Following research by the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, which safeguards and promotes the heritage of the route, Heighington and Aycliffe Railway Station has been proven to have been in use since 1827 – 196 years ago. Until recently, Liverpool Road station in Manchester, dating from 1830, had been considered the earliest station. As a result, Historic England has increased its listing from Grade II to Grade II*, recognising it as a “particularly important building of more than special interest”. Just 5.8% of listed buildings are Grade II*.
The Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) opened on 27 September 1825, with statutory powers to operate a public railway for the carriage of both passengers and a full range of goods. However, it was the transport of coal that was its main source of revenue. A regular passenger service was instigated between Darlington and Shildon, using a horse-drawn coach. At this time, the railway was open to any carrier to use its tracks, similar to today’s open access but without the same level of overarching coordination.
In 1826, the S&DR began to build inns to oversee the railway’s depots at Stockton, Darlington, and along the route, including a small depot where the railway crossed the lane between Heighington and the Great North Road at Aycliffe. It had been at this crossing that ‘Locomotion’, the company’s first locomotive, was placed onto the track when it was delivered by road from Robert Stephenson & Co. works in Newcastle on 16 September.
The combination of inn and management of depots is a curious one, especially as the railway’s funders were mostly Quakers who promoted temperance. At this very early date in the history of railways, the concept of a station had yet to be developed, but coaches used inns as calling points on their services and the railway inns probably reflected that tradition.
The buildings were designed by John Carter, a mason from Heighington who had superintended the construction of bridges along the line. Each was of squared, coursed sandstone, quoined at the corners, with projecting stone sills and multi-paned vertical sashed windows.
In 1827, the S&DR advertised the leases for the buildings overseeing both Aycliffe Lane and Darlington depots, noting that they were seeking licences for them as inns. The magistrates refused and so the depot at Aycliffe Lane was let without an alcohol licence. An editorial in the Durham Chronicle criticised the decision and, in passing, mentioned that the depot was being used to shelter passengers awaiting coaches and as a collection point for goods and parcels being transported by rail. From this source it is clear this depot was providing some of the core functions that we would today recognise at a railway station, the first of around 7,000 in the UK.
Its use as a station appears to have been ad hoc and informal in its early days, especially as until 1833 passenger services were provided by a number of independent coach operators using horse-haulage, paying a toll charge to the railway. After this date the S&DR took over the running of these services, using its own steam locomotives. Aycliffe Lane probably then took on the booking office function. Previously, payment would have been made on the train.
Alongside the depot, water was drawn from a pond for use by locomotives. On 1 July 1828, ‘Locomotion’ exploded whilst taking on water at Aycliffe Lane, killing the driver John Cree and injuring Edward Turnbull.
By 1856, the station was renamed Heighington and Aycliffe Station and, in 1873, Heighington Station. This ancient railway building remained in use as a station with attached housing until it fell into disuse in the 1970s, the station becoming an unstaffed halt. In 1984, it was renovated and converted into a public house called ‘Locomotion 1’, reflecting that locomotive’s double links with the station. Today, just a quarter of a mile away, Hitachi’s Newton Aycliffe plant is constructing today’s rolling stock.
Since 2017, the building has been disused and empty. The Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway and Historic England hope that the raising of its historic significance will prompt an appropriate and long-term use for this long overlooked but truly pioneering station building.