WHEREVER you travel in the world, you will find huge 19th Century cathedrals worshipping the great god of the railway. They are vast cavernous edifices, called stations, built with high flying rooflines, imposing architecture and elaborate features that dwarf the little passenger.

But only in Darlington, on a small wedge of land, can you find the ideas that girdled the world when they were in their infancy.

As part of its £35m refurbishment in time for the 2025 bicentenary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the wedge has been renamed 'Hopetown Darlington' as it bids to welcome the world to the birthplace of the railways. Here are potted histories of the buildings of Hopetown…

The Northern Echo: FAMOUS: The famous view taken by artist John Dobbin of the opening day of the Stockton and Darlington Railway on September 27, 1825. It shows Skerne Bridge, which was restored recently, with North Road on the left and Locomotion No 1 going over theSkerne Bridge with Locomotion No 1 going over it on the opening day of the Stockton & DarlingtonRailway, September 27, 1825, although this view was painted by John Dobbin 50 years afterwards and is not entirely accurate

Skerne Bridge (1825)

This was the biggest piece of infrastructure on the original 26 miles of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. George Stephenson planned to build an iron and stone bridge across the Skerne’s ravine, but when his first bridge over the Gaunless at West Auckland was washed away in the winter of 1823, the railway directors ordered him to seek 'professional assistance' from Ignatius Bonomi, the Durham Cathedral architect and Durham bridge builder.

Bonomi came up with a simple three arch stone bridge for which Francis Mewburn, the world’s first railway solicitor, laid the foundation stone on July 6, 1824.

The bridge cost £2,300 and was probably first known as Helen’s Bridge as it went over an area known as Ellens, an ancient word for a watery meadow.

The S&DR had expected to carry 10,000 tons of coal a year from Shildon to Stockton – and a few passengers – but by 1828 it was carrying 52,000 tons plus 40,000 people, which was dangerously damaging the embankments on either side of the bridge. Stonemason John Falcus Carter, from Heighington, was called in and shored the sides up with the gracefully curving walls we see today.

It is the oldest continuously used railway bridge in the world.

The Northern Echo: Skerne BridgeAbove: Skerne bridge with Tornado passing over it

Below: Skerne bridge in August 1948 when it was covered by gaspipes and closed to the public

The Northern Echo: The Skerne Bridge was covered by gaspipes and closed to the public when this picture was taken in August 1948


The Northern Echo: The 1833 Merchandise Station is going to become the welcome building to the Hopetown siteThe 1833 Merchandise Station is going to become the welcome building to the Hopetown site

Merchandise Station (1833)

The very first station was on the bridge embankment, but as it was two storeys high goods had to be manhandled off the train and down to the road. In 1832, the S&DR decided to build a station that was on one level, and Thomas Storey, the first chief engineer, got the job.

He was a former colliery engineer who had come down from Northumbria with George Stephenson in 1821 and had overseen the construction of the western end of the line from Witton Park to Heighington Lane.

In 1836, Storey became the engineer-in-chief of the Great North Eastern Railway, working on the world's first mainline. It was his replacement, John Harris, who extended the Merchandise Station in 1839-40, adding its distinctive clock tower.

This building is going to welcome visitors to the Hopetown site.


The Northern Echo: The Goods Agent's Office in MacNay Street, Darlington, in 2008. It was built in 1840

Goods Agent’s Office (1840) (above)

In MacNay Street – named after Thomas, who was secretary of the S&DR from 1849 to 1869 – this office was built to oversee the operations in the Merchandise Station.

The Northern Echo: The lime cells on Hopetown Lane

Lime Cells (1840s) (above)

This was built to accommodate the limestone which had been mined in Weardale and heated in kilns to create lime for building – most houses in the Darlington area built before 1900 will be held together with mortar including lime that passed through the cells.

Waggons had doors in their bottoms to drop the lime into the roadside cells beneath.

This rather quaint building had to be roofed to protect the lime from rain – unlike the coal drops which can be seen nearby at Westbrook Villas which were exposed to the elements.

The lime cells are not, at the moment, being refurbished.

The Northern Echo: Darlington North Road station on a snowy heyday in the 1890sDarlington North Road station on a snowy heyday in the 1890s

North Road station (1842)

With passenger numbers growing, the S&DR asked John Harris to design a workmanlike station for them beside the Merchandise Station – although Harris did add an Italianate portico to give it a touch of grandeur.

Inside were two narrow platforms separated by three lines of tracks – the central line being a storage for carriages so that the mean S&DR did not have to fork out on a shed for them. Its first refreshment rooms opened in 1845.

The station was extended in the 1850s to accommodate the growing traffic to Barnard Castle and beyond, and on May 20, 1857, the recently retired Locomotion No 1 was placed on a plinth outside its door – appropriate as the engine had stopped at that very point on the opening day of the S&DR.

The Beeching Axe of the 1960s drastically reduced the services North Road offered and, after much local agitation, in 1975 it became a museum. It is going to be at the heart of the Hopetown attraction and will be connected to the Darlington Locomotive Works where visitors will be able to see work progressing on the Prince of Wales steam loco.

The Northern Echo: One of the last steam trains approaches Darlington's North Road Station in March 1963One of the last steam trains approaches Darlington's North Road Station in March 1963


The Northern Echo: The Hopetown Carriageworks are being restoredThe Hopetown Carriage Works, with their Venetian style central section, being restored recently beside the 1825 coal depot branchline. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Hopetown Carriage Works (1853)

A young Quaker architect, Joseph Sparkes, born in Exeter in 1817 but married in Darlington in 1847, carried out the first extension to North Road station and was then given the task of building the carriage works. That year he also designed the splendid Mechanics Institute in Skinnergate and the North Road Railway Workshops, and he may have gone on to have a real impact but he died in 1855 aged just 35.

The carriage works is the only 'second generation' railway building on the North Road wedge of land. Following the success of 1825, the size of railways grew rapidly, so the 'first generation' buildings, like Darlington’s early stations, had to be enlarged or replaced.

The carriage works, with their Venetian central section, are therefore on a bigger scale than the other buildings on the wedge although, ironically, they are beside the 1825 horse drawn coal depot branch line which rolled waggons down to the lime cells and the Westbrook coal drops.

Carriages were built until 1884 when a new generation of rolling stock became too big for them to handle, and it fell out of use.

And this, really, is the full story of the survival of the Hopetown wedge – it was too early and too small to continue its full-time use as the century wore on and locomotives grew bigger and faster and little branch lines like the S&DR were replaced by main lines with big intercity stations. Fortunately, they were not cleared away and replaced, perhaps because even from 1857, when Locomotion No 1 was placed on its plinth, they were recognised as being rare relics from the very start of the railway story. That has enabled them to survive and to tell the railway story into a third century.

The Northern Echo:

Whessoe Road Engine Shed (1861) (above)

The final building on the Hopetown site follows this pattern of quickly becoming outgrown and surviving by being downgraded. This engine shed, built for locos operating to Barnard Castle and beyond, was relegated to acting as a paint shop for most of its life and, in that guise, it was the site of a fatal accident…