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In the previous section, we saw that, by Act of Parliament granted on the 17th May 1824, the Haggerleases branch railway was built from St Helens, near Bishop Auckland in Co. Durham, to its terminus at Butterknowle, about five miles away, following the course of the River Gaunless.
The railway was opened on the 1st October 1830, primarily to serve the complex of collieries and coke ovens that had sprung up along the edge of Cockfield Fell, at the head of the valley. It was originally operated by horses, but from 1856, steam power took over and, in 1858, a passenger service was introduced. This was withdrawn in 1872 and the whole line was closed in 1963 when eventually the coal became exhausted.
Today, although very little of the actual railway remains, its course is still clearly visible. Indeed, some parts are now public footpaths. On a visit in 2002, I did not get the chance to walk the whole length of the line, but was able to follow it by car, where it crossed various roads.
You can follow the route on this contemporary map of the Gaunless valley which shows the original course of the railway highlighted yellow. Place names mentioned in the text are highlighted red. The pictures which follow, progressing from east to west towards Butterknowle, give some idea of what is to be seen today.
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The line used to cross what is now the A68 at Spring Gardens. Looking in both directions from the road, the course of the line can still be clearly seen. The horse is peacefully grazing; I wonder if one of its ancestors might have been employed hauling coal in this same spot?!
Travelling on, the line coming from the east, (right) again crosses a road at Ramshaw. To the west (left), it is has become the entrance road to Craggwood Caravan Park.
And here are just a couple of pictures of Ramshaw village itself. The first (left) is looking down the valley towards ‘The Bridge’ pub and the river where both road and rail cross. A little further up the hill, is Ramshaw Methodist Church (right).
Further along still, at the other end of Cragg Wood, the line again crosses a road, at Low Lands. Here, the course of the line can still be seen, alongside some quite substantial masonry. There are also quite a few rotting sleepers still in evidence here.
Just before reaching Butterknowle, the railway crossed the river over a skew bridge (see Part 1 of this History). The bridge still stands, looking a little sorry for itself. And to my eye, it looks like there's been some movement in the middle. So I don't think it'll be carrying any more railways in the near future!
From Butterknowle, tramways to various collieries continued onwards to the north and west. But the main terminus of the branch was in an area just to the east of Butterknowle known as “The Slack”. Some evidence of the railway still exists in the form of one or two buildings. Note the S&DR property plaque on “Station House”.
Although the railway has gone, and all is now quiet and peaceful round about this area of the Fell, there is still no forgetting the main purpose for which the railway was built in the first place.
And that is the fate of the Haggerleases branch in the forty odd years since it closed. Now, there is nothing to show that it had ever existed other than the famous 'skew' bridge across the river, the remains of a once impressive viaduct, and a few suspiciously straight and level paths...
...unless we exercise a little imagination and suppose, just perhaps, a couple of happy coincidences.