Pigeons to proggy mats

Pit town traditions dating back centuries were examined by the Princess Royal yesterday as she opened a £16m visitor attraction based on Northumberland's coal mining heritage.

Princess Anne visits Woodhorn Colliery

Pit town traditions dating back centuries were examined by the Princess Royal yesterday as she opened a £16m visitor attraction based on Northumberland's coal mining heritage.

Pigeon racing, competition leek growing, proggy mat making and the history of colliery brass bands were all explained to a fascinated Princess as she toured the flagship new Woodhorn museum and archives centre in Ashington.

During her 90-minute visit, Anne chatted to retired underground mineworkers, former Northumberland Coal Queens and the man who looked after Woodhorn Colliery's last pit ponies, before formally opening the lottery-funded complex, which is expected to attract 100,000 visitors a year.

She also took an inter-active journey through Northumberland's mining past by walking through the impressive Coal Town exhibition, which traces the people, places and events of the industry from 1812 to the mid-1980s.

The Princess was shown historical documents dating back to 1172 as she toured Woodhorn's £5m, state-of-the-art archives and study centre which houses the county's priceless collection of records.

Arriving by helicopter, Anne met local civic leaders before beginning her tour of the complex, taking time to admire the impressive serrated roof of the new building which is designed to commemorate coal-cutting equipment used in the county's old pits.

She was shown around one of the newly-conserved, 100-year-old colliery buildings which are now unique in the British coalfield and visited galleries showcasing historic miners' lodge banners and the collection of work by Ashington's famed Pitmen Painters. Unveiling a plaque to mark the official opening of the centre, the Princess said everyone involved in the Woodhorn project deserved "considerable congratulations" for what had been achieved, especially pulling together the finances involved.

"It is a very spectacular building and I hope everyone will enjoy it and help fulfil all of the ambitions you have had for this site."

Among the people the Princess met yesterday were George Phillips, 86, of Stakeford, the last horsekeeper at Woodhorn Colliery, champion leek grower Bob Bell, 72, of Ashington and pigeon racing expert Tom Dawson, also from Ashington.

She chatted to former beauty queens Gillian Richardson, 72, of Ashington and Mary Tuohy, 75, from Bedlington - both Northumberland Coal Queens in the 1950s - and also met local proggy and hooky mat-makers, Sheila Wilson and Doreen Armitage.

Mr Phillips, who looked after Woodhorn's pit ponies from 1938 to 1981, said: "The Princess asked me how the ponies used to work and seemed really interested in the subject."

Retired miner Mr Bell, who has won countless prizes at leek shows over 55 years and once grew the biggest single leek in the world, said: "She was very well versed on the subject and had done her homework."

The new Woodhorn attraction opens its doors to the public tomorrow after being closed for more than two years for the massive redevelopment, which attracted £10m in heritage lottery funding.

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