Curators to meet archaeologists to preserve 200-year-old wooden railway

The Northern Echo: Archaeologists work on the site at the former Neptune shipyard, in Walker, Newcastle. Picture: Tom Banks Archaeologists work on the site at the former Neptune shipyard, in Walker, Newcastle. Picture: Tom Banks

MUSEUM curators from the North-East are meeting with archeologists to discuss how to preserve a 200-year-old wooden railway found in the region.

The 25-metre stretch of waggonway from the end of the 18th Century is the earliest surviving example of the standard gauge railway.

Archeologists working on the site of the former Neptune shipyard in Walker, Newcastle, have contacted the National Railway Museum at Shildon and Beamish Museum, near Chester-le-Street.

Anthony Coulls, an NRW curator based at Shildon, said: “Eighteenth century waggonways don’t grow on trees and we are very lucky to have the chance to look at this one.

“We hope that through recording it and through saving parts of it we will be able to learn some more about the pre locomotive railway.”

The track formed part of the network of waggonways which served the pits of south east Northumberland and Tyneside during the industrial revolution.

The find has been made by archaeologists digging on the site, which is being developed by Shepherd Offshore, led by Richard Carlton and Alan Williams of the Newcastle-based The Archaeological Practice.

Director Alan Rushworth said: “It will require conservation and some of them are in quite a poor state because they have been exposed to weathering

“Various museums have been contacted and what happens next depends on whether they want to take it and whether it is suitable for them.”

The discovery has revealed features which previously had only been known from the 18th  and 19th  Century drawings and notebooks of engineers like John Buddle, who lived near the excavation site.

The dig has found a “main way” heavy duty waggonway lined with double wooden rails, one laid on top of the other to prolong the life of the system.

The waggonway has a loop from the main line to enter a dip which would have once been a pond into which the wooden wheels of the coal wagons would have been immersed to stop them from drying out and cracking.

Newcastle historian Les Turnbull, whose book on waggonways, entitled Railways Before George Stephenson, was published earlier this year, said: “Nothing of this nature has been found before in terms of complexity.”

He said the discovery was of greater importance than any Roman find, adding: “One of the gifts of the North-East to world history is the development of the railways. Coal and the railways are Tyneside’s heritage and this waggonway was part of that because without the waggonways the coalfields would not have developed.”

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