Walking the Wannie Line in the heart of some of England’s most beautiful and unspoiled countryside is a treat on a glorious summer’s day.
With lovely views of the Simonside Hills, I was puzzled how this picturesque country walk had remained a well-kept secret.
I discovered it by chance when I spotted a poster on a visit to Wallington in Northumberland last week.
I knew there’d been an old railway line in Rothbury but never realised you could actually walk the closed line.
So it was time to grab our ruck sacks, walking boots and a picnic lunch for a walk with a difference.
Getting on track
Before leaving it was time to check out some local history. I was puzzled why a railway line was built in this remote location.
In the mid-19th Century railways were king and new lines sprung up all over Britain. Even rural Northumberland, with its farmland and sparse population, saw the arrival of the rail roads.
The Wansbeck or ‘Wannie’ Line opened in 1862 at the height of the steam age, running for 25 miles through Northumberland from Morpeth to Reedsmouth.
Sir Walter Trevelyan, owner of Wallington Hall, was one of the driving forces behind the building of the railway with two of the lines crossing his estate. He saw the benefits of being better connected to the wider world.
The line was developed by the Wansbeck Railway Company, with backing from the Trevelyan and Ridley families plus Earl Grey.
Later it became part of the North British Railway, a long-forgotten name that conjures up images of railway’s golden age.
Trains steamed along the route, carrying Wallington’s stone, lime, coal and livestock as well as passengers.
Stations or halts along the way were located at the small towns and villages of Meldon, Angerton, Middleton, Scots Gap and Woodburn.
Even Charles Parsons, the steam turbine inventor, had his own private platform near his home at Knowesgate.
Despite its early popularity, huge numbers of passengers never really flocked to the railway line.
There were only three daily trains between Morpeth and Rothbury whilst freight traffic was mainly agricultural or connected to local collieries and quarries.
Here’s a video about the historic railway made by BBC Look North a few years back.
Sadly, this rural service started to hit the buffers in the 1940s. The outbreak of World War Two resulted in a reduced service with only two trains a day.
Competition from car transport spelled the end for the Wannie Line and the passenger service was withdrawn in September 1952. The last goods train ran in 1966 from Morpeth to Woodburn.
Walk the line
With a head full of history, it was time to set off on the seven mile walk which takes you onto the Wannie and Rothbury lines.
We started the walk at the car park behind the former National Trust Regional Office at Scot’s Gap, 1 ½ miles north-east of Wallington on the B6343.
After walking along a short path, we dropped down some steps onto the Wannie Line itself.
We walked along the old railway track until it split and then took the right fork onto the Rothbury line from which there are beautiful panoramic views from the top of the embankment.
As we strolled along the Rothbury Line we were struck by the tranquillity of the scene. Once steam trains would have thundered through several times a day but now there’s only the sound of birds and a gentle breeze.
A skylark soared overhead whilst willow warblers sang their trilling songs in the hawthorn bushes.
We carried on over two old bridges, the only signs that there was once a railway line running through this quiet countryside.
When we reached the Delf Burn we followed the route pinpointed by a waymarker which took us down off the line and along the burn.
Near here a tragic accident happened when a train with six passenger wagons and eight empty limestone trucks was derailed and crashed down the embankment in 1875.
Four people were killed including the guard and a mason who had just finished rebuilding nearby Rothley Lake House.
It’s so tranquil today that it’s hard to imagine such a scene of devastation.
Peace, tranquillity and bulls!
As we followed the path through the Delf Burn plantation, the countryside became wilder and even more beautiful.
A stream cut its way through the landscape with colourful wild flowers carpeting its banks including speedwell, greater stitchwort, forget-me-not and red campion.
It was a perfect, quiet glade with a plantation of trees along one side.
It didn’t look like many people had come through this area for a long time. It was like nature’s secret garden.
This is a brilliant place if you’re looking for solitude and relaxation. We didn’t see any other walkers on the trip in three hours. Not a single one.
As we left the plantation through a gate into a field, we got a bit confused about the directions as the signs temporarily ran out.
So we walked up the hill and through another gate until we reached a field full of young bulls. Crossing the field seemed like a good idea until the bullocks started to get excited.
A small stampede headed towards us. We retreated as fast as we could towards the stile at the end of the field.
It felt like a narrow escape. I had visions of newspaper headlines the next day – “Tammy Tour Guide trampled to death by bulls”.
Tony assured me that the bullocks were just curious but the sight of 30 large males didn’t make me feel very confident!
Crossing over the stile we entered an old quarry, a strange, knobbly landscape with a group of old lime kilns.
Beneath the Wallington estate lies high quality limestone which is ideal for burning into lime for use in farming and other industries.
The quarry was once the main source of the estate’s limestone. Miners and workmen lived in cottages along the track at High Hartington. It’s thought that some of the lime was exported on the railway.
As we continued up a hill towards a small woodland, Tony was still in an intrepid mood, taking me across a large field of thistles and nettles.
For some reason, even the easiest of our walks seem to turn into Ray Mears-style adventures!
I’m not sure that this was the route we were meant to take but eventually we found ourselves back on track.
By now, I was starting to get a little tired and sunburned. It was time for a picnic. Luckily, there was a perfect rock by a pretty stream just up ahead.
Having recharged our batteries with sandwiches and cake, we continued onwards and eventually re-joined the old railway line after leaping over several stiles and kissing gates.
As we crossed the road at Rugley Walls, we dropped back down onto the old Wannie line and this section of the route appeared wilder. A belt of trees lined the way – and clearly they’d been planted after the railway closed.
It’s an idyllic scene and it’s hard to believe that trains once steamed down this old, railway line. As we walked up onto a raised section of the old railway there were a couple of remnants of its past history.
A small furnace and two railway posts were amongst the only signs we’d seen of the railway’s working days.
As we finished the walk, it was interesting to look over the old railway bridge down to the old Scots Gap railway station.
The building has been changed considerably since the heyday of the railways but you can see part of the old station platform.
Sad really, but times change. I mourn the loss of the railways but you need people to sustain them in a rural area like Northumberland.
Today the railway could have been a tourism and heritage attraction but the lines are too grown over, the tracks torn up and the infrastructure has been lost.
Little remains of the railway and there’s not much to see of the stations or halts along the line.
The Wannie Line wasn’t even a victim of the Beeching cuts – it started its decline much earlier. But the history of the railway lives on and hopefully more people will discover its history.
So why not ‘walk the line’?
Although I’m not a railway buff, this walk along the two old rail lines is a fascinating trip back in time.
Tammy’s Wannie Line walk
The Wannie railway line can be walked as a seven mile circular route starting at Scots Gap in Northumberland. Allow about 3-4 hours for the walk.
There’s car parking at the old National Trust office in Scots Gap where the walk starts. Take an OS map or GPS and print-out of the railway walk. There’s also a map at the start of the route.
But the signposting is ‘hit and miss’ and runs out in places so an OS map is really important if you’re not going to get lost.
Don’t forget to take the right kit – walking boots are a must together with bad weather gear in case things turn wet and windy.
Watch Tony’s video about the Wannie Line and its wildflowers.
If you’re a very energetic walker, you could opt for the linear walk from Scots Gap to Rothbury, a route of around 15 miles.
Other nearby attractions include Wallington Hall and gardens where you can visit the home of one of the Wannie Line’s backers, the Trevelyans.
As you drive over to the Wallington estate look out for several railway bridges which were once part of the Wannie and Rothbury railway lines.