Friday, 10 February 2012

Back to George's roots

Outside George Stephenson's birthplace, Wylam, Northumberland
Today I went back to George Stephenson's birthplace in Wylam, Northumberland at the invitation of the News Post Leader for a photograph to illustrate their feature on Mr Stephenson's Regret. It was my first return since researching for the book, and I felt a pleasing sense of oneness with the place, even though we couldn't go inside today as the National Trust don't open the cottage until the supposedly warmer days of March.

Don't imagine the Stephensons had all that cottage space behind me to live in. In fact the entire family, Old Bob and Mabel with what were eventually six children, lived in the one tiny room located where you can see the shutter just above my left shoulder. There was only one bed, with some of the children sleeping in a shakedown underneath. I can tell, you it's a very modest space indeed. This picture is taken from the likely position of the bed in the room.

Inside the Stephenson cottage
This eighteenth century cottage (George was born in 1781) has been beautifully preserved, and the fact there is no vehicular access for half a mile along the track where it is located means that you get a real sense of how it must have been over 200 years ago. The track follows the route of the wagon way that used to roll past the house: wagons drawn by horses in those days of course, not the working steam engines introduced around 1815 by George.

Artist's impression
George Stephenson's birthplace is by no means the only destination for visitors on the trail of the Stephensons in the North East. In the period covered by much of my novel, George and Robert lived in West Moor, Killingworth, in what became known as Dial Cottage because of the sundial father and son built above the doorway, and is there yet.

Dial Cottage
Robert's mother Fanny died in that cottage, as did his baby sister. Robert was subsequently brought up there by his Aunt Nelly, and it was only much later that George married again, to his long-time sweetheart Betty Hindmarsh. Again, don't imagine this cottage was then as big as it is now. Though George eventually extended it to four rooms as his position with the collieries improved, in the early years the cottage comprised one room and a garret reached by a ladder.  On the track near to the cottage George worked on his first locomotive Blucher while in the fields the boy Robert tried to emulate Benjamin Franklin's famous kite experiment and almost got himself struck down by lightning.

Dial Cottage is now on a major road called the Great Lime Road, but was once part of the much more romantic-sounding Paradise Row. I think it's a shame that North Tyneside Council have not preserved and furnished the interior of this cottage as the National Trust have George's birthplace, especially as Dial Cottage has the greater claim to importance in the Stephenson history, but there is a plaque, the sundial, and you can peer through the windows into the bare interior - though the last time I did I noticed an empty bottle of cheap sherry, evidence I guess of recent habitation by a down-and-out.

To be fair to North Tyneside Council they are involved, along with Tyne & Wear Museums with the Stephenson Railway Museum in nearby North Shields, which is home to an early Stephenson locomotive Billy. Having just checked the website I note that today is the start of a Half Term Family Festival which is running for the next month, so now's the time to take the kids - there's a train ride to look forward to.

Travel from North Tyneside to nearby Newcastle and you will find plenty of interesting Stephenson stuff, mainly in the vicinity of Newcastle Central Station. In Forth Street behind the station is the building that housed Robert Stephenson and Company, where Locomotion No.1 and The Rocket were built. Until recently, at certain times you could go inside the building and see part of the works restored by the Robert Stephenson Trust, and an excellent display. Unfortunately, private developers have now kicked the Trust out of the building, despite efforts at a reprieve. Ironically, the developers are labelling their commercial opportunity 'The Stephenson Quarter'.

Not far from the front of the Central Station is the Newcastle Assembly Rooms, now an entertainment and function venue, which was the original home of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society where Robert studied in the library and George demonstrated his miner's safety lamp several months before Sir Humphry Davy came up with his own 'invention'. A few steps across the road is the existing Lit & Phil Building, opened in 1825 and still housing the largest independent library outside London. The adult Robert saved the Lit & Phil from debt, became its President, and left a legacy. Next door is the Mining Institute where I researched parts of the Stephenson story from original documents and records. Right outside the door is a statue of George himself, dressed somewhat incongruously in classical robes.

Stephenson monument in Westgate Road, Newcastle
There are so many other places you can visit. There's Newburn Church (not always open), where George wed first Fanny Henderson, and later Betty Hindmarsh. There's 5 Greenfield Place (now a private home), where Robert and his new wife (also called Fanny) set up home in Newcastle. Later you should visit Darlington, home of the first public railway, and specifically Darlington  Railway Museum, which holds George's Locomotion No. 1, built for the opening of the Stockton and Darlington line. If you are travelling north, take in the fabulous Royal Border Bridge at Berwick, built by Robert to complete the railway from London to Scotland and thus fulfil his father's great dream; also Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Ashington where the Newburn marriage registers are kept. But on no account should you leave Newcastle without walking along the High Level Bridge at road level, or perhaps better still wandering down to the Quayside to appreciate this fine piece of Robert Stephenson industrial architecture in all its glory, and see it in context with the other great bridges that span the River Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead. Is there a finer sight in England? See the pictures below, and my Writer in the North masthead.

Newcastle High Level Bridge, with the Swing Bridge in the foreground
Tyne Bridge in foreground, Swing, High Level and railway bridges behind
Newcastle bridges at night


  1. David, this is a lovely and inspiring piece. It both paints a portrait of the Stephensons as people, and outlines the legacy they left. I'm really looking forward to visiting the cottage at Wylam when it opens in the spring, I bet you can lost in the mists of time there!

  2. Thanks, Emma, I know you'll like it. It won't take you long, mind - their living room was small.