The world's most popular heritage steam railway helps keep Pickering on the right track

PUBLISHED: 20:38 08 September 2011 | UPDATED: 16:05 09 February 2018

The world's most popular heritage steam railway helps keep Pickering on the right track

The world's most popular heritage steam railway helps keep Pickering on the right track

The world's most popular heritage steam railway is helping to keep Pickering on the right track, as Jo Haywood discovers Photographs by Joan Russell

Museum volunteer Eric OldhamMuseum volunteer Eric Oldham

Sandra and Iris both have a soft spot for Sir Nigel. Sandra’s husband likes him too, but his feelings don’t run quite as deep.

‘I love his shape,’ said Sandra, her eyes misting over a little. ‘For me, it’s about how he looks. But for my husband, it’s about how he runs.’

ris is a fan too, but for different reasons: ‘He has a very distinctive sound. hear a chugging round the corner and know it’s him.’

For those of you unfamiliar with Sir Nigel Gresley’s charms – or at least not quite as familiar as Iris and Sandra – he is a 74-year-old A4 class steam locomotive, originally built in Doncaster and now running on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway out of Pickering. He was withdrawn from service by British Railways on February 1st 1966, but made a grand re-entrance to public life in 1988 at the National Railway Museum in York as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of Mallard’s record run.

After stints at Great Central Railway and East Lancashire Railway, Sir Nigel now enjoys a highly productive life at North Yorkshire Moors Railway, where he transports gaggles of excited visitors across the heather-covered hills to Levisham, Newtondale Halt, Goathland, Grosmont and Whitby.

Fiona and Anne Coleman discover treasures at Beck Isle MuseumFiona and Anne Coleman discover treasures at Beck Isle Museum

Iris Woodhead and Sandra McNicoll are lucky enough to see him almost every day from their office across the road from his home at Pickering station. They are just two of the 80 staff and 800 volunteers who keep this prestigious and highly popular line on track.

‘I wasn’t interested in trains at all until met my husband,’ said Sandra. ‘He ran a line at Aviemore in Scotland and had to pretend to be interested at first, but then realised wasn’t pretending anymore.

‘It’s hard to define the feeling steam trains give you. All the engines have their own personalities and we all have our favourites. There really is something about these dirty old engines that gets you right in the heart.’

It’s also true to say that the railway is right at the heart of Pickering, and not just in a geographical sense. The attraction, which celebrated its milestone 175th anniversary earlier this year, is what puts the town head and shoulders above the rest in what is a particularly tough tourist market at the moment.

The war memorialThe war memorial

‘We bring £30 million to the local economy every year,’ said Iris. ‘That’s not the only reason the people of Pickering are happy we’re here, but it certainly doesn’t harm our case.

‘Businesses would not be as busy and accommodation wouldn’t get booked up year on year if it wasn’t for us. This is a very attractive market town, but a lot of attractive market towns are suffering at the moment. We give Pickering its winning edge.’

But that winning edge doesn’t come for free. The railways needs around £7 million a year just to tick over and is fighting a constant renovation battle with its rolling stock and lines.

‘We get a moderate amount of funding, but we generally rely on people’s generosity with both their time and their money,’ said Iris. ‘The price of coal has risen by 60 per cent, which means a big increase in our expenditure, and renovating an engine costs in the region of a quarter of a million every time. So we’re definitely not talking hobby money.’

Fireman Mick Burn - couldn’t have a more appropriate nameFireman Mick Burn - couldn’t have a more appropriate name

Staff and volunteers are currently working hard to raise £350,000 to complete the renovation of engine 80135. She was built in the early Fifties and is a type which regularly worked the line from Whitby to Pickering and York.

If the appeal is successful – and they are already well on their way to achieving their heady target – 80135 will spend a year in the Grosmont workshop before heading back into service in 2013.

‘She’s a very popular engine and really helps to pull in the visitors,’ said Iris. ‘And more visitors for us generally means more visitors for Pickering as a whole, which can only be a good thing.’

Just as Pickering would suffer without its railway, the railway itself would not survive without its army of volunteers, some of whom haul themselves out of bed at 3.30am to get the engines cleaned and warmed up for the day ahead.

Glen and Sarah Elliot served tea by Katie Wallace and Katy Ball, young volunteersGlen and Sarah Elliot served tea by Katie Wallace and Katy Ball, young volunteers

‘That level of passion runs throughout,’ said ‘One of our founders, Charlie Hart, lives out near Sleights. He’s in his nineties but he still stands out in his garden and waves through every train that leaves the station. That’s the sort of heartfelt dedication this railway attracts'

Pickering’s top picks More than 300,000 people a year visit Pickering’s railway, including household names like Michael Portillo, John Hurt, Toyah Wilcox, Todd Carty, Matt Baker and Pete Waterman, but that’s not the only crowd-pulling attraction in town. Here are just a few to add to your itinerary.


Pickering Castle was built in the 13th century and was once a royal hunting lodge, holiday home and stud farm owned by a succession of medieval kings. It is now a splendid town centre treasure owned by English Heritage which offers extensive views across the surrounding countryside.

NYMR volunteers Graham Higgins and John Richardson take a breakNYMR volunteers Graham Higgins and John Richardson take a break

The Beck Isle Museum of Rural Life provides a wonderful archive of everyday people in the Vale of Pickering. Visitors can walk through a traditional printer’s shop and watch a blacksmith at his forge. They can also enjoy the impressive portraits and landscapes of Sydney Smith, a Pickering photographer (he lived in Franchise Terrace with his 12 brothers and sisters) who painstakingly recorded every aspect of rural life from 1900 to 1956.

Wartime Weekend is one of Pickering and North Yorkshire Moors Railway’s most popular events of the year, bringing around 20,000 people to the town over a single weekend. The clocks will be turned back to 1943 from October 14th-16th this year with ENSA entertainers, street parades, vehicle displays and re-enactments along the line.

Getting there: Pickering sits just minutes from the A64 at the crossroads of the A170 Scarborough to Thirsk road and the A169 Malton to Whitby road.

Where to park: There are a good range of paid-for car parks and on-street free spaces. But if you do opt for a freebie, you’re advised to hit the town early as they get filled up quickly.

Caitlin Shorten and son Max who hitches a ride with mum through PickeringCaitlin Shorten and son Max who hitches a ride with mum through Pickering

Where to visit: Pickering hosts a number of events every year from car boot sales to spectacular country fairs and galas. Among its most popular are its Wartime Weekend, its steam and traction engine rallies, craft fairs and arts festivals. For a full list of events, visit



The print version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Yorkshire Life 

Train driver Mick MitchellTrain driver Mick Mitchell



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Ann and Peter Berry in the NYMR cafeAnn and Peter Berry in the NYMR cafe


Visit the North Yorkshire Moors Railway website at



James Douthwaite with grandsons Tom and Louis Tatten get to grips with the history of Pickering CastleJames Douthwaite with grandsons Tom and Louis Tatten get to grips with the history of Pickering Castle

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