To the End of the Line
by Bill Hartley
Railway junctions don’t usually have signposts. However, the observant traveller on the East Coast Main Line may spot one just north of Darlington. The sign points to the Stockton and Darlington Railway, or at least what’s left of it. Three years short of its two hundredth anniversary, the northerly branch of the route is now known as ‘The Bishop Line’ since it terminates at Bishop Auckland. The journey takes about half an hour and provides an opportunity to view the mixed fortunes of towns and industries which grew up near the tracks.
The departure point is Darlington Station, once a showpiece on the East Coast route; a piece of grandiose Victorian architecture covered by a barrel roof, supported by cast iron pillars with heraldic adornments. In contrast, that sign just to the north takes the traveller into a curious world of Railwayana both ancient and modern but rarely Victorian.
Darlington’s original station North Road lies just a short distance away, a lucky survivor of the Beeching cuts. Here, the architecture is far from Victorian swagger, reflecting instead the light touch and elegance of the Regency era. This was a line which opened in 1825 and the building appears more like a large villa, providing a rare example of what stations were like before the railways really got going. There is a museum here too, where they keep George Stephenson’s Locomotion Number 1 which pulled the inaugural passenger train on the day the Stockton and Darlington opened. Beyond, the station Regency elegance is rapidly overwhelmed by streets of terraced houses. A good barometer of economic decline is the number of pizza outlets and the district has several. Close to one of these is the Darlington Locomotive Works. Not to be confused with the long departed original, they are still in the same business, constructing steam locomotives. Back in 2008 the works finished building Tornado and now have another in hand.<
Beyond North Road and passing through the cornfields of Durham, it’s hard to appreciate that the route was built primarily to shift coal from collieries around Bishop Auckland, down to Stockton and the River Tees. The contrast in the fortunes of the various settlements along the line is marked. For example, the one economic success story is Newton Aycliffe. This is a well manicured new town, with various industries housed in bright modern buildings. Among these is Hitachi. Take a long distance rail journey in Britain and the likelihood is that you’ll be riding in one of their trains. The company involved in building the trains for HS2, Britain’s newest railway, is next door to the Stockton & Darlington.
Normal service, so to speak, is resumed just to the north at Shildon. Here, there is no sign of elegant railway architecture, though there are ample pizza outlets nearby. The station has been ‘modernised’ down to bus shelter basic. Back in the early nineteenth century, Shildon was little more than a crossroads. Subsequently it had the bad luck to become a one industry town and has never recovered from the closure of the wagon works, back in the eighties. At one time its marshalling yards were second in size only to the Chicago stockyards. The town has two other claims to fame. It was the first in England to lose all its banks and has, for the past three years, maintained its position as the cheapest place in Britain to buy a house.
Shildon has a heritage centre; often a good indicator of a place which has had its economic heart torn out. Government guilt money, so to speak, and a way of pretending the place hasn’t been forgotten about. If the locals are sufficiently interested then they have a reminder on their doorstep of what the place used to be like.
North of the town, the line starts to enter what was once the heart of the Durham coalfield. Several long vanished branches converged on the Stockton and Darlington at this point. One of these bore a politically incorrect name. The Black Boy branch closed in the 1930s. Even so, there is still the chance to walk the old route to the colliery along the ‘Black Boy Trail’. Deep in the Durham countryside, they are not quite as sensitive as they might be.
Shildon is one example of what happens to a town when the dominant industry disappears. In Bishop Auckland the impact was even greater. The collieries, those ‘accidents in the landscape’ as George Orwell described them, are of course long gone and the countryside has regained its mainly rural aspect. The townscape of Bishop Auckland, though, serves as a reminder that things were once very different. The station, clean, bright and bland is the end of the line in more ways than one. A few hundred yards to the north there is a set of buffers and the cutting beyond is gradually reverting back to nature.
Wandering the streets it’s still possible to get a flavour of the market town which grew up to service Auckland Castle and the Prince Bishops who once lived there. However, even the mighty bishops couldn’t hold King Coal at bay and just beyond the town centre rows of pit cottages soon appear. This was once a town of many small retailers. The big national chains never really bothered with the place, perhaps due to its isolation. As a consequence, the economic decline along the high street is more marked, with many shop premises lying empty. Not even the ubiquitous pizza outlets can provide enough infilling to make up the difference.
The local authority is making a brave attempt to keep up morale. Lamp posts on the high street are adorned with banners celebrating local people. Unfortunately, nothing can disguise the fact that what gave the town a purpose has gone and the retail businesses which lived from it are heading the same way. Of course, there’s a heritage centre. The Auckland Project is based at the former bishop’s palace and the people running it are doing their best. However, Durham City isn’t too far away and probably has more to offer the visitor. Plus it can be reached via the East Coast line, so is better served than Bishop Auckland, at end of the old S&D route.
It’s likely the heritage industry will be out in force in a few years time to celebrate the bicentenary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. There’s much of interest here, not least of which is the continuance of train building, both steam and electric, next to the world’s oldest passenger railway. However, no amount of heritage activity can mask the decline of those towns along the line.