New benches to honour local heroes

TALIBAN bomb victim Michael Sweeney and David Rathband, the police officer left blind after being shot by gunman Raoul Moat last year, are among the local heroes to be honoured by commemorative benches in two south east Northumberland towns.

The benches, part of an art initiative by sustainable transport charity Sustrans, will soon be appearing alongside bike routes across the UK as part of a project to extend the National Cycle Network using a £50m Big Lottery Fund grant.

One of Blyth’s benches will feature an image, in weathered steel, of Coldstream Guard Michael, killed while on foot patrol in Afghanistan in 2010.

His mum Kim, 41, said she was humbled that so many people had voted for her son’s nomination.

She said: “To have a living image of Michael there for generations possibly to come is just so lovely.

“I can’t put it into words how much it means. To have a soldier like him portrayed, who has given his life in the conflict, so that people remember not just him but other fallen soldiers is very moving.

“It is something that is going to be heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.”

His memorial will be sited near an image of Pc Rathband, now living in Cramlington, who was shot in the line of duty last summer.

Stan Laurel, whose father Arthur Jefferson built and managed the Old Blyth Royal Theatre, where Laurel worked and performed as a young man, will also be depicted alongside a bench in the town.

In Bedlington, life-size portraits of Sir Daniel Gooch who designed and produced over 340 locomotives including the Great Western, animal charity founder Mary Weightman MBE and doctor and keen community activist Dr John Brown MBE.

Katy Hallett, Sustrans’ director for art and the travelling landscape, said: “It’s great that local people in Blyth and Bedlington have chosen their Portrait Bench characters, representing a real mix of people who mean so much to their local community.

“We can’t wait to see the bench installed and see it really become a part of the landscape.

“Sustrans supports public art that local people can see and enjoy every day and the Portrait Bench is a great example of how our everyday journeys can be made attractive and interesting.”

Over the last six months Blyth has seen new walking and cycling links introduced, across the town to the sports centre, Isabella Community Centre and residential areas, including a toucan crossing near the Sure Start centre.

The works will also improve NCN 1, a popular route for many leisure cyclists, bringing it into Blyth town centre, including the new market square.

In Bedlington a pedestrian and cyclist link through Gallagher Park is already being well used by the local community, enabling people to cross into the town from Bedlington station on an off-road route through the woodlands and fields.