IT’S quite possible that two of the first words I ever uttered were ‘steam train’.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my grandad’s knee as a tiny toddler in their house in Ruswarp, near Whitby, as he flicked through the colourful pages of a glossy rail magazine pointing out these huge iron dragons steaming out of the pages into my imagination.

This was the very room in which the first meeting to save the Whitby to Pickering railway line – or as much of it as was possible – from extinction took place on June 3, 1967, after Dr Richard Beeching had swung his infamous axe over many branch lines two years earlier.

My grandad, Tom Salmon, remembers travelling on the line as a child when he visited his grandparents who lived in Thornton-le-Dale during the 1930s.

“I had known this line very well when we spent our long holidays in Yorkshire and I always had a love of it,” he said.

“I also thought it was a line that should never have been closed and that it was a very historic and scenic line which was far too good to go to the scrapheap.”

As such, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and its heritage has always played a huge part in my life, and as I grew, so did our adventures on the railway, progressing from squeaking those two little words to actually riding in romantic carriages hauled by these huge steaming beasts. And even now, the sight of a plume of steam or the toot of a whistle makes me smile.

Most people’s memories of this line are of a heritage steam line, ferrying day-trippers from Pickering to one of the little stations along the line.

But the history of the Whitby-Pickering line starts way before that. For the majority of its 175 years, this line was used to transport passengers, linking to York, Scarborough and the wider railway network. Commuters relied on it to get to work and folk travelled to see their families; it was a vital link for the lifeblood of the community. It was also used as a freight railway, to transport coal, timber and limestone, and even the mail.

The Whitby and Pickering Railway, one of the earliest railways in Yorkshire, was the work of engineer George Stephenson. It opened in 1836 as little more than a horse-drawn stagecoach and remained so until it was absorbed into the York and North Midland Railway in 1845, when it was rebuilt as a double-tracked steam railway.

The York and North Midland Railway was one of the three railways that formed the North Eastern Railway in 1854. In 1923, The North Eastern Railway was absorbed into the London and North Eastern Railway as part of the grouping of the railways following the First World War.

In 1948, all the major railway companies in Great Britain were nationalised forming British Railways, and the Whitby-Pickering Railway remained a busy and well-used line until its closure in 1965.

That marked the end of its role as a link in the public rail network, but the beginning of its new life. The North Yorkshire Moors Railway Preservation Society was formed in 1967 at the home of my grandad and nana, who, along with a dedicated band of enthusiasts and supporters, played very active roles in preserving the railway from Grosmont to Pickering, spending their free time recruiting more members, fundraising and doing practical work maintaining and rebuilding the line and acquiring rolling stock.

The line opened as a heritage steam railway with a limited service.

A Light Railway Draft Order was granted in 1971, and the NYMRS became a charitable trust, the North Yorkshire Railway Historical Trust, which succeeded in re-opening the line as the North Yorkshire Moors Railway in 1973.

“Without Tom and his vision, there would be no North Yorkshire Moors Railway,” said Philip Benham, general manager of the NYMR, who has also written a book on the 175-year history of the Whitby-Pickering line.

Since then, the NYMR has gone from strength to strength and, says Philip, is the largest steam heritage railway in the world, which last year carried 360,000 passengers.

This year, the railway comes full circle, with a replica of the roof that originally capped Pickering Station in 1847 – removed in 1952 – being put back in place by Easter.

This is the final phase of a three- stage project which brings the past, present and future of the railway together, with the opening of an education and visitor centre and new archives.

“The roof going back on is an important part of our 175th anniversary; it is the literal crowing glory,” said Philip.

The big celebration to mark this anniversary is a 10-day spring gala extravaganza from April 29-May 8, with replicas of some of the oldest engines, including Stephenson’s Rocket and Planet, running up and down within the stations and a range of larger engines, including Tornado and George Stephenson, running the length of the railway.

Philip has many fond memories of the railway, but one of his proudest is being able to run a train from Whitby on the 40th anniversary of the railway’s closure, March 5, 2005.

This was a precursor to enabling the NYMR to run trains regularly to Whitby in 2007, another achievement of which Philip is very proud.

“Whitby has changed the profile of the railway a lot, accounting for 40 per cent of our ticket sales,” said Philip.

“And we are the only heritage railway with volunteer loco crews allowed run on the network. I’m very proud of that and of our dedicated band of staff and volunteers who have pride in their work and a real commitment to the railway.”

So what does he invisage for the future of the line?

“I don’t think there will be many dramatic changes during the next five years, but we have some interesting plans to develop a site at Grosmont into a museum with rolling stock and engines on display,” he mused.

“We’d also like to run more trains, and can’t do this at the moment because of signalling, so we are looking at how we could do something to handle that; plus there’s a lot of industrial heritage in Goathland and Grosmont we’d like to work with for our visitors – we need to refresh what we offer; our core is and always will be steam trains but we want to offer more to make a day out on the railway more interesting.”

Gazette & Herald: Whitby-Pickering railway line

Founder members, from the left, Tom Robertson, Harold Blackburn, John Randall, Tom Salmon, Fred Stuart, Michael Pitts, Joe Brown and Charlie Hart in the spring of 1973.