The Willington Waggonway: Published Research – by Dominique Bell, Project Co-ordinator

The Willington Waggonway Research Programme concluded in March 2018 with a public conference attended by over 100 people. At the conference we shared what we had learned throughout the project and launched two new publications.

These books are now available at Stephenson Railway Museum, Segedunum Roman Fort and Discovery Museum.

Setting the Standard, edited by Dominique Bell

Setting the Standard, edited by Dominique Bell

Setting the Standard is a collection of research reports which shares the full research and findings of the project team.

With a foreword by Anthony Coulls and an introduction by the project manager and co-ordinator, the book contains the following papers:

The Discovery and Excavation of the Willington Waggonway by Richard Carlton and Alan Williams, The Archaeological Practice

A Railway Rediscovered: The Historical Background to the Excavation of the Willington Waggonway by Les Turnbull, The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers

The Conservation of the Willington Waggonway by Rachael Metcalfe, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

The Use of Ship Timbers in the construction of the Willington Waggonway by Ian Whitehead, Maritime Historian

Willington Waggonway: Geological analysis of the Horse Track by Dr Ian Kille, Northumbrian Earth


Setting the Standard is available for a recommended donation of £10. Please ask a member of staff if you are interested.


the Wooden Rails That Blazed a Trail - Tyneside's Willington Waggonway

the Wooden Rails That Blazed a Trail – Tyneside’s Willington Waggonway

The Wooden Rails that Blazed a Trail: Tyneside’s Willington Waggonway is a condensed version of the research papers in the form of a guide book. It shares all the key findings of the research project and is intended for those who would like to know more, but perhaps do not want to read the research reports.

This book explores the history of early wooden railways. It follows the excavation and conservation of the Willington Waggonway and explains how study of the preserved timbers and stones have given new insights into the importance of railways before the steam locomotive.


It can be bought for £4.99 and is also available from the TWAM online shop.


The Willington Waggonway Research Programme would not have been possible without support from project partners including: The Archaeological Practice, National Railway Museum, Beamish Museum, The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, Newcastle City Council, North Tyneside Council, Northumbrian Earth, Tyne Industrial Archaeology Group, Alan Williams Archaeology, Dr Michael Lewis, Ian Whitehead, York Archaeological Trust and North Tyneside Steam Railway Association.


Funding for the rescue of the Willington Waggonway was provided by the Arts Council England (ACE) PRISM Fund. Further funding was awarded by the ACE Designation Development Fund in order to carry out the research project.

Setting the Standard and The Wooden Rails That Blazed a Trail

Setting the Standard and The Wooden Rails That Blazed a Trail

A History of Shoes – by Oliver Cook, Communications Officer

The North-East has a long history of innovation – Robert Stephenson’s Rocket is a prime example, which has returned to Tyneside for the Great Exhibition of the North and is currently on display at Discovery Museum.

A more modern example of North Eastern innovation is Podfo, having been designed in consultation with hundreds of orthotists, podiatrists and biomechanical experts to be a custom insole that supports natural movement to help reduce the risk of pain and injury when standing, walking or running.

Podfo insoles

Podfo insoles


This innovation makes Podfo, just like its insoles, a natural fit as a sponsor for the Great North Museum as it plays its role as a central hub for the Great Exhibition of the North.

Inspired by Podfo’s quest to improve foot comfort, we take a walk back in time (see what we did there?) and take a look at some historical facts related to shoes and other famous things we have done with our feet…

High heels were not originally for women 

Court shoe, 1957-8. Suede, leather and metal, by Hutchings.

Court shoe, 1957-8. Suede, leather and metal, by Hutchings.

According to Slate, in the 10th century, men who rode horses needed their boots to have heels in order to stay in their stirrups (this explains why you often see cowboy boots with heels).  Owning horses was a sign of wealth and by association heels were a way to show off one’s wealth, and became a signifier of aristocracy and high social standing.

Eventually, upper-class women began wearing heels, however men continued to wear high heels for centuries. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the high heel became firmly established as a lady’s shoe, as men deemed them impractical.

How did sneakers get their name? 

Trainer, 1999. Leather, rubber and synthetic, by Nike, USA TWCMS : 1999.1413.2

Trainer, 1999. Leather, rubber and synthetic, by Nike, USA
TWCMS : 1999.1413.2

Sneakers began to get their name in the 1800s due to their rubber soles which enabled people to walk around without making a sound, hence becoming “sneaky”.

A popular pair of sneakers was the Air Max 1, introduced by Nike in 1987. It had a new technological development visible to all – pressurised gas encapsulated in polyurethane. Marion Frank Rudy had developed this to support the foot whilst running. He approached many firms, and was turned down by Adidas, but his idea was taken on by Nike. This version of the Air Max was one of the best sellers for men in 1999, retailing for £47.99.

Lotus feet 

Lotus shoes, 1800s. Silk and leather, China. TWCMS : K13989.1

Lotus shoes, 1800s. Silk and leather, China.
TWCMS : K13989.1

For over a thousand years many Chinese women went through the tortuous procedure of foot binding, as tiny feet were a sign of status in China. From an early age girls would be made to wear shoes too small for them, preparing them for the binding of their feet. Their feet would be tightly wrapped in bandages so that they could not grow, and the bones of the foot would be broken and all but the big toe curled under the foot to produce a curve called the ‘lotus hook’.

Foot binding limited the mobility of women, and resulted in lifelong disabilities for most of its subjects. However the fact it affected women’s ability to walk, was bizarrely deemed a good thing, as it was seen as a sign of wealth, as the wealthiest of people didn’t need to walk or work in fields.

You can see an example of Chinese Lotus Shoes on display in the Great North Museum.

The most famous ever footprint?

Zvezda space suit made by SOKOL used by Helen Sharman during the space flight on board the SOYUZ-TM-12 and MIR spacecraft in May 1991. Space suit model number KV-2 No. 167.

Zvezda space suit made by SOKOL used by Helen Sharman during the space flight on board the SOYUZ-TM-12 and MIR spacecraft in May 1991. Space suit model number KV-2 No. 167.

The footprint left by Neil Armstrong on the moon after he and Buzz Aldrin landed on 20 July 1969 is undoubtedly one of the most iconic images in history. As Armstrong took his first step, he spoke one of the most famous lines history:  “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Although Astronaut Helen Sharman hasn’t been to the moon, she has been to space, and her space suit is on display this summer at the Great North Museum for Which Way North.

The beginnings of the modern football boot

Leather football boots from the 1930s. TWCMS : 2006.689.2

Leather football boots from the 1930s.
TWCMS : 2006.689.2

 In the late 1900s, the first proper specialised football boots were made of leather, and were heavy (around 500g) and could get even heavier when wet. Boots in the early 20th century were then manufactured with less focus on protection and more focus on being lighter, agile and flexible to improve performance. By the 1930s, players were typically turning out in boots that were up to two thirds lighter than a few decades earlier, thanks to a combination of softer leathers and new synthetic materials.

Podfo’s Bespoke Biometric Insoles are a modern way to further help increase sport performance with their specialised insoles. Visit Podfo to see how they can improve your sport performance.

Podfo logo






Podfo will be providing opportunities to discover how biometric complexities are behind many foot, knee, leg, hip, and lower back complaints. In addition, they will demonstrate how Podfo bespoke biometric insoles, designed and manufactured using innovative technology, can help correct these issues.

Come and find Podfo at the Great North Museum every Wednesday from 25 July – 5 September, and discover how Podfo can help provide you with corrective foot control, while supporting natural movement, to help relieve pain and discomfort.



The Enchanted Garden: Part 1 – A Very British Love Affair by Amy Barker, Keeper of Art, Laing Art Gallery

‘”Might I”, quavered Mary, “might I have a bit of earth… to plant seeds in – to make things grow – to see them come alive?”’
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911

The Secret Garden may be one of the most famous gardens in literature. This beloved children’s classic follows the life of Mary Lennox, a sickly, newly orphaned girl who leaves her life of privilege in India to live on the Yorkshire Moors. A good natured servant tells Mary of a secret garden in which roses used to grow. One day she finds the key to the secret garden buried in the ground and uncovers the hidden door. Mary’s curiosity is piqued and her character begins to unfold.

We are a nation of gardeners: creating outdoor rooms in the smallest spaces, growing our own food and making play-spaces for our children. Many of us find pleasure and pride in growing things and our outdoor spaces bring beauty into our everyday lives. The current explosion of interest in allotments reflects a need for city dwellers to have a patch of ground to call their own.

By the late 1800s, having a garden was a mark of status. A national nostalgia was reflected by artists and designers who thrived on an audience idealising the rural past. Helen Allingham, Kate Greenaway, Beatrix Potter and Frances Hodgson Burnett were all in vogue, with Allingham’s influence still felt as Stanley Spencer began painting the gardens of the Cookham during the 1920s.

'Roses for the Invalid' by Ralph Hedley, Laing Art Gallery

‘Roses for the Invalid’ by Ralph Hedley, Laing Art Gallery

In this summer scene, a young woman is cutting roses to brighten up the room of an ill person. The roses grow around the door of her whitewashed cottage. Her blue-grey cap is a type worn in the fishing village of Staithes in Yorkshire. She is shown in ordinary working clothes, with her skirt pinned up under her apron to keep it clean. A little girl with a red ribbon in her hair holds a basket full of the flowers.

Newcastle artist Ralph Hedley was one of many painters who visited Staithes. This picture illustrates his growing interest in painting natural light effects in the 1890s. Hedley painted traditional scenes of the North East reflecting somewhat idealised 19th century life, right through into the early 20th century.

'Cottage with Figures' by Helen Allingham, Laing Art Gallery

‘Cottage with Figures’ by Helen Allingham, Laing Art Gallery

Helen Allingham was a prolific artist, best known for painting English cottages and country gardens. Working in an eighteenth-century pictorial tradition, she deliberately sought out picturesque subjects which she ‘improved’ by emphasizing their dilapidated charm – worn thatch, moss-covered roofs, broken fences, overgrown gardens. These cottage scenes, with the women engaged in domestic pursuits – childcare, laundry, feeding poultry – signified social order, a place where the established proprieties of class and gender were still observed.

'Guinea Pigs Gardening' by Beatrix Potter, courtesy of F. Warne Co., V&A Museum

‘Guinea Pigs Gardening’ by Beatrix Potter, courtesy of F. Warne Co., V&A Museum

Beatrix Potter is one of the world’s best-loved children’s authors and illustrators. She wrote the majority of the twenty-three original Peter Rabbit books between 1901 and 1913.

This work dates from 1893 when Potter is known to have borrowed guinea pigs from her friend and neighbour Miss Paget to make drawings; she wrote in her journal on 5 February 1893 that one of the guinea pigs ‘took to eating blotting paper, pasteboard, string and other curious substances, and expired in the night.’

This composition was later redrawn for Cecily Parley’s Nursery Rhymes to accompany Potter’s verses.


The Enchanted Garden is showing at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, until 7 October. For more information about the exhibition, click here


Kathleen Drew-Baker: Mother of the Sea

As part of this summer’s Great Exhibition of the North, the Great North Museum is hosting a museum-wide takeover featuring 250 loans from across the UK. The temporary exhibition, called Which Way North, shines a light on Northern art, design and innovation by telling a number of unusual and interesting stories. This is one such story.

Credit and Copyright ©: Colin Davison +44 (0)7850 609 340

Northern Nori by Helen Shaddock. Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde sculpture Heaven can be seen in the background. Photo © Colin Davison.

The artwork shown above is called Northern Nori by Newcastle-based artist Helen Shaddock. It was specially commissioned for Which Way North and features 16 sheets of seaweed that have been printed with oil paint. A curious thing to commission, you might wonder…

Northern Nori is actually a response to the life and work of phycologist Kathleen Drew-Baker, whose brass microscope is displayed nearby.

Credit and Copyright ©: Colin Davison +44 (0)7850 609 340

Siebert brass microscope used by Kathleen Drew-Baker, c. 1920. On loan from the Science Museum Group. Photo © Colin Davison.

Lancashire-born Kathleen Drew-Baker (1901-1957) is known for her research on algae which led to a breakthrough in the commercial cultivation of edible seaweed, aka nori. If you’ve ever eaten sushi, you’ll know the stuff.

In late 1940s Japan, nori farmers were struggling badly due to increasing water pollution and the destructive effect of several typhoons. They didn’t have a reliable way to grow enough seaweed to keep their stocks replenished.

Drew-Baker discovered a special phase in the life cycle of a particular red seaweed, Porphyra Umbilcalis. The research was picked up by Japanese scientists and soon seaweed spores could be seeded on strings, leading to reliable crops and bumper harvests. It saved the nori industry.


Kathleen Drew-Baker. Photo © Smithsonian Institution Archives SIA2008-1427.

The Japanese have not forgotten Drew-Baker’s influence. They know her as the ‘Mother of the Sea’ and celebrate a festival in her honour. In the coastal city of Uto, nori farmers gather on 14 April each year at a monument to Kathleen; they give thanks with Shinto prayers, make offerings and sing songs, hoping that she will watch over them and increase their yields.

Credit and Copyright ©: Colin Davison +44 (0)7850 609 340

Close-up of Northern Nori showing Liquorice Allsort printing technique. Photo © Colin Davison.

To create the artwork Northern Nori, Helen Shaddock used Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts to print oil paint onto the sheets of seaweed. She chose the sweets because they brought back memories of her grandfather and childhood.

On the playful technique, Which Way North curator Grainne Sweeney said: “It roots the work firmly in the North (Bassett’s were founded in Sheffield) and resonates with another strand that runs throughout the exhibition – the idea of two worlds colliding.”

Which Way North at the Great North Museum is open 10am – 6pm daily until Sunday 9 September 2018. Entry is free although donations are very welcome.

Shiny shiny – by Alex Croom, Keeper of Archaeology

While the cheek-piece from Wallsend itself is made of iron, all the other cheek-pieces on display in the Saving Face exhibition at Segedunum are made of copper alloy and originally would have been gold in colour. Many of them, however, still have large areas of tin-coating surviving which would have made them look silver. Either way, when in use the helmets would have shone brightly in the sun – there was no attempt at camouflage in the Roman army! A late Roman author called Vegetius said that one of the duties of centurions and decurions was to make sure that their soldiers were ‘well-clothed and shod and that the arms of all are scoured as well as glittering’. He goes on to explain why: ‘the brilliance of arms strikes very great dread in the enemy. Who can believe a soldier warlike when his inattention has fouled his armour with rust and mildrew’ (Epitome of Military Science, translation by N. Milner).

Detail of a decorated cheek-piece

Detail from a cheek-piece showing the remains of the original tin coating. Note the original brass colour showing through in places on the helmet and plume, and the copper colour of the circular rivet.

Soldiers must have spent a fair bit of their time involved in spit and polish. They had quite a bit of metal on them when fully armoured, all of which needed to be kept ‘glittering’: helmet, armour, sword, dagger, shield boss, scabbard fittings, baldric fittings, and belt fittings.

Ancient authors give some hints of what they might have used. The most common method of cleaning metal was by scouring, in other words rubbing it with an abrasive such as sand, ashes, alum, or fine earths like gypsum; the finer the powder the better the finish, although the Leiden Papyrus suggests a gentler method of cleaning using the water of boiled beets. After cleaning, some polishing was required: the author Isidore says that goat-hair cloth was used by soldiers on their armour (Etymologies, 18.13.2). When eventually polished to a shine the metals may have been given a coating of olive oil or fat to protect it, at least for a while. Pliny (Natural Histories, 31.33.66, 34.43.150) notes that iron could be cleaned using sea water, and then protected from rust by lead acetate, gypsum or liquid vegetable pitch – although he does also add: ‘it is indeed said that the same result may also be produced by a religious ceremony’. No doubt generations of soldiers wished it could be so easy.