IT was the railway’s worst nightmare: two steam engines had somersaulted in a mass of metal down a steep bank at the entrance to Teesdale, tearing up the track as they toppled.

And, in just a few hours’ time, this track was due to carry the most important royal guests for years to their holiday in the castle of the lord who owned most of the dale.

A race against time began...

The drama of October 24, 1905, began at 10.40am when a heavy goods train left North Road station in Darlington bound for Barnard Castle. As it was then due to climb over the Stainmore summit to Tebay, two large engines hauled it.

The first was driven by Robert Pearson, of Cumberland Street, Darlington. His fireman was William Smith, of Pease Street, in the town. The second was driven by H Mountsey, of Ann's Terrace, in the Hopetown area of Darlington, with J Brown, of Harcourt Terrace, as his fireman.

Just as the iceberg that sunk the Titanic dropped off its Arctic shelf days before it drifted into the path of the world’s largest liner, so as the goods train passed through Piercebridge and onto Gainford, the railway fates were preparing all sorts of pitfalls in front of it.

A gang of platelayers was at work, lifting rails and replacing them.

As the train left Gainford and crossed over the two bridges over the Tees, the gang misread the timetable and removed a rail.

A signal had been set to warn the drivers of the work ahead. Inexplicably, both of them missed it.

The gang had fixed detonators to the line – little explosives that were supposed to go off when an engine’s heavy wheels went over them – to alert the drivers to the danger ahead. Inexplicably, the detonators failed to fire.

The platelayers had placed a watchman to watch their backs – but he wasn’t stationed far enough away. The line was greasy, and the train’s load was heavy. As it rounded the corner beneath Selaby Hall at 11.30am, it came to the spot where the rail was missing, and it couldn’t stop.

"The first engine went off the line," said The Northern Echo the next day. "It suddenly overbalanced down an embankment of nearly 40 feet, turning two complete somersaults sideways.

"The driver (Pearson) was shot from his place. Smith, however, went round completely with the locomotive at the first turn, and was then thrown out onto the bank.

“The engine landed in the field below on its side."

Pearson sustained two broken ribs and was hurt quite badly; his fireman enjoyed the "miraculous escape". "Singularly enough, Smith only received a flesh wound to his leg," said the Echo.

The second engine slid ignominiously halfway down the bank, although its crew were able to jump clear without any difficulty.

The accident happened at the start of the straight stretch of line which leads to Winston station. It was clearly visible behind Grant Cottage and Whinfield Farm from the A67 between Darlington and Barnard Castle.

A large crowd gathered to watch as the retrieval operation began.

"Some anxiety was created as to the possibility of the line not being ready for the journey of Princess Henry of Battenburg to Winston," said the Echo.

At 5.49pm that very evening, Princess Henry – Queen Victoria's youngest daughter – was due to arrive at Bank Top station and travel in a special royal train along the line to stay with Lord Barnard at Raby Castle.

The Echo said that it was her "autumn sojourn in the North", and she was accompanied by her 18-year-old daughter Princess Victoria Eugenie. The young princess was known as Ena to her friends, and just seven months later, she would marry King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and on her marriage day would survive an anarchist bomb attempt that splattered her wedding dress with blood.

That autumn day on the edge of Teesdale, nothing could be allowed to de-rail their travel plans.

A breakdown gang was immediately despatched from Darlington. As no one had been seriously injured – driver Pearson was taken to his home in Cumberland Street for treatment for his ribs – there doesn’t seem to have been any need for an inquiry or investigation, so the cranes tidied away all the debris and the platelayers replaced the wrecked rails, and the line was re-opened at 4pm.

And so the welcoming of the royal train into Darlington’s Bank Top station was able to go ahead as planned. It was the town’s first royal visit for a decade, and with military precision, the municipal party left High Row at 5.30pm in a special tramcar.

"The aldermen wore their robes and cocked hats, the councillors and officials their silk hats and frock coats, the mayor his gorgeous red robe and the town clerk his black gown and wig," reported the Echo.

And so they arrived just in time to greet the 5.49pm royal train. A large and loyal crowd cheered, there was a huge arch saying “welcome”, and a band played the national anthem.

“Thank-you very much for your kind expressions,” said Princess Henry, who wasn’t one for great declamations.

She and her daughter were "cosily clad in sables", and the poor things had to hang around on Platform No 4 for some minutes – “an unexpected wait” – as the engine that would pull their royal saloon to Winston was drawn up.

"The front of the engine was adorned with the Royal coat of arms surmounted with three small flags," said the Echo.

It was ushered out of the station by three loud hurrahs and the band playing the anthem. It passed over the mended line near Gainford without incident, and the royal guests safely made it to Raby.

Next day, the princess returned to Darlington to officially open the Grand Bazaar in aid of Greenbank Hospital. It was held in the Larchfield Street Drill Hall which had been elaborately decorated with festoons of green muslin and lofty palms. Part of the hall even been transformed into a “café chantant” – a French-style musical establishment.

The Echo said: “Her Royal Highness, who on rising was again loudly applauded, said: “I have much pleasure in declaring the bazaar open, and I wish it every success.” (Applause.)” She really wasn’t one for words.

A special lunch was served in a pavilion, after which there was a performance of Gounod’s Faust. Perhaps understandably, after such excitement, the princesses retired to Raby for a relaxing afternoon.

Next day, they visited Randolph Colliery at Evenwood before taking a "motor tour through Barnard Castle to the Bowes Museum". They had a few Royal engagements in Stockton and Yarm on the fourth day of their stay before their sojourn in the north came to an end.

ONE wonders if they even knew of the railway drama that had unfolded just hours before their arrival. The only reason we know of it today is because of the marvellous set of photographs taken by William Benjamin Eggleston, who was a quarry manager at Barton. He was a well-regarded athlete and cricketer, and had a football trial with Darlington FC but found the play too boisterous. He was a keen horticulturalist, and when he died in 1957, he hoped that his quarry would be turned into a bird sanctuary.

Instead, the A1(M) was driven through it from Scotch Corner, with a large interchange being plonked exactly where he hoped his feathered friends would find solitude.

Still, his amazing pictures survive and are instantly recognised. Memories 388 included the photo which is on today’s front cover, as it is included in a new book about Middlesbrough. However, many readers, including Charles Lilley, Richard Evans and Bill Bartle, got in touch to say that the picture has nothing to do with Middlesbrough but instead shows what the Darlington & Stockton Times called a “singular railway mishap” near Gainford.

MEMORIES 389 also featured a railway accident. This one happened in 1868 at Abergele on the north Wales coast.

A runaway train carrying wooden drums of highly inflammable kerosene smashed into the Irish Mail express, engulfing the front carriages in a fireball. Thirty-three people died, including John and Rosanna Aylmer, who owned Walworth Castle on the outskirts of Darlington, and their 18-year-old son and heir, John.

“I've just been reading Historic Railway Disasters by the celebrated railway author OS Nock,” writes Martin Birtle from Billingham.

“He blames the Abergele crash on the rough shunting which caused the kerosene wagons to break away and the haphazard signalling arrangements of the day which gave no safeguards if anything went wrong. A lack of brake power made the situation worse.

“The fireball gutted the first four carriages, but left the rest of the train untouched and, amazingly, all the nine remaining carriages stayed on the track.”