The Great Goodbye

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THEY’RE just machines aren’t they? One hundred and two tons of metal forged and hammered into shape to fulfil a function.

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Mallard at The Great Goodbye

Well yes, and no. If that’s all they were we wouldn’t care about them would we?

Not only do we care, we are in awe of these machines. This morning I involuntarily smiled when I heard one of them whistle, a sound carried on the breeze across the north of Darlington, as it made its way down the branch line from Shildon.

And we cared in huge numbers over the last week or so as the remaining six Class A4 Pacific steam locomotives went on show at Locomotion in Shildon (http://www.nrm.org.uk/PlanaVisit/VisitShildon) in an event named The Great Goodbye.

I was one of 18,000 to visit on Saturday. Organisers expected 72,000 visitors over the nine days, they eventually welcomed 120,000. Shildon, not a big place, came to a standstill at times, overwhelmed by traffic. Normally empty two-car trains heading for the event were leaving Darlington full-and-standing.

The A4s were built between 1935 and 1938. Much of the love for them relates to the world speed record set by the most famous of these six survivors – Mallard – as it hurtled down a bank north of Peterborough at 126mph in 1938. It is little remembered that Mallard then broke down, and never completed the run into Kings Cross.

It helps that the A4s are streamlined. Their curves speak of speed. They were nicknamed Streaks. Like the Spitfire, or Concorde, or the Tyne Bridge, they are beautiful. What they all share is that their designers and builders managed to combine engineering and purpose with grace.

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Union of South Africa steams along a short line at Locomotion, Shildon

One of the guides at the event pointed out that the A4s remained in service into the 1960s. After their glamour days were over they finished their working days painted black, pulling goods trains. The last ran in 1966.

It was Sir Nigel Gresley, named after the man who designed the A4s, I heard this morning. Union of South Africa and Mallard left yesterday. Bittern will take its leave tomorrow. Dwight D Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada will be at Shildon for a few weeks yet, before going back to their homes across the Atlantic.

I’m glad to have had the chance to see the six together. And I’m glad that someone saw beyond the metal and the functional to save them.

Odeon nights and a Majestic afternoon

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The Odeon in Bondgate, Darlington, is being restored after decades of neglect

WHEN I first moved to Darlington, to spend a year at college, I stayed in digs with three fellow students. We had a landlady who didn’t like us cluttering up her home, despite us being paying guests, and who fed us macaroni cheese at least three times a week.

This meant we had to seek shelter and sustenance elsewhere. The Odeon cinema on Bondgate regularly provided the shelter, while the Americana Fish Bar across the road provided the antidote to the macaroni cheese.

It was 1979, before multiplexes, and around the time desperate operators started dividing up their cinemas into smaller units – typically one big screen and a couple of studios – so they could show more movies, in the hope that audiences. presented with a greater choice of rubbish, would turn up.

The Odeon hadn’t been divided. It was vast, seating about 1,100 in stalls and circle, and frequently almost empty. That I can’t remember anything I saw there suggests we watched whatever was on, rather than making any kind of discerning choice.

By the time I returned to Darlington to work, in 1986, the Odeon had been closed for five years. Riley’s turned part of it into a snooker hall where I occasionally played, badly, before setting off for an evening’s work. The outside still looked like a cinema but inside they’d done a decent job of disguising the building’s original function.

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The original ceiling remains intact

I hadn’t thought about the old place much for decades before I stumbled across a Facebook post about it. I don’t think I even knew that its original name was the Majestic.

It’s still a snooker club, although it has had a couple of operators since I last played. But it’s now being transformed by a local commercial property developer, Devlin Hunter.

Today he was giving guided tours of the building, organised via Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/238396066298040/) by people who’ve taken a keen interest in the Majestic’s future. He took us into areas few people had seen since the last reel played out, although some of the building was still off limits for safety reasons.

He’s already removed a hideous suspended ceiling, uncovered the proscenium arch, and made a start on restoring some of the tremendous art deco features which appear to have survived the years relatively intact. There are stained glass windows and a magnificent, hidden façade yet to be tackled.

Mr Hunter’s visitors ranged from architecture lovers and cinema enthusiasts to local people with their own memories of the building and the merely curious.

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The original facade of the Majestic survives, complete with its many stained glass windows, but is, for now, hidden (Orphan internet picture, I’d be happy to acknowledge the photographer if anyone knows who that was)

He says he’s been surprised by how many people seem to have a view on his project and he’s already spent more than he intended as more features have been revealed. He resisted every attempt to get him to disclose what the ultimate use will be. There have been reports of a “multi-purpose leisure facility”.

Whatever it turns out to be it would be nice to think that the people of Darlington will once again find  their entertainment in this impressive building.

Now, about reopening the Americana Fish Bar…