Tanfield Railway

Sun. 19th May, 2002

The Tanfield Railway is the world's oldest rail line still operating. The Sunniside to Causey section was built as a coal waggonway in 1725, although the motive power in those days was horses and gravity.

Today the trains were given a World War II feel by the military encampment by the entrance, and the presence of soldiers and Home Guard "Dad's Army" defence volunteers. East Tanfield, at the southern end of the line, was in the Russian sector, so everyone was on the lookout for spies!

Vera Lynn and Glenn Miller oozed from the radio in the waiting room, and the staff were in period costume. Every ticket holder was issued with a war time Identification card.

Home on the down line
Those Yanks get the best gals!

In the café the soldiers took time off for lunch. Here, a United States private demonstrates why they were, "Over sexed, over paid and over here!" He had the pick of the local lasses on his arm, and I'll bet she wasn't short of nylons and chewing gum.

The criss-cross tape on the windows was a measure against flying glass during bomb blasts, and the entrance was arched by sandbags for the same reason.

All this nostalgic make-believe was a first for Tanfield that is more used to hosting Teddy Bears' picnics and Santa specials.

Trains run every Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday throughout the year and a £4 adult or £2 child or OAP ticket lasts all day for as many trips as you like. See more

Now, let's get on with the look at the trains.

Firstly, be under no illusions, most visitors come here for steam. Those pranksters at the railway know this so the platform is regularly shrouded in an impenetrable fog of vapour and smoke.

I am old enough to remember steam as the main motive power on the railways, and recall how smelly, dirty and downright dangerous it all was. How I remember those stinging "smuts" (small fragments of coal and ash) in the eyes.

The days started early for train drivers and firemen. That fire had to burn fiercely for over an hour before the engine could move an inch. So old fashioned, so quaint, so polluting.

Steam railway lives up to its name
You can see Turner's inspiration

On the platform, between belches, the swirling mist clears a little to reveal a Home Guard leader. This is Captain Blimp, who, if he keeps up the good work, is almost certain to make Colonel!

When the train does eventually hiss and chuff into motion it lets out a most fearsome snort and from the midst of the cloud of eye smarting, lung busting vapour and carbon the iron horse clanks and squeaks into life, dragging the luckless carriages into the miasma.

This little railway does not try to be anything than what it is, a collection of ex industrial locos and a curious mixture of carriages that would have seemed quaint during World War I. It is principally a single track of 4½ Km with passing places. This view is of Andrew's House Station, the nerve centre of the line.

This line used to serve the coal mines at Tanfield and Marley Hill and transport the produce down the steep bank at Lobley Hill to Dunston coal staithes. It was finally closed in 1964 after 300 years of coal traffic; it never was a regular passenger line.

The line was rebuilt and brought back into service during the early 1970s and its dedicated band of volunteers built the permanent way, signalling, engineering and rebuilt the locos and rolling stock with loving care.

The volunteers are an eclectic mix of engineers, historians and enthusiasts. The latest major project is to connect the site to mains electricity, at a cost of £12,000, to replace the ailing diesel generators

The south exit from Andrew's House
Coal here, and the remains of the National Coal Board

The little station at Marley Hill, adjacent to Andrew's House is the main marshalling yard and the site of the present and new engine sheds.

A variety of old rolling stock and rotting railway junk is stored here. It has no physical link with the main line, so everything has to be lugged by road, although I suspect that some of the heavier cranes have been stranded here since before the severing of connections in the mid 1960s.

Eastern exit to Marley Hill
Wrapped truck and replacement boiler

I enjoyed my visit to this little curiosity. The World War II theme was a nice touch to a railway not trying to recreate a particular epoch, but rather preserve some local engineering products. I saw plenty of makers plated from W.G. Armstrong, Hawthorn Lesley and other local manufacturers.

There is access to the Causey Arch, the 1725 single span arch built for the original waggonway. See more

The railway site is cleverly hidden away so that to enter is to step into a cosy microcosm of old fangled nostalgia. No theatrical theme park here, just a giant train set pandering to the little boy in all of us.

As I drove back to Newcastle over the new Redheugh Bridge I was pleased to be back in the real world again, but valued my hours in the collective phantasy.

Ther workshop office
Cecil Cochrane loco
Loco No.2
Little Strathspey chuffs past

Click here to see high quality album copies of these and other photographs from the same shoot

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