Turnpikes and Railways

Turnpikes and Railways

From the Roman occupation to the mid-18th century no properly surveyed and constructed roads were built in Northumberland. Movement was by way of ‘routes’ rather than proper roads. From Norman times the Great North Road from Newcastle to Ainwick and Berwick was important, but it was not a constructed road. Travel on these routes was often difficult; as early as the reign of Henry II we hear of two monks who accompanied the King complaining of the state of Northumberland’s roads.

Turnpike Roads Northumberland
Turnpike Roads Northumberland

Some of the routes are not followed by major roads today. The drove roads over the Scottish border have already been discussed in Chapter XII. Another important route, probably originating in Anglo Saxon times, ran north from Tynemouth to Bedlington, passing through Chirton, Murton, Earsdon, Stickley, and Horton, and then north up the coast to Bamburgh and Lindisfarne. Linking church estates, it was used in 1069 by monks fleeing with Cuthbert’s body from William. Edward I travelled along it three times. Maintenance was a problem: in 1326 Sir Robert de la Val agreed with the Prior of Tynemouth to repair the road over his moor between Stickley and Holywell, which was so deep and muddy that carts could not move along it. Today, local roads follow its route from Tynemouth to Bedlington, except between Murton and Earsdon, where its course was probably the path through the fields.

Estates at Embleton belonged to Merton College, Oxford, and the record of a journey by one of the college bursars to superintend the harvest and tithes in 1464 has survived. He travelled north to Newcastle, then via Ponteland (where there was a college living) to Rothbury, and across Bolton Moors to Alnwick and Embleton. The bursar paid twopence to a guide for directing him across the difficult Bolton Moors

Roads did not improve. In 1559 the Earl of Northumberland, commenting on the main road to Berwick, said ‘the cattle of this country are so little and so weak, and the way so deep, that they can scarce draw an empty carriage’. The state of the roads became more important as carriages replaced horses, and the movement of agricultural and industrial products in bulk more significant. In 1658 there was a coach from London to Edinburgh which took thirteen days, six from Newcastle. Since the first sprung carriage was built in 1754, it must have been an uncomfortable fortnight. A revived service began in 1712  and lasted until 1729.  An advertisement in the Newcastle Courant for 6 January 1728 reads, ‘Lost, between Ainwick and Felton Bridge, from the Stage Coach, a pair of Leather baggs, wherein were some wearing linen, coffee, coffee cups, and other things: Whoever brings them to Mrs. Smith, Post-Mistress at Morpeth, shall have a guinea reward, and no questions asked’.

Maintenance of the roads fell on each local parish. So in 1 701 the Quarter  Sessions record ‘John Coatsworth, esq., presents the highway in the Thorns loaning att a place called Shordon Sike to be Foundrous and ought to be repaired by the inhabitants of the township of Anick’ (near Corbridge). This fell particularly hard on parishes along the North Road, who were also expected to supply carts for military traffic.

The solution was a commercial road-system. By raising subscription investment, capital was obtained to build proper roads, and this was recouped by tolls on users of these turnpike roads. Such roads had existed further south since the 1660s, but the first in the north was that from Newcastle to near Berwick in 1746. A spate of these roads was built in the succeeding years. Most were on existing routes, but the Military Road was built largely along the line of the Roman Wall, because General Wade had found he could not drag his guns further than Hexham on his way to Carlisle in the 1 745 Rebellion. For the most part though, ‘the turnpike was the landowner’s creation for the landowner’s use’ (W. G. Dodds), and the same names of improving landlords, such as the Allgoods, Blacketts, Middletons, and Swinburnes, keep appearing in the Acts setting up the turnpikes.

These turnpikes were made of packed stone-chips. Whinstone was the best material. Henry Wilson, surveyor of the Alnmouth-Hexham road in 1851, noted ‘Whin is very much more beneficial than limestone as where the carriage is so heavy limestone wears away so quickly’. In setting tolls the plan was to exempt very local agricultural traffic and tap long-distance commercial traffic. Several routes retain their turnpike form, except for the surfacing. A fine example is the Ainmouth-Hexham road through Ainwick and Rothbury, turnpiked in 1751. It was known as the Corn Road because its main trade was the export of corn from central and south-west Northumberland through the port of Ainmouth. Another good stretch is the Morpeth-Elsdon turnpike, west of Longwitton. The Newcastle­Wooler road, built in the 1750s, originally ran over Rimside Moor hut was diverted east to the present line in 1831. The old turnpike across the top of Rimside still survives as a bridleway, and along it the stone surface, side-drains, bridges and boundaries can still be traced, ascending to the lonely ruins of the Swinburne Arms, an old coaching stop, in the wood of Rimside.

These turnpikes led to the growth of coaching traffic in the 1750s.  In 1763 there was a weekly coach to Edinburgh along the Rimside route from the Bull and the Post-Boy in the Bigg Market at Newcastle. By 1784 there were six coaches a week from the Turk’s Head, and in 1811 the Turf in Collingwood Street had over eight coaches leaving each day to various places. Competition became intense between operators and routes. At the height of the coaching era, the 1820s, John Croall’s ‘Chevy Chase’ ran to Edinburgh on the Otterburn route, James Redford’s ‘The High Flyer’ took the Wooler road, and ‘The Union’ took the Great North Road. Important coaching inns and prosperity grew up at the stops on these routes at Morpeth, Alnwick, Belford, and out in the country. A good example is the Castle Inn at Whittingham, where the winter travellers could recover from the bitter ride through wind and snow across Rimside Moor.

Although these turnpikes were a major aid in improving agriculture, they could also hinder, for, like railways and motorways after them, they let goods in as well as out. John Hodgson, writing in 1827, noted the problems of farming in Redesdale: ‘Its contiguity to the fine corn lands of Scotland, and a turnpike road through it, have been the means of introducing meal and flour into it at a lower price than they can, upon an average of years, be produced for on its own lands. Hence fewer ploughs are used here of late years than formerly were’.

For bulk transport canals were superior to roads, but no canals were built in Northumberland because the concentration of industrial activity on the coast and the navigable Tyne meant coastal shipping Was available. Indeed, it was this access to cheap sea-transport that had given the North-east its lead over inland coalfields. The only seriously projected canal was one from Newcastle to Maryport, to export Tyneside coal to Ulster and the west coast and move linen and cotton goods to the east coast for shipment. In the 1790s William Chapman surveyed a line west to Haydon Bridge through Corbridge, Beaufront and St. John Lee, with an incredible number of locks. Rival routes south of the Tyne were outlined by Sutcliffe and Dodd, but for all routes local opposition always outweighted support.

The serious challenge to the turnpikes (and to smaller-scale east-coast shipping) came with the railway. George Stephenson, a local engineer from Ovingham, built his first passenger railway from Stockton to Darlington in 1825. Initially some were sceptical of the whole idea. One writer in the Tyne Mercury in 1824 said: ‘What person would ever think of paying anything to be conveyed from Hexham to Newcastle in something like a coal-waggon, upon a dreary waggon-way, and to be dragged for the greater part of the distance by a roaring steam engine? The thing is too ridiculous to dwell upon, especially as we know that a person may come from Hexham in three hours by a coach, and for three or four shillings’. The new railway was popular, however. James Losh, who had been a promoter of the canal, became chairman of the Newcastle-Carlisle railway company, and employed Chapman as one of the engineers. The Blaydon-Hexham section was opened in May 1835 and the full route in 1839. The line from London reached Gateshead in 1844, and the construction of the High Level Bridge across the Tyne in 1849, and the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick enabled the ‘Railway King’ George Hudson to link up all the North-east. In succeeding decades the railways penetrated throughout Northumberland: the Wansbeck line to Scots Gap in 1862 and the Alnwick.Cornhill line in 1887.

As late as the 1830s new turnpike routes like the Belsay-Otterburn line were being constructed, but the coming of the railway rapidly damaged the turnpikes by attracting away both passenger and commercial traffic. By 1838 coachowners were asking for tax relief because of railway competition. William Robb looked back later: ‘There was a much greater traffic between Newcastle and Carlisle by way of the Military Road, which, with the numerous carts often conveying large quantities of cotton yarn from Lancashire to Newcastle for shipment to the Baltic, and many country carriers as well, was not the desolate and dismal route it now is’. The last G.P.O. mail-coach to Edinburgh ran in July 1847, and after that the trains strangled the life out of coaching, which was dead by 1860. In the years to 1880 the various turnpike trusts were wound up, and road maintenance passed to the county authorities.

Though the railway brought improved communications its benefits to rural Northumberland were very mixed. The national rail network facilitated regional specialisation and local producers could not compete with cheaper imports to the region. Many of the county’s smaller agricultural industries, harbours and market towns contracted or died. As the railways killed off local industries and motor transport came into being, so the tide of railway profitability turned and retreated. The Alnwick-Cornhull line lasted only until 1935. Traffic returned to the roads, and only a few miles from the fossilised turnpike on Rimside, past the foundations of the Roman Devil’s Causeway, stands the derelict viaduct of the Alnwick line at Edlingham.