Action Stations


TRAVELLING by Northern Trains is not the most thrilling experience. The company was doing so badly in terms of timekeeping and cancellations under its previous operator that it was taken into public ownership in 2020, and it is hard to see much improvement since. However there are bright spots. One is an unmolested patch of giant hogweed at the trackside (I am not going to say where because the hogweed police will be out with their machetes and level-A hazmat suits). (My advice: if you are worried about giant hogweed, don’t touch it. Easy.) Another is Westhoughton station near Bolton, where a dedicated group of volunteers have transformed a dreary desert into a garden of delights.

Westhoughton acquired its station when the Liverpool to Bury line came into service on November 20, 1848. It was complete with a building which served as ticket office, waiting room, public conveniences and station master’s house. You can see pictures of it here

The building was demolished in 1974 and debris was carelessly left lying all around. By 2012 the whole place was an eyesore, neglected and covered in rubbish. Westhoughton resident Joanna Parncutt was aware of a project which had revitalised the next station along the line at Hindley (which I hope to write about in the future) and had the idea of trying the same at Westhoughton.

Thus the Friends of Westhoughton Station came into being, as you can read here. An early achievement was obtaining £700 lottery funding to hire two large skips which the volunteers toiled to fill with the demolition rubbish. Then work started on clearing overgrown vegetation and replanting the borders.

This video was made in February 2013.

It was a mammoth task. The site is huge and both sides of the track are steeply banked, which does not make for easy gardening. But the project caught Westhoughton’s imagination, and donations of plants and decor such as gnomes, bird boxes and a toy train came in from local firms and individuals. For instance the Co-op gave the money for a stand of laurel bushes which hold up part of the banking.

This video update is from a few months later, in June 2013.

And here is the station after three more years, in summer 2016.

Since then the vegetation has thrived, and probably more pruning than planting is now needed. I spent an hour with the team last Sunday morning, and what a treat it was. A dozen or so friendly souls ranging in age from 14 (a Duke of Edinburgh Award candidate doing her volunteering module) to quite a bit older, all clad in mandatory Northern hi-viz and working away with purpose. The Friends’ chairman Stephen Freeborn, a retired pharmacist, presides with charm and humour. He writes a blog on Facebook which last week had 6.6k views, and that shows how much the Westhoughton community appreciates the efforts of the outfit. I wish I lived nearer so that I could join them.

Here are some snaps from my visit.

So many gnomes and other statues arrive that a special area has been set aside for them to amuse young passengers. Here is Maureen installing the three latest recruits, which were waiting by the gate when the team arrived on Sunday.

Keeping watch is Arthur Station. The bee on his lapel is a nod to Bolton’s neighbour Manchester.

And here are some of the other volunteers.

Finally chairman Steve Freeborn. Thanks for a great outing, Steve, and hope to see you again.


A FEW days after last week’s column was published, reader ‘pjar’ posted this picture with the query ‘Okay . . . here’s one for the gardeners. What the heck is this? On a rose bush.’

I hadn’t the faintest idea if it was animal, vegetable or mineral, but later ‘pjar’ added this: ‘Update: it’s the ‘Sputnik Gall Wasp, apparently!’ You can read about this fascinating creature here. 


Sheep of the Week

THIS splendid animal is a Gotland sheep. If you are a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction, you may have come across the breed’s home island of Gotland, off the south-eastern coast of Sweden, which features in at least 21 novels (you can see a list here).

The breed was developed by the Vikings who crossed the island’s native horned Gute sheep with Karakul and Romanov sheep brought back from expeditions into Russia. There are still some Gutes on Gotland:

These are Karakuls:

And these are Romanovs:

In the 1920s the breed was refined to produce a multipurpose long-wool sheep, yielding good flavoured close-grained meat, furskins and soft silky lustrous fleece, called Gotland Peltsheep. In Britain they are known simply as Gotlands.

They arrived here in 1972 when Donald Macdonald imported a flock of 110 to provide skins for his Antartex sheepskin coat business, as you can read here. For a while this was a highly successful enterprise but try as I might I cannot find out what happened to it, except that I think it was taken over at some stage by Edinburgh Woollen Mills. You can still find the vintage coats for sale at very reasonable prices, such as this one:

I cannot discover if the late sports commentator John Motson wore Antartex but I think it’s a good bet that he did – see here. 

By 1983 Gotlands had spread to ten breeders in Britain and the first flock book was published. There are now about 40 flocks in the country, concentrated in south-west England. The breed is described as ‘a bright, active and friendly sheep full of curiosity’, and the fleece is beautiful.

As far as I can see the skins are mainly used as rugs these days, like this one (I have no connection with this or any other company selling them):

Here are some lambs having a good time.

 You can read more at the British Gotland Sheep Society website


Wheels of the week

I had an interesting email from reader DAVID WALKER, so this week I am handing over to him.

This is my 1950 Mk V 350cc Douglas flat twin.

It goes remarkably well for its age, and as the majority of the engine and gearbox are below the wheel spindles the handling is very light. When I first rode it, on entering bends I turned in too soon and had to pick it up again and try again later.

Once you get used to it, it flicks round S-bends and roundabouts quickly enough to leave most of the modern heavyweight opposition grovelling in its wake.

The suspension is highly idiosyncratic, the rear being via torsion bars along the lower frame tubes, so when the rear guard and toolboxes are removed the swinging arm appears to have no visible means of support! The front forks are also unusual, being parallelogram links with rudimentary damping. Worth noting that both front and rear suspension originated before WWII, so were highly advanced in their time.

Here are diagrams of both front and rear suspensions from the 1951 Douglas Mk V owners’ manual:

From the complexity and labour-intensiveness of both designs, there is no wonder Douglas discontinued the model and replaced it with the Dragonfly.

The brakes are mostly for appearance, as were most motorcycle brakes of that era.

Here is the end of the bottom frame rail with link from torsion bar to swinging arm:

This shows the Douglas Radiadraulic front forks:

Below is the engine showing the Lucas Magdyno; as it is a twin the magneto has a ring cam instead of the face cam commonly used on singles. Note the Lucas regulator, carefully positioned to fill up with water!

I also have a 1957 BSA DBD34 Gold Star Clubman and a 1959 498cc Ariel Red Hunter in the garage.

In my youth I owned numerous other bikes: BSA, Triumph and Norton twins, big Panther singles, trials bikes and scramblers and Heaven knows what else. I spent several years scrambling, grass tracking and speed hillclimbing.

This is me with my BSA A10 at Langcliffe near Settle in about 1975. I fitted a car dynamo to the front, it just fitted in after removing some metal from the front of the crankcases, driven by a V-belt from the old dynamo drive. The 12v sealed beam headlamp took all the guesswork out of riding at night – not for nothing was Joseph Lucas referred to as the Prince of Darkness!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *