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Posts tagged as “Walking the Blyth and Tyne”

Walking the Blyth and Tyne, part three: B L Y T H.

The industry town of Blyth is bordered on four sides by sights iconic of the North­um­brian experience. To the north lies the eponymous River Blyth, carving out a respectable third to the Tyne and Tweed in how it has shaped the course of the county’s history. To the east, the awesome North Sea ebbs and flows, enticing herds of families out to the beach. Southwards, farms and fields stretch on until they meet the city streets. And, to the west, the dismal grey A189 motorway cuts its way through impoverished streets and empty grassland.

So guess which path the railway sent me down? That’s right, it was hugging the fucking tarmac for me. There’s a reason the God of travellers is a trickster.

Two empty, shuttered storefronts. One's text is too faded to read, but the other reads 'Newsham Motorcycles'.

Newsham is perhaps the prototypical post-industrial suburb. The streets are lined with drab row-houses and shuttered shops whose walls sit darkened by cigarette smoke. But even here, there are signs of history, and signs of life. Walking along a small council estate, even in this decidedly hard-to-do area, people's personalities shine through. One car, judging by the bumper stickers, belongs to a proud gay naturist. Another house has a carved relief of an Indian chief (although i doubt the inhabitants have a drop of Native American blood in them). And at the end of the road lies the holy grail: the old station master's house, whose nearby decaying platforms just about peek over the fence.

A plaque marking the site of the Station Master's house.

After this, our path splits in two: the main line continues up to Bebside, but a spur branches off and swings to the town centre. The first one is mostly a boring romp through farmland and reclaimed forests, so, for now, we'll be following the second line.

There are a lot of things about Blyth that i’m sure the town council would love for me to tell you about. It has an historic beach (though it’s all the way on the south end of town, and there’s no reason for you to make the trek when Newbiggin and Whitley Bay are closer and just as nice). There's a weekly market on Thursdays (though on the Thursday i went in, they’d all packed up already), by the plaza next to the shopping centre (whose selection of options is laughable when compared to Manor Walks in the next town over). And they’re dead proud of their local football team, the Spartans, who famously performed somewhat above average in the 1978 FA Cup (never mind that Ashington spawned two World Cup winners).

By now you may have noticed that everything in Blyth seems to be a slightly crappier version of something from elsewhere in Northumberland. This goes too for the ignoble fate of its former station. While some have been turned into houses, shops, pubs, or just returned to the land whence they arose, Blyth’s once-proud central station is now… a Morrisons car park.

Cars parked in front of a Morrisons store.
You cannot make this up.
A sticker of Top Cat smoking weed labelled 'Pot Cat' (no, really)
This was the only useable photo i got.

The branch line itself is now a straight-on footpath, cutting its way through town with a hospital and shopping centre on one side and impoverished estates on the other — until about halfway through, that is, when it suddenly becomes much more suburban in character; charming parks take the place of pools and appendectomies, while a long allotment fills the other side. (It was also — and i cannot stress this enough — absolutely pissing it down by the time i got to this end, and as such, i failed to get any usable footage. Just trust that it eventually meets back up with the main line.)

Back on the main line, the motorway leads to a depressing interchange at Bebside. Just across from the former site of the station sits the grimiest petrol station corner shop i think i’ve ever been to (no photos, alas, again); the site of the station itself has long been bulldozed and turned into a horse riding centre.

I’d love to stay and show you more, but the next phase in our adventure is a big one — because we’ll be taking a brief diversion to County Durham. It’ll all make sense when we get there. Ciao!

Walking the Blyth and Tyne, part two: Oh, Delaval is a terrible place

Last time on The Garden: A strip mall turns out to be a place of immense historical curiosity, i am interrupted by a rude troupe of boy racers, and find myself caught up in the lyrics of a pro-union folk song.

Leaving Seghill, going past a house with a conspicuous Northumbrian flag, the landscape once again slips swiftly back into ruralia — a common occurrence on this leg of the journey. No sooner had i left behind the station house than i found myself on a dirt path which i wasn’t quiiiite sure i was meant to be on.

This was the small hamlet of Mare Close, essentially a farmhouse surrounded by a few cottages. I have a sneaking suspicion that everyone living there has been friends since primary school, though i'll never know for sure. Opposite the cottages, by the next leg of my route, lay a small village church and graveyard which i dared not enter. Onwards.

Seaton Delavalα sits at the heart of the valley. Turning one way, there lies a charming local coöperative store, a genuine lordly manor (owned by the town’s namesake De la Val family, who came over after 1066), the previously-blogged village of Holywell, and, eventually, the seaside settlement of Seaton Sluice.β Unfortunately, we’ll be turning the other way, by where once stood a colliery.

The former site of Delaval’s station can hardly be considered a sight for sore eyes. Cars and lorries pass by, horns blaring, trying to weave their way between those turning into the nearby petrol station.γ The location of the station itself is an uninspiring gravel pit on one site with an overgrown nettle-filled path on the other; next door is a chain pub whose car park will be getting embiggened to accommodate the extra traffic once the railway reopens.

It doesn’t get much better. A few interesting-looking eateries (a grimy-looking café called “Only Fools and Sauces”, a venue by the name of the Secret Gardenδ with a wonderful hand-painted sign) added some initial spice, but soon i was back to the same industrial wasteland: Auto recycling! Furniture wholesalers! Caravan storage! Chemical producers! The works!

...I said something about a colliery, didn’t i?

16 January, 1862. It’s half past ten — or, at least, it might be. You’ve been labouring away in the coal pit since two in the morning, and you’ve not seen the sun since. The shift is almost over, and it’s time to swap over with the next group.

One by one, your comrades file in line to get out. A huddle of people enter the rusting lift. The familiar ketter-ketter-ketter shudders through the cave — but then, for a fraction of a second, all falls silent.

Your heart races. A drop of water falls from the ceiling. Nobody makes a sound.

And then, all of a sudden, it is as though Thor’s hammer has crashed into the ground. The earth around you shakes in terror, lets out what can only be described as an otherworldly scream, as ten tonnes of blood-red steel smash into the floor.

This was the Hartley Pit disaster, and its shockwaves can still be heard across town.

Just across from the telltale jackhammers and yellow tape of a housing estate so new Google Maps hasn’t caught up yetε sits a lovely memorial garden, explaining the story of the tragedy, with a poem to contemplate as you ramble along the path.

In terms of stations, the town has had two — Hartley and Hartley Pit — both right next to each other, and neither seeming to have any chance of reopening.

I was a bit anxious about continuing on, because there were several serious-looking men in hard-hats and high-vis jackets, but they didn’t seem to mind. They really, really should have tried to stop me from going to where i was going next.

Coming up on The Garden: your author tries not to disturb some horses, desperately tries to avoid going to fucking Blyth, and accidentally sneaks in a brief trip to Durham. I promise, it makes sense in context.

Walking the Blyth and Tyne, part one: Northumberland Park to Seghill

Last time on The Garden: the axe falls on the Blyth and Tyne line, and i foolhardily decide to walk its length

A modern looking metro station divided into two platforms, opening up to the sky above.

Our journey begins at North­um­ber­land Park, in North Tyneside. Though it’s the first station we’ll be visiting, it was the last to be constructed, having only opened in 2005 — and it’s quite easy to tell, even after sixteen years of wear and tear; the place is outfitted with modern amenities, lifts, ticket machines flush with the wall, and, more lately, pandemic-themed graffiti opposite the platform. This unassuming metro station will, according to the county council’s plans, serve as the interchange between the old and new lines, heavy rail and metro meeting one last time before splitting apart and going their separate ways.

A colourful graffito of the word "Pandemik", spelt with a K for reasons unknown.
A modern car park with frosted glass panels juts into the cloudy sky.

Setting off from there, the first thing that caught my eye were twin giants: a frosted glass-covered car park and a red-brick Sainsbury’s, unexpected icons of the modern British condition. It didn’t get much better from there; down the road lies an American-style strip mall lined with bookmakers trying to get people to piss away all their money.

A shopping trolley lies half submerged in a sorry looking scummy stream.
This sorry-looking trolley was, i presume, abandoned from the local Sainsbury’s.

This southernmost tip of North­um­ber­land is criss-crossed by innumerable public footpaths, cycle paths, bridleways, and other routes for non-metal-box-related transport; ducking onto one of the reclaimed “waggonways” once used to transport coal, i found myself on the site of the second station on the list.

Twin rail tracks stretch into the background.

The leafy suburb of Backworth has a habit of burying its history. A hoard of offerings from Roman times was found underground in the 1810s, the last vestiges of the colliery that once was are long gone, and the tale of this sorry ex-station is rather similar. Opened in 1864 to replace a nearby station closing the same day, Back­worth station served its community for over 100 years, surviving the Beeching cuts. But when the Tyne and Wear Metro was announced to come to town, the old station finally closed… for good. It wasn’t until the opening of North­um­ber­land Park that there would be a replacement.

As i wandered through the village's verdant streets, i couldn’t help but think of its resemblance to the straight, cycle-friendly streets of my old hometown. A little greenery can go a long way.

Behind wire fences and train tracks, a van belonging to Network Rail is visible.
A jet-dark pedestrian underpass, its entrance covered in graffiti.
The graffiti reads “Monty Brown is a grass”. I would never say such unkind things about Mr Brown.

Network Rail were hard at work at the site of the aforementioned original Back­worth station, whose plot of land now sits vacant, marking the city’s last hurrah; the further i walked along the dirt back roads, the further the sounds of bustling cars receded, until, ducking under a shady underpass, i found myself utterly alone amongst pastoral fields (and the overwhelming scent of manure).

Hay bales cover a rolling field of wheat.

That peace and quiet was swiftly interrupted by a troupe of boy racers on motorcycles and quad-bikes, but you can’t win them all, you know?

The border between Northumberland and North Tyneside is highlighted in the middle of an unmarked dirt path.
After the county borders were hacked up in 1974, this line became the divider between rural Northumberland and ostensibly-urban Tyne and Wear.

The (post-1974) border town of Seghill occupies only the tiniest fragment of the collective English consciousness, popping up briefly in an anti-scab miners’ folk song called “Blackleg Miner”:

It’s in the evening after dark,
when the blackleg miner creeps to work
With his moleskin pants and dirty shirt
there gans the blackleg miner!


So, divvint gan near the Seghill mine
Across the way they stretch a line,
to catch the throat and break the spine
of the dirty blackleg miner


So join the union while you may
Divvint wait till your dying day,
for that may not be far away,
you dirty blackleg miner!

A corner shop by the name of "Station House Stores"

For our purposes, it’s chiefly notable for the fact that it’s the first disused station on the list whose buildings are still intact and in use, this time as a corner shop, from which i of course bought a copy of the local rag — prominently including a Q&A about the restoration of service on the line, which i thought a fitting reminder of why i set out on this silly old journey in the first place.

After getting some well deserved rest, i headed on off towards the next town over, awaiting what fresh stories i would find...

Next time on “Walking the Blyth and Tyne”: your author is reminded of her own mortality, finds himself in the company of a noble family, and shudders at the thought of having to go to Blyth, of all places on Gods’ green Earth

Walking the Blyth and Tyne: an introduction

A montage of scenes around Northumberland, with the caption: "Walking the Blyth and Tyne (a railway odyssey on foot)"
Photo credits: Martin Beek, Reading Tom, bazzadarambler, yellow book

It’s March of 1963. The island of Great Britain is in the throes of its coldest winter in two decades, senior frontbench MP Harold Wilson was recently handed the reins of the Labour party, the Beatles have just released their debut album, and, somewhere in the bowels of Whitehall, Dr Richard Beeching is writing a report that will change the country’s connecting tissue forever.

Dr Beeching, you see, is the chairman of British Railways, the state-owned company in charge of rail transport, and they’re in a spot of financial trouble. British Railways are in charge of running fifteen thousand miles of track shuttling between about four and a half thousand stations, and the only way they can do that is via generous subsidies from Her Majesty’s Government — something which the governing Conservatives, as a rule, are never too happy about.

So, pen in hand, he takes a metaphorical axe to the network, marking about half of the island’s stations for closure. It’s not pleasant, but it has to be done — and, after all, people can just take the car to their nearest station if their town’s is shut.i I’m sure it won’t be too bad.

An old map displaying the former lines of the Blyth and Tyne Railway, along the coast of southern Northumberland

That's how, a year later, the last passenger trains ran along 5,000 miles of railway across England, Scotland, and Wales, including those connecting the mining heartland of industrial Northumberland. The Tyne and Wear Metro, opened in 1980, allowed some of these lines to reopen in Newcastle’s suburbs and (relatively) affluent coastal communities. But just a few miles north, the former Blyth and Tyne Railway has lain dormant ever since the axe fell… until now.

In recent years, the stars have aligned, and both the county council and Westminster have agreed to reopen the line, finally bringing these proud towns back together. The Blyth and Tyne Railway, now rechristened by the more attractive name of the Northumberland Line, is set to reopen by 2024. To celebrate this historic moment, i thought i’d see what has become of the stations and towns that were. I’ve identified fourteen stations, past, present, and future, along the line, and i’ll be walking between each of them in turn, seeing what stories they tell. The list includes:

  • Northumberland Park, the metro station ready and waiting to become the new line’s interchange
  • Backworth (the second)
  • Backworth (the first), already long closed by the time the axe fell
  • Seghill
  • Seaton Delaval, planned for reopening
  • Hartley Pit / Hartley, two old stations just metres apart
  • Newsham, planned for reopening
  • Blyth, on an old branch line
  • Blyth Bebside, planned for reopening
  • Bedlington, planned for reopening
  • North Seaton, now subsumed within Ashington’s town area
  • Ashington, planned for reopening
  • Woodhorn, listed on early plans for reopening but mysteriously disappeared since
  • Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, no longer in existence but with the route there safeguarded just in case

Won’t you join me?