A CITY OF LOCAL LEGENDS : NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE

 

 

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he City of Newcastle upon Tyne needs little introduction, after all it has been around for quite some time. Once the site of the Roman fort of Pons Aelius, the medieval town was allowed a mayor by King John and granted county status in 1400. With trade in wool and coal exportation flourishing, the City prospered. It developed at a gradual pace until the 18th century when huge change to the City began. This change gained further momentum in the 1820`s, fuelled by the speculative genius of Richard Grainger and the architectural talent of John Dobson.

 

The son of a Newcastle Quayside porter, Richard Grainger was born in High Friar Lane in 1797. First apprenticed to a local carpenter, he set up a building business with his brother in 1816. His first large building contract, in Higham Place, commenced in 1819 followed by work in Blackett Street, Eldon Square and Leazes Terrace. In 1834, supported by the Town Clerk, John Clayton, Grainger presented his plan for the wholesale redevelopment of the city centre to the Council.

 

Born in Chirton, North Shields in 1787, John Dobson became the most noted architect in the North of England. His partnership with Richard Grainger helped change the face of Newcastle upon Tyne and gave the city some of the finest streets in England, most notably Grey Street. Despite the modernising zeal of the 1960`s, a great many of these buildings remain to this day.

 

As we go about our busy day to day activities, our surroundings become familiar and buildings, once admired, fade into the background. They become a mere backcloth for journeys to work, nights on the town and weekend shopping expeditions. Adding interest and texture to the streetscape, public works of art appear, sometimes quietly other times with a fanfare. After a while, these too begin to slip by unnoticed.

 

Time, therefore, to re-acquaint ourselves with some of the gems that give the city centre its unique character. Time to examine more closely the new works of art. Time to fuse the old with the new. On the way, we might even encounter a local legend or two.

 

 

Cardinal Basil Hume

 

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e start our journey at one of the finest railway stations in the country, Newcastle Central. Designed by John Dobson, and opened by Queen Victoria on the 29th August 1850, the station is described in Biddle and Nock`s 1983 book, `The Railway Heritage of Britain` as “magnificent inside for its spectacular combination of curves and outside for its sheer size and length”. It was the first large iron and glass vault in England and it was Dobson`s last major work for the city. The large portico at the front of the station was added in 1863 and was designed by Thomas Prosser.

 

Once outside the station, cross to the opposite side of Neville Street and turn left towards St. Mary`s Catholic Cathedral. Built in 1844, the church was designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, the architect responsible for the interior of the Houses of Parliament as well as the working drawings of the exterior detail. The 222 foot spire was added at a later date and was designed by the architect, Joseph Aloysius Hansom, better known as the inventor of the `Hansom Cab`.

 

Within the grounds of the Cathedral, at the southern end, is the `Cardinal Basil Hume Sculpture and Memorial Garden`, unveiled by the Queen on the 7th May 2002. The three metre high bronze sculpture, by British portrait sculptor Nigel Boonham, shows Newcastle-born Cardinal Hume in his Benedictine monk`s habit, wearing a cardinal`s skullcap and the cross of St. Cuthbert. The statue, which stands on a sandstone platform in the shape of Holy Island, is set in a garden that reflects Basil Hume`s love of the holy landscape of Northumbria and the Northern Saints.

 

Leaving the garden behind, turn into Bewick Street, so named after the artist and wood-engraver Thomas Bewick who lived near here between 1781 and 1812. Cross immediately to the opposite side of the road and  be sure to look down and examine, set into the pavement, the large bronze `Chillingham Bull`, Bewick`s most recognisable engraving. This work was unveiled in August 2003 to mark the 250th anniversary of the engraver`s birth and is firmly anchored in place by 40 hidden stainless steel bolts. Continue as far as Clayton Street West and cross to the opposite side. Before continuing to your right, towards the junction with Westgate Road, make sure to walk a few metres to your left. Here at number 28, on the 4th July 1861, Richard Grainger was taken ill whilst working and died later that day. 

 

Once at the Westgate Road junction you will be standing beneath a gilded, naked female figure with arms outstretched standing on top of a large clock cantilevered out from the building. This is a replica of the 1935-statue which adorns the Northern Goldsmith`s building on the corner of Blackett Street and Pilgrim Street and the work is entitled `Progress`. Diagonally across the junction is the recently opened music venue, the Carling Academy, better known to the youth of the 1950/60`s as the `Majestic Ballroom`.

 

 

13th century Durham Tower

 

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urn left into Westgate Road and cross over to the right hand side at the first opportunity. Quickly you will arrive at Bath Lane and the conical sculpture by Derry-born sculptor, Eilís O`Connell, entitled `Ever Changing`. The surface of the cone, which tapers downwards, consists of mirror-polished stainless steel sheeting and reflects the surrounding buildings, the changing skies and the movement of  the traffic. Over your shoulder you will see the Tyne Theatre, opened in 1867, and home to one of the most beautiful auditoriums in the country. The theatre was designed by William B. Parnell and in 1919 it became the Stoll Picture Theatre remaining so until its closure in 1974. Subsequently, it was lovingly restored under the guidance of the Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust and it remains substantially as it was when it first opened nearly 140 years ago.

 

As you turn right up Bath Lane you will be following the finest stretch of the city`s medieval walls and, after passing the impressive 13th century Durham Tower, turn right through a break in the walls, into Stowell Street. On your left is the Heber Tower, once used by the Company of Armourers, Curriers and Feltmakers, and from this point a third tower can be seen. Squeezed along an almost impossibly narrow back street, the Morden Tower has been Newcastle`s centre of modern poetry since 1964. It was here, on the 22nd December 1965, that Northumberland`s greatest poet, Basil Bunting, read his most famous poem, `Briggflatts`, publicly for the first time. In 1975 Bunting said, “ A poet is just a poet, but I am a Northumbrian man. It has always been my home, even when I`ve been living elsewhere”.

 

Continue along Stowell Street, the heart of the city`s China Town. Once one of the poorer areas, China Town had its beginnings in 1972 when a Chinese couple established a small grocery business in this street. In due course, as the business expanded, other Chinese people moved into the area, setting up small restaurants. Reflecting the growth in the Chinese community, Stowell Street became generally recognised as `China Town` in the early 1980`s and it is now a lively and thriving part of the city. Halfway along, on the left hand pavement, there is a hexagonal post box, a type which was used during the period 1866-1879 immediately prior to the cylindrical box being introduced.

 

As you turn left into St. Andrew`s Street, once named Darn Crook meaning obscure or crooked street, you will be bowled over by the magnificent 11 metre high `Chinese Arch` which spans the roadway. Carved and painted animals, notably dragons and phoenixes, decorate the arch which was designed by Yonglai Zhang. It was constructed by a team of 12 traditional craftsmen in the Jiangsu Province and took from October 2004 until January 2005 to complete. It was formally opened to the public on the 21st February 2005.

 

 

The Chinese Arch

 

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ass through the arch and turn right into Gallowgate and within a short distance you will find, tucked away on your right and surrounded by trees, St. Andrews Church. Whilst the church has been much repaired over the years, the lower part of the west tower is from the 12th century and was built with Roman stones. The churchyard is worth exploring. Cross to the left hand side of Gallowgate and at the Newgate Street/Percy Street junction continue straight ahead into Blackett Street, named after John Erasmus Blackett, Mayor of Newcastle on four occasions in the 18th century.

 

Before long you will reach what remains of the original Eldon Square. Surrounded on two sides by the uninspiring brickwork of the Eldon Square Shopping Centre the grassed square has at its centre a memorial to those who fell in the Great War. The bronze figure on top of the high plinth represents St. George, the Patron Saint of the Northumberland Fusiliers, slaying the dragon. On the north east side of the square stands a still fine looking terrace of the original John Dobson designed buildings, constructed between 1825 and 1831.

 

Just past the square, outside the entrance to Fenwick`s departmental store, a feature of Newcastle life since Mr. J.J. Fenwick opened his first store in 1882, stands the terracotta tile clad `Parsons Polygon`. Primarily a ventilation shaft for the nearby Metro Station, the 1985 work by David Hamilton is a monument to Sir Charles Parsons, the creator of the steam turbine powered `Turbinia`.

 

Within a matter of minutes you reach the Grainger/Dobson epicentre. Rising high above the surrounding buildings, `Grey`s Monument` is one of the city`s most cherished icons and is crowned by a twice-lifesize statue of Northumbrian-born Earl Charles Grey, author of the 1832 Reform Bill. From the top of his Benjamin Green-designed column, Earl Grey enjoys the best view in Newcastle as he gazes directly down the street bearing his name. Described by Nikolaus Pevsner in his book, `The Buildings of England: Northumberland` as “….the best of Dobson`s city streets and one of the best streets in England”, it curves gently as it slips down towards the river. With the quintessential English poet, John Betjeman, having considered the street`s graceful curve “….finer than London`s Regent Street”, there is little doubt as to its national importance. The monument is surrounded by a host of fine buildings and even the most recent addition, Monument Mall, built on the site of the former Post Office, has been constructed in a similar style to the existing buildings and blends with ease. Be sure to look out for the charming, ornate and witty Emerson Chambers, one of the city`s most recognisable buildings.

 

 

The `new` reflecting the `old`

 

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ime to head down Grainger Street as it makes its arrow-straight way towards the end of the day`s walk. As you move on, make sure to watch out for the unique poetry seats, the result of  glass artist Cate Watkinson`s collaboration with poet Julia Darling, which are dotted along the top part of the street. Pause at the junction with Nelson Street and beneath your feet you will see a large cast iron plaque, by Charlie Holmes and Ian Ness, containing a text dedication to Richard Grainger.

 

Attached to the building on the corner of Nelson Street, immediately above the shop front, is a small white plaque naming three of the illustrious people who visited the bookshop once occupying this spot. In 1854 Giuseppe Garibaldi popped in whilst visiting the area to brief local political and industrial leaders on his plans for the unification of Italy, followed, in 1856, by Hungarian patriot and statesman Louis Kossuth and, 20 years later, by American abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. Less than 100 metres along Nelson Street is the 1838 Music Hall, where in December 1861author of the moment, Charles Dickens, gave public readings of his work over 3 nights.

 

To your left, on Grainger Street, is one of the three entrances to the beautiful J & H Oswald designed, 1906 built-Central Arcade. Peep inside to marvel at the glass barrel-vaulted roof and the Burmantofts faience in shades of browns, buffs and yellows. Once outside again, continue past the two entrances to the extensive Grainger Market. Opened in 1835, the market was the first building of Grainger`s redevelopment masterplan to be completed and it continues to thrive to this day.

 

When you reach  the junction with Newgate Street, cross over to the left hand side of Grainger Street. You are now at the top of the busy Bigg Market and standing alongside the red sandstone Renaissance-style `Rutherford Memorial`. Unveiled in 1894, this memorial to Presbyterian Minister Dr. J.H. Rutherford was originally erected outside St. Nicholas` Cathedral but was moved to this location in 1901. It seems ironical that this memorial to a man who was a strong promoter of temperance should end up in the heart of the city`s vibrant nightlife.

 

As you continue down Grainger Street, the tower of the medieval St. John`s Church begins to dominate the view. Whilst there are oddments from earlier times, the rough exterior stonework gives this predominantly 15th century church an overall older look. Before leaving the church behind, make sure to give a backwards glance at the south facing façade of the John Johnstone designed French Chateau style building on the corner of St.Johns Street. Built for the Gateshead Gas Company in 1887, the building has an outstanding roof finished with rich green Westmorland slates. Part of the building was once occupied by Wengers Departmental Store. It ought not to be missed.

 

 

Give a backwards glance - once home to `Wengers`

 

 

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ross over Westgate Road and continue down the remaining 100 metres of Grainger Street, passing along the way the 2003 artwork by Sean Henry entitled `Man with Potential Selves`. These three extremely lifelike coloured bronze figures represent different views of the same man; one standing, one walking and one floating horizontally. As we come to the end of our walk at the bottom of arguably Newcastle`s second finest street, it is worth remembering that this has only been the start of our journey of re-acquaintance. There is so much more to see.

 

Devised, written & photographed: Geoff Holland 2006

 

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