DAVID STEPHENSON was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps – quite literally. His father owned several boot, shoe and leather shops across County Durham, and it was expected that his three sons would take them on.
But David, who was born at Wingate in 1903, came of age after the First World War when petrol engines were all the rage. His grandfather had a bike shop in Wingate, and David preferred to tinker with him, and race bikes on the beach at Seaton Carew, rather than cobble with his father.
“Ultimately, this led to his father offering him his share of the family business so that he could invest it in his own garage,” says Eric Stephenson, of Hesleden. “After scouring the A1 seeking out possible sites, he finally settled on one at Willow Bridge, between Stapleton and Barton, and bought it.”
There, in 1936, he built an art deco filling station, which, as Memories told last week, is now on the market for £695,000. There is permission to build two substantial homes on its site, so this could be the end of the road for this curious survivor from the pre-motorway age.
READ MORE: The story of the garage, and the occasional passing elephant
David lived at the garage with his wife, Chrissie, and their daughter Elizabeth Christine, who went to Richmond School and was Eric’s cousin.
Chrissie, though, had a brain tumour and before her death in August 1946, was tended by nurse Ada Ingham, who featured in several of last week’s pictures.
Life beside the busy A1 in those days was very stressful: not only was there the constant demand for petrol and repairs, but there was also the prospect of dealing with the aftermath of head-on crashes in those pre-seatbelt days.
In 1954, David sold the filling station to Campbell Dawson whose son, also Campbell, will retire from the garage business when it is sold.
David retired to Seamer, with Ada as his housekeeper, but he died in 1956 and his ashes were returned to Barton churchyard to be with Chrissie.
Their daughter, Elizabeth Christine, continued the family love of mechanics and married motoring journalist LKJ Setright, an extraordinary hard-smoking character. She died in 1980, and her ashes are beside her parents.
SO to the big question: what was the car that was pictured at the Willow Bridge pumps in 1946? There were loads of guesses with Morris being the most favoured make, and everything from a six to a 16 being put forward as the model.
But Eric Stephenson said: “It was David Stephenson’s Morris 18. It must have been the biggest in that series. My father had a Morris 8, and the 18 must have been a gas-guzzler – we joked that he needed his own petrol station to keep it going!”
The 18 was a beast of a motor with 2.3 litre engine and a top speed of 67mph. It was only produced from 1935 to 1937.
Several people mentioned how the rear-opening doors (they were hinged on a central pillar rather than at the front) allowed people, in those pre-seatbelt days, to fall out when the vehicle was moving.
DISAPPOINTINGLY, we don’t know the name of the elephant that was photographed using the Willow Bridge garage, but we’ve learned a lot about the locomotive that was pictured at the pumps in 1950.
“It is a standard Hudswell Clark Inside Cylinder 0-6-0 saddle tank with cylinders 13 x 20 and 3ft 3 ½ inch wheels,” said Chris Lee. “The only one of this type preserved is works number 1682 of 1937, which was built to work at a British Sugar Corporation sugar beet factory in Newark.” It is currently being overhauled at the Great Central Railway in Nottingham.
Graham Redfearn was able to identify the loco as Hudswell Clark No 1684, made in Leeds in 1937 and sold to Sir Robert McAlpine. McAlpine hired locos out from its base at Dunston in Gateshead, with coal-fired power stations being regular customers.
This loco worked at a power station in Ebbw Vale before being sent, in 1950, to work at Darlington power station while its loco was under repair. Our picture may even show it on its approach to Darlington!
When the Darlo loco was back in business, No 1674 went north to Newcastle. “It went to the Carrville power station, but also spent time at Stella North, Stella South and Blyth where it was scrapped in 1965,” says Graham.
“SEEING this story reminded me of being in East Layton quarry near Richmond in about 1965,” says Peter Thompson, “where there was a locomotive driven by a chap called Alf.
“He told me he took the locomotive home every night. I found this unbelievable until he said he lived four or five miles down the line – what a good way of commuting! I wonder if anyone else can remember Alf or the loco.”
East Layton is a few miles from Barton. It is on the top of the south side of Teesdale, next to the A66. The daleside between it and Forcett is full of old quarry workings – indeed, in 1867, the Forcett Railway was opened to collect the limestone and take it eight miles down the dale to the Barnard Castle branchline, which it joined between Piercebridge and Gainford.
Any information about this line would be most welcome.
TUCKED away behind a hedge beside the Willow Bridge garage is a small brick-built shed that was once a telephone exchange. Surprisingly, there’s a second shed a couple of miles away at Stapleton that also says it was a telephone exchange.
Why two exchanges in such close proximity?
John Hill has a theory. His line of work took him to the Old Repeater Station at Brompton-on-Swale, just off the A1, and he was immediately intrigued by its name.
The Old Repeater Station is now the home to the Peratech technology company, but it was built in 1924. In those days, copper cables carried telephone calls, but resistance within the cable meant the quality of the call decayed as it travelled along the line.
The Old Repeater Station renewed the quality of the call with a big boost. This was a common solution to the problem, and there are bed and breakfasts in Haydon Bridge and Lanark which are also called The Old Repeater Station.
Another solution was to build a series of small exchanges which gave the calls a little boost as the voices travelled along the cables. “Maybe this is why the telephone exchanges at Stapleton and Willow Bridge are close together,” says John.
JOHN was also taken by the picture of the old Michelin man who still looks down on customers as they pay at the Willow Bridge service station.
In the 1970s, it was quite common to see them travelling round on vans. “The company I worked for, Shepherds foods of Oxford Street in Darlington, had a couple on its vans,” he says. “The business ceased trading some years ago, so the little fellas must be enjoying their retirement somewhere.”
The Michelin man – or Bibendum to give him his proper name – is one of the world’s oldest, and most recognisible trademarks. He was created for the 1894 Lyon Exhibition, and had originally been drawn to promote a brewery, raising a glass in his arm and saying: “Nunc est bibendum” (now is the time to drink).
The Michelin brothers, Édouard and André, turned his body into old tyres and used the slogan for a few years to suggest that their tyres drank up all the obstacles that made other tyres choke. It didn’t really work as a concept, so they soon dropped the slogan, but they kept Bibendum.
OUR journey along the A1 from Willow Bridge took us up to Scotch Corner, where there was a filling station outside the hotel.
“You are probably aware that the former petrol station is now a caravan park and the former kiosk is now the sales office for statics,” says Dave Middlemas. “But did you know that in the early 1990s, it was the filming location for the cult TV comedy sketch series, The Fast Show?
“The kiosk became ‘Swiss Toni’s Car Sales’ and would feature Toni (Charlie Higson) as the smooth talking, excessively coiffured, proprietor who would drift off into a series of bizarre monologues often on the forecourt in front of the building. The character later developed into his own sitcom but this was filmed elsewhere.”
Anyone know of any other Fast Show locations – didn’t the Cornmill Centre in Darlington feature as well?
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