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After 10 solitary years building lost Middlesbrough, Steve Waller’s masterpiece finally goes public

Steve Waller spent 10 years building a model masterpiece of lost Middlesbrough in his flat. How did he feel when it finally went on display?

“I was born here, you know,” says one visitor, as she tentatively approaches Steve Waller during a quiet moment.

Steve turns away from our interview, nods and instinctively begins to point out landmarks on the intricate model he has built of a town lost to time.

Her husband loitering a few paces behind, she talks of her memories of St Hilda’s, ‘Over the Border’, or whatever it is you want to call the original centre of Middlesbrough.

It was the world’s first railway town in 1835. A sleepy hamlet which rapidly accelerated into a hotspot for migrants in search of work. The demolished and almost forgotten heart of the industrial revolution.

Almost 200 years on from that, this part of town has become a passion – an obsession, really – for Steve, the artist who’s been dubbed the ‘Michelangelo of Middlesbrough’.

He’s spent more than 10 years painstakingly recreating its streets, alleyways, pubs, shops and marketplace, even sleeping on a camp bed in his kitchen as the model grew and took over his bedroom.

For the first time, the work was earlier this year on public display, at the town’s biggest art space, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima).

It’s attracted thousands of visitors – many who told Steve it was their first time inside the town centre gallery – and it proved so popular, Mima extended its time tucked in the gallery’s glass-fronted entrance way.

Now, working with Middlesbrough Council, Steve has plans to put it on permanent public display in a prominent central location.

The model of St Hilda's, Middlesbrough at Mima

Steve Waller’s model of St Hilda’s, Middlesbrough at Mima

Like the woman who pointed out her childhood home – the first of dozens that day to approach Steve with her memories – thousands have taken full advantage of the opportunity to make St Hilda’s real again, if only for five minutes.

Most of them have engaged with Steve, sharing their life stories and strong memories to a man who has worked solo for 10 years.

How has he managed the sudden exposure?

“I am still trying to process that myself,” the 63-year-old reflects.

“Imagine doing something so solitary, over the years you do get a bit introverted.”

Steve, who lives in the Longlands area of Middlesbrough, walks daily in nearby Albert Park – a shining symbol of the town’s Victorian expansion to the south of St Hilda’s.

And he still keeps in touch with the outside world through a few pints with mates.

But there’s been a lot – ten years-worth – of long days alone with the model.

Steve Waller with his model of St Hilda's, Middlesbrough at Mima

Steve Waller with his model of St Hilda’s, Middlesbrough at Mima

“Bringing it here – well, I’ve gone from one extreme to another. Total isolation to total exposure. It’s full on, listening to people’s stories about their lives.

“But it’s been pretty magical as well.

“The model has been a bit of a refuge for me, a little world I can merge into. Now I can share that with everyone.”

Among the stories shared have been tales of children being born on the floors of pubs, poverty and struggle. But that’s been allied with an unbreakable strength of community. Pride of place. Wistful longing for a simpler life with familiar friends and neighbours, happy memories.

And it was a look into the past that originally inspired Steve’s hard work – that, and a cricketing injury.

Laid up with a bad back, his mind began to drift to the life of his uncle, James Bateman, who died in the Great War and was from the nearby North Ormesby area of Middlesbrough.

“I started investigating his life,” he continued. “I was imagining the route he walked on his last day, the street he waved his parents away from.”

Finding a plan from the time, he set about recreating it – constructing simple buildings so he could see it in 3D.

Only a few momentos remain in a tin from that first model, but it lit a spark in Steve’s psyche.

His inquisitiveness led him to a former cemetery, now long forgotten underneath Ayresome Gardens, off the well-used Linthorpe Road in the centre of town.

“There were 11,320 people buried there. My own great-great grandfather is, under what’s the basketball court now,” continued Steve.

“Because a lot of the people who were buried there were from St Hilda’s, it was logical for me to go there next.”

He started with the Old Town Hall – one of only a handful of original buildings still standing, empty and ready for redevelopment, from St Hilda’s heyday.

“I set myself a high level of detail. You start how you mean to carry on, and I thought, I can finish this. Game on.”

There has, of course, been times when he’s wanted to pack it in.

“It’s no good putting pressure on yourself, but you do. Some days everything goes superbly well, and there’s other days when you want to give up and leave it,” he continued.

“Then you get a bit bored and pick it up again.”

Steve Waller with his model of St Hilda's, Middlesbrough at Mima

Steve glances over at the model again as he speaks – clear plastic screens were installed around it in Mima, as the risk of people knocking into the table and disturbing the balsa wood buildings and hand painted cobbles was getting too high.

He’s placed a bag in between two of the screens, a makeshift barrier to stop youngsters crawling in between the legs of the table.

“You have to watch them, but children almost understand what the model’s about a bit more,” he said. “They don’t have the memories. But they haven’t had their imagination knocked out of them yet.”

While Mima might have been best known for challenging and internationally renowned modern art, Steve and his model – and its visitors – have made the gallery their own for three weeks.

So does Steve Waller see his model as art, and himself an artist?

“Well, what’s art if it doesn’t provoke debate?” Steve asks back.

Some have questioned him over the positioning of some of the shops or asked why a particular pub might not have been included.

“You need a certain amount of artistic licence,” Steve smiles.

“I’ve tried to recreate what it would have been like. I’ve gone off the original 1830s plans, but it was never meant to be a snapshot of just one particular time.

“I think most people have understood that.

“Middlesbrough is unique. There was such power here, we built railways and bridges across the world. There were people coming from across England to work here, from Italy, Germany, Ireland, Wales.

“Then St Hilda’s just sort of melted away over a period of 30 years, really. The 1960s were the decade of real destruction – original housing was torn down.

“Other towns are more deeply rooted – they’ve been there for 800 years. It’s not quite as deep in Middlesbrough, but it’s much more powerful.

“We’ve always punched above our weight.”

The model of St Hilda's, Middlesbrough at Mima

The model is now in storage and Steve is working with the council to find it an appropriate permanent home, where it can be safely made public for future generations.

Is there another project – one perhaps more deeply rooted than St Hilda’s – that he fancies taking on next?

Maybe, Steve ponders, revealing he has been looking at the High Street of neighbouring Teesside town Stockton, considered in some quarters to be the widest in England.

Steve Waller drifts away again to chat as more visitors pile in.

He answers questions and awkwardly accepts their praise.

Helping people to find what everyone thought was lost.