Albert Brown - The Ironstone

The Highdyke Branch

About 5 miles south of Grantham on the East Coast Main Line lies Stoke Tunnel. Near the mouth of the tunnel is a collection of sidings, a water tower, an office and a signal box named Highdyke. From here ran a single line branch, up hill and down dale across the country to various ironstone pits that littered the countryside in this part of the world. Wagons full of stone would be brought down and stored in sidings forming trains of ironstone that would leave Highdyke each day for the iron and steel works at Scunthorpe.

Since leaving school I had been working in the Signal and Telegraph department of the railway but in October 1945 I transferred to the Loco. Dept. as an engine cleaner but was soon made into a passed cleaner or spare fireman which meant I could be used as a fireman as and when required. So it was that very often I would obtain a week`s work up on the Highdyke branch and soon became used to the unique way of working on this branch.

For the sake of safety only one engine at a time could work along this or any other single line and to do this the driver had to be in possession of a token giving him permission. At Highdyke and Colsterworth were two identical machines containing large brass discs each cut with holes and slots so that each could only fit into these machines. The two signal men would exchange messages and the one at Colsterworth would press a button which would release a token at Highdyke. This token would be fastened into a leather pouch which had a large wire loop covered with leather and handed the driver who could now set off for Colsterworth.

Colsterworth was set at the bottom of a valley with steep gradients on either side. So it was that Colsterworth was always called `The Hole`. There were two pits here one on either side of the line. The engines in use at this tine were not strong enough to pull a train of stone out of the sidings and up the hill towards the Highdyke. They went as far as they could until the engine stalled, and then they looked back. When they saw that the signalman had altered the points and the guard was waving for the train to come back, they set off in reverse and charge back past the signal box and up the hill the other side to a position roughly at the back of the council houses. Once again they set off at full speed down past the box and up the other side on the return journey.

If the journey was to be further on, i.e.Stainby or Sproxton, a different system had to be employed regarding exchanging tokens at `The ole` HHnkpp4oihuHole`. This had to be achieved at a certain speed, relying on the expertise of the fireman. Outside the box at Colsterworth were two wooden posts painted white. The first had a metal post sticking out towards the line but then it bent at 900 towards the oncoming train. The second post had a spring clip to which the signalman had attached the leather pouch containing a token giving permission to proceed to Skillington Road signal box. This had a large leather-covered wire loop sticking out ready to be caught in passing. Dropping down the bank, the driver was holding the train back with the brake. Somewhere about the Great North Road bridge, the fireman holding the leather pouch with the token would climb out onto the narrow footplate alongside the cab. Judging the speed and his ability and hanging on to the cab side he would yell to the driver RIGHT! LET HER GO! The driver would release the brake and, gathering speed, he would stand there with his hand on the regulator. He watched his fireman as he leaned right out, ready to hook the token`s loop over the first post and, one second later, he hooked his arm out to catch the waiting loop of the second token. Seeing he had successfully caught it the regulator was opened fully to charge up the bank past Huckerby`s crossing, over the top and on towards Skillington Road.

Here was a crossing of the Skillington to Stainby Road where the train would pause for the exchange tokens. Past the box were some sidings which were used as spares. At the end was the junction leading round the bend towards Stainby and the end of the line in that direction or straight on to Sproxton. Dropping down into a valley one came across the old sidings at Cringle. Here the fireman would drop off and enter a wooden hut. He would drop the token staff into a metal box and operate a switch. He would then take out a metal key which would enable the guard to unlock the points at the sidings at Sproxton. Proceeding from here we would start to climb a bank until we encountered a level crossing with gates. This was a crossing over a green lane called Sewstern Lane. To save the driver from stopping, the fireman would drop off and, running ahead, would quickly open the gates and climb back on board as the train passed through. We looked back for the guard as he dropped off and closed the gates again before climbing back into his van. This was as it should be but some guards would break the rules and leave the gates until we came back. However, should a rifer come along and fins the way blocked the fur would fly! Complaints to the railway would result in letters and then the guard could well be carpeted. Over the top and in a while another level crossing would be encountered. This was a public road from Skillington to Sproxton with occasional traffic. The fireman once more dropped off and, running ahead, opened the gates providing no traffic was in sight. Passing through, the fireman regained the footplate and looking back ensured the guard had regained his brake van. Further on the train would drop down an incline and into the yard at Sproxton.

The empty wagons would be left in one siding while the engine ran round and was placed on a line of full wagons ready for the return journey. On the way back the two crossings were dealt with by the fireman and guard as before. At Cringle the fireman again exchange the tokens before climbing the bank to the junction. The driver slowly moved down to the Skillington Road signal box where the token were handed over. Once the way was cleared the gates would be opened and the signals lowered and so we slowly headed for Colsterworth. Going down the steep incline the engine was kept under control until the fireman repeated his dangerous exploits. The train would set off at full power back to Highdyke until we arrived at the top of the bank at the outskirts at the end of the line. Here we would stop just over the top whilst the guard came forward and pinned down half of the wagons` brakes so as to help the driver keep control whilst descending into the yard. Once again, the train would eventually be backed into the sidings to form another train ready for the trip to Scunthorpe.

The day`s work usually consisted of three trips and I worked for two years on this and other trains until 1947 when I was called up into the R.A.F. I received a letter eventually stating that the L.N.E.R. had ceased to exist and I was now included in the British Railway. Later on I was informed that, due to my seniority, I was to be given a place on the main roster and so I was now a regular fireman.

On demob I returned to the railway taking my place in the goods link. In time I rose to the local passenger link and so on and up until I finally became a main line fireman on the big expresses. After four years there, in 1960, I finally had letters to attend examinations in the duties of a driver which I passed and became a passed fireman. This meant leaving the main line and working back in the loco. department as a fireman but available as a driver as and when required. This could mean chucking out fires one day to driving a train to somewhere the next. Thus it happened that some days I was back up the Highdyke Branch but this time I was the driver!

How things had altered; now they used larger and more powerful engines. These could pull a train of stone right out of `The Hole` and up the bank and away. No more see-sawing to get up the hill. If it was a through trip there was an automatic changer fitted to the side of the tender so no more suicide antics from the fireman. All the fun had gone! What would Health and Safety at Work have done about it these days?

There had been other changes along the line. For instance near the crossing at Burton Lane, deep beds had been discovered and underground pits had been dug. These came to the surface in three tunnels, each at different angles depending on the depths. Here a diesel-engined vehicle brought stone to the surface and tipped it into the wagons.

Another change had come about on the way where the crossing on the Sproxton / Skillington Road lay. Here a new siding had been installed with a ramp at the side where a lorry could bring stone and tip the contents into a waiting truck.

There were other pits around the countryside, some narrow gauge and some standard. These were not connected to our line so I cannot comment on their workings.

Eventually it was discovered that high quality iron ore could be bought from abroad at the cheaper rate than the home variety and so the pits were closed which brought about the end of the Highdyke branch.