“I felt quite a lump in the back of my throat,” recalls Ken Middlemist, as he thinks back to a poignant day at the office just over half-a-century ago.
The railway enthusiast was the fireman aboard the locomotive on the morning shift, of what was to be the final day of steam passenger trains to chug along the branch line between Alnmouth and Alnwick, in June 1966, before the stretch was closed for good a few years later.
“I worked the K1 locomotive – 62011 – that morning and then the final steam passenger train was the big 9f in the afternoon,” he said.
“I’ll never forget it and I felt it was quite harsh that the branch was being closed down. I am led to believe it was holding its own.”
It was an emotional day for Ken. And he admits that he thought the railway was lost for good when it was shut five decades ago.
So imagine his delight that a major heritage project to reopen the line is now under way, having first been mooted in the mid-1990s.
And recently, the 73-year-old, from Hipsburn, was treated to an unforgettable moment that he thought he would never get to experience – a trip, on a train, along part of the old trackbed.
Thanks to the dedicated Aln Valley Railway (AVR) volunteers, rails have now been laid on a section of the once-busy stretch, extending from the newly-built Lionheart Station at the southern end of Alnwick behind Lionheart Enterprise Park.
This major stepping-stone in the AVR scheme meant that, just a few weeks ago, the first carriage was run on rails along the former trackbed of the Alnwick to Alnmouth line for the first time in more than 50 years.
It was a historic moment. And for Ken, who is part of the Aln Valley Railway team, a return to his old stomping ground was a huge deal.
“Going by rail along the old trackbed for the first time in so many years was a very emotional moment,” admits Ken, who loved his trip down memory lane.
“I never thought that the railway would return, but thanks to the Aln Valley Railway team, it is happening.”
More than 935 metres of track have been laid and the dedicated team are now more than a quarter of the way to reaching the finish-line at Alnmouth. And Ken is relishing the chance to drive the AVR steam train into Alnmouth in a few years time.
He told the Gazette: “I would like to be around when we get down to Alnmouth. We are on our way now and it will mean so much to see it completed – the railway has been my job, it has been my life.”
Indeed, railways and trains have been in Ken’s blood from an early age.
He was born in Number 16 Station Cottages, close to the engine shed at Alnmouth.
His former home has since been demolished, making way for the new car park on the northbound side of the platform.
Recognising this connection, he was asked to open the facility, something he describes as a ‘great honour’.
His father, George, was a driver for many years, including a stint at Alnmouth.
For Ken and brother Robert, the railway used to fuel their imagination and was often a source of fun for the pair when they were growing up.
He remembers: “We were typical boys and got up to different antics.
“In the winter we used to go up to the bridge at Alnmouth, with our legs dangling over the side. We’d wait for the Pacific trains to come through and we would try to throw snowballs down the chimney. We managed to get them down the odd time. It was just fun, no devilment!
“Then, when my father was driving the trains, he’d sometimes let us sit in the fireman’s seat. ‘Don’t move, and stay out of the way’, he’d say.”
It seemed only natural, then, that Ken would follow in his father’s footsteps and work on the railways.
Although, this would have to wait, for a few years at least, as Ken started work at world-famous fishing-tackle brand, Hardy’s, in 1959.
Initially on a weekly wage of £1, 18s and a penny, Ken worked in the packing room, but it wasn’t long before he learnt the fly-dressing trade.
But then, in 1962, he moved to the railways, starting as a cleaner, before becoming a fireman, and earning a weekly salary of £11.
He said: “To me, it was fun. I really enjoyed my life on the footplate. There were some great lads along the line. You had to work as a team, between you and the driver. It was a very busy line.”
And Ken, who moved back to Hardy’s, before going on to work at then worked at Whittle Colliery, believes the railway will once again become popular when it re-opens. He said: “I think it will really add something to the town. It is said that it takes 20 years to re-establish a railway, and it has taken us even longer than that, but it will be worth the wait.”
The Aln Valley Railway is open during the summer months, as well as special dates during the rest of the year, and visitors are treated to short train rides from the station in Alnwick.
Recently, it won the Small Visitor Attraction prize at the Northumberland Tourism Awards 2017.
Once the line is complete and with suitable infrastructure in place, it will be possible to timetable services to link with mainline passenger trains at Alnmouth. A park-and-ride facility at Lionheart Station would relieve pressure on parking around Alnmouth Station.
To mark Ken’s connection to the railway and Hardy’s, he has sourced a vintage Hardy’s advertising poster, which he is giving to the railway. A presentation will be made next week. He said: “I thought it would be quite appropriate to do a bit of PR between the railway and Hardy’s. The railway also used to transport a lot of Hardy’s fishing tackle, so it is quite fitting.”