Planes, trains and cranes attract visitors to Washington
PUBLISHED: 11:38 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 18:03 20 February 2013
You could be forgiven for thinking Washington is simply a New Town with a large shopping centre surrounded by numerous housing and industrial estates. Well, that is true to an extent but Washington has so much more to offer, as Barbara Mason discover
The North East Aircraft Museum, the Bowes Railway and the Washington Wetland Centre will all fascinate the casual observer and the specialist alike, not least because the people involved at these places are all passionate about their planes, trainsand cranes (of the feathered variety).
Our Crested Screamers are especially fond of the Sunderland International Air-show, laughs Gill Pipes, Trading and Customer Services manager of the Washington Wetland Centre.
Theyre from Bolivia and when they scream you can hear them up to five miles away. They make a real racket when the planes and helicopters fly over, says Gill, adding: They like the Chinooks best, with that sort of specialist expertise you only get from people brimful of enthusiasm.
You wont find any Chinooks at the North East Aircraft Museum so at least the Bolivian Crested Screamers should be relatively quiet for the remainder of the year. What you will see in the NEAM though is the biggest aviation collection in the North East.
The museum began in 1974 when a group of vintage aircraft enthusiasts met at the old Sunderland airport, itself formerly RAF Usworth, near what is now the Nissan car plant. Dragonflies abound at the nearby Washington Wetland Centre and perhaps appropriately it was a Dragonfly helicopter which was the aircraft museums first purchase, closely followed by the first jet fighter to travel through the Tyne Tunnel - admittedly, rather ignomiously, on the back of the lorry transporting it to the museum.
Over the decades the museum has expanded to the point where there is now a superb collection of aircraft on display. Those of you with an aviation anorak in the family should get him or her to the museum as soon as possible. You could probably leave them there for a week or two and theyd not notice youve gone.
However, chances are youd enjoy a wander around yourself to admire craft such as the giant Vulcan XL319 one of the most famous UK military aircraft. A distinctive triangular-shaped 111 feet wingspan on an aircraft an inch shorter than 100 feet in length means the Vulcan is a plane you simply cannot miss. Capable of carrying nuclear bombs in its day, thankfully it never dropped them.
The fastest aircraft ever built in Britain - the English Electric Lightning F.53 ZF594, which had a top speed of 1,500 mph, is another prize exhibit, as is the Luton Minor BAPC-97 G-AFUG, an aircraft built between 1937 and 1944 in a miners cottage in Stanley, County Durham, by Mr Fredrick Brown. How did he get it out of the front door you may well wonder? That can be your first question if you take a trip to Washington to see those magnificent men and their flying machines.
There is just as much to fascinate you at the Bowes Railway. Its one of the oldest railways anywhere in the world, dating back to 1826 and originally laid out by George Stephenson. This was to serve the new pit being sunk at Springwell Village, the original line running from Blackfell to Springwell with extensions to surrounding areas duly following.
The general manager of the Bowes Railway is John Young, who has been employed there for 14 years. He is very protective of the railway arguing: Its a working railway, and always has been, because it was attached to Springwell Pit. Its not a theme park. Weve no interest in developing sidelines such as theming engines like Thomas the Tank, for instance. What were about is protecting the heritage of one of the oldest railways in the world right here in the North East. The Bowes Railway opened the year after the Stockton to Darlington railway and, just because its not as famous, because it wasnt a passenger railway, doesnt make it any less important historically.
As the only operational standard gauged rope-hauled railway in the world, the Bowes railway is unique but it wouldnt survive without the help of those who deeply appreciate its place in our industrial heritage.
We rely very heavily on our volunteers, says John Young. There are ten who all have specialist skills. Many have worked in the pits and the forge and carry on dwindling skills such as specialist wood turning and metalworking, the latter being especially useful in the chain-makers shop where chains for the steam locos were made.
As with the North East Aircraft Museum, the Bowes Railway can make use of what others can see as junk. Neville Wheeler, for instance, is a former employee of Network Rail who managed to acquire level crossing gates from a railway that was closing down, much to volunteer Paul Youngs delight. Were really pleased with them, especially as one man can operate them whereas our old ones needed several people to open and close them.
Continuing the Washington success stories is the Washington Wetland Centre. This is one of nine wetland centres in the UK run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, originally founded in 1946 by Sir Peter Scott. Covering over 100 acres, none of the ponds and lakes are natural but the Washington site, which opened in 1975, was the first purpose-built captive breeding facility operated by the WWT and is the only one specifically designed to provide comfortable public viewing.
I thought Id pop along for a couple of hours one Sunday. Five hours later, I still hadnt seen everything but Id had a brilliant day I would thoroughly recommend. We try and manage places as close to their normal habitats as possible, explains Gill Pipes, who demonstrates that she is as good as her word by pointing out the mini-Andes the Wetland Centres own imitation mountain range created for some of their South American residents.
Theres always something different to see. Even on Boxing Day we have babies from black necked swans. Theyre Australian and unfortunately no ones told them they dont live in Australia any more, adds Gill.
Its not just the Aussie swans who can forget where they are. Its easy to forget you are just five minutes from the A1 or A19, especially when you witness unforgettable sights such as the heronry. Delighted to note a pair of herons and then another on the banks of a lake, I suddenly realised there were around 40 herons sitting in the trees opposite. This is Washington, but not as you know it
The North East Aircraft Museum, the Bowes Railway and the Washington Wetland Centre are all tremendous places right on your doorstep. If youve never been or you once went ages ago, theyre all definitely worth a visit.
Planes: North East Aircraft Museum
Old Washington Road, SR5 3HZ. Telephone: 0191 519 0662, www.neam.org.uk
Open daily 10am to 5pm except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day.
Trains: Bowes Railway
Springwell, NE9 7QJ. Telephone: 0191 416 1847, www.bowesrailway.co.uk
As well as being open on special operating days, the site is open 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday. Refreshments available on operating days.
Cranes: Washington Wetland Centre
Pattinson, Washington, NE38 8LE. Telephone: 0191 416 5454, Info.email@example.com
Open every day except Christmas Day. 9.30am - 4.40pm winter, and until 5.30pm summer. Terrific caf with much home produced food using ingredients grown on site. Gift shop.