in it for the long haul

Pulling together Half a century ago, a group of railway enthusiasts came together to celebrate a Yorkshire institution, and they’re still going strong. Andrew Vine reports.

History will be all around them; they are meeting at the Cedar Court Grand Hotel, the opulence of which would come as a surprise to generations of its former occupants, who did, in their way, much to turn Yorkshire into one of the world’s industrial powerhouses, and not incidentally, bequeathed the county some of its most enduring landmarks.

The sense of occasion at the lunch will be a far cry from the first time this organisation gathered – a little way away at York’s Granby Lodge Hotel on March 4 1961 when a small group stumped up five bob each (or 2/6d for those entitled to concessions) and formed the North Eastern Railway Association.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Trains exert a grip on those who enthuse about them unrivalled by any other form of transport, and it’s testament to that undying enthusiasm that the association is gathering to celebrate its 50th anniversary, one of the oldest of its type in the country and the largest in the north, with its 750 members, 30 of whom are spread as far away as Australia and Canada.

The railway company it celebrates and studies was founded by George Leeman, whose statue still presides at the end of Leeman Road with his back to York Minster. It’s said that the figure was originally intended to be Geoge Hudson, the man who first brought the railway to York. But Hudson was found out as a con-man and it was his arch-emeny Leeman who took the plinth.

His NER ceased to exist as an independent entity in 1923, when it was absorbed into the London and North Eastern Railway and a golden age of train travel began, hauled by iconic locomotives designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, like Mallard and Flying Scotsman.

Yet the NER, which was incorporated in 1854, continues to leave its stamp on the 21st century. Without it, Yorkshire would not have the architectural gems that are York and Hull Paragon stations, the gateway to the world that was Hull docks, or indeed the Cedar Court Grand, which was its head office. Nor would the steel, coal and shipping wealth that did so much to build both Yorkshire’s fortunes and its urban landscapes have been realised without the NER and the smaller railway companies it absorbed.

It once ran nearly 5,000 miles of track, including the middle section of the East Coast main line and its shares were worth a staggering £82m. Its lines ran to places where trains are now a distant memory, bringing iron ore from the North York Moors to the foundries of the West Riding and effectively opening up the South Yorkshire coalfield.

It is an extraordinarily rich legacy, and one that is perhaps unappreciated by the hundreds of thousands who pass across the cast-iron footbridge in York Station that was installed by the NER, or hurry through the foyer past the signal post that served faithfully from the 19th century until 1984 and now stands as a monument to a visionary age. Elsewhere in the station, between platforms seven and eight, is a replica of the York Zero Post – the original fell victim to a Luftwaffe bomb – that marked the city as the centre of one of the most powerful, profitable and influential transport networks of its day.

The association continues to celebrate and study the NER, meeting regularly, touring the sites where its stations stood or its locomotives were built, noting the houses it put up. “There is something about railways that gets to you,” said its spokesman, retired photographer Ron Prattley, from Harrogate. “There isn’t an M1 preservation society, and a lot of people become very interested, from little boys wanting to be engine drivers and it just goes along. Our secretary comes all the way from Somerset. We’re always discovering things about the NER that we didn’t know.”

The history of the company has been chronicled in a series of books published by the association over the years, and it continues to publish a quarterly magazine, as well as maintaining a museum in Darlington filled with memorabilia, the legacy of two late founder members, Bob Hunter, former curator of York’s Railway Museum, and Ken Hoole.

Study by the association’s members isn’t just about the trains the NER ran. It was the first railway company in the world to appoint full-time salaried architects, men who designed enduring landmarks.

“We go on walking tours to look at the architecture that has been left behind,” said Mr Prattley, who joined the association 25 years ago. “If the councils or the tourist people ran architectural tours and discovered the richness of what’s been left behind, the Americans would be over in droves.

“I don’t think the public knows what the NER gave to this part of the world, and yet a lot of people are interested in railway heritage. Just look at all the people who go on the North York Moors Railways every year.

“It’s amazing what the NER did. The industrial development of Yorkshire would not have happened without it.”

Mr Prattley was bitten by the railway bug as a child, seeing trains run from Hessle to Anlaby. The line had been the cumbersomely-titled Hull, Barnsley and West Riding Junction and Railway and Dock Company – which nevertheless was emblazoned on the side of its rolling stock – and it effectively opened up Hull’s docks.

The H and B, as aficionados have it, was absorbed into the NER in 1922, but continues to exert a grip on the imagination in some unlikely places, with a model-maker in Denmark producing scale replicas of its locomotives.

It’s going to be a big year for the association, which will have model layouts of NER lines at the York Model Railway Exhibition at Knavesmire over Easter, followed by another show in North Shields in August, as well as events in York, London, Hull and Darlington. There will also be more books and pamphlets, as the association, looking back on its 50 years, looks forward as well.

“It’s wonderful that we’re still going,” said Mr Prattley. “A lot of us are getting on a bit, but we’re still fascinated by the NER. There’s always something more to learn.”