The Mysterious Tunnel of the Marshall Meadows Seaweed Railway

marshall-meadows-seaweed-railway-3 (Image: Berwick Time Lines)

As Heritage Railway wrote of Roger Jermy’s fascinating book North Northumberland’s Minor Railways: “If you delight in railway backwaters, you don’t get anything more esoteric than the Marshall Meadows Seaweed Railway at Berwick-on-Tweed, a fisherman’s line which ran in a tunnel beneath the ECML before it was diverted due to cliff collapse.”

As the name suggests, this curious remnant of Britain’s lost railway history can be found at Marshall Meadows, immediately south of the Scottish border. But was it, in fact, a railway? Or has that label been ascribed to it in more recent times through an incorrect interpretation of secondhand sources?

england-scotland-border (Image: Callum Black)

What is known is that, in days gone by, kelp was commonly gathered from the beaches and spread on nearby fields, its rich mineral content providing an ideal fertilizer. It’s therefore been suggested that the 240 ft long tunnel was constructed in a bid to allow farmers to transport seaweed from the shore to the headland above, since the rugged coastline at Marshall Meadows which makes access difficult.

Bored through solid sandstone, the tunnel passed beneath a stretch of the East Coast Main Line, which had been built by the North British Railway in 1846, and was later moved to the west due to a cliff collapse. It runs at an incline of around 40 degrees from the headland and emerges some 13 metres above the chilly North Sea.

marshall-meadows-seaweed-railway-2 (Image: Berwick Time Lines)

Believed to date to around 1840, the tunnel is roughly two metres high and between two and three metres in width. The headland entrance is wider than the remainder of the passage, and may have housed a steam-powered haulage mechanism to transport mineral wagons from the coast to the clifftop above.

The railway connection is thought to have been made by James Logan Mack in his 1926 book The Border Line. Roger Jermy quotes Mack as saying: “This curious tunnel was constructed about a hundred years ago to enable seaweed to be transported from the shore to be spread as manure on the adjacent farms. It was laid with rails, the motive power required to haul up the trucks being obtained from a stream, which at a later date was diverted and the tunnel rendered useless for its original purpose.”

marshall-meadows-seaweed-railway (Image: Tom Brewis)

Today, however, any evidence of rails has long since vanished, and the mysterious Marshall Meadows Seaweed Railway has all but evaporated into the annals of a different epoch. Jermy, in fact, questions Mack’s claims that it was a railway at all, querying whether local farmers would have hewn a tunnel through solid rock, laid track and installed the associated machinery needed to operate it.

In his book, Mack also referenced a jetty at the base of the cliff, which was reportedly “disused” by 1926, and likely played a part in the salmon fishing industry that once thrived in the bay beneath Marshall Meadows. It’s likely the tunnel was used by fisherman bringing their catch ashore, as well as the transportation of sandstone quarried from the sheer cliffs. Local folk tales of smugglers using the tunnel have been largely discounted.

Though it seems unlikely that a Marshall Meadows Seaweed Railway was constructed exclusively by local farmers looking to capitalize on the minerals drawn from the abundance of kelp, a combination of uses and, especially, the salmon industry, would perhaps justify its construction.

marshall-meadows-seaweed-railway-tunnel-entrance-2 (Image: Richard Webb)

But despite the tantalising clues, evidence that rails were ever installed remains elusive, and their sources remain unverified. As Roger Jermy writes, the absence of definitive proof means the distinction of being England’s most northerly industrial railway remains with Dewar’s Warehouse in nearby Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Though few records of its existence remain in the public domain, and those that do are seldom searched for, the old tunnel has nevertheless endured in the border cliffs. Whatever its purpose may have been, the so-called Marshall Meadows Seaweed Railway echoes a time when little-known industrial tramways and esoteric wagonways were commonplace across rural areas, and has become something of an enigma in its own right.

marshall-meadows-seaweed-railway-tunnel-entrance (Image: Google Earth; Marshall Meadows Seaweed Railway tunnel entrance, circled)

The abandoned tunnel entrance now lies within a caravan park behind a country house hotel of the same name. When the East Coast Main Line was re-routed slightly due to coastal erosion, the original alignment became a path which now runs directly between the caravans, and forms part of a scenic walk between the border and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Related – Explore the Abandoned Wagonway Running Beneath Newcastle upon Tyne


About the author: Tom




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