“THE arguments will continue for decades about what was first and when it was a first, but, at the end of the day, you cannot get away from the 26 mile track that Locomotion No 1 pulled a train along,” says railway bicentenary festival director Niccy Hallifax. “It even had a race against horses pulling a stagecoach, and it won – now that is a show!

“They did it in 1825, and so I am sure we can put on a show in 2025.”

The Northern Echo: Ronald Embleton's painting of the moment in 1825 that Locomotion No 1 symbolically overtook an old-fashioned stagecoach

Niccy is referring to one of the most celebrated and symbolic incidents on the opening day of the Stockton & Darlington Railway nearly 200 years ago. On the last leg of Locomotion No 1’s journey from Shildon, it entered a straight stretch of track just beyond Preston Park that ran alongside the main road from Egglescliffe into Stockton (now the A135).

Driver George Stephenson began picking up speed so that Locomotion No 1 (passengers 700, horses nil) pulled alongside a stagecoach (passengers 16, horses four). Momentarily, the two modes of transport were neck-and-neck at full pelt at an eye-popping 15mph.

But, of course, the horses, for all their frantic galloping, quickly tired while the steam machine relentlessly ate up the track. As Locomotion No 1 passed the stagecoach, the spectators – small boys running barefoot, women with shawls wrapped around their ears to keep out the terrific noise of progress, and men excitedly waving their top hats – witnessed the turning of the tide of history.

The future had overtaken the present and, in that moment, consigned it to the past.

The Northern Echo: Niccy Hallifax director of S&DR 200 Picture: SARAH CALDECOTTNiccy Hallifax, director of the 2025 festival, at the Skerne Bridge in Darlington. Picture: Sarah Caldecott

Now Niccy has the job of organising the bicentennial celebrations of the railway that got the world on track on behalf of the three councils through whose territory the line runs: Durham, Darlington and Stockton.

“I didn’t know that much about the story before I came, but now I’m really enthused by it,” she says. “It’s that whole premise of sitting down, recognising a challenge, and then innovating to overcome it.”

It is this, she hopes, that is going to make the celebrations so inspirational.

“For the generation growing up today, climate change is going to be as big a shift in the way we conduct ourselves on a day to day as the railways introduced, so it is suddenly very relevant,” she says. “There are parallels to be drawn of people sitting round a table and saying no matter what we are going to solve this, and that’s what this next generation is going to do.



“So we are planning to use the celebration to reach out through culture, making it as accessible and as fun as possible, to give young people the chance to learn about motion, about steam, about communication, and about the geography and history in which it sits. This is about the world in which they are growing up.

“The festival is celebrating 1825 but it is very much looking to the future and giving people a sense of community and place, a sense of awe, a sense that anything is achievable.”

Niccy grew up in Southend-on-Sea, studied Fine Art and Textiles at university in Liverpool and for nearly 20 years has been working in the space where art meets public performance.

At the 2012 London Olympics, she had the National Youth Theatre perform a 15-minute introduction to the UK, which included a drag Queen Elizabeth I, as the teams arrived from around the world and raised their flags.

The Northern Echo: Kew Gardens The Hive. Pictures by Jeff Eden.The Hive at Kew Gardens. Picture by Jeff Eden

She then took David Cameron’s Festival of Creativity to Shanghai as the Prime Minister used it to drum up investment; she arranged the opening ceremonies for a stadium in the Middle East and then returned to take charge of The Hive, a 17-metre tall piece of contemporary art in the middle of a wildflower meadow in Kew Gardens celebrating the role of the honeybee with 1,000 LED lights glowing to the bees’ vibrations created by Wolfgang Butress.


She was involved in the Hull City of Culture programme, arranged the hurried handover ceremony for Birmingham to host the Commonwealth Games, and then became the project director for Newsubstance studio’s See Monster – the 35-metre tall decommissioned rig that was lifted up the beach in Weston-super-Mare and turned into sustainable art exhibit that was visited by more than half-a-million people in 2022.

The Northern Echo: SEE Monster was created to promote sustainbility. Image: The Institution of Structural EngineersNiccy was project director of See Monster, at Weston-super-Mare

More than 50,000 “engaged” with the artwork as schools and local communities picked up on its environmental message, and Niccy hopes the 2025 festival will see similarly wide interest along the whole length of the S&DR.

“Durham, Darlington and Stockton see it as an opportunity to place-make with something that is really tangible and that will really bring the community together, a bit like the way the Hull and Liverpool city of cultures did,” she says.

Although there is a growing clamour for details of what is being planned, Niccy says: “We’ll launch one year out, and it is important that we keep our powder dry until then because if we launch now, my fear is that people will either forget or they’ll hear too much and then turn off.”

The Northern Echo: S&DR 200 main logo

However, the black-and-yellow logo for “SDR200” has already been released (above), with three different coloured versions for the three different areas: Durham is green, Darlington orange (below), and Stockton blue. The celebration website, sdr200.co.uk, is up and running and as well as giving people more information, it tells them how they may apply for help and grants to organise community celebrations.

The Northern Echo: S&DR 200 Darlington logo

Those community celebrations are likely to start in March 2025, and will be fired by events at the three museums – Locomotion in Shildon, the railway heritage quarter in Darlington (its name is expected to be unveiled next week) and Preston Park in Stockton – followed by a number of “national pick-ups” – headline-grabbing events – over the summer. These will climax with the main celebration, a three-day recreation of the inaugural journey, headed by a replica of Locomotion No 1, over the anniversary weekend.

The Northern Echo: LOCOMOTION.THE LOCOMOTION PICTURED ON ROUTE AT BEAMISH MUSEUM.The replica of Locomotion No 1 in operation at Beamish: it will lead a three-day recreation of the inaugural journey in 2025

“The three-day journey gives us the opportunity to celebrate the different aspects within those communities along the full length of the line,” says Niccy. “If you did it over one, it’d be gone and done.

“We are calling it a ‘journey’, but it is very much going to be an experience, and that gives us the opportunity to look at everything around it.”


However, that recreation is really just the start. “It is about the three museums and their 10 year strategies and how they are connected by the new cycle and walking path along the line that will have interpretation – the festival is a launch platform for all of that,” she says.

It is a huge project. It is about inviting the world to our door while also informing local children about their past in the belief it will inspire their future. It is about putting on events that satisfy the rail enthusiasts and which fascinate the wider community. It is about seizing the moment to bring Shildon, Darlington and Stockton to the centre of global attention while also leaving a long-lasting legacy of enhanced visitor attractions and a thriving visitor economy.

And it is about commemorating world changing events that happened right here.

The Northern Echo: Niccy Halifax, with Locomotion No 1. Picture: Chris LloydNiccy Hallifax, with Locomotion No 1, at the Shildon museum

“It is stunning to think that in 1825 they thought they’d lay down two bits of wrought iron down and run a railway on them, and then it is just as amazing to think people were brave enough to travel on those things,” says Niccy, “but to innovate you have to take risks. Innovation then brings new risks and they are overcome by innovation – this is the story of the railway.

“Without the railways, the industrial revolution wouldn’t have been able to happen on the scale that it did. What else has had such an effect? The internet?

“So although we are celebrating a railway, we are understanding it through culture and applying its lessons to the future.”