Before the middle 1860’s the story of the first 40 years of railway building in the Cleveland region had been one of adventure intrigue and rivalry. The principal players in the drama, the towns of Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, in league with their associated railway companies and promoters, had, for many years, been locked in a long and complicated struggle for supremacy; a struggle which did not abate until George Hudson’s North Eastern Railway Company had finally absorbed all the opposing factions into one co-ordinated organisation.
Even then of course the towns continued to compete for trade and influence and, whenever possible, pressure was exerted to secure even the slightest advantage, but, by the early 1870’s, the pattern of future industrial development along the Tees estuary had been set. Nevertheless, existing railway lines were becoming increasingly congested and, in addition, the centres of coalmining in the coalfields to the north were moving gradually eastwards as the older pits became exhausted and had to be replaced.
The construction of the Stockton and Castle Eden Branch Railway towards the end of the 1870’s was intended to counteract these changes and to maintain the pace of industrial development. Indeed, the new railway demonstrated clearly the North Eastern Railway Company’s conviction that the growth and prosperity which was evident on both sides of the River and the daily need for vast quantities of minerals would continue for many years.
This particular railway, then, must have played an important part in the early development of Teesside, which, before 1900, was one of the fastest growing centres of industry in the world. Iron and steel making, the cornerstone of this growth, required huge quantities of Weardale limestone, Durham coal and Cleveland ironstone, which demanded in turn an efficient local rail network for their transportation to the point of manufacture. Because of this growing industry, which created thousands of new, relatively well paid jobs, more and more people were attracted to the towns on the riverside and, very quickly, Cleveland began to assume the urban characteristics which it has today.
The parliamentary powers to make the line between Wellfield and Bowesfield were applied for in 1872 after local consultations and a thorough survey of the 14 miles of the proposed route. There were two main objectives: first; to by-pass both Hartlepool and Stockton, connecting the Hartlepool/Sunderlands and the Middlesbrough/Darlington lines, and, secondly; to make a junction with the Clarence Railway (Port Clarence to Shildon/Ferryhill) to give additional access to the industrial centres on the north bank of the River.
Construction 1875 – 1877
The precise route and the levels chosen for the line were the usual engineering and financial compromises between the need for a suitable gradient, the need for directness and the need to avoid intervening obstacles wherever possible. The main difficulty was the Thorpe Beck Valley at Thorpe Thewles. Clearly a viaduct was going to be necessary but the precise point and level at which the low ground should be crossed were critical factors that would ultimately decide how much the whole development was to cost. Other factors that had to be taken into account were; the Wynyard Estate, particularly the location of the hall, the villages of Thorpe Thewles and Grindon and a number of outlying farmsteads; and the Hurworth Burn Reservoir to the north. Many small streams, roads, tracks, woods and undulating terrain also had to be negotiated. The careful balancing of all these factors, however, produced a route which, in the end, proved to be remarkably direct.
The organisation of railway building was broadly the same on all lines after about 1840. A civil engineer produced a master plan containing a route survey, drawings and estimate, then the job of building was let to a contractor who agreed to build the railway for a given sum.
Thomas Nelson was the main contractor for the construction of this particular branch and work began in 1875. Temporary living quarters were erected in Thorpe Beck Valley and at other places along the route including Grindon; navvies, labourers, craftsmen and other workers were engaged; equipment and materials were assembled in huge quantities, some 8 million bricks being required for the viaduct alone.
This must have been an upsetting time for the local residents who would have heard in advance much about the boisterous life-style and squalid living conditions that the railway builders seemed to bring with them wherever they went. Indeed, relations between the Rural Sanitary Authority of the Stockton Union and the contractor seem to have been strained on more that one occasion between 1875 and 1876 as the minutes of the Authority show….. "8 December, 1875 - Ordered that summons be issued against Thomas Nelson if he fails to comply with the order of the Board to remedy the nuisance of his four huts a Thorpe" and later ….. "27th September 1876 - Ordered that the Medical Officer of Health and the Inspector (of Nuisances) be requested to inspect the huts at Grindon and if overcrowded that notice be given to reduce the number of inhabitants".
The arrival of the railway builders brought other social problems apart from the insanitary nature of their living conditions and general boisterousness. Coppices and fields were torn apart causing untold mess and disruption , farm labourers were lured by the prospect of higher wages and, as likely as not, food prices rose in the locality because of the substantial increase in demand. Fortunately, the period of suffering was short-lived. The line was partially opened on 1st May 1877, the remainder one-year later, and such benefits as there were, began to flow.
91 Years of Service 1877 – 1968
The first part of the line to open, known locally as the "Cuckoo" railway, was the southern section from Bowesfield Junction to a (South to West) connection with the Clarences Railway south of Thorpe Thewles. This section had no regular passenger service, its main purpose being to give access to the Stockton- Ferryhill route and the Simpasture Branch for Middlesbrough to Shildon trains thereby avoiding the then extremely busy line between Hartburn and Norton. This section also formed part of the Middlesbrough – Shildon Electrified Scheme (1915 – 1935).
The remaining section opened on 1st May, 1878 for goods traffic and on 1st May, 1889 for passenger traffic between Stockton and Wellfield. Stations at Thorpe, Wynyard and Hurworth Burn were already in business by then however, being involved in the movement and sale of livestock, agricultural produce and equipment and other goods and minerals, particularly coal.
Unfortunatley, as far as prospective passengers were concerned, none of these stations was particularly well sited. The village of Thorpe Thewles was in fact nearer Carlton (later Redmarshall) Station than to the station that bore its own name whilst Wynyard and Hurworth Burn to the north served no particular village or community as such -they were simply trading outposts in very rural parishes. Even at Wellfield Junction Station there was no actual village although it was close enough to serve the mining community at Wingate whose own station was some distance away on the one-time Great North of England, Clarence and Hartlepool Junction Railway. Furthermore, although the line was so named, it did not of course serve Castle Eden, which lay a mile or so to the east of the Wellfield Junction and which had its own station on the Hartlepool to Sunderland line.
Thorpe Station itself was a simple affair which made the most of a difficult, sloping site. There were three sidings, all on the eastern side. The first gave access to coal bunkers (it was the North Eastern Railway Company’s usual practice to allow their stationmasters to trade in coal on their own account), the second to a goods yard, and the third to a paddock, which, presumably, was for the temporary storage of livestock. The small ticket office and waiting room, now demolished, were also on the eastern side together with a terrace of three, two storey cottages and the station house itself. The cottages pre-dated the house by years, the stationmaster having to occupy one of the cottages in the meantime. A signalman, and a platelayer, with their families, are known to have occupied the two other cottages.
The Stockton to Wellfield passenger service joined the line at its junction with the Clarence Railway south of Thorpe Thewles and then proceeded to Wellfield where there were connections with the West Hartlepool to Sunderland trains. This local service (4 trains per day in 1952) was never frequent, lost considerable sums of money to the Company, and passenger traffic was discontinued on 2nd November, 1931 after some 50 years of operation. Express passenger trains running between Newcastle and Manchester/Liverpool and between Newcastle and Oxford/Bournemouth (3 trains per day in 1904) also used the line in its earlier days, travelling non-stop from Sunderland via Wellfield and Thorpe Thewles to Stockton, by-passing West Hartlepool. The North Eastern Railway Company in 1894 did, however, give permission for Lord or Lady Londonderry to stop the 07.30 hrs, ex- Newcastle and the 18.30 hrs ex-York at Thorpe Station should they require to do so.
Closure 1966 – 68
At one time it was planned to raise the route’s status to that of a secondary main line and for this purpose a curve was built in 1901 to join the Leeds Northern Route between Eaglescliffe and Stockton. However, as use of this route would have meant the by-passing of both Stockton and the Hartlepools, official objections were lodged and the idea was abandoned after a short period of use by express goods traffic.
In 1905 the coastal route between Sunderland and West Hartlepool was completed signalling the decline of the Stockton and Castle Eden Branch as a express passenger line. Its final demise occurred between 1966 and 1968 following Dr Beeching’s reign as Minister of Transport: the track, ballast and other equipment were all removed soon afterwards.
In 1977 part of the line was acquired by Cleveland County Council and, with financial help from the Department of the Environment and the Countryside Commission, was opened to the public as a countryside recreation area in 1981.
Taken from The Railway History, Castle Eden Walkway, Information Sheet 2