Andrew White goes in search of an answer to one of life's big questions: why is The Blue Bridge of Aycliffe blue?

MEMORIES of a long gone railway line, several litres of blue paint and the boss of a German manufacturing firm who was a stickler for tidiness were all sparked by a recent feature in The Northern Echo.

The Blue Bridge in Newton Aycliffe – the subject of our Object of the Week feature two weeks ago – drew an enthusiastic response from residents past and present of the town.

The bridge, over the town's St Cuthberts Way, was built in the mid 1950s and opened on October 10, 1956. The track which ran over it was part of the Shilton to Newport line, which pre-dates the bridge by well over 100 years and originally ran over an embankment.

The bridge was built to allow a crucial road to run through the embankment and link the town centre and its industrial estate.

It is known as The Blue Bridge for obvious reasons - but we wanted to know why it was blue and if it had always been painted that colour.

Nobody has been able to provide an answer to the first part of the question, but more than one reader reckons it was once a different colour - or a least a very different shade of blue.

Sandra Binderman, who grew up in Newton Aycliffe in the 1970s, said she remembers the bridge being grey at that time - although everybody still referred to it as The Blue Bridge.

Her memory appears to be backed up by a couple of former employees of Underground Mining Machinery (UMM) Limited, which was sited next to the bridge from 1965 until it closed in the 1980s.

Allan Ellwood said: "I remember around 1968, when the bridge was a blue/grey colour, UMM donated blue paint which was their trademark colour, and remember it being painted from ladders – not scaffolding – at the weekends.

"At that time, the railway lines had gone, but many lines still ran around the industrial estate and into UMM. The office block also had blue panels."

UMM was a German company with its parent company in Westfalia Lunen. It also had a subsidiary company in Wales.

He remembers managing director Karl-Heinz Asbeck – said by employees to have been oberleutnant of a German U-boat during the Second World War.

Neville Laskey, who worked at UMM in the 1970s, adds: “The UMM company colours were blue and everything within UMM was always regularly painted in the same shade of blue.

"I seem to remember in the times of short working, Mr Asbeck ordering the bridge to be tidied up and men from the UMM site painting the bridge. It would make sense – there was always gallons of blue paint laid around.

"I can definitely remember Mr Asbeck complaining about the state of the surroundings and ordering them all tidied up and painted.

"Being German he was a stickler for everything being in order – I even remember him ordering me to get my hair cut."

Although trains stopped running on that line around 1963, plenty of people have memories of seeing steam trains running over it.

Heather Rippon moved to Newton Aycliffe in 1951, aged 12, and remembers trains running on the old railway line.

"There was no sign of any bridge then," she recalls. "The trains ran often enough – I remember them dirty and smoking with plenty of cranking and steaming."

Although she moved away from the town in 1964, Heather still vividly remembers the bridge being built because she had to walk past the works to get to the trading estate and her job at Paper Converters.

"When they started to tunnel under the railway for the new bridge we would climb over the fence and crawl through the hole before 8am so we didn't have such a long walk," says Heather, now aged 80.

"I think this clicked on with other workers on estate as it was very frequently done.

"The crew started at 8am so to be there before was vital. If we were caught we had to go round.

"We often met workers returning from night shifts and it was great fun, with all the men keeping us safe. Often I was guided through by another worker holding my hand hoping we didn't get too muddy or falling on uneven path which was a common problem.

"However, we always had to walk back around at 5pm when we finished work."

John Denham, writing on the Facebook page A Photographic History of Newton Aycliffe, also remembers watching the bridge being built – and he recalls an unusual vantage point.

"I remember sitting waiting to have a tooth extracted," he wrote. "As the dentist, Mr Stafford, put the mask on and said breathe in, a locomotive came into view from the right. As I awoke, the guards van was just passing."

Many readers remember playing near The Blue Bridge as well as Ricknall Bridge a little further down the Newton Aycliffe line - close enough to give a modern Health and Safety officer nightmares.

Fernley Thompson said: "We used to hang off the bridge when the Golden Arrow would come through. I bet the drivers s*** themselves seeing us do that. What idiots we were."

Paul Kirtley also remembers jolly japes along the line as a child.

"We used to hang off Ricknall Bridge – hands but no feet – when the steam trains came through," he said.

"It was an initiation ceremony for kids aged around eight or nine – egged on by the older ones who'd gone through it before."

Linda Hind added: "Shocking to think that as children, we used to climb up the sides of the embankment, and wave to the driver/boilerman, and they actually waved back.

"It felt like you were one of the Railway Children – a favourite book from childhood. Idyllic times.

"As kids, we'd go out for the day – armed with a bottle of water, bread and butter – sometimes with jam – and maybe an apple.

"We'd pick lots of wild flowers, rosehips, and blackberries, end up with loads of nettle stings, which we self-treated with dock leaves and come home for tea, exhausted but happy, with rosy cheeks, mucky clothes, probably needing a bath, but oh-so-happy."

THE railway line that ran over The Blue Bridge was historic for at least two reasons: it was the first line to be built to directly compete with another line, and it was the first line of any length to be electrified.

It was opened in 1833 as the Clarence Railway to take coal from south Durham direct to a new port, Port Clarence, on the north bank of the Tees. It was in competition with the Stockton & Darlington Railway, which took the coal on a longer route through Darlington before arriving at Stockton.

The Clarence, named after the Duke of Clarence who became King William IV in 1830, was never a financial success and in 1865 it merged with the North of England Railway.

Its real moment in the spotlight came in 1915 when Sir Vincent Raven, chief mechanical engineer of the NER, selected it to trial electrification. Ten odd-shaped Bo-Bo engines were built at the North Road workshops in Darlington, and two huge power stations were built at Preston-le-Skerne and Erimus, near Newport in Middlesbrough, to produce the necessary 1,500 volts.

The 18 miles from Shildon to Newport via Aycliffe were the longest electrified trial in the country, and when Sir Vincent worked out its success – five Bo-Bos were doing the work of 13 steam locomotives – he wanted to electrify the East Coast Main Line.

However, the slump after the First World War meant there was no investment and the decline of the south Durham coalfield meant there was not much traffic. Therefore, in 1935 steam locomotives returned to the line and electrification was scrapped for 50 years – how history would have been different if the Shildon to Newport trial had been carried through.

The line had one more historic move to make: at the start of the Second World War, its progress through the carrs of south Durham attracted the attention of the war planners. The carrs generated mists which would shield the activities of a Royal Ordnance Factory from the view of the Luftwaffe, and the line could carry out the munitions to the battlefront.

Two stations, Simpasture and Demons Bridge, were built to bring the 17,000 Aycliffe Angels to work in the factory. After the war, the new town of Aycliffe was built on the site of the factory, so without the 1833 line there may well have been no 1947 new town.

Passenger traffic stopped on the line in 1954 and it closed completely in 1963.