Posted by: wrha | April 25, 2020

Tales from the Signal Cabin – Roy G. Perkins

Alexander Robson was my grandmother’s brother and therefore my Great Uncle, but more significantly for our present purposes he was one of the signalmen at Newcastleton Signal Box. The many exploits of Sandy or Sned as he was almost universally known throughout the Borders, are still recounted by older villagers of the Holm and elsewhere, to this day; some involving the railway and others not. For this was one of those people who richly earned the soubriquet ‘larger than life’.

From an early age I was taken to the box to visit Uncle Sned, but by the time I was eight years old I was judged, in those now far off and gentler days, to be old enough to go there on my own. And so I did.

Sned took a fairly robust view of childhood and I was quickly initiated into the workings of the Signal Box such that I knew how the box worked, the ‘bell codes’, which levers had to be pulled in which order, how to work the level crossing, and the meaning of engine whistles at different points on the line. So I knew how to do it, the problem for this small boy was that I wasn’t strong enough to pull off some of the levers. The development of my physical strength was roughly monitored by the great man himself from time to time as I was ‘invited’ to try pulling off the ‘up’ advanced starter, at this stage with little success.

My first moment of glory however was to arrive sooner than I expected. I remember the evening particularly for it was a Thursday night in autumn 1958 and I was in the box with Sned and his son Bryan, my Cousin, when the ‘Riccarton pilot’ came rattling into the village unannounced. The crew of the pilot gently ambled their unhurried way to the box and notified all of us that they were intending to wend their way to the bar at the Liddesdale hotel; a journey of about 100 yards.

Sned grunted his approval and off they went into the darkness having put their mount into the goods yard in order to clear the running line. Even at my tender age I had more than a suspicion that such action was contrary to the rulebook, but such was the way of things in those days on the Waverley that nobody seemed to care or to come to any harm.

The Riccarton pilot of the day was one of those then new fangled, and strange-looking British Railways ‘Standard’s No 78046 which had replaced old friends like ‘Wandering Willie’, ‘Cuddie Headrigg’ and the ‘Laird o‘ Monkbarns’. From the time the engine crew had left the signal box about half an hour must have elapsed before Sned received the message that there was a train on the way that would require the services of the ‘pilot’. Without further ado Bryan and I were despatched to the goods yard charged with blowing the whistle and by this means recalling the engine crew from their recreation.

So we set off along the ‘down’ platform’ and across the running lines to the goods yard and the locomotive. As was customary, the pilot had arrived from Riccarton tender first so we had to walk past the tender in the dark before being able to climb into the cab. We scrambled up the steps into the cab which seemed positively cavernous after what we were used to and to our horror it was even darker in the cab than it was outside, the fire door being shut. We groped around in the unfamiliar surroundings without success, for neither of us had possessed the wit to equip ourselves with a torch and the whistle seemed amazingly elusive. Eventually conscious of the train advancing from the south we had to make our way, shame-faced, back to signal box and own up to our failure. Our admission was greeted with a great deal of descriptive language which I was not familiar with in those days, as Sned exchanged his slippers, which he invariably used in the box, for a pair of stout boots for the short walk to the goods yard.

It was then only a few minutes before we heard the shrill whistle break the evening silence and only a few minutes more before the two breathless enginemen arrived at the signal box to find out what was afoot.

They were quickly appraised of the situation and it was resolved to put the loco into the down refuge in readiness for the train’s arrival. This involved releasing the loco from the goods yard pulling off the up Starter, having previously opened the gates of the level crossing, then switching the cross-over, opening the points to the down refuge, putting the loco in and then returning everything to normal before the train arrived. Quite a tall order.

Nevertheless all was accomplished with that unflappable air of the long-term delinquent to which I would become accustomed. The train and its pilot continued on their way and nobody was any the wiser;… until now. And so I made my way home over the fields to be greeted with a sound ticking off for being late for supper.


‘Sned in his lair’ Alexander Robson in Newcastleton Signal Box. Photo Roy G. Perkins

It must have been the following year when my next adventure occurred. I was once again in the box but this time with Sned on his own, and during a very warm afternoon. This time a man whom I didn’t know arrived on the road outside the box. He and Sned exchanged banter for some minutes before Sned turned back to me and asked if I could ‘mind the box’ for a few minutes whilst he went to look at a beast that was evidently sick.

At this point I should perhaps explain that foreby his signalman duties Sned was also a smallholder and acted very much as the local vet. I assured him I could do everything except pull off the two distant signals, which he seemed to regard as of little account. So with an admonition to ‘keep an ear out for the bells’ he disappeared I knew not where. Like, I suppose any other small boy in similar circumstances, I immediately started to worry myself about what might happen. What would happen if … An inspector arrived, unusual but not unheard of; there was a runaway, if Carlisle Control phoned, indeed if any of the other signal boxes phoned. Eventually it dawned on me that in any of these circumstances there was nothing to be done. I was unable to go for help because I couldn’t leave the box completely empty, inadequate though my presence may be.

The bells rang from time to time four or five trains trundled through under warning distant signals and I sat back with some trepidation to await the arrival of the ‘up’ Waverley express for that would expect a ‘clear’ road and questions night be asked as to why the distant was not pulled off. Either by good luck or by impeccable judgement Sned arrived back, some two hours after his departure and at almost the same moment that Steele Road sent through the signal asking me to accept the express. I was saved almost literally by the bell as Sned belled back and pulled off the distant. Over the next few years I was to experience the same situation many times but never again did it hold the same fears for me as on that first occasion.

I can’t say that I remember Sned having much to say about locomotives, either a class of locomotives or an individual one. To this general rule there was one decided exception, the Gresley A3 Pacific of Class A3 60096 Papyrus. Quite what this engine had done to earn Sned’s displeasure was never clear to me but it never passed without a ‘guid sweerin’. Perhaps the engine was at fault or perhaps a driver of it had caused Sned some real or imagined hurt at some time in the past. I remember in particular one frosty night when Sned accepted an Edinburgh bound freight and was shortly afterwards advised by control that it would require the services of the pilot. The pilot was already in the down refuge in readiness because it was not uncommon for this particular train to require assistance. The freight made good time to Riddings and was ahead of schedule at Kershopefoot. By the time it came into view under the Muckle Knowe bridge we could see why, it had a good head of steam on and was going like the proverbial ‘bat out of hell’. She was travelling at a good 60m.p.h. as the train approached the box. It was obviously not going to stop for assistance, a fact that was soon made clear by the enginemen waving from the footplate that they weren’t intending to stop as they passed the refuge where the pilot waited.

I remember remarking to Sned that all seemed to be well and the loco doing fine. For my trouble I received only the curt reply: “We’ll see about that. Yon bu**er’ll be blowin (whistling) at Steele Road afore twenty minutes”

The minutes ticked by and in due course we could just make out the mournful whistle of the A3 rapidly followed by a telephone call from the fireman to tell us that ‘Papyrus’ was indeed stuck on the 1 in 68 at Steele Road platform. Ian Armstrong, the signalman at Riccarton South Box would have been told at much the same time no doubt.

The driver of the pilot engine, who seemed to share Sned’s disdain for this particular locomotive, or its crew, was called to the Newcastleton Box, advised of the situation and told to proceed under caution to Steele Road all this taking place with much use of ‘industrial language’. So the pilot engine left Newcastleton under, it seemed to me, very little caution and that was the last I saw of her that night. I suppose another twenty minutes must have passed before we got the section clear signal from Riccarton.

I then made a futile attempt to get more information from Sned about his attitude to this particular A3, but found out only that, in his opinion Sir Visto or Flamingo two of Carlisle Canal’s long standing regulars would have managed but “Yon bu**er just slips to a stand every time”. So it was that I never discovered what the problem was or whether Sned just put a ‘hex’ on the loco, anyway thereafter I adopted Sned’s opinion despite the loco’s great history.

[‘Papyrus’ held the World Speed Record for steam of 108 mph until 1935 when it was beaten by the streamlined A4’Silver Link at 112m.p.h]

Newcastleton signal box and level crossing in the 1960s. Photo Robin Barbour, courtesy of Bruce McCartney

The day of September 28th 1965 had passed, so far as I can recall, uneventfully, as days at Newcastleton usually did. I was enjoying a few days relaxation at the ‘Holm’ having finished my schooling and waiting to take up a place I had been awarded at the London School of Economics. I was due to return to London on the 29th in order to register at the University and at the time regarded this appointment as ‘sacrosanct’. In fact, as I was later to realise, it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d turned up the following week.

At about 6.00a.m. on the morning of the 29th I was disturbed from my slumbers by the sound of the front gate being opened, rapidly followed by a fearful banging on the glass of my bedroom window such that I thought the glass must surely give way. Then came the voice at what seemed about 3000 decibels, “Is yon Boy oot o’ his bed yet, Jen?” Without waiting for a reply Sned continued, “C’mon boy rouse yoursen, I’ve an important message for ye.”

Still stunned by the rudeness of my awakening and anxious as to what the message could possibly be I staggered into the lounge scarcely ‘compos mentis’, to find Sned slumped in one of the armchairs. He explained to me that there had been a railway accident at Shankend and that if I wanted to go up, he had the breakdown train held at the Holm pending his return and that I could travel up on that. I was severely torn because on the one hand I wanted to go to Shankend but on the other I needed to get back to London. I explained my dilemma, which was met with a characteristic shrug of the shoulders. “Just hurry and make your bl**dy mind up, I canna hold the crane  all bl**dy day”. In the end I judged London to be more important particularly because if I went to Shankend there was no telling when I would get a ride back. I announced my decision and was answered by some fairly robust comments about the fact that he had wasted his time and that I was a waste of space. Undaunted, he cycled back to the Signal Box, at what passed for high speed, but in reality was little more than ‘hyper-amble’ to resume his duties.

It was nearly four hours later that I strolled reluctantly down North Hermitage Street toward Montagu Street and the station clutching my suitcase. Leaving my suitcase on the platform I crossed the bridge and walked into the Signal Box to enquire what the situation was with trains, only to be advised that there was nothing running at all and that the accident involved one of the new diesel locomotives which had not previously been used on that 2.22a.m. turn from Edinburgh and of which Sned had formulated the same low opinion that he reserved for most modern developments.

I explained my problem to Sned who immediately resolved to take action. Before I knew it he was on the phone to Carlisle control. The conversation was typically brusqe. “What the **** is gaen on?” he enquired, “I’ve a platform full o’ passengers here and nae ****** train tae tak them ta Carlisle.” There followed a full and frank discussion about the parentage of each of the men involved in the conversation. Which culminated in Sned saying “ Weeel, we’re no all sae ****** useless, you just send the ****** train and I’ll get it back to you.”

About an hour later the ‘Train entering section” message was received from Kershopefoot box and in due course a ‘Peak’ Class 4 diesel and single coach hove into view under the Muckle Knowe Bridge. I must confess to some disappointment at this development because I had hoped in the circumstances for some form of endangered steam propulsion. However it was not to be and I had to content myself with the knowledge that I was to be the sole passenger on this one coach special train, at least on leaving Newcastleton. In the end I was to be the only passenger all the way to Carlisle and disembarked from ‘my’ coach at Citadel with an air of ‘splendid isolation’, watched in awe by a number of station staff.

My introduction to ‘Sned’ (Alexander Robson) must have come when I was only hours, days or weeks old but my first memory of him dates from when I was four or five years old. As I have recounted in earlier editions of the Journal, Sned was for many years one of the regular signalmen in the Holm Signal box, he was also the local unofficial vet, a small-holding owner and sometime livestock dealer. Fore by that he was a ‘bull of a man’, not very tall but built rather like a concrete pillbox with a larger than most appetite for alcohol in virtually any of its forms to say that he was as broad as he was tall would be an exaggeration but it would definitely convey the right impression.

The first occasion I want to relate to you I was travelling with my mother and father to Copshaw Holm by car for once. My mother didn’t drive, women generally didn’t in those days, which meant that my father had to do all the driving, anything up to 10 hours sometimes more. We battled our way north through all the traffic of Birmingham, Manchester, Preston, Kendal, Penrith and Carlisle until we got to Longtown. Here we ground to a dead stop. Dad muttered something about the level crossing and the rest of us settled down to wait. Mother busying herself with making sure that we children were presentable, in readiness for presentation to her family.

Ten minutes or a quarter of an hour went past and still we were motionless. Finally my father decided it was time for action. He left the car where it stood in the middle of the Main Street and walked purposefully toward the level crossing to find out what was afoot. After a few minutes he returned wearing a mischievous smile. Turning to my mother he said quietly “Might have known it’d be your bl**dy family.”

Starting the car once more he pulled out of the long and ever growing line of queuing traffic and overtook it until we came to a position more or less outside the Graham Arms. There in the middle of the A7 road and seated on a bar stool he had sequestered from the aforesaid hotel was Sned. Apparently he had arranged with a local farmer who had bought some chickens, that he would dispatch them to avoid the farmer’s somewhat squeamish wife from witnessing the dreadful deed. Having been refused permission to dispatch them in the grounds of the hotel he had resorted to the main road. Not a man to be thwarted he now sat in the street, picking up chickens by the neck, dealing with them and now surrounded by a growing mound of corpses some still flapping their wings or taking a last few faltering steps before collapsing. When we got to it the level crossing was open, having been blamed for nothing and we continued on our weary way to the holm.

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Newcastleton station and signal box on a chilly winter’s day. Photo GN Turnbull

The second occasion was a somewhat more prosaic affair though it had considerably more to do with the railway. In those days the ‘overnight Pullman’ or ‘sleeper’ as British Rail insisted on calling it whilst not scheduled to stop in the holm could be stopped by notice to the guard at St.Pancras. Whether this was an official arrangement or not I’ve never been sure, or was it one of those unofficial arrangements which abounded on the Waverley. For as my good friend Bruce McCartney and I have often discussed the ‘Waverley Route’ particularly the south end of it really had very little to do with British Rail, it was run by the men on the ground and with men like Sned to deal with who could blame the faceless ones for keeping out of the way.

Anyway as I recall, the ‘overnight’ stopped or passed through the holm about 5.30a.m. This particular night we were awakened by the Guard to tell us that we were just leaving Carlisle so it was time to get dressed in readiness for our arrival in the holm in about 40 minutes. 40 minutes or so later the train ran under the Muckle Knowe bridge and past the Lakes before pulling in to the station at Copshaw.

Three times the train was beckoned forward by a square figure carrying a flash lamp. It was Sned, still sporting his carpet slippers which he habitually wore when in the box or on the station. Nothing very odd about that except that there were about 3 inches of snow on the ground. Eventually we disembarked, having delayed the train by about 10 minutes. My father having been in the army for most of his life before, during and after the war (WWII) spoke with a rather ‘far back’ and distinctly clipped accent. He apparently gave the impression of being ‘Lord of the Manor’ especially amongst this rural community.

‘Sned’ greeted us in his own inimitable style with “I might ha’ ken’d it was the bluidy gentry”

Welcome to Copshaw Holm.

This article was originally published in the WRHA members’ journal “The Waverley” issues 15, 16 & 17 in 2010 and 2011. It has been reproduced here as part of our historical articles series during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Roy Perkins sadly passed away in 2015. He was a founding director of the Border Union Railway Company, the bold project to take on running the Waverley Route as a private venture following its closure by British Rail in 1969. Roy was also a past chairman of the Waverley Route Heritage Association.

His obituary was featured in The Scotsman and can be read online here.

Copyright WRHA 2010, 2011 & 2020. Not to be reproduced without express permission.