Riding on Lancashire's last steam trains

John Fletcher was one of the last railwaymen of the steam era in Lancashire. His new autobiography charts what life was like on the footplate, riding the rails of the Red Rose county

Friday, 9th March 2018, 5:15 pm
Updated Friday, 9th March 2018, 5:25 pm
Fireman John Fletcher, left, and driver Clifford Nelson relaxing on the rails outside Morecambe during a delay in services

Back when steam locomotives roamed the earth, a future lifelong railwayman came into the world in 1946 in Preston.

We lived in a small terraced house in River Street, off Bow Lane, within sight and sounds of the West Coast Main Line and the important junction station of Preston, with its extensive 13 platforms.

In those days very few people owned a car, they travelled by bike, bus or train and, with Preston station covering services to East Lancashire, Manchester,

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Driver Clifford Nelson, left, and fireman John Fletcher ready to set off

Liverpool, Blackpool, Windermere, London and Glasgow, it was a trainspotter’s paradise.

My first Ian Allen spotters book (which I still have) was bought from the Discount Book Shop in Church Street, next to the Parish Church. At the bottom end of Church Street was another shop, Harry Welch the ‘Railway Modellers Mecca’, which had a coin operated model railway in the side window.

I spent most of my pocket money at this shop run by Jack Watson. I earned this from my paper round at Lawrensons shop and helping the milkmen at Preston Dairies, both situated near to my school, Christ Church in Bow Lane. My childhood was one of happiness in 1950s Preston and looking back on those days I feel fortunate to have been brought up in a generation where most people had little of monetary value, but a mixture of discipline, love and respect did exist in most working class households.

At school I became the proud captain of the football team so a further visit to Church Street ensued to purchase sports wear from the shop run by Preston North End and Scotland international full back Willie Cunningham. When talking to Willie about the game I hung on to his every word, after all, he played with England’s finest ever footballer, Sir Tom Finney.

Preston railway station in the age of steam

Willie once told me that Sir Tom could talk about football all day long and yet would never mention himself. I saw him play numerous times at Deepdale but the nearest I got to playing with Finney was against his son, Brian, in the Preston and District league!

Trainspotting became my real interest and, along with some school mates, we could be found on Pitt Street wall or the glass bridge at Preston station, some weekends we would cycle to steam depots in the Lancashire area including Blackpool South depot to cop the fastest steam engine in the world, 60022 Mallard, where it had worked in with a special from Yorkshire. I suppose that I did have an added advantage with locomotive working over my trainspotting chums in that a close member of our family was actually a steam engine driver based at Lostock Hall engine sheds.

He was my dad’s brother, Bob Fletcher, or Uncle Bob to us. He would visit about once a month, he and my father would cut each other’s hair, then,

after dinner, off out they went for a few pints into town at the Railway Hotel in Butler Street where well known Cockney landlord and jazz enthusiast Wally Wallen presided over events.

Driver Clifford Nelson and fireman John Fletcher at Oubeck loop, Lancaster

My dad once asked him what was his favourite music. “The bleeding bell ringing on that till,” he replied.

I suppose Uncle Bob had been glad to get out of the house after being bombarded with questions from me all afternoon about what engines he had been on and to where he worked them to.

But I did become the envy of all my trainspotting mates when he took my father and me on a footplate trip on an ex-L&Y 2-4-2 tank to Todmorden, convincing me of what I probably already knew that the footplate was going to be the life for me when I left school.

In February 1962 my years of dreaming became a reality when I began my railway career at 24C Lostock Hall depot on the bottom rung of the ladder as an engine cleaner with clock number 287.

John Fletcher at the railyard in Lostock Hall

It was a case of being in the right place at the right time as, in some areas of the country, steam had been superseded but not here in the North, where steam still ruled supreme, and I was going to be part of it.

This country invented the steam locomotive and we were the last generation of steam footplate men. The depot had just amalgamated with Preston Motive Power Depot after the disastrous fire there, when sparks from a steam engine inside the shed set fire to the wooden roof, destroying the building. Consequently our depot became awash with scores of different classes of locomotives, ranging from shunting engines to the very biggest of express passenger engines.

I soon passed my exams as a fireman and, during the next seven years, it was steam all the way which saw me accumulate more than 1,600 main line footplate turns and graduate to

become one of the senior firemen at the depot.

Such was my enthusiasm for the job that the only thing I looked forward to after finishing work for the day was the alarm going off for the next shift. I would pester the foreman to roster me on express passenger jobs, for I loved the thrill of the footplate of a giant steam locomotive travelling at speed.

Some of them were rough riding machines throwing you about in the cab. It took years of experience to master the firing techniques and keeping your balance on these bucking broncos.

Driver Clifford Nelson, left, and fireman John Fletcher ready to set off

The term wooden seats and iron men was an oft-used phrase to describe the men of steam. Fog was one of our biggest enemies. We had no electric head lights, everything was paraffin with just a small lamp on the footplate to illuminate the boiler water level. In winter, steam engines were draughty and cold, in the summer they were so hot they were like a mobile Atkins diet.

We washed ourselves in a fire bucket and cooked our meals on the firing shovel, about the only perk of the job was that once we were away from the depot with the

engine we were our own bosses out on the iron road.

Fortunately for me, the railways of my generation seemed to attract a whole host of interesting and amusing characters to perform the many now obsolete manual jobs in existence.

All too soon steam came to an end on British railways and, in 1968, the depot closed with Lostock Hall turning off the very last steam locomotive, Britannia Pacific, 70013 Oliver Cromwell, on August 11. We all transferred to Preston and a life on the dreary diesel locomotives.

I stayed on the railways until electrification was completed on the West Coast main line in 1974, the electric locomotive having no appeal to me whatsoever and the sight of those beautiful Westmorland Fells obliterated by the ‘Chicken Mesh’ (overhead wires) finally convinced me that my time was up.

But my youngest son decided upon a railway career and he drives trains out of Birmingham New Street. Running a successful family business with my other two sons, Wayne and Paul, ate up all my time before discovering the world of preserved railways in 1982.

The family went for a day out to the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. We were looking at the steam engine in Pickering station when the driver spoke to me asking: “Is that you Fletch?”

It turned out to be an ex-Lostock Hall driver, Brian Snape, who worked full time for the railway.

I rode with him on the footplate doing the firing and so began my 36 year association with the railway becoming a driver and finally a footplate inspector. We eventually moved to ‘Heartbeat’ country in Grosmont where I run the fund-raising shop at the engine sheds.

Then in 1998 I joined West Coast Railways, firing steam engines on the main line again some 30 years after BR finished with them. During the next 15 years I fired every main line registered steam locomotive all over the country, including Great Western Kings, Castles and Halls, Southern Bulleid Pacifics , Lord Nelson, Sir Lamiel, LMS Duchess & Princess Royal Class, 5XP Jubilee’s, Royal Scots, Black Fives, LNER A4’s A2, A3, A1, B1, K1, K4 plus appearing in the Harry Potter films firing Hogwarts Express.

* Signed copies of John Fletcher’s book ‘Tales of the Rails’ are available priced £25 plus £4 p&p available from: John Fletcher, NYMR Shed Shop, Grosmont, Whitby. North Yorkshire YO22 5QN. Tel: 01947 895682. Email: [email protected] or from Judith Sullivan on 01772 747488.

Preston railway station in the age of steam
Driver Clifford Nelson and fireman John Fletcher at Oubeck loop, Lancaster
John Fletcher at the railyard in Lostock Hall