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Stoke Signal Box

Above: Stoke signal box at 12 noon on 22nd June 1961. An Up express from Leeds to London is hauled by King's Cross based class A3 No. 60109 Hermit. Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.

by Derek Steptoe

Probably the worst thing about Stoke box was the poor access, with no roads near it for around two miles.  There were four ways to reach it:

  1. Use a rough road through a farmyard and across fields.
  2. On foot through the tunnel, after leaving your car at Highdyke; not for the faint hearted!!
  3. Walk over the tunnel; not for the unfit!!
  4. Catch a light engine or a slow goods train at Grantham.


This map shows the remoteness of Stoke box. The nearest road was the lane from Highdyke eastward to Bassingthorpe which, at its closest, is four fields away.  From Highdyke it was a 1¼ mile walk through or over the tunnel. 
Note: this map has been compiled from sheets of different dates, so the branch to Stainby from Highdyke is only partly shown.
This farm track leads from the lane near Bassingthorpe to the site of Stoke box - no tarmac from here on!

The box had no running water so we had to use it sparingly . We sometimes took our own water or relied on light engines to bring some.  We also had the pleasure of an Elsan toilet, emptied by the Sunday shift - don't forget your spade.  There was no electric light, which meant the smell of paraffin 24 hours a day and the noise of the flame at night, not to mention the moths.  The strange thing was that there was a very welcome Belling electric cooker.

Stoke signal box in 1975. By this time the box had ceased normal operation and its equipment was disconnected - the numerous telegraph lines which once ran behind it are gone.
Many Great Northern Railway signal boxes had intricately pierced wooden barge boards and prominent roof end finials - even at remote locations such as Stoke, where very few people would have the opportunity to admire these architectural flourishes unless they worked on the railway locally. The decoration extends to the end of the roof of the closet on the landing, wherein resided the Elsan chemical toilet. At the south end a tank collects rainwater from the roof.
Photograph by Mike Mather.

It was a very lonely box to work, and the only person you saw regularly was the lampman who visited twice a week.  His name was Geeson.  He pushed his bike down the cess from Corby to do their lamps and then Stoke's.  He would never accept a cuppa and sat in the lamproom to eat his lunch, a brick building just north of the box that had no door, windows or heating by the time I worked at Stoke!!  Between the box and the lamp cabin was an open wooden place where our coal was kept.

'The White Rose' is approaching Stoke signal box from the north on Tuesday 26th September 1961, passing the lamp cabin.
Photograph by Alan Curtis
An Up Pullman train passes Stoke box on Friday 29th September 1961 hauled by Class A1 No. 60120 Kittiwake, based at Copley Hill shed in Leeds.  Just beyond the steps to the signal box on the right is the open wooden bunker for the signal box coal supply.
Photograph by Alan Curtis

The Up distant had been moved to the north of the tunnel by the time I worked there, and it was a colour light signal.  Highdyke box decided which trains were diverted into the Up slow.  As per rule book diverted trains were brought quite or nearly to a stand before the home board was pulled off.  Memory’s not quite what it was but I think the bell signal was 1-5-5, 'shunt train for following train to pass'.

A class K freight train hauled by V2 No. 60829 based at Peterborough New England shed was brought 'quite or nearly to a stand' at the Stoke box home signal, on Friday 29th September 1961.  It is about to be turned onto the Up Goods line.
Photograph by Alan Curtis

The Down slow home was almost opposite the box and some trains were held for quite a time, so sometimes driver and fireman would come over for a chat and a cuppa. I think Stoke came under Peterborough for supervision, certainly  the DI's (District Inspectors) were from there. My eldest brother Terry also worked this box as he was a rest day relief, also my father Albert who was general relief and later Yard Inspector at Highdyke.

A view from the box:
A signalman's view of 'The Elizabethan', a non-stop express from London to Edinburgh, seen from Stoke box on 22nd June 1961. Providing the power on the ascent of Stoke Bank is class A4 No. 60028 'Walter K. Whigham', turned out in gleaming condition by King's Cross shed for one of the the East Coast Main Line's most prestigious services.
In the foreground the Up Goods line diverges to the left from the Up Main line.
In the background, on the far side of the cutting and above the second coach, a gang of men are cutting the lush grass by hand.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.

Stoke Box: interior photographs by Mike Mather, 1974

There are so many photos of locomotives and trains, yet so few of signal boxes other than as background features.  Thankfully Mike decided to make a record, in colour, of the boxes to the south of Grantham when their closure was imminent.

The diagram at Stoke signal box in 1974. It was fixed above the lever frame and shows the track layout controlled by the box, with the points and signals numbered according to the levers which operate them. The letters A to C and E to H are track circuit lamps which illuminate when a section of track is occupied by a train.
Some of the semaphore signals seen in the 1961 photographs below had been replaced with colour light signals by this time.
Photograph by Mike Mather
The 24 lever mechanical frame at Stoke box, with the block shelf above. The levers are painted according to function - yellow for distant signals, red for stop signals, black for points, blue for point locks, and white for spare levers. Colour light signals are worked by levers with shortened handles - a reminder to the signalman not to apply the amount of effort usually required for semaphores.
Beyond the far end of the frame we get a glimpse of that vital piece of equipment - the Belling electric cooker!
Photograph by Mike Mather
Above the lever frame was the block shelf. In this photograph of the south end of the shelf are two mahogany-cased GNR-type telegraph instruments and a block bell, by which the Stoke signalmen passed trains over the Up Goods and the Down Goods lines between Stoke and Corby Glen.
Below the block instruments, and above some of the signal levers, are circular indicators which inform the signalman of the position of the signal worked by that lever. This is so he can be sure the signal is reponding correctly, because some signals are out of sight from the box.
Photograph by Mike Mather.
The north end of the block shelf at Stoke in 1974.
The main instruments from left to right are:
o LNER type block telegraph instrument and bell for Up and Down Main Lines to Corby Glen to the south (black);
o the Block Switch, used for 'switching out' Stoke box when the junctions at Stoke were not required and Stoke box was not staffed; when set to 'OUT' its contacts put Higdyke and Corby Glen boxes into direct communication (varnished wood)
o LNER type block telegraph instrument for Down and Up Main Lines to Highdyke to the north (black);
o block bell for Highdyke (varnished wood)
Three green warning detonators hang from the front of the shelf.
At far left is a battery-powered Bardic signalling lamp, sucessor to the oil lamps in use until the 1960s.
Photograph by Mike Mather.

Stoke Signal Cabin - a brief history

The locality derives its name from the nearby village of Stoke Rochford, adjacent to the Great North Road. From the opening of the Great Northern Railway's 'Towns Line' between Peterborough and Retford in 1852, until 1892, the line at Stoke was basic double track.  There were signals but no sidings or loops. In October 1892 an Up Goods line was opened between Stoke and Corby Glen, and a loop siding was installed on the Down side.  To control the new arrangement the signal cabin at Stoke  (GNR terminology was 'signal cabin' rather than 'signal box') was equipped with a 24-lever interlocking frame, which remained in use until the cabin closed.

From Great Northern News No. 114 (The Newsletter of The Great Northern Ralway Society), page 114.15

In 1914 a Down Goods line reached Stoke from the south to join with the south end of the loop siding.  This remained the configuration throughout the following 60 years.

From Great Northern News No. 116 (The Newsletter of The Great Northern Railway Society), page 116.15

Stoke box marked the summit of a 20-mile near-continuous climb southbound from Newark, followed by a 15-mile near-continuous and practically straight descent to Tallington - the famous racing stretch of 'Stoke Bank'.  Stoke summit was exactly 100 miles from King's Cross. Below is a superb painting which captures the scene on July 3rd 1938.  Streamlined A4 Pacific No. 4468 Mallard has powered up the bank from Barkston with a test train.  It's about to crest the summit at a speed approaching 75mph and commence a high speed descent past Little Bytham.  Approaching Essendine the train momentarily achieved 126 mph, a still unbeaten world record speed for a steam locomotive.

The scene at Stoke signal box on Sunday 3rd July 1938. The first vehicle behind the locomotive's tender is the LNER Dynamometer Car, a vehicle fitted with accurate performance recording apparatus.
Painted in 1993 by Malcolm Root.
Painting copyright and with permission of Malcolm Root, FGRA. If anyone should be interested in having a copy there are prints still available. They measure 24"x18" and would be an inch or two extra all around if mounted in a frame. They are supplied in a tube. Please enquire directly to the Malcolm Root website.
The crew of Class K1 62019 on the Down Goods line lean out of their cab for the camera as they pass the gradient post at at Stoke Summit on Friday 29th September 1961. From here it's nearly all downhill as far as the crossing of the River Trent at Newark. Near the telegraph pole in the distance is a lineside sign marking 100 miles to London King's Cross, put in place by the LNER in the 1930s.  No 62019 was based at Retford Thrumpton (GC) shed at this time.
Photograph taken by Alan Curtis.
The immediate surroundings of Stoke box (SB) and the arrangement of the tracks and signal posts (SP) is shown in this 25 inches to the mile Ordnance Survey map of 1929.

The Stoke signalmen's main task was the regulation of trains between the four tracks to and from the south and the two tracks northward through Stoke Tunnel, ensuring that the bottleneck of the tunnel impeded traffic as little as possible.  To achieve this aim they worked closely with the Control Office for the Great Northern Section and with other signalmen up and down the line. In 1975 the junctions were re-laid for higher speeds and new signals were brought into use.  On 27th April 1975 the mechanical lever frame at Stoke box was replaced temporarily by a push-button panel.  The box closed on the following 6th July when control passed to Peterborough. There was a final short chapter to be written: a temporary, staffed signal box was in operation at Stoke between 10th September and 21st October 1978 to control single-line working through Stoke Tunnel while the track was lowered to enable trains carrying 8'-6" international standard containers to pass through.

Stoke Signal Box: north to south

This sequence of photographs, all taken by Noel Ingram on two days in June 1961, illustrates the lines, junctions and signals controlled by the signalmen at Stoke box.

A southbound train of 'Presflo' bulk cement wagons leaves Stoke Tunnel at 2.15pm on 22nd June 1961, obscuring with its haze of smoke Stoke box Up Main distant signal.  Class 9F No 92201 was based at Doncaster.
The line of poles on the right carry the railway's telegraph and telephone links above the tunnel, including the block telegraph system connecting Stoke box with Highdyke box. There is a connection from the nearest pole down to the distant signal; this actuated an instrument in Stoke box to inform the signalman if the signal developed a fault.
The photographer had climbed the Down Main advance starting signal post (which appears in the next photograph) to achieve this shot.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.
On 22nd June 1961 Edinburgh Haymarket based class A4 No. 60031 'Golden Plover' leaves Stoke Tunnel with the Up 'Elizabethan'.
Above the first coach is the Down Main line advance starting signal of Stoke box, with the yellow distant signal for Highdyke beneath. The signals are offset over the line on a bracket for better visibility, because the approach is on a left hand curve.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.
The Up 'Talisman', the 08.30 Edinburgh Waverley to London King's Cross express, has just left Stoke Tunnel and is approaching Stoke box at 1.50pm on 22nd June 1961. It is hauled by an unidentified English Electric 'Deltic' 3,300hp diesel electric locomotive (only five of the class, D9001 to D9005, were active at this date). The locomotive is showing the correct train headcode for this service, 1A23, but it also carries two white-painted oil lamps, one above each buffer, the system used on steam locomotives to identify a class 'A' train.
In the foreground the Down Goods line converges with the Down Main line. The white 'T' indicates the termination of a temporary speed restriction in the Down direction.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.
The Up 'Norseman' from Newcastle (Tyne Commission Quay) to London King's Cross approaches Stoke box at 12.50pm on Thursday 22nd June 1961. The locomotive is class V2 No. 60826.
There is another train signalled towards the tunnel on the Down Main line. The line on the left is the Down Goods which converges with the Down Main at this point. The trap points on the left are set to divert any overrunning train on the Goods line away from the main line and into a short dead-end siding with a sand drag (the rails run through a bed of sand) to retard its progress.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.
Approaching the same position from the oppsite direction, on 30th June 1961 a train for Newcastle passes Stoke box at 4.40pm hauled by class A3 No. 60066 'Merry Hampton'.
The box is hidden by the train, but its tall chimney is visible above the front of the first coach. The locomotive is framed by the Up home signal, indicating a choice of route opposite the box: left for the Up Goods and straight on for the Up Main.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.
A southbound freight is signalled to take the Up Main line where the Up Goods line diverges at Stoke on 22nd June 1961 with class V2 No. 60862.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.
Class A3 No. 60047 'Donovan' of Grantham shed speeds past Stoke box at 11.50am on 22nd June 1961 with an express passenger train from Newcastle to King's Cross.
On the left, a train of mineral wagons is held on the Down Goods line because the Down Main starting signal in the far distance is 'off' for an overtaking train. Steam from the locomotive waiting with the mineral wagons rises behind the first coach of the express.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.
Stoke box was just over 100 miles from King's Cross, and we again see Grantham's A3 No. 60047 'Donovan' , approaching the box northbound at the 100 milepost at 2.15pm on Friday 30th June 1961 with 'The Northumbrian'.  In front of the second coach is a sign indicating the comencement of the temporary speed restriction whose termination board we saw in a previous photograph..
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.
The approach to Stoke box from the south, viewed from a 3-arched landowner's accommodation bridge seen in the previous photograph.
The outline of the box can be seen ¾ mile away, while in the cutting stand three signals: the Down Goods distant on the left and the Up Main and Up Goods starting signals (the latter hidden by its square sighting board).
The lines ascend here at a gradient of 1 in 178 from Corby Glen, 3 miles south.  It's the steepest section of Stoke Bank, whose summit is marked by the box.  On this stretch of line the front of a 12-coach train ascending the bank will be 4 feet higher than the rear coach.
With no trains to distract the eye one has to admire the neat and tidy condition in which this dead straight section of railway was kept by the local permanent way gang, who were based in the hut on the left. On the right it appears that a drainage ditch has been provided just inside the railway boundary to stabilise the side of the cutting by diverting rainwater runoff from adjacent land.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.

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16 thoughts on “Stoke Signal Box

  1. Humphrey Platts

    An excellent and very valuable addition to the website, especially the photographs inside the Box. A lonely place to work if it was not such a busy line!

  2. TracksthroughGrantham1

    Phil and Humphrey - many thanks for leaving such appreciative comments. I'm sure Derek will be pleased to read them too. It was a very interesting page to put together.
    Just recently a collection of photographs has been made available to us at 'Tracks through Grantham' which includes a number of new views at Stoke summit. So we'll be in a position to refresh the page with some more photographs in a few months' time.
    John Clayson.

  3. Alan Curtis

    What a wonderful series of images and details about this box. I spent some time there in the sixties photographing trains, but looking back, very few actually show the box! All my shots are black and white, so good to see these colour pictures. We had cups of coffee made for us by the then signalman, Pete, IIRC. We had walked from Great Ponton box and over the tunnel to get there so the coffee was very welcome!

  4. Andy Overton

    A great set of photos. One thing which particularly interests me is how close the Up distant was to the Home signal, there must have been totally inadequate braking distance, it can't have been more than 300-400 yards. I guess they got away with it steam days as speeds would be low exiting Stoke tunnel after breasting the bank but it does make you wonder why it wasn't moved back to the Grantham side of the tunnel. The later photo of the box diagram, after the semaphore had been abolished and replaced by a colour light, shows that latterly this is exactly what they did, using Highdyke's advanced starter to act as distant. I suspect it started to become a real issue once diesels came onto the scene. You can also see the same thing with the Down Goods Distant, but I suspect speeds were low on the Goods so it wasn't such an issue.

    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Hello Andy,
      Thanks for your feedback. I've checked some photographs and in the semaphore era, so far as I can see, there's no Up distant for Stoke on the north side of the tunnel. Certainly the gantry at Highdyke carried no distant arms for the Up direction. I wonder if there was a local arrangement in place between Highdyke and Stoke before the change to colour light signals to prevent, or reduce, the likelihood of a train exiting the tunnel at speed being faced with adverse signals at Stoke? I will ask around.
      John Clayson

  5. Brian Camp

    This is a very fascinating series of photos and descriptions. It takes me back to the summers of 62/63 when I was at Knebworth but unfortunately did not have a camera. It is so interesting to see what was further up the line as at the time I could only imagine, and I wonder if anybody took a series of photos of Knebworth like the ones of Stoke Summit.

    Thank you very much.

    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Hello Ian. We're glad you found Tracks through Grantham of interest, and thanks for letting us know.
      John Clayson

    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Hello John,
      Thank you for getting in touch. We're delighted to hear that you enjoyed our page about Stoke box. We count ourselves very fortunate that on Tracks through Grantham we have the support of many contributors. The Stoke box page is a particularly fine example of memories and images generously provided independently by several people which we have been able to draw together.
      Kind Regards,
      John Clayson

  6. Paul Tranmer

    Fascinating and interesting pictures. I have often wondered how the speed record took place and exactly where. Thank you for these pictures.

    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Hello Paul,
      Thank you very much for your kind comment about our page on the signal box at Stoke. We're pleased you enjoyed reading about the box and its place in Grantham's railway history.
      Best wishes,
      John Clayson

  7. Adrian Harrison

    This page is proving an invaluable resource for researching this section of the line as, along with help from fellow members of the East Grinstead Model Railway Club, I am just starting to build a model of this location and Corby Glen station and shall be constantly visiting to restudy and also read the other pages.
    Kind Regards,
    Adrian Harrison

    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Hello Graham,

      Thank you for your comment. We're sure there were many times that 100mph has been exceeded by a steam locomotive between Stoke summit and Tallington. Several of these occasions have been officially recorded, such as with A4 No. 60007 on 23rd July 1959 (112mph) and 6th July 1963 (103mph) (see this page and scroll down to those dates). On this page of the Tracks through Grantham website Roy Vinter describes how Grantham footplate crew would quite often aspire to beat 'the ton', given the opportunity.

      John Clayson


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