The Watercress Line receives lifeline grant from Government’s £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund

October 9, 2020

  • Almost 450 heritage organisations in England, including The Watercress Line, have been awarded cash from the first round of the Culture Recovery Fund for Heritage

  • Grants of up to £1 million will deliver a lifeline for the heritage sector in England with further support to follow and larger grants for capital projects awarded through the Heritage Stimulus Fund

  • First major tranche of funding from the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund

The Watercress Line is one of 445 heritage organisations across the country set to receive a lifesaving financial boost from the government thanks to the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund to help them through the coronavirus pandemic.

445 organisations will share £103 million, including The Watercress Line to help restart vital reconstruction work and maintenance on cherished heritage sites, keeping venues open and supporting those working in the sector.

The grant awarded is £600,000 and this is in addition to the National Lottery Heritage Fund grant of £250,000 announced in early September.  Part of the new grant will fund staff costs throughout the winter period when trading revenue is expected to be low because of the impact of the virus.  It will also allow various developments to assist the railway to cope with the Covid-19 restrictions such as erecting screens in carriages, alterations to dining trains and additional signage.  Additionally the grant covers the cost of developing a brand new, world first event ‘Steam Illuminations’ (14th November – 3rd January 2021), introducing an up to date ticketing system to maximise revenue and a top up sum towards the new children’s playground at Ropley.

This vital funding is from the Culture Recovery Fund for Heritage and the Heritage Stimulus Fund – funded by the Government and administered at arms length by Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Both funds are part of the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund which is designed to secure the future of Britain’s museums, galleries, theatres, independent cinemas, heritage sites and music venues with emergency grants and loans.

433 organisations will receive a share of £67 million from the Culture Recovery Fund for Heritage to help with costs for operating, reopening and recovery. This includes famous heritage sites across the country, from Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire to Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, Blyth Tall Ship to the Severn Valley Railway, the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincolnshire to the Piecehall in Halifax. The funds will save sites that are a source of pride for communities across the country.

12 organisations, including English Heritage, Landmark Trust, Historic Royal Palaces and the Canal and River Trust, will receive £34 million from the Heritage Stimulus Fund to restart construction and maintenance on cherished heritage sites to preserve visitor attractions and protect livelihoods for some of the most vulnerable heritage specialists and contractors in the sector.

The Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF) has also been awarded a grant from the Culture Recovery Fund through Historic England. The AHF will use the funding to support charities and social enterprises occupying historic buildings to develop new business plans and strategies for organisations affected by the pandemic.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said:

“As a nation it is essential that we preserve our heritage and celebrate and learn from our past. This massive support package will protect our shared heritage for future generations, save jobs and help us prepare for a cultural bounce back post Covid.”

Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator, Historic Royal Palaces, said:

“There’s no truer way to experience the past than to walk in the footsteps of those who have lived it – that’s why preserving our built heritage is so important.

“At Historic Royal Palaces, we care for six nationally significant buildings, opening them to the public and preserving them for future generations. Sadly, the pandemic meant that we had to stop some of our critical conservation work. The grant we have received from the Culture Recovery Fund will enable this work to resume – so we can give some of Britain’s most historic buildings the care and attention they deserve, while supporting the specialist craftspeople who are vital for the future of our national heritage.  We are enormously grateful to the Government for this support.”

Simon Baggott Watercress Line General Manager said: 

“We are enormously grateful to have been awarded this grant, which really should secure the railway’s continued existence beyond the coming very difficult winter period for the benefit of the local area.  This news will be warmly appreciated by everyone who visits the railway, volunteers or works here.  Being able to fund the staff over the winter will allow us to maintain the key engineering skills essential to the business and the associated training of young employees.  We are looking forward to welcoming more visitors back to the Watercress Line over the coming weeks, to our Autumn Steam Gala, Steam Illuminations & Father Christmas at the Watercress Line.”

The Watercress Line is Hampshire’s only mainland standard gauge heritage railway, running for 10 miles through idyllic countryside between the market towns of Alton and Alresford.  The line first opened in 1865.  Part of British Railways prior to closure in 1973, the line and services were fully reinstated in 1985.  Today, the Watercress Line is one of the South’s premier visitor attractions.  It employs nearly 50 staff and is supported by over 450 dedicated volunteers, without which it could not function.  It is committed to preserving Hampshire’s railway heritage and maintains a fleet of steam and diesel locomotives, rolling stock and infrastructure that creates the essence of a bygone age.  Training of the next generation of heritage railway engineers is seen as an essential part of the business.  The railway provides a comprehensive timetable with trains running on some 200 days each year and which include many special events such as steam and diesel galas, A Day Out with Thomas and War on the Line.  Other services include The Real Ale Train (RAT), The Watercress Belle and the Countryman Dining Trains.  The Watercress Line typically carries some 135,000 passengers a year and has a turnover of £2.75m.

The Watercress Line started running trains again on July 11th, but with substantially reduced capacity for visitors due to social distancing measures, which also add extra costs.  Whilst they have safely carried over 10,000 passengers since then, this is less than 25% of what would normally be expected and many of the higher revenue services had to be curtailed.

This grant will protect the heritage line until next year and enable an even better and safer visitor experience, as well as allowing their well-known events to come back in 2021.

Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s Chief Executive said: 

“It is heartening to see grants, both large and small, from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund helping heritage sites and organisations across the country which have been hit hard by the effects of Covid-19. These grants range from giving skilled craft workers the chance to keep their trades alive to helping heritage organisations pay the bills, and to kick-starting repair works at our best-loved historic sites. The funding is an essential lifeline for our heritage and the people who work tirelessly to conserve it for us all, so that we can hand it on to future generations.”

Ros Kerslake, Chief Executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund said:

“It is absolutely right that investing in heritage should be a priority during this crisis and this support by the Government is crucial.  Heritage creates jobs and economic prosperity, is a major driver for tourism and makes our towns, cities, and rural areas better places to live.  All of this is so important for our wellbeing and will be particularly vital when we start to emerge from this incredibly difficult time.

“Our heritage is still facing a perilous future – we are not out of the woods yet.  But this hugely welcome funding from the Government, and the money we continue to invest from the National Lottery, has undoubtedly stopped heritage and the organisations that care for it being permanently lost.”

Kate Mavor, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said:

“This support for our nation’s heritage is fantastic news.  Over the last few months, our teams have been working hard to welcome visitors back safely to the great castles, stone circles, abbeys and historic houses in our care. This funding will help us invest to safeguard the historic fabric of these much-loved places, which everyone can learn from and enjoy.”