Working with networks - or why the A697 is worth a trip

© Jim Herbert - Jim at last year's Heritage Open Days organiser forum in Morpeth

I’m the Heritage Development Officer for Northumberland County Council, and one of my jobs is to encourage the people in the county to get involved with Heritage Open Days. This post is how the building of networks - however informal - is key to the weekend’s success.

Setting the scene

Northumberland is a large and diverse county. It consists of a rural north around Berwick-upon-Tweed and Alnwick, an industrial south-east around Ashington and Blyth, a very sparsely populated Tynedale in the west and central Morpeth, which is another, largely rural area but closer to centres of population. 

So it isn’t really surprising that participation in Heritage Open Days varies greatly. In terms of number of events and visitor attendance, Berwick, Morpeth and Blyth were by far the most “successful” areas last year. The two areas less so were Tynedale and Alnwick. Now you could argue that Tynedale’s rural, but so is Berwick. While that is significant (and there are some very remote places up the Tyne Valley) I don’t believe it’s the full story.

The most important difference is having local organisers with networks of people and other groups to co-ordinate Heritage Open Days in their patch. I always tell people I liken these local networks to a web of very friendly spies searching out new places and pushing the weekend locally. And in some areas, for whatever reason, the gospel of Heritage Open Days hasn’t reached them yet. So, that’s where I come in, carrying that message forward.

Is there anybody out there?

At present I am creating a database of every museum and local history society along with as many local historians, civic societies, development trusts, archaeology groups etc. etc. in Northumberland I can find (over 100 and counting…)

Once done, I will be sending out an introductory letter with supporting information in mid-March when registration starts. But before that, I want to invite all those in the Tynedale area to an informal meeting to explain the joys of Heritage Open Days and to encourage networking between the different groups. Many of the things we have been posting on this blog will be the backbone of this discussion. The Northumberland National Park is one major group that got on board last year and is hoping to expand their activities. I think this can be a catalyst and an exemplar for the area.

In January, Lucy Thacker wrote an excellent post about creating clusters. All good stuff!  Can I add an idea I have had that might be described as an extended cluster? In rural areas, an individual event at the end of the road may be seen as remote and not worth the drive but what if other sites and events along and just off the route can be promoted together? Get your heritage kicks on the A696, history heaven on the A697!

Talking to people leads to new networks

Much of the database compilation is done at the end of a phone but I am a strong advocate in getting out there and chatting to people face to face (Roger Woodley’s so right – writing letters just won’t cut it). I drive from Berwick to Morpeth along the A697 a lot and one site (I won’t say where yet) has always caught my eye. Last week, I thought I’d pop in to see what it was like (I had heard it had closed). It turns out that the owner has sort of wound up the business and much of this site has been demolished for safety reasons.

The owner said he would have loved to have taken part but there was nothing left to see. “Could I have a look around for my own entertainment?” “Yes, of course.” And it’s a remarkable place. A little sad now but I think there is still enough to tell a great story. So we may be on after all. Oh, and the owner happens to be on the local Parish Council and his fellow councillors know this place and they may well get involved too.

After that I dropped into Alnwick to tap the local Tourist Information Centre staff for possible leads to explore in town. That led to a visit to a local hotel with an interior with a difference to die for. I do hope it’ll be able to sign up! A manager there gave me more names including a local charitable group who “do everything in Alnwick”. Thank you, sir!  Just what I needed to hear.

Fish ‘n’ chapels

Last year, unfortunately after the August deadline I was contacted by a B&B in Seahouses, a lovely little fishing village near the Farne Islands. Since getting involved with Heritage Open Days, I have always thought there was a dearth of events on this beautiful part of the coast. A couple of weeks ago, I had to go down in that direction anyway for something completely different but took the opportunity to pop around to see the B&B owner. He’s going to open his doors to one and all this year and as a result of meeting him, I have managed to get the local development trust involved and the oldest kipper smokehouse in the country will be registering! 

Just up the coast, amid the sand dunes and in the shadow of one of the best castles in the country, is Bamburgh. The RNLI Grace Darling Museum has pledged their support and to assist in finding new sites. Like (possibly) the cold war observation post on the golf course!  Now there’s a bunker with a difference.

Conclusion

All these new people are potentially getting involved as a result of a couple of hours’ chat.

Find out who’s who in your area.

Talk to each other now.

Form those networks - they don’t have to be formal.

It’s never too soon.

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