Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Link up

I have added the first link to this site, having asked and received permission for this from Ray Manchester, of the Quaggy Waterways Action Group. (You must admire any group that shrugs off the usual "Dingly Dell" tweeness of 'estate agents think' which inhabits Civic Centres across the land. Do not get me started on that issue ...)

QWAG have taken on a mammoth task and are pressing ahead brilliantly from what one can see of their work shown on their web site. I hardly need emphasise the difficulties they must face trying to sort out a century of neglect on a waterway several miles long, running through a heavily urbanised environment. There must be easier ways to get in to Purgatory! Yet what amazes me is people will try such undertakings, given a fair chance. I can think of nothing in conservation terms which rivals the impact of cleaning up waterways – simply nothing else has such a dramatic influence; on plant life, insect life and more visible wildlife such as birds and mammals. An example of this is Newcastle's very own Tyne and its tributaries, particularly the River Derwent, now a haunt once more (when since last?) of otters.

Good luck people, and thanks for the link.

A hole in it

Another short 'news item' which appeared in Newcastle City Council's house journal City Life which I noted with interest appeared under the heading 'Ouseburn Parks Project'. The article describes 'detailed plans' which have been drawn up by consultant landscape architects for the 'Ouseburn Parks, a 2 mile long stretch of green space including, the article lists, Jesmond Dene, Heaton Park, Armstrong Park and Paddy Freeman's Park. All are situated along the course of the Ouseburn as it flows south into the River Tyne.

I must have missed the 'regular consultations' to which the article refers. I may not have received the relevant issue or issues of City Life in which these consultations were advertised; nor have any leaflets popped through the door. The only document I have seen is one I picked up, the over elaborate 'Visit Ouseburn' folded leaflet which gives details of the many (good) cultural activities housed about the lower end of the Ouseburn 'area'.

It may seem like carping but the leaflet barely mentions (I am being generous) the amenity of the area and nothing about wild life. The City Life article is much more alarming. It speaks of 'the next exciting phase of the project, which will see works commence on site.' What does this mean? Works sounds ominous to any with a memory of Newcastle City Council's record of destruction since the sixties.

I have a problem with 'projects'. They anticipate and impose ideas, sometimes at great initial outlay and then fail to support with long term maintenance. Newcastle is littered with the remains of 'projects' which wilted after the first funds ran out.

Given that the same City Council had a 'project' to turn the Battlefield City Stadium 'site' into a car park attached to a private office development (thereby allowing the said offices to double in size at no extra cost to the developers) as recently as 2002, I am not sanguine about the branding of Ouseburn as a means of protecting all the sites along the Ouseburn. (See logo below. Is the whirlpool device a signal of a fear of vacancy?) Neither do I welcome such devices as 'way markers', especially ones that simply replace distraction for imagination. Why should there have to be a 'project' to give open space an identity? Might it not have one already, less glamourous than television 'make-over' garden shows would have it, but still a sense of place. I have seen a lot of such 'exercises'.

I once went round an exhibition of competition entries for a national campaign to 'restore' a set of areas such as the Ouseburn catchment with a friend who had studied sculpture. The designs were all of the 'feature' and 'way mark' identity crisis kind. When we emerged he turned to me and said "I saw nothing which beat a tree." The prevailing passion is that everywhere must be put to a defined use, for a purpose, a given activity – it is that fear of vacancy again. Why not stop for a moment and look at what is there?

Photographs from top:
Former Reg Vardy showrooms with developers display. There are several vacant office schemes in the city already, some recently completed, others old. ("The wrong sort of offices" personal comment by NCC official to author, 2002.)

Overview of the former Vardy site with Battlefield City Stadium in background.

New Ouseburn trail map. Note 'anarchist' addition.

Close up of the Ouseburn 'logo'.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pointing the wrong way?

The recent issue of City Life, the 'house journal' of Newcastle City Council, has arrived. No more glossy covers (though a cover photograph of a tiny tot Chinese child is a delightful sight).

Inside I came across this article on the installation of a public sculpture on the 'Battlefield' open space. (See attached scan 144 KB. I hope City Life do not mind me reproducing this since it is in the public interest.) This is most timely, since I wanted to write about this sculpture and what it appears to signify, for the site if not in aesthetic terms.

Unfortunately the sculpture had barely been in place before ground level electric lights, which were, I presume, to have illuminated the sculpture at night, were thoroughly and systematically smashed. I took the close-up photograph (below) soon after installation was completed in July 2007. Thus far no one has felt moved to write graffiti on it. I hope it stays that way.

I sympathise with the aims of those who seek to give an identify to the site; indeed, it was a similar impulse which led to my own effort with this blog. However, I have not seen any contemporary UK public sculpture – produced since the end of the First World War 1914–18 that is – which means anything. I feel the endeavour to have been misdirected.

Fiona Grey (described in the article as a "local designer" – "sculptor", would seem more appropriate) has produced a feature which is better than most, but not I think, by much. Partly this is because the very essence of public sculpture is belief: Pagan or mythical gods do best, followed by forgotten dignitaries, particularly if on horseback. The collapse of a belief in anything shared by society beyond the trivial level has had notable consequences for public visual statements. Collectively today the British, especially English, believe in few abstract ideas and as a result end up with over scaled executive desk ornaments wherever a 'statement' is called for.

I do not in any way blame Grey or Councillor Stephen Psallidas (on Grey's right in the photograph) for subsequent damage. But I do think the way forward is in a different direction to that which the sculpture ("way marker") points.

"Way marker"

Two views ...

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Winter day

There is something about winter that I like. Grey skies are depressing to many, but the beauty is there if you look. A life without the seasons would be strange and a little lifeless I think. I took these photographs yesterday, Friday 11th January. There had been rain and now a slight drizzle was falling, dulling the sound of trains over the Ouseburn bridges and cars on Warwick Street. As usual all the pedestrians and cycle traffic was concentrated on the tarmac route carrying students to and from their digs in Heaton and the University campus' beyond Shieldfield. Few birds seen on my stroll. A Dunnock Prunella modularis at my feet, subtle coloured and beautiful like the day; a bright and assertive male Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, many gulls, mostly Blacked Headed Larus ridibundus and a few Common Larus canus. None of the larger Herring gulls Larus argentatus land for some reason, content to cruise overhead. No crows Corvus spp. strangely. The Redwings Turdus musicus are about still, though in pairs or singles.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


I shall record birds seen on or close by the Battlefield Open Space site from time to time. I am afraid I shall be using the pre-PC nomenclature for English vernacular names.

Recent weather has been colder with some frost overnight and low cloud with frequent rain, often for long spells.

28.12.07. A flock of Redwings Turdus musicus flitted nervously from high tree top to tree top. About 20-25 in all, splitting and joining up again.

02.01.08. Just above the steps down the Ouseburn bank on the south side, a Kestrel Falco tinnunculus was 'pouncing' from low perches on trees alongside the pathway. At first I thought it might be a Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus from its behaviour standing upright on the path. Mistle Thrushes have been singing in this area for a month.

Near Warwick Street junction with Grantham Road I found Siskin Carduelis spinus searching amongst leaf litter at my feet. A stand of small trees overhanging the roadway include Alder Alnus glutinosa , a favourite source of seed for this tiny and engaging species. I saw at least two individuals.