In South Lincolnshire on the afternoon of 28th January 1970, the countryside was enveloped in thick, freezing fog. It made the roads treacherous and there were protracted delays on the trains. Driving in country lanes was especially hazardous. Although some level crossings had already been fitted with so-called ‘continental barriers’, with relatively sophisticated warning systems, most were still simple five-barred gates operated manually. The practice in country districts where there wasn’t much traffic was to leave the gates closed against the road. Vehicles wishing to cross had to summon the crossing-keeper, who usually resided in an adjacent lodge-house tied to the job. Such an arrangement existed at Sutterton Dowdyke, a tiny hamlet a few miles south of Boston and east of the A16.
On 28th January, the regular Peterborough to Skegness train was considerably delayed by the fog. The driver of a tanker lorry owned by the council who regularly travelled on Dowdyke Road rang the bell to summon the crossing keeper to open the gates. The driver and his mate had been sent to empty a cesspit in the area and, task completed, were now returning to their depot. The crossing keeper, a woman in late middle age, came out and chatted with them briefly before opening the gates. The driver eased the lorry onto the crossing (most crossings at the time were notoriously bumpy) and was sitting right in the middle of it when the train came thundering through the fog, which had muffled the noise it was making until this moment, and flung the lorry into the air. The train was derailed. It ploughed into the lodge-house and turned the building one hundred and eighty degrees on its foundations. The lorry driver’s mate was killed instantly; the lorry driver himself was taken to hospital, critically injured.
Miraculously, the crossing-keeper was not hurt, but collapsed at the scene and was also taken to hospital, badly shocked.
My family and I first learned of the accident when watching the nine o’clock news that evening. The site of the accident wasn’t named, but my father recognised the lodge-house. We drove there immediately and then on to the Pilgrim Hospital to visit the crossing keeper. She was my father’s aunt and my own great-aunt.
My memories of that night sowed the first seeds of the plot of The Crossing, the fourth DI Yates novel, which I have just completed.
5 thoughts on “Stimulus for a story…”
A sad memory, but a terrific enticement to read your book, Christina…as if I needed one 😉
It must have been cathartic to write the story.
Luciana and Valerie, may I respond to you both at once? Thank you for your comments – you are two very loyal followers of this blog (and I’m very conscious of having been away from it for much of this summer, for which I apologise to you both and to everyone else who visits) and I’m very grateful, now and always!
It’s an event in my family history that moved me at the time and has lingered in my subconscious until now, so I suppose, Luciana, that I did have some sort of psychological need to get it out of my system. However, the part which upset me most at the time, the bit that still affects, was not the accident itself, with its fatality and its awful impact on the house, but seeing my great-aunt in hospital. She was profoundly shocked and, to put it gently, had lost her mind; she never really recovered. I ought to say that she was quite unlike Ruby, for the portrayal of whom I have altered almost everything about her, to suit my story, and until the accident she was a very likeable Scot with a great personality and sense of humour.
How terrible for your aunt and your memory of her. It’s awful to remember a person when they are at their most vulnerable, especially when you knew what they were like before the accident happened.
Yes, it shook up the whole family to see her like that. Thanks, Luciana.