THE Cuckoo Line was the name given to a stretch of railway that was built in the late 1870s from Bowesfield Junction, alongside the A66 in Stockton, and north to Thorpe Thewles and Wingate to the Wellfield Junction where it linked up with other railways to go to Hartlepool or Castle Eden – the Castle Eden Walkway now follows its trackbed.

The Northern Echo: The sunken fountain at Hartburn

A fortnight ago we were looking at where it crossed a road at Hartburn. Online maps suggest this point contains a Stockton & Darlington Railway boundary stone, which is wrong, but there is a horse trough, installed by local businessman Charles Head in 1886 to refresh the animals on a steep rise, although now most of it is buried beneath the tarmac (above).

“Thank you for putting right this mis-conception,” says Stuart Everson. “I was born in 1946 and we lived in Brisbane Grove alongside the line and I remember the coal trains keeping me awake when I was a child.

“I remember the horse trough and the bridge over the line there in full glory, but the bridge was dangerous and it was removed to improve the traffic flow and reduce accidents.

“The story I was told was that the Cuckoo Railway was built so that Lord Londonderry, a director of North Eastern Railway, could catch the train from Thorpe Thewles station once a week on a Wednesday to go to London, with another train returning from London on a Friday for his weekend at Wynyard Hall.

“This may have been folklore but if they built 40-odd miles of railway line for this purpose, no wonder it was named the Cuckoo Railway.”

Wikipedia agrees with Stuart. It says: “As part of an agreement between the NER and the Marquess of Londonderry, that permitted the NER to construct the line through his land, the Marquess was granted permission to stop early morning and evening trains to or from London at a station on the line, with Thorpe Thewles being the most conveniently located to serve Wynyard Park. However, there is little evidence that any London bound trains ever used the line and thus, in 1894, permission was granted to stop 7:30am express from Newcastle and the 6:30pm express from York at Thorpe Thewles.”

What a lucky marquess!

The Northern Echo: THE STATION HOUSE TEA ROOMS AT THORPE THEWLES - EATING OWT - D18/11/05SNThorpe Thewles station on the Castle Eden Walkway

Even more intriguing are the references to the unnamed Thorpe Thewles stationmaster being murdered during the First World War, and his body was discovered by Mr G Dodds, stationmaster at neighbouring Wynyard – the ghost of the unfortunate stationmaster is said to haunt the station, which is now a café at the start of the walkway. Can this really be true?

The Northern Echo: Bo-Bo No 3, an electric engine, takes to the Shildon to Newport line on either June 19 or 20, 1915

During that war, the southern section of the Cuckoo Line was electrified as part of the pioneering Shildon to Newport project which saw 10 electric engines, purpose-built at Darlington’s North Road shops, hauling coal to the marshalling yards at Teesside. The experiment ended in 1935 when the electric equipment wore out and the line reverted to steampower until it closed in 1951.

The Northern Echo: A cuckoo

CUCKOOS and railways go together. In East Sussex, there was another Cuckoo Line, which opened in 1880. It derived its name from a custom at Heathfield, one of the villages it passed through, where at the spring gathering, the “Old Woman of Heffle Fair” would release the first cuckoo of spring from a basket. The cuckoo would then cuckoo which would tell all of England that winter was over.

The Cuckoo Trail is path that follows the 14-mile trackbed of the Cuckoo Trail, and Heathfield still holds its Heffle Cuckoo Fair but, due to the shortage of cuckoos, no cuckoos seem to be involved so, sadly, the Old Woman is now redundant.

There’s another Cuckoo Line in Germany, the “Kuckucksbahnel”. Its proper name was the Elmstein Valley Railway which ran 13km through a forest in the Rhineland. It gained its nickname because so many cuckoos lived in the forest – west Stockton also used to be renowned for its cuckoo population which is also how our Cuckoo Line got its nickname.