This month we have had Volunteers’ Week and it seems appropriate to highlight and acknowledge the role of ordinary (extraordinary) people who labour long and hard to save, salvage, protect and preserve heritage precious to them and their local areas.
The past few weeks I have been working with groups of volunteers in Scotland and Northern Ireland who are doing just this. In one case the heritage was threatened by local authority’s tendency to demolition by neglect, in another by careless and directionless failed private ownership, in the third case, “inevitable progress” and a blindness to the future value of remnants of past technology. In all three cases, volunteers have worked indefatigably to secure the building, the grounds, the ship and the locomotives and rolling stock for the future and then to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the money to be able to share that heritage with other people. The value of the work these people do cannot be over-estimated. Without them, much of the local heritage of the UK would be lost forever.
When I first visited Whitehead, between Carrickfergus and Larne, County Antrim, three or four years ago, the site was a collection of sheds and tracks filled with rolling stock and railway paraphernalia and weed-infested backyard littered with rusting metal.
On my recent visit, the activity in the Whitehead engineering workshops is impressive, the apprentices and volunteers readying the site for its public opening later this year.
Since the 1960s extraordinary restoration work has been carried out in the unheated, uninsulated sheds, and volunteers worked on carriages and locomotives in very primitive conditions. As the local foundries closed down all over Northern Ireland, they set up their own, as heavy engineering workshops modernised or shut, they bought machinery and equipment from clearing auctions. And perhaps most wonderful of all, this voluntary group kept steam trains running on the mainlines throughout Ireland including the Portrush Flyer. Now with funding from HLF and Europe and the Northern Irish Tourist Board and others, the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland is about to open a heritage engineering and railway centre where people can see conservation and restoration work in action: heavy machinery dating from the glory days of British engineering in use, locomotives, diesel and steam, running and static, carriages, the older timber ones built like coaches, the cranes, wheel drop, forge and foundry in action, see the locomotives being turned on the newly installed turntable, smell the grease, hear the steam, the hammer, shunting, and of course ride on the trains.
All of this has been achieved by dedicated teams of volunteers who would not let Ireland’s steam and railway heritage disappear and the interpretation on the site will celebrate their extraordinary achievement by featuring them and their stories.
The same commitment was responsible for saving the 1953 paddle steamer Maid of the Loch from the scrapyard when she was left to rot. Sadly many of her fittings and equipment were stripped and stolen, as her owners, a private English-based company, went into receivership. The last paddle steamer builder on the Clyde, equipped with a massive steam engine and boilers to drive her two paddles, she was first built, then dismantled and transported piece by piece overland to Loch Lomond where she was reconstructed and operated on the loch until 1981. Having rescued her from the scrapyard, the volunteers have been opening her to the public on her pier at Balloch, using her for events and functions. Now the volunteers want to get her steaming again around Loch Lomond.
First they needed to get funding to restore the steam-driven Slipway and Winch House in order to slip her to determine the condition of her riveted steel hull. With that project successfully completed, they are in the process of developing their final application to the HLF to make this dream a reality. In glorious sunshine two weeks ago, we held our meeting on deck to discuss and plan the work they need to do (to conserve and restore the ship and the paddle wheels, to fit a new boiler, to engage people, schools, families, students in the project) to ensure a successful outcome.
The third project, the saving and restoration of Moat Brae, a Georgian townhouse on the River Nidd in Dumfries, is another triumph for a group of determined local people. Once a private house, then a nursing home, then derelict and threatened with demolition, part of the original garden had already been sold off for building housing.
But the empty boarded-up shell of the house with what was left of its river-side garden, overgrown and impenetrable, held a special story. Here J.M. Barrie had visited as a child, played and adventured in the garden with the children of the house. Like them, he was a student at Dumfries Academy next door. It was at Moat Brae that he experienced the wonder and freedom that became Neverland and Peter Pan. It was this connection and this story which meant Moat Brae should not be lost. Local people got together and saved the house and what was left of its grounds, raised money to replace the roof and secure the building. Then they set out to get HLF and other funding to realize their ambition of a Centre for Children’s Literature and a place where children and their adults could dream, play and adventure again. With funding secured, they are now ready to make that happen. In the meantime they have been using the building as place for their communities to visit, and the day I was there, displaying amazing students’ work from Dumfries and Galloway College.