NEXT Sunday, a walk is going back to the very beginnings of the railways. It is going to Etherley, the starting point of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, where in 1825, the earthworks were so great that they were regarded as one of the great engineering marvels of the age.
Today, the bridges are down, the reservoirs are filled in, and the trackbed is usually overgrown – which is why, before the vegetation has begun its annual growth, the walk is being bravely scheduled for a February Sunday.
The S&DR began at Witton Park Colliery, which was a little to the east of the village of Witton Park. The colliery was 470ft above sea level.
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The line then dropped a little to the Phoenix pit at Phoenix Row, from where waggons were hauled 1,109ft up to the top of Etherley ridge – 646ft above sea level – by two 15 horsepower stationary engines. The engines then lowered the waggons down the ridge 2,185 yards to West Auckland on the floor of the Gaunless Valley, from where they began their journey to Shildon, Darlington and Stockton.
These two engines, with enormous rotating drums winding the cable in and out, were designed by Robert Stephenson, George’s 20-year-old son, and built in Newcastle for £1,982 15s. Although they were ordered in November 1823, they were not installed in working order until September 16, 1825 – distressingly close to the railway’s opening day on September 27.
On opening day, some spectators came to marvel at Locomotion No 1, the steam horse which moved by itself; others climbed up to Etherley to gawp at the earthworks up to 40ft high – how could manmade machines move so much earth?
In 1875, The Northern Echo recalled: "The earth waggons in use were mechanical monstrosities, square squat things. They were as good as any in the district; but they were very bad for all that. They were not only clumsy; they were barbarous, shearing off many a finger.”
Coal was carried out of the Etherley pits and down the incline until 1842 when the Shildon Tunnel opened. The tunnel enabled steam locomotives to reach the coalfield and so rendered the incline redundant, and nature began to reclaim the line.
On Sunday, John Raw will lead an expedition of intrepid adventurers from the Brusselton Incline Group and the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway to see what can be seen. All other hardy souls are welcome for the 2.5 mile walk. Meet at 10.45am at Low Greenfields, on Greenfields Road to the west of Woodhouses, near Bishop Auckland, from where a car-sharing arrangement will take people back to the beginnings.
For further information, particularly if the weather on the day dawns dicey, call 01388-663764. Sturdy boots and sandwiches required.