Cycling stories to entertain and inspire

Rocket Men

In my previous post I wrote about the joys of cycling along the many wagonways to be found in the North East of England. Here I begin a journey from one of the most historically important places in the development of the railway locomotive, and unearth a little of their men who put it on the map.

Stephenson’s cottage, Wylam

Perhaps we should begin our journey at Wylam on the south side of the Tyne some 8 miles to the west of Newcastle? Here the tidal influence of the North Sea abates and the combined strength of North and South Tyne determines the flow of the mighty river. Here where, after crossing the old iron-bridge over the river, one can board a convenient train to Carlisle or Newcastle; or slip off the A69 down into the valley where ample parking can be found near our starting point. The rough ballast – and in places muddy dirt – surface of the wagonway was resurfaced in smooth asphalt in early 2022 making it easier going and far more accessible than it used to be.

From the old station-yard opposite the Tyne bridge we turn Eastward and down river towards Newburn. The trail is very popular and you’ll no doubt come across groups of ramblers, families with buggies and bikes, solitary dog-walkers and maybe the occasional horse-rider. An unobtrusive white-washed dwelling a mile-or-so down trail on the left can easily be passed without occasion. But I must ask you to do a full-180 degree turn and stop outside this remarkably historic site. For looking up at the walls you will notice the plaque with the relief of a famous locomotive embossed within it.

Plaque at George Stephenson’s cottage, Wylam cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Andrew

Behold the birthplace of George Stephenson: the locomotive no-less than the mighty Rocket – the first railway locomotive to reach a speed of 32mph at the Rainhill trials in October 1829, which went on to work on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway – the first timetabled inter-city railway in the world to use steam-powered locomotives, signalling, double-tracks and carry the mail. If that were not enough it also included the first tunnel to be bored under a city (the Wapping Tunnel). Designed and built by none other than George Stephenson, this remarkable feat of engineering revolutionised the development and building of railways throughout the UK and arguably influenced much of the development of railways across the globe.

Andrew Curtis / Plaque for Timothy Hackworth, Wormald House, Wylam / CC BY-SA 2.0

But let’s go back to the start of the trail, back to Wylam to visit two more icons of the Age of Steam. On the wall of Wormald House, on Main Road (now a B&B) you will find a plaque dedicated to the memory of Timothy Hackworth. Born in Wylam just 5 years after George Stephenson, Timothy was to become a leading locomotive engineer who would leave his creative talents on some of the earliest steam locomotives in the world. He would also become the first superintendent of locomotives on the Stockton and Darlington Railway. A short ride away from Hackworth’s birthplace, in Woodcroft Road (on the left, further up Main Road, after crossing the railway bridge and towards the end of the road before it joins Ovingham Road) can be found another plaque commemorating William Hedley. Born two years before Stephenson in Newburn, Hedley was schooled at Wylam and lived here between 1805-27 while working for the Wylam colliery owned by Christopher Blackett.

Hedley plaque, Woodcroft Road, Wylam cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Andrew

The Blackett’s had inherited the coal-rich manor of Wylam in the mid-seventeen century and around 1748 had constructed a wooden wagonway, five-miles long, to transport the coal from Wylam colliery to the staithes at Lemington (just a little further downstream from Newburn), on the banks of the Tyne. This wooden wagonway relied on horsepower to pull the coal trucks along the rails. However, during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), the price of grain soared, and the cost of feed for horses with it. This, together with unrest among the miners during the same period led Blackett to explore the use of steam-power in the hope of finding a cheaper and more reliable alternative to transport his coal.

The wooden wagonway, with horse-drawn coal trucks, ran past the front door of the Stephenson’s cottage which was also on the main road from Newcastle. One could imagine the young Stephenson looking over the garden fence at the passing trucks and daydreaming of a future literally driven on rails, as a young Hedley walked back and forth to school along the dusty road.

These four local men: Blackett, Hedley, Hackworth and Stephenson would write their names into the history books as railway pioneers: their innovations and inventions remain to this day.

Take, for example, Puffing Billy. This locomotive, now the oldest in the world, was built in 1813 with Hackworth’s engineering skills for Blackett’s Wylam colliery. It was the first engine to use the traction provided by smooth wheels and rails without rack and pinion (as used by John Blenkinsop’s locomotives), after Hedley realised that using a coupling between wheels would provide sufficient traction (an idea he patented in the same year, and which is still the basis for railway locomotion to this day). The success of Puffing Billy was followed by Wylam Dilly in 1815, the second oldest extant locomotive in the world, which was briefly transformed into a paddle-steamer in 1822 to break the keelman’s strike of the same year (the keelmen loaded the coal onto shallow-draught keels, or river barges, to the sea-going ships waiting further down-river in the deeper waters). In the North East, the history of industry and innovation is never too far removed from the history of worker’s fighting for their rights.

Stephenson, inspired by Blenkinsop’s locomotives and the Wylam engines built his first locomotive Blücher in 1814 – the first flange-wheeled adhesion locomotive (a technology that remains in use to this day). But it is perhaps his involvement in the development of railroads that is best remembered. On the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives, the Stockton to Darlington Railway, opened in 1825, he surveyed the route and provided, with his son Robert, the locomotives. The line employed a gauge of 4 feet 8 ½ inches – now referred to as Standard Gauge or Stephenson’s Gauge – and in use on much of the world’s railways today. With his son Robert he went on to work on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway as mentioned earlier.

All heady stuff. So let us return to the trail. Now much more than a segment of the National Cycle Network and more akin to a pilgrimage to these great early engineering pioneers. It’s only a few short miles to Newburn where we come to the end of this leg of the trail. Along the way are scenic views towards of the River Tyne and, on the opposite bank, the spire of Ryton church poking above the hilly treeline on our right. In Newburn church George Stephenson married twice, and William Hedley was buried. As we cross the narrow iron bridge over the Tyne we might wish to pause and admire the view up-river and maybe catch a rowing boat or two racing over the cool waters.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: