EXACTLY 90 years ago, the railway backwater of Broken Brea had its brief moment of fame: it was central to what may still be the largest ever movement of people by rail – three million people came by train to the north of England to see a total eclipse of the sun.

After that, no one gave Broken Brea another thought – it became eclipsed itself – until a fortnight ago when a misfiled picture of its battered level crossing buildings appeared in Memories, with a request to locate its whereabouts.

Our readers remembered. Scores and scores got in touch to put us on the right track. Thanks to one and all.

Loading article content

“Broken Brea was a level crossing on the Richmond branch railway, situated between Richmond and Brompton-on-Swale,” said David Sayer. “As a youngster l crossed this level crossing twice a day traveling to school from North Cowton (the railway station at North Cowton was named Moulton even though North Cowton was next to the station!).”

Bob Clarke said: “Seeing the Broken Brea sign reminded me of the times I have sat at the closed gates waiting for a train to go by. It is on the B6271 between Richmond and Brompton-on-Swale and the line was from Richmond to Darlington.”

David Porter said: “It is where the B6271 passes the River Swale on a sharp curve. It is two miles east of the old Richmond railway terminus. At Broken Brea, passengers could detrain and entrain having previously notified the guard and driver.”

Anne Stoker said: “It is adjacent to the Millbry Hill pet store with Broken Brea Farm to the rear of the store. As children during the Second World War, my brother and I went with my aunt to Broken Brea Farm to buy eggs.”

John Olney, of Marrick, near Reeth, said: “Broken Brea crossing had a hand-operated gate during the war and for several years afterwards. There was a gatekeeper’s house nearby, which has since become a private house, where people used to shelter. There weren’t many cars about then, but when the gatekeeper came out to close the gates, people would curse him.”

In his e-mail, Arthur C Wheeler was at pains to point out that local people pronounced it “Bree-a”, and when Norman Hillary called from Aycliffe, he pronounced the place where he lived as a child “Brock-ken Bree-a”.

Carol Bowe: “It looks as though your photograph was taken after the railway line had closed, but before the crossing gates were removed. I was brought up at Brompton-on-Swale until my marriage in 1980, so used to know that road well.”

Let’s throw a few facts at the proceedings. The Richmond branchline opened on September 10, 1946. It was nine miles and 62 chains long. It branched off the East Coast Mainline at Dalton-on-Tees (from 1901, known as Eryholme) which was an unusual station because it served no community and had no road access. People – mainly soldiers – just waited there, in the middle of nowhere, for a train out to Richmond.

From Dalton/Eryholme, the branchline ran through Dalton Gates, over Straggleton Crossing to Moulton station which, as David Sayer noted, was much closer to North Cowton that it was to Moulton.

After Moulton, the line came to Scorton station, which was a third-of-a-mile from Scorton village. However, next to the station was an ancient well, called St Cuthbert’s Well perhaps because St Cuthbert miraculously revealed a spring there to the thirsty monks carrying his body in 883AD (see Memories 262). The arrival of the railway popularised the well to such an extent that a pub sprung up – St Cuthbert’s Inn – next to the station to satisfy the thirsts of the pilgrims.

After Moulton, the line rattled into Catterick Bridge station, which is really on the edge of the village of Brompton-on-Swale. From here, a four-mile branchline ran into Catterick Camp. As regular readers will know, this station was badly damaged in 1944 when an ammunition train exploded.

From Catterick Bridge, the line rolled on to Broken Brae crossing where there was a post saying it was two miles to Richmond. Those two miles involved crossing the Swale near Easby Abbey before coming to a halt in the splendid Richmond Station.

In fact, all of the buildings along the line are rather splendid, even the Broken Brea crossing keeper’s cottage which, as Stephen Moralee pointed out, is Grade II listed. This is because the line was promoted by the crooked Railway King, George Hudson of York, to whom money was no object, and because the properties along it were designed by his prince of the pencil, George Townsend Andrews.

Andrews worked closely, and skilfully, with Hudson for 20 years – his other surviving works in our area include the stations along the Wensleydale Railway and also the Haughton Road engine shed in Darlington which is at this very moment being converted into apartments. When Hudson’s railway bubble burst, forcing him to flee the country, the career of Andrews, an honourable man, was finished, and he died soon afterwards, aged 51.

In 1846, when the line opened, three passenger trains ran along it every day, the journey from Darlington to Richmond taking 45 minutes. The line was conceived, like so many early railways, to transport minerals, notably lead ore, and there were plans to push it further up Swaledale to Reeth to be closer to the leadmines.

However, unknown to the railway promoters, leadmining had peaked by the time the line opened. But it found a new use from 1915 when Catterick Camp was created, and the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who served there during the 20th Century largely travelled by train.

But the line’s busiest day was June 29, 1927, when the North Eastern Railway carried three million people into the “band of totality” to witness the sun being eclipsed by the moon – the last total eclipse visible in England had been in 1724; the next one wouldn’t be until 1999, so it was a once in a lifetime occurrence (the next one, incidentally, is September 23, 2090, so good luck if you are hoping to see it).

In 1927, the "band of totality" stretched from Llandudno on the Welsh coast, through Blackpool and Lancaster before crossing the Pennines. In the North-East, Muker, Bowes, Barnard Castle, West Auckland, Murton and Ryhope were on its northern edges, and Pateley Bridge, Northallerton, Stokesley and Saltburn on its southern fringes.

Richmond was bang, slap in the middle, and the dales around were full of amateur astronomers camping out and the railway lines were full of excursion trains. East Coast Mainline stations like Darlington, Northallerton and Croft Spa were exceptionally busy – for example, at 3.55am, a special train arrived at Croft Spa bearing 600 public schoolboys from Oundle who then took a motor bus to Richmond – and branchlines like Richmond were full to capacity.

The eclipse began at 5.26am was over by 7.17am. "Totality", when the moon completely obscured the sun, lasted for just 23 seconds at 6.20am. The racecourse high above Richmond was a particularly popular viewing place, with about 35,000 people up there.

With military precision, the NER arranged for eight crowded Eclipse Specials to pull into Richmond station between 1.35am and 4.45am, disgorge their passengers, and then reverse down the line to park between Easby Abbey and Broken Brea so the next train could enter the station.

Once the eclipse was over – everyone was disappointed because it was so cloudy, people only saw the merest peeps although they did experience the unearthly darkness of the moment – the trains returned to Richmond, collected their passengers and, between 8.15am and 1.30pm, headed for home.

After such excitement, Broken Brea returned to being an anonymous backwater on the railway network.

The Richmond line was closed by the Beeching Axe of 1963, although it wasn’t until March 3, 1969, that the very last train ran along its tracks.

BLOB With many thanks to Richard Barber of the JW Armstrong Railway Trust, and also to Barry Hodgetts, Heather Higgins, Pat Clark, Alison Porter, Brian Gann, Peter Elliott, George Bolam, Peter White, Trevor Horner, Steve Tarren, Brian Simpson, Michael Waite, Kevin Taylor, Shirley Watson, John Lavender, Andy Brown, David Porter, Brian Mason and everyone else who got in touch.

TOM HUTCHINSON sent in old maps showing the location of Broken Brea. On his 1891 map, when the railway was at its most dominant, the crossing is referred to as “Broken Brea”, which is the way it is spelled on the crossing hut in our January 1970 picture. However, on Tom’s 1952 map it is called “Broken Brae”, which is how the Ordnance Survey, and the Broken Brae farmer, spells it today.

“Brae” is a Scottish word for the steep slope down to a river, and we think that “Broken” is applied to place names where the smooth flow of a river is broken by rocks – think Broken Scar on the Tees at Darlington.

So did the railway mis-spell “Brae” when it painted the nameboard for “Broken Brea”, or does the fact that there is no steep slope down to the Swale here mean that we are once more on the wrong track?

AND who can tell us about St Trinian’s? It is a Grade II listed hall, built in the early 18th Century and extended by Leonard Jacques of Easby in 1906, about quarter-of-a-mile west of Broken Brae. Tell us about the hall, and especially tell us how it came by its name. There is no saint called Trinian in the Penguin Dictionary of Saints, so who is it named after, and were there ever naughty schoolgirls with hockey sticks there?