Two Cities, One River - Newcastle And Gateshead Heritage Trail

By Roland Hancock | 05 August 2004

Nothing symbolises Newcastle and Gateshead like the Tyne Bridge, as demonstrated at this exhibition at the Baltic. © Jon Pratty.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne and it's sister city Gateshead are built on twin foundation stones, unconsciously carved onto the side of every building and monument, evident in every street name and written into the pavement – religion and industry.

The signs are everywhere, writ large and small in their finest monuments and hidden in the backstreets. I’d like to show you the sights that are a testament to these hard working principles, places that glow with the resilient faith and buoyant entrepreneurship that built these cities.

In the last few years however, the city’s tougher face has changed, softened by public and private art projects sweeping across the city like Baltic winds. European money has given the streets a new sheen, and the city’s twin foundation stones have been painted up. There’s more fun to be had than ever before.

Shows a photo of a cathedral, with a modern office block to one side and the castle in the background.

Newcastle Cathedral and the castle - reminders of a long history. © Roland Hancock

Guiding and confirming these principles is the omniscient, princely (and until recently very profitable) River Tyne. It meanders past the centre, seen from almost every quarter, reminding lost visitors and locals that it is the only reason they are there, Newcastle and Gateshead as we’ll see, only exist because of the Tyne.

The tour begins at Blackfriars, behind Stowell Street, north west of the city centre. From the city walls turn left toward Blackfriars restaurant, and left again through the archway to the courtyard.

Shows a photo taken from one side of the river, of a mixture of old a modern buildings.

The banks of the Tyne pay testimony to a strong industrial past, but horizons have changed. © Roland Hancock

It’s not easy to find the religious foundations of a city so completely reinvented by the industrial revolution, but they are there, down the backstreets, behind the monuments, there is a Newcastle-before-Tyne.

The best place to find this early city is Blackfriars, the well preserved remains of a 13th Century Dominican friary, and beautiful shaded courtyard tucked behind the city’s Chinese quarter. The Dominicans first came to Newcastle, then a tiny community, in AD 1239, and set up the friary at its current site in 1248 after an earlier one burned down.

By this time the whole region was already known as something of a religious centre since the thriving monastery on Holy Island, north of the city, had produced exquisitely illustrated works like the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Shows a photo of a neatly trimmed square of lawn, with paving in the foreground and small buildings and trees to the rear.

The pleasant courtyard of Blackfriars, one of Newcastle's early religious foundations. © Roland Hancock

The Friary remained in constant use until the dissolution, which in 1543 saw the buildings given over to the town’s guilds. The guildsmen added to, and divided the buildings further and further, using a patchwork of architectural techniques that extended down the ages.

The derelict courtyard was cleared in the 1970’s and today houses exhibitions on the site’s history and an array of craft shops, sales rooms and plush restaurants, not so far removed from the its guild origins.

Go to the open side of the courtyard and turn right onto Low Friars Street, turn right onto Westgate Road, cross Blenheim Street to reach Blenheim Square and the Discovery Museum.

Shows a photo of a very large, rectangular red brick building with turrets and arched windows.

The Discovery Museum is housed in an impressive Victorian building. © Roland Hancock

I’m surprised there’s much of the city left after the curator had finished cramming everything that is Newcastle into one place. Comprehensive is the only word to describe this museum, both in its vastness and its understandability.

The museum is housed in Blandford House, built in 1899 as the Co-op Wholesale Society Headquarters for the Northern Region, and one of the only buildings large enough to house the Discovery’s impressive collection when it outgrew its old site in 1978.

Inside, the museum is split into exhibitions on the history of the Tyne, a science museum (I played with the vacuum nozzles set to blow and hold plastic balls in mid air for at least half an hour), and a museum of fashion history.

Shows a photo of the interior of the museum, with exhibits on three levels and a glass roof.

Almost everything you could ever want to know about the Tyne can be found inside Discovery. © Roland Hancock

Most impressive is the museum of working lives, chronicling the fashions and fates of Tynesiders from the 12th century to 2000 and beyond. It’s interesting to see how working men and women lived their lives so far removed, socially and geographically, from the seat of power in London, and so closely associated with the industrial power of the empire. Unpretentious, straigthforward and important, just like this exhibition.

From Discovery turn right down Blenheim Street toward the Centre for Life, a science park set up in 1996 to investigate all aspects of genetics, and very good museum in its own right. Take Ford Bank going down to the river behind the museum, cross the car park to the river itself.

photo shows the front of a modern museum

The Centre for Life building makes a break from the imposing architecture of previous centuries. © Roland Hancock

Were it not for this river, Newcastle would have remained for many years a small community of monks and soldiers warily keeping an eye on the Scots from the eponymous castle. From the 13th century onwards, however, the town found itself in the middle of an irrepressible economic mix of coal and easy transport to London. The town would never be the same, morphing from a small introverted community to an exuberant centre of industry and trade.

The earliest reference to ‘taking coals to Newcastle’ dates back to 1538, but by then canny merchants had already diversified into iron working, glass blowing, leather tanning, brewing, and more. Anything that could be made could be carried along the deep and forgiving river, to be exported first throughout Europe and then the world.

photo of a large, modern glass building in a wavy igloo shape.

The Sage Music Centre exemplifies the changing face of the Tyne. © Roland Hancock

Capturing the entrepreneurial spirit that for centuries characterised the city, Samuel Smiles wrote: "As you pass through the country at night, the earth looks as if were bursting with fire at many points; the blaze of coke-ovens, iron-furnaces, and coal heaps reddening the sky to such a distance that the horizon seems to be a glowing belt of fire."

As the outskirts of Newcastle produced more and more coal the riverside area became more and more of a commercial centre, and both industry and commerce gave rise to some of the quirkier aspects of Newcastle’s history.

Shows a photo of a bridge built on tall stone juts.

The practical High Level Bridge, designed by Stephenson. © Roland Hancock

George Stephenson set up the world’s first locomotive factory on Forth Street (between the river and the railway station) in 1823. Originally they were designed just to be used in mines, bringing the coal to the surface quickly and safely, but eventually his idea caught on across the world, as can be seen every few minutes as another passenger train crosses the High Bridge.

The river also gave rise to its own distinctive people, the Keelmen, who would steer small vessels laden with coal out to the larger ships out in the river. They spoke their own language, wore distinctive clothes (blue jackets with yellow waistcoats), and intermarried. They were also known for their militant nature and fierce moodiness amongst strangers. Chief among their clan names? Robson.

Turn left at the river and walk toward the first of the Bridges, the High Level Bridge.

Robert Stephenson (1803 – 1859), son of George Stephenson, designed this impressive structure, built in conjunction with the railway station further up the hill to provide an unbroken rail line from London to Edinburgh. Building began in 1846, and it was officially opened by Queen Victoria on September 27 1849.

Shows a photo of two straight iron bridges spanning the river.

Railway bridges crossing the Tyne. © Roland Hancock

Stephenson worked in his father’s locomotive factory just below the station, and must have been able to see his creation taking shape painstakingly slowly over the three years.

The structure used a revolutionary two-tier design, carrying trains above and road traffic below (a toll of a halfpenny was charged to pedestrians and 3d to horse and carriages). It was built so high not only to allow tall ships to pass beneath, but to stop trains from having a steep descent and ascent either side of the river.

From construction on, it has had something of a lucky history: On July 28, 1849, John Smith, a carpenter working on the rail deck of the bridge stepped on a loose plank and toppled head first over the edge. During his fall, the leg of his trousers caught on a large nail, which had been driven into the timber above the level of the road deck, 90 feet above the river. He was suspended here, hanging on for dear life, until fellow workmen rescued him.

Next along the river is the rather unimaginatively named, but charmingly bright Low Level Bridge.

Shows a photo of a red and white bride, lower than the Tyne and Millenium bridges in the background.

The Low Swing Bridge © Roland Hancock

This bridge was built on the site of the medieval stone bridge, which in turn sits on the site of the wooden Roman bridge built by Hadrian in the AD 120s. Though the site remains the same there have been several bridges built here, variously washed away by natural floods or burned down by human invention.

By the 18th century the bridge had become a focal point for commerce on the river, housing numerous shops, houses, and even a prison, until the most serious flood of 1771, resulted in 6 deaths and completely rebuilt bridge in 1773.

The current swing bridge was designed by WG Armstrong and used a hydraulic (now electric) system to allow tall ships to pass. Strangely, it was only begun in 1868 and completed in 1876. For 27 years tall ships could pass under the High Level Bridge, but not the Low Level Bridge next to it.

Carry on along the river, to Newcastle’s most impressive structure, the Tyne Bridge (King George V Bridge).

Shows a photo of the lattice work suspension bridge, rising high abovr the river. © Roland Hancock

If bridges could tell tales, what would the Tyne Bridge have to say? © Roland Hancock

This behemoth was planned in earnest toward the end of the 19th century, to relieve traffic from the overcrowded High and Low Level Bridges, but the £1,200,000 required did not come until 1924, when an Act of Parliament was passed to approve funding.

Designed by Mott, Hay and Anderson, it was built between 1925 and 1929, and opened by George V. Builders employed ship building techniques to build from the top down, so as not disrupt traffic on the river below.

The Tyne Bridge was a prototype for the slightly larger Sydney Harbour Bridge, which was made and flat packed here in the northeast. In fact, the Tyne Bridge held the record for the largest in the world until 1932, when the Sydney Harbour Bridge was completed.

Shows a photo of the Tyne Bridge from a street lined with tall Victorian buildings.

The Tyne Bridge - surrounded by buildings that date from the Victorian period © Roland Hancock

What I found most exciting, however, was the public lift from the base of the pillar, 93 feet up to the pedestrian walkway across the river. Magic.

Before going under the Tyne Bridge turn back to the roundabout and the row of Elizabethan houses and pubs.

These are some of the earliest houses still standing in Newcastle, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. They were owned by the merchants who had grown rich from trade on the river, perfectly situated to see their ships come in, so to speak, from the first floor windows.

shows a photo of an oak-panelled room with a red carpet and an ornate ceiling.

Did Betty Surtees jump from here? A room inside the Surtees' house. © Roland Hancock

One of the houses is open to the public, originally owned by Bessie Surtees’ father. She famously jumped from one of the windows to elope with a young local. He went on to become Lord Eldon, the prominent and extremely wealthy landowner and Lord Chancellor, lending his name to the Eldon shopping centre elsewhere in the city centre.

Take the road to the right of the houses, The Side, to a small lane on the left-hand side, go through here for the Side Photographic Gallery.

The gallery, set up in 1977 by the Amber Artist Collective, was created to document the lives and changing times of Newcastle’s working classes. It houses probably one of the most important photographic collections in the country, detailing the city’s catastrophic economic fall in the mid-twentieth century, and its destructive wander years.

Shows a photo of a white room with a strip of framed photos running along its walls, lit by spotlights.

A vast and intriguing photographic document - the Side Gallery. © Roland Hancock

Happily the gallery has also been able to document and guide Newcastle’s recent artistic resurgence and cultural revolution into one of the Europe’s leading cities.

The Side Gallery still runs exhibitions documenting the fate of the Tyne, and the people who live and work there.

Carry on up The Side to the railway bridge. Take the cobbled road to the left and follow it up to St. Nichols’ Cathedral.

Religious Newcastle again, and something of a tranquil relief after the relentless march of industry and commerce. There has been a chapel here for over 900 years, protected by the nearby castle keep, though most of this building dates from the 13th and 14th centuries.

Shows a photo of a stained glass window inside the cathedral.

St Nichols' Cathedral - a sacred building that escaped the effects of industrialisation. © Roland Hancock

Two things drew me to this building, first its bizarre (though they say beautiful) Lantern Tower, snaking out from the spire since 1448. Second, I liked its small, contemplative feel. This is by no means a large or impressive structure, unlike those around it.

Newcastle’s industrial forefathers tore down almost every other building to make way for better, more efficient ones, and yet the little cathedral with its strange spire was left quite alone. Even to the hardest of industrial heads, sacred ground is sacred ground.

From the cathedral turn right onto Neville Street, then the second left onto Grey Street, carry on up to Earl Grey’s Monument.

Shows a photo of a tall column with a statue of Earl Grey atop.

Not Nelson, but Grey - also highly esteemed. © Roland Hancock

Grey Street was voted Britain’s finest by the public recently, and it’s easy to see why. The whole thing was built to a plan by Victorian patriarchs Robert Grainger and John Dobson in the 1830’s, as part of their grand redevelopment of Newcastle’s city centre. The roadway is wide and airy, and the buildings have a classical revivalist uniformity, best seen in the Theatre Royal.

Shows a photo of a grand building with columns and a pediment.

The neo-classical Theatre Royal imposes its presence. © Roland Hancock

The street is named after Earl Grey, Prime Minister in 1830 and author of the Reform Bill, giving power to the people since 1832. It is his statue that rises 134 ft from the ground at the top of Grey Street, master of all he surveys.

From the monument turn right, and follow signs all the way to the Laing Gallery.

This building, a purpose built art gallery celebrating its centenary this year, was donated to the people of Newcastle by wine merchant Alexander Laing. Today it houses some fine modern exhibitions, as well as a permanent gallery of local artists like the 1930s Ashington Group, which drew much of its inspiration from the city’s working classes.

Shows a photo of a pale brick building with a tower on its left.

There's no shortage of culture in this city. The Laing Gallery has been providing a space for art for 100 years. © Roland Hancock

Outside the Laing turn left at the road and carry on along here to the Tyne Bridge. Once on the bridge take the lift down to the Quayside.

Back on the river and back in the city’s historical commercial heart. From the medieval age until commerce went into decline in the 1950’s this stretch of land was home and work to a disparate bunch of labourers, craftsmen, merchants, ship owners and builders - anyone and everyone who could make their living from the river. It was from warehouses here that goods made their way around the world, exporting and importing and empire’s worth every day.

Shows a photo of the river and its bridges, with sunshine reflecting on the water.

The view from Millenium Bridge, with the futuristic Sage Music Centre visible on the left bank. © Roland Hancock

Now the Quayside is home to hotels, cafes and bars, and some of the city’s best public art projects, including the impressive Millennium Bridge, built in 2000 to celebrate and augment the city’s revival. It’s the only bridge in the world designed to open up like an eyelid, and clears the same height as the Tyne Bridge when open, at least once a day most days.

Shows a photo of a delicate white suspension bridge, whose arch rises taller than the large museum building on the bank of the river.

The North's eye - the Millenium Bridge, with the Baltic on the far side © Roland Hancock

Cross the bridge to the last stop on our tour of Newcastle, the best building yet, The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.

This colossal 3000-sq metre art space was converted from an old flourmill owned by Hovis in 2002. The original mill was opened in 1950 and converted after lying derelict for 12 years. Architect Dominic Williams won a competition to redesign the space, which incorporates five floors of constantly changing exhibitions, a cinema, lecture rooms, viewing galleries, and Newcastle and Gateshead’s most exclusive restaurant right at the top.

Shows a photo of a tall building, built of brick at the sides and glass in between.

More art on the inspirational Tyne - The Baltic © Roland Hancock

I’ve spent many afternoons sauntering around this place, trying to figure out some of the exhibitions by obscure Scandinavian artists they insist on putting on here. And where do I always end up? The viewing gallery, six floors up, looking down on the most majestic, dramatic, detailed and beautiful sight in the entire place – Newcastle and Gateshead - two cities on the Tyne.

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