Saturday, December 19, 2009

Stepping out

Snow has fallen and the shortest day, December 21st, is coming up.

The temptation to summarise 2009 is everywhere being given in to, in the newspapers, on television and radio. Should I join in?

As the year ends Battlefield survives for now. The long anticipated development of the old paint factory site is proceeding but for present being out paced by the building going up like a Meccano toy further into Shieldfield. All around the district suddenly developments are under way. Huge new accommodation blocks for students are coming to join those already here. These developments will take time to settle down. The impacts will be great and the character of the area will change again.

Looking out wider than the stretch of grass and copses of trees which sit astride the tunnel over the Ouseburn, requires more than just eyes; this corner of the city has a story imprinted upon it, a story set down in layers. If we use our mind as well as eyes we will find that a couple of centuries worth of transformation have produced a complex urban landscape, parts of which that have survived successive waves of activity. Like civilisations of old, sometimes the only trace of their occupation left is a wall or a cornerstone integrated into the present, often to be casually overlooked. Uniformity only comes about through vigour and single mindedness. The very lack of secure financial resources in the past sixty years benefited areas such as Lower Ouseburn. These "marginalised" areas were fortunate to escape the passion for wholesale re-development. Decay and pollution have something to be said for them. The time capsule of dirt which enveloped Lower Ouseburn for most of the 20th century has proved its worth.

Most people have an urge at times to tidy up. It somehow refreshes us. Carried on for its own sake however it becomes a monster on our backs, forever eliminating the incidental and accidental, the marginal things which give meaning and texture to our lives. Sharp, clean, neat are lifeless. So I believe it is with our surroundings.

Recently visiting a friend in a town outside the city I was confronted with results of a massive re-deveolpment. The demolished buildings were not in fact very old and part of a faded passion themselves, the one that told us all in the 60s we had to be 'modern'. Dated and dingey, the town's 'shopping centre' has been pulled down and today one is confronted with a fine example of the vanity of our own time, fake history. What one sees now looks like a film set for a light-weight television series or one off 'period' drama, a milky export version of Dickens or Mrs Gaskell. It has been well received. For myself, all it needs to finish it off are a few strollers in 'Quality Street' clothes or, possibly even more apt, a toy train driven by a rosy cheeked lad in a gnome's hat. The problem I have with much contemporay building however, is not just that it is bad or trite; most is not even banal.

I will leave my thoughts there for now. I have strolled round the district with my camera and these seasonal images will serve as my greeting to you, dear reader.

Best Wishes for now and in 2010.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Early one morning ...

Some photographs of the construction underway of new student flats at Shieldfield, the subject of a recent comment.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pronounced "Bouquet"

According to someone this city is green ...

Reading through the B.B.C.'s report however, I see such matters as 'education' are lassoed in the use of this term. I wonder then how bad every where else must be on the 'green scale'?

In fairness, the people who look after the city's green spaces do a grand job and I know local environment officials take their tasks seriously. The Council is a different matter.


I have abandoned my quest to discover the planning details of the massive building being whacked up on Shieldfield Lane. It is after all, a fact now.

Soon it will look like this:

(Hat Tip:

A whole section of the city around Melbourne Street sandwiched beside the railway has already been turned over to student 'flats' and together with the development of the old paint factory site ("Portland Green" – where do they get these terrible Hyacinth Bucket names from?) this part of the city is indeed to become a giant student 'ghetto' in the opinion of some. I am just worried what will happen to the Battlefield open space and the vague notions prevalent all over the political sphere that 'something must be done with it'.

I must comment sometime on the prevailing 'architectual style' (sic) being smeared like greasepaint over the face of this famous city.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Excuses, excuses

I have little to say about my delay in bringing either more information or photographs about the new development at Shieldfield Lane, apparently (see comment below by 'johnny' who provides a link. I cannot vouch for this and content for which I am not responsible.

However, given the back sliding I am guilty of, is that surprising?

Promise to do better.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

"In need of landscaping" Part the Second

Out early (-ish) today I welcomed the sunshine, now at an intimidating angle. Battlefield was quiet, just a few strollers and a jogger on the running track. The air was crisp and not a cloud nor vapour trail to scar the blue overhead.

Does Battlefield need landscaping then? I let you be the judge.

A familiar high pitched 'peep' from the woods by the railway viaduct. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew by, the sun making its red patches conspicuous.

In the distance this looms into view.

I am waiting to learn more about this 'construction' which did not feature on the re-development plans put forward at public 'consultations'. It is being built by Metnor Group plc, well known business park and warehouse constructors, whose representatives described Battlefield to me as "threatening". You can be the judge of that too.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Robin Redbreast

While I wait patiently for a response to my enquiry about a development which slipped under my radar – the metal work is already up to a great height and if this represents the way things will go with construction then students will be bedding down in the finished building by January 2010 – I divert myself and I hope you also with a small item.

The mighty Robin.

These days one is supposed to call them the euro-something Robin, the result of a conference where, following years of whining, American scientists insisted 'the' was a colonialist hangover which must go. The early colonists in the U.S.A. spotting a bird with red on it called this a robin, presumably to remind themselves of the old country they soon dumped. Ah, never mind!

The Robin was chosen sometime back to be Britain's national bird. Appropriately since it is aggressive and markedly anti-social!

It has one endearing quality. It sings two songs, one in spring and the other in winter. Both males and females sing – the sexes are well nigh impossible to distinguish one from the other.

I have heard several on recent walks around Battlefield. They are laying out their stalls for the future and the song is a warning as much as it is encouragement.

The identification of the Robin with winter is certainly pagan and the early church rather than admonish, adopted customs which could feasibly be interwoven with Christianity. So the Robin is pre-eminently a winter time bird and about to appear on a greeting card near you soon.

© B.B.C. 2005

Monday, October 26, 2009

Photo call

I have added more recent photographs to the Flickr stream for this website not all of which are devoted to JCB's ... I hope you find them interesting and yet more proof of the genius of an ordinary place.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

You have mail ...

An interesting contact ... (See comments thread in the post below this).

I was taken aback by all the details to be seen on the skyscrapercity site about the 'gold rush' of developers, eager to liberally cover all of the Lower Ouseburn and adjoining areas of Newcastle's Quayside with exactly the kind of buildings I most dislike; meretricious off the peg Modernism, whose only virtue would be the ease and low cost of erecting these 'cash flow' options. The guiding dead hand of English Estates is everywhere, like tin foil and about as robust. Just as with the planned and abandoned schemes for the former paint factory site next to Battlefield, most of the sites have been subject to several development proposals which have been through 'multiple choices' – offices, then trendy apartments and now student housing – the latest of late 'quick bucks' to be had in property development. Nothing I saw had any relationship with the existing Ouseburn or the characterful history of this corner of Tyneside.

Another wave of crass development awaits Newcastle it seems, held back only by the Credit Crunch. Not all bad news on the economy then.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The rise of the machines

The weather did not improve but I returned anyway with fresh batteries for my camera to capture some of the activity taking place on the site of the old paint factory.

The large building behind is an existing University hall of residence. Converted from offices into private apartments, it was abandoned in an unfinished condition for many months until it was bought up for student housing some years ago.

No skate boarders today. Rain stopped play?

But they have (for now) left their mark.

More soon including some of the beauty which nearby "threatening" Battlefield has to offer in this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness ...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Surprise, surprise

I was surprised and a little puzzled to find that yet another site in Shieldfield is being developed by Metnor Group plc. This 'new' site is on Stoddart Street, two hundred yards away up Shieldfield Lane from the paint factory site, which has already been granted building consent by Newcastle City Council, despite objections. I visited a public display of the former paint factory site plans together with a model of the proposed scheme last year, but evidently missed details of this extension of the scheme, if that what it is, away from the 'main' site. Is this too destined to become a student accommodation block?

Workmen busy themselves today on all roads around the area that is soon to become one very large building site to judge by the scale of current operations. Strangely, youths with skate boards and a ghetto blaster are continuing to have the run of the former paint factory's concrete hard standing, even whilst large dumper trucks are swinging in and out of the main site (as such I think we must call it now).

If the Stoddart Street site is also going to become yet more student accommodation then that will have a profound affect on the total area. It will mean, taken together with the new and existing developments throughout the district and nearby in recent years, student only accommodation will turn this area into a 'city within a city', and a very under resourced and cramped one at that. Is this deliberate?

More (and some photographs) to follow.

Warehousing built by Metnor, developers of choice for student accommodation.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


I am back from a holiday in Canada (Toronto) and Maine, U.S.A. Lucky me!

It was not all dozy sight seeing and I saw a number of local projects and initiatives which had me thinking about the little patch I call Battlefield, but is more widely know as the City Stadium, together with the Lower Ouseburn Valley. Lessons in, and confirmation of, my central belief in urban open space and local community action.

More soon.

The Saturday farmers market at Don Valley, Toronto.

Don Valley, Toronto, once a site of a vast brick works, now community wildlife and local projects park.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

All the fun of the fair

August Bank Holiday is upon us. Soon the schools will go back, the leaves begin to brown, the winds sharpen and the swallows depart.

I too am off on a brief holiday abroad. More when I return.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Off the rails

"Urban archaeologists and naturalists then climbed the three-story-high viaduct and discovered a wondrous new prairie in the sky, a wild green river that flowed through concrete canyons and disappeared into the distance."

from 'Up in the Park' by Martin Filler
New York Review of Books (online edition)
Vol. 56, No 13 13.08.09

A nice article on the uses and significance of green space in cities, somewhat adjacent to what I have been on about on this blog for some while.

Over at Walking off the Big Apple, Teri Tynes stole a march on the NYRB with her account and photographic essay.

In light of this article and more importantly what it has to say about urban greening, it may be worth pointing out that there is a plan in progress to apply for Lottery Money for a scheme entitled 'Ouseburn Parks Project'. The 'Project' aims to stitch together existing public parks through or alongside which the Ouseburn winds towards its juncture with the River Tyne. Strangely, one might think, the plan as submitted fails to mention the City Stadium (a.k.a. 'Battlefield') green space which lies over and above the river. Or may be it's not strange at all, given long term plans to turn this open space into (at various times) car parking for offices, or a sports and leisure adjunct to a commercially driven housing project. But then, nothing Newcastle City Council puts its underhand to ever surprises me.

What do they plan for Battlefield? All my attempts to reach the Council's 'Ouseburn Project' website failed this afternoon. You try! Link

Update 28.08.09: Link to is now working. However , I could not locate anything about the Ouseburn Parks Project on the web site. If and when I succeed I will post the appropriate link.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Burrowing under

Alarm bells rang as I was whisked past Battlefield last weekend when I spied a huge digger right in a grove of trees and surrounded by security fencing. Has 'it' begun? Had there been a swoop on sleeping Battlefield and the first moves of some great building programme now under way?

I hurried along this morning carrying my camera and tripod.

A few photographs of the 'crime scene' and a glimpse into the large deep hole which has been dug inside the shade of the trees. Then a few raucous shouts. Far from fleeing I sauntered over to the gang of men who had gathered around. Was I a spy? ('On what?' I thought but did not say.) Keep smiling. Yes, and could I get a few mug shots? (In fact I never would take photographs of individuals and figures in my photographic studies are routinely 'smudged' or made less identifiable for reasons I hope are obvious to you.) We had a laugh and I found the men most approachable. They were working on the water and sewage system. One helpfully showed me a map.

Beneath our feet lie nineteenth century sewage pipes and tunnels. Here a problem had been building up with the flow of foul water and the idea is to insert an inspection manhole to gain access to a sharp turn in the travel of the pipe at this point. Of concern to my informants were a number of rats running about. I saw none.

Students, chiefly from overseas I imagine, were walking back and forth. The sun shone and I strolled on with my camera. On a path next to the East Coast Mainline as it leaps out on a fine bridge over the Ouseburn Valley I came across more 'engineering', here relaying a stretch of the path's surface.

Battlefield looked a fine, calm and peaceful place despite these operations. As I turned for home I saw the light angled through trees and thought once again how hard it is to recall one is in a city.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Lower Ouseburn – The 2009 tour

I have today uploaded 62 images together with notes, to this site's flickr web gallery. Please do take a few minutes to leaf through them if you are at all interested.

My journey on foot yesterday afternoon was meant to be for the purpose of collecting some images of the controversial new Ouseburn Barrage, now nearing completion. But the fine weather made me wander and several other sights caught my attention, so I ended taking rather a lot of photographs ...

I will have more to say about some of these in due course.

Useful links:

Note: None of the above organisations, businesses nor any employee or owner is associated with this blog, or endorses its content or its opinions.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Two Iains

Two people exercise a distant yet strong guiding hand on my thoughts and observations about the real subject of this blog: A sense of place.

Both are named Iain.

The first is dead. The articles written for the London Observer each Sunday by Iain Nairn (1930-83) were my introduction into architectural criticism. Nairn was a controversial figure and an outstanding influence. His best writing has lasted and he coined the term "Subtopia" for symptoms arising from post-war architecture and especially town planning, one which has stood the test of time. He made me aware of the dangers of the blandness of much post-war building and the desire to impose rather than to appreciate. Nairn demonstrated that there are tangible qualities associated with a 'place' which are significant and that these give meaning to our lives.

In the rush to re-build and sweep away something was lost and quite early on, Nairn put those losses into words, as explained here:

"In June 1955, the Architectural Review published a special issue, written by the brilliant architecture critic Ian Nairn, then just 25, which it titled Outrage. The issue documents the spread of what the AR calls Subtopia - a compound of suburb and utopia - across Britain. "Subtopia," Nairn writes, "is the annihilation of the difference by attempting to make one type of scenery standard for town, suburb, countryside and wild." The AR documents this with great thoroughness. Everything about the issue - the use of drawings and different coloured papers, the typography - glows with visual intelligence. Nairn shows scores of photographs of street lamps, arterial roads, overhead wires, street advertising and bungled attempts at "municipal rustic". He undertakes a 400-mile car journey from Southampton to Carlisle, producing a written commentary supported by pictures of everything he sees, then switches his attention to the Scottish Highlands, where he looks at housing, roads, tourism, hydro-electricity. The issue ends with a manifesto about what needs to be done aimed at the man in the street, which sets out some precepts ("The site's the thing, not a set of rules, and your eye's the thing, not the textbook") and offers a comprehensive list of malpractices to watch out for ("Has the town lost its centre to the car park? Or the open square to a wired-in public garden?").

What is remarkable about Outrage is its controlled anger and passion. The purpose of criticism here is to force open people's eyes, to change opinion and make a difference. The writer has a view of Subtopia grounded in a philosophical awareness of what it signifies for the person who lives inside it: "Insensible to the meaning of civilization on the one side and, on the other, ignorant of the well-spring of his own being, he is removing the sharp edge from his own life, exchanging individual feeling for mass experience in a voluntary enslavement far more restrictive and permanent than the feudal system." The issue became a book, and it's clear from the many reviews quoted on the cover that it received a level of attention in the papers that a design magazine initiative would never be granted today. "Sameness can become a most virulent form of ugliness," writes The Observer. "If we are not shocked into recognising it in time, we shall ourselves become subtopians, sub-humans, no longer individuals but for ever members of a herd."

To produce a scorching critique like this you need profound idealism and a shared sense of what matters, and we have lost this now. Much of what Nairn and the AR feared came to pass in spite of their protests. In their terms, the visual environment of Britain was carelessly ruined. Subtopia - sprawl, if you prefer - continues to throw a dull blanket of sameness over everything in its path. Design and its offshoot, branding, were instrumental in stamping this uniformity on to British high streets to a degree that Nairn, who died in 1983, can scarcely have imagined. Many people find it harder to feel such a keen sense of outrage today because they have ceased to believe that it's likely to have much effect. What counts is to find ways of accommodating things as they are and of making whatever practical interventions you can lever, though these aren't expected to bring about fundamental change. In architectural circles, the term "post-critical" has gained currency as a way of describing some younger architects' acceptance of the prevailing social, economic and cultural reality. In a recent issue of Harvard Design Magazine, Reinhold Martin notes that this form of architecture is committed to "an affect-driven, nonoppositional, nonresistant, nondissenting and therefore nonutopian form of architectural production"."

Rick Poynor writing in ICON magazine online March 2006

A short Wikipedia entry exists for Nairn. Unfortunately I cannot track down an image of him.

The second Iain is very much alive and is embroiled with his local Borough Council in London over his recently published book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report. Mr Sinclair was not permitted to launch his work on premises owned by Hackney Council for reasons the Council makes unclear.

Sinclair is part a movement dubbed 'psychogeography'; this is a rich mixture of overlays which disciples gather up from strolling through the landscape of urban and suburban spaces, particularly London, but obviously might be applicable to many other cities. It is an appreciation of the signs of activity left to us by the passage of time, and more especially, people and events which are significantly present and blended together by the action of our own participation.

Sinclair is a poet foremost; Nairn was a sometimes rough pragmatist. Yet both are inspired by uncovering the origins of what we are tempted to believe is 'ordinary life' and show us in different, yet complementary ways, that we need to think about that phrase and its interpretations.

Iain Sinclair

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Clocks and clouds

I once began a review of an exhibition about artistic responses to the subject of climate by writing "It is a cliché that when two strangers from these islands meet they begin by discussing the weather." For a cliché to work however, there must be a grain of truth in it.

Our weather has this week brought spells of intense heat followed by bouffant clouds bubbling and tearing open to reveal seraphic blue over which some divine artist has dragged a brush loaded with cream; or, dotted with a herring bone of gauze. In turn one (if you are that kind of 'one' at least) is reminded of Samuel Palmer's 'Valley with a Bright Cloud' or the even more sumptuous (less mystic perhaps?) creations of Tiepelo, concoctions of sensuousness over which to drape the young and supple models standing in for the old gods.

Oh, well! Here are my efforts with a camera!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

But, soft! Who comes this way?

I have been done for parking without showing a permit, which I possess. Rats! Co-incidence? I think not.

And rats too, to our weather! The reason for the sea frets which grip this region of north east England have been explained to me. Something to do with cold water and warm air. Or vice versa. The result is whilst the rest of the country swelters we are gripped by a blanket of clammy mist, at its worst like low cloud, soaking into everything it touches.

Hardest to bear are the cheerful voices on the media giving daily advice on how to "stay cool" and protect oneself from "the harmful rays of the sun"! Fat chance!

More soon on the daily round of Battlefield the Beautiful.

UPDATE AUGUST: I got let off (just this once).

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Comment on comments

Yesterday I discovered I had overlooked some comments posted to this site.

If you were one of those kind enough to post a comment and have been wondering what happened to it I can confirm that now all have been published.

I will promise to keep my eyes open in future.

Meanwhile ...

... some more views for your enjoyment.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Right hand, left hand Revisited

Newcastle City Council displays leaflets about the plight of the Song Thrush, a once familiar bird of parks and gardens, beloved for it's song and habit of eating slugs!

Unfortunately, the Council's concern is not joined up to it's actions on the ground ....

I mentioned in another post how, two or three years ago, I had seen a recent increase in Song Thrush numbers around Battlefield and the somewhat heartening sight of four birds together (3 + 1) during the early breeding season. The shrubberies near the footpath I was on were cut down to near ground level a week later and the Song Thrushes departed, never seen again.

Timing of works appears to be weak at present, possibly more governed by finance than environmental considerations. During a recent foray into the most 'threatening' part of the Battlefield open space I noted more signs of this disjoint between intention and outcomes.

A felled tree. It was removed at the height of the breeding season. I am sure the aboralists worked to minimise harm but this kind of operation must involve disturbance. Later in the year or better still in winter would seem appropriate and straight forward.

This area has been left largely undisturbed and was aloud with birdsong, including a warbler, possibly Garden Warbler.

Bonus points are due for this action, seen in the photograph below. Uncut grass margins, large enough to be useful as a habitat for invertebrates, is commendable. Butterflies, moths, crickets and grasshoppers, beetles and so forth need this kind of long grass in which to prosper; so to, do birds. Quite apart from the animal kingdom, wild flowers and grasses thrive. No one loses from this small consideration for wildlife husbandry. Thanks are due to those involved in this piece of initiative for the benefit of wildlife.

Perhaps someone should tell one arm of the Council what the other is doing?