Recently I had occasion to be at Fearn Station, which brought back memories of times I worked there as relief signalman. I'd like to tell you about the unique signalling there. Most stations with signalling had a box with point and signal levers interlocked at each end of the loop. The reason for this was because of the length of rods from a central location would impose too big a load on the levers for a person to pull and push them. Well Fearn was different; it had only one box at the South end of the loop, and in it was a release to permit operation of a 3 lever frame under the foot bridge at the north end. If a train had gone north and the next one was going south you had to go down to the far end of the loop to put back the signals, come up to the north end again to reverse the ground frame, go back down again to pull the signals for the train, and then back to the platform for station duties etc.
In the sixties there used to be a train that ran from Wick to Inverness in 4 hours, called The Orcadian, with limited stops, and I remember it did not stop at Fearn. The correct signalling procedure was, when you got the bell signal that it had left Tain you offered it to Kildary Station by bell signal, and they in turn had to phone Nigg level crossing to get confirmation that the gates were closed (they took 2 minutes to close). You then set the token (all trains carried one from one station to the next, only one being available at a time so 2 trains could not meet on the single line) in the automatic token exchange, which meant it could be exchanged at 50/60 mph. You then continued to the signal-box and pulled the signals, and you were supposed to be in attendance at the exchange machine, but most times you were only half way to it when the train passed. If you were held up for even a minute getting to the signal-box the driver didn't get the all clear at the distant signal, and we always knew when that had happened by the shaking of fists and a volley of abuse from the driver!
Fearn still has a part to play today in the present radio signalling, as the base station is sited there and feeds the signal to 3 repeaters at Tain, which passes the signal to Ardgay, Knockarthur, and Helmsdale. So any problems at Fearn can cause more problems further north.
In those days in the sixties Fearn was a busy station for a variety of railway traffic. In the winter a lot of seed potatoes were sent from Fearn to all over the country. I well remember one prominent potato merchant who always went south by train to meet his customers (I won't mention his name). One evening he arrived for the journey ahead not entirely sober and made himself comfortable in the office. I was the only member of staff on duty and the public telephone rang, which he promptly picked up and answered, "Station Mashter " and continued speaking what was rather nonsensical. I was a bit apprehensive the next day in case there would be any awkward questions.
There was also salmon traffic and one particular sender always assured us that there was an awful lot of ice in the boxes, and asked us to not charge the full weight of them, as all the ice would be melted before the train reached London. Sometimes they would make you think there was no fish in the boxes! Then there was the baker who was usually at the Station waiting for it to open. It was always a scramble to book all the boxes, as you only came on duty about 15 minutes before the train and had to contend with the awkward signalling set up.
The Station itself was at the north end of the UP platform and the other platform was offset in that the north end of it only came as far as the south end of the UP platform. This meant that all the traffic coming from the south had to be barrowed to the end of the platform, carried over the line, and then reloaded onto another barrow and taken to the station. Who designed Fearn Station?
One of the resident signalmen was quite a character; I'll just call him K. Well, one day a lady going north got her ticket from him, and, being unsure which platform to got to, she asked, "do I turn right?" To which he replied, "If you turn right you'll be left and if you turn left you'll be right." Somebody said to him one day, "You've been a long time in this box K" (the signal-box) and he responded by saying, "Yes, but I'll be longer in the next one!" One winter evening after loading potatoes a thick layer of straw was being spread over them in the dark. K had the paraffin hand lamp with him and unfortunately it fell down and put fire to the straw. He had quite a job to extinguish it and came out coughing and choking from the smoke. When he got his breath back he said, "we nearly had roast tatties there." Not much health and safety in those days, but they were happy times.