TWO by two, the stone sleepers are again marching along the embankment at Brusselton. They were laid very neatly very nearly 200 years ago, but as the centuries swept by, they became abandoned and then overgrown.

But this summer, local volunteers have plucked out the saplings, dug out the sleepers, gilled up the way and turned their thoughts to restoring a neighbouring bridge. They have done brilliant work at Brusselton.

"I saw in The Northern Echo about the bridge being vandalised in 2013 and it has gone from there," said Michael O'Neill, one of the founders of the Brusselton Incline Group. "This is the first passenger railway in the world and it has been forgotten about."

"I am Shildon born and bred," said Trevor Bunker, another of the founders, "and it is a sin and a crime that this place is not on the map."

THE entrepreneurial idea behind the Stockton and Darlington Railway was to connect the south Durham coalfield with the sea so that coal could be quickly, and profitably, dug out of the ground and sailed down to London. The geographical difficulty was that the coalfield was protected from the sea by a couple of tall hills.

So George Stephenson decided to lay as much of his track as possible along the flattish sea plain for his "loco-motive or moveable engines" to run on.

Then he decided to place stationery engines on top of the hills, which his locomotives were unable to climb. These fixed engines would use a rope to pull the coal wagons up to the top of the hills and then lower them down to the waiting locomotives.

One of these engines was fixed at Etherley, which hauled wagons up from Witton Park in the north and lowered them down to West Auckland in the valley of the River Gaunless. Horses then hauled the wagons through the valley to the foot of the Brusselton Incline, on top of which in a large engine house, sat the second engine (to be factually accurate, it was two 30hp engines, built by Robert Stephenson and Company in Forth Street, Newcastle, for £3,482 15s, which acted in tandem).

It hauled the wagons up the one-and-a-half mile incline to the enginehouse and then dropped them half-a-mile into New Shildon for the locomotives to pick up.

The Brusselton enginehouse straddled the line. It had a horizontal drum, winding in the rope, spinning above the wagons which passed underneath.

On the north side of the line, there was a boilerhouse and chimney, plus a terrace of railwaymen's houses (all now demolished). On the south side of the line was the engineman's house, which survives.

The S&DR opened on September 27, 1825, with thousands of curious people thronging to Brusselton to see what was happening, and several hundred of the bravest clinging to the 13 wagons – 12 of coal and one of flour – as the Brusselton engine hauled them to the top and then lowered them into New Shildon where Locomotion No 1 was waiting.

"The engines drew forth expressions of admiration from everyone, so beautiful is their construction, and so completely do they execute their work," said a contemporary report.

But the report was talking nonsense. As anyone who has ever wound up a garden hose knows, cables rarely go round a drum perfectly. They twist, they kink, they stretch, they break.

Yet the railway' had to get coal over Brusselton if it was going to be able to make any money, and so engineer Timothy Hackworth put in great efforts trying to get the incline working properly, including inventing a "cow" – a contrivance that deliberately threw the wagons off the track once the rope snapped, so preventing them from running down the hill and smashing up everything in their path.

But, as his biographer wrote in 1925, "the machinery (at Brusselton) was complicated and cumbersome and continually going out of order". So, in 1831, Hackworth designed a new system which involved a large horizontal drum and a new 80hp engine.

It worked, in that Brusselton stopped being a major headache. In 1833, a passenger service opened over the incline, and one record-breaking day in 1839, 67 runs were made carrying 2,120 tons of coal up and down it.

There were some non-mechanical faults that Hackworth couldn't solve. In his diary, he explained why a low amount of coal had made it over Brusselton by writing: "Wagon men drinking."

And not even Hackworth could alter the fact that, in an age of rapidly moving trains, these permanent engines were very old-fashioned technology. In 1839, the railway began building Shildon Tunnel underneath the hills so that locomotives could directly reach the coalfield on the other side. When it opened in 1842, Brusselton was by-passed and it became a backwater, serving local collieries. In 1859, its engine was sold off, it fell derelict, as today's front cover shows, and nature began to move in – ironically preserving some historic relics from the earliest days of railways.

THE volunteers have uncovered 306 stone sleepers on Brusselton. When this part of the line was laid in 1823, the rails were originally laid on stock blocks that were about 21 inches by 15 inches by ten inches. They weighed 75lbs, which was judged by the railway proprietors to be what one man could carry – if they'd been any heavier, they would have had to pay two men to manoeuvre them into place.

The rails were attached to the blocks by "chairs" – iron brackets. The brackets were held in place by two nails which went into holes drilled in the stone by boys at Brusselton quarry. The boys were paid 8d a day for drilling 24 blocks.

In the early 1830s, the blocks were replaced by bigger, heavier stones. The new ones were 2ft square, and the chairs were attached by four nails so that the railway became much more stable.

THERE were three bridges on the line to the west of Brusselton. The first went over a little road and was called the Accommodation Bridge. The second, just yards further on, was built so that a farmer could get his dairy cows from one field to the next. It was called the Milk Road Bridge, and it still stands – although in need of repair.

The most westerly took the railway under Dere Street, the Roman road from Piercebridge to Binchester. This bridge has also gone, but an article in The Northern Echo in 1925 said: "Descending the incline we come to the Roman road, as it is called, which was formerly carried over the railway by a bridge. These early railway bridges had not much headway, and the conductors of the coaches found it necessary when approaching them to shout to the passengers on the top 'heads down'."

THE engineman at the top of Brusselton Incline had to be told when wagons a mile-and-a-half away were ready to be pulled up. A tall pole was erected at the bottom with a disc on top of it. When the disc was spinning, it meant the wagons were ready.

To see the disc, the engineman had a telescope permanently fixed near his chair. This is said to be the first recorded example of a railway signal system anywhere in the world.

However, it was no good in fog, so long wires attached to bells or rappers were installed.

THE early wagons had brakes that could only be applied from inside the vehicle – not a lot of good if the rope snapped, sending the unmanned wagons dashing down to Shildon, smashing into anything that stood in their way.

Young lads were employed to stand by the side of the incline ready to jump aboard a runaway train and apply the brake.

Near the foot of the bank, there was a more desperate braking device: men with huge blocks of wood and tree trunks which they threw into the path of the rolling wagons to deliberately derail them.

The most famous rope breakage came in 1832, involving a wagon containing the Pease brothers, Joseph and Henry (Joseph is on the statue in Darlington's High Row and Henry founded Saltburn). Timothy Hackworth was also in it, as was William Kitching, the founder of the Whessoe foundry.

When the rope snapped, three of them managed to scramble clear.

"The unlucky man who did not jump was William Kitching, a man of Ortonian dimensions, weighing some 18 or 19 stones who was by no means so spry in the legs as his younger companions," said The Northern Echo in 1875. "Perceiving his danger, Mr Kitching clutched hold of the long brake and laid his whole weight across it."

A gang of youths, led by John Summerson, jumped aboard and helped.

"Thanks to their united exertions, the wagons were only going at the rate of eight or nine miles an hour when they reached the bottom of the incline, and in a few minutes they were brought sharply up by running into some other waggons. None of them happened any injury, but Mr Kitching, purple in the face and streaming with perspiration, received a shaking for which he was entirely unprepared."

Mr Pease gave young Summerson a shilling for his efforts.

TO learn more about the volunteers, or to get in touch with them, go to You can also find them on Facebook. They are keen to hear from anyone with information about Brusselton and they are very grateful to the many local companies who have given them support to do such brilliant things at Brusselton.