South Tynedale Railway

“There is a steam train-line not far from here,” my husband says, his eyes alight with anticipation, and I refrain from telling him that there is a steam train-line not far from any where in Britain.

Because he already knows. He knows so much more about trains than I will ever want to learn, so I swallow my smart ass reply and give him my most indulgent smile instead. I take a deep breath and prepare myself to enjoy reliving the harrowing moments that many people start their days with to get to the office–riding an expensive train that arrives late and is packed with unruly kids and bad-tempered adults. Only this time, because I am so loved, I shall have the privilege of going through this magical experience in slow-freaking-motion.

As a  bonus, we'll also be in the same place we were when we alight.

As a bonus,  instead of arriving somewhere else after the journey, we’ll also alight in the same place we started.

This is what it means to be married to a railway man, and not just to another guy who happens to work in the railway industry. My husband sees the whole experience in a different light. His excitement isn’t that of a yo-yo dieter, unable to suppress a spurt of wary optimism that says this time will be different. He knows it won’t be. But that is the “fun” of it.



If I were married to anyone else, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the important role that transport plays in all kinds of civilization, or be as appalled at the utter, utter mess that we have made of a system that was invented to make things more convenient for the ones who are supposed to use it. It all starts here, with the trains. Oh, and this:

The Beeching Report, published in 1963.

The Beeching Report, published in 1963.

Like most other steam train-lines, The South Tynedale Railway in Alston exists as it does today because, at some point, the ones in charge decided that the train industry wouldn’t be efficient enough against the road transport industry unless some of the least-used railway lines were shut down.  Jack the Ripper might have agreed to that, and then he’ll add, “The fight against the sex industry won’t be efficient unless we butcher a few prostitutes.”

Let me be clear here: I am not saying Dr. Beeching is like Jack the Ripper.  The railway closures may have been nicknamed The Beeching Axe, but he didn’t butcher anyone. He only destroyed some livelihoods that the bus replacement services were unable to restore. That’s what happens when things that are supposed to be available for all in a society that promotes equality, like the mobility transport provides or even medical services that keep us alive, are run for financial gain.  When the chosen 4,000 route miles were closed (around a third of the whole network), the commerce for the communities those lines served suffered, and no less than 70,000 railway jobs were cut.

"...It was surgery, not mad chopping." - Dr. Richard Beeting (1913-1985)

“…It was surgery, not mad chopping.”
– Dr. Richard Beeching (1913-1985)

Maybe Dr. Beeching saw that the railways would be privatized in a few decades, and no one would be able to afford train tickets then, so we might as well start to learn to do without them. Those in charge were just preparing us for the future, as any good government should. It has nothing to do with the fact that the government that commissioned his report had strong ties to the road construction lobby and the administrations that implemented privatization received funds from people with ties to road construction associations.

The closures were, and still are, controversial. But this is a country where instead of staging a military coup, people simply opted to vote for a different government to establish a welfare state after World War II, and then carried on drinking tea with milk. Where events like railway closures would prompt bloody protests in some countries, in Britain it gives people the urge to volunteer dressing up as Victorian railwaymen and running the lines themselves.

It took years of marriage for me to understand that places like The South Tynedale Railway are not merely some tribute to Britain’s golden age of steam; some wistful determination to hold on to the glory days. For one thing, in here passengers sit in the same class carriages. Members of staff actually mean it when they say they’re sorry if a service is delayed, and I’d bet you won’t find such cheerful ticket issuing officers from any century. 

These places represent a very British form of defiance, run and staffed entirely by enthusiastic volunteers who spend their free time driving trains they’ve rescued from some shed. In here, trains are more than just vehicles for the goals of profit-driven CEOs. It’s a demonstration to equally enthusiastic families how Britons would like railways to be run.

I will probably never enjoy these places like my husband does, but I see where he’s coming from. And as long as he keeps buying me ice cream after the journey, I’ll do my best to keep the smart assery to a minimum.

south tynedale railway ivory


The Old Operating Theatre

Located in the attic of an English Baroque Church, not far from London Bridge Station, is Britain’s only surviving 19th century operating room. The patients here were all women and they were all poor. You get a sense of going through a time portal as soon as you try to negotiate the steep and narrow spiral staircase that leads to the entrance.

Here be dragons.

Here be dragons.

Adding to the feeling of time travel is the price of admission. If you’re in the area and have £10, you’d be able to visit this place, and still have enough left for a pint afterwards–in case you feel a need to “take the edge off.”

This is what separates the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett from other medical museums.  Yes, you’ll find the usual rusty medical tools, jars filled with preserved entrails and fetuses that are so common in other venues dedicated to the history of medicine. But it’s more than just a sterile, commercial environment to satisfy the public’s morbid curiosity for what most would describe as barbarous medical practices in the days before the concept  of sanitation became synonymous with the term “hospital.”

It makes no excuses for its odd location in the attic of a church. It is what it is, standing where it has stood since 1822, and it’s not going to change just to cater for your 21st century sensibilities. It’s  almost as if it’s saying you have no business being here if you are not aware that St. Thomas’ Church used to be connected to the old St. Thomas’ Hospital, so of course it makes sense this place was rediscovered here, largely undisturbed after a century of somnolence, where time stood still while the outside world was too busy in its relentless pursuit of “progress”  to notice it. It looks exactly like it did before its closure in 1862.

The Herb Garret.

The Herb Garret.

The entrance leads to the herb garret, and immediately, scents you’d associate with an 1800s apothecary assail you. Dried herbs hang from the beams and the floorboards creak in protest with your every stride. There are recipes for known “all-around cures” such as snailwater and laudanum. You expect to see a bearded man sporting a pipe and a waistcoat to appear, looking offended by your trousers and suggest your malady can be cured by a bit of bleeding, and assure you that he has just the freshest leeches for the job.

Only the threat of being sent to Bedlam stops you from demanding the man keep his filthy hands to himself, to point out that there will come a time when both poor and rich people have equal access to the same quality of medical facilities and services. Of course, you don’t specify when such a ludicrous thing would happen, since you haven’t seen it happen in your own lifetime either. Perhaps you should be sent to Bedlam, after all.

The museum is a place where you can scoff at 19th century atrocities that are so prevalent in the modern world, we’ve become numb to it. This is the place where grim things happened, not just a tribute or reminder of it.

The Old Operating Theatre, picture taken a few years ago. For me, it's also a reminder to refrain from indulging too much in fried chicken.

The Old Operating Theatre, picture taken a few years ago. For me, it’s also a reminder to refrain from indulging too much in fried chicken.

It’s a given that the medical world today is more advanced than the crude practices of the 1800s, when students watched from the stands in a crowded room to observe an operation taking place. These days, at least the students can observe and giggle about the procedure in a separate room. Perhaps one of the medical students would even look like that girl from Grey’s Anatomy, so we can’t be too offended when they start flirting with Dr. McDreamy as you lie exposed to the world.

It’s hard to imagine that in the days before disinfectant and antibiotics, a poor person could be treated by some of the best surgeons of the day (many of them pioneers in their field), for free, as long as they agree to being observed by students. No, the operation does not happen in a plush private kitchen, but you can’t expect luxury treatment from the NHS, either. You do get treated, though. We’re able to cure more diseases now, but being turned away from the ER because you have no health insurance is not unheard of.

Back then, there was no concept of germs and sanitation, so many people died of infection rather than the initial injuries that caused them to be present in the operating room in the first place. With the advent of disinfectants, I’m certain there is no possibility that any in-patients would get worse because of an infectious and undetected virus spreading in the hospital any more. And with the discovery of penicillin, no one relies on medicinal herbs or alternative therapy any more, either.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is also associated with this place. Most people know her as the one who popularised hygiene in medical practices and her nursing school, which elevated the reputation of women as nurses, was in St. Thomas’ Hospital. Because of her, it’s now acceptable for a woman to be a practising nurse, with qualifications as valid as any male nurse, and no one is going to claim their sex is the reason they’re incompetent or that they’re stealing the men’s jobs, not aloud anyway. It’s political correctness gone mad. She might not have known it then, but without Florence Nightingale, the sexy nurse costumes that have become a staple for Halloween would not even exist.

Thanks, Florence!

Thanks, Florence!

I won’t say anything about “bonking someone in the head” as a form of anaesthesia, though. Like leaving scissors in someone’s stomach, some things are just indefensible.


Hartside Pass

Standing proud at 1,904 feet above sea level, the sign at Hartside Summit proclaims that this section of A686 is called Hartside Pass. It ascends from Cumbria’s Eden Valley and according to AA Magazine, it’s one of the top ten drives in the world. With a steep gradient and notorious bends it provides a zigzagging  journey to the heart of the North Pennines. From this viewpoint, you can see across the Solway Firth and straight to Scotland. No matter where you look, you’ll be greeted by magnificent views of barren, windswept fells and big skies, as well as rolling fields dotted with grazing cattle and contented sheep.



I am “Zenned.”

Hartside Pass is within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and as I sat on that wooden bench to contemplate the scenery I found myself agreeing with the smug claim. It’s no wonder so many poets and writers found their inspiration with the landscape in this part of the country. It is so peaceful and isolated that it’s hard to imagine people ever went up there for anything other than serenity and maybe to clear the voices in their head and put everything back into perspective. But as I look out from the summit’s viewpoint, what really impresses me about Hartside Pass is that it’s associated with this guy:

John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836)

McAdam was born in Ayr, Scotland and the word “tarmac” is named after him (for Tar McAdam) to honor his contribution to the field of road construction.  He is credited for designing the world’s first modern roads. McAdam was an engineer involved in the colliery and ironworks business. Sometime in the 1820s he was tasked by the Alston Turnpike Trust to build Hartside Pass to provide an efficient means of transporting products of the mining companies operating in the area. According to Craig David, McAdam

“discovered that massive foundations of rock upon rock were unnecessary, and asserted that native soil alone would support the road and traffic upon it, as long as it was covered by a road crust that would protect the soil underneath from water and wear.”

The method made roads a lot cheaper to build. There was still a need for surveying routes, but the actual labor could be performed by unskilled locals who’ll work for a pittance during their free time–when they are not working at the mines. Just see these charming guys here, lovingly and not at all condescendingly depicted bearing their exploitation with a grateful smile:


I bet they loved this.

Hartside is near the border between England and Scotland. Transport was difficult, unimproved until the 17th century because of the unstable relationship between the two countries, plus there were the border reivers.

So McAdam, a younger son of an impoverished baron, was responsible for the greatest advancement in road construction methods since the Roman times. The “macadam” principle is still utilized today for road maintenance, mostly with asphalting. Considering the unremitting rugged condition of the Pennines, Hartside Pass is a remarkable human achievement.

McAdam was undoubtedly a brilliant man, but as I look around from my spot at the summit to take in the harsh and poetic scenery, my thoughts are occupied by the  anonymous villagers depicted on the viewpoint sign. Their names are lost in history, their lives remain mostly untold, but the road they built is still here. I doubt they made much money for all their toil, but I give them a silent thanks before making my equally unnoticed but infinitely less significant journey back home.