Friday, 3 November 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 9: The Tyne Valley Railway

This month I’ve chosen, not a place but a railway line – ours. As someone who’s loved railways since I was little, I couldn’t ignore this aspect of the North East. I’ve already written about the museum at Shildon, the “cradle of the railways”. But what about the living, working railway that runs through our own village? The Tyne Valley Railway is a daily part of our life in this community – and aren’t we fortunate to have a working railway station, however basic, in our midst? But how many of us have taken in the long history of this line, or some of its fine lineside features?

Our railway is both one of the prettiest in England, and also one of the earliest. Planning began in the 1820s (the legendary Stockton and Darlington Railway began carrying passengers in 1825). While sections of the line were running earlier, the entire length of the route between Carlisle and Newcastle was opened in 1838. And although Haydon Bridge station is now only a shadow of its former self, it’s nice to think that in its way it is the village’s monument to the pioneering spirit that inspired the construction of railways across the country in those first few decades.

You can see why the railway has been branded the “Hadrian’s Wall Line”, though in fact the Roman Wall is visible from only a very few locations along the route. But the Tyne is a different matter. The railway hugs it closely all the way from its eastern terminus at Newcastle Central to Haltwhistle; even then the former Alston branch, now partly reopened as a narrow gauge railway, continues the marriage of river and railway up into the North Pennines not far from its source. (I say the Tyne, but of course I mean the South Tyne. The North Tyne had its own railway, the Border Counties that diverged from the Tyne Valley line just west of Hexham. You can still see the piers of the original bridge that crossed the river at that point.)

As I am focusing on North East England, I won’t linger on the part of the line west of the Pennine watershed around Gilsland (where there is an active campaign to reopen the station, and who’s to say there isn’t a good case for it?). Up here you get marvellous views eastwards along the whin sill crags that carry the Roman Wall, northwards to the Bewcastle fells, and westwards across the Solway and beyond, the hills of Galloway. 

Haltwhistle station has some of the line’s best buildings. My wife and I visited them recently on a heritage open day. We were able to climb up into the splendid signal box and admire the restored ticket office (the cardboard railway ticket as we used to know it was invented on this very line by an enterprising station master at Brampton called Thomas Edmondson). The water tank on its three arches is another fine feature, as is the footbridge in a design you find repeated along the length of the line.

Hexham station always seems well looked after with its air of tidiness and hanging flower baskets. The signal box, poised over the rails themselves, is one of the best on the line. Riding Mill and Stocksfield stations both have their original station-masters’ houses, as does Wylam, another station of great charm. Opened in 1835, it is said to be one of the earliest stations in the world that is still in daily use, an achievement of which the great engineer George Stephenson, born in the village, would no doubt be proud. It even features in Simon Jenkins' recent book Britain's Hundred Best Railway Stations.

Wylam marks the Tyne’s tidal limit. Downstream you leave Northumberland and enter the tangle of industrial wastelands, new commercial buildings, baffling road networks and riverside developments. The urban townscape of Tyne and Wear has created huge spaces for retail on an industrial scale. The Metro Centre, cathedral of consumerism, has its own useful but unlovely interchange where every train on the line is destined to stop. I wonder why?
Our journey has two last hurrahs. The first is the long climb up through Gateshead to join the East Coast Main Line. There’s a breath-taking climax when you realise that you are high up on the south bank of the river perched on the edge of a gorge. From here you cross it either on the King Edward Bridge or the older and more venerable High Level Bridge. This outstanding monument to North East engineering was designed by Robert Stephenson and opened in 1849. If you have never walked along its lower deck, you have a treat in store. Both bridges offer magnificent views up and down the river, and if your train is halted in mid-passage as it often is, you have an unrivalled photo opportunity too. Is there a city in Europe with such a majestic river frontage as Newcastle-Gateshead?
The second hurrah is Newcastle Central Station itself. The river crossing has already created a great sense of arrival, and it required a station to match it. Newcastle architect John Dobson rose to the challenge by creating one of the grandest stations in the country (it merits 5ive stars in Simon Jenkins' book). The vast porch (called a porte-clochère) where passengers would disembark from their horse-drawn carriages is now a pedestrian concourse. The train shed is a beautiful piece of ironwork in its own right, perfectly set off by the curve of the railway line as it comes off one of the bridges at either end and sweeps grandly alongside the platforms.
The Tyne bridges, Newcastle Central Station, the two Cathedrals, Anglican and Roman Catholic, and the (new) Castle make up an outstanding ensemble of historic buildings. Here at the heart of one of England’s great cities, we are a world away from the Pennine reaches of the Tyne in its remote upland valley. But each is a foil for the other. There aren’t many railway journeys that offer so much to enjoy. And all from our own doorsteps here in Haydon Village.
**The Tyne Valley Rail Users’ Group is well worth supporting. Its purpose is to develop relationships between the line and its principal train operator Northern, and the communities they serve. This includes campaigning for better services and facilities. Go to www.tvrug.org.uk 

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