History lives on as traditional crafts carve a modern niche in Stockton

PUBLISHED: 18:24 12 April 2013 | UPDATED: 19:52 11 June 2013

NEL Apr Stockton

NEL Apr Stockton

Andrew Smith

History lives on as traditional crafts carve a modern niche in Stockton. Andrew Smith sees how the old blends seamlessly with the new in this bustling market town.

Stockton is steeped in history. A market town for more than 800 years, birthplace of the railway, a pioneer of engineering and a thriving centre for commerce in the valley of the River Tees, it has always embraced entrepreneurs and craftsmen.

And Stockton’s heritage is not only remembered but lives on in the modern town of today. While new business parks, office complexes and university campuses sit side by side on beautifully-reclaimed riverbanks overlooking an expanse of the Tees whose waters are constantly retained by a downstream barrage, traditional skills and enterprise survive at the recently renovated Preston Park Museum, located in 100 acres of manicured parkland on the outskirts of town.

Here you can see wooden toys made in the traditional manner and a working blacksmith’s shop. They are not just decorative wrapping for the many visitors to the Victorian Street of the museum; each is a long-established private business, surviving in the modern era thanks to the quality of its workmanship and personal service.

Bob Hodgson has been running The Toy Factory on the 1895-dated Victorian Street at Preston Park for 20 years. A former shipwright in the Royal Navy, Bob now carves and restores magnificent rocking horses and other toys out of solid pieces of hardwood, with the assistance of former electrical engineer Mike Nellist.

The small shop, stacked with rocking horses, Noah’s Arks, the odd dolls house and all manner of other wooden toys, is creating the antiques of the future, but also bringing new life to the genuine collector’s items of the past.

‘Look at this, it came in yesterday,’ said Bob, excitedly, pointing to a rather bedraggled-looking rocking horse on the floor at the rear of the shop. ‘It was built in the 1890s by G and J Lines Ltd, who later became the toymaker Triang. We know it’s authentic because of a stamp in the ironwork of the rocker. Also, when you scrape off a bit of the paint that has been applied over the years, the dappled original paintwork is unmistakeable.’

The owner has asked Bob to restore the rocking horse to its original condition, a task that will take several months of painstaking work. It represents a worthwhile investment in both time and money for, although Bob was reluctant to talk money, his estimate of the restored value of the toy could easily buy a small family car.

Whether it is in restoration or a new build, Bob and Mike use traditional tools to carve the graceful lines of their equine creations. ‘I have a ‘spokeshave’ that was my grandfather’s, still in use in the workshop almost every day,’ he said. It resembles a modern potato peeler, taking off slivers of the redwood Bob favours for his rocking horses with only fingertip pressure. The damage it could do to an actual fingertip doesn’t bear thinking about.

In addition to the toy business, Bob teaches wood carving at classes run by Tees Achieve, and passing on his skills gives him almost as much pleasure as restoring a unique Victorian heirloom.

‘Every year, 20 rocking horses are made by students of my courses who have never touched wood before,’ he boasts proudly.

Bob’s business was closed briefly last year while Preston Park, bequeathed to the people by industrial magnate Major Robert Ropner in 1890, underwent a £7million refurbishment, restoration and redevelopment.

Through its treasure chest of exhibits, the museum tells the story of the local area through imaginative and interactive displays that reflect the past through the very latest in 21st century presentation. There are 3D film presentations and the museum has acquired costumes used in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.

Outside the museum building, which comprises display halls, the open-air Victorian Street and enchanting conservatory tearoom, Preston Park features wide areas of parkland, a daunting adventure playground, the Quarry Wood nature reserve and a Victorian kitchen garden.

Further along the street from The Toy Factory, Peat Oberon has run a blacksmiths shop for the past 35 years.

The public get to see Peat’s traditional workshop, with glowing forges, anvils, soot, grime and literally thousands of tools and metalwork objects used or made by this master craftsman and his team.

‘The only thing we can’t do is shoe horses,’ says Peat. ‘We’re not licensed.’

Just beyond the museum’s public access area, however, Peat has a second workshop equipped with the latest in metalworking tools and technology, where he can produce work to the most exacting modern-day requirements, including a fire table unique in the UK.

The 73-year-old blacksmith, who hasn’t thought of retiring, holds an illustrious Silver Medal awarded by the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, ‘and they don’t give those out lightly,’ he explains.

Peat is also passing on the skills of his trade through his School of Blacksmithing courses – and candidates on the beginners’ course are guaranteed to have great fun and succeed in creating three items to take home without any previous experience. Go to www.school-of-blacksmithing.co.uk for more details.

When the old and the new on show at Preston Park Museum have been digested – or maybe purchased – Stockton town centre is only a five-minute drive away, with its traditional market every Wednesday and Saturday and a smaller market on Fridays.

The Castlegate and Wellington Square shopping centres and the quaint Shambles Market Hall boast a wide range of national and bespoke high street outlets providing an excellent choice for shoppers with a specific purchase in mind or who just want to enjoy browsing.

Nearby Teesside Park offers an excellent range of out-of-town retail shopping, leisure, dining and entertainment.

And there is a good choice of bars and restaurants along the Stockton riverside, the main shopping thoroughfares and down the intimate lanes and alleys of this established and very attractive town, where the past literally meets the present and the future.

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