1990 and set up a company to operate the line and run services from Northallerton to Redmire. The Wensleydale Railway plc began operating services in 2003 initially between Leeming Bar and Leyburn and expanded this service the following year to Redmire.