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Steelmaking brought 7,000 jobs and prosperity to a small hamlet on a County Durham hillside. Steve Newman visits Consett and nearby Shotley Bridge and discovers that the past is still remembered with pride and affection
The North East landscape is littered with lost historical sites.
Where castles, factories and thriving villages once stood, now only flat grass is to be found with an occasional track or mound revealing their past existence.
Surely, the most amazing of these is to be found at the end of the main street looking west at Consett. The large 700-acre open space has only one or two tarmac lanes giving the clue that not too long ago 7,000 people worked here at one of the biggest steelworks in Europe.
Until 1840, Consett - or Conside as it was then known - was just a tiny hamlet probably named from the Old English for 'side of the hilltop'. The town is perched on the steep eastern bank of the River Derwent and owes its origins to industrial development arising from lead mining in the area.
Then, almost overnight, the Derwent Iron Company transformed this small group of buildings with a population of 196 into the iron and steel town of Consett, with a population that had grown to 5,000 by 1841.
By 1875 the works had become the largest producer of iron ship plates used in the yards of the Tyne and Wear, as well as supplying the railway industry.
However, there was a price to pay for this and it came in the form of what was known locally as the 'Red Menace'. The great chimneys of the steel works spewed forth a red cloud on a regular basis that covered the houses, washing and cars with a red film. In the winter Consett even had red snow!
'I can remember when I was doing my National Service, I would get back on leave into Newcastle at 1 o'clock in the morning,' said Mike Curran, who was born and bred in the town. 'The first bus wasn't until 5.30 so I would walk to Consett. You couldn't get lost as you just followed the red glow that filled the sky.When you went to Blackpool you could spot the cars from Consett - no matter how clean they looked the red dust from the steelworks was still clogging up the treads of the tyres.'
By the 1960s Consett was making some of the best quality steel in the world but on September 12, 1980, the steelworks were shut down, ending nearly 150 years of iron and steelmaking.
Today, Consett is a town of 27,000 people and is the administrative centre of the district of Derwentside. There is still an air of the deprivation the town suffered when the steelworks closed but also an ever increasing aura of renewal. Pedestrianisation, indoor shopping malls such as the Derwent Centre and new buildings springing up in the town are complemented by the new housing developments that have been built on parts of the steelworks site and surrounding area.
Plans are afoot for the large space of the old grassed-over steelworks to be covered by Genesis Way, a multimillion pound development scheme to enhance the development of the town even more. These are said to include new recreational and 24-hour shopping facilities.
The steelworks played an integal part in the history of the town and are rightly not forgotten, with several examples of intriguing public art using materials from the site scattered aroud the town. Among these are the Terris Novalis sculptures, which overlook the steelworks site. The Turner prize-winning works consisting of a stainless steel theodolite and an engineer's level are nearly 7m tall and built on the old Stanhope and Tyne railway line, said to be the earliest commercial railway in the country.
Other links to the steelworks still survive with the Grey Mare pub, said to be the oldest in the town producing it's own beers from the micro brewery in the old stables. Currently, four ales are being brewed on site in the New Consett Ale Works brewery - all appropriately named Red Dust,White Hot, Cast Iron and Steel Town.
However, with the steelworks now gone, visitors and local residents alike have realised the beauty of the picturesque views over the Derwent Valley.
As a result, Consett and nearby Shotley Bridge are becoming popular places to live for commuters from Durham and Tyne & Wear. In fact, Shotley Bridge and Consett have a lot in common. Both are seeing new housing developments and both arose from the development of the steel industry in the Derwent Valley, which in Shotley's case was started by immigrant German cutlers and swordmakers from Solingen in 1691.
Shotley Bridge was probably chosen because of the rich iron deposits in the area and because of the fastflowing waters of the River Derwent. Shotley became the heart of Britain's sword-making industry, a heritage marked today by the sign of the Crown and Crossed Sword's pub.
To show that things always go full circle, when Wilkinson Sword stopped making swords, the machinery, tools and equipment was purchased by the oldest, producing sword factory in the world, that is at Solingen, in Germany. The village is set in very attractive countryside, surrounded by woodland.
Shotley is believed to be a corruption of Scotley and is thought to mean the ley, or woodland clearing of a Scotsman. 'I have lived in Consett and Shotley all my life,' said Gerard Murphy 'and things are definitely improving.Many couples are moving down from Newcastle as they can get a far better house for the money and they can commute. Also, the local people are very friendly and the countryside round here is absolutely beautiful.'
Shotley Spa waters were noted for their curative powers and this pretty village, nestling on the banks of the River Derwent, boasted a large flourmill, paper mill and even its own zoo at one time. There is still a village feel to the place and it reminds me a little of Corbridge.
Certainly, the niche shops and swish restaurants are starting to arrive to compliment the upmarket housing developments that are springing up around the village and all along the riverbanks.