ONE OF NORTH NORTHUMBERLAND’S top tourist attractions, the Heatherslaw Light Railway, is in danger of being killed off by the Coronavirus pandemic.
After being closed down by safety fears over the virus the most northerly steam railway in England faces the likelihood of permanent closure, victim of weeks of money-draining inactivity during its premium months of operation.
The four-mile round trip by miniature light rail between Heatherslaw and picturesque Etal village is a favourite with children and is vital to the local area’s tourist economy. In a normal season from Easter to late summer, 30,000 tourists – many of them excited youngsters – are delivered by the steam engines ‘Bunty’ and ‘Lady Augusta’ or diesel engine ‘Binky’ into Etal, benefitting Richard and Victoria Baker’s highly successful post office/shop/tearooms as well as the newly-reopened Black Bull pub.
Upon return, the family crowds invariably pour into the working Heatherslaw Mill, mill shop and café or tour the table-top miniature railway at Heatherslaw Station.
Today, the 31-year-old railway’s fate looks sealed, unless a last-ditch crowdfunding appeal can save the day.
The railway’s managing director, 56-year-old Paul Smith, knows his public appeal for cash – “I hate to go cap in hand,” he admits – is the last chance he has to save the company and the livelihoods of the half-dozen permanent staff and two seasonal part-timers.
“We had a £10,000 grant from central government through Northumberland but that’s going fast on maintenance and insurances,” he said. “We have also applied for the government’s furlough payments which will subsidise 80 per cent of employees’ pay but the money hasn’t come through yet.
“It was my son [24-year-old Cameron] who came up with the crowdfunding idea: he was a keen rock climber at university and they used crowdfunding to raise money for climbing walls. He persuaded me that people with an affection for the railway might be prepared to help keep it running .
“I was dubious, I’ll admit, but he’s proved me wrong: in three days since we launched the appeal we’ve been pledged £4,900 and I have been moved to tears by some of the comments that have accompanied the cash.
“Two and three generations of families have been bringing their children and grandchildren to ride the railway, even if it’s just one day a year and they tell me they don’t want to see it die. It’s very moving.”
Paul is grateful to Ford and Etal Estate’s recent decision to give the company a ‘rent holiday’ until 2021. “I talked with James [the landowner, Lord Joicey] and he has done his best for us,” said Paul. “It will certainly help as we came out of the winter pretty poor financially and have not been able to earn, so we are ‘maxed out’ on our overdraft and need to put some money in the bank for next winter if we are to survive.”
A ‘friend of the railway’ who brought the HLR’s plight to the attention of The Clarion was less flattering about the estate’s managers, Savills. “They don’t understand how the railway works and what it means to this area,” she said. “I’ve heard they are difficult to deal with, that’s why people prefer to go direct to Lord Joicey – just ask the farmers, they’ll tell you the same story.”
At the Bakers’ cafe/shop/tearooms in Etal, Richard Baker said, “We would be concerned about how it could effect our business if the HLR closed. However, hopefully it won’t get to this as HLR now have a crowd funding page [which is attracting support].”
Wearing his hat as chairman of Ford parish council, Richard added: “[At the same time] please don’t forget all the other businesses that may not survive without a tourist trade and have no income through the winter months.
“For example, two village shops, the tearooms, bed & breakfast places, three pubs in the area, the Heavy Horse Centre [at Hay Farm] plus all the other businesses on the estate. These are hard times and we need to try and get all the help that is out there but, for some, there is no help.”
For the present, Paul Smith and his wife Christine are hoping for a miracle but Paul says he has to be realistic. “The crowdfunding appeal is our last chance,” he says. “I am a director of the company and as such it is illegal for me to trade if we are insolvent.”
The grim reality for Paul speaks volumes about the fight he is putting up for his business. “I’ve spent a couple of days walking the tracks to assess their resale value in case we have to do the unthinkable and sell them off to pay our debts. The rest of the time I’ve spent on EBay, selling off spare equipment and some of our table-top miniature stock just to raise funds to pay some wages,” he says.
“We have made plans for social distancing between seating in the event that we get the go-ahead but even if we did get an opportunity to start up in, say, June, I can’t see us getting many days running in that month and by that time the summer is well under way.”