History of the Line
The Weardale Railway is situated in County Durham, United Kingdom, and was part of a line which originally ran from Bishop Auckland, following the River Wear westwards to the village of Wearhead - a distance of 25 miles. The line was started as an offshoot of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1847 to transport material to the ironworks of Teesside, and by 1895 it had been extended along the dale as far as Wearhead. The passenger service was withdrawn in 1953 and the branch was progressively cut back a total of 7 miles to a terminus at Eastgate by 1968. The line was retained for freight use, transporting bulk cement from the Blue Circle works at Eastgate. This use also ceased in 1993, at which time the line was mothballed and threatened with lifting.
1993 saw the formation of The Weardale Railway Preservation Society (WRPS). This was a group of supporters of the line, who, with the support of Durham County Council, developed proposals firstly to prevent its removal, and secondly to promote its future. The Weardale Railway Trust came into being as a way of providing legal protection for the members of the original WRPS. The two parallel organisations subsequently merged to become the Weardale Railway Trust Ltd, company registration number 3226401. This organisation helps to fund the work involved and provide the voluntary assistance, and its members receive a regular magazine to keep them informed of the project's progress.
The object of the Trust is to:
"Support Weardale Railway Limited to purchase or by any other means acquire the railway land, track and infrastructure currently existing between signal S36 at Cockton Hill Bridge, Bishop Auckland and Eastgate, proposed extensions thereof and the operation of trains."
The AGM of the Trust takes place each March where a proportion of the officers are elected on a 2-year cycle. This group meets every month to conduct the Trust's business, with sub-groups meeting as necessary. The minutes of the monthly meetings are open for public viewing. A link will be provided here in the near future to an archive of past monthly meeting minutes. Charitable status has been granted (Registration No. 1088897) enabling the Trust to maximise its income and effectiveness.
The Trust has continued to support the operating company, Weardale Railway Limited, by providing voluntary support. The Trust has also operated train services through its own subsidiary, Weardale Railway Heritage Services Ltd.
A Brief History of the Wear Valley Railway
It was in the early days of the Stockton & Darlington Railway Company, that a railway to tap the mineral wealth of Weardale was first considered. However, it wasn't until November 1843 when the Bishop Auckland & Weardale Railway was opened from Shildon Junction to Crook that any real attempt was made to penetrate the dale. The line was leased and worked by the Stockton & Darlington Railway. An extension of this line in 1845 from Crook to Waskerley was opened to serve as another outlet for the Derwent Iron Company at Consett. The section of line was originally called the Weardale Extension Railway but later under a merger with the line from Stanhope to Consett, was known as the Wear & Derwent Junction Railway.
A plan to penetrate Weardale proper was covered by the Wear Valley Act of July 1845, which was to provide a line from Witton Junction (Wear Valley Junction) on the Bishop Auckland & Weardale Railway to Frosterley, with a connecting branch to Bishopley. The line was opened on 3rd August 1847. An even more ambitious plan to extend the line further up the dale via Alston to Carlisle by the Wear Valley Company never got off the ground because of the depressed financial situation at the time. The Frosterley & Bishopley areas were known to be rich in limestone deposits and soon extensive quarries were established on both sides of the valley. To the north side were Rogerley and Frosterley Quarries and to the south served by the Bishopley branch, the Bishopley Quarries. The limestone was quarried to serve the iron making furnaces on Teesside.
In 1862 the Wear Valley line was extended to Stanhope by the Frosterley & Stanhope Railway, mainly to reach the Newlandside Estate on the south side of the town where again large quantities of limestone were known to exist. The boom period for the quarries in the Frosterley & Stanhope areas was in the 1870s, when they were either being extended or new ones were being opened. An extension of the Bishopley Branch introduced the quarries of Fineburn and Bishopley Crag and a siding from the station yard at Frosterley crossed the river by the 'fly bridge' to act as another outlet from the now extended Bishopley Quarry at North Bishopley. Parson Byers Quarry near Stanhope established in 1872, was situated high on the south side of the valley. It was connected to the Wear Valley line by a self-acting incline and due to its enormous size had its own internal railway system. There were approximately 13 miles of quarries in Weardale, and most of them were concentrated around Frosterley and Stanhope. Quarrying in the area declined sharply after the First World War and throughout the 1920s. Some however did survive until recent times, e.g. Newlandside and Parson Byers. Newlandside Quarry has been recently reopened.
The final extension of the Wear Valley line to Wearhead was opened on 21st October 1895. It was impossible to extend the line from the existing station at Stanhope and therefore a new one had to be built. Within this section of the line was situated the Greenfoot Whinstone Quarry, which had its own narrow gauge railway system. On the northern hillside was the plant of the Weardale Lead Company at Rookhope. It was connected to the railway in the valley bottom by an aerial flight. Between Eastgate and Westgate at Cambokeels, sidings were established to serve the Weardale Iron Company's Heights limestone quarry. This quarry is still operational today.
The passenger train service survived until 29th June 1953. Up until closure, four trains per day had served the stations of Witton-Le- Wear, Harperley, Wolsingham, Frosterley, Stanhope, Eastgate, Westgate-in-Weardale, St. John's Chapel and Wearhead. The freight service to Wearhead survived until 1961 when the line was cut back the St John's Chapel. West of Eastgate followed in 1968, which is the present terminus.
Eastgate cement works were established in 1964 and brought new life to the Wear valley line. Utilising purpose built container wagons, cement was transported mainly by rail from the plant to Teesside, Tyneside and Scotland. This operation ceased on 17th March 1993.
The line which existed until 2004 was single throughout between Eastgate and Shildon. There is a connecting spur into Bishop Auckland station - the terminus of the 'Heritage Line' passenger service from Darlington. A summer only Sunday passenger train service to Stanhope operated as an extension to the Darlington service between 1988 & 1992. The success of this service was instrumental in reopening the station at Etherley (renamed Witton Park) in August 1991.
A campaign to save the line west of Bishop Auckland, now known as the Weardale Railway, began in 1993 with the threat of closure and track uplift a real possibility after the last cement train ran. Until 2004, the line was mothballed, but purchase by Weardale Railways Limited was achieved and the first works trains began running in 2004 in preparation for the reopening of the first section between Stanhope and Wolsingham.
History of the Stations on the Weardale Line
When the railway reached Stanhope in 1862 it became the terminus of the Weardale Railway. In order to extend the line to Wearhead (1895) it was necessary to build a new station nearby on the route of the new extension, so the original building became the goods station. The new station was built at a cost of £2,700. Two platforms were provided the station, being originally connected by a wooden footbridge, to be later replaced by a standard North Eastern railway pattern type in 1920.
The original station building situated in Station Road still exists today it is situated on the edge of the William Cook foundry site. To the east across the river bridge there was an engine shed, originally built as a single road, extended to three roads and then later in life cut back to single. During the Second World War, Locomotion No.1 and Derwent were stored in the shed for safekeeping. It is still possible to locate the turntable pit hidden in the undergrowth if you look hard enough.
The line was closed to passenger traffic in 1953 and the goods facility continued until 1st November 1965 when all business was transferred to the control of Bishop Auckland. After the closure Stanhope station gradually deteriorated and lost its canopy but was eventually purchased and given some structural refurbishment by Wear Valley Council.
In 1988 the newly refurbished platform opened to accommodate an experimental Summer Sunday service, which was an extension of the Darlington to Bishop Auckland Heritage Line service. Station improvements costing £9,000 were carried out prior to the introduction of the service, being financed by contributions from Durham County Council and the Heritage Line Group. The service was to prove an outstanding success and was repeated each summer until 1992. Wear Valley District Council bought the station building from British Rail in 1992. Volunteers from the Weardale Railway Society carried out some initial renovation work before the Council took over and saw the project through to completion in early 1995.
Then in 2004 the station was reopened for passengers for services between Stanhope and Wolsingham after several years of effort by Weardale Railways Limited assisted by the volunteers of the Weardale Railway Trust. It is currently used as the headquarters of the Trust. Since the reopening the canopy on the down platform has been restored and a complete reconstruction of the 'down' platform waiting room building has been carried out.
Stanhope village is the largest settlement west of Wolsingham. It has an attractive cobbled market place and the historic Church of St. Thomas. Built into the wall here there is a large fossilised tree stump 250 million years old excavated while road building on the moors nearby during the last century. At the west end of the village the ancient Stanhope Old Hall stands near the start of the Stanhope & Tyne Railway track bed. It preceded the Weardale Railway by several years (1834), and was rope-hauled up the valley side using stationary engines. When operational, the nearby branch to Rookhope had the highest section of standard gauge railway in the UK at Bolts Law 1670 feet (514m) above sea level.
Frosterley was the original terminus of the railway, which opened from Witton Junction on 8th August 1847 along with a branch into the nearby Bishopley quarry complex. A Stockton & Darlington ceramic plaque 'J11' still exists today above the entrance to the old station building. It was a single platform station.
It is thought that in the early 1850s a wooden engine shed was erected here to be eventually moved to Stanhope when the line was extended in 1862. It is unclear as to whether it was this timber building or a replacement stone building that was transferred. The passenger service was withdrawn in 1953 and the goods facility withdrawn on 3rd March 1969.
Frosterley is a small, linear village principally composed of stone terraces of quarrymen's cottages. It lies at the point where The Great Limestone outcrops at river level, so became the focus for the exploitation of these huge reserves in the nineteenth century. Although virtually all quarries have now 'gone back to nature' it is easy to find most of the old trackbeds, cuttings and embankments associated with the maze of sidings that once existed here.
One of the quarries was a source of a particularly hard limestone, rich in fossils - Frosterley Marble. It was prized for its decorative value and can be found locally in Durham Cathedral, Auckland Palace and the local church font. A large piece, recently quarried and donated by Sherburn Stone Ltd, has been sculpted and mounted at the refurbished station for its 2004 re-opening.
Wolsingham Station, situated 7 miles from Wear Valley Junction, opened in 1847. The station building which is now a private residence is in a similar style to Frosterley, has steeply pitched roofs of stone slabs, held in place by sheep's bones. It nestles between the River Wear and a high embankment, held back by a substantial retaining wall built in the 1890s. A wooden footbridge once linked the two platforms. Upstairs in the station house, the Directors of the NER often used to meet in the long room known as the 'board room'.
To the east of the station were extensive sidings, which included accommodation for the local coal merchant. The Wear Valley Goods, which ran twice daily from Bishop Auckland Goods yard, serviced the yard. The goods called at all stations between Wear Valley Junction and Wearhead, dropping off or picking up goods as required. The sidings closed to goods 6th September 1982. The unusual shaped signal box closed in June 1984, with both signalmen being transferred to Witton-Le-Wear.
Wolsingham is an attractive and expanding village, though it has always had a commercial base involving both agriculture and industry. Being just east of the limestone outcrop, its industries did not include quarrying, but the proximity of iron workings at Tow Law supported the building of a steel works that developed expertise in marine castings and fabrications. Their products included huge gunbarrels which were manufactured in a large stone building adjacent to the railway. This building, generally referred to as 'the gunbarrel shed', is now a listed building. It is unsuitable for modern foundry techniques and is therefore disused, but its position next to the railway makes it an ideal depot for our project. A long term lease has been negotiated and the site has become the main operational depot for the railway and was from 2010 to 2013 used as a coal loading facility to move coal by train from a local opencast site to power stations and steelworks further south.
The original station opened in 1847. The station building still exists a private residence. There is a Stockton & Darlington Railway ceramic plaque visible on the wall. In the 1930s this was the home of the LNER District Engineer, whose offices were in Bishop Auckland. Because of its location on a curve and incline, it was found difficult to start passenger trains from here and therefore the NER built a new station to the east of the level crossing. This station, a single storey version of the NER's 1880s design, was built adjacent to the road connecting the village to Wear Valley Junction. Its accommodation consisted of a general waiting room, booking office, gents waiting room, ladies waiting room, WC and urinals.
To the west of the station there is a level crossing, which was controlled from an adjacent ground frame and is still in use today. Opposite the station were coal drops and a wooden single road goods shed. The working of these sidings is unclear. Beyond the station and to the west across the level crossing was another siding which included a cattle and horse dock.
The station closed to passengers along with all of the other stations on the branch on 27th June 1953. Goods traffic would continue to be dealt with until 1st November 1965. There is no trace of the buildings or platform - the site being completely cleared in April 1973. In 2015 the Weardale Railway Trust and the local Parish Council together with the support of Weardale Railways Limited initiated a project to reopen a platform at Witton le Wear. In 2016 a regular service was restarted between Stanhope and Witton le Wear.
Etherley Station (Witton Park)
The railway line between Bishop Auckland and Crook opened on 8th November 1843. Its purpose was to make the transportation of coal from the area quicker and easier. The destination was the Port of Stockton on Tees for shipping to other parts of the country. With the growing desire to move the local populace, stations on the line were built. Etherley station took its name from the village approximately one mile away. It first appears in timetables in September 1847. Later in 1867 a new station was opened on a different site. The station was one of the single sided variety i.e. trains travelling in both directions stopped at the same platform. Similar arrangements existed at Crook and Bishop Auckland (No.1 Platform).
It was closed to passenger traffic on 8th March 1965 when the service between Bishop Auckland and Crook was withdrawn. A goods facility survived a further eight months. There were many adjacent lines serving the Vulcan Iron Works site of Bolcow Vaughan and various collieries. A signal box at the west end of the station controlled them. Beyond the station there were double line sections of track to Bishop Auckland West and Wear Valley Junction. The box closed in April 1970.
Following a campaign by the local residents of Witton Park and The Friends of the Heritage Line, the station was renamed and reopened on 25th August 1991. It served the Summer Sunday passenger service, which ran to Stanhope - an extension of the Darlington, Bishop Auckland service. This service operated between 1988 and 1992 and was very popular with people wishing to have a day out in Weardale.
Today, the station is a private residence and the platform has been removed.
Bishop Auckland Station
First opened in 1843, when the line was extended from South Church to Crook, Bishop Auckland was to develop into an important interchange point. It was like the hub of a wheel with lines radiating to all parts of the railway network including Darlington, Crook & Weardale, Durham, Spennymoor and Barnard Castle. It was unusual in shape being triangular, so it was no problem if a locomotive needed turning. It was occasionally used as diversion route by mainline express traffic to avoid engineering works between Darlington and Durham. A substantial goods yard opened in the 1870s existed towards the centre of the town. Scammel delivery trucks could often be seen scurrying around the busy streets with deliveries.
In the immediate post-war years it was possible to catch Tyneside to Blackpool summer specials via Barnard Castle and Stainmore Summit. Line closures in the 1960s left the station a shadow of its former self. Eventually the old station buildings were to be demolished and replaced in the 1980s with a modern style chalet building. This building today also provides accommodation for a snack bar and a station ticket office and shop operated by Bishop Trains. A signal (Shildon 36) adjacent to the platform marks the point where the Weardale Railway commences.
On 22nd May 2010 a temporary platform and the line to Weardale were formally opened to passengers, with a trial daily community service commencing the following day between Bishop Auckland and Stanhope. This service ran until 2012.
Heritage services recommenced running trains back to Bishop Auckland West from 1st July 2018.