An appeal to save the world’s oldest railway station has been launched by the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

Heighington station lies disgracefully derelict on the edge of Newton Aycliffe and, after attempts to save it by local authorities have failed, the Friends are stepping in. It is estimated that £500,000 is needed to buy and stabilise the building so that it is not an embarrassing eyesore when the world comes to south Durham and the Tees Valley to celebrate the railway’s 200th anniversary next year.


However, it is hoped £400,000 of that will come from grants, with the public being asked to help raise the remainder or to sign the Friends’ petition to show support for the project.

The Northern Echo: Friends in the rain at Heighington station on Wednesday. From left: Chris Lloyd, Trevor and Margaret Fenwick, Caroline Hardie, Cllr David Sutton-Lloyd, Cllr Jim Atkinson (both representatives of Aycliffe on Durham County Council), and Friends chair,Friends in the rain at Heighington station on Wednesday. From left: Chris Lloyd, Trevor and Margaret Fenwick, Caroline Hardie, Cllr David Sutton-Lloyd, Cllr Jim Atkinson (both representatives of Aycliffe on Durham County Council), and Friends chair, Niall Hammond. Pictures by Sarah Caldecott

The first fund-raising event is on March 9 in Heighington church with an afternoon of talks and exhibitions.

The vandalised former station and inn does not look much at the moment, but, with a little imagination, anyone can see that this is a place that changed the world.

This is where Locomotion No 1 was first put on the tracks, and this is where, for the first time, we see the railway responding to the needs of its passengers. The railway pioneers didn’t know it at the time, but they were creating the concept of the “railway station” – a concept that is now understood around the world and used by billions on a daily basis.

This is where it began. This is a place in history…

The Northern Echo: Heighington archiveAn engine from Darlington approaches Heighington station

ON September 16, 1825, a curious crowd gathered at where the lane to Heighington crossed over the new railway line, and they watched as the future was unloaded before their eyes.

An engine, then known as Active but today known to the world as Locomotion No 1, had been made in Newcastle by Robert Stephenson and Company and had been hauled 30 miles south down the Great North Road by Mr Pickersgill’s horses on three low wagons.

In the centre of Aycliffe Village, they’d turned west up the lane to the level crossing, where eager small boys and strong young men unloaded five tons of bits which George Stephenson bolted and screwed together into a strange-looking contraption – many of the crowd had expected this “iron hoss” to look like a real horse, but instead of legs it had wheels.

Somehow, between them, they hauled and hoisted the contraption onto the rails. Then they had to get steam up.

The Northern Echo: Heighington station in the 1920s or 1930s. Picture: Geoffrey Horsman, Historic EnglandHeighington station in the 1920s or 1930s. Picture: Geoffrey Horsman, Historic England

Two problems: no water and no fire.

Stephenson sent three lads to a nearby farmhouse to get some buckets so they collect water from a spring, and he sent a messenger, John Taylor, back into Aycliffe Village to get a lit lantern – it was not until April 1827 that Stockton’s John Walker announced that he had invented the friction match which people could carry in their pockets.

As everyone stood around waiting for water and fire, navvy Robert Metcalf, of Church Street, Darlington, decided to light his tobacco pipe. He always carried a "burning glass" – a piece of glass like a magnifier – through which he focused the sun's rays onto his baccy to ignite it.


He offered the glass to Stephenson and by the time the Mr Taylor returned with the flaming lantern, No 1's fire was alight with smoke rising from its chimney and the boys’ water bubbling into steam.

The boys, one of whom was called Marley Crawford, were rewarded for their efforts by being given the first ride when the engine started moving – they were the railway’s first passengers.

The Northern Echo: Lord Lieutenant Sue Snowdon unveils the plaque at Heighington stationLord Lieutenant Sue Snowdon unveils the plaque at Heighington station in 2017, with the historic old station building behind her

THE railway pioneers had created the line to move goods, especially coal, but it soon became apparent that people wanted to use it, as well.

These people needed somewhere to wait for their trains and somewhere from which they could collect their goods.

In June 1826, the S&DR borrowed £1,305 19s from Joseph Pease to build three places for them: one near the terminus in Stockton, one near the coal drops on Darlington’s Northgate, and the other where the Aycliffe Lane to Heighington went over the tracks.

Stonemason John Carter, who lived in Heighington, won the contract to build them. The one nearest to his home village was completed by early 1827, and then the railway pioneers realised that their passengers would like a refreshment while they waited. They therefore applied to Durham magistrates for permission for their tenant, Matthew Turnbull from Hamsterley, to sell alcohol. This was refused.

The Durham Chronicle of September 15, 1827, sounded dismayed by the decision. It said: "To that spot persons come, in the most stormy seasons, at all hours of the day and night, to load and unload goods, and to await the arrival and departure of the numerous coaches which now traverse the railway. It is, indeed, the only place, for a considerable distance, where such individuals could procure any refreshment; but a license for this house was also refused.”

This is practically the definition of a railway station – a building beside a railway line where people wait for their trains or collect their parcels – and so Heighington can claim to be the first railway station in the world.

The Northern Echo: The rear of Heighington station in 1968The rear of Heighington station in 1968 and as it is today, below

The Northern Echo: The old Locomotion One pub  in Newton Aycliffe Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

IT can also claim to be the scene of an early deadly railway disaster, because on July 1, 1828, while Locomotion No 1 was taking on water, it exploded.

Its driver, John Cree, was so badly injured that he died two days later, and the water pumper Edward Turnbull, the brother of Matthew, was so splattered with droplets of boiling water "that his face was black and speckled like a Dalmatian dog ever after".

Timothy Hackworth collected all the bits from surrounding fields and rebuilt the engine.

The Northern Echo: Locomotion No 1 calls at Heighington station, by John Wigston. Picture courtesy of the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington RailwayLocomotion No 1 calls at Heighington station, by John Wigston. Picture courtesy of the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway

MATTHEW TURNBULL was granted permission to serve alcohol at the station in 1829, and the building became known as “the railway inn” or the King’s Arms. However, it was too far from anywhere to work as a pub, so in 1848, that side of the operation closed, and it remained as a station and stationmaster’s house. The earliest Ordnance Survey map calls it “Heighington and Aycliffe Station”.

It really came into its own during the Second World War, when 20 trains a day stopped to offload thousands of workers for the Aycliffe munitions factory.

When the station became an unmanned halt in the 1970s, it was left empty until it was converted into a pub, the Locomotion No 1, in 1984. The pub’s last mention in The Northern Echo was in July 2017 when the landlady announced she was quitting after thieves had ransacked her bar.

Since then, it has lain empty and become vandalised, yet it is one of the few parts where visitors can actually touch the earliest days of the railways.

It would be fabulous to see it off the “at risk” register and back in business in time for the bicentenary.

All details are on the Friends’ website where there is a “Save Heighington station” tab. It will take you to the justgiving page to make donations or to the form where you can sign the petition which will help persuade funding organisations to back the campaign. Any private or business sponsors who wish to help the station get back on track should email

The Northern Echo: Echo memories - Heighington Station in 1986. It is quite possibly the world's first railway passenger ticket office built for that purposeHeighington Station in 1986, when it was in use as a pub and restaurant

The Northern Echo: Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway

“HOW the railways came to Heighington” is the title of an afternoon of talks and exhibitions that is being held in St Michael’s Church in the village on March 9.

The afternoon will be opened at 2pm by Sedgefield MP Paul Howell, and there will be talks by Niall Hammond, chair of the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, Richie Starrs, of the S&DR Heritage Action Zone, and Niccy Hallifax, the S&DR Bicentenary Festival Director.

There will be exhibitions of photographs and artifacts, plus more details on the campaign to save Heighington station.

Tickets are just £5 to include refreshments (under 16s are free). They can booked through Margaret Fenwick on 07970-600631 or via Eventbrite (just search “Heighington and railways”), or by paying on the door.


The Northern Echo: Heighington stationAn engine in the 1975 cavalcade, celebrating the Stockton & Darlington Railway's 150th anniversary, calls at Heighington station