Monday, 13 February 2017

The closure of George Stephenson's birthplace cottage

I have written to the Hexham Courant this week, adding to the voices protesting against the National Trust's recent and wrong- headed decision to close George Stephenson's birthplace at Wylam in Northumberland as a visitor attraction. I reproduce my letter below, and invite comment.

I always mention in my talks on the subject that a visit to George Stephenson's birthplace provided the inspiration that led me to three years' research on George and his family, culminating in my novel Mr Stephenson's Regret.

I remember as if it were yesterday standing in that one small room the family shared, awed with the thought that in these humble surroundings the boy that became the man who changed the world grew up. If it were not for that visit, I doubt that I would have ever embarked on the work.

By contrast, I remember that later in my researches I travelled to Dial Cottage in West Moor where George and his son Robert lived for many years, almost to the cusp of George's first great triumph, Locomotion Number One, which ushered in the world of public railways on the Stockton and Darlington line. In this cottage, too, Stephenson invented the miners' safety lamp (not Sir Humphry Davy as usually credited). I say, by contrast, because here, to my amazement I was faced with a locked door, an empty building and windows caked with dirt from the passing traffic on the Great Lime Road.

I remember wiping the dirt from the window to peer inside at bare floorboards and, sadly, an empty sherry bottle lying on its side, presumably left by a recent down-and-out squatter. I was furious that day, and have given vent to my anger loudly and often since.

Ironically, after years of campaigning, Dial Cottage (which has in more recent times provided accommodation for the local school caretaker) is set to open as a visitor attraction, as it deserves to be. Yet we are faced with the closure of the wonderful birthplace cottage at Wylam.

It's all too easy to quote dwindling visitor numbers after a long period of, at best, tepid marketing of an attraction. In any case, visitor numbers should not be the final measure, the harbinger of a decision to close. What is important here is the significance of the place. There is no-one in our region (and few in the nation) more significant than George Stephenson. It is not only desirable that we protect his roots and his legacy - it is imperative.

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