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Darlington is one of the most historic railway centres in Britain. Thoughts inevitably turn to the Stockton & Darlington Railway, which had its formal opening on 27 September 1825, with normal traffic beginning the following day. The company's name is somewhat misleading in that the line was promoted chiefly to move coal from the Auckland area of West Durham to shipping facilities on the River Tees at Stockton. However, the predominantly Quaker business community of Darlington provided much of the capital and determined that the town should share in all the benefits it might bring. A course roughly ESE would have taken the railway directly from its starting point at Witton Park, in Weardale, to Stockton, but it swings sharply south after passing Shildon in order to reach Darlington, before resuming an easterly course for Stockton.

This route means that the S&D line crosses Darlington's North Road about a mile north of the town centre. At first, the company used steam locomotives only on the mineral trains; private contractors operated horse-drawn goods wagons and passenger coaches much as they might have done on a turnpike road, save that a railway required a degree of regulation. The S&D's first building venture at Darlington was therefore confined to an office accompanying the weighbridge where the mineral wagons were weighed and tolls were paid.

The first step towards what we might think of as a railway depot came with a goods warehouse, completed in March 1827 and situated a short way east of the crossing over North Road. This was superseded in 1833 by a 'Merchandise Station', which still stands, on the opposite side of the road. That year saw the company take passenger traffic into their own hands, and the redundant warehouse was adapted as Darlington's first passenger station, a role it fulfilled until April 1842, when the nucleus of the present North Road Station was brought into use. A second railway began serving Darlington in 1841.

This Great North of England Railway (GNE), dreamed up in Darlington, provided a main line south to York and hence, by other railways, to London and elsewhere. It purchased the S&D Croft Branch to obtain a route east of the town centre, where it built Bank Top Station for passengers, though goods were handled at Hope Town goods station, near North Road.

The east coast main line was extended north from Bank Top in 1844 by George Hudson's Newcastle & Darlington Junction Railway, while the town gained a further route, served by North Road station, with the opening of a line to Barnard Castle in July 1856.

The first Bank Top Station was a temporary one, designed by the architect John Green Junior, whose more substantial contribution to the townscape was the GNE's quite extensive Bank Top Works, handling the maintenance of locomotives, wagons and carriages. Both buildings have disappeared. A new passenger station was built by the NER on the same site in 1859-60. Designed by the company's first architect, Thomas Prosser, it lasted just a quarter century before being replaced, although a portion survives within the present fabric.

In 1863 the NER absorbed the S&D, and people soon began to query the inconvenient arrangement whereby the 'Darlington Section' (former S&D) traffic was handled at one station and all the main line traffic at another. There was a linking service but a proper resolution was only achieved from 1 July 1887, with the opening of a new line which enabled S&D services to run through Bank Top and continue east to a junction with the 1825 route just beyond Dinsdale. The additional traffic warranted a rebuilding of Bank Top Station on a much larger scale, resulting in the splendid building which we enjoy today. To the east of it are avoiding lines for through trains and goods traffic, beyond which lay the NER goods station, designed by Thomas Prosser and built in 1856 to replace the facilities at Hope Town, leased from the S&D, which now required them for its own traffic.

The first S&D workshops were based in Shildon, but the growth of the company into a regional network made Darlington a better centre for some of this work. The trend began in 1853, when a Carriage Repair Shop was built near North Road Station. This has enjoyed a variety of careers, and is now a locomotive workshop, birthplace of Britain's newest 'pacific' locomotive, Tornado, which took to the rails in August 2008.

New Year's Day 1863 saw a momentous development in the town's history, with the opening of the S&D North Road Locomotive Works, which would become Darlington's largest individual employer. The NER was a beneficiary, absorbing the S&D later that year and eventually, in 1911-12, transferring its Locomotive Department headquarters from Gateshead to a splendid office building in Brinkburn Road. Designed by William Bell, this is now home to an insurance company, the Works having closed in 1966. Morrison's Supermarket occupies the site of the original workshops, but material evidence survives nearby in the form of the Railway Institute, designed by the local architect John Ross and built in 1861, at the corner of Whessoe Street and North Road.

20th-century developments by the NER included the expansion of North Road Works onto the Stooperdale Estate, SW of the S&D main line, and the building of a large wagon works at Faverdale, alongside the Barnard Castle branch. The housing needs of the Faverdale workforce were met by a model development created by the NER Housing Trust, set up for the purpose in 1921, two years before the Works came into operation. Faverdale Works never grew to the extent originally planned, and closed in 1963 though many of the buildings have been put to use by other businesses.

A curiosity of Darlington's railways was the level crossing of the S&D route by the east coast main line, dating from 1844. The opening of the 1887 route to the east diverted much traffic away from this portion of the S&D, but the crossing lasted a further eighty years. Today, the historic route is not even adequately marked on site, but a reminder exists in the SE angle of the former crossing. This is a two-road engine shed, built by the Newcastle & Darlington Junction Railway in 1844. Designed by George Hudson's friend, George Townsend Andrews, it enjoyed a long spell in industrial use but is currently abandoned and at risk. Surprisingly, a second engine shed also survives in Darlington. Situated in Whessoe Street, it was designed by William Peachey and built in 1861 as a 4-road shed, to house twelve engines. Sited in the angle between the S&D main line and the track serving North Road Works, it was soon absorbed into the latter and served a variety of roles.

The survival of early S&D buildings at North Road is largely thanks to the foundation of the Darlington Railway Centre & Museum, now known as Head of Steam and run by Darlington Borough Council. With a fine display of locomotives and material housed within the North Road station trainshed, it forms a worthy counterpart to the National Railway Museum's Locomotion, just down the line at Shildon.






© W. Fawcett, 2011