PLANS have been lodged with Durham County Council to repair a footbridge at Shildon over the trackbed of the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

Normally such plans would be welcome, as we need to repair and restore all of our railway artefacts in the run-up to the 200th anniversary of the railway in 2025.

But the Bishop Line Community Rail Partnership has objected to the plans, saying they are “totally inappropriate”. The Friends of the S&DR say they are “disappointed” by the plans, and the New Shildon Residents Association say that the repairs will “destroy the character of the bridge completely”.

The bridge in question is the one behind the Locomotion railway museum, known variously as Thickley Wood Bridge, Hildyard’s Bridge, the Cattle Bridge or just “the fancy bridge”.

It is a fancy bridge because it is very wide and was built in four different stages, between 1857 and 1875. Its growth matched the growth of the Shildon sidings which were once beneath it.

It is the southern 1875 section of the bridge that Network Rail is proposing to replace with a soil embankment because it is so dilapidated. A decision on the application is being made by an officer at Durham County Council at the beginning of next week.

The oldest, northern section of the bridge is the most interesting. It was built from cast iron in 1857 so that a farmer – possibly Mr Hildyard – could get his cattle across the S&DR without them getting squashed. When the line had opened in 1825, it had been just a single track and so there might not have been a justification for an expensive bridge, but as more tracks were added, Mr Hildyard’s beasts must have been struggling to trip-trap their way across.

This section of the bridge is a Grade II listed because it is “a single casting of exceptional length”.

Even better it has the name of its maker cast into it – “HARRIS MDCCCLVII MAKER”, it says.

This is believed to be John Harris, a Lancastrian Quaker, who was the S&DR’s resident engineer from 1836 to 1844. He then became self-employed, and one of his many businesses was Hopetown foundry, in Darlington, where he cast the bridge. Despite his habit of making enemies in business, Mr Harris was a great success, building railways across the north and living in one of Darlington’s largest mansions – Woodside, between Blackwell Lane and Coniscliffe Road. He died in 1869, aged 58, having not had to work for a decade, leaving an estate worth £16,000 (about £1.8m in today’s values, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator).

Mr Harris’ cast section is attached to the bridge’s most curious span: a brick-built arch, from 1868-69.

When the track that ran through it was lifted in the 1950s, this arch had the indignity of being converted into a three-man toilet. There were no cubicles, just three bottom-shaped holes in a bench placed over a stream which had been channelled through the arch to flush any deposits away.

Connected to the southern end of the arch is another iron span, from about 1868-69, which in turn connects to the 1875 section which Network Rail wants to replace.

These spans were added as Shildon sidings grew into the largest marshalling yards in the world, or so it was claimed. There were 27 miles of tracks in the sidings, all filled with coal wagons which would be made into trains – the length of the train depended upon the amount of Durham coal that each customer required.

It is said that Shildon only ceased being the largest sidings in the world when it was overtaken by Chicago in 1927.

So the bridge tells the story of the growth of Shildon: from nothing in the earliest days of the railway to being the biggest in the world.

The New Shildon Residents Association says of the plan to replace nearly half the bridge with a soil embankment: "It sets a very poor precedent. We should be hanging on to these structures, not destroying them – especially leading up to the bicentenary of the S&DR."

In its submission, Network Rail says: “By maintaining different styles of bridge across the spans, the appearance of the bridge will alter but it will still tell a story of the development of the railway across a period of time. The alterations will obviously make a change especially with the addition of the embankment but will not deter from the appearance of the Listed sections of the bridge. The appearance of the bridge will remain as one altered over the years to accommodate an ever changing railway and local landscape.”

Or it could be said that replacing the last section of the bridge with a soil embankment is like ripping out the last pages of the story so that no one can ever see its proper ending again.

THE best story in this week’s edition of the Darlington & Stockton Times newspaper in 1868 – so exactly 150 years ago – bore the eye-catching headline “The recent elopement from Durham”.

It concerned Irishman John McCulloch, who had given his wife £7 to buy some furniture on the previous Monday morning.

But instead, as soon as her “lord and master’s back was turned”, this unfaithful lady had fled by train to Stockton with her paramour, who was “a crippled fiddler”.

On discovering this unhappy news on Monday evening, Mr McCulloch had dashed to Durham station and “demanded to know the earliest time he could be forwarded to Stockton” – does this suggest that because he’d given his wife all his spare money, he could now only afford to travel as a parcel?

With a chortle, the D&S concluded its article by saying that Mr McCulloch “had been twice bereaved of his partner in life, and also of his funds in hand”.