Leading musician pays harp tribute to his railway engineer father at Tanfield Railway

Harpist originally from Corbridge plays at Tanfield railway in honour of locomotive pioneer father

David Watkins with his harp on the Tanfield Railway
David Watkins with his harp on the Tanfield Railway

A top musician made a playing pilgrimage to the North East to make a musical tribute to his railway pioneering father.

Prof David Watkins, a leading harpist who grew up in Northumberland, travelled from his home in Oxfordshire to the Tanfield railway near Sunniside in Gateshead.

He played his gold concert harp beside the oldest working diesel electric locomotive in the world, which is based at Tanfield.

The 1933 locomotive was designed by his father Donald, who worked at the Armstrong Whitworth factory in Scotswood in Newcastle.

Donald also designed the dead man’s handle safety device, which is used in the case of driver emergency.

The family lived at Oakwood between Hexham and Corbridge.

In 1932 Donald was chef electrical engineer at Armstrong Whitworth and in 1934 he became contracts manager.

He introduced the Tyneside Venturer, the first diesel electric rail car, which was trialed between Newcastle and Hexham. Export orders were quickly received from the likes of Brazil, India and Argentina.

Sir Nigel Gresley, who designed the A4 Pacific locomotives, came to see the new diesel technology and he and Donald became friends.

At Tanfield on Thursday David joined friend Rodney Towers, whose family ran the Readhead’s Tyneside shipyard and who has researched Donald’s diesel design achievements. They have know each other from nursery school days in Corbridge.

David Watkins on the Tanfield Railway
David Watkins on the Tanfield Railway

Beside the locomotive, David played one of his compositions, Fire Dance, which was a favourite with his father. He was also able to take a short footplate ride on the engine.

“It was all an extraordinary experience,” said David, who taught at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

“It has been a unique and emotionally moving experience for me to have been given the opportunity of playing alongside the oldest working locomotive my father designed.

“From when I was very young I loved music although my father intended that I should go into the railways and bought me an electric train set.

“One night, I overheard a conversation my father was having with his brother. ‘What do I do? David wants to be a harpist – I thought harpists were ladies in long dresses.’”

But David went on to win a scholarship to study the harp in Paris shortly after winning a national competition to find young instrumentalists.

He became principal harpist at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and was later a founder member of the Welsh National Opera Company, and played for various periods with the Royal Philharmonic, and London Philharmonic Orchestras.

He was a soloist with the London Sinfonietta at the London Proms and in 2000 was principal harpist at a concert given by the World Orchestra for Peace.

However one of his most memorable invitations was to devise a recital of poetry and music with Princess Grace of Monaco for the official engagement of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

“My father was very proud of me,” said David.

Tanfield Railway trustee, Derek Smith, said: “It’s fascinating to meet David and to learn about his father’s involvement in the construction of these locomotives. “The work done by Donald and his team in the 1930s is an almost forgotten part of our railway history, but a vitally important part.

“If it wasn’t for the coming of the Second World War, I’ve got no doubt that the works at Scotswood would have changed the direction of railway development in this country.”


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer