Many people don’t realise it, but the width of railway tracks around the world vary. The distance between the inside edges of the rails of any railway track is called the ‘gauge’, and the gap in the
UK (and across
most of the world) is 4ft 8 ½ in, or 1,435mm. It is called the Stephenson
Gauge, after the famous George.
near Springwell, Bowes
Railway Museum Gateshead, has preserved
amongst its many bits and pieces, stretches of this Stephenson Gauge – which,
amazingly, date back to 1826. It is, in fact, the only surviving operational
Stephenson Gauge cable railway system in the world.
The small site maintained by the museum is only a part of the bigger whole – this being the complex operation of getting coal from the
Durham pits to the River
Tyne. This particular stretch of cable railway hauled wagons up from Black Fell
(just north of Birtley) to what we now know as the heights of Eighton Banks
(Blackham’s Hill), then down again to Springwell village. The ‘hauler house’
controlled both ascents/descents from the highest point at Blackham’s Hill, and
used rope to move the equipment in question.
The network around Springwell came to be called the Bowes Railway after prominent local mineowner John Bowes. Construction commenced in 1826 and continued in fits and starts until the 1850s. Incredibly, it continued working, essentially unchanged, until 1974 – testimony to the efficiency of the system. The present hauler uses electric power instead of steam, and the wagons were originally of the distinctive ‘chaldrons’ variety, but wooden and steel wagons eventually took over.
The present-day museum includes resident steam and diesel locos, a historic wagon collection, mining displays, an underground loco collection, as well as engineering workshops. Guided tours and special ‘operating days’ can also be enjoyed.
There’s a nice description, map and pics here. The whole railway, including the buildings, machinery and rolling stock, is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Why not come along to...