A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about art

Around Northumberland Street

Northumberland Street

This is Newcastle’s main shopping street. It developed north of the city walls as the main route to Northumberland, hence the name, and was at one time primarily a residential suburb. When the Tyne Bridge opened in 1928 it lined up with Pilgrim Street, the southern extension of Northumberland Street, with the result that this became Newcastle's principal commercial street, a role originally intended for Grey Street. It was also, until the opening of the Central Motorway in the 1970s (which serves as a bypass), the main thoroughfare for traffic through the city. It has since been pedestrianised and given over entirely to the pursuit of shopping.

Tyneside Cinema

The Tyneside Cinema

If you love film you’ll want to visit the Tyneside Cinema on Pilgrim Street, the continuation of Northumberland Street. The building that houses it dates back to 1937 and its design reflects the spirit of those times, when a ‘picture palace’ was expected to transport audiences out of their humdrum lives into an exotic world where anything was possible. Nowadays its modern cinema, with four auditoria, focuses mainly on art films and world cinema, although mainstream releases are also shown. But this is more than just a cinema. There is a wide programme of events for film buffs, such as talks, quiz evenings and special screenings, and other cultural events including exhibitions, poetry evenings, live music and much more.

The Tyneside Cinema was originally built as Newcastle’s News Theatre in 1937 and today is the finest surviving news reel cinema in Britain. These news theatres were very popular in their day and did an important job at a time when there was no television news, bringing images from all over the world to ordinary people back home. My mother-in-law once told me that when she and my father-in-law were ‘courting’ in the 1950s, a visit to the news theatre here was a cheap and popular evening out. For a few pennies they could watch not only the news-reels but also some cartoons and a travelogue or two.

The Classic auditorium

If you are interested in the history of the building you can take a free guided tour behind the scenes. We haven’t yet done this, but it’s on my “things I must do some time soon” list! This is also a good place to come for a meal, and the traditional ‘Tyneside Coffee Rooms’ on the second floor has been a popular spot with film-goers and others for 70 years. The four auditoria are licensed too, so you can easily enjoy a drink and a film at the same time. Attached to the cinema on the ground floor are two further eating/drinking options. Little Vicolo is a cosy spot, popular for day-time drinking, with excellent coffee, a good selection of beers and wines, cocktails, and also light meals. The newer Tyneside Bar & Café has become one of our favourite spots at any time of day – breakfast coffee and croissants, a mid-morning espresso, lunch or later. They have a programme of film-themed evening events including free screenings of old classics and a film quiz.

Restored mosaic floor, and stairwell

Laing Art Gallery

J Edgar Mitchell window, Laing Art Gallery

Several interesting sights lie just to the east of Northumberland Street, off New Bridge Street. The Laing Art Gallery is Newcastle’s city centre art gallery. It contains a mix of permanent exhibits, focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries, and temporary exhibitions. Although not large the gallery is worth a visit as the pictures are well displayed and there are several items of note in the permanent collections. These include a number of paintings by John Martin, a north east artist from the early to mid 19th century. His work was incredibly popular at the time and I have a soft spot for his dramatic and Romantic style. The Laing’s collection of his work is considered one of the most comprehensive in the world.

Laing Art Gallery

One of the paintings by John Martin in the permanent collection

Other star attractions include a bronze figure by Henry Moore, works by Pre-Raphaelite artists Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt, a Gauguin landscape and some striking stained glass, such as the Arts and Crafts window in my photo above, by J Edgar Mitchell. One gallery focuses on Art on Tyneside and includes an extensive collection of wood-engravings by local 18th century artist Thomas Bewick.

The temporary exhibits change regularly and are very varied – we’ve seen a great Biba exhibition in the past and I also recall an interesting installation reflecting on the slave trade by Benin artist Romuald Hazoumé. Most recently (winter 2017/18) the Laing has hosted an excellent exhibition of the work of British artist Paul Nash.

Battle of Germany, by Paul Nash

There are regular events for children, a small area aimed at under-fives (where they are encouraged to learn about art through play), a café and a shop with some high-quality items such as jewellery, ceramics and prints.

The Lying-in Hospital

The Lying-in Hospital

I have often passed this attractive stone building when visiting the Laing Art Gallery, which it faces across a pedestrianised stretch of New Bridge Street. But I have only recently got around to investigating its history. It was built in 1826 (in sandstone ashlar with a slate roof) as an asylum for poor pregnant women, designed (free of charge) by eminent local architect John Dobson (after whom the street that crosses New Bridge Street near here was named). It was paid for by charitable donations on land made available for the purpose by the Corporation of Newcastle, hence Dobson giving his time for free. But if the mention of charity suggests that this was a refuge for the most desperate, that was far from being the case, as those thought of as morally beyond help (the so-called ‘fallen women’ who could not show a marriage certificate) were turned away, as were the homeless and those suffering from infectious diseases. Women had to bring a dress for the child and show proof that they had a permanent address (unless their husband was a serving soldier or sailor). Only the ‘respectable poor’ were welcome here, it seems. But the building was in use for this purpose until 1923, so clearly many women did find shelter here.

Plaque on the wall

I found the following description of the building’s layout in an 1827 history of the city, published on British History Online:
‘On the right hand side of the entrance is a waiting hall, 16 feet by 12½ feet. This communicates by a door with the committee-room, which is 25 feet in length, and 16 feet in breadth. The next apartment is the surgeon's room. On the opposite side are the matron's sitting-room, a store-room, two kitchens, and a wash-house, which is annexed to the main building. In the upper floor are two large, light, airy wards, which hold four beds each; and two smaller wards, adapted for two beds each; with the matron's bed-room, store-rooms, water-closet, and other conveniences.’

The same website goes on to point out that despite efforts to ‘discourage the breeding of the industrious classes, the old English feeling of kindness and benevolence to the poor has been pleasingly evinced in Newcastle’, which gives some indication of the sentiments of the day!

From 1925 to 1988 this was Newcastle’s Broadcasting House, until the BBC moved its regional operations to a building on Barrack Road that is known locally as ‘The Pink Palace’. It is now owned by the Newcastle Building Society who use it for offices.

The City Library

In the City Library

Although I am a librarian by profession I don’t very often find myself recommending a visit to the library in my travel writing! But the new City Library in Newcastle is a stunner, and well worth a little of your time.

The library opened in summer 2009 and has been a great success. Officially named the Charles Avison Building after the 18th century Newcastle composer, most refer to it as just the central or city library. It is housed in a six storey block full of light and air, which replaced the old concrete 1970s building. There are entrances on New Bridge Street and Princess Square – the latter is perhaps more convenient if coming from the city centre, but the former will give you the more striking first view of this impressive building. Look up through the atrium to its many levels; watch how people move and feel at home in its spaces; sense the buzz of enthusiasm and activity too rarely associated with library use (though it should be!)

Then take some time to explore. There are naturally all the usual library offerings: books to borrow (probably of limited interest to short-term visitors); newspapers and magazines (could be a good way to pass some time on a rainy day) and free computers and free wifi. But there are also some real draws for visitors. Check out the small area on the sixth floor, where several beautiful historic illustrated books are on display, as well as tools and a desk used by famed local wood engraver, Thomas Bewick.

Views from the upper floors

Enjoy a coffee and home-made cake in the café on the second floor, in a pleasant area overlooking Princess Square (and with tables outside too for a sunny day). And have a look to see if there are any interesting events or activities planned: there are regular author talks, book signings, exhibitions and activities for children. If you want to find out in advance what’s going on at the time of your visit, have a look at the calendar on the Newcastle Libraries website, but bear in mind that it covers all the libraries in Newcastle, so you’ll need to check what’s on where.

Books with local interest on display

By the way, two friends of ours, Pete Cain and Barry Robertson, wrote Toon Odyssey, featured in the display in the photo above, and I was proud to supply some of the photos. It describes our adventures following Newcastle United in Europe ... but we will get on to the matter of the football team in a later entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 07:47 Archived in England Tagged art streets architecture culture history shopping city cinema Comments (7)

Of monks and newer communities

The west side of the city



Tucked away behind the popular Gate entertainment complex is this lovely peaceful haven amid the bustle of the city. A grassy square dotted with traces of ruined buildings is surrounded on three sides by the remains of the Black Friars Monastery that gives it its name, and on the remaining side (where once the church stood) by more modern buildings that have been sensitively designed to blend in with the surroundings.



The monastery was originally founded in 1239 by a small group of Dominican friars from Spain. They wore black tunics, hence the name “Black Friars”. The city granted them land on which to build a church, the monastery buildings and to grow crops. Their peaceful lives here were disturbed briefly in 1265, when the threat of raids from Scotland led the city council to build a wall around the city – and right through the Dominicans’ garden!

As the monastery grew, so did its importance, and over the years several kings stayed here, including Edwards the 2nd and 3rd. But in 1539 another king, Henry 8th, famously broke with the Catholic Church and closed down all the religious orders in the country. The church here was destroyed but the remaining monastery buildings remained.

They were subsequently bought by the city council and leased to local craft companies: bakers, brewers, butchers, saddlers, tailors and others each took space here. They held their meetings, housed their poor and grew vegetables in the cloister garden.

Old doorway, Blackfriars

But in the 20th century the guilds moved out and the buildings fell into decline. In the 1960s much of the city centre was redeveloped following the rather brash pattern of that decade, paying little heed to history or tradition. Blackfriars was scheduled to go the way of many other old buildings, but escaped the bulldozers. In the 1970s the council had a change of heart, and with the help of various interested bodies saved and restored the complex. It was reopened by the Queen in 1981. And the Freemen of the crafts companies continue to meet here, as they have for over 400 years.

Today the old monastery buildings house a restaurant and a small number of interesting shops, including an artisan bakery, glass studio and knitting shop. The modern additions include apartments and space for small, mostly arts/media orientated, businesses.

The restaurant claims to be ‘the oldest dining room in the UK’ and is one of our favourites. It occupies the friary’s former refectory which maybe justifies that claim. We have developed a tradition in recent years of coming here for our New Year’s Eve dinner as unlike many of Newcastle’s better restaurants there is no rip-off hike in prices that evening, and no unwanted ‘entertainment’. What is more, the menu is always delicious, with a strong emphasis on locally sourced food. On a chilly New Year’s Eve it is always very cosy and welcoming, and the service equally so, despite this being the liveliest evening in Tyneside’s calendar.

Good food at Blackfriars restaurant

The Gate

For one of the most striking examples of how Newcastle offers ‘something for everyone’ you have only to exit the tranquil courtyard of the Blackfriars complex by its north-east corner, along Dispensary Lane and Low Friar Street, which opens on to Newgate Street by the Gate. This claims to be ‘Newcastle’s premier leisure and entertainment centre’ and certainly tries its best to live up to that hype. Under its one roof you will find bars, restaurants, a 12 screen cinema and even a casino. During the day its restaurants and cafés are a good place to meet friends – indeed the Gate’s advertising slogan when it first opened was ‘Meet at the Gate’.

The Gate by day and by night

Be warned – if you come here at night, especially Friday or Saturday, you’ll find yourself in ‘party central’. Newcastle didn’t get its reputation as the party capital of Europe for nothing, and while the traditional venues around the Bigg Market, and the more recent ones on the Quayside, still attract the majority of revellers, there are plenty left to fill the bars of the Gate and to spill onto the streets outside. If you aren’t prepared to run the gauntlet of Stags and Hens sporting strange attire and reeling under the influence of too much alcohol, perhaps you should stay away. But the crowds are largely (in our experience) harmless, and police look on in mild amusement most of the time, so this shouldn’t put you off unless you are of a very nervous disposition – although those of you who are, like us, of a ‘certain age’ may feel yourselves very out of place in any of the bars after about 8.00 PM!


Gate to Chinatown

Newcastle’s small Chinatown centres on Stowell Street to the west of the city centre and just south of St James’ Park. It is home to many Chinese restaurants and a few supermarkets. While small compared to those in other cities it is worth a visit to get a feel for a different aspect to the city, to see the impressive Chinese gate, and of course to eat.

While there have been Chinese inhabitants in Newcastle for decades (it is after all a port city), and Chinese restaurants since the middle of the twentieth century, it was only in the late 1970s that Stowell Street acquired its first Chinese supermarket, swiftly followed by a number of restaurants. And it is relatively recently that the street and the immediate area around it have taken on the by-now expected trappings of a “Chinatown” – signs in Chinese, street lamps designed to look like lanterns, and of course an impressive entrance gate – in this case at the north end of Stowell Street, opposite St James’ Park. This was built in 2004 by craftsmen in Shanghai. It is 11 metres tall and is flanked by two Chinese guardian lions.

View of the gate from the neighbouring Irish Centre

Other streets that form part of Chinatown and are worth exploring include Charlotte Square, Low Friar Street and others in the area around and to the south of Blackfriars.

Chinatown details

At the top of Stowell Street near the Chinese Gate and just opposite St James' Park football stadium, another group of immigrants to Newcastle have their unofficial home. This is the Irish Centre, where members and their guests enjoy reasonably priced drinks in its two bars, live football and other sporting events on the big screen (matches involving Glasgow's Celtic are as popular here as those played by Newcastle United, I gather) and frequent musical entertainment. We have visited with friends on a number of occasions - usually for a concert but once for a party hosted here by a friend. As a visitor you usually need to be signed in by a member, but if there's something on that especially appeals it would be worth asking the friendly staff if there's a possibility of admission as they seem pretty casual about the whole membership thing, in our experience!

Local (excellent) band The Happy Cats, performing at the Irish Centre

Just south of Stowell Street you can follow one of the more extensive stretches of the old town wall to the Westgate Road, where a few other sights might catch your eye.

Stoll Picture Theatre


The Stoll Theatre

This is a very distinctive and historic building. It was built in 1867 as the Tyne Theatre and Opera House in an Italianate style. As well as plays, it hosted Sunday lectures with speakers as diverse as Oscar Wilde and William Gladstone (at the end of his career, aged 82), while Sarah Bernhardt performed here on three occasions. Other famous actors to have appeared here include Sir Henry Irving, Dame Ellen Terry, Mrs Patrick Campbell and Herbert Tree.

After the First World War cinema became much more popular than live theatre, and in 1919 the Tyne Theatre and Opera House was taken over by the Stoll cinema company. Their name still appears on the front and is the one often used by locals when talking about the theatre. This was the first cinema in Newcastle to show 'talkies', opening with 'Tarzan of the Apes', while the last film to be shown here, 'Danish Bed and Board' in March 1974, perfectly demonstrates how interest in going to the cinema declined in the UK during the Sixties and Seventies – the Stoll had attempted to save itself by catering to the emerging market for X-rated 'blue' movies. But it didn’t work, and the cinema closed its doors. It remained closed for three years, during which time it was leased by the Tyne Theatre Trust and restored to its former function as a live theatre – indeed, during the restoration process, when the cinema screen was removed, the original stage and stage machinery were discovered hidden behind it, complete with the set of the last play to have been performed here.

The theatre reopened in 1977 and among the famous names to have appeared here during the following years, the highlight was probably Placido Domingo in a performance of Tosca. In 1985 a fire caused significant damage, exacerbated by a storm in January 1986 during repair work. But again the theatre was reopened and has continued to operate, despite some challenges, under a succession of different owners.

Today it is properly known as the Tyne Theatre (although as I said, locals usually refer to it as the Stoll), and hosts variety performances, children’s shows, comedy, ballet, musicals, concerts and live performances. We have never been to a show here but after researching for this review I would love to do so if only to see the interior, which still retains many of its original features.

Newcastle Arts Centre

Gallery shop display

I imagine that relatively few visitors to the city ever stumble across this place, which is a shame. Part shop, part gallery, part events space, and with a café too – lots to enjoy here.

To deal with the various elements in turn, the shop is in two parts. Firstly, it is a treasure trove of materials for artists and crafts enthusiasts, selling paints, brushes, papers, craft materials and kits etc. Secondly, in a separate section, it showcases and sells the work of local crafts people and those from further afield in the UK – paintings, jewellery, pottery and more.

The gallery has changing exhibitions (although the website is sadly out of date in listing these) and hosts events such as talks by exhibiting artists, and also workshops and art courses.

Attached to the gallery is a café, selling hot and cold light meals, beer and wine, soft drinks and hot ones. It has some outside seating in the courtyard for when the weather is fine, and more inside for when it is not!

The Iron Man

The courtyard itself, known as Black Swan Court, is also interesting in its own right for the large sculpture of the Iron Man (a character in a children’s book by Ted Hughes) made from junk. Opening off this is the Black Swan arts venue which hosts music events and can be hired for parties etc. There really is a surprising amount of space and variety of interesting activities here, almost hidden away off Westgate Road!

In Black Swan Court

Posted by ToonSarah 05:55 Archived in England Tagged art buildings streets architecture history restaurants city music Comments (7)

Winding down to the Tyne

We have already visited the castle in an earlier entry, but we haven’t till now properly explored the area around it and the streets leading down from here to the river.

St Nicholas Cathedral

St Nicholas Cathedral

This Anglican cathedral is one of two in the city (the other being the Roman Catholic St Mary’s). It was built in 1350 (after fire destroyed an earlier church on this site) and became a cathedral in 1882. Its most noticeable feature is its unusual lantern tower, which was constructed in 1448. For hundreds of years this was a main navigation point for ships using the River Tyne, and it remains one of the most striking landmarks of the city. It is appropriate therefore that the cathedral is dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and boats.

On each corner of the lantern are gilded statues. They depict Adam eating the apple, Eve holding out the apple, Aaron dressed as a Bishop, and David holding a harp.

Aaron dressed as a Bishop, and David holding a harp

In the 1860s the tower was found to be cracking and tilting, and to support it two porches were added. Since then the tower has settled and if you go inside you will see that the ornate wooden font cover, which is suspended from the tower, doesn’t hang exactly in line with the font as it should.

Inside St Nicholas Cathedral
You can clearly see the misalignment of the font cover

Inside, most of the stained glass is quite recent (18th century onwards) as the originals were broken during the Civil War. One of the windows features Turbinia, the first turbine-driven steam yacht, which is on display in the city’s Discovery Museum. St. Margaret's Chapel contains the only known fragment of medieval stained glass in the cathedral, depicting the Madonna and Child.

There are also several interesting memorials, the oldest being a 13th century effigy of an unknown knight, who is thought to have been a member of Edward 1st’s household. This is one of the oldest objects in the cathedral. Another memorial honours Admiral Lord Collingwood, a hero of the Battle of Trafalgar who was baptised and married in the cathedral, and whose statue now looks out to sea from Tynemouth.

The Vampire Rabbit

The Vampire Rabbit

To see a real Newcastle curiosity, you have to explore the lanes immediately around and behind the Cathedral. Here, above a door of the 1901 Cathedral Buildings, is a gargoyle nicknamed the Vampire Rabbit.

Look up!

A local legend tells of grave robbers who were frightened off one night by the appearance of this creature, sporting fangs and long red claws. In fact, though, the dramatic red and black paint is a relatively recent addition and the rabbit was originally the same colour as the surrounding stonework. So other more prosaic and more plausible theories seem to offer the more likely explanation, though there are still two from which to choose.

One is that it was intended to be not a rabbit but a hare, possibly in an oblique reference to Sir George Hare Phipson, a professor of medicine, Freemason, and though to be a friend of the architect of Cathedral Buildings, William H. Wood. Proponents of this theory claim that the ears were put on backwards (perhaps at the time of building or possibly after being damaged during later restoration work), creating the more rabbit-like appearance. I rather like this idea, and the association of hares with Masonic symbolism would seem to support it, or at least suggest that Wood (also a Mason) had this association in mind. However, old photos actually show the ears shorter, suggesting that they were lengthened more recently, perhaps at the time of the black paint job (see this photo from 1988 for example), and that therefore this really is a rabbit!

The second theory is that the rabbit could simply be intended to represent the coming of spring, much as the Easter Bunny does. It might have been placed here in a pagan “dig” at the Christian place of worship opposite.

Or maybe the architect just liked rabbits?! Whatever the true explanation, many people have had fun over the years puzzling over it, and the Vampire Rabbit even has his own Facebook page as a result!

To find the rabbit, stand facing the cathedral from Mosley Street, on its north side, and walk around it to your left along the lane, known as Cathedral Buildings. Where this curves right round the back of the cathedral look up above the ornate door of the building on your left and you will see it perched above the circular window.

Amen Corner

Memorial to Thomas Bewick

Just south of the cathedral, in a continuation of Cathedral Buildings, is picturesque Amen Corner, which gets its name because it was the place where processions of the cathedral’s clergy would routinely end their prayers.

Near where Cathedral Buildings turns into Amen Corner you can see a memorial to Thomas Bewick, the 18th century engraver, illustrator and naturalist, who had his workshop on a site here from about 1790.

Amen Corner



Lort Burn

From Amen Corner the road drops steeply to Side. This old medieval street was formerly the west bank of the Lort Burn which ran down to the Tyne at this point, hence its name, Side (most people, however, refer to it as The Side). The burn followed the route now taken by Dean Street, which drops down from Grey Street to meet Side at this point. Indeed, the nicest way to get to the Quayside from the city centre is, in my opinion, to take a walk down elegant Grey Street and then follow its continuation Dean Street to Side.

This is possibly my favourite part of Newcastle. The rather grand architecture of the city centre, with the ornate Victorian commercial premises in that lovely pale limestone, starts to give way to a more down to earth style as the wide roads narrow and slope steeply down to the river. This is the original heart of the city and the reason for its existence, and thus it was natural for the city to grow upwards and outwards from this point. In the 1920s the Tyne Bridge was built, arching over the river and over the Side to take traffic directly into what had become the new heart and commercial centre, Grainger Town. To some extent it left this area stranded, but it also gave it one of its most iconic images.

The Tyne Bridge from the Side

Today the Side buzzes with activity once again, providing both a link between city centre and Quayside and acting as a destination in its own right. There are plenty of bars and restaurants, and an excellent independent photography gallery, also called The Side.

Side Gallery

We’ve been coming to this small photography gallery for years and nearly always find something to interest us. Tucked away down a little alley on a steep road leading down to the Quayside, and arranged over two rickety floors, the gallery features the work of photographers from the local area and from all over the world. The emphasis is on documentary photography, with exhibitions whose images portray the everyday lives of ordinary people, often those who are poor or oppressed.

Entrance to the Side Gallery

The Gallery’s website explains their philosophy:

‘Side is dedicated to showing the best in humanist documentary photography: rich, powerful and challenging work engaged with people’s lives and landscapes, telling stories that often get marginalised, whether they are from the North East of England or anywhere else in the world.’

Bessie Surtees’ House

Bessie Surtee's House
On the left, by the car

This row of Elizabethan houses and pubs stands at the foot of the Side on your right as you emerge on the Quayside. 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, and were built here so that they could easily watch from the first floor windows for their ships coming in.

The window

The house is most noted for the elopement of its eponymous resident with John Scott, a coal merchant’s son, as the plaque below the window from which she made her escape explains. This happened in 1772, and caused a great scandal within the two families concerned, although the couple married in Scotland and later again in Newcastle. Despite his humble beginnings, and this inauspicious start to his married life with Bessie, John went on to become Lord Chancellor of England, so can be said to have done very well for himself.

350 year old fireplace

Once inside you discover that there is much more to this house than a window! It is relatively sparsely furnished, and you only get to see a few rooms on the first floor (the upper floors are used as offices by English Heritage, which explains, I think, the free entry). These rooms however display some wonderful features, most notably perhaps the 350 year old fireplace in the largest of them. The carvings on its oak panelling commemorate the 1657 marriage (and this one was legitimate!) of an earlier daughter of the house, Anne Cock, to Thomas Davison, with their initials and the coats of arms of the two families.

A room in the house

The house itself is in part older still – it is actually three houses that have been joined together over the years, and the oldest part dates from the 15th century. If you like sloping floors with creaking boards, doorways so low you have to duck, and lead-paned windows with only a blurry view of the street outside, this is the place for you! When we visited a couple of years ago I especially enjoyed seeing all the old photos of the house, showing not only how it had changed over the years but also how the entire area around the Quayside had done the same – at one time the haunt of rich merchants, then declining as the city expanded on the hill high above the river, and then in recent years being revived to become the thriving area it now is again.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:34 Archived in England Tagged art streets architecture history city cathedral Comments (4)

The Quayside and its bridges

View from the Millennium Bridge, looking west

The four central bridges,
looking east

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

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.

Tyne Bridge

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

Kittiwake nesting
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.

Market stalls

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
Dear David
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!
Kindest regards

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

Custom House plaque

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.

Local Heroes

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

Local Heroes

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

Palm tree and
Millennium Bridge

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:

Carving of keels on
the Sandgate

‘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.

Millennium Bridge

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.

Changing colours of the Millennium Bridge at night

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.

The stairwell
There are also lifts!

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.

Art installations at Baltic

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:

Quaylink bus

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).

Posted by ToonSarah 05:56 Archived in England Tagged bridges art birds architecture market river city Comments (4)

A walk to Ouseburn

View looking back towards the city from Ouseburn

In recent years the development that first started around the central part of the Quayside has spread eastwards, and the area around where the smaller Ouseburn flows into the Tyne, in particular, has benefitted from regeneration. It makes a great destination for a stroll along the river, and there’s plenty to see when you get there. It’s only about a 15 minute walk from the Tyne Bridge to the mouth of the Ouseburn, although you’re bound to stop along the way!

The first part of this route is covered in my previous entry on the Quayside, so I will pick this walk up near the Millennium Bridge. Just before the bridge, the Quayside walk becomes pedestrianised, with the road veering away to join City Road and run parallel to the river just above the apartment blocks that line the banks here. You could follow the road, but the riverside walk is far pleasanter. It’s worth a detour however when you reach Horatio Street, where you can climb the short distance to two interesting sights.

The Sailors’ Bethel

The Sailors’ Bethel

The Sailors’ Bethel

At this point in your walk your eye is very likely to be drawn upwards to the sight of the slim spire of the Sailors’ Bethel.

Climb cobbled Horatio Street for a closer look and you will find that this spire sits somewhat incongruously on a solid-looking brick chapel. It was built in 1877 to serve non-conformist sailors, mainly Danish, from the many ships that used to dock in Newcastle’s busy port just down the bank from here, bringing butter, eggs and meat, and returning with Tyneside coal. But the port fell into disuse as ships became too large to navigate this far up river, and as the trade in coal declined. Today’s ships carry huge containers and dock at the Port of Tyne near the river mouth in South Shields.


The chapel is no longer needed by sailors and today has been converted into offices. You can’t therefore go inside but the Sailors’ Bethel is nonetheless worth a quick visit to see that unusual lead-clad spire and what is said to be Newcastle’s only gargoyle.

The artist L. S. Lowry painted the Sailors’ Bethel in a painting called ‘Old Chapel’ and this is now on display in the city’s Laing Art Gallery (have a look at http://collectionssearchtwmuseums.org.uk/#details=ecatalogue.299667 to see how Lowry depicted it).

Statue of William L Blenkinsop Coulson

This imposing Victorian statue stands on City Road just above the Quayside and a little east of the central area. It commemorates a local benefactor who, as the inscription explains, was noted for his efforts on behalf of not only the weaker members of society but animals too. Appropriately therefore the statue incorporates two drinking fountains – a large one for humans at the front, and a smaller one for animals round the back!

William L Blenkinsop Coulson

On the back is another inscription, a quotation from the man himself:
'What is really needed is an allround
education of the higher impulses
true manliness, and womanliness
justice, and pity.
To try to promote these has been
my humble but earnest endeavour, and until
they are more genuinely aroused,
the legislature is useless,
for it is the people who make the laws'

The inscription on the plinth reads:
'William Lisle Blenkinsopp
1841 – 1911
erected by public subscription
in memory of his efforts
to assist the weak and defenceless.
among mankind and in the
animal world'

On the plinth

Coulson's statue originally stood in the Haymarket, near the Boer War memorial, but has been moved twice – firstly in the 1930s to a location further down Percy Street, and then in 1950 to this present spot.

Coulson was born in Haltwhistle, Northumberland, in 1840 and, as I think his pose and expression suggest, was a colonel in the army before retiring in 1892, after which he served as a magistrate and on the boards of many charities concerned with child and animal welfare. He toured schools and borstals giving lectures on morality, and published essays on the welfare of women and children. He is depicted wearing the distinctive plaid cloth that he was in the habit of wearing.

The statue is of bronze and double life-size. It was sculpted by Arnold Frédéric Rechberg and stands on a stone block, underneath which is a slab of red granite from which the two drinking troughs are carved. It commands a lovely view of the river, although Coulson is perhaps surprisingly positioned to face away from the view and is looking instead at the Sailor’s Bethel church across the road – surprising that is until you remember his devotion to the welfare of others.

The mouth of the Ouseburn

Mouth of the Ouseburn

You could carry on from here along the main road which soon crosses the Ouseburn on the Walker Bridge, and to do so will save you repeating the climb up the bank, but I recommend retracing your steps to the riverside and following the path to the mouth of the burn. At low tide the boats will be stranded on the muddy banks, or at high tide bobbing at their moorings – either way, they make a colourful scene.

Ouseburn moorings

Waymarker for cyclists

In the boatyard

Turn left here and the path will take you to a smaller bridge and past a small boatyard to three great spots to stop for refreshment on the far side. Ahead to your right is the Hub, a focal point for keen cyclists in the area, especially those following the cycle route along the Tyne to the sea. But you don’t need to be a cyclist to grab a sandwich and drink in its welcoming café, which has seating by the water for good weather visits.

View from the Hub

Alternatively, there are a couple of pubs on the other side of the road, overlooking the Ouseburn. The lower one is the Tyne Bar, which I haven’t visited, as we prefer the Free Trade Inn on the small hill above. This characterful pub isn’t fancy and it’s not smartly decorated, but it oozes atmosphere, serves a great selection of beers and has great views of the Tyne from both the pub itself and the small garden area opposite. Oh, and there’s a friendly welcome from both bar staff and the resident cat!

In the Free Trade Inn

The cat even features on the beer mats!

Although it serves snacks, really this pub is mainly about the beer. Many of the rotating selection on tap are from local breweries, while there’s also a good range of bottled beers from further afield, including Belgium. And if you’re not sure what to choose the bar staff will let you try a sample (of the tap beers, obviously, not the bottled!)

Beer with a (rainy day) view

It’s also about the view. So settle down at the window with a glass and enjoy the river scenes below. You’ll be glad you came and will quickly forgive any lack of fanciness in the décor.

Following the Ouse

From the mouth of the Ouse you can follow the footpath called Riverside Walkway along the eastern bank (on your right as you leave the Tyne), or take Ouse Street and Lime Street along its western bank – the latter are recommended if you like to spot street art. Either route will bring you to the heart of Ouseburn.

On Lime Street

Ouseburn street art

Stepney Bank Stables

Here you will find lots to do. There’s a nationally acclaimed museum devoted to children’s literature, Seven Stories, which seems to have loads going on for families – crafts, author visits and exhibitions of original work by illustrators, for instance. As a former children’s librarian, I really must visit one day!

There is a city farm here too, an acclaimed music venue, the Cluny, and another traditional old pub, the Ship Inn, plus several small galleries on Stepney Bank, where you will also find a working stable.

The Biscuit Factory

Biscuit Factory entrance

Not far away on Stoddart Street is a large independent art gallery, the Biscuit Factory. This is an art, craft and design gallery housed in a former Victorian warehouse in an area of the city that is gradually being transformed from its industrial past and becoming increasingly arty, with a number of small studios nearby. The gallery hosts four major exhibitions a year which are changed every quarter. The focus is on art you can buy – everything is for sale, much of it at reasonable prices, and the 'Own Art' scheme means that any piece can be bought and paid for in instalments.

In the Biscuit Factory

We went a couple of years ago for the summer exhibition and were very impressed by a lot of what we saw, although the sheer amount made the exhibition a little hard to take in and focus on individual artists at times. There were a lot of great prints at reasonable prices (we resisted temptations), original paintings, sculpture and also a lot of applied art – jewellery, glassware, ceramics and even furniture.

There is a light, airy café on the first floor, with great views over the eastern part of the city, and a more formal restaurant, Artisan, downstairs with an appealing menu.

When you’ve finished your explorations here you can return by the same route, or catch a bus back into the city centre on New Bridge Street a few minutes’ walk away. Alternatively, you can continue your walk and follow the Ouse all the way to Jesmond Dene, a couple of miles to the north of the city.


Walking at this eastern end of the quayside you are likely to catch glimpses of the Byker Wall.

Part of the Byker Wall

Byker is a suburb just to the east of the city centre. Like many of Newcastle’s outlying districts it was developed in Victorian times as housing for the working classes – tiny terraces in rows, with no bathrooms and little space or fresh air. By the middle of the 20th century they were little more than slums, and throughout the city a massive clearance programme was underway, as in many UK cities. In most places the solution was the same – high rise blocks that were designed to simulate terraced housing but vertically. These “streets in the sky” were later almost universally condemned – they failed to recreate the sense of community felt by those living in the terraces they replaced while creating huge social problems because of the isolation felt by many residents and the hidden corners of their stairwells and passageways which provided fertile ground for gangs and criminals.

The Byker Wall was in part an attempt to try something different – an intensive housing scheme that didn’t rely on piling people on top of each other. One end of the continuous sweep of buildings (620 maisonettes) does reach upwards, purposely designed to shield the site from a motorway which in the end was never built, but in most parts it is only a few storeys high. It was designed by Ralph Erskine (a London-born architect heavily influenced by Scandinavian style) and built during the 1970s – and it soon became as criticised as the high-rise blocks it sought to improve upon, mainly on aesthetic grounds as it challenged conservative ideas of what homes, and architecture, should be like. In more recent years its innovative approach has become more appreciated, helped by a major refurbishment and modernisation of the entire Byker Estate (of which the Wall is just a part) in the early part of the 21st century.

View towards Byker from the café at the Biscuit Factory

Today Erskine’s approach to the development of the Byker Estate seems much more in tune with concepts of community involvement than was the norm at the time. He designed the new homes to fit around existing pubs, schools and churches, so people wouldn’t lose their connections to each other within the community. And he sought residents’ views, responding to desires for gardens and meeting places. Because the development was carefully phased, people could move straight from their old house to the new, without having to temporarily leave the area – another factor that contributed to keeping social cohesion intact. Erskine also included some environmental design elements that were significantly ahead of his time, with homes heated by a power plant that ran on the rubbish collected from them, and a micro-climate created by the shelter of the Wall that allows trees to grow that would normally need a more southerly latitude.

To read more about the development check out this website: Future Communities, from where I drew some of my information. You can see the Wall from the eastern end of the Quayside and other spots at that end of the city, but for a close-up look you can catch a bus on New Bridge Street to Byker (the opposite direction to the city centre).

Posted by ToonSarah 07:34 Archived in England Tagged art buildings boats architecture monument history church river pubs city museum street_art Comments (6)

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