The Tanfield railway is the oldest working line in the world, dating back to 1725. It was originally a waggonway, with horse drawn carts being used to transport coal from pits to the Tyne. Steam trains have been in operation on the Tanfield Railway for nearly 200 years.
My day began in Sunniside where I joined the Tanfield Railway Path. It climbs steadily, past Marley Hill, rugged moors and hills coming into view. And then — you’re into them, into the countryside!
On my right lay the hilly landscape around Tanfield village and Burnopfield. Directly ahead, due south, lay Stanley, surrounded by hills. It was a bright but cold morning and the superb quality of the light would be a feature of the day. It was quite glorious. I paused, shading my eyes and gazing across those tawny coloured fells, at the higher hills and the rim of the skyline where the light sparkled. It was so clear, bathing forestation and the great green swell of the hillsides.
It is quite some time since I had last walked the railway path and was impressed by the development work that has been undertaken. From Marley Hill there are several well surfaced and sign-posted paths for both cyclists and walkers. ‘Good place for a break,’ I thought, resting my rucksack against a fence. I rustled up the flask and poured a cup of piping hot soup.
The morning was very still, hardly a sound, barely a breeze. Trees crowded the rim of a sort of shallow vale and the floor of this was covered with red-brown reeds. I wondered if there had once been a pond or small lake here as reeds usually grew near water.
I finished my soup, packed away the rucksack and took to the trail again. The Tanfield Path took me through the vale and then climbed, on and on. The railway glinted in the wintry sun and, tantalisingly, smoke rose into the sky. And then … a slow, rhythmic hiss-bang, hiss-bang, shhhhhhh, and then more smoke, belching skyward. I smiled: There be steam trains here!
I quickened my pace to the Andrews House station. There is something magical about steam trains; the romance, the excitement, the thrill of it. The locomotive at the station platform was getting ready for setting off. It was like a scene from the Railway Children! The smoke and steam rolled around me, the engine making all sorts of noises, burbling and booming, murmuring and whispering.
The carriages are equally evocative; everything wooden, brightly painted. One of the drivers told me that the train wasn’t due to leave for a while yet. I decided to push on and maybe catch sight of the train later.
From the railway station I followed the Stanley road for about a mile to the Causey Arch Inn. This is a lovely little pub, with a warm welcome, including the pub dog who came waddling across to say hello. I patted the friendly canine’s head, stretched out my legs and sipped my pint.
On turning on my mobile phone it was to find awaiting voicemail. A message had been left by a lady called Jane. She’d decided to come along on the walk and was at the Andrews House station. I gave her directions to the pub and then, thinking about it, asked at the bar if they’d keep an eye on my rucksack and pint. I strode back along the road.
Jane and I met half-way and we adjourned to the pub. Jane explained, as we relaxed on sofas in the lounge, that she’d read an e-mail Alisdair at Launchpad had sent out about the walking club. She’d then asked to be added to the mailing list I have for members of the walking group. On reading my bulletin about the Tanfield trek, Jane had decided that she’d like to see the steam railway – as well as enjoy a walk of course. After our lunch we walked down a minor road towards Causey Arch. It would have been good to visit the bridge, which was built in the 1720s. I was aware however that this would add maybe four miles to the day and it was now mid-afternoon. There were only a couple of hours of daylight left.
But there was still plenty to enjoy! A footpath led across country, skirting some rather marshy terrain (after some heavy rainfall over recent days). And then the path climbed, gradually, coming at last to a ruinous old house.
Jane and I wondered about the history of the building. When had it been built? Who’d lived there? The walls were still quite high, there were even the remains of a stone staircase, rising to what had been the first floor. Now this was just a stone shelf. Such relics can be found all over; they are mysteries of the landscape.
There were also some splendid views to enjoy, of the shallow valley through which we had just walked, with the hills around Stanley and the sun a bright, shiny white. The views just got better and better the higher we climbed, with a wide gravel track heading towards the Andrews House railway station.
I pointed out the route of another old railway which was now a walk and cycle route. The route in question is from Sunderland to Consett. From there it can be followed across the great, beautiful wilderness of Waskerley Park to Stanhope.
The slowly setting sun was like a great strip of flame behind the hills, with rivulets of red running down the wooded slopes and moors and hills. It was quite a sight.
There was an interesting encounter, half-way across the railway station’s car park, with a chap carrying a big red chair…. He explained that the seat in question belonged to Santa Claus! The visit by Father Christmas to the Andrews House station had been a great success. The volunteers of the Tanfield Railway were still taking away the fixtures and props used by Santa, including his chair! The chap we were talking to was joined by another. It turned out they were both volunteers and they talked enthusiastically about their love of steam trains. They pointed out the engine workshops and repair yards, which are close-by.
Saying cheerio, Jane and I followed the railway path north, wandering along and enjoying the sights and sounds.
All along the way are rather gaunt, age darkened timber planks and stone structures, covered with grass and moss. These are the remains of the industry that once flourished along the railway. Now there are trees, mature woodland, branches bright with lichen and moss. Jane and I and had an interesting discussion about all the different colours around us, about how light brings out each tone of brightness or texture.
We were on the final stretch of the day’s journey now, returning to Sunniside. Jane left me here, as she had her car parked near-by. I walked on, down the track until finally, it emerged at Street Gate.
There was the chance, before I finished the walk, to study with interest a sculpture on the side of the path. It was of an acorn, clearly of some age, green with moss. Who had created it? I thought. How long had the sculpture been there? It was another mystery of the landscape, and on today’s journey, there had been plenty of those.
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