MUCH of an improbable nature has happened at Shildon Railway Institute these past few months. Finding ourselves discussing Einstein at a beer festival may be close to the top of the list.

Then there’s this Saturday’s Halloween-inspired Transylvanian Ball – “enter the hall of horror if you dare” – which may further startle those more accustomed to Cyril on the organ and Percy on the drums.

In any case, it wasn’t Albert Einstein who supposed that if you always do what you always did, you’d always get what you always got. It was Henry Ford.

At the world’s oldest railway institute, known thereabouts as the Stute, they’re determined to do things differently, nonetheless. It may be the only way they can survive.

THE beer festival brochure tells how the Institute was formed by railway pioneer Timothy Hackworth in 1833 “for the promotion of useful knowledge.” It later hosted lectures “on topics tantalising to Victorian society” – like phrenology and astrology, geography and geology, the human frame and the chemistry of bread.

There was also a club trip which, like club trips then as now, ended up at Redcar. Cyril and Percy came a little later.

Though the stone above the door says 1911, the Institute – most members employed at the railway wagon works a couple of hundred yards down the road – formally moved into its present home in February 1913.

Back then the building would have been considered handsome, red brick and spacious. Now it – the website sometimes prefers the pronoun “she” – has by common consent seen better days.

“A little down on its luck,” says the brochure, perhaps euphemistically. When the column visited earlier this year, there were more in the little chip shop over the road than throughout the echoing institute. On Thursdays, once pay day, it doesn’t open at all.

In the spring, the committee agreed to a nine-month period in an attempt to save it from closure In May, the Save Our Stute group was separately formed. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone and in New Shildon particularly an awful lot has gone already,” they said.

Like Timothy Hackworth two centuries earlier, they’re employing all the latest technology – in this case social media, websites and digital dexterity – linked to a huge amount of enthusiasm.

The institute’s existing 14-strong committee agreed to work alongside the newcomers, now a registered Community Interest Company and rebranded the Shildon Heritage Alliance. “The Stute is a major asset to the town,” says Dave Reynolds. “Whatever happens, things won’t be staying as they were.”

DAVE was born in Bishop Auckland, which shouldn’t be held against him, has lived in Shildon for 21 years. Fred Langley, another Alliance leader, was born in Shildon, spent 50 years away – two degrees, teaching in Africa, for 12 years head tutor to the touring stage version of Billy Elliott – returned home a year ago.

“We have to change the management ethos of the Institute, to take it from the 50s and 60s into the 21st century,” says Fred. “The management structure hasn’t changed since the heyday of the place. There are 14 on the committee and that’s ridiculous. We think it can be done with two or three.

“They’re losing money every week. the place can no longer survive on beer sales, it has to look at food and at different entertainment. We have to re-invent the wheel.”

Dave Reynolds stresses that they’re working with the existing committee. “We don’t want to be seen to be threatening them and we don’t want to take them over. We seem to be stemming the losses, but I don’t think we’ve quite turned it round yet.”

Two of the railway town’s four workmen’s clubs, including the self-styled Palladium of the North barely 200 yards away, have long since been demolished. A town of 11,000 people hangs onto just six pubs.

The Stute needs not only to generate a substantial increase in income but to find funds, estimated at up to £300,000, for a major overhaul of the building in time for the Stockton and Darlington Railway’s bicentenary in 2025.

The proximity of Locomotion, the National Railway Museum, has made no difference. “Around 700,000 people went there and not one of them came here,” says Fred.

Much has already been essayed. A wagon works’ reunion a few weeks ago put an extra £1,800 behind the bar –“when did they last take that much in a day?” – with other events ranging from knit and natter to keep fit groups.

“I’m not saying everything’s going to be easy but the group of people we’ve attracted is fantastic, a huge range of abilities,” says Dave.

They’ve identified nine projects over the next five years and hope to diversify into other heritage areas. “We’ve things going on all the time,” says Dave. “It would be great if others joined in.”

TO mark the 35th anniversary of its closure in September, the Alliance also made a 70-minute YouTube video chronicling memories of the wagon works.

All retrospectively agree that it was a wonderful place to work, though things may not always have gone hammer and tongs. Ian Stainthorpe recalls a couple of pints on a Friday dinner time – “we only had half an hour” – and that sometimes, as he puts it, they were able to have a bit sit down and a game of cards.

“Shildon still did more work than any of the other railway workshops. Everyone chipped in.”

Others recall, and use the same word, that the works could be a bit tribal.” I didn’t live in Shildon, I lived in West Auckland,” says Des Wilson. West Auckland was three miles away.

A lot of people didn’t like working in new construction, he adds – “there were a lot of Darlington people there.”

All seem to agree with Roger Howe. “It was brilliant, fabulous, just a nice place to work.”

IT’S billed as the Chuffed to Bits beer festival sub-titled “small, but perfectly engineered” and run in partnership with the Stockton-based Three Brothers brewery. The ale’s remarkably well kept.

There’s an attractive ale called The Ex-Wife, a German blonde called Moth – that one’s from Darlington – a beer from the Gainford Beer Cooperative called High Capacity, named after one of the works’ most famous wagons.

There are bands, too – the Rockroses and Erik and the Vikings, not Cyril and Percy – and in a lounge pie and peas and a range of gins. They call it the Ginstitute.

The Friday evening attendance is disappointing though one chap’s come on the train from Saltburn, supped five halves and returned whence he came.

“I wish we had a few more nearer to home than that,” says Fred. “We’ll continue to try to do things a bit differently.” Henry Ford would have approved.

Details of all that’s going on at the Stute at