I once heard, or perhaps read, a noble lord’s explanation for his title, viz. that it commemorated a greater man than himself. The same is true of Widdrington Station. It commemorates a place older and more famous than itself.
George Stephenson surveyed the line from Newcastle to Berwick in 1836. It was subsequently modified so as to go through Morpeth and to avoid Howick Hall, and the Act to authorise it received the Royal Assent in July 1845.
Two years later the section from Morpeth to Chathill was opened. A number of stations were built along it in what had hitherto been remote rural locations, including one where it crossed the road between Ulgham and Widdrington. Hence was born Widdrington Station.
Notice that, while the village is called Widdrington Station, the station itself is called Widdrington. There are several reasons why this particular name was so attractive to the Victorian railway builders.
For one thing, although it was actually in Ulgham parish, few people outside of Northumberland have heard of Ulgham. But that apart, Widdrington was a better choice in the context of Victorian railway politics. Railway engineers and boards of directors were acutely aware of the stately homes and manor houses along their route. These were where the rich lived, who owned the land that the railway had to cross.
Some of the land-owning gentry and aristocracy welcomed the railway and became shareholders and directors. Others opposed it. Some, including the Duke of Northumberland and Lord Howick, were in favour as long as it didn’t encroach upon their own pleasure grounds.
All of this was fought out in Parliament long before the first spade went into the ground. Parliamentary committees spent months scrutinising maps, plans and proposals. Land agents and engineers were questioned. Solicitors negotiated behind the scenes.
So the landed estates along the route, their owners, and where their houses and pleasure grounds lay, were of the first importance to the railway builders. The Widdrington estate, centred on its famous castle, was one such.
Another aspect was Widdrington’s connection to historical events. It was home to Sir Robert Carey, who rode from Windsor to Edinburgh in record time to report the death of Queen Elizabeth, but its place in history is much more a reflection of the Widdrington family. They were prominent in the county and throughout the borders, but better known, particularly after their downfall in 1715, for their staunch adherence to the Stuarts.
The third is its place in literary culture. The development of the railways coincided with the Romantic movement. The Causey Arch was built in 1725-26, Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry appeared in 1767 and Mrs Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794.
Richard Trevithick ran his locomotive Catch Me Who Can on a circular demonstration track in 1808. Walter Scott published Waverley in 1814, and the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened in 1825.
The people who promoted the railways were mostly well-read and well-travelled. They were familiar with books about the ‘Beauties’ of this or that district, illustrated with fine engravings. Widdrington Castle occurs in one of the best known, Buck’s Antiquities, which began publication in 1724.
A more distinctly literary example is the ballad of Derwentwater’s Farewell. In 1807 Robert Surtees of Mainsforth, friend of Sir Walter Scott and author of the highly respected History of the County Palatine of Durham, sent it to James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, telling him that he got it from an old inhabitant.
If so, one can reasonably conjecture that it went back about 60 years to the mid to late 1740s, and its content is consistent with being written sometime between 1715 and 1745, or perhaps a little later. It includes the lines, ‘Then fare thee well, brave Widdrington / And Forster, ever true.’
Hogg accepted it as genuine and included it in his Jacobite Relics. But it wasn’t genuine. William Brockie, writing in the Monthly Chronicle for September 1888, says: ‘Though he professed to have taken it down from recitation … and to have merely inserted some verses in brackets to supply an hiatus it is ‘to a moral certainty Surtees’s own composition.’
The fact, however, that Derwentwater’s Farewell was a spoof is immaterial. It was yet one more way by which Widdrington entered into polite literature. More than half a century later, Black’s Picturesque Tourist of England, 1862, dwelt at length on Widdrington:
‘Widdrington Castle was a noble structure, but was unfortunately destroyed by fire. The only remaining part of it is an embattled octangular tower, to which a square modern edifice has been added. The family of Widdrington was formerly of great consideration in this county. The first baron lost his life at the battle of Wiganlane, in the cause of Charles II. His grandson forfeited the estate in the rebellion of 1715. A lady of this family is the heroine of Percy’s beautiful ballad, the Hermit of Warkworth.’
This is a long entry. But what is more striking is that you can’t actually see Widdrington, either from the railway or the Great North Road. And if you had gone out of your way to see it, you would have been disappointed. The castle had been pulled down in 1848.
Ninety years on again, and Arthur Mee’s The King’s England – Northumberland includes this quotation from the Ballad of Chevy Chase: ‘For Witherington my heart was woe / That ever he slain should be.’
You simply can’t get away from the Widdringtons in English border balladry.
The village of Widdrington Station was a long time coming into being. Fifty years after the station was built, the six-inch OS map for 1896 still shows only a railway station and yard. There was no settlement.
Its first offshoot was Stobswood Colliery. It was founded in the 1880s by John H. Burn and lay to the west of the present hamlet of Stobswood. In 1921 it had two chapels and a school, but was closed in 1965 and the site cleared. Stobswood as we know it began with Grangewood Terrace, which was in existence by 1921.
Ferneybeds Colliery was sunk before the First World War, and by 1921 the colliery rows formed a substantial settlement, with a chapel, an institute and, at a distance from the village, a working men’s club. The colliery has gone, but Liddell Terrace and Sanderson Terrace stand as reminders of it.
Brian Pears, writing in Rootsweb, says that the Stobswood Coal Company began making firebricks in 1923. The Burn Fireclay Company was founded as a separate business in 1927, and survived until 1999.
The Burn family were notable builders of churches. In 1938 they gave the bricks for St Mary’s Church, now demolished, which was both a church and a parish hall.
Morpeth Rural District Council began building council houses at Widdrington Station at about this time, and the availability of large plots at reasonable prices, with easy access to Newcastle, attracted private developers as well.
Nowadays, like many other former colliery villages, Widdrington Station has become largely suburban.