THE Stanhope & Tyne Railway epitomised the madly optimistic nature of early railway building. With Robert Stephenson and Thomas Elliott Harrison overseeing it, it was constructed in the mid 1830s to take the minerals and stone dug and blasted from the quarries of Stanhope to near the mouth of the Tyne at South Shields.

The trouble was that quarries behind Stanhope were 767ft above sea level but to get up Crawleyside and over the top of the Durham moors to Waskerley Park, the railway had to climb to 1,474ft above sea level.

Through a combination of ropes, stationary engines, gravity, horsepower and ingenuity, it made it, and its first section opened in May 1834. However, such was the steep nature of the incline above Stanhope, even on the opening day there was a runaway train when a rope snapped at the Weatherhill Engine. The runaway train was diverted into a siding, but still it killed a man and a boy.

The highest point at Parkhead is the highest that a proper railway climbs to in England and Wales – the touristy train up Snowdon climbs to 3,560ft, but it is a narrow gauge rack-and-pinion railway. By contrast, the summit at Stainmore, on the trans-Pennine line from Barnard Castle, was 1,370ft and it is only 10ft lower than the Drumochter pass which is the highest on the Scottish Highland Railway.

The opening of the railway encouraged the digging of more quarries in Stanhope. The largest of these was the Ashes, which was opened in 1870, producing limestone, which was used for road-building and then as flux in the steel-making blast furnaces of Consett.

In its peak around the time of the First World War, the Ashes quarry produced 136,000 tons of limestone a year, and employed 200 men. However, production ceased, and now the quarry is private property, although a footpath and a geotrail go through it.

Memories 372 included a picture of a Weardale quarry, probably Ashes, from the Maddison album, which we have been reproducing here. Ord & Maddison was the Darlington-based company that sold the minerals quarried in Weardale.

We were intrigued by the “butt-type shelters” in the picture.

“As a child, I lived in Crawleyside, a small village on the edge of Ashes quarry, and I would say the shelters were for workmen when high explosives were used to blow up the rock,” says Mrs J Dunn, of Crook. “I remember the older boys of the village had a Tarzan swing on one of the trees on the edge of the quarry – there was no health and safety in those days.”

John Smailes, who has written extensively about the Steeley company’s quarries in the North-East, says: “As well as being meal cabins in bad weather, I suspect the “butt-type shelters” are all back facing the quarry face, so they are safety shelters for the quarrymen when blasting. They are, though, close to the face so the men could quickly return to it to hand fill the stone into rail trucks, which may even have been pushed by hand.

“I suspect many a shelter was damaged in the blasts.”