Following the Stockton & Darlington Railway
by Bob McHardy
The railway opened on 27th September 1825; it ran for 24 miles between Witton Park Colliery and Stockton-on-Tees. The first wagons were loaded from the Phoenix Pit then hauled by rope winding engines over the Etherley and Brusselton inclines to Shildon. Here Stephenson's locomotive was attached to over 30 wagons, some fitted with seats for the inaugural journey (the scene is depicted on the back of a £5 note). Today, all traces of the colliery and pits have disappeared.
Witton Park is a village in the Wear Valley about three miles. west of Bishop Auckland. South-west from the village there is a row of stone terraced houses marked on the map as Phoenix Row, presumably named after the Phoenix Pit, and situated at the bottom of an inclined embankment. This would be my starting point as from the north end of the row, by a chapel, a path runs behind the houses to the base of the incline. When I visited it in late spring gorse and wild flowers covered the banks. Near the top is a stile leading onto a rough track emerging between houses in Low Etherley onto the B6282.
Over the road the line enters a shallow cutting, a well-used path runs for a quarter of a mile onto open ground on the top of a ridge. There's a dry-stone walled enclosure of grass covered mounds and pits - the site of the Etherley Winding House(OS 92, GR.171284).
After the half mile climb there is now an almost two mile descent into the Gaunless Valley. Here descending, loaded wagons, all roped together, would have been able to raise empty ones, so saving energy and ensuring an even flow of wagons. Open country is left for a thickly wooded embankment, eventually crossing a road at ground level by North Leases. Here it enters an equally thickly wooded but boggy cutting with entry barred. There is a road which runs parallel a field or two to the east, and both road and line converge at the A688 in St Helen Auckland. Across the road the line can be followed to the banks of the Gaunless; over the river an embankment crosses marshy ground to the start of the Brusselton incline. On this section wagons would have been drawn by horses to and fro between the start of each incline.
In 1825 Stephenson built an elegant cast-iron bridge which was replaced in 1900 by a stone one (the cast-iron bridge is now in the National Railway Museum in York). Today only the stone embankment supports remain.
Fording rivers is something non-swimmers tend to avoid wherever possible and three-quarters of a mile downstream, marked on the map at 196262, is a footbridge, I decided, though, to follow the later 1840s line which runs eastwards before disappearing under the A6072 at a roundabout. A half-mile south of this a bridleway begins on the west side, a few hundred yards along which is a junction. Both these roads are Roman, the west one goes over the Pennines, the other, Dere Street, runs south to the Al.
As there was very little earthwork on the eastern side of the Brusselton incline, the line has mostly disappeared. It is not marked on the latest 05 93 map (but it may be marked on earlier editions), however, the museum at Shildon was very helpful. A half-mile south of the Roman junction, at 257206, the incline crosses Dere Street.
Standing on the crossing, looking north-west over cornfields (a 'PRIVATE' sign was stuck in the hedge) it is possible to see the embankment in the Gaunless Valley bottom, and the tree-lined cutting on the opposite hillside, and try to imagine the scene 175 years ago. On the opposite (eastern) side of Dere Street a footpath runs across permanent pasture, possibly along the trackbed, to a farm, Low West Thickley, in front of which is an embankment with a fine 1825 stone bridge; next to it the embankment has been severed to allow a road through. A tarmac drive runs beside the embankment to a row of houses and on the north wall of one can be seen the outline of the Brusselton Engine House (GR.215225 - there's an info plaque on the wall).
Beginning the descent from here, on a neatly mown section, are two short rows of 1825 stone sleeper blocks, each about 18 inches square. A footpath follows the line under the A6072 into an industrial estate. It is possible to follow the line through Shildon to where it joins the Bishop Auckland - Darlington main line, which follows the 1825 route.
In Darlington, at 299153, on the B6279, it is possible to rejoin the 1825 route. The embankment towers above the road but there is no access problem here as several paths lead up onto a surprisingly wide grass-covered trackbed with trees and bushes on either side. To the south is a large expanse of undeveloped, overgrown common land. The line soon drops to ground level and runs straight and unhindered for almost 3 miles out of town. On crossing the A66, it curves and enters a shallow, wet cutting.
At Dinsdale, marked on the map, were until recently a freight line and sidings, these have now been removed and a pedestrian/cycle path is being laid with the usual motor-cycle/horse barriers at the start. When I visited houses were being built where the sidings were, machines were digging deep into what looked to me like heavily polluted soil - don't live in a house on this 'Brown Field' site!
The bridge over the road near the junction with the main line had been removed, steps had been cut into the embankment to a stile at the bottom. The main line follows the 1825 route as tar as Eaglescliffe, the final 3.5 miles to Stockton Wharf have disappeared although the history books say there are shallow earthworks through Preston Park.
Map shows the first section of the route, the second section is clearly shown on the OS map.
So, what remains of the 24 miles of the 1825 route today?:-
20 miles can be traced
10 miles travelled by rail
8 miles travelled by foot/bike
Historical Information:- "Rail 150" (ISBN 0 413 32319 2) produced in 1975 to commemorate the line's 150th anniversary.
Maps:- 0S 92 (1982 edition), 0S 93 (1997 edition)