Chris Lloyd looks at how attitudes to the once controversial Angel of the North have altered in the 20 years since it was put together in Gateshead

TWENTY years ago, I was driving north up the A1(M) to witness the official unveiling of the Angel of the North. As I neared, I passed a beautifully pointless hilltop ornament, the Penshaw Monument, and then I saw a giant, hideous metal monstrosity with its arms out-stretched, disfiguring the landscape.

That, though, was one of the army of electricity pylons which march up the Team Valley like a regiment of alien invaders.

On the car radio, the airwaves – national and local – were full of fury: a waste of money, a Nazi relic, an ugly eyesore, a traffic hazard. In 1998, the Angel was unwanted by local people, it was despised by opposition Liberal councillors, and it was attacked by the Tyneside newspapers. The Gateshead Post had even published a front page story comparing it to a Luftwaffe monument erected in 1935 near Berlin.

It was known as “Hell’s Angel” or even, according to those doom-mongers who, Brexit-like, prophesised that it would cause carnage on the motorway by distracting drivers, “the Angel of Death”.

“I doubt we’ll ever win everybody over,” sculptor Antony Gormley had told me a few days earlier. “There will be people going to their graves hating it, but I hope that within their hearts they will acknowledge it is something they love to hate. I don’t want everyone to be a fan – that would be boring.”

Twenty years on, very few people still hate the Angel. On Trip Advisor, 52 per cent rate it as “excellent” and 31 per cent say it is “very good”, whereas three per cent say it is “poor” and two per cent “terrible”.

One of the Angel’s key selling points is its location on a mound made of the remains of the Team Valley Colliery pithead baths.

“Without the location, I would not have been interested,” Gormley said, his remarkably long arms stretched out along the back of a sofa so that he looked like his Angel. “It is extraordinary. There’s a feeling of it being a megalithic mound, a prehistoric tumulus, and then you are invited to think of the life that went on underneath the site. There’s a marvellous and poetic resonance.”

A tumulus is a burial place, so the Angel rises out of the grave of the coal industry but it looks out to the future, marking, as Gormley said, the region’s “transformation from the industrial to the information age”.

That relevance of location makes the Angel special in a way that Darlington’s Brick Train can never be. As clever as the Brick Train is, it was shunted behind a hedge on the edge of a retail park – it is disconnected from the people and has no connection with the railways.

And, in terms of landmarks, whereas the Tyne Bridge and the Transporter Bridge are rooted in their riverbanks, the Angel is rooted in the whole of the region’s past.

But there’s more to it than just its location. There’s something very human about these supersized pieces of cor-ten steel welded together in a Hartlepool shipyard. It has a personality…

On the opening day 20 years ago, there was a vicious wind slapping coat collars against cold cheeks and rattling a crossbar on the football pitch directly beneath the Angel’s pert rear.

Gormley, peppered by bullet-like raindrops, was in his element. “It’s wonderful to have the weather,” he enthused, as the London luvvies wrapped their coats around them. “It is what makes Northerners Northerners.

“It’s great to see how the Angel stands up to the Northern blasts. I thought there’d be some wind whistle, but it remains very, very silent.”

At the head of the valley, the Angel stands steadfast in the teeth of anything the elements can throw at it, resolute and unflinching – just like the people of the region.

Gormley was also keen to point out how the wings of the Angel are slightly inclined forward from its body, by 3.5 degrees, to give it a welcoming feel – again, just like the people of the region.

Rooted in a common past but looking hopefully to the future, the Angel summons up the determined spirit of the region, which is why people now feel inclined to commemorate its anniversary rather than call for it to be pulled down.

Twenty years ago, I remember driving past the Penshaw Monument and then noting the electricity pylons that stride across our countryside without a murmur. Finally, through the back and forth of the windscreen wipers – I caught my first glance of the Angel, its big, bald head stark above the bare trees.

And then it started to bob about the landscape, rising and falling as you progress along the contours of the Western by-pass. It was as if this lump of metal bolted to the ground really was alive and full of motion.

It is still a thrill to drive down the bank and see it standing there on its own – but it is never alone because, whatever the weather, it always seems to have visitors popping by to say hello.

Despite all the criticism 20 years ago, people have taken the Angel to their hearts, and it has become an emblem – even the icon – of the region.