Newcastle and the North-East

It's sometimes said that seeing one's home town is hard for the resident but easy for the casual visitor ! So, I've tried to look at Newcastle with the eyes of someone who's never seen it before. If you think that sort of thing's easy, just try it...

I came here, following the jobs and money, over thirty years ago, young and ambitious, meaning to stay but a year or two. I'm still here - why ? Inertia maybe, but I've come to like the place; I've put down roots and for me it's home (after quite a few residences elsewhere in Britain..)

So what sort of place is it ? It's the regional capital of North-East England, and if one includes the neighbouring localities of Gateshead and Sunderland, there are around 1½ million people living and working in the area (collectively known as Tyne & Wear). On the other hand, the adjacent northern counties of Durham and Northumberland are amongst the most sparsely populated in England and contain at the same time some of the finest landscapes in the country. The North-East was for a very long time best known for its coal mining and heavy industry - ship building, steel manufacture, chemicals, armaments, electrical generation & transmission gear and so forth. Time has moved on and most of this has disappeared or become a mere shadow of its former self. The transition has often been painful for the region generally and for many individuals in particular, but the North-East has survived the worst and there are signs that the trend is upward, if not so fast as in other parts of Britain.

That elusive thing, the quality of life, is not measured by economic indices alone however, and there are plenty of good reasons for choosing to live here in preference to many other places. I hope some of the pictures below will give an idea of the sort of place I've lived in for around 30 years. I've had to be very selective and there are without doubt many other images I could have shown - perhaps others will prompt me for my omissions !


So what about the New_castle ? In fact it's not particularly new at all. There have been buildings here since Roman times and before that. The first castle proper was erected around 1080 AD and was a relatively modest fort. It lasted a few centuries before being demolished and replaced by a much more substantial affair around 1266 AD. The border counties for centuries had a lawless reputation and a strong fortified presence was always required to maintain a semblance of order. Over time the need for fortification diminished and as the city around it grew, an increasing amount of the castle fell into disrepair or was given over to other uses. During the 19th. C it suffered the indignity of demolition of some of its walls in order to make way for the newly arrived railway.

Castle Keep 1 Castle Keep 2 Today there is not a lot preserved of the original castle. The Keep is still relatively intact and is open to the public as a museum. It's quite encroached upon by later buildings and the railway and rather difficult to have a clear sight of what remains. Below right as viewed from the adjacent old Courthouse, and left from the network of stairways and passages which lead down to the river Tyne below.

Castle Keep 3 Castle Keep 4

Black GateThe other preserved part of the Castle is the BlackGate, originally one of three, the others having long disappeared. During the 18 & 19th centuries as outlying parts of the Castle were put to other uses, the BlackGate and adjacent housing acquired a somewhat unsavoury reputation. It has of course been rehabilitated and now belongs to the City and is used to house the extensive library of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Dean Street St. Nicholas CathedralThe environs of the Castle provide a vantage point to view other parts of the city and here the impact of the railway can be seen with the massive viaducts required to carry it over some of the deep cut ravines close to the river. Thus on the right Dean Street descends steeply toward the Quayside. On the left the tower of nearby St. Nicholas Cathedral stands amongst competing modern office buildings.

And how about the River Tyne ? Flowing from west to east towards the North Sea, the river is wide and deep, tidal and quite fast flowing where it passes between Newcastle on its north bank and Gateshead to the south. This is one of the narrowest points in this part of the river which has always presented something of a natural obstacle to north-south movement. There have been bridges across it from the most ancient times, wooden structures which were regularly swept away in floods, later more substantial constructions which themselves nevertheless often suffered wholly or partly from the vagaries of the river. There was a relatively ornate bridge, for example, during the late 18th. C.


Today matters have moved on a long way from this ! Now we have six bridges in all - two road bridges, two rail bridges, one combined road and rail and one for pedestrians & cyclists.

Tyne BridgeThe Tyne Bridge must surely be one of the best known and enduring of modern images of Tyneside and Newcastle. Opened in 1928, it provided the first modern road link between Newcastle and Gateshead in response to the growing demands of all types of motor traffic. It also carried the 'Great North Road' - the A1 from London to Edinburgh which in those days ran right through the centre of both cities (and several others besides on the way.)

The boat moored below it is a former car ferry from the Scotland to Northern Ireland route, now much altered and serving as a popular night club by the way, of which Newcastle has plenty more ! I've travelled on it more than once in its former guise - the transformation is remarkable...

Tyne Bridge below Bessie Surtees Looking up and looking down gives other perspectives - on the right seen from the Tyne Bridge is Betty Surtees House toward the right; said to be the oldest remaining house in the city.

Chronologically speaking, the oldest bridges are the 'Swing Bridge' and Stephenson's 'High Level Bridge', the latter dating from the 1860s and comprising both the first major road bridge to span the Tyne but also carrying rail track on an upper level. Both parts are still very much in everyday use - a tribute to Stephenson's skill indeed. The massive engineering employed, typical of the day, very likely will ensure that it remains in use for the foreseeable future as well. The 'Swing bridge' dates from the early years of the 20th. C and is a road bridge capable of rotating to allow shipping to pass - at the time Newcastle was a significant port and with a requirement that heavy freight (coal, armaments etc.) originating upstream be able to be shipped out of the Tyne, it was essential that this low level bridge could open to allow ships of significant size to pass. There is little such traffic on the Tyne today, but the bridge does still open from time to time, albeit rather infrequently.

Swing Bridge High Level 1

High Level 2 High Level 3 Perspectives on Stephenson's 'High Level Bridge'

As well as these bridges, but not illustrated here, are the King Edward Bridge (1909) providing a rail loop and avoiding the inconvenient reversing that was otherwise required with the High Level Bridge in order to enter the Central Station, the Metro Bridge (1976) which carries the Tyneside underground railway system across the river, and the Redheugh road bridge. The last of these replaced an elderly suspension bridge during the 1980s after it became unsafe and unable to cope with any but the lightest of traffic.

Finally, we have the latest and much acclaimed bridge - the Millennium bridge - funded in part from the National Lottery Millennium Fund. It provides pedestrian (and cycle) access across the Tyne between Newcastle's recently re-developed Quayside and developments in Gateshead which will include a modern concert hall (The Sage) and arts centre (The Baltic). This is also a movable bridge to accomodate shipping, but unlike the Swing Bridge, this pivots about both ends until both arches are high in the air allowing quite large boats to pass beneath.

The Millennium Bridge Millennium & Tyne Bridges

Before leaving the Tyne, here are a few more images (from a cold, frosty winter's day) around the Millennium Bridge.

The Baltic Mill The Mill under renovationThe Baltic Flour Mill has been transformed into a vast new arts centre able to feature all manner of exhibitions. Here it's undergoing the necessary renovation work.

The Millennium Bridge The Millennium BridgeThe new bridge provides a more 'pedestrian friendly' way across the river, but more than that, since renovation there is much more 'equality' between the two sides; there is less sense of Gateshad being the poor relation any more. This certainly won't be the case when the Sage Concert Hall comes into use.

The Millennium Bridge

One might get the impression that castles and bridges are all there is to Tyneside - far from it ! Lets move on into the City centre and see what else there is.

At the middle of everything is the monument to Earl Grey. At least, this is probably where most people nowadays would consider the city centre to be, and certainly the commercial developments are all around it.

Grey's Monument

Looking in various directions, we can see:

Arcade Buildings Eldon Square

Bookshop Theater Royal

The Central Arcade Building, a part of the Eldon Square Shopping Precinct and (formerly) Mawson's Bookshop - now Waterstones.
The last of these, you will note has a row of ornamental lamp standards outside to mark the location when gas lighting was first used for street illumination (Swan).

Whilst the Arcade Buildings have been spared great change, the vast Eldon Square shopping development, dating from the early 70s, was controversial at the time, involving as it did demolition of a large part of the heart of the City. In today's climate, most likely it would not have been constructed in its present form but with more emphasis on conservation. Unfortunately the same could be said of quite a lot elsewhere in the city centre, though to be fair, Newcastle is not alone in this respect. But we do have our share of 60/70s nondescript architecture all the same. Fortunately the Theater Royal, with colonnade & pediment, notwithstanding major renovation some years ago, nevertheless retains a lot of its original Grainger/Matcham character.

Not far from Grey's Monument is Northumberland Street, the main shopping area of the City.

Northumberland Street south Northumberland Street south
Apart from shopping, as you can see, there's little else to detain one in this modern jumble of commercial development. The best that can be said of it is its pedestrianisation - at one time, the Great North Road (from London to Edinburgh) passed its entire length at great hazard to pedestrians and shoppers alike.

At the northern end of Northumberland Street is the Haymarket area (one of several markets from bygone days) to one side of which is the University Church of St. Thomas the Martyr; the University campus (which is quite compact) is on the opposite side and is dominated by the former Physics Department (now Natural Sciences) housing several related departments.

St. Thomas the Martryr Natural Sciences

The University, formerly Armstrong College of Durham University, gained its Charter in 1963, having outgrown its parent institution, and now has some 40,000 students; though it has retained its Science & Technology origins, the Arts and Humanities are well represented, and its Medical School is held to be amongst the best in the country. I must declare an interest here, having taught & researched in this institution for over 30 years...

Also not far from Grey's Monument, and spared also from the developers, is the market area - this is part of the architect Richard Grainger's original development of central Newcastle around the 1840s. Indeed, this same area now is itself undergoing restoration to reassemble as much as can be saved of the original 'Grainger Town.' The Grainger Market, though outwardly rather unassuming, within offers six broad aisles of varied shopping.

Grainger Market Market aisle Fruit'n vegetables

Whilst on the subject of shopping though, there are other more recent developments which do offer a measure of sophistication in Monument Mall and Eldon Garden, both from within the last decade or so.

Monument Mall Eldon Garden

For now, I'll leave you with one final image - the 'Angel of the North' by Anthony Gormley (also funded by the National Lottery), a huge cast iron sculpture, modelled upon the artist himself, standing on an open expanse just south of Gateshead by the Great North Road, it's come to be very famous worldwide, but not without some controversy. What do you think ?

Angel of the North




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© Copyright - Stuart Hill. September, 2004