Perhaps George Stephenson, the engineer who’s best remembered for his pioneering work on steam locomotives and for overseeing the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, would deem it a tad foolhardy that I’ve walked 10 miles from Gateshead to take a look inside the cottage where he was born?
After all, there’s a perfectly good rail service connecting Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead with Wylam, and the train journey takes just 18 minutes. Would he be insulted that I hadn’t made use of a transport system that he helped establish?
Walking seemed a great idea when I set out. On a fine autumn Sunday the prospect of a walk along the River Tyne and through verdant fields and parkland represented an opportunity to grab both fresh air and exercise. I feel knackered now though!
That said, if it wasn’t for the painful thumping of my tired feet and aching in my calves I’d probably find standing outside of his birthplace idyllic. The white-painted stone cottage stands half-a-mile outside the village of Wylam in rural Northumberland. Birds are chirping in the trees that tower over the isolated house. Leaves rustle as branches sway in the gentle breeze.
Located by Wylam Waggonway
The mud track that I’ve been walking along for the past couple of miles was once a waggonway used for transporting coal mined in Wylam Colliery. When Stephenson was born, on 9 June 1781, the waggons that ran on it would have been pulled by ponies. Later steam engines would have taken the strain.
The cottage, which today stands surrounded by a chest-high hedge, has been a National Trust property since 1948. I’m greeted at the door by Nicole, whose gentle accent gives her away a native of Woolongong, New South Wales, rather than a native Tynesider.
To my surprise, three-quarters of the cottage is today a private home. George Stephenson lived the first eight years of his life in the cottage, which was then the home for four families whose breadwinners worked in the local colliery. Accommodation was provided as one of the perks of the job. When George’s father moved to a different colliery the family was forced to move.
A home for seven people
Nicole ushers me and three other visitors into a room that I cross in five steps. The youngest person in the room, a local girl with missing milk teeth, is researching a school project about Stephenson’s life.
We hear how seven Stephensons lived in the room; George’s parents and four siblings. A gas lamp hangs in a corner of the room that was simultaneously their kitchen, living room and bedroom. The hearth would have been used to cook and provided heat.
Grey flagstones form the floor. A wood, box-style bed with curtains occupies another of corner of the room. When seven people were at home the room must have felt crowded.
Books about George Stephenson
Books about George Stephenson’s life and achievements stand on a table by the door, under a framed picture of an austere looking Victorian gentlemen in a suit. From these humble beginnings Stephenson, a man who would today be described as a self-starter, achieved fame and helped revolutionise the world’s freight and public transport systems.
With my feet thumping from the walk I’ll be heading to Wylam Station to board the next train heading eastwards. I hope he’d have approved.
Since this post was published George Stephenson’s Birthplace, which was managed by the National Trust, has been closed. Look out for news about when the building will reopen.