TWENTY years ago, Darlington’s Brick Train sculpture was unveiled beside a supermarket car park next to a dual carriageway.

Sculptor David Mach said: "This is a gorgeous, sexy thing, and people are going to love it.”

The Northern Echo: TUCKED AWAY: The Brick Train today – the only other observer when Memories visited was a kestrel

Loading article content

TUCKED AWAY: The Brick Train today – the only other observer when Memories visited was a kestrel

It was very controversial, primarily because it cost £670,000 – money, said its critics, that would have been better spent elsewhere. Some people just didn’t like the look of it, with one correspondent to the Echo’s Hear All Sides offering to blow it to smithereens.

The 1990s were a time of extravagance in comparison to today’s austere climate. The National Lottery had started in 1994 and local councils were falling over themselves to spend some of its money in their neck of the woods. Nearly 2,000 works of art were installed across the country in the 1990s, with the Lottery stumping up about £15m for their construction. The craze peaked eight months after the Train was unveiled when the deeply controversial £800,000 Angel of the North was planted on an old pitbaths in Gateshead.

Train was the brainchild of Scottish sculptor David Mach, who had come to fame in the early 1980s by building a life-size model of a Polaris submarine out of old car tyres. It was exhibited on the South Bank and London as a statement against nuclear power and its notoriety grew when an opponent tried to set fire to it – he succeeded only in burning himself to death.

He based Train on the Mallard locomotive which, built in Doncaster, set a world speed record in 1938 by travelling at126mph. The sculpture could have gone anywhere in the country, but the birthplace of the railways was a good fit, and Morrisons was obliged by planning regulations to do something artistic at the new supermarket it was building at Morton Park.

In December 1995, The Northern Echo announced that the sculpture – then 150ft long, 30ft high, made of 350,000 bricks and costing £500,000 – was on its way. A few months later, after university students had run the designs through a “photogrammetry” computer programme, the cost of the project had gone up to £670,000, but the size had been reduced to 130ft by 23ft and the number of bricks was down to 180,000.

The Conservatives on Labour-run Darlington council were outraged. Led by Cllr Peter Jones, they called it “a monstrous white elephant…and inexcusable waste of money” and said the townspeople were being taken for a ride. For Labour, Cllr Dot Long pointed out that the money could only be spent on art and it was better coming to Darlington than going elsewhere.

Mr Mach, who was not one for understatement, said: “It is there to be part of the landscape and, in years to come, people will come to see Train in the same way they go to Trafalgar Square or the Pyramids.”

Mayor Gordon Plummer turned the first sod on November 20, 1996. Three generations of brickies from the same Middleton St George family – Stan Bell, 66, his son Peter and five-year-old grandson, Robert – laid the first bricks on December 18, 1996. Students from Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College prepared a time capsule, which included a copy of The Northern Echo (the paper’s editorial line was firmly against the train), to go inside it, and 20 bat bricks were installed to provide homes for endangered pipistrelles.

It was completed in 21 weeks and unveiled by Mr Mach and Lord Palumbo of Walbrook, the former Arts Council chairman, on June 23, 1997. Partly because of the controversy, the unveiling attracted national media attention – even international, as an Australian TV crew turned up a few weeks later. In the autumn, the manager of the Cornmill Centre, Albion Small, ascribed the increased number of shoppers to the high profile of the Train.

Twenty years on is a good time to revisit Train, as Memories did this week. It has weathered well, despite predictions that it would be ruined by the elements by 2000, although it needs to have the saplings weeded from its brickwork. The shrubs and grass around it are just about under control, although someone has recently tried to set fire to a neighbouring reed bed. And, of course, the information board has been ripped off.

It looks good – whoever thought bricks could billow as brilliantly as the clouds of smoke that they portray? It does add to the town’s individuality and its artistic flourish provides a neat contrast to the depressing soulessness of the neighbouring supermarkets and fast food outlets.

But it doesn’t feel lifesize – it doesn’t overwhelm the viewer with its enormity as the real Mallard did when it visited Shildon’s Locomotion museum a year or so ago.

And it is lost. It is lost amid a clutter of light industrial units and it is hidden behind an overgrowth of scrub. The last two brown signs that lead to it through the units appear to have been deliberately greyed out, making it hard to find, and ridiculously, from the A66, it is largely hidden by a hedge.

This may be why the only other viewer when Memories visited this week was a kestrel, high overhead.

The Brick Train is in the wrong place: how brilliant it would have been to have it bursting out of the change of level at Hopetown outside the Head of Steam Museum, or charging in full view alongside the East Coast Main Line at Bank Top, advertising Darlington’s place as the birthplace of the railways to all the passengers on the country’s busiest line.

But if it had been place anywhere else, Morrisons wouldn’t have made it happen. And surely it is better there than nowhere.

  • What do you think of the Brick Train, now that it has turned 20? Is it worthwhile or are we still wasting money by keeping the weeds down? Please email echo@nne.co.uk

BRICK TRAIN STATISTICS

Cost: £670,000

(National Lottery: £570,250. Morrisons: £40,000. Northern Arts: £30,000. Darlington Borough Council: £10,000. Sponsorship: £90,000)

Length: 130ft (39.6m)

Height: 23ft (7.05m)

Core: 170 cubic metres of concrete

Weight: 15,000 tons

Bricks: 181,754 Accrington Nori bricks (including 20 bat bricks)

Construction: It took 34 bricklayers, apprentices and labourers 21 weeks – this works out at 13,256 man hours at 4.5 minutes a brick

Unveiled: June 23, 1997