View from the Millennium Bridge, looking west
Our favourite walk in Newcastle, and that I suspect of most visitors, is along the Quayside past the city’s famous bridges. There are seven in total that straddle the Tyne in this central area. From west to east these are:
Redheugh Bridge – a modern road bridge, opened in 1983 (replacing an earlier bridge at this point)
King Edward VII Bridge – a railway bridge, opened 1906 to ease congestion in the Central Station
Queen Elizabeth II Bridge – carrying the urban Metro trains, opened 1981
High Level Bridge – carrying road and railway, opened in 1849
Swing Bridge – a road bridge, opened in 1876
Tyne Bridge – also a road bridge and the city’s most famous, opened in 1928
Millennium Bridge – used by pedestrians and cyclists, opened in 2001
Of these, it is the easternmost four that are the most interesting and photogenic for the majority of visitors. I will describe them in more detail as we come to them on our walk, along with the other major sights of the Quayside.
High Level Bridge
The High Level Bridge with the Swing Bridge in the foreground
The High Level Bridge is possibly not the most attractive of the bridges over the Tyne, but it provides an angular, dramatic contrast to the curves of the Tyne and Millennium Bridges, and the views from a train crossing it can’t be beaten. It was designed by Robert Stephenson and built here between 1847 and 1849. It was the first major bow-string girder bridge to be built, designed to solve the challenge of spanning such a wide river valley. Six of its spans are over the waters of the Tyne, on masonry pillars up to 40 meters high, while on each side of the river a further four spans complete the bridging of the valley. It is a truly impressive piece of engineering, and it is easy to see why its local 19th century nickname was 'lang legs'!
The bridge provides a river crossing for both road (vehicle and pedestrian) and rail. The road is on the lower of the two levels, while the railway runs on the upper deck. The bridge was built for the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway as part of the London to Edinburgh line (today usually referred to as the East Coast Line). However, when the King Edward VII Bridge was built a little to the west of this one in 1906 the East Coast trains started to use that one (as they do today) and the High Level is usually instead used by trains running to Sunderland and Middlesbrough. But the two lines are connected through the Central Station and on the Gateshead side, allowing trains to circle through the cities to turn around and use either bridge when necessary.
Train crossing the High Level Bridge
Pedestrians crossing the High Level Bridge
I think the High Level Bridge looks at its best in the fading light of late afternoon, when a passing train is silhouetted against a dramatic sky. And if you’re lucky enough to arrive in the city on one of the rare intercity trains that still cross this bridge (a few are still routed this way when the station is especially busy), you will have one of the best vantage points for a “Welcome to Newcastle” view of the Tyne (if you aren’t that lucky, or arrive by road, then of course you can take a walk out onto the bridge during your stay for the same view).
Swing Bridge reflection
While many of the bridges that cross the Tyne do so at some height above the water, the Swing Bridge is much lower, and solves the challenge of allowing shipping to pass not by allowing it space, but by moving out of its way!
The bridge stands on what was probably the site of the first bridge across the river in this area, the Roman Pons Aelius, and certainly that of the 1270 Tyne Bridge, so this is the earliest crossing point in the city. It replaced another bridge built here in 1781, which didn’t allow larger ships to pass. This was a major concern for William Armstrong, who owned a manufacturing works a little further up the Tyne, at Elswick (making hydraulic cranes which were used on the Quayside to unload ships, and weapons, among other things). To solve the problem Armstrong proposed funding and designing a new bridge, with a hydraulic mechanism to turn it through ninety degrees to allow ships to pass on either side. This mechanism is still in use today, although large ships no longer come up the Tyne and the bridge is only rarely required to move (I have never seen it do so).
The Swing Bridge tucked beneath the Tyne Bridge
Incidentally, Armstrong himself is an interesting character. Among other achievements, he invented a gun that was used on both sides in the American Civil War, built the steam-driven hydraulic pumping engines for Tower Bridge in London, was an early advocate of renewable energy sources, and built Cragside House near Rothbury in Northumberland which was the first in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity (and is today open to the public and well worth a visit, incidentally). You can read more about him on a website devoted to him: http://www.williamarmstrong.info/. Today his name lives in in a road in the west of the city (Elswick, home of his manufacturing works), in a park in Heaton in the north east and a bridge over the Ouseburn in Jesmond Dene.
The Tyne Bridge, early evening
The Tyne Bridge is the most famous of the seven bridges that cross the river between Newcastle and Gateshead. It was built to replace an earlier (1781) stone bridge and was opened by King George V and Queen Mary in October 1928. Instantly recognisable, it has come to symbolise the city.
It’s often said that the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia was based on the Tyne Bridge, though I've also read that it was the other way around and that the Australians got in first – but try telling that to a Geordie! In fact, both are modelled on the Hell Gate Bridge in New York City, but again, no local will want to believe their bridge wasn’t the first and best.
Tyne Bridge and Sage (music venue on Gateshead Quayside)
Bus crossing the Tyne Bridge
City skyline with Tyne Bridge
The road is 84 feet above the water and the bridge has a 531 foot span. Its towers are of Cornish granite and were originally designed to serve as warehouses, with five storeys. But the inner floors were never completed and, as a result, the storage areas were never used. Lifts for passengers and goods were built in the towers to provide access to the Quayside but they are no longer in use. The Tyne Bridge Towers are usually opened to the public as part of Heritage Open Days in September.
Kittiwakes and other birds
on the Tyne Bridge
Look up at the stone towers that support the great span of the Tyne Bridge and you'll spot the nests of the kittiwakes. This is the world's furthest inland breeding colony of these birds, who unlike other gulls haven't adapted to living off man's scraps but still live entirely on fish.
Now that the River Tyne is clean again after many years of pollution there are plenty of fish to be caught there as well as out in the North Sea beyond the river's mouth. The kittiwakes nesting here must think these great stone towers are cliffs of course.
Kittiwake nesting on one of the Tyne Bridge towers
The bridge is now considered an important breeding site for these birds, but their nests are threatened by the complaints of nearby residents who dislike the noise and mess they cause. I don’t live here so perhaps it’s unfair of me to comment, but I think it would be a real shame if they were prevented from nesting through the introduction of netting round the towers as has been proposed.
You'll probably also be able to spot cormorants down by the water near here too – they often perch on the columns on either side of the Millennium Bridge and stick out their wings to dry. And on a couple of occasions we have spotted a heron!
Heron by the Tyne
Quayside Sunday Market
Visit the Quayside on a Sunday and you will encounter a Newcastle institution. The market has been operating in this same spot for several hundred years. On a Sunday morning the road along the Quayside is closed to traffic and the stalls are set up. The nature of the goods on sale may have changed somewhat over the years but local families are still drawn here in search of a bargain as they always have been, although increasingly these days are joined by visitors to the city.
Closed to traffic for the Quayside Market
In the past you might have seen such novelties as escapologists, monkeys dancing to organ-grinders’ music, and pets such as mice and budgies for sale. No longer … but some typical traditional stalls remain: fish and seafood caught locally in the North Sea, cheap plastic toys and pseudo designer clothing, random electrical and household items. These tend to congregate at the Tyne Bridge end of the market, while further down, near the Law Courts, you will find the more modern and upmarket newcomers – hand-crafted jewellery; artistic photos of local landmarks such as the Angel of the North and the various bridges; rustic loaves and fancy cup-cakes; leather goods and decorative items for the home. And if you are hungry there is plenty to choose from. On a recent visit I spotted Polish sausages, locally-farmed roast pork, Middle-Eastern wraps, hot-dogs and classic burgers, and more.
The stall in my last photo above is a regular and something of a market institution. It sells a variety of leather goods (wallets, phone cases etc.) and the stall-holder has a fun line in advertising captions, making ludicrous claims that if anyone were to believe them would surely see him hauled before a Trades Description Act court! Here's an example from the photo, as it is hard to read:
Prince George's Phone Cases!
When the Queen recently made one of her regular visits to my stall (see her hand-written letter to me hanging up at the back right) she asked me to dedicate a product to her great grandson. I said that I would think about it and told her later, over a pint and a fag, that I had chosen these. I think that's what clinched my OBE for me!
And I can't resist also including this one:
Prince William's Credit Card Case
I can't thank you enough for this splendid wedding gift! I go nowhere without it and it is much admired by all who see it. Kate and I would love to use your caravan for our honeymoon and knowing that you will be there at the same time is marvellous news!
The market gets going at about 9.30 and lasts most of the day, though some stalls seem to close mid-afternoon.
The Custom House
Crest on the Custom House
This imposing building on the Quayside, a short walk east of the Tyne Bridge, was built in 1766 after the original town walls which ran along this stretch of the river bank were demolished (in 1763). It replaced an earlier Customs shed that had stood at the point now occupied by the Tyne Bridge’s support towers. It was further developed in 1833, with a new frontage, and the Royal Arms added over the new porch. Its original purpose was to collect tax and duties from the many ships that moored here, but today its location close to the Law Courts has made it a prime spot for barristers’ offices, and it is not open to the public.
When the Custom House was first built here, the Quayside was a very different place. The road of that name ran parallel to the river, with buildings on one side and ships moored on the other. Timber piers jutted out into the river to aid the unloading of goods, and at intervals narrow lanes known as 'chares' led to steep steps up to the town on the higher ground beyond the river. Some of these alleys remain today – Plummer Chare, Trinity Chare and Broad Chare. The latter, as the name suggests, is a wider road and was in the past the only one wide enough to accommodate a horse and cart.
In the spring of 2014 a “Walk of Fame” was launched on the Newcastle and Gateshead Quaysides. A series of 20 bronze plaques is set into the pavement at intervals, each commemorating a 'local hero' – someone from the region who has made a contribution to sport, the arts, science or in some other way has achieved success and put Newcastle on the map. The list of those represented is like a 'Who’s Who' of famous Geordies and includes:
~ footballer Alan Shearer
~ footballer and football manager, Sir Bobby Robson
~ traditional musician Kathryn Tickell
~ athlete Brendan Foster
~ photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen
~ children’s author David Almond
~ entertainers Ant & Dec
~ paralympian Stephen Miller
~ actor Robson Green
~ Cardinal Basil Hume
~ TV writers Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais
~ 70s group Lindisfarne
More are added each year, nominated by members of the public. The plaques can be found along the stretch of pavement from the Newcastle end of the Swing Bridge to the Millennium Bridge, and on the other side of the river in Gateshead they continue along the Quayside back to the Swing Bridge.
Art on the Quayside
As you walk along by the Tyne look out for the many pieces of public art here, including
River Tyne by Neil Talbot: a relief depicting thirty miles of the course of the Tyne carved on a sandstone wall by the Wesley Memorial Fountain (near the Law Courts). The Tyne is shown as a map with various views from along the river’s course realistically carved to a relief with a maximum depth of a centimetre. The work is 30 metres in length, and it’s fun to follow the river’s course on it and spot the well-known landmarks.
River Tyne - High Level, Swing and Tyne Bridges
River God: a male figure with a torso and head, and holding a staff and chain, on top of a steel column, and its companion piece, Siren, at the top of the steps that descend to the Quayside from Sandgate. Both are the work of Andre Wallace.
River God and Siren
The Blacksmiths’ Needle: This eye-catching modern sculpture on the Quayside is the collective work of the Members of the British Association of Blacksmith Artists. Made from forged steel, it takes the form of a 7.6 metre high cone which is consists of six sections, one above the other. Each of these is decorated with objects which relate to one of the senses, including what was described as “the mysterious sixth sense”. These objects were made in public “forge-ins” held all over the country and have a mainly maritime theme. The work was inaugurated in May 1997 by the percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who rang the bell which hangs inside the needle.
The Blacksmiths’ Needle
A beach on the Tyne
It has become popular in recent years to introduce a little of the seaside atmosphere into our cities, and Newcastle has joined the trend. Every summer a small patch of sand on the Quayside offers deckchairs, a volley-ball net and plenty of space for the children to make sandcastles. There's a pop-up café and even some palm trees!
And what it lacks in size (and possibly weather – though this photo was taken on a warm and sunny August morning), it gains in views. Not many beaches, with the possible exception of some in Sydney I guess, can offer such a stunning bridge as a backdrop!
So if you’re here with the kids, the sun is shining, and you don’t want to spend a fortune on keeping them amused, why not pack up the buckets and spades, and a picnic, and head on down to the Quayside where they can play in the sand while you soak up some rays and watch the world go by?
The beach on a chilly April day - still popular despite the weather!
Historically, Sandgate was the area of the Quayside to the east of the city centre where the 'keelmen' lived and operated. A keel is a traditional boat of this region which was used to transfer coal from the river banks to the waiting colliers, for export to London and elsewhere. A famous song, The Keel Row, is set here:
‘As I came thro' Sandgate,
Thro' Sandgate, thro' Sandgate,
As I came thro' Sandgate,
I heard a lassie sing:
“O, weel may the keel row,
The keel row, the keel row,
O weel may the keel row
That my laddie's in.”’
Today the opening lines of the song are carved into the flight of steps that descends to the Quayside from Sandgate. The keelmen were highly skilled boatmen. They wore a uniform of a short blue jacket, slate-coloured trousers and yellow waistcoat, and a black silk, flat-brimmed hat. They were a strong, tight-knit community who formed a benefit society and founded the Keelmen’s Hospital which still stands on the City Road.
By the way, you will see some sources which suggest that The Keel Row is a Scottish song, but the references to the Tyne (“He's foremost 'mang the mony Keel lads o' coaly Tyne”) and to Sandgate indicate its Geordie origins.
The Millennium Bridge
This is the most recent addition to the iconic set of bridges that span the Tyne in the centre of the city, and possibly my favourite. But please don’t offend the Gateshead folk on the other side of the river by describing this as a bridge in Newcastle! The full name of this bridge is in fact the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. It was commissioned by the council to commemorate the millennium and link new developments on either side of the river, including the gallery at Baltic, the old flour mill. It certainly succeeds in doing that and makes it easy for anyone on the Newcastle side to pop across to check out the latest exhibits or have a meal in the restaurant there.
The Millennium Bridge from Baltic
Pedestrians and cyclist on the bridge
The bridge is for use by pedestrians and cyclists only, as there is no traffic by the river at this point. The brief was to create a bridge allowed ships to pass underneath and didn’t overshadow or spoil the world famous view of the existing bridges. The design solution was to create this light structure which contrasts really well with the solidity of the other bridges, and to engineer it in a way that allows it to tilt upwards for ships to pass. When it does so it looks just like an eye winking! These days there aren’t a large number of large ships navigating the river so it isn’t required to do this frequently. But you can find out the times when the bridge will 'wink' on the Gateshead Council website. One regular occurrence is each Sunday just after midday so if you’re on the Quayside at this time, perhaps for the market, do go along to watch, as it’s quite a sight. Each opening and closing takes four and a half minutes and both arches tilt at once – the one that carries the walkway/cycleway, and the one that supports it from above.
Millennium Bridge tilting
Video of Millennium Bridge tilting
(The incongruous German music in the background on the video above is coming from a sausage stall at the Quayside Market!)
Another sight worth catching is of the bridge at night. It is lit up in an ever-changing spectrum of colour, and, from what I’ve observed, the patterns can be different on different nights. Sometimes there are rainbow colours (befitting the shape!) and sometimes each colour appears separately. This is a sight I never tire of, and I will happily detour on an evening out in Newcastle to include a stroll on this stretch of the Quayside.
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art
The Baltic isn't technically in Newcastle but in Gateshead; however it is just across the river and easily visited on foot, crossing the Millennium Bridge.
This amazing gallery is housed in an old flour mill which was gutted to create a fantastic space that provides the perfect setting for the modern art on display.
There are no permanent exhibitions - instead the programme changes regularly so you see something new every time you visit, and it could be anything from a major exhibition to work by local artists. The best thing for me is how the curators really make the most of the large spaces on offer, so you'll often find huge paintings or striking installations. The art isn't too everyone's taste, and even if you like contemporary art there's a good chance not everything will appeal, but with (usually) three different exhibitions on at a time there should be something to interest you. And if you have children, check out the website to find out about the many free activities here.
But even if you don't like modern art it’s worth coming here simply for the views of the river which are fantastic. There's a glass viewing gallery attached to the fifth floor exterior wall (which you can see in my photo, above) and an outdoor terrace on the fourth floor, on the river side.
View from Baltic viewing gallery
Reflections unavoidable on a bright day!
And best of all, it's free!
Shuttle bus to/from the Quayside
It's quite a steep walk between the city centre and the Quayside so on the way back up especially you may want to take one of the bright green Quaylink Shuttle buses. There are two routes:
Services Q1 and Q2 run from Newcastle Central Station to Gateshead Interchange via the Quayside, Baltic and The Sage, and loop through the suburbs south of Gateshead. The different numbers refer to the direction they take on this loop, but as visitors are unlikely to be travelling beyond Gateshead Interchange they can be regarded as the same route.
Service Q3 runs from Great Park, a suburb to the north of Newcastle, via Haymarket Bus Station and through the city centre to Ouseburn and St Peter's Basin via Newcastle’s East Quayside area
A section between the Newcastle Quayside and the Monument, via Dean Street and Grey Street, is covered by both routes, so you can easily switch from one to the other.
Buses run every 15 minutes at peak times, dropping to every 30 minutes in the evening (until about midnight) and on Sundays, although I’ve found them to be rather erratic. Fares (autumn 2017) are £1.50 for a single or £2.20 for an all day ticket (good value if you're exploring the Quayside for the day).