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Friday, 26 December 2014

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Memories of when steam was king

APART from providing a nice little earner for Northumbria Police, as vehicles pick up speed swooping down the steep hills at either end of the village, there’s little remarkable these days about West Woodburn.

But turn the clock back a few years, and Woodburn was a major railway centre.

It was one of the key stations on the long-lost “Wannie” line, or the Wansbeck Valley Railway to give it its Sunday name.

As well as serving the village itself, Woodburn was an important transport base both for the military, getting troops and equipment to the nearby Otterburn and Redesdale Army Ranges, and for the many mines and quarries in the area.

The life and times of the Wannie Line are featured in a special exhibition at the Heritage Centre at Bellingham, which runs until June 6 – appropriately enough in the former Bellingham railway station yard.

The Wannie line was conceived in 1854, when following the creation of the Border Counties line from Hexham to Riccarton Junction in Scotland, the good folk of Morpeth and Rothbury decided they would like the benefits of rail transport too.

The following year, a line was proposed to join the two communities, travelling via Meldon, Hartburn and Longwitton.

The line was surveyed, but the project came to nothing.

Three years later, possibly encouraged by the fact the Border Counties line had reached Chollerford, a new and more ambitious scheme was put together.

This time, the line was to run 26 miles from Morpeth to Redesmouth ( or Reedsmouth as railway folk always have it).

The project was given gravitas by the presence on the board of bigwigs like the Earl of Carlisle, Sir Walter Trevellyan of Wallington Hall, and chairman of the North British Railway Company Richard Hodgson.

The route was surveyed by the renowned J.F. Tone, and was to run via Meldon, Angerton, Middleton, Cambo, south of Hartington, close to Kirkwhelpington and on to Woodburn and then Reedsmouth, where it would link with the Border Counties line.

The Wansbeck Railway Act was granted in August 1859, and work began at the Morpeth end in 1861.

Progress was rapid, and the stretch between Morpeth and Scots Gap opened in July 1862.

Knowesgate was reached in October 1863, and the final link to Reedsmouth was finished in May 1865.

By this time, the Wansbeck Valley amalgamated with the North British Railway.

As railway mania swept the land, two of the men behind the Wannie line, Sir Walter Trevellyan and Richard Hodgson, were joined by Earl Grey to bring Rothbury into the equation.

Their line was to run from Scots Gap up to Rothbury, and then on to Cornhill on the River Tweed.

After a delayed start due to money problems, work began in the spring of 1866 at Scots Gap, heading towards Rothbury.

By November of that year, the partners concluded their corporate eyes had perhaps been a little bigger than their bellies, and they were granted permission to end the line at Rothbury.

After more money worries, work resumed in February 1869, and the line opened to the public in November 1870.

There were stations at Rothbury, Brinkburn, Ewesley and Scots Gap.

In addition, there was a private platform at Rothley, exclusively for the use of the Trevellyan family.

This was later renamed Longwitton, and opened to the public.

The Northumberland Central Railway was the making of Rothbury, especially after the takeover by the North British railway.

It became very popular with Victorian holiday makers, and the cattle market, opened in 1871, make a major contribution to trade.

There were also special trains to Rothbury racecourse – now occupied by the golf club.

With the completion of all the various links, it was now possible to travel the 40 miles from Rothbury to Hexham by train all the way, but there seemed little point in the journey.

The train only stayed in Hexham for four minutes, which was just long enough for the passengers to hurry over the line, and catch the train for the return journey!

The early days of the line were marred by tragedy, with two fatal accidents on the Rothbury section.

In the first in July 1875, a drawbar became detached from a wagon, causing a major derailment near Scots Gap which left three people dead, and 25 injured, 10 of them seriously.

Death returned to the line in 1897, when three more people died, and 11 were seriously injured, when a passenger train which was running late came off the rails and slammed into the steps of the signal box at Rothbutry station.

There were three passenger trains each way every day, but their use was always fairly modest, with train usually comprising just one or two coaches.

The exception was Bellingham Show Day, or Rothbury Races, when special trains were often put on.

Livestocks traffic was the mainstay of the lines, with the marts at Scots Gap and Rothbury heavily reliant on stock coming by rail.

There was also considerable mineral traffic, with the trains often groaning under the weight of stone, ironstone, lime and coal from the various pits and quarries along the line.

And from the 1930s onwards, there was always a considerable volume of military traffic, with personnel and stores being carried for the camps and Otterburn and Redesdale.

The main stations serving these needs were Woodburn and Knowesgate, and the MoD continued using the line long after it had officially closed to the public.

Reedsmouth is now what the planners would call an unsustainable community, with no shops, pubs or any even a phone box.

However, when it was the junction of the Border Counties and Wannie lines, it was a regular little boom town.

At one time there was a mission hall and a wooden shop, and Redesmouth even its own football team, with players ranging in age from 13 to 30.

They walked to Birtley to play, for they had a proper pitch there!

The Redesmouth engine shed housed up to half a dozen engines, including some particularly powerful ones which were used as snowploughs.

The initial snow clearance work was done by men with shovels who hacked away enough of the snow for the plough to get through.

There was no electricity in the hamlet for many years, and the engines had to be cleaned every night by the light from tow lamps, which provided decent enough illumination, but gave off choking fumes.

Redesmouth had its own wheeltapper, responsible for checking the soundness of all wheels with his special hammer.

It also had its own hand-operated turntable, where the engine driver and fireman would turn the engine round the way it had come by hand.

Stoking the engines was back-breaking work, because to maintain pressure in the boiler, fireboxes literally could be white hot.

The consolation was, as they cooled down, the firemen could cook kippers in a matter of seconds on his shovel!

Station masters along the line often had a little sideline, selling off “spare” coal to local people, for as little as a shilling (5p) per hundredweight.

The Wannie line chugged on its merry independent way until 1923, when all the small railway companies were banded together into four famous groups – the London North Eastern Railway, London Midland Scottish, the Great Western and Southern Railways.

The Wannie line became part of the LNER.

At the onset of the war in 1939, passenger services were reduced to two per day, and the line went into a steady decline.

Passenger services officially ended on the Wannie line in September 1952, and the Rothbury line, and the Woods to Bellingham section closed to goods in November 1963.

The last goods train anywhere on the line ran in September 1966, but that wasn’t the end of the line.

Gosforth Round Table gave the line a great send-off by running a steam excursion called the Wansbeck Piper from Newcastle to Woodburn with 11 carriages and two steam locomotives.

The comprehensive display at the Heritage Centre features rare photographs, diagrams and all manner of memorabilia about the line, .

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