Part of a newly-discovered historic Tyneside wooden railway – hailed as being of international importance – is to be saved.
A 25m (82ft) stretch of the 1790s’ waggonway was unearthed weeks ago by archaeologists Alan Williams and Richard Carlton at the former Neptune shipyard in Walker, Newcastle, which is due for redevelopment by Shepherd Offshore.
The superbly-preserved track, which carried coal from collieries to the Tyne for shipment, is the earliest and only surviving example of the standard gauge railway which spread across the world.
Now Tyne Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM) is lifting an section of the railway after winning an emergency £9,000 grant from the Prism fund of Arts Council England.
This gives awards to museums to collect and conserve important industrial and scientific artefacts.
The section of rails and sleepers will be stored in environmentally-controlled conditions at the Stephenson Railway Museum in North Tyneside.
That will allow TWAM to seek funds for the sophisticated treatment needed to preserve the timber and eventually display the track in one of its museums. Newcastle historian Les Turnbull, author of a book published earlier this year on the North East’s waggonways, said: “This is really exciting and I am overjoyed that some of the railway will be preserved.
“It was part of a major main line in the late 18th century which probably carried a ‘train’ of horse and coal-filled cart every minute.
“It would have been a disaster if the railway had been lost.
“This is the railway which gave the standard gauge to the world and its loss would have been an international tragedy.
“The railways are the greatest gift the North East has given to the world.
“The part played by The Journal has been immeasurable in creating awareness about this find and getting people thinking about what could be done.”
Alan Williams said that taking the stretch apart and rebuilding it will give vital information on how the original was constructed.
It has already been discovered that planking from boats – probably colliers – was recycled for use as sleepers for the railway.
He said: “The Journal’s role in helping to save part of this railway has been crucial.”
John Clayson, keeper of science and industry at TWAM, said: “This amazing find was an unrepeatable opportunity to preserve the early remains of what became one of Tyneside’s most significant contributions to trade and communication worldwide – the standard gauge railway.
“Recognising how vital Shepherd Offshore’s redevelopment of the Neptune Shipyard is for bringing jobs to Tyneside, we knew we had to move very quickly to avoid delaying their plans.
“Recovering the wooden rails and sleepers is a race against time.
“A covering of coal waste had protected them from the atmosphere for more than 200 years.
“As soon as it was removed the timber began to dry out and deteriorate.
“Shepherd Offshore and the site contractors, O’Brien’s have been marvellous because they have carefully preserved the excavated site to give us the chance to mobilise our rescue project.
“Following treatment and stabilisation we hope that part of the waggonway will be reconstructed for display in one of Tyneside’s museums, where we are sure it will be a fascinating exhibit that will bring the region’s early railway heritage to life.
“It’s amazing to think that this reminder of Tyneside’s prosperity in the 18th century has been brought to light by a 21st century development which will bring jobs in the latest wind and wave technology to our area.“