Sleepers keep heritage story on track

Original sleeper stones from the Stockton & Darlington Railway at Shildon
The railway sleepers and fishbelly rails, with display board, have been installed as close as possible to the starting point of the original route which carried the world’s first passenger train in 1825.

Members of the Brusselton Incline Group have collaborated with local businesses and Durham County Council to introduce a new rail heritage installation to mark the 195th Anniversary of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. 

To do this they have brought back to Shildon some of the original stone railway sleepers that were discovered only a few yards away over three decades ago.

After the BREL Shildon Works closed in the 1980s, the former engineering rail site underwent a transformation to become an industrial estate and home to several other businesses.  

The sleepers were rediscovered when part of the site was excavated to create an access road through the estate, which happened to shadow the route that the Stockton & Darlington Railway Company built just over 195 years ago.  

The newly unearthed stones were removed and had been stored by plant hire owner Reuben Smith ever since.  

The Brusselton Incline Group saw 27th September 2020, the date marking five years to go to the steam passenger rail Bicentenary, as an ideal opportunity to bring them back home and put them on display.

Obtaining a license from Durham County Council, the group selected the site as being as close as practically possible to the course of the original line which passed by an older iteration of the Mason’s Arms, sited where the Cape to Cairo restaurant is today. 

This is of course approximately where the first train of coal, goods and passengers was then attached to Stephenson’s Locomotion No.1 back in 1825 to make its steam hauled journey toward Stockton, so an appropriate and notable location.

The display is intended to demonstrate the early evolution of the route itself from 1825 through to the 1830s, featuring different stages to show how the pioneering Georgian engineers improved the effectiveness of the route over time. 

It shows earlier ‘two-hole’ sleepers, so named from the number of holes created to accommodate pins that held the rail ‘chairs’ in place, and slightly later ‘four-hole’ sleepers that were discovered in time to be more stable.  

The group have also arranged for example rails to be installed to show how the rails too evolved over those pioneering years.  

To this effect the group are grateful for the help of staff at Shildon’s Locomotion museum who supported the project by allowing access to ‘chairs’ and rails that could be replicated for the display.

Though the display currently shows only rails attached to the ‘two-hole’ sleepers, there are plans to soon complete the effect by adding the next generation of chairs and rails to the four hole sleepers.  

In addition, the group are hoping to soon do some essential work to restore and preserve the nearby railway signal post that stood at the entrance to the Shildon Works. 

For some time this had become obscured by trees and bushes that have now been cleared.

A spokesman for the group said, “the steam passenger railway Bicentenary in 2025 ought to be a terrific opportunity for this area to look at its role in the world railway history and consider how to use this not just to appreciate the past, but to give future benefit. 

“The romance of the steam era gives eternal fascination to young and old, and we’re sure it will continue to do so. 

“Our area is in a unique position, and not necessarily for just a few days in five years’ time. 

“How we choose to put that to work for us is up to us as a community. 

“The Brusselton Incline Group is essentially a small group of enthusiasts, but by doing this we’ve played a part in taking one more step in extending Shildon’s telling of the rail story. 

“This display also gives one more reason to take another look at the evidence of that story that exists beyond the boundaries of the admittedly superb Locomotion museum. 

“If the handful in this group can achieve this, what else can this community do to develop the area as a go-to destination for tourists and visitors curious about railway origins, not simply for 2025, but for every day?”

It had been hoped that an unveiling ceremony would be held on Sunday 27th September, with Councillor Joy Allan, Durham County Council’s Portfolio Holder for Transformation Culture & Tourism offering a formal opening speech, however changes to Coronavirus rules on gatherings meant this could not go ahead and was indefinitely postponed. 

The display is, however, now there for all to enjoy, and will be one of the heritage assets that the volunteers of the Brusselton Incline Group maintain on an ongoing basis. 

The group meet monthly and anyone interested in the group’s work, or becoming a part of it, can find out more through it’s Facebook page.


For more on the history of the Brusselton Incline, a group of Shildon volunteers have produced this excellent short documentary to mark the 195th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway on 27th September 1825:

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