I recently spent a day travelling through Weardale in Western County Durham.
However, instead of driving up the dale on the A689, I decided to relax and take a trip on the Weardale Railway.
The railway in Weardale dates back to the 1840s and originally operated as an extension to the Stockton & Darlington railway, the first passenger railway service in the world. The passenger service continued until 1953 when the trains stopped running on 29th June.
Freight services from Eastgate were bolstered in 1964, when the Cement Works was built. This used custom built wagons to transport finished product from the plant. Cement was taken eastwards, down the dale, for onward shipment from Teesside, Tyneside and Scotland finally coming to an end in 1993.
My journey on the 16 mile long Weardale Railway started at Bishop Auckland, or more precisely, Bishop Auckland West Station. Originally I had gone to the main station at Bishop Auckland but found a sign telling passengers who wanted to use the Weardale service that they needed to use a platform that had been purpose-built behind B&Q. This wasn’t too much of a problem to get to, but was a 10 minute walk away. The other criticism I had at this point was the hopelessly inadequate car parking facilities at Bishop Auckland station. Having failed to get parked there, I decided to try the Morrisons car park. You can pay to park here, but there is a maximum stay of two hours. Not enough for a day in the dales. I didn’t want to risk getting clamped in the B&Q or Halfords car parks (I didn’t see any signs but assumed they wouldn’t be happy if a non-customer parked there) so I ended up parking in one of the back streets, using local knowledge. This is something the council need to address as a matter of urgency.
The picture to the left shows the new track being laid approaching Bishop Auckland West station. Just out of shot on the right is the water tower that will be used to refill the steam engines before they start their journey back up the dale.
The day I travelled wasn’t a heritage day, so the train used was a diesel unit that originally started life in the 1950s.
It has to be said, it wasn’t the most glamourous looking train, but it did have a hidden gem inside. That came in the form of Ticket Inspector, Derek Snell, who rather than merely nodding an acknowledgement, the type of thing you’d be lucky to get travelling on a main-line train, said “Welcome aboard the Weardale Railway sir.” He quickly established this was my first time travelling on the line and shortly after we pulled out of the station, he started to provide a commentary. The schools had started their term, so there was just me and one regular travelling, so I got to tap into this man’s knowledge of the line virtually unimpeded.
As we travelled Derek pointed out landmarks, wildlife and delivered anecdotes, that ensured the time flew by. He showed me pictures of the stations along the line from the 1800s so I could get a real sense of the “then and now” only revealing the next station a few minutes before we arrived so the images were still fresh.
Along the route there are a couple of unmanned crossings. Now to the casual observer you would expect these to have automatic barriers installed, however, Weardale is a little bit different. On approach to these crossings the driver has to halt the train before reaching the crossing. The guard then has to climb down from the front of the train with his red flag and ensure all traffic is stopped and nobody is about to cross the line. Once the guard decides all is safe, he waves the train on. The train then stops one more time, to allow the guard to climb back on board the train at the rear. Derek explained each stage of the process and the safety reasons for why things were done in a certain way. This happens a couple of times along the route and I couldn’t help but remember the scene in The Railway Children film, where Perks, played by Bernard Cribbons, has to close the gates.
We continued on through Wolsingham station, where, like other stations on the line, an information board had been placed giving details of a lovely circular walk and historical information about the area. Taking the time to read these boards does add so much to the experience along the line.
Passing Wolsingham depot, we spotted the coal train that runs on the line. This freight service takes coal from an open cast mine at Tow Law. It passes down the Weardale Railway ending up in Lincolnshire where the coal is used in power stations. As the coal train is a commercial service, it takes priority on the line which is a single track laid between Bishop Auckland and Stanhope.
Talking with Derek, I learned that there are two organisations involved. The private owner of the line has a train operating company and there is the Weardale Railway Trust which has a 12.5% stake in the operating company. The trust owns the rolling stock used to provide the community railway service as well as the heritage steam services and during the extremely bad snow last year, it provided a vital link for passengers coming down the dale to get food and supplies from Bishop Auckland.
Like most charitable ventures the trust is constantly fund-raising, putting on themed events, offering membership of the trust, but for people living in local postal districts there is a very special deal available offering substantial discounts on fares.
All too soon, the journey was over and I reached Stanhope station.
Ticket Inspector Derek ensured I was fully aware of the return train times available before I left the train. He also gave me a few tips of things to do and see in Stanhope as well, removing his Inspector hat to become a local tourist guide.
After spending some time in and around Stanhope, I decided to get an earlier train than originally planned. This terminated at Wolsingham and gave ample time to have a look around there as well. The General Manager of the line, who was acting as a guard on the eastbound train came out of the drivers cab where he had been briefly sitting, to tell me he had asked the driver to stop at the west end of the platform, as this would give me a shorter route into the village. I was stunned. Between this and Derek acting as my personal historian, tour guide and wildlife ranger, the Weardale Railway had left me feeling like royalty.
I had a great walk in the sunshine around Wolsingham, taking in the local shops, as well as a quick trip to the gents. There was even time for a swift pint before I returned to the station for my final leg back to Bishop Auckland.
The fee for my return journey was £10.40. Well worth the money in my opinion as I would probably have spent almost as much as that, travelling the route by car, yet seeing only a fraction of what I was able to from the train.
If you wish to travel on, or more importantly support, Weardale Railway, please check their website for further details.