A new documentary will give television viewers a glimpse behind the scenes of one of Yorkshire’s most-loved tourist attractions. Sarah Freeman meets the stars of the show. Main picture by Graham Staples.
Paul Middleton reckons he might just have the best office in the world. While his daily cup of coffee may regularly contain a heaped teaspoonful of soot and his workplace may be devoid of anything easily described as luxurious, he could be right. As engine shed manager on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Paul, known to his friends and colleagues as Piglet, has a view from his desk along an 18 mile stretch of some of the most picturesque landscapes in the county.
Middleton joined the heritage railway, which runs steam trains from Pickering to the coast at Whitby, 20 years ago as a paid apprentice and is now part of the fixtures and fitting.
“This is all I’ve ever done since the day I left school and my mum told me, ‘Right you best go find yourself a job’,” he says. “The engines don’t look after themselves. You need to maintain them day after day to keep these girls running, but this place is not just what I do for a living it’s part of who I am.”
During last season, a documentary crew were among the thousands to board one of the NYMR trains. The aim was to show what it takes to run Britain’s busiest steam railway and they followed the staff behind the scenes as they marked the line’s 50th anniversary. The series is now being shown on Channel 5 and, by the time the credits roll, Middleton is likely to have earned himself a few fans. So too will Chris Price.
As general manager of the NYMR it’s his job to ensure that during the months it is open each year it earns the £7m needed to pay the annual maintenance and staffing bills.
“It is a very expensive thing to run and the gap between success and failure is very fine,” says Price. “The truth is with something like this you are always walking a knife edge.
“That was why for the line’s 50th anniversary last year we hired the Royal Scot. At £2,000 a day it wasn’t cheap, but we need to give visitors a reason to keep coming back.
“You have to remind yourself that not many people get the opportunity to see something like the Royal Scot as part of their day job and it is a privilege to do this for a living. It can be easy to get stuck in the office but sometimes you have to make sure you go down to the platform and get up close to these beautiful engines because that’s what makes you happy.”
One of the county’s leading tourist attractions, 350,000 travel on the NYMR each year and it is kept running by more than 1,000 volunteers and almost 100 paid staff. One of those keeping the wheels turning on the line, which first opened for business in 1836, is Kieran Murray, who admits that the railway has given him more than just a salary. “I was a bit of a tearaway when I was young, but when I was 13 years old I came here on a placement,” says the 28 year-old. “The education system at school didn’t work for me. I needed something that was more hands-on. Then the railway offered me a paid apprenticeship as a carriage fitter. I never looked back. It’s good that we are recreating the past so we can show people what it was like.
“I would love to have been alive back then. In fact I sometimes I think I was born in the wrong period.”
While the line fell victim to Dr Beeching’s axe, the revived railway was reopened by the Duchess of Kent on May 1, 1973. Its rebirth was the result of years of wrangling with British Rail and a fundraising effort which continues today.
The All Aboard the Yorkshire Express shows the ups and downs of a season and shines a spotlight on the line’s unsung heroes. There’s Gill Brown, who runs the unashamedly traditional Pullman dining service in carriages from the 1950s and 60s, there are the two teenage brothers Edward and Matthew Rose, both ticket collectors and self-confessed train obsessives and, perhaps best of of all, there is Bert Blower.
At 82, he is one of the oldest volunteers on the NYMR and, as the film crew follow him welcoming the passengers on board, it’s clear that he gets even more out of his job than he puts in.
“I grew up in London and used to watch the trains coming out of King’s Cross,” he says, proudly showing off his first ever trainspotting journal which dates back to 1948.
“Now I’m working here as a ticket inspector it takes me back to being a little boy just playing at trains and all I want is for the people who come here to have a lovely time.
“The whistle I blow belonged to my father who was a football referee.
“It has special memories for me and so does this place.”
All Aboard the Yorkshire Express is on Channel 5 on March 9 and 16.