Northern Ireland

NI's golden age of railways explored in new TV series

Barra at Ballynoe Stone Circle, County Down, which he said is like Northern Ireland's "very own version of Stonehenge"
Image caption Barra at Ballynoe Stone Circle, County Down, which he said is like Northern Ireland's "very own version of Stonehenge"

When the first train left Great Victoria Street in Belfast for Lisburn, County Antrim, in 1839 it changed things forever.

The trains were fast, dangerous and exciting. At one point, almost everyone in what was to become Northern Ireland lived within five miles of a station.

Trains for me are a way of getting from A-to-B, but many people love the golden age of the railways and I wanted to find out why.

In the first programme of Walk The Line, a three-part TV series for BBC NI, I travelled along what was the Belfast and County Down line.

I had hoped I would find some hidden treasures as I walked the line, and I did.

Image caption Barra started his journey at Downpatrick Railway Museum

'Day trips'

For example, Ballynoe Stone Circle, in County Down, is a version of Stonehenge.

Historical monuments like this had their own dedicated halts with railway companies tailoring day trips and destinations for potential passengers.

And where I start my journey, at Downpatrick Railway Museum, I discovered the shell of what was once a very regal carriage.

Built in 1897, it was used to transport royalty during visits to Ireland.

I did not get the chance to sit in it, but I did get to sample a third class carriage which has been lovingly restored.

"Even the finish for a third class carriage was very high," said Robert Gardiner, a BBC colleague who works at the museum.

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Media captionRobert Gardiner and Barra Best take a look at an old carriage that ran on the old Belfast and County Down railway line

"You can almost see a bit of the Titanic in the design of the carriages at the time."

He was not wrong. I would be more than happy to travel like that today.

On the main line between Downpatrick and Newcastle the train stopped at a halt in Ballykinler where there has been an army camp for centuries.

'Gutter girls'

Here I take a walked through a network of forgotten training trenches used to prepare soldiers before they left for WW1.

Onwards to Ardglass and I was told the great story of the 'gutter girls'.

They would travel to the County Down town from as far away as County Donegal to gut herring as it was delivered by the fishermen.

Image copyright Downpatrick and County Down Railway
Image caption The 'gutter girls' would travel to Ardglass from as far away as County Donegal to gut herring as it was delivered by the fishermen

Jewel in the crown

Ardglass has been one of Ireland's main fishing ports for centuries and the railway allowed the fresh fish to be whisked away to market.

Finally, we reached the jewel in the crown of the County Down railway - Newcastle.

Here I discovered that the railway company actually built one of its main hotels.

What is less well-known is that the Royal County Down Golf course also owes its existence to the railway.

A battle between two giants of the railway for access to the seaside town led to its transformation from a once genteel place for the well-to-do into a popular holiday resort.

Image copyright NAtional library of Ireland
Image caption Newcastle was the jewel in the crown of the County Down railway

The Walk The Line series reveals the motivation behind why the railways were built, how they revolutionised the local areas and what signalled the end of the line for so many routes.

Nowadays, there is often little evidence left of where the tracks used to be - unless you know where to look.

Hidden treasures

Some have been transformed into paths for walkers and cyclists, while others have been completely reclaimed by nature.

In the second programme, I took a journey through Armagh, finding out how a day trip to the seaside led to Europe's worst rail disaster at the time.

The third and final programme went to Fermanagh where I discovered one of the quirkiest railway museums in the world.

Walk The Line starts on Monday 13 October at 19:30 BST on BBC One NI.