But now, here we are, living in retirement in Northumberland right next to a railway line. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a main line. The Newcastle to Carlisle route is both beautiful and of real historical interest, being the oldest cross-country line in Britain opened in 1837. For as locals all know, the North East pioneered the building of railways. Wagonways had been used in the coal and mineral industry since the seventeenth century. It was only a matter of time when passengers began to be transported on the iron roads that spread across the countryside.
The Stockton and Darlington line was opened in 1825. It soon colonised the valleys of West Durham. Its original western terminus was Shildon, near Bishop Auckland. There was already a colliery here. But this little town became a byword for the railway industry when the S&D, soon to be taken over by the North Eastern Railway, established the Shildon Wagon Works. Some of the world’s earliest steam engines were built here. And although the works closed in 1984, Shildon continues to be a focus of railway heritage as home to Locomotion, part of the National Rail Museum whose mother house is at York.
You don’t have to know about trains or railway history to enjoy this fascinating museum. And while we grown-ups of a certain age can become dewy-eyed with nostalgia for long-lost locomotives and carriages that remind us of our youth, children love it too for the beauty (as I see it) of these grand dinosaurs that are so different from anything they have experienced on a modern railway. My last visit was for the great gathering of the six surviving A4 Gresley “Pacifics” including the holder of the world steam speed record, 60022 Mallard.
But Shildon, the “Cradle of the Railways”, isn’t only a celebration of the old and venerable. The collection contains, for example, the prototypes of the renowned Deltic diesel locomotive that used to hurry up and down the East Coast Main Line in my student days, and the ill-fated Advanced Passenger Train or APT that was going to be the future of British Railways.
The train shed with its splendid collection of rolling stock and railwayana is only part of the museum. The site is half a mile long and sits alongside the still functioning branch-line from Darlington to Bishop Auckland. As you walk the path and admire the preserved nineteenth century railway buildings along it, Northern’s unloved Pacer trains squeal and growl their way up and down the line adding a suitably authentic touch to the environment. The buildings seem quintessentially County Durham: unshowy, workmanlike, honest, whether it is the goods shed, the coal drop or the original railway workshops.
At the end of the trail – or the start if you are doing it the right way round, there is a building that houses the legendary steam locomotive Sans Pareil. It was built in 1829 by the railway pioneer Timothy Hackworth whose cottage you can also see by the railway. The locomotive was entered in the “Rainhill Trials”, a competition to find the best locomotive to run trains on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. George and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket won – but Sans Pareil was perhaps the more romantic engine (or maybe that’s because of its name which means “without equal”). Either way, the North East left an indelible mark on Britain’s railway history – and indeed the world’s.
To complement a visit to Shildon, the Beamish Museum near Stanley in the north of the county is a must. But while you are in this part of County Durham, you may want to visit Auckland Castle, the historic home of the Bishops of Durham with its marvellous paintings of the Sons of Jacob by Zurbarán. The palace is now undergoing extensive refurbishment, and is home to the Kynren spectacle about the history of England that was launched in 2016 and is returning to the grounds this coming summer.
The hidden gem in the Wear Valley is, for me, the little church at Escomb. It is a Saxon building that was already there in the time of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede in the late seventh century. It is still in use as a parish church. What would it have to say about the heavy industry that would grow up and flourish around it, only to suffer in our own times a long and painful decline? “To live is to change, and to live long is to change much” said John Henry Newman. The North East, where the railways were born, where ships were built, where steel was made and where coal was once king, knows the truth of this perhaps more than any other part of England.