ON Valentine’s Day 20 years ago Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North was wheeled to the top of a hill next to the A1 in Gateshead starting a long love affair with the region.

Boasting a wingspan greater than that of a Boeing 767 and dominating the landscape it is seen by an estimated 90,000 people a day.

While the 200-tonne sculpture is a firm fixture on the landscape now, it almost never got off the ground, meeting strong local opposition and facing initial engineering difficulties. And its very existence came down to one casting vote when a panel met to decide on shortlist of two – the emerging artist Gormley and the more famous and knighted, Sir Anthony Caro, who would later co-design London’s Millennium Bridge.

On the day of the meeting to recommended one for approval, only three of Gateshead Council’s Art in Public Places panel’s members turned up to vote.

One opted for Gormley and one for Caro. Sid Henderson, the panel’s chairman, cast the deciding vote.

Recalling the fateful day, he said: “Caro did a thing related to the bridges and it was very clever, but the Angel had something about it which was a welcoming. Also it was using engineering skills from an engineering area which was dying.

“But it wasn’t a done deal and had to go through various stages. Within the Labour group some people didn’t like the idea of it being an angel for religious reasons.

“After that it was in the council’s hands and thank goodness they stuck with it.”

It got politically nasty too with vitriolic opposition from Liberal Democrats.

He added: “I was abused by some of the comments made in newspapers sometimes. And when I went to the local pub people would say, “what bloody waste of money. what the hell do you want to do that for”.

Before it was erected, more than 5,000 residents signed a “Stop the Statue” petition, arguing the £800,000 could be better spent.

Mr Henderson, the then chairman of the council’s libraries and arts committee, said: “But what it did do was create an interest and it created a debate about what is art. Is it art? And it got the man in the street starting to talk about it, and that aspect of it was so important to me.”

The former councillor and Gateshead Alderman was keen to stress his was but a small role in the genesis of the Angel.

He said: “A long time before my time there were some very astute and wise councillors they thought they would take art to people because we only had a small gallery.

“We had this super site along the A1 and they thought they had to have something special there and decided to set up panel.”

Of the £800,000, the Arts Council’s Lottery Fund gave £584,000, the European Regional Development Fund gave £150,000, Northern Arts gave £45,000, with local business sponsorship, as well.

Mr Henderson, now 87, said: “I am sure the Angel acted as a catalyst for getting money for Sage Gateshead and Baltic Centre of for Contemporary Art, bringing with them millions of pounds of investment and hundreds of jobs. It’s about changing the North of England’s identify. We are losing the identity of our town’s because of the way things are moving. The Angel of the North is a statement that ‘this is Gateshead’. From a tourism point of view it has certainly proved its worth. Educationally, it was as important at the time as it is now in developing the arts in education on Tyneside.

“There were 30 odd schools took part in writing and doing poems when it was erected. And those children will remember it. It was a big plus for them to meet up with Gormley and have some inspiration possibly from him. And how often do we get that in a state school.”

He added: “I am absolutely thrilled that it has been such a huge success. The amazing thing was the skill of those blokes when it was dropped into place, with just millimetres to spare. The workers with Hartlepool Steel Fabrications will have all retired now. But they can walk past there with pride and say, ‘I took a part in that’.

“I went to the factory and saw it being made. The weather resistant Cor-ten steel is a miracle. It’s really changing colour – at dawn and different times of day.

“Gormley was against it being lit up by lamps. It’s a work of art and has to be seen in different lights. The only disadvantage is that it is is starting to be obscured by trees and someone needs to look at that.”

A giant replica of his football shirt was draped across the Angel by Toon fans before the FA Cup final in 1998.

In 2002, the Angel was voted one of the eight “Wonders of Britain”, alongside landmarks such as The Houses of Parliament, Stonehenge and Windsor Castle.

While Mr Henderson is keen to play down his role he does take some pride in Gormley calling him the “godparent of the Angel”.

He said: “Gormley introduced me 20 years ago to his mum sitting on a bench, watching a show beside the Angel and said to her ‘this guy here is the godparent to the Angel’.”