AT 1pm, 150 years ago, the great and the good entrained at Darlington and were soon entranced by the first railway journey into one of the country’s most beautiful, and remote, areas.

At Barnard Castle, the Darlington contingent budged up in their carriages as they were joined by “a large number of persons anxious of availing themselves of the opportunity by the first railway train which entered the picturesque district of Teesdale”.

May 12, 1868, was the day that rail came to a dale.

Off they went over the Tees Viaduct, a remarkable construction that had been built seven years earlier when the railway from Darlington to Barnard Castle had been extended over Stainmore. The Darlington and Stockton Times could not contain itself, saying that the viaduct "presents to the eye of the passenger one of the most delightful views which can be imagined, the background consisting of the crumbling ruins of the grand old castle, whilst to the front is spread out a perfect forest of fresh lightsome verdure, enlivened by the merry rippling of the Tees".

Then the inaugural train branched off the Stainmore line onto the new tracks of the Tees Valley Railway, an eight-mile line that ran north-west along the course of the river to terminate in Middleton-in-Teesdale.

The directors – a mixture of Darlington entrepreneurs and Teesdale worthies – had been granted Royal Assent to build the line on June 19, 1865. The Duke of Cleveland, who lived in Raby Castle and owned much of the land over which the line passed, had turned the first sod on November 9, 1865 – indeed, the ceremonial spade which he used and the wheelbarrow into which he turned the sod are nowadays on display on a grand stairway in the castle.

So it had taken two-and-a-half years to complete the construction. "The works, as you know, have been somewhat retarded by the climate which prevails in this district, " said the vice-chairman, Henry Pease, on the opening day.

The inclement climate had caused great landslips in the cuttings in January 1868, but it was the incompetence of the builders that caused a great tumbling of one of the viaducts in August 1867.

On opening day, the first village that the inaugural train came to was Cotherstone, "famous for its cheeses, and now for the first time furnished with a neat little station," said the D&S. The railway, though, rather mucked around with Cotherstone over the years, because from January 1906 to April 1914 it called the station “Cotherston”. Quite why they needed to lose the final e is hard to imagine.

Then it was over the River Balder - "a graceful viaduct of nine arches of 30ft span, the structure being 100ft in height" - and on to Romaldkirk, where the newspaper reporter encountered "the only incident of regret" on the line.

"In consequence of the high prices asked for land by the landowners in this vicinity, the company have not yet felt themselves justified in placing a station here, " said the D&S, "and Romaldkirk, with its fine old parish church and many interesting and literary reminiscences still remains unaccommodated."

The local landlords didn't hold out much longer, though, and a station was soon opened.

Although the stations along the line are humble, Memories was once told by a chap who renovated one of them that he was amazed when he came to the roof and found that even the hand-pressed nails holding the tiles on had the letters “NER”, for North-Eastern Railway, stamped into them.

On went the directors on opening day. "The line now attains a higher level and skirts the moor on the left, whilst on the right the scenery partakes of the character of an ever-varying panorama," said the D&ST.

It went whistling through Mickleton station, built a little outside the village, and then under Pipely road bridge before crossing the River Lune on "a noble erection of five arches of 50ft span, and 60ft in height".

This was where the builders’ incompetence had nearly caused a terrible calamity. The line had cost £8,000-a-mile to build with the two river viaducts, at £5,000 each, the most expensive pieces. They were designed by Alexander Nimmo and Thomas MacNay, who were not big-name engineers but who had worked under Sir Thomas Bouch on the remarkable constructions at Deepdale and Belah on the Stainmore line.

And it wasn’t their fault that in August 1867, the foreman building the viaduct order that the wooden mould, or “centre”, to be knocked out too early. The bricks rested on the wooden shape as the arch grew and the mortar set and the keystone was knocked into place to take the weight. The foreman, though, needed the centre so he could get cracking on the Balder Viaduct so he ordered that it should be knocked out of the Lune Viaduct before the keystone was in place.

This, said the D&S, “loosened the entire arch, when the bricks came tumbling down upon those below, who were engaged in freeing the centre. Four men were injured by the falling bricks and the wonder is that their lives were spared”.

But by opening day on May 12, 1868, all was complete, and the paper’s reporter enthused over the viaduct. "The view from this situation is magnificent," he said. "On either side of the rail the visitor may carry his glance for miles along the rocky, silvery Tees, garnished on each or either side with lovely landscape, whilst Laithkirk stands out prominently to the north and lends its pleasing quaintness to complete the general effect."

While admiring the reporter’s colourful prose, Memories has stood many times on the Lune Viaduct and wondered however he saw Laithkirk – an ancient barn converted into a church – through the rise of the hills and the thickness of the trees.

From the viaduct, it was less than a mile to the line's terminus at Middleton "where a very unobtrusive and becoming structure has been erected on a commanding position".

Although the main body of the town is on the north of the river, the station was on the south. This meant that the directors didn't have to fork out for another major bridge, but it was also because they hoped the Tees Valley Railway was just the first stage of a line which they would drive another 20 miles up to Alston.

So Middleton – and it was only Middleton until the “-in-Teesdale” bit was added in June 1894 to differentiate from all the other Middletons on the railway network – was only a temporary terminus

"Middleton is the beau ideal of rustic beauty and quietude," said the D&ST. "Nature has been lavish with her gifts, and they have not hitherto been destroyed by the sometimes-ruthless inventions of man."

Everyone got out that opening day to have a good look at those gifts.

"At the station, the directors were met by two bands by whom they were preceded into the village, at the entrance of which a beautiful triumphal arch had been erected, with the motto 'Success to Enterprise' inscribed in evergreens" said the paper.

A celebratory cup of tea was drunk in the London Lead Company's school room where the local vicar, The Reverend WL Green, thanked the grace of God that no one had been killed during the line's construction.

He also thanked the railway directors for listening to the dales folks' petition against Sunday trains, and against Sunday postal deliveries.

After several more speeches, everyone got back on the train and returned to Barnard Castle for 4pm, when "a splendid dinner" was served in the King's Head Hotel, followed by yet more speeches.

The commercial justification for the line was for it to collect the lead mined in the remote hills. But the directors arrived too late; by 1868, leadmining had peaked and was beginning to decline, and so stone, principally quarried from Ord & Maddison’s Crossthwaite quarry was the main load.

But the D&S also noted: “Besides intending to develop the ironstone and other mineral resources of the vicinity, the railway offers peculiar advantages to the tourist by rendering the High Force accessible with a walk about four miles from Middleton station through a most attractive country.”

Henry Pease said in one of his speeches: “We hope that tens of thousands may yet travel uninjured (along the line we have opened today), not only to markets and fairs, but to visit the beautiful district beyond and enjoy the scenery thereabouts. I have no doubt that should the public taste prove itself to be that which it ought to be and should numbers flock to the High Force, the Duke of Cleveland will not prove himself unmindful of the desire of many who visit that beautiful spot but will provide increased accommodation for the benefit of those who resort thither to enjoy it's beauties.”

And the duke did indeed enlarge his hotel at the waterfall soon after, as tourists became vital to the line – particularly cyclists who, in the 1880s, carried their new-fangled machines with them. The line even pioneered a travelcard-type ticket: you could get off at one station, pedal up to the next and then get back on as you pleased.

So you could leave Darlington at 7.13am and be in Middleton at 8.30am; you could leave London at 2.30pm and be in Middleton in time for dinner at 9.15pm.

But the line never really paid. In 1880, NER bought out the directors of the Tees Valley Railway and paid off their £22,000 debts, and by the time of the Second World War as quarrying and mining operations had ended, many trains were running empty.

The Tees Valley Railway closed on November 28, 1964, although its trackbed does still welcome walkers, cyclists and tourists who now travel under their own steam.