Stanley, Annfield Plain, Pontop and Tanfield


Stanley is the principal former mining town of north-west Durham and came into being in the nineteenth century from the two colliery settlements of East Stanley and West Stanley that subsequently merged. Collectively Stanley served as a focal town for the numerous collieries and pit villages of the area.

West Stanley memorial
Memorial to the West Stanley Collliery explosion of 1909.

West Stanley was the larger of the two Stanleys and was home to the West Stanley Colliery which opened in 1832. Also known as the Burns Pit, West Stanley Colliery was initially owned by James Joicey and later, in the 1860s, by David Burns and then John Henry Burn in the 1870s.

The darkest moment in West Stanley Colliery’s history came on February 16, 1909 when a fire damp explosion exasperated by coal dust at the mine claimed the lives of 168 men. There were only 30 survivors.

A pit wheel and memorial wall near Stanley’s Chester Road commemorates the names of those who lost their lives in this terrible tragedy. It was unveiled by the former footballer and then Newcastle United manager, Kevin Keegan, whose grandfather, Frank Keegan, was one of the thirty survivors who was subsequently involved in the rescue effort. The mine closed in 1936.

Mine disaster memorial Stanley
West Stanley memorial © David Simpson

Other mines in the Stanley area included the Louisa Pit at South Moor which operated from the 1750s to the 1960s and nearby, the Hedley Colliery which also formed part of the South Moor Group of mines.

The town of West Stanley developed along the now pedestrianised Front Street which forms the main street of the town. The Front Street of West Stanley was linked to the Front Street of East Stanley by the ‘High Street’, although only a little of High Street remains, superseded by modern roads and a roundabout. East Stanley was situated near Beamish Colliery (1763-1966) that was located on the edge of the town and should not of course be confused with the Beamish Colliery at Beamish Museum.

Church of St Andrew, Stanley
Church of St Andrew, Stanley © David Simpson

The High Street which linked the two Stanleys was overlooked to the north by a group of pit terraces at West Stanley called Joicey Square where modern houses called Joicey Gardens now stand. Just to the north of here is the church of St Andrew, the main church at the centre of Stanley which has a distinct square tower topped by a pinnacle, a kind of small spire. The church dates from the 1870s and was originally the parish church for Beamish.

North of the church we enter the Shield Row area of Stanley that was once a separate settlement. In the 1850s Shield Row was the site of a brewery, shops and three public houses. A West Shield Row Colliery operated nearby to the north towards Tanfield Lea and was worked until 1934. Another settlement absorbed by Stanley was Kip Hill situated in the James Street area.

The name Stanley means either ‘stony clearing’ or ‘stony hill’. The ‘stan’ element of the place-name means ‘stone’ while ‘ley’ normally signifies a clearing, however around the 1230s the earliest spellings ‘Stanley’ and ‘Stalaue’ both occur, the ‘laue’ in the second of these spellings comes from the word ‘law’ meaning a hill which makes the actual meaning of Stanley’s name uncertain.

The stream to the south of Stanley is called the Stanley Burn and forms a wooded dene. The land around the Stanley Burn formed the heart of the original Stanley in the historic times of the pre-mining era. This land was focused on Stanley Hall that once stood on a hill top near the West Stanley Colliery in what is now the Burns Close area. In the 1850s the hall belonged to Charles Townley who received the royalties from coal mining around Stanley.

Earlier owners of Stanley included the Tempests and the Lumleys and in medieval times Stanley belonged to the De Birtleys and the De Kilkennys whose family members included an Irish clerk who rented the land from the Priors of Durham.

Craghead and Bloemfontein

To the south of the Stanley Burn on the road through a place marked on the map as ‘The Middles’ towards Edmondsley and Sacriston is the small village of Craghead which was home to Holmside Colliery (1839-1969). Holmside itself is a little further to the south on the Wardles Burn, (a tributary of the Cong Burn – see Chester-le-Street).

Craghead colliery banner at the Durham Miners' Gala
Craghead colliery banner at the Durham Miners’ Gala © David Simpson

Downstream from Craghead in Stanley Wood, the Stanley Burn becomes the curiously named Twizel Burn just beyond Craghead. Twizel means ‘forked’ – probably from the various branches of the stream. Twizel Burn is another tributary of the Cong Burn which it joins near Pelton Fell.

The Cong eventually enters the River Wear at Chester-le-Street. A local man informs me that the stream in the woods at Craghead (the Twizel and Stanley Burn) is known locally as ‘the Canker’ and suggests that this may be a variation of the name of the Cong, though he has also suggested it may have been a reference to the once polluted nature of the stream.

The Middles between Stanley and Craghead takes its name from a ‘Middles’ Farm and a neighbouring woodland called ‘Middle’s Wood’ situated further up the valley of the Stanley Burn. However, this area of Craghead is best-known as ‘The Font’ which is short for Bloemfontein, the old name for the area.

Here there is still a street called Bloemfontein Place and a Bloemfontein Primary School. Streets built in the area at the very beginning of the twentieth century adopted Boer War themes from the recently fought war. Bloemfontein is of course the name of a place in South Africa.

Michael Heaviside (from the memorial at Durham) © David Simpson
Michael Heaviside (from the memorial at Durham) © David Simpson

Bloemfontein at Craghead was the home to Michael Heaviside VC (1880-1939), who served as a stretcher-bearer in the Boer War and later became a war hero in the First World War. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and in 1917 received a hero’s welcome in his home village where he returned to work as a miner.

Heaviside was born in Gilesgate in Durham City where there is a memorial and detailed plaque telling his story at St Giles church and there is a street named after him.

He lived in Kimblesworth, then Sacriston and worked at Burnhope Colliery but moved to Craghead in 1913 where he lived until his death aged 58. His funeral was attended by hundreds who followed his coffin to St Thomas’ Church. A plaque on the Bloemfontein Primary school recalls his connection to the village.

South Moor colliery banner at the Durham Miners' Gala
South Moor colliery banner at the Durham Miners’ Gala © David Simpson

South Moor and Quaking Houses

South Moor forms the south eastern part of Stanley on the road towards Burnhope and Lanchester and was once another separate place absorbed by Stanley’s growth. South Moor Colliery operated near here from 1818 until 1973 and its pits once included the Quaking House Pit.

Site of the Billy Pit at Quaking Houses
Site of the Billy Pit at Quaking Houses © David Simpson

The little village of Quaking Houses is just to the south which was the home to South Moor Colliery’s ‘Billy Pit’. Thought to be named from the Railway pioneer, William Hedley who was one of the main colliery owners and famed as the inventor of the Puffing Billy locomotive, coal was first brought to the surface at this colliery in 1841.

Quaking Houses
Quaking Houses © David Simpson

Quaking House pit and Quaking Houses village may have been named from from some kind of Quaker meeting house that perhaps stood in the area. According to one theory, a Quaker is said to have resided in a house called The Barracks, though other theories talk of a house built on the unsteady foundations of quicksand or a house undermined by the tunnel of an underground wagonway.

Quaking Houses village was built near the pit and also close by were Quaking House Cottages and Quaking House Hill. To the north towards New Kyo was the farm of Quaking House itself, marked on the 1865 map. A colliery railway line called the Quaking House branch passed nearby.

Quaking Houses
Quaking Houses © David Simpson


To the west of Stanley are Oxhill and the settlements of New Kyo and East Kyo. Another Kyo, now part of Annfield Plain, is West Kyo. Craghead and Kyo were amongst places that were once home to a family of miners called Rodham, who were the direct ancestors of the American politician, Hilary Clinton. The peculiar name Kyo comes from ‘Cy-hoe’ which means ‘cow hill’ and the hill itself, called Kyo Law, is in the Shieldrow Lane area between Stanley and Annfield Plain.

West Kyo was the birthplace of the famed mining engineer John Buddle (1773-1843) who made major contributions to mining safety in respect of ventilation, flooding and encouraging the introduction of the Davy Lamp. Buddle succeeded his father as the manager of Wallsend Colliery in 1806.

John Buddle
John Buddle

One of Buddle’s notable achievements was his collaboration with William Chapman in the creation of the Steam Elephant locomotive, of which there is a working replica at Beamish Museum, but Buddle’s importance extended beyond Wallsend.

Buddle was at one time the General Manager to coal owner, the third Marquess of Londondery, assisting him with the development of Seaham Harbour. Later, Buddle became chairman of the company that built Tyne Dock at South Shields. He was also a noted coal owner, his mines including Townley Colliery and West Holywell Colliery near Earsdon.

Also born in West Kyo was John Curr (c1756-1823), who went on to become manager of the Duke of Norfolk’s collieries in Sheffield. Like Buddle, Curr was noted for a number of developments associated with the improvement of mining and railways in particular improvements to wheeled colliery tubs and the introduction of cast iron rails.

East Kyo is still a farm to the north, near Harperley and Tanfield but the village of West Kyo situated in the area around ‘Ye Olde Earle Grey Inn’ is now, along with Catchgate, a part of Annfield Plain.

In historic times Kyo had belonged to the Hospital of Trinity in Gateshead. From 1631 subsequent owners of Kyo included Isabel De Birtley, the Merleys and the Blakistons. The main colliery of the area was South Tanfield Colliery in the New Kyo and Oxhill area. This colliery operated from 1837 to 1915.

The Annfield Plain Co-op at Beamish Museum
The Annfield Plain Co-op at Beamish Museum. Photo John Simpson

Annfield Plain and Greencroft

Annfield Plain came into being as a mining village in the nineteenth century and seems to have been named from Annfield House, that was located just to the west. The house was built on the summit of Loud Hill around 1710. ‘Plain’ in the village name was the level land below the house. The village is the birthplace of the Sky boxing commentator and former World Cruiserweight boxing champion Glen McCrory who was born here in 1964 and actor Alun Armstrong, born in 1946.

From the 1870s the principal shop in the growing mining village of Annfield Plain was the Co-operative society store. It was established by the local Annfield Plain Co-operative Society who later opened branches at Lanchester, Medomsley, Dipton, Esh Winning, Sacriston, Durham and Catchgate.

The site of the Annfield Plain store is now occupied by a supermarket but the co-op store itself was dismantled in the late 1980s and rebuilt at Beamish Museum where it is the focal point of the museum’s 1913 themed town.

Consett and Sunderland C2C path at Annfield Plain © David Simpson
Consett and Sunderland C2C path at Annfield Plain © David Simpson

At the heart of Annfield Plain in the heyday of coal mining was South Derwent Colliery while to the north, near Harelaw and Catchgate, was East Pontop Colliery that operated until 1930. Harelaw was formerly a farm that was home to the Fairlambs. It has a name that means ‘grey hill’ from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Hara-Law’.

To the east of Annfield Plain was the Busty or Morrison Pit of South Moor Colliery, a colliery that was working up until 1973. To the south was South Pontop Colliery that operated from the 1860s to 1927 in the Greencroft area.

Greencroft is separated from Annfield Plain by the A693 and is home to the Greencroft Industrial Park where there are two fishing ponds called Greencroft Tarn and Quarzi Tarn next to the C2C cycle route. They are both man-made creations of the twentieth century.

Greencroft Tarn, a man made pond at Greencroft on the south side of Annfield Plain
Greencroft Tarn, a man-made pond at Greencroft on the south side of Annfield Plain © David Simpson

The fields to the south of here towards Lanchester were once the site of a country estate called Greencroft Park that probably developed on the site of a shrunken medieval village. The park was the home to a seventeenth century house called Greencroft Hall and a nearby associated Gothic style Greencroft Tower that consisted of cottages and an arched tower.

Like the village they have long since gone, Greencroft Hall demolished in 1950 and the Greencroft Tower in 1955. A little to the south east, along Tower Road from Greencroft Industrial Park are Maiden Law and Burnhope. Burnhope is of course the site of a prominent TV and radio transmitter as too is Pontop Pike to the west of Annfield Plain.

Scenery at Pontop Pike
Scenery at Pontop Pike © David Simpson

Pontop, East Castle, Dipton

Pontop is the name of the hill to the west of Annfield Plain which is also called Pontop Fell or Pontop Pike. The hill is known as the home to the prominent transmitter mast built for the BBC in 1953 that first brought TV signals to the region. Its construction was pushed forward at the time so that TV viewers in the region could watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Sea view at Pontop Pike
Sea view at Pontop Pike © David Simpson

There are good views at Pontop Pike stretching out to sea. The Northern Spire bridge across the River Wear at Sunderland can clearly be seen as too can the church of St Andrew at Stanley.

Pontop Pike
Pontop Pike © David Simpson

Pontop has a very ancient name as the ‘Pont’ part of the name goes back to Celtic times and derives from the Primitive Welsh ‘pant’ meaning hollow or valley. The ‘op’ part of the name comes from a later Anglo-Saxon word ‘hop’ or ‘hope’ which also means ‘small valley’.

View at Pontop Pike
View at Pontop Pike © David Simpson

The valley itself is that of the Pont Burn – the extensively wooded dene that stretches north towards Hamsterley Mill, Hamsterley village and Hamsterley Park none of which, incidentally, should be confused with the Hamsterley that lies between Weardale and Teesdale much further to the south. The Pont Burn commences at Pont Head near Leadgate to the east, near a village called Pont.

Signpost on the C2C cycle route at East Castle next to an old railway bridge across Stonyheap Lane
Signpost on the C2C cycle route at East Castle next to an old railway bridge across Stonyheap Lane © David Simpson

South of Pontop is the site of East Castle Colliery and nearby is the farming hamlet of Stony Heap in an area once noted for quarrying. East Castle is named from the Bantling Castle lime kilns situated near the C2C cycle path, a little to the west. One of the information boards at the site makes the interesting suggestion that the people who came to work at the lime kiln were short in stature – bantlings – and this is how it came to be named.

Bantling Lime Kilns
Bantling Castle Lime Kilns © David Simpson

The kilns opened up alongside the Stanhope and Tyne railway in 1835 and here lime from Weardale was fired using coal from a nearby colliery. Lime was in big demand, as it could be used in the Iron making process at Consett and also was needed for the making of cement – an important product used in building as towns across the region began to grow. Lime could also be used as an agricultural fertiliser.

Bantling Lime Kilns
Bantling Castle Lime Kilns © David Simpson

They were compared to a castle because of the castellated tops of the kilns. The lime produced here helped to make improvements to the soil of the local farmland. There were once small collieries at both East Castle and Bantling Castle.

Looking towards Bantling Castle on the C2C cycle path © David Simpson
Looking towards Bantling Castle on the C2C cycle path © David Simpson

Along the cycle path a little to the west of the Bantling Lime Kilns as we head towards Leadgate is an intriguing artwork installation called The Old Transformers by David Kemp which is situated on an outcrop of rocks.

Scenery near Bantling Castle Lime Kilns
Scenery near Bantling Castle Lime Kilns © David Simpson

Depicted as giants representing an ironmaster and a coal miner, the artwork was created in 1990 as a commission for Sustrans and Northern Arts and was built at Wallsend using an assortment of industrial components. The figures are complemented by a similar figure called King Coal further along the cycle path to the east at Pelton Fell.

The Old Transformers
The Old Transformers © David Simpson

Shallow coal mining in the Pontop area goes back to the 1600s and 1700s. There were a number of wooden wagonways in the area linking mines in the area to the Tyne around Whickham. Wooden wagonways reached as far as Pontop Pike by the 1700s.

Generally, mining in this period in such remote hilly areas was a small concern employing relatively small numbers of people and it was the bigger, deeper collieries that came in to being in the nineteenth century, with new railways and locomotive power, that brought rapid growth in population to the area.

Scenery near Annfield Plain
Scenery between Annfield Plain and East Castle © David Simpson

The opening of the Stanhope and Tyne Railway in 1834 which passes through the Annfield Plain area just to the south (now the C2C cycle path) was a major factor in this population growth. The railway linked the limestone mines of Weardale to the Tyne at South Shields and was later connected to the iron works at Consett.

The main colliery on the fellside of Pontop Pike and Pontop Fell was South Medomsley Colliery which operated from 1861 to 1980. Its earliest owners were Muschamp, Bainbridge & Co. Nearby, the settlement of Dipton to the west was the local mining village.

Dipton © David Simpson
Dipton © David Simpson

Dipton derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Deope Denu’ meaning ‘deep dene’ or valley, from the Dipton Burn, a tributary of the Pont Burn. Dipton Colliery which also went by the delightful name of Delight Colliery operated from 1855 to 1940 and was initially owned by John Bowes and Partners.

Delight Colliery was situated near Delight Bank just to the west of a place called Fondly Set (off Fondly Set Lane). Fondly Set is now the site of a boarding kennel and cattery.

Delight Bank, Dipton
Delight Bank, Dipton © David Simpson

Pontop Hall

The manor of Pontop belonged to the Gourleys in 1361, passed to the Claxtons in 1409 and subsequent owners included the Bulmers who sold it in 1600. Later owners of Pontop included the Salvins of Croxdale and Swinburnes of Capheaton in Northumberland.

Pontop Hall
Pontop Hall © David Simpson

The heart of Pontop manor was Pontop Hall which is just to the north of Dipton and dates in part to the early 1600s with later extensions of around 1700. Through its connections to families like the Salvins and Swinburnes Pontop had a strong association with Roman Catholicism and a hidden Catholic chapel was concealed in the roof of Pontop Hall during the era of Catholic persecution.

In the 1790s at the time of the French Revolution, English priests who were training at Douai in Flanders fled to Pontop Hall, before moving on to Crookhall near Consett and finally moved on to the newly founded college at Ushaw near Durham which succeeded the college of Douai in its training of Catholic priests.

Pontop Hall
Pontop Hall © David Simpson

Much of area north of Dipton is called Collierley and once belonged to the Bowes family who owned the land here from the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Earlier owners included the Rhodes family before 1474 and the Guildford family in the fourteenth century.

Collierley includes Collierley Farm near the wooded valley of the Dipton Burn. The name Collierley is first recorded in 1284 as ‘Colyrley’ and means ‘charcoal burner clearing’.

Church of St Margaret, Tanfield
Church of St Margaret, Tanfield © David Simpson


Tanfield, Tanfield Lea and Tantobie lie to the east of Dipton, to the north of Stanley and to the west of Beamish. The name Tanfield was historically Tamefield under which name it is recorded in 1175 and means the open fields where the River Team rises.

Tanfield © David Simpson

The Kyo Burn, Houghwell Burn and Causey Burn all form the upper part of the River Team, although the river here at first becomes a stream called the Beamish Burn near Beamish and changes its name near Urpeth. Team seems to have been once widely used as a name for these streams in earlier times.

Tanfield village
Tanfield village © David Simpson

In Norman times Tanfield belonged to the De La Leia family who in the 1100s included Gilbert De La Leia whose estate was centred on Witton Gilbert (to which he probably gave his name) and stretched as far north as Beamish and Tanfield. Tanfield Lea is sometimes said to recall Gilbert’s name but the ‘Lea’ may simply be a ‘ley’ or clearing near Tanfield. Later owners of Tanfield and its surrounds were often the lords of the manor of Beamish.

Tanfield village
Tanfield village © David Simpson

Bartram Monboucher held the manor in the 1380s and another of that name held the manor of Taumfield and Cawse (Tanfield and Causey) in the 1390s when it belonged to Alice Conyers. It later came into the hands of the Earls of Northumberland and was confiscated from one of the earls following his involvement in the Rising of the North in 1569 – a plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. Tanfield was divided and sold by its new owner, a Henry Jackman whose land was sold to the Shaftoes and Harbottles.

Tanfield village © David Simpson
Tanfield village © David Simpson

The church at Tanfield village is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch and is thought to have thirteenth century foundations built on a possible Anglo-Saxon church site. The church was rebuilt in 1749 and the nave dates from this time. The castellated tower was added in 1854 and paid for by John Eden of Beamish Park.

Church of St Margaret, Tanfield
Church of St Margaret, Tanfield © David Simpson

The main historic feature of the village is, however the five bay, three storey Tanfield Hall, a private house at the western end of the village which dates from the 1600s. This was the manor house of the district on a site dating back to the 1300s and was historically associated with the Shafto and Percy families. It has an eighteenth century façade and impressive iron gates to the front.

Tanfield Hall.
Tanfield Hall © David Simpson

Tantobie and Tanfield Lea

Tanfield Lea to the west of Tanfield is mentioned as far back as 1286 as Tamfeldley and then later as Taunfledleigh in the 1380s. To the west is Harperley which probably means ‘clearing of the harper’, though this was possibly from someone’s surname rather than from some kind of Celtic-inspired musician as there is an identical place-name in Weardale which is explained in the same way.

Coal mines in the Tanfield area included Tanfield Lea Colliery which was opened and owned by the Marquis of Bute in 1829. By the 1850s the colliery belonged to James Joicey and operated until 1962. East Tanfield Colliery, which was opened by James Joicey in 1844 was situated between Tanfield Lea and Tanfield village and was worked until 1965.

Tantobie, on Tanfield Moor to the east of Tanfield Lea was home to Tanfield Moor Colliery. This colliery was opened as far back as 1768 by the Earl of Kerry and later owned by James Joicey. It was worked until 1948.

Tantobie, which also occurs with the spelling Tantoby in the nineteenth century has a name that is a bit of a mystery as there are no early forms to trace its origins. Interestingly, the ending ‘by’ or ‘bie’ in place-names usually indicates a place of Viking-Danish origin. However, such Viking names are very rare in northern County Durham.

Tantobie © David Simpson

Entering Tantobie on the main road from the east and the official County Durham road sign reads ‘Tantobie’ and then in brackets ‘Sleepy valley’. The curious ‘Sleepy Valley’ name is given to the estate at the eastern end of the village which explains why the signs on the approach to Tantobie from the north or south simply say ‘Tantobie’.

Approach Tantobie from the west and the signs say ‘White-le-Head’ which was the name of a once separate village that now forms the western part of Tantobie. On old maps this is called Whiteley Head. It was once the site of the Tanfield Moor Colliery ‘Willy Pit’. Some people may be surprised to find that such a small place as Tantobie can have three different local identities.

Curiously there is also a place called Tanfield Leith – a farm just east of Tantobie and this may derive from the Norse word ‘lith’ meaning a slope. There is also a farm called Wester Leith which looks doubly Norse – ‘Wester’ meaning western is a common element in Norse place-names but of course is may not be Norse at all. There is also a stream called the Farleith Burn nearby.

Tommy Armstrong : Pitman Poet

The Tanfield area was home to Tommy Armstrong (1848-1920), who was known as the ‘Pitman’s Poet’ or ‘The Bard of the Northern Coalfield’. His songs, written in the Northumbrian and Tyneside style reflect life in the Durham coalfield in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Tommy Armstrong
Tommy Armstrong

The songs were primarily written to keep Tommy in beer money and support his family but sometimes served to raise much needed funds at times of tragedy. Tommy was born at Shotley Bridge where his father and mother had moved from Haswell. He suffered from rickets which gave him bow legs, a disability that could prove a problem in the pit and one reason why song writing proved a necessary driving force for his survival.

When he was little Tommy’s family moved to the Stanley area where Tommy would reside for the rest of his days. Young Tommy worked in the mines at South Pontop and East Tanfield and later resided at Tantobie.

With fourteen children to support, Tommy’s ability to write good folk songs would certainly prove invaluable. He had them printed and sold around the local public houses at a penny a time. Armstrong’s best known pieces include ‘Wor Nanny’s a Maizor’, ‘The Trimdon Grange Disaster’, ‘The Oakey Strike Evictions’, ‘The Durham Strike’, ‘Stanla Markit’, ‘The Cat Pie’, ‘Sheeld Raw Flud’ and ‘Dorham Gaol’.

The ‘Oakey’s Strike’ recalls evictions in Stanley that were a reminder of a particularly nasty aspect of life in the Durham coalfield in the last century:

“It was in November
en aw nivor will forget
Th’ polisses en th’ candymen
at Oakey’s hooses met
Johnny the Bellmin he was there,
squintin’ roond aboot
En he plaic’d three men it ivery door
te’ torn the miners oot
And what would a dee
if aw had the power mesel’
Aw would hang the twenty candymen
and Johnny thit carries the bell”

Despite poor and dangerous working conditions, low pay and long hours, the coal owners of the last century would not hesitate to resort to such measures as eviction to deal with miners’ strikes.

© David Simpson
Tommy Armstrong’s grave in Tanfield churchyard © David Simpson

The ‘candymen’ employed by the coal owners to evict the miners were disreputable characters of the lowest order, brought in from the dock sides of the large towns in the region. Described as “low, mean ragged fellows”, the “yelling, shouting, and tinpanning together with the pitiful cries of children had no effect on these inhuman beings employed to do this work”.

Tanfield Railway and Causey Arch

Tanfield Railway and Causey arch are extraordinary gems in the industrial history of North East England. Located to the east of Tanfield near the valley of the Causey Burn, the present Tanfield Railway extends from the Tanfield area of County Durham into the borough of Gateshead near Marley Hill and Sunniside to the south of Whickham but historically extended much further all the way up to the Tyne.

The Tanfield Railway near Causey Arch
The Tanfield Railway near Causey Arch © David Simpson

Today the railway is a visitor attraction worked by popular steam locomotives which is a great part of the attraction but the site is also of great historical significance.

The Tanfield Railway’s history goes back to the 1720s when it was developed as a wooden colliery railroad by the powerful partnership of North East coal owners called the Grand Allies who included the Bowes family of Gibside and Liddells of Ravensworth. Today the steam locomotives still follow much of the original route making it the world’s oldest railway still in operation.

Chaldron wagon at Causey arch.
Chaldron wagon at Causey arch © David Simpson

The railway, which was operated in early days by horse-drawn wagons called chaldrons linked the mines in this area of North Durham to staithes on the River Tyne in the Dunston area of Gateshead (or possibly Redheugh). In the later 1700s the wagonway was adjoined by another wooden railroad called the Beamish Wagownay.

Tanfield’s wooden horse–drawn railway was converted to an iron railway in 1837, initially utilising gravity inclines, horses and stationary hauling engines. The railway closed in 1964 with the closure of the East Tanfield Railway but was revived as a working visitor attraction from 1973 with a regular service from 1975. The main entrance to the railway is at Andrew’s House Station near Marley Hill with additional stations at Sunniside, Causey Arch and East Tanfield.

Causey Arch
Causey Arch © David Simpson

Causey Arch

Though not crossed by the present railway the nearby Causey Arch which once carried part of the course of the Tanfield Wagonway is an especially important industrial feature of the region as the oldest surviving railway bridge in the world.

Historically known as the Tanfield Arch the bridge was built from 1725 to 1726 by Ralph Wood on behalf of the Grand Allies and is a single 103 feet span stone bridge across the deep wooded gorge of the Causey Burn. In its heyday it was once crossed by 900 horse drawn wagons a day in both directions with one wagon crossing every twenty seconds.

Causey Arch
Causey Arch © David Simpson

The dene of the Causey Burn is an attractive setting in itself which adds to the magic of this place where a railway existed 100 years before the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened.

A sad footnote to the history of the arch is that Ralph Wood, the stonemason who built it, was so terrified that his bridge would collapse that he took his own life. Yet his bridge still stands, secure to this day.

 Beamish, Urpeth, Pelton, Ouston


Lanchester and the Browney valley

Shotley Bridge, Ebchester and Hamsterley | Consett

Team Valley | Whickham and Gibside


North East England History and Culture