The Alnwick and Cornhill Railway
Various schemes were promoted in the mid-late 19th century for a railway line through either Glendale or the Milfield Plain and thence through central Northumberland, to enable the Edinburgh-based North British Railway (NBR) to gain direct access to the lucrative traffic of industrial Tyneside.
Thus in 1860s the Northumberland Central Railway (NCR) was proposed to run between a junction with NBR’s Wansbeck Railway at Scots Gap, via Rothbury and Wooler culminating in a junction with the North Eastern Railway’s Tweedmouth - Kelso branch at Cornhill.
North of Wooler the railway was projected to cross the Milfield Plain, following the course of the River Till rather than the Glen and the Bowmont like the later Alnwick - Coldstream branch, but a station was to have been provided at Akeld.
In the final event, however, only the section between Rothbury and Scots Gap was constructed (Warn 1975, 29-31; Jenkins 1991, 9-26; Sewell 1992, 82-5; Mackichan 1998, 39ff). Another scheme, labelled, with only a modicum of originality, the Central Northumberland Railway, was promoted in 1881, perhaps with tacit NBR support. This was projected to run from Newcastle to Scots Gap via Ponteland, thence over the NCR to Rothbury continuing to Wooler and on to a junction with the Kelso line at Sprouston (QRU p152; Warn 1975, 41, 43; Jenkins 1991, 45-6; Mackichan 1998, 129-54).
The threat posed by the Central Northumberland Railway finally spurred the powerful North Eastern Railway (NER), somewhat reluctantly, to promote a branch line of its own between Alnwick, Wooler and Cornhill to block this particular line of commercial attack. In this the company was strongly supported by the tradespeople of Alnwick who were concerned at the potential loss of business if the farmers of Wooler and north Northumberland had a direct raillink to the rival market and shops in Rothbury. Both schemes were presented to Parliament in 1881 and it was the NER route, which gained approval with the Alnwick and Cornhill Act, passed on 19th May 1882.
The new single track line finally opened on 5th September 1887, having cost £272,266 15s 3d to construct. North of Wooler, it ran alongside the Glen and then the Bowmont, turning north as it emerged from the narrow valley to reach a junction with the Tweedmouth-Kelso branch at Coldstream station. Between Wooler and Coldstream there were stations at Akeld, Kirknewton and Mindrum and goods sidings at Kilham.
The quality of all the station buildings was remarkable. They have been acclaimed as ‘probably the best ever built by the North Eastern Railway in its sixty eight years of existence’ (Hoole 1984) and ‘unsurpassed on any other minor rural line in Britain’ (Young 2003, 28). This has resulted in virtually complete survival of these buildings. Akeld, in common with most of the other examples, has been converted to residential use. The stations were all constructed to the same basic design, but varying in size according to the anticipated scale of traffic. The northeast railway historian Ken Hoole has classified them into five categories (1984):
- Single storey station, separate stationmaster’s house (Kirknewton, Edlingham)
- Island platform, separate house (Whittingham)
- Two storey station including house (Mindrum, Ilderton, Wooperton, Hedgeley, Glanton)
- Larger two storey station including house (Akeld)
- Still larger two storey station including house (Wooler)
Akeld was one of the largest stations on the line, falling into Hoole’s category D. Only Wooler, the principal traffic centre, was larger. The buildings were constructed of buff-coloured rock-faced sandstone with half-hipped slate roofs, tall chimneystacks and iron finials. Passengers were sheltered by herringbone patterned wood-and-glass lean-to structures that extended along the platform frontage. All stations handled freight as well as passengers and substantial goods sheds were provided at all but the smallest stations. There was a level crossing at Bendor, to the east of Akeld, with an associated signal box also now converted to residential use.
It is somewhat puzzling, however, why the NER should choose to lavish such splendid facilities on such a minor and relatively unremunerative line, especially as the NER was in many respects the most profitable and professionally managed of Britain’s Victorian railway companies with financial controls far ahead of its time (cf. Mackichan 1998, 157-8). Perhaps it was felt that the strategic importance of this line in safeguarding NER territory from possible penetration by a competing NBR main line justified the expenditure as a clear demonstration of the NER’s commitment to provide the area with a proper service. Nevertheless, the passenger service was always meagre with three trains each way on weekdays stopping at all stations, four on Saturdays and, before the First World War, on Mondays. There was no Sunday service. Goods traffic was predominantly agricultural, largely consisting of grain and livestock, including horses, outward and feed, machinery, coal and oil inward.
The passenger trains were withdrawn after only 43 years on 22nd September 1930, just as the Great Depression began to bite, making it at the time the longest British route to have closed. Several stations on the line, including Akeld itself, were adjacent to the A697 and therefore particularly vulnerable to bus competition. Many were some distance from the villages they purported to serve (though this did not apply to Akeld itself). An internal LNER memo of June 1930 noted that passenger traffic had suffered a large decline ‘due, for the most part, to road competition’ (Young 2003, 28). However the goods and parcels services continued to run and special passenger trains occasionally to visited the line after 1930. Whenever necessary a coach was attached to the daily parcels train to enable holidaymakers to travel to the camping coaches which the LNER still maintained in the sidings at Akeld and other stations along the line. The establishment of Milfield airfield by the RAF during World War II generated additional traffic, including troop trains, with Akeld station, four miles to the south, serving as the railhead for the airfield.
Ending the passenger service brought only a limited financial respite, however. There was little reduction in the line’s overheads, which now fell entirely on the goods and parcels service. Full signalling was maintained throughout until the end of the LNER period, stations were still staffed, and a daily parcels train had to be introduced which must have cost as much to run as one of the passenger trains! Nevertheless the line continued without major incident until the torrential storms of 12 August 1948 which caused severe flooding right across the Borders and severed the Alnwick - Coldstream line in several places.
Most of the damage was repaired by the following year, with the exception of a bridge between Mindrum and Kirknewton stations, which were then operated as the termini of two separate branch lines until further flooding in October 1949 cut the line between Ilderton and Wooler. This damage was not repaired. Instead the bridge near Kirknewton was restored, and services were now restored north of Wooler and south of Ilderton.
Operations on the southern half of the line did not prove economically viable for long under this arrangement and closed completely in March 1953. Goods services were withdrawn from Kirknewton and Kilham sidings in the same month. However the remaining freight services on the northern half of the line to Wooler, which included Akeld station, lasted for a further twelve years, finally closing on 29th March 1965 along with the Tweedmouth - Kelso branch.