Blue Peter, White House visits and medieval knights - Washington's former PR guru recalls how he helped put the new town on the map

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Appearances on Blue Peter, riding into town on horseback dressed in medieval attire and delivering a birthday card to the White House - just some of the past promotional campaigns to put Washington New Town on the map.

As Washington gears up to celebrate its 60th birthday the man who was in charge of attracting new residents and businesses to the town has been recalling his time as head of public relations and the elaborate advertising campaigns to sell the new town to the world.

After 20 years working in the engineering industry in Scotland, David Warden moved into marketing and communications and in 1981, after seeing an advert, he applied for the position of head of public relations with Washington New Town.

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Despite having never heard of or visited the town before, it was a life-changing move he has never regretted.

David Warden, 83, recounts his time visiting Washington DC.David Warden, 83, recounts his time visiting Washington DC.
David Warden, 83, recounts his time visiting Washington DC.

David, now 83 and living in Biddick, said: “Although the new town had been around for a number of years it was still in its infancy.

“The new villages of Fatfield, Oxclose and Lambton had just been built. There were around 50,000 residents living in the town at the time and as well attracting new people to live in the houses which had been built we were also looking to attract new businesses to provide an economic foundation for the town.”

With Anglo-American relations running high in the early 80s, David and his team decided to harness the town’s connection to the Washington family and the ancestral home of George Washington who served as the first president of the USA between 1789 and 1797.

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He said: “In 1982 we were looking to promote the town by celebrating what would have been George Washington’s 250th birthday.

“We ran a birthday card competition to celebrate his birthday and got Blue Peter involved to judge the winner.

“The original prize was going to to be a bike, but I knew we needed to do something bigger and better and suggested taking the winner and their family out to Washington DC to deliver the card in person.”

And so in February 1982 David was joined by winning child Gary, his mam and dad, and a film crew from Look North to make the trans-Atlantic crossing.

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David Warden and competition winner Gary meeting staff at the White House in 1982.David Warden and competition winner Gary meeting staff at the White House in 1982.
David Warden and competition winner Gary meeting staff at the White House in 1982.

David said: “It was an amazing experience and we were made to feel so welcome. We delivered the card to the door of the White House where it was collected by one of the then president Ronald Reagan’s members of staff.

“We missed him as he had just taken off and was flying out of the grounds in a helicopter to attend another function.

“We were invited back to attend a celebratory dinner a couple of days later and also got to visit Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington.”

Despite the strong ties between the new town and capital of the USA, David was “surprised” that not many of the people he met were aware of this connection.

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He said: “We were interviewed by the Washington Post and even gave presentation about the history of Washington how the two locations are linked.”

The whole visit was captured on BBC cameras with the footage given 13 minutes of prime time viewing upon David, Gary and his family’s return home.

David said: “We worked out it was around £1.5m worth of publicity at the time, which would obviously be a lot more now.”

In 1983, David concocted another elaborate plan to once again utilise George Washington’s ancestors to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the original formation of Washington.

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In 1183, the then William de Hertburn rode from his residence in Teesside to be given the land which would one day become Washington by the Bishop of Durham, changing his name to William de Wessington in the process.

David said: “To commemorate the anniversary we all rode from Stockton to Washington Old Hall dressed in medieval costumes.

“I even learned to ride a horse especially for the event.”

David continued to travel to Washington DC as well as locations across Europe as he sought to promote the new town and was successful in attracting an array of businesses to the town.

He was also involved in helping to attract Japanese car manufacturing giant Nissan to Washington and the transformative affect it had on the new town.

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In 1986 David’s fixed term contract came to an end, but despite hailing from Dundee, after a short spell on the south coast he returned to the town he now calls home and has lived here ever since.

He said: “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. There is something special about this town and it has a heart and identity which I don’t think you get in other new towns.

“I think this is because we maintained the history and heritage of the original Washington - we didn’t demolish it, we built around it.

“This is why I always say Washington is a new town with the heart of an old town.”

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So what’s behind the success of the town?

“I think the town has retained its rural feel yet has all the amenities people need,” said David.

“It’s a beautiful place and you also have attractions such as Beamish and the Wetland Centre right on our doorstep,” he added.

So has the town achieved what it set out to do?

“I would say Washington has unequivocally achieved what it set out to do,” said David.

“I certainly think we got a lot more right than wrong. The one mistake I think we did make was the district numbering system rather than names.

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“I also think the development could have been even better if we had a Metro station.

“I still don’t understand why they didn’t put a town with over 60,000 people living in it on the Metro line.”

The town officially opened on July 24, 1964 and Sunderland City Council is currently finalising plans to mark the anniversary with a series of celebratory events including an exhibition of photographs, memorabilia and most importantly people's memories of the town's formative years.

There is also set to be a “culmination” celebration event for people to enjoy.

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