A GROUP of pensioners is campaigning for the North East to mark the 200th anniversary of what it says is the world’s oldest steam railway.
A band of OAPs who live along the route of what was the Wylam to Lemington Wagonway are calling on bodies in the region to lay on events to commemorate two centuries since it became operational in 1814.
The group, whose members live at Newburn, is led by Michael Balfour, a steam rail enthusiast.
He was researching the history of the railway several years ago for a poem, and discovered its opening in 1814 made it ‘the first steam railway (that actually worked) anywhere in the world.’
Mr Balfour, 70, of West Denton Close, has now written to Northumberland County and Newcastle City councils, The National Railway Museum and Beamish – which is said to have a working replica of the famous engine Puffing Billy which operated on the line – to ask if they would be prepared to help in the organisation of celebratory events. He has also approached Wylam Parish Council. To date, Mr Balfour has received verbal support from the parish council but no reply from the others.
He has visions of events being run simultaneously at Wylam station and Tyne Riverside Country Park at Newburn, close to Lemington and where bosses are said to be behind the group’s idea, with an engine of some kind – ideally the Puffing Billy replica – taking people across the Northumberland and Tyneside border and between the two sites.
Mr Balfour feels such events would have to be organised by a group involving the kind of bodies he has approached, and that he and his friends would not be able to manage alone.
And although the anniversary is three years away, he says events of the kind he envisages would require planning well in advance. He said: “I think in the region we really need to do something because it is the first ever commercially successful steam railway anywhere in the world coming up 200 years, that has to be a big occasion.
“Unless we can get some more powerful support nothing is going to happen at all which in my view would be a tremendous shame.”
The Wylam Wagonway is said to be the first to introduce steam power via a mobile steam engine running on flat rails. It was built on a path on which initially horses used to pull wagons of coal along wooden rails from Wylam Colliery to the River Tyne at Lemington, for shipping on.
Richard Trevithick was commissioned to design an engine and his effort started running in “early 1813”.
However mine owner Chris Blackett was not impressed and asked its engineer William Hedley to come up a better design.
Together with Timothy Hackworth, they built Puffing Billy which started work in early 1814 and ran in various guises for approximately 50 years.
Trackbed from the old railway still lines part of the route, which is now part of Hadrian’s Cycleway.