Weardale Railway: an opportunity for a unique community

Train at Wolsingham station
Photo by Les Hull licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

We have all seen how much Covid-19, necessarily, has taken over the headlines since the start of the pandemic in January. We have become a bit desensitised to it, in a funny way, meaning we simply see the bad news and let it wash over us. But, every so often there are a few glimmers of hope which emerge underneath the national headlines. As the owner and director of a new Weardale Business, Gardner’s Sourdough Bakery Ltd based in Wolsingham, I particularly welcomed the news which arose out of the 16th September Durham County Council (DCC) Cabinet Meeting with regards to the DCC match funding investment in the Weardale Railway.

From the outset, I must make it very plain that the below is personal opinion and should be treated as such. Indeed, we have already seen the difference of opinion around the railway on social media and a local councillor called it ‘a white elephant’ during the Cabinet Meeting itself (which can be viewed in full on YouTube). The below sets out why I specifically welcome the combined investment of The Auckland Project (TAP) and DCC.

It must also be noted that I am a bit of a railway nerd, an interest whose beginnings I ascribe solely to reading Elizabeth Gaskill’s Cranford – but that’s for a different article. My prime interest in the railway is not necessarily a business interest, rather the social aspect that the investment will and can bring. We have in Weardale a unique community, within which there are unique communities based around villages, small towns or hamlets up and down dale. All too often I have heard people say something along the lines of “well, there’s not much which connects us but the road”. If we think back to the closures brought about by the Beeching axe one of the most important historical artefacts we have, with respect to the social aspects of railways in general, is Flanders and Swann’s On the Slow Train, which if you read the lyrics mentions a connection to the Weardale Railway:

“No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat,

At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street.”

Yes, the railways in 1963 may have been old fashioned and a bit dirty but they provided a space where people could talk in an unhurried environment and also, certainly if you read the references to railways in Howards End, an environment where the whole gamut of life could be seen.

Interestingly, Chester-le-Street station and a few others mentioned by Flanders and Swann were saved thanks to the efforts of local people, usually volunteers. While Covid-19 restrictions mean that the stations in Wolsingham, Stanhope and Bishop Auckland would be more empty than normal, there are a number of things which come with the railway which are of interest to a business like mine. I have detailed these below.

The full Business Plan produced by TAP is ambitious and absolutely clear – Jonathan Ruffer and his team want to be able to link Weardale back up to the bay platforms of Darlington Station; the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) have received an application for track access rights and there should be a decision on this in the not too distant future. But, why am I interested in this specifically with regards to my business?

Firstly, the environment. As a keen ‘no waste’ baker, and someone who is interested in making travelling around the UK more environmentally friendly, I particularly welcome the fact that there is the distinct possibility that a tourist (or family member) could get on a train in London, Edinburgh or Glasgow and not have to touch a road until they reach their destination in Weardale.

Given we have a mixed economy in the Dale, any concomitant increase in cyclists would mean we could all lobby DCC to provide a specific cycle and footway alongside the increased use of the railway. In turn meaning that Weardale could become an example of best practice of how to ‘green’ a local economy.

Secondly, and moving back to my business, Covid-19 has placed severe restrictions on our ability to travel for holidays. Small businesses like mine, in their start-up and early revenue phases, needed to know that from the end of August there would be a future for the ideas owners held in their heads. The opportunities provided by the investment in the railway are a real boon when considering that staycations may well have to become the norm. Increasing tourist numbers means an increase in people spending, an increase in the ability of businesses to plan for the future and most importantly for those same businesses to be able to support each other. Don’t just take my word for it, but also that of a local publican and someone who lives and owns a business in an old Lanchester Railway House.

Amanda Louise, Licensee of the Bay Horse in Wolsingham, said to me:

“I welcome the DCC investment in the Weardale Railway, it gives us something to look forward to beyond Covid-19. It makes it easier for us in the pub trade to appeal to those tourists who want be able to travel to visit the dale in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way.”

Furthermore, Carol Witty (owner of the Station House B&B in Lanchester), said:

“The investment in Weardale Railway by DCC is, hopefully, the start of things to come Further investment by DCC into more sustainable projects that form our history will increase employment opportunities and, in turn, bring more people to the local area to support our small, local businesses. It will boost tourism in the area and local business will thrive on this as well as being able to support each other.”

It is that final point which is so important, the railway will enable us to support each other – whether in business or as neighbours – and give us confidence during a time which is difficult for us all. The opportunities provided by the investment mean that we can ensure that our local pubs can grow into the future, thanks to a influx of new long lasting jobs, new homes will be needed to accommodate people meaning that construction apprentices can work up & down dale and finally, railway contractors can feel part of our community once again – the list is endless.

I, for one, am ambitious for the Dale and I believe that the investment in the Railway by TAP and DCC is one plank in making sure that our Dale can sustain itself for the future. Let’s embrace it with open arms, and support each other in the process.

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