We might not be the oldest railway in the UK, but we do have some of the oldest sections of railway.
A section of a wooden waggonway were discovered underneath the former Neptune Shipyard in the summer of 2013. The site was being redeveloped and archaeological surveys took place led to the discovery of the rare and substantial remains of an early railway. Constructed in 1785, the section of waggonway was identified as part of the route of the Willington Waggonway.
The excavation at the Neptune shipyard unearthed the only ‘wash hole’ for cleaning and wetting waggon wheels to have ever been professionally excavated and recorded. We knew that wash holes existed through documentary sources, but none had been discovered previously.
Re-used ships’ timbers also appear to have been used in the construction or the maintenance of the waggonway. If these timbers originate from types of vessels that no longer survive then there is also the potential to learn about their construction.
Perhaps most significantly, the excavated remains of the Willington Waggonway is the earliest railway that has been discovered which was built to what became the international ‘standard’ gauge, defined as 4’ 8 1/2” or 1435mm. The later Killingworth Waggonway, which was used by George Stephenson during his development of the steam locomotive, used part of the Willington Waggonway to reach the river Tyne. The gauge of the Willington Waggonway (based on the earlier Benton Way) therefore set the gauge for the Killingworth Waggonway and ultimately the rest of the world. Today approximately 55% of railways in the world are standard gauge.
Thanks to the Arts Council England PRISM fund, TWAM was able to rescue wooden and stone components within a zone 6 metres in length across the width of the waggonway. Representative and significant components were also collected from other locations on the site.
TWAM secured funding from the Arts Council England Designation Development Fund which will allow us to research, carry out scientific analysis and explore how the waggonway may be displayed in the future. A scale model is already on show in the museum, along with a publication of findings which is for sale in the shop.
The timbers themselves returned to the North East in February 2017 to their new home in the Regional Museum Store at Beamish where the stone components are currently stored. TWAM's hope is that the waggonway can be fully reconstructed for public display in the future.