Hopetown – A Welcome Destination: SPACE Architects’ Sneak Preview

As we hurtle towards the grand opening day of Hopetown, the UK’s newest heritage attraction, later this month, SPACE Architects take a tour of the site, accompanied by Darlington Borough Council’s Head of Culture and Heritage, Mike Crawshaw, to reflect on the project’s journey from its inception five years ago.

During the design and early construction stages the project was widely known by the descriptive title Darlington Railway Heritage Quarter, but inspired by the name given to the area back in the early nineteenth century by the railway pioneers who built new foundries and homes around there, the attraction was soon reborn as ‘Hopetown’.

All around the 7.5-acre site, adjacent to Network Rail’s operational North Road Station, we see contractors pulling out the stops to get all of the final finishes, furniture and landscaping ready for the opening. Excitingly, as well as seeing the culmination of SPACE’s architectural work, we get to enjoy a preview of the amazing exhibits that visitors too, will soon be able to revel in. 

High-Tech & Heritage

Through a perfect blend of high-tech and heritage elements, Hopetown tells the story of the Stockton and Darlington Railway - the world’s first steam locomotive passenger railway, and its pivotal role in the development of rail travel around the globe. Peppered with interactive features throughout, thanks to SPACE Architects working closely with clever and imaginative exhibition interpretation specialists, PLB, sights, sounds, and smells collide at every juncture, to transport us back to the 1800s. It’s striking that the oldest of the buildings housing these historic delights, have been standing since the first half of the nineteenth century. Mike proudly explains that Hopetown has the world’s most important group of surviving early railway buildings.

David Coundon, Director of SPACE Architects, who’s led the project design from concept to completion, explains how the vision was to renew these buildings as focal points of the visitor complex, showcasing them as museum pieces in their own right, whilst also creatively repurposing them to house Hopetown’s unique collection of artefacts and new interactive attractions.

For those arriving at Hopetown by car, their experience begins around 100 metres east, where, under the gaze of Skerne Bridge - the world’s oldest railway bridge in continuous use, a new car park has been created. A new rectangular, Corten steel art structure cleverly positioned at the foot of the car park, perfectly frames the view of the Scheduled Ancient Monument.

From Goods Shed to Grand Gateway

The sight of Hopetown’s new entrance emulates the grandeur of its innovative and pioneering origins. Sitting atop a hill, is the beautifully restored Grade II*-listed Goods Shed which is accessed via a meandering ramp and broad, new staircase, adorned with typographic art. Located to the south-east corner of the heritage quarter, David explains how the 1833 stone-built store, lent itself as the perfect arrival point to Hopetown, and gateway to the new attraction. It seems that on commencing works to remove decades-worth of unwieldy scrubland that had grown around the Goods Shed and station entrance area, that many onlookers, including regular train travellers, were stunned to see the property that had been hidden, and largely derelict, for almost 30 years. 

David describes how, back in its heyday, the Goods Shed would see rail carriages enter from the main rail tracks to the north, through its archways and stop in designated bays to unload their cargo. Local merchants would then arrive at the archways to the shed’s south side, on McNay Street, to collect their goods using horse-drawn carts. Over time, and as the building changed use, these archways became windows. 

David’s colleague, Associate Director, Grant Bramwell, tells how the intention was always to retain and restore as many of the original features as possible within the heritage buildings. Explaining how the Goods Shed’s window frames were painstakingly removed and sent to restoration specialists, he describes how new glass panes were manufactured to replicate the rolled glass effect of the original ones. Where some of the arches’ keystones had dropped, contractors carefully dismantled and rebuilt them, using replacement stone where necessary. Likewise, on the roof, where the clock tower proudly stands, new materials were required to make good damaged masonry. New supporting steelwork was installed to safeguard the structural integrity of the tower, and inside, dilapidated wall and flooring coverings were stripped out to expose the original stonework and floors. 

Mike describes the Goods Shed as not only an attractive reception point, where people can book their tickets and buy gifts and souvenirs from a carefully curated collection of locally-sourced products, but as a visitor hub and destination venue. A place where young and old can read, play, learn and be absorbed in history through the interactive exhibits – like the eye catching hologauze screen projecting 3D imagery, and the cute miniature railway track that loops overhead the seating area, carrying replica locomotives. As the venue is free to enter, casual passers-by too, are encouraged to stop here, enjoy the café, meet friends and socialise.

A Platform for Performing Arts

Outside of the Goods Shed, the Goods Yard provides a generous outdoor multi-functional space where special events can be hosted. The platform provides a stage for visiting musicians and plays, and the level ground is perfect for pop-up markets and street theatre performances. Mike points out the deliberate pattern in the blockwork across the ground which SPACE designed to mimic the curved lines of the rail tracks that lay there in the past.

As we make our way to the next building, we walk through a ‘soundscape’. The eye-catching walkway, styled like a railway track, is engraved with chronological rail-related facts, and bolstered by vertical speakers, which cleverly launch into an audio commentary as you pass each step.

The Station Remastered

Next, we explore what’s probably the best known of all the Hopetown properties – the former station building which sits at the centre of the site. The building, which operated until 2022 as the dedicated railway heritage centre, Head of Steam, has also been subject to a programme of significant remodel , repair and refurbishment and has now been renamed as the North Road Station Museum. 

David explained, when the design team first appraised this building, they quickly identified the opportunity to remove the internal walls, which had been constructed to display historic photos, information and data, and return the interior to its original form. Similarly, large, more recent external walls at each end of the platform were removed and replaced with lightweight glazing, to visibly reconnect the external and internal rail tracks used to display locomotives. Now, it’s instantly recognisable as a railway station once more. Standing inside, you feel like a passenger on the platform, and through the magic of modern technology, you can also take a selfie alongside a Victorian train driver and watch yourself move on screen, as though you were really there in the 1800s.

Undoubtedly, one of the most successful design choices in this building – and arguably one of the simplest, was removal of metal sheeting that had been installed across the original station windows. With new windows in place, as well as allowing in more natural light, Hopetown visitors are granted a view onto the live, operational North Road Station platform, and from the other side, present day train passengers are teased with a window into the past.

Just as we step back outside to explore the public realm, landscaping and external art installations, including the marvellous interpretation of a turntable, created by artist Andrew McKeown working with SPACE Architects and with the support of local school children, a bang-up-to-date Azuma train rushes by, visibly driving home Hopetown’s link between the old and new worlds. 

Carriage Works Conversion

The Carriage Works building – where carriages have been built since 1853, has been converted into a large, airy exhibition hall, alongside an archive with reading room. The former workshop now provides a blank canvas, which will welcome visiting exhibits, rail expos and corporate functions. It’s also licenced as a wedding venue and will begin hosting ceremonies from Spring 2026. Mike draws our attention to one of the unique features of this huge hall which has been retained - the 28-metre-long railway inspection pit, which runs through the length of the Carriage Works floor. Now, it has been carefully covered over, in a way that can be easily removed to accommodate visiting exhibits as and when required. Inconspicuous radiant panels are suspended from the ceiling as a means of heating the space, and maximising wall space for display purposes.

Elsewhere in the Grade II-listed Carriage Works, a new upstairs workspace has been created for Hopetown staff. Grant explains how it was necessary to install new steelwork to support the upper floor. As the building’s listed status limited the extent of structural changes that could be made, and Building Regulations dictated minimum floor-to-ceiling heights, the design and remodelling of the stairway and upper floor was a meticulous process that was successfully realised, through collaboration between structural engineers, architectural technicians and contractors. 

Grant also reminds us that installing building services sensitively into heritage buildings is no mean feat, and as we walk around each of the buildings, and see the extent of the audio-visual displays and exhibits – each demanding data and power connections, the creativity and workmanship of the services engineers can be truly appreciated.

Brand New Features

While the existing heritage buildings and displays within them, have been lovingly designed to work in harmony and create moments of pure magic for visitors, the scheme is also complemented by brand-new, purpose-built elements too, including hard and soft landscaping and thought-provoking public art. 

The newly built Darlington Locomotive Works is accessed via a brand new link bridge that features augmented reality periscopes en-route, enabling views along the tracks as they would have appeared in 1825. From viewing platforms in this new building, visitors can watch locomotives being intricately, and lovingly built by volunteers and rail enthusiasts.

 Wagon Woods - a newly constructed rail-themed adventure play park, designed by play specialists CAP.CO, brings added appeal for mixed-age children and families.

A Welcome Destination

Above all, what is abundantly clear throughout our visit, is that Hopetown is a welcome destination and a true showcase project. This new Hopetown not only honours Darlington’s railway heritage, but also celebrates collaborative-working, modern day skills and new technology. It is the culmination of an ambitious vision, the driving force and passion of the Darlington Borough Council team, designers’ imagination and creativity, and the skills and workmanship of engineers and construction specialists, all working in partnership. 

Hopetown opens to the public on 16th July 2024.

**The Hopetown design and construction team were:
SPACE Architects – Lead Designer, Masterplanning, Architecture, Landscape Design and Principal Designer
PLB – Creative & Interactive Interpretation
Wilmott Dixon Construction – Main Contractor
Billinghurst George & Partners – Structural & Civil Engineering
TGA Consulting Engineers – MEP Services Engineering
CAP.CO – Play Area Designers
Andrew McKeown – Public Art Installations

Key stakeholders, investors and project partners are:
Darlington Borough Council
Tees Valley Combined Authority
A1 Steam Locomotive Trust
Darlington Railway Preservation Society
North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group
Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway
Network Rail
Tourism UK Ltd
National Lottery Heritage Fund

Photography Courtesy of ©Kristen McCluskie