IN a large shed in a garden in Darlington, a model of the railways at West Auckland is slowly taking shape.

Each rail, each sleeper and even each chair – the device which pins the rail to the sleeper – is painstakingly researched and even more painstakingly handmade and pinned perfectly into place.

“I remember it so well,” says Peter Singlehurst, pointing out of the shed to his garden beyond. “I grew up in St Helen – my house would have been in the middle of the lawn over there.

“The sidings were gathering places for coke trains from all over the county to go to the steelworks at Barrow-in-Furness. They were made up into trains to go over Stainmore, with two engines on the front and one at the back and they were a splendid sight to see – seeing them setting off in the night was a very special sight, and I would be standing there by the level crossing.”

He indicates to the precise spot – practically the exact paving stone – beside the crossing which took the railway over the main road between West Auckland and St Helen Auckland.

He would have had his back to the Stockton & Darlington Railway as it came down the Etherley incline and joined the later line to Barnard Castle. The two lines then went over the level crossing and into West Auckland station before diverging, with the tracks to Bishop Auckland heading east and out into Peter’s garden while the S&DR went past the stationmaster’s house, over the River Gaunless, up the Brusselton incline and into the kitchen of Peter’s house.

“I did 40 years of research and then I got round to getting the shed built,” says Peter, who was a draughtsman at Whessoe and then a design engineer in the petrochemical industry. “That took two years so I finally started building the model in 2008 when I was 60.

“I love making things – the more difficult, the more I like it.”

There’s some fantastic detail, of the gaslights on the level crossing gates, of the points levers complete with locking devices, of the chimneys on the stationmaster’s house – “this is the kitchen chimney, so it is blacker than the others because it was used more”, he says.

His layout is dated 1956, but right back to 1825 this area was at the heart of the railway.

It lies between the inclines of Etherley and Brusselton on top of which George Stephenson placed stationary engines. On the opening day – September 27, 1825 – the Etherley engine lowered 12 wagons of Witton Park coal down the incline to the level crossing where Peter stood. Indeed, at 7.30am on opening day, hundreds of curious people were milling around his paving stone trying to get a glimpse of history being made.

At the level crossing on opening day, a load of flour from a nearby mill was placed into a wagon and joined to the first train, which headed south over George Stephenson’s pioneering Gaunless bridge – it was the first “lenticular” bridge with shaped legs to distribute the load and, wonder of wonders, it was built entirely without bolts or rivets.

On Peter’s layout, though, Stephenson’s bridge has gone. The stretch of track up Brusselton incline became redundant in the 1850s and was only sporadically used when coalmines were at work nearby. When Brusselton colliery opened in 1901, it was felt a modern bridge was required so Stephenson’s lenticular one was whipped out – it ended up in the National Railway Museum at York but is due to come home to Shildon’s Locomotion – and replaced by the flat deck that can be seen on Peter’s layout.

In the middle of the layout is West Auckland station which opened in 1858, although trains had been stopping beside the level crossing since 1833 to pick up passengers.

“They couldn’t open the station for quite a while because the rails were too close together,” says Peter, indicating with his fingers to his perfectly spaced rails. “As they were building them 5ft a part, a new Board of Trade memo came out saying they had to be 6ft a part, so they had to re-lay them.”

Next to it is the stationmaster’s house which was built by railway architect William Peachey in 1872. Peachey was a stylish designer, most notably creating the impressive Zetland Hotel on the clifftop at Saltburn and also Rowley station which is now in Beamish museum. However, he took backhanders from builders to ease the awarding of contracts, and was required to resign from the railway five years after building the stationmaster’s house, and he disappeared in disgrace.

The most recent structure on the layout has yet to be finished. It’s at the north end and is a conveyor belt which carried coal over the tracks and into the West Auckland Colliery washery plant.

From 1956 until 1967, coal from all over south Durham came to be washed at West Auckland. Soil, dirt and impurities were washed from it, making it more valuable, but Peter’s layout on has the conveyor belt on it.

“If I took over next door’s garden, I would be able to model all the washery,” he says, hopefully.

The washery closed with the colliery in the late 1960s at around the same time that the Bishop Auckland to Barnard Castle line was shut along with Peter’s station. Everything except the stationmaster’s house was demolished. It survives, a private residence, still clinging to the embankment only now surrounded by the ghostly scars of lost lines.

“If you ask anyone under 50 West Auckland where the station was, they probably wouldn’t know,” says Peter. “So I’ve made a diorama of how it used to be.

“I’ve made a lot of friends over the years digging about for information, and lots of professional railwaymen have come to visit it – one lad started as a junior clerk in the station in 1956 and became a senior manager at York, and he’s now 85 and he was blown away when he saw how it used to be.”

Peter reckons he’ll be another couple of years completing the conveyor belt and adding the Victorian terraces on either side of his level crossing, although he doesn’t sound convinced that really he’ll ever have it completely completed – particularly not if the colliery washery gets built in the middle of next door’s garden.

WE should address the vexed question of the station’s name. The S&DR divides the settlements of West Auckland and St Helen Auckland. When the first passenger service began on December 1, 1833, from beside Peter’s level crossing, the S&DR referred to it as St Helen’s station at St Helen’s Auckland.

However, the first Ordnance Survey maps published in the 1850s called it St Helen station in St Helen Auckland, perhaps to match St Andrew Auckland down the road.

So the Durham station could be called St Helen or St Helen’s, and over on Merseyside there was St Helens which had its own station. It was a recipe of confusion and when a consignment of wine ended up at the wrong St Helen/St Helen’s/St Helens, something had to be done.

From March 1, 1878, the County Durham station was renamed West Auckland – as it is on Peter’s model.