March 2009 is a very special date for railway enthusiasts throughout the county as it marks the 150th Anniversary of the opening of the railway line from Belfast to Downpatrick, and the 140th of its opening to Newcastle.
At 8 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, 23rd March, 1859, the first train bound for the county town left Belfast, and arrived in the town at 9.10 am. This marked an event that would change the face of Downpatrick forever.
Later at 9.20am a second train left for Downpatrick, with the return journey not until 6.30pm in the evening, stopping at all intermediate stations except Knock.
Railway Vice Chairman John Wilson said, ‘For nearly a hundred years, the old Belfast & County Down Railway provided a vital transport service and way of life for hundreds if not thousands of people in County Down.’
He continues, ‘Following the Second World War, in the name of economy the main line was closed on 15th January 1950. Many people thought the age of railways in the area was gone for ever.’
But, the railways must have left their mark on the people of Downpatrick, because in 1982 a proposal was made to resurrect a section of the derelict line to create a heritage railway. In 1985 that dream became reality when the scheme got off the ground and by 1987 trains were running again over a short stretch of newly laid track.
Now this reincarnation of the old railway, the Downpatrick & County Down Railway, is paying homage to its predecessor and holding a series of events throughout March and the rest of the year to mark this special anniversary.
Mr. Wilson explains, ‘On the Sunday 22nd there will be a re-enactment of the ‘official opening’ of the line at 2.15pm – open to the public – when the train will arrive into the town station along that very same line that was traversed in 1859 to the sounds of trumpets and fanfare’ before adding, ‘although obviously not the whole way from Belfast!’
‘We will have a Victorian re-enactor to give passengers a speech as the BCDR chairman of 1859, William R. Anketell, using the text of what was actually said back when the line was opened.’ Mr. Wilson continues, ‘Then on Friday 27th March at half seven in the evening, the anniversary celebrations culminate in a celebratory dinner and illustrated talk in the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, to mark that anniversary.’
‘The extension of the line to Newcastle opened 140 years ago on 25th March 1869,’ states Mr. Wilson, ‘and as the hotel was built by the Belfast & County Down Railway it is a very appropriate venue and we are very pleased to have the enthusiast support of Hastings Hotels in our celebration.’
Dr Billy Hastings, Chairman of Hastings Hotels speaking at the launch of the event in Monday in the Slieve Donard Hotel, added, ‘The vision of the Belfast & Co. Down Railway to secure the most beautiful piece of land in Ireland, in the Newcastle Bay area, overlooking St John’s lighthouse and beneath the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne and helping build the Royal Co Down Golf Club was inspirational.
He continues, ‘I admire the strength of character of the BCDR to design and build the finest hotel in Ireland at that time, and to set brand new standards for the hotel industry. The vision and leadership in developing that which was constructed 110 years still commands the respect of the travelling public and retains its position as the premier resort and spa in the Island of Ireland. ‘
Dr. Hastings added, ‘The volunteers of the Downpatrick & County Down Railway have dedicated themselves to keeping this legacy alive, and we have always had a great partnership and I congratulate them on their celebrations this month.’
Work is also progressing in Downpatrick Station for a permanent exhibition on the BCDR, and there are also plans for a special 150th Anniversary book of photographs of the railway around Downpatrick from the DCDR’s archive.