The South Tynedale Railway heads northwards for almost 5 miles from Alston in Cumbria, past the original terminus at Gilderdale, on through Kirkhaugh and Lintley to the village of Slaggyford.
For most visitors, a journey on the South Tynedale Railway begins at the former North Eastern Railway station at Alston, now the headquarters of the restored line. Major changes have occurred at Alston station in the 30 years since the railway closed, with a large proportion of the site now devoted to tourism and craft workshops. However despite these developments, the station buildings still retain their character and charm.
The building of the Alston branch line and Alston station itself took place during 1850 and 1851 but through trains for passengers from Alston to Haltwhistle didn’t begin until 17th November 1852 following the completion of the track over the Lambley viaduct.
The original two storey station building which now houses the cafe, ticket office and shop was built in the style of the East Coast mainline and provided the booking office, waiting room and facilities for handling parcels on the ground floor and the upper floor provided accommodation for the Station Master and his family until the station became unmanned during its decline. A single storey extension was added to the station in 1904-5 to provide additional porter’s facilities and a new gentlemen’s toilet.
When constructed in the 1850s the locomotive shed at Alston along with the associated fitting shop were connected to the station buildings by a roof which gave the platform some cover from the worst of the elements. With the soot and smoke produced by the steam engines and the small amount of glass in the roof the platform at Alston would have been a dark and dirty place. With the introduction of diesel multiple units as part of the BR modernisation plan at the end of the 1950s the engine shed at Alston became redundant and was demolished in the mid-1960s and along with it the station roof.
This 1923 track layout drawing shows the extent to which the track and associated buildings had spread to include not only the station and connected engine shed but also a shed for the snow plough, which proved itself essential during the harsh winters, the signal box, warehouses and loading docks for coal, limestone and other freight traffic.
With the closure of the Alston branch in 1976 and the failure of the South Tyndale Railway Preservation Society to purchase the line, and its associated stations, as a going concern to preserve and run as a standard gauge railway the future for Alston station looked bleak. The track bed, as far as the county boundary at Gilderdale and station buildings at Alston were sold to Cumbria County Council.
Cumbria County Council proceeded to redevelop the Alston station site, with the help of a Manpower Services Commission Team, converting the area previously occupied by the engine shed and the associated sidings into a car park and picnic area, while the goods yard was converted for industrial purposes. The Society was allowed the use of a strip of land alongside the shortened Alston station platform plus a few rooms in the former Alston station to house a small display for visitors and a Tourist Information Centre.
The station buildings at Alston are now the base and headquarters for the thriving South Tynedale Railway with the original station two storey station building housing the shop and ticket office whilst the single storey 1905 extension houses the new cafe and toilets. The industrial units created on the site of the former goods yard are used by the Society for staff facilities and the Discovery Centre, whilst the former goods shed now houses The Hub, a museum featuring the history of Alston and local transport which is not part of the STR’s activities.
When all the rails had been lifted and demolition completed south of Haltwhistle the bulk of the track bed of the Haltwhistle to Alston branch was sold to Cumbria and Northumberland County Councils. At the 1977 AGM of the South Tynedale Railway Preservation Society, held in Haltwhistle, it was agreed to change the objectives of the Society and build a narrow gauge line northwards from Alston. Negotiations were then started with Cumbria County Council for a lease of the track bed from the Alston station site to Gilderdale Burn, which is the county boundary.
Formal agreement to lease the track bed between Alston to Gilderdale was obtained from the County Council in June 1980 and in July Eden District Council granted planning permission for the construction of the railway. Finally, in October, the English Tourist Board approved a grant of £17,500 towards the capital costs of the first section of the line and the Society was at last able to start laying permanent track.
The first point north from Alston where the track bed was sufficiently wide to provide space for the main line, a run-round loop, a platform area and the lineside footpath occurred just over a mile north of Alston station at a point where the gradient was sufficiently close to level to allow the temporary terminus to be built. In 1983 the regulations were very different from those in force today, and the visiting inspector passed the line as suitable for passenger traffic on Friday 29th July 1983, allowing the railway to commence operations the following day.
In 1983 trains ran into Gilderdale Halt using the main line and then ran-round their train using the loop on the east side, which ran alongside the footpath. Passengers wishing to alight did so between the main line and the run-round loop, using the deep steps provided on the coaches that allowed them to reach ground level as there was no platform of any sort. Although this method of working continued for the remainder of the 1983 season it was considered highly unsatisfactory and during the winter the locking mechanism of the turnout at the south end of the halt was altered so that from 1984 the trains ran into the loop and the locomotive ran round using the main line. The original Gilderdale Halt remained in use until 13th December 1986, when the extension to the County Boundary was inspected and passed for service, being used by the later Santa Specials that year.
By the end of 1984 all the initial “teething problems” on the railway had been rectified and it was decided to build a shed over the winter of 1984-5 in which to complete the rebuilding of two further diesel locomotives, 2 and 4, and the newly acquired Henschel steam locomotive, No 6. Nevertheless work continued on extending the line to the county boundary, where there was a suitable site between a farm over bridge and Gilderdale viaduct, although the land at the north end of the site required to be raised to provide a suitable gradient.
The drainage both north and south of the over bridge also required to be restored, and it was therefore not until late in 1986 that it was possible to have the extension inspected, and the extension was opened during the running of the Santa Specials.
The new Gilderdale Halt was provided with a low level platform, edged with old sleepers, that was sufficiently long to accommodate a three coach train. As both the railway line and footpath required to pass under the arch of the over bridge, and the levelled space was limited in length, the through line could not be straight as it had to be moved closer to the path in order to provide space for the run round loop.
Work soon started to extend the line into Northumberland with the intention of reaching a point near Kirkhaugh, almost halfway between Alston and Slaggyford, where a permanent crossing place could be provided. Unfortunately it was discovered that although Gilderdale Viaduct was in a satisfactory condition the small Whitley Viaduct about half a mile to the north of Gilderdale required major repairs before trains could once again run over it. Again this delayed the opening of the next extension until Saturday 4th September 1999.
Originally it had been hoped to keep Gilderdale open as an intermediate station, but by the time the extension to Kirkhaugh was ready the Society possessed six coaches and a long train could not be stopped at the short Gilderdale platform unless we the doors of the coaches that would not be stopped beside the platform were locked and so the halt was closed.
Following the opening of the extension to Kirkhaugh the track through the site of the station was rationalised with the loop being removed and the main line straightened, moving it some distance away from the old platform edge. This is the situation today, although the former platform has now been completely removed.
The easiest way to provide rail access to the Roman site of Epiacum will be by re-opening Gilderdale, but this will require a high level platform to be built similar to those at Kirkhaugh and Lintley. As no loop will be required there is adequate space to provide the correct length of platform and it will not be a difficult task, although at present there are no funds available for the project. Nevertheless it is expected that Gilderdale will be reopened in the not too distant future.
Once the debt incurred in completing the extension to Gilderdale Burn had been reduced to a manageable sum, an understanding was reached with Northumberland County Council that negotiations would commence to agree terms for a lease of the track bed from Gilderdale viaduct to Slaggyford, although in the interim the Society could have access to the track bed to start extending the railway towards Slaggyford.
The most suitable place for the next temporary terminus was the section of line below Dyke Farm, beyond which there was about one mile of steep gradients down to Lintley viaduct. Although the track at this point was not level it did not require much to build up the northern end of the site to produce a gradient suitable for a temporary terminus and permanent run-round loop, as this is almost exactly half way between Alston and Slaggyford.
There were two relatively minor problems to be resolved, the first was that a public footpath crossed the line close to the middle of where the platform(s) would be situated, while a short way north of the platform there was an over-bridge, carrying another public footpath, which would require major repairs before trains could pass beneath it. The first suggestion was that as the land available at the site was relatively wide an island platform could be built with a pedestrian footbridge built to take the footpath over the rails while at the same time connecting the South Tyne Trail, that runs on the east side of the railway, to the platform.
It was soon realised that there was a less expensive solution by applying to have the west section of the footpath crossing the railway on the level diverted to join the path crossing the bridge and then building a platform on the western side of the formation where the existing bank would reduce the amount of infill material required to build a platform of the same height above rail level as that at Alston.
This option was chosen and the western section of the path was diverted, although the eastern section still connected with the South Tyne Trail, and a new platform built into the bank on the west side of the track.
A Y turnout was installed at the south end of the station site and at the north end the main line continued straight down the bank to pass under the bridge while the loop line, on the eastern side, was provided with a crossover to the main line and then continued as a siding towards the bridge on built-up ground. It was decided to call the station Kirkhaugh, after the church across the South Tyne with which the footpath connects and the other part of the village of that name that lies about ¼ mile to the north on the same side of the river as the railway.
The opening of the section from Gilderdale was delayed after it was discovered that major works were required to Whitley viaduct that lies a few hundred yards to the south of the station site. The first passenger train ran to Kirkhaugh station on Saturday 4th September 1999 with the extension being officially opened by the Society’s Patron, Lord Inglewood, on 9th June 2000.
Prior to the start of the 2012 season, the South Tynedale Railway from Alston terminated at Kirkhaugh. As part of the plans to extend the South Tynedale Railway back to the first stop on the former British Rail branch line at Slaggyford a new station was needed after the first 1½ miles of additional track had been laid and this is the present station at Lintley.
Through the winter of 2010 into 2011, Cubby Construction started building the new platform at Lintley Halt. Whilst this is a job that the railway volunteers could have done themselves, as had been done at Kirkhaugh, it’s a job that does not require any technical railway expertise, so is ideal for a general contractor leaving the railway’s volunteers free to undertake more specialist tasks.
In spite of the dry weather, as soon as they started to cut away the side of the cutting to build the back wall of the platform, water started pouring out of the clay, and threatened to swamp the foundations in water and mud.
This led to additional work as a channel was constructed to get the water away, and when the wall was complete, they laid in a perforated pipe behind the stonework, and connected it up to the main drain that had been installed the previous year.
Once the construction of the station platform had been completed it was the turn of the railway’s own Permanent Way team who spent the spring and summer of 2011 extending the line from Kirkhaugh to Lintley. By November 2011 the main running line had been laid and diesel locomotive № 9 took two coaches full of members on a special trip to the new station.
At that time the run-round loop and several hundreds of metres of fencing still needed to be constructed in order to have the station fully operational for the start of the 2012 season. Again, the Permanent Way team sprang into action and used a work week in February 2012 to complete the construction ready for trial running and crew training.
On the opening day of Lintley station, 1st April 2012, we were greeted with clear skies and fine spring sunshine which helped to bring out large crowds with over 600 people travelling on the trains to the new station and hundreds more
Opened in 1852 Slaggyford station was the first official stopping point for trains making their journey from Alston back towards the junction with the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway at Haltwhistle. Slaggyford station stands 4¾ miles into the journey from Alston with a journey time, according to the timetable of 1870, of 12 minutes.
Slaggyford was, in many ways, the most attractive station on the branch line. Initially built with just a single platform which was shielded from the worst of the Cumbrian winter weather by a screen of trees and shrubs the station was enhanced in 1890 with a single wooden building.
This wooden building housed both the booking office and the two passenger waiting rooms detailed in the contemporary documents as “Waiting Room” and “Ladies Room”. Facilities at Slaggyford station were further enhanced by the Newcastle & Carlisle Railway with the construction of a two storey Station Master’s house and by the North Eastern Railway’s brick built signal box.
Once considered important enough to have its own station master, Slaggyford was later downgraded to such an extent that it could be worked by two porter-signalmen who operated the level crossing and undertook all station work¹.
In common with other railways the Alston branch served the public in perfect safety for many years, but minor accidents were not unknown, and one such incident occurred at Slaggyford during the British Railways period when an experienced driver with an otherwise spotless record ran his train through the level crossing gates. Sadly, the driver in question was approaching retirement, and although nobody was injured, the accident was a most distressing experience for a conscientious railwayman near the end of his working life².
Following the end of the steam era and with the introduction of diesel services on the Alston branch line the service time from Alston to Slaggyford was reduced to 10 minutes. The final British Rail Passenger timetable from May 1975 to May 1976 shows six services per day on weekdays and one Saturday only service from Alston to Haltwhistle and six weekday services, one Saturday excepted, and two Saturday only services in the return direction.
Following the closure of the Alston branch line in 1976 the former Station Master’s House moved into private ownership whilst the original wooden station building at Slaggyford stands waiting for its first train since its closure on 3rd May 1976. Whilst the exact facilities to be provided at the station have yet to be finalised this architects drawing shows what they may look like.
Slaggyford will provide a good alternative starting point for those travelling from the Carlisle area with good level access, free car and coach parking, snacks and drinks and substantial shelter against the elements.