The Royal Assent was given to the Act of Parliament authorising the Northumberland and Berwick Railway on 31st July 1845. This had been backed by George Hudson with the engineering support of George Stephenson. An alternative scheme, the Northumberland Railway (which had the backing of Lord Howick) came to naught. The first section, between Heaton, Newcastle, and Morpeth was opened to traffic on 1st March 1847 and on 1st July 1847 trains were running between Newcastle (Carlisle Square station) and Tweedmouth. Only on the completion of the bridges across the Tyne and Tweed could a ‘through’ service of trains proceed between Scotland and stations south of Newcastle. In the vicinity of Alnwick the Newcastle and Berwick line ran close to the coast. There were two reasons for this: firstly the Duke of Northumberland was not at all enthusiastic about the line crossing his estates and secondly the more ‘direct route’, closer to Alnwick, would have been more expensive to construct involving the crossing of various hills and valleys, necessitating the construction of bridges or viaducts and substantial gradients. The Duke offered less resistance to the construction of a branch line linking the main line with the town. The branch was constructed by the contractors Rush and Lawson and opened to freight traffic on 5th August 1850. Passenger traffic started two weeks later.
From the junction station at Bilton (later Alnmouth) the line ran northwards paralleling the main line for about three quarters of a mile before turning north-westwards towards Alnwick. The major engineering feature was the Cawledge Viaduct (404’ in length) crossing the Cawledge Burn. This was built with seven arches in the style of the viaduct over the River Aln on the main line. Each arch had a span of 45’ and was about 53’ above the burn at its highest point. There were several bridges over the line, including some for field access, also some culverts under the line. Before reaching Alnwick there were several sidings, serving the gasworks and an oil terminal. Just before the terminus there was a substantial bridge over the A1 road and a road overbridge at the station’s throat.
The original Alnwick station was a simple affair. It had a single platform with a stone building which included a waiting room and station offices. A goods yard and warehouse were nearby.
Initially there were four passenger trains running in each direction but by 1863 this had increased to eleven each way! The station facilities were seen to be inadequate when the line to Cornhill was proposed and a new, much grander, station was opened on 5th September 1887 to coincide with the opening of the line to Cornhill. It had two platforms and a magnificent overall roof with booking office, and offices for the station master and for handling parcels. The platform buildings included a general waiting room, two ladies waiting rooms, toilets, and, a few years later, a refreshment room. At the same time the goods yard and facilities were improved, as were the signalling arrangements.
As this Bradshaw’s Guide shows, there were no intermediate stations on the branch. On weekdays in July 1922 there were 14 trains from Alnwick to Alnmouth with one extra in the reverse direction. The Sunday service consisted of eight trains each way. Most of the trains shuttled between these two stations though in the mornings and evenings there were some through trains between Alnwick and Newcastle which ran as fast trains between Alnmouth and Newcastle; these were ‘commuter’ trains in modern parlance! In 1932 these trains consisted of five well-loaded carriages! Some trains from Alnwick were scheduled to reverse at Alnmouth with the train heading north to Berwick.
Alnwick was a popular destination for tourist trains from Newcastle and the platform of the original station platform (known until 1908 as the ‘excursion platform’) was often pressed into service to accommodate these trains. Occasionally ‘main line’ engines would haul these trains. In the early 1960s special trains for the York Women’s’ Institute ran into Alnwick behind large Pacific locomotives. A fleet of road coaches awaited their arrival and whisked them off to popular local destinations including Bamburgh Castle!
There was a variety of goods traffic on the line. Outward traffic included stone and grain plus many wagons carrying livestock including cattle arriving from Ireland. Cheviot sheep were brought in from farms to Alnwick and transported onwards by rail. Coal arrived by rail for the gasworks and for domestic use, also fuel oil for the sidings a short distance long the branch. In World War 1 much timber, emanating from Whittingham on the Cornhill branch, passed through Alnwick, taking for example, pit props to the south Northumberland collieries. On at least one occasion a train successfully delivered a circus, including its animals, to Alnwick!
Several cartage and delivery vehicles operated out of Alnwick delivering and collecting parcels, bicycles, newspapers and agricultural implements to and from the farms, businesses and private houses in the local area.
The branch, for most of its existence, was double-tracked until shortly before closure. On 14th February 1965, it was announced that the branch would become just a single track. The signalling was originally by means of semaphore signals operated from several signalboxes at Alnwick and the signalbox at Bilton, later Alnmouth. Shortly before the line closed the semaphore signals were replaced by colour light signals and the branch signalboxes were closed!
Despite the doubling of ticket sales between 1951 and 1967 the branch did not escape the 1960s cutbacks in the nation’s rail system. On 28th September 1967 the Transport Minister gave consent to closure. The line closed from 23rd January 1968 for passenger traffic, though the goods service lingered on until 7th October. Soon after closure the track was lifted by a contractor and the trackbed and foundation was cut to the east of the town to permit the construction of the A1 Alnwick by-pass road. This, of course, eliminated the need for an expensive new rail bridge over the new road!
The photographs illustrating this item are mainly from the Aln Valley Railway’s photographic archive including some from the Armstrong Railway Photographic Trust. The work of a variety of photographers is shown, including John Mallon, David Appleby and William Stafford.
The full history of the line is described in the book entitled ‘The Alnwick Branch’ written by Bartle Rippon and published by Kestrel Railway Books in 2008.