DARLINGTON has appointed its first heritage ambassador who is charged with championing the town’s history.

He is Cllr Mike Renton, 33, who chose his family home on the east side of town because it is just a few hundred metres from the trackbed of the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

“Heritage is that important to me,” he said.

His interest in history was fired by his father taking him on First and Second World War battlefield tours of the Somme and Ypres and Arnhem when he was young.

“There really is something about that, about being able to stand there with your children and to see and touch where a historic event happened and tell them about it,” said Cllr Renton, who has three children aged between two and six. “I feel it is so important to pass these things down, otherwise they are gone.”

The Northern Echo: Cllr Mike Renton with D6898, the last diesel engine to be built in Darlington in 1964. It has recently been returned to the town and now stands beside the Head of Steam museum. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Cllr Mike Renton with D6898, the last diesel engine to be built in Darlington in 1964. It has recently been returned to the town and now stands beside the Head of Steam museum. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

With the 200th anniversary of the railway fast approaching, part of his role is going to be making what happened so long ago relevant to even the youngest generation.

“We have one shot at 2025, and I’m not sure people understand the ramifications of us getting it wrong,” said Cllr Renton, a Conservative who was first elected in 2019. “We cannot just appeal to grey-haired men – we have to remember that there are people alive today who have never even smelled steam so we have to bring them in, explain why the rail heritage quarter is so significant.

“We have to find a way of making them proud of it – after all, if they come from Darlington, it is their heritage and that's what distinguishes each town from another. Their history is their identity.”

His first task is to pull together a network of interested groups and individuals to provide an early warning system for when a piece of heritage is at risk.

“There’s a huge spectrum of organisations, from parish councils to friends groups, and I want to create a community so that I can take its voice into the council,” he said. “That would mean that where we have planning submitted on a heritage asset, for example, the historical significance can be flagged up to officers and decision makers at an early stage. And the best of that knowledge comes from the people of this town, not from consultants.”

However, he doesn’t believe in saving old things purely for the sake of it.

“I know re-using old buildings can be more expensive than knocking them down and starting again, but we do need to ask ourselves how we can retain the beauty, the heritage and the stories that some of these buildings hold on to,” he said. “We should be looking at how places like Liverpool or Hull have done this to help with their regeneration.

“My impression is that over the last 20 or 30 years, we have wiped so much history from our town without considering it for other uses. We have been deleting part of our heritage, culture and identity, and a part of the town dies with each bad decision.”

Cllr Renton’s new brief is the latest in a series of special interest roles created by the council, with Cllr Darrien Wright serving as LGBT+ ambassador, Cllr Brian Jones as Armed Forces champion and Cllr Scott Durham as autism ambassador.

Cllr Heather Scott, council leader, said: “Mike’s role, as our first ever heritage ambassador, is particularly important in a place like Darlington, where we’ve so much heritage to treasure, especially with the 200th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway coming up in just a few years.”

The heritage ambassador’s six of the best buildings in Darlington

The Northern Echo: Lingfield Point business park, in Darlington

1. Patons & Baldwins at Lingfield Point: built in the late 1940s as Europe’s largest wool factory, employing up to 4,000. “It is a fascinating complex of industrial buildings, with its own unique atmosphere, that we need to preserve," he says. "It is so great that although wool is no longer made there, the buildings have found a new use.”

The Northern Echo: Haughton Road engine shed, Darlington

2. The 1841 Darlington & Newcastle Junction engine shed off Haughton Road, now converted into homes. “They have done a really good job in restoring this. It stood empty and vandalised for so long, but now people live there and understand the significance of where they are.”

The Northern Echo: Once the entrance to Darlington Forge on Albert Hill

3. The old Darlington Forge on the Cleveland industrial estate, Albert Hill. “I love the fact that we still have the building where large parts of the Titanic were made, and I’d love to get it fully active again.”

The Northern Echo: Stooperdale, Darlington, by Chris Lloyd

4. Stooperdale railway offices, built off Brinkburn Road in 1911 as the headquarters of the North Eastern Railway. “The first time I went passed I had to stop, and even now it takes me aback – I have to sneak up the driveway for a peak. It is incredible – it reminds me of the Bowes museum. But what makes it even more incredible is that, unlike the Bowes museum, it is hidden away, surrounded by houses."

The Northern Echo:

5. The Rise Carr working men’s club, built in 1929 in Eldon Street but empty since the club closed in 2008. “This building has so many ties to the families of the area, it has touched their grandparents. Now it is closed, those links are being broken. I hope something can be done for it to keep those connections alive.”

The Northern Echo: The Tees Cottage Pumping Station is a model of early Edwardian engineering excellence

6. The Tees Cottage Pumping Station, started in 1849 with an amazing 1904 beam engine. “This is where the kids can go and see steam and massive industry at work: you can feel it, see it, smell it. The volunteers do such an amazing job at keeping the place running. It is one of the most important buildings in Darlington: it is history in action.”


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