Wednesday, December 21, 2011

That was 2011

My last post of 2011.

What happened this year? The Lower Ouseburn marked time and the immense East Coast Mainline bridge was wrapped like a Christo sculpture, a far better art work than the 2011 Turner Prize finalists could come up with in the Baltic on the opposite bank of the Tyne ...

I had fewer opportunities this year to wander camera in hand around my home patch. Some projects have still to be tackled. 2012 is coming.

The reason (well one of them) I started this blog was the re-development of the site I call 'battlefield' (apologies to those who came here looking for pictures of burning tanks or wounded knights) and to the rest to this city as the City Stadium. Threats - in the shape of unsuitable and gimcrack developments inspired by a financial bubble - came along one after another. However, even following a period when money ran like water, the former paint factory site remains, this damp December day, untouched apart from a few piles of builders rubble and swathes of ever more impressive scrub trees and shrubs. Whatever lurks beneath the surface (arsenic, cadmium, antimony ...?) the plants above wave careless.

We shall see what the New Year brings.

With my very best wishes to one and all for 
a Peaceful Christmas and a Happy New Year

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jesmond Old Cemetery

I frequently walk through Jesmond Old Cemetery on my way to the nearest Metro station. Partly because I find it easy to pray here as I walk and because, like all old cemeteries I have ever visited, it exudes life.

In all seasons Jesmond Old Cemetery has a character that defies its position sandwiched between two busy roads, arteries to the city of Newcastle just to the south. In winter it has pattern and grandeur, in Spring life and movement, in Summer deep shadows and visiting song birds. It is cared for but with intelligence; a brisk official policy capable of wrecking the place was carried only so far; grave stones that threatened to topple have been carefully laid flat or at an angel to the ground. Unlike some other places, the more notorious policy of complete clearance has not prevailed here. There is a group known as the Friends of Jesmond Old Cemetery that undertakes some path clearing and tidying, as well as leading tours around the cemetery and historical recording, but nothing is over done. As it has been said, Jesmond Old Cemetery is "a fine old place".

The Cemetery is distinguished by some locally famous people whose last resting place it is, including author, playwright and feminist Julia Darling.

The Cemetery gates are Listed structures designed by John Dobson. The rest, I hope speaks for itself.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Rotten to the Core

I came in from walking on the coast to the north of Newcastle on Tuesday (15.11.11) to find a message from an old friend on my answer phone service. There was a meeting that night about the proposal to build six hundred new homes surrounding Gosforth Nature Reserve, that, should it go ahead would effectively end the needs of the increasingly diverse wildlife that has come to use the Reserve and through it, the green corridor down the Ouseburn to the foot of my own road here in central Newcastle. Was I coming along?

A hasty cup of tea and then out to South Gosforth. Collected a group of friends and walked the mile to Gosforth Civic Centre. Already very crowded by the time we arrived, we had to stand at the back of the hall. It was very hot inside and grew steadily hotter as the meeting went on. Before us on the stage was a panel of both presenters and spokes people. After a introduction and explanation of the reason for the meeting (polite, but hardly necessary; most of us were well primed) each of the four main speakers was introduced in turn and allowed a ten minute presentation.

The representatives from Newcastle City Council were first up to speak. This proved a sensible course, I suspect the packed meeting would have not been such passive listeners as the evening wore on. The Council case was presented in the linga franca of all such proposals and so laden with invented buzz words as to be opaque. It struck me early on I had yet to hear what these far reaching and over ambitious proposals were based upon and who had cooked them up. Were they like so much else today plucked from, er, thin air? One vague threat in this submission was that the current Coalition government were going ahead with measures to relax the planning laws so Newcastle "needed" to have a plan of its own ready for the day when this intention became a reality. Intellectually, that is on the level of "someone is coming to beat up Mother, so I must beat her up before they arrive".

The best presentations were, inevitably, from the opponents. David Byrne, an academic from Durham, once Labour councillor and now Green Party member, was impressive. He undermined the entire case for the 'Core One' strategy in that, as he demonstrated with expertise and recourse to respected available data, it does not address the current circumstances facing Newcastle; and, since the Core One strategy for growth is based on statistics that only go to 2008, it cannot cope with the present dire consequences of the Great Slump making themselves inceasingly felt day by day.

After this tour de force Head of Planning Harvey Emms and his colleague were not in a happy position. Their titular boss, Councillor Henri Murison however, decided not to show up at all.

James Littlewood's measured statement regarding the Reserve was a model of sticking to the issues. Read it (and view photographs of the event) in full here. I was impressed at the way Mr Littlewood refused to blame anyone in making his address. His hearers though were left in no doubt about where to look.

Opposition to the plan was far wider than simply the Northumberland Wildlife people. Golfers speaking from the floor of the meeting said that the development of the Great North Park (an earlier violation of the city's Green Belt to the north of Gosforth) had impacted on them due to increased surface water run off down the Ouseburn; greens flooded and play imposssible. Householders along the river, though few, also outlined their concerns over increased flood risk. Both groups claimed that they had not been consulted by the Council about the most recent plans to develop the Gosforth site.

All-in-all it turned out better than I feared. The meeting had been well disciplined and courteous. The Council was shown in a poor light though, not least when referring to having had exchanges of views with "English Nature", an organisation that ceased to exist three years ago.

Revised 6th December 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Friends in the North

Details have arrived from 'one who was there' of the City Council meeting held in part to discuss the development of housing on Newcastle's Green Belt.

A group of friends went down to the Civic Centre last night [2nd November] and one of them sent me this via e-mail.

What fun that was!!! Didn't realise that we would be let loose in the Council Meeting. There were so many protesters there that they had to offer half of us seats in the invited guest area at the back of the hall. Lots of loud boos and groans of disapproval as the councillor put forward the proposal followed by loud cheering and clapping when the chap from Newcastle Natural History Society read out a very eloquent opposition. It was great fun - like being naughty children at the back of the classroom. I had a quick scan of the Journal and Chronicle [Newcastle newspapers. Ed.] and both papers had substantial articles and photos of the event. Will have to see if there is anything on Look North [B.B.C. television] this evening - they did a piece about Sunday's protest yesterday.

A positive outcome from the meeting that I have heard is that the period for 'consultations' has been extended by many weeks beyond the original 18th November deadline.

The Journal report of the protest at the Civic Centre can be read here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Below the Belt

Urgent news has arrived of another assault on Newcastle's Green Belt.

The Green Belts were a post World War II planning concept, successfully ending uncontrolled housing sprawl that many commentators had predicted would ruin the landscape and put the experience of walking or cycling, the chief recreations of the urban working classes in the early decades of the last century, out of reach. By this measure this our cities and large towns were given 'green lungs', an extraordinarily far sighted policy at that time.

Muted noises from commercial interests (and some maverick academics) have have sought to challenge this presumption against development. In more recent times the motor car and trunk road have made commuting from "the country" in to work an aspiration for some who can afford it, so much so that commercial developers have seen a potential gold mine beckoning. Persimmon Homes now wishes to build 500 homes on green fields next to Gosforth Nature Reserve, effectively walling it in and ending the mammalian interest of the reserve. Other, smaller, schemes would complete the encirclement: Builders Bellway are applying for permission to build a further 100 "executive houses" on a separate but adjacent site. (1)

A number of organisations have banded together to fight these proposals. Details of the issue are to be read here.

I note only that this scheme has all the hallmarks of the City Council on it. Stealthy and, presumably lengthy, meetings have ensured local councillors learned only lately of the scheme, a scheme that seems well advanced. Public consultation is a low priority and the time allowed for objections brief.

These homes are for well off aspirational buyers; they will have no effect on the sector that requires urgent attention: Low access cost housing and homes for rent. Tyneside has extensive former industrial land (so-called brownfield sites) in locations close to existing infrastructure that should be developed for affordable homes. There is no need to encroach on the Green Belt, except only for the opportunities it represents for maximising profit.

If you live in or near Newcastle please consider writing to the Council. You never know, they might even open your letter.


Images from the meeting at Gosforth Nature Reserve on Sunday 30th October 2011. (© Judith Anne Tomlinson with acknowledgement.)

Site visits were guided by volunteers. Detailed information on the past and present status of several important mammal species was given. Otters are now resident on the reserve, possibly for the first time in over a century. They are known to venture down existing waterways into Newcastle's Jesmond Dene. Building over adjacent farmland would end their tenure.

Some of those who came to hear the opening speeches from Northumberland Wildlife Trust and Reserve managers were able to walk the one and half mile circuit to see the issues for themselves. If the proposals were to be given Newcastle City Council approval, then quite shortly the view over the heads of those walking nearest the camera would be one of rooftops.

(1) Sentence corrected 6th November 2011 following further information.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Art for art's sake Part II

The second part of this review of Newcastle City Council's efforts in the arena of 'public art' could be said to resemble "Hamlet" without the ghost. The most egregious example of their astonishing record of under-achievement is no more to be seen. It was swept away to the relief of many when the Haymarket Metro station was redeveloped for vacant office space. It comprised five foot high linked concrete cut outs forming a ring fence around the traffic side of the site that wraps around the South African War memorial in the Haymarket. Accompanying these – supposedly 'tributes to the fallen' – were water features. Space does not allow for a complete description; the associated fountain was turned on once, I believe, but winds whipped spray over the unfortunates using the Metro. Rumored costs were said to have been in the region of a half a million GBP at then ruling prices.

Northumberland Street sculptural features that complimented the Haymarket Metro fiasco are still in place. These have always reminded me of the kind of public art popular on the Continent in the 60s to provide cover to those localities where citizens with the wrong sort of grandparents where rounded up for transporting to death camps.

In straight forward financial terms, according to what has been made public at any rate, the re-development of the Laing Art Gallery must be at the top - 1.4 million GBP.

The Laing's entrance suffered from 'looking the wrong way' tucked down a side street. A sensible plan was made to change this and a brand new entrance was constructed on Portland Place, immediately visible from several points. The result was pleasing and, I am reliably informed, successful in attracting more visitors. The Laing goes about its work quietly and shows (for free) many touring exhibitions of national and international quality. The arrival of the Blue Carpet was a another matter.

 It was decided by someone or other, that the pedestrianised space outside the gallery's new entrance had to be something more than pavement, seats and trees. The concept that won the day was artist architect Thomas 'Bing of the Bang' Hetherwick. Mr Hetherwick was then at the beginning of his public career and netting him seemed to many in authority to have been something of a coup. The original concept was of a spangly 'carpet' that would glow with reflected light at night. Problems - and I am treading carefully here - arose. So did the costs. At the time it was reported that the material used to produce the spangles was not easily contrived. The final result was mixed. Essentially what was got was less Blue Carpet, rather more Grey Blanket. The trees are nice.

Looking down on all this from his column is Lord Grey, he of the famous blend of tea and 1834 Reform Act, also known as the Great Reform Act. He is rightly commemorated and stands tall, a testament to something beyond money and shopping.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Art for arts sake Part I

Blazing sunshine and an oft delayed project not only became possible but enjoyable.

I have wanted to write something about the truly amazing recent public art record of Newcastle City Council. It is amazing for scoring a hundred per cent flop rate. Each and every attempt to do something artistic on the streets has resulted in failure. Every time. That has to be a record for anywhere. Just simple laws of averages must mean one of these projects turns out well, surely?


Once upon a time however, things were different. Statues were placed around towns and cities that celebrated local heroes. (Usually, it must be pointed out, male) These were sculptures put in place by people who believed in something more than money. It is possible, but rarely happens today that an art commission makes a contribution to the space it inhabits and thereby somehow invests it with greater significance, that and a general sense of a place.

Cardinal Basil Hume (1923-1999) in this memorial that stands beside the city's Roman Catholic St Mary's catheral church is both bold and humble; the well loved cleric is not raised above us on  a plinth, but on our level.

The space in front of St Mary's is a newly created public area and today plenty of people came to sit in the very warm sunshine and share in something – well being, ease or simply peaceful relaxation. Whatever one's views, faith or no faith, this is now a place with meaning and grace.

St Mary's architercture helps. The spire was designed by AWN Pugin, the Victorian enthusiast for the Gothic Revival.

Round the corner from St Mary's, alongside the line of the old city wall at the junction of Westgate Road and Pink Lane, is a 'thing'. I suppose it is meant to convey something, but I cannot say for certain what that could be. It gleams like some missile pinning the streets together. It is simply, in that phrase used to cover a multitude of possibilities going no where fast, an "art object"? It reminds me of a pen holder, the kind used by the more pretentious business person.

The feeling of overwhelming contrivance must be obvious to any one. Happily, since it is essentailly meaningless, it threatens no one, which I suppose might be the point (no pun intended).

Further along Westgate Road is another 'representational' statue, this one to a forgotten son of the city, Joseph Cowan. An elected Member of Parliament, Cowan's first speeches in the House of Commons had some of his hearers believing he was speaking in Latin, such was their unfamiliarity with the local Geordie accent. Cowan represents a moment when the wider populace in the large industrial cities around Britain and Ireland were making their voices heard in the seat of power. His life and career mean something to those who can bear a little learning.

However ... That was an age when people felt civic pride amounted to more than shopping.

Outside 'The Gate' entertainment complex stands this obelisk. Less '2001' monolith, more chief executive officer desk ornament. Like the gleaming pin beside the city wall, it is essentially devoid of significance and therefore, 'safe'.

Which reminds me. The famous London Festival of Britain 'Skylon' (1951) was also abstract in concept yet had some kind of memorability. Destroyed by reactionaries as soon as possible after the exhibition it stood over closed down, the Skylon never was forgotten by those who saw it and with it a sense of renewal and hope for a war devastated country.

Now guess which of the above public art ventures were the result of the City Council's initiative? No prizes.


Part II of Arts for arts sake and –

– Jesmond Old Cemetary.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Another perspective on a sore point

I had once a conversation with one of the original Amber film making collective on the subject of T.Dan Smith. Amber had just finished shooting a film on Smith's career following his release from prison where he was sent after being convicted of corruption in a public office, a charge he admitted.

Smith, so my informant told me, had simply operated within the existing 'culture' to achieve the out comes he though overdue for the city in which he had been born and worked (and where he died). These 'rules' were a fact of the 'ecology' of planning; the back scratching and palm lining of jobbery in local government contracts. No doubt it is a common defence. The rub in Smith's case was that he never benefited himself by these means. He never gained a place on the boards of the companies he 'flattered' with his patronage as so many others had (and still do). Smith had a vision for Newcastle, and he wanted to build it come what may.

Discredited, much of what Smith did summarises what I dislike about 60s planning. In terms of this fine old city, it well nigh killed it. Yet, I must confess, Newcastle and Smith were not unique, and I am not referring to Smith's claim here, that "everyone was doing it". No, I am referring to concrete and tarmacking one's way into the 21st century pursued up and down the land. After my conversation (and a viewing of the film) I appreciated another way in which "everyone was doing it". Cities and towns across the United Kingdom, irrespective of local political allegiance and control, had joined in the post War passion for destroying what little the German Air Force had left standing.

Today comes further confirmation of this fact in an article on the B.B.C.'s web site.

Southampton is at the other end of the country from Newcastle but shared a similar history and now looks back on what went wrong with the often laudable aspiration to do good to the many by the few.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Bridge work

The precarious summer weather has blighted my attempts to date to expand on the architectural merits and de-merits of this fair city. A break in the rain (it is teeming down again today) let me out with my camera anxious to capture before it's too late the elaborate work presently being undertaken on the Main Line Bridge of the Lower Ousburn.

The slideshow is taken from images on this site's flickr collection. I have written there more information on each photograph in the comments section.

The walk took me past the old paint factory and I made a foray to take some shots of what looks ever more a bomb site from my distant childhood; heaps of shattered concrete mixed with dirt and plentiful, grateful one might note, weeds in full flower. More on that soon.

In fact, I was dazzled by the colours of the flowers and berries seen along the way. A special post on this also comes to mind. I saw a lone worker dressed in bright orange overalls and wearing a white hard hat stroll past me along the pathways (still open) and not for the first time wondered when the work is actually done. Whenever I pass big building projects very little seems to be happening.

Yet, evidence of great effort there is aplenty, not least the staggering spectacle of the massive tracery of scafolding required to completely fill the voids between the graceful arches of this Victorian Listed structure. Even with out the passing reference to the work of the famous site specific artists' Christo, with much of the western end of the bridge now wrapped up tight in white plastic sheeting, the whole construction site seems to be a kind of giant artwork. Perhaps one of the triumphs of Modernist pratice has been to help us make such connections.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More than a fig leaf

Studentcastle Revisited

It ought not to work; work in the sense of being more than a collection of ill-judged or considered solutions to a problem. After all, who cares? Along the front side of Newcastle Quayside a set of facades has done well enough. Behind these, piled into a narrow strip between two main roads, what is to be gained or lost?

I do not know if such considerations played any part in planning thinking. What I sense (rather than know for a fact) is that what has happened has, in some haphazard way produced something more than bleakness. Unintentional it maybe but it demonstrates something about the way cities grow and overpower mere plans or concepts.

I walked about on that day surprised at my own surprise. I dodged from patch of shade to patch of shade in the standing heat of a hot day. Traffic, windows often down, stopped and flowed at the lights packed like a forest around the major junctions, colours hard to read in the glare. People, not all students I judged, sauntered past me as if they were expecting nothing less than Mediterranean skies. Caf├ęs offered more than snacks and cold drinks; they gave shelter. I noted one or two enterprises that have emerged to take control of the potential offered by several hundreds, perhaps a thousand now, of students resident in the halls that have been constructed around and about. Some of the new buildings are also new city flats and apartments for residential clients.

Original stone parapet over the East Coast Main Line. 19th c.

Here, beside the East Coast Main Line, rises a brightly adorned block, like as if IKEA had gone into property development. On the other side of the bridge stands the blank walls of the first wave of apartments to go up here abouts. Jump forward from De Stijl to Minimalism; the high security prison variety.

Not that variety had much input. In front of me now stands a building that looks at first glance to be a resurrected warehouse. The colour is deep co-coa brown. It dawns on inspection that this is a fine homage to the district's roots in commerce. It would look good anywhere. It sits on a triangular site that it owns as of right.

Opposite, on the farther side of the street in deep shadow, is a restored building, sadly as of today, unoccupied. Both have true class, and turn this stretch of Melbourne Street into a 'place'. Standing there in the deep shadows cast by the intense sunlight, a feeling of having arrived somewhere was palpable.

I wandered on and found an authentic Victorian or Edwardian corner building I suspect was once something more than it is now, bathed in that intense light. A survivor.

I went through a series of side streets off the main roads. Here there are earlier public housing schemes, judging from their design, dating from the 50s or early 60s. Trees that must have been under threat from the date they were planted out have come through and now cast shadows over pavements, stucco walls and balconies. An old man (well, older than me) called down to a friend (neighbour?) who was offering to run an errand.  Peace and quiet reigned. Perhaps it was just too much effort to make noise.

Then I walked up a kind of courtyard to a parking place where plantins had grown up through paving slabs and stood huge and flowering in the heat of midday; I was reminded of walking in Spain; there, even the parched places had flowers.

The western curve of St Dominic's transept was high above me, a glimpse of some Renaissance inspiration.

And then I found myself cooling under the spreading branches of a huge and luxurious fig tree.

Images, together with descriptions for this walk, are to be found on the site's Flickr feed.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Oh, dear ...

I have mentioned before the conversation - conversation maybe be overstating things a little - with the chief executive of a soon to be dissolved quango* about the role played by the arts in the regeneration of the inner city; how I received a disdainful reply, spoken over my head to a captive audience behind me, to the effect that in his opinion artists were undesirables with strange and perverse ways. There, so he thought, matters rested. He turned his back on me and struck up a more agreeable conversation with someone like himself in a suit.

Now comes this from the B.B.C. web site (My emphasis added.)

In Newcastle, a condemned, non-descript five-storey former solicitors' office block in the city centre has been commandeered by artists for use as studios. There will be 65 when the building is full.
Inside, the managers' cubicles have been occupied by fine artists, while the open-plan areas are littered with sculptural debris and half-finished large-scale creations.
Swathes of the generic blue carpet squares have been ripped up, the bog-standard white ceiling tiles displaced, and the building's past is further obscured by the jumbles of tools, electrical equipment, books and materials scattered around the floor. Artists in the NewBridge Project pay £15 a week for a studio. The project has also set up a ground floor gallery in an old housing association office.The initiative is run by Will Marshall and Will Strong, two Newcastle University fine art graduates, who say it has helped the local creative culture by allowing more graduates to stay in the city. One of the unique things about Newcastle is that there is this wealth of empty space," Will Strong says. There is a wealth of huge business premises slap-bang in the city centre that you can do very interesting projects from, rather than just being these scars on the city.

The reality is that Newcastle is over supplied with offices; there are two blocks within a short walk from where I sit; one of which, from external appearance at least, is beyond further commercial use without extensive and expensive refurbishment. Newer blocks have been erected in the past decade that still have no tenants. As much as I regret this circumstance, I have wonder who thought it was a good idea to add to an already saturated sector?

Full story here.

* In case you do not understand, 'quango' stands for "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation". Supposedly an arms length way of governing, these grew and grew in numbers and size down the years and are now being culled. The purposes of many were obscure, but the top jobs were lucrative for their holders.

Friday, June 17, 2011


Recently someone invited me out to lunch. Rare enough to make me punctual, even slightly ahead of myself. A fine day and I fancied a walk. It took me through part of the city I've wanted to view for months but never got around to.

I do not have a name for this area. It is a zone, one of those particularly apt urban expressions for a place that has no identity excepting the lack of one; a place one hurries through on the  way to somewhere else. It lies between districts I have covered on this blog, fringing the Quayside in central Newcastle, itself now well known and rapidly becoming the public face of the new Newcastle following a classic bottom up development in the 90s. For many today, the Quayside is Newcastle.

Just behind the glamourised waterfront is a less well known set of streets and buildings which have rapidly been added to in the past year. Indeed it is the fastest growing area of the city, fuelled by an expansion of halls of residence for the two universities: Northumbria, the newest of the two in the city and the older, 'red brick' Newcastle University. These  new halls now comprise the major buildings in this strip of city sandwiched between the Tyne and the main road to the coast through Byker, on the eastern edge of the Lower Ouseburn Valley.

On the day of my lunch appointment the sun was shining bright. I was expecting to be critical of this "hand over fist" development. Yet I wasn't; could not be. The buildings individually it must be allowed, are not great. Most are down right mediocre. Yet ... Somehow, even a conglomeration like this can be greater than its parts. High up on the side of one of the new tenements for undergraduates a sign proclaimed 'Studentcastle'. It seemed right.

View of the new halls of residence for Northumbria University on New Bridge Street; buildings so trivial they are not even banal. Local services for residents comprise of bus stops. The street is busy with through traffic and essentially without the a sense of street life for which one one might hope. It's just a set of large dormitories, replacing early Victorian era villas of some architectural merit, constructed sometime between 1820s and 30s. A few remain further up the street, languishing under business premises signs and or layers of garish masonry paint.

Famous for 'posh nosh', Sainsbury's have at least moved in on the business opportunity presented by the captive audience on the doorstep. It represents the only retail food outlet locally, and one of the first developments of its kind in this district since the last century.

More thoughts and reflections in due course. Meanwhile a slideshow taken from my web site's Flickr feed.

Studentcastle: Sheildfield

Studentcastle: Newbridge Street.

Studentcastle: Manors to Melbourne Street.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

If Money Is Your God ...

News today that 'green space', urban green space and all, is good for health and wealth. Fancy that!

A new report to government has arrived that states there is an economic aspect to green spaces. Moreover, people who have access to green space have better health prospects. Quite how anyone works out how much going for a walk is worth I do not know.

Professor Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is quoted as saying –
"Urban green space, for example, is unbelievably important - if affects the value of houses, it affects our mental wellbeing.
"This report is saying 'this has got incredible value, so before you start converting green space into building, think through what the economic value is of maintaining that green space' - or the blue space, the ponds and the rivers."

More details are here on the B.B.C.'s web site: Link

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Venice of the North Part II


The day I walked around the Central Motorway (see Venice of the North Part I below for images) was cool but sunny. The trees planted beside the motorway where it slashes through Exhibition Park and Brandling Village were bright with fresh foliage; sunlight flashed on windscreens as cars and commercial vehicles passed by.

What could be the problem?

The Central Motorway was planned when car use in the United Kingdom was lower by far than today; particularly lower in the regions further away from the Home Counties. Ambitious to a degree, it was less a road system than a planning statement. It was a tool with which the small core of Newcastle city, old, refined and yes, faded it must be said, was to be made irrelevant. I remember on a first visit to Newcastle in 1971 seeing a large drawing headed 'Newcastle 2000?' in a window. It presented an isometric view of a city criss-crossed by broad highways spotted with the odd vehicle, flanked by numerous Modernist tower blocks; think Scalelectric and Lego. This was to be a completely new city, modern, clean and sharply proportioned, a break with the past in more ways than one.

As  child I remember going through grey and derelict streets - some spaces between dingy shops boarded over, above which growths of shrubs could be seen against scarred brickwork. Bombed out buildings. Together with my mother we climbed steps into some forbidding goverment office, huge dark and cold, to wait for 'our turn'. As I recall, we were there under sufferance. Post War England was still then a place where social degree counted. For ever after I have equated the sight of marble with the objectionable term 'knowing my place'.

T. Dan Smith's generation of socialists were determined to overthrow privilege and to build it out of sight. The association of a unjust and unwarranted social division with buildings is hard to grasp now; not then. The temples of the ruling class had to give way in a new democratic age, one best expressed in the Modern Movement in architecture. It is with that aim in mind I write about what went wrong.

The plans were never completed as conceived. It was evidently much easier to gain access to government funds for road building than to attract investors for commercial ventures; a few of today's many empty office blocks around the city date from this time, including one surviving 'vista blocker' stretching out over Pilgrim Street. Some money did flow into Newcastle. Marks and Spencer's store on Northumberland Street was built in this period.

The Central Motorway went ahead despite protests. The lovely Royal Arcade was demolished. The Holy Jesus Hospital building with its quaintly small brick, was cemented into a canyon of a prison surrounded by dual carriageways. A vast office block named Swan House was built partly to cover the throat of the Motorway as it led off in the direction of the Town Moor beyond Shieldfield, Sandyford, Brandling Park and Exhibition Park, a route that took it through Victoria Square. Completed it acts as a physical barrier between two halves of the city. As such it remains; inflexible and immovable now.

In the photographs I took on that day I made sure to record all the pedestrian routes from north of the road towards the city centre. All require walkers to enter tunnels. I am no longer young and I am not so small; but I always feel uneasy entering pedestrian tunnels; I do not suffer from claustrophobia either. It is however somehow a threatening experience. Walkers have no choice. It is this or a bus. Yet, in my early days living in the city a walk to work or study was popular and easy. Now pushed underground by cars, the experience seems less attractive; even on a sunny day in Spring.

I had to weave about to gain access to views of the motorway. It's branches cut in and over one another. The complex around Exhibition Park is particularly confusing; in a car in heavy traffic it can be decidedly alarming. A link to the city and the north combines with one going west to south. Huge concrete legs stride between grown trees. A slice of Brandling Park is linked to Exhibition Park by the largest of the motorway's underpass pedestrian tunnels, one that incorporates stairways to abandoned bus stops. Climbing up I found only broken glass, green slate marquetry walls daubed with anti-graffiti paint and a close up view of speeding traffic. Perhaps someone had a dream of crowds being dropped off here to attend rallies in what was left of Exhibition Park?

Later, beside the Great North (formerly Hancock) Museum, I found Lord Armstrong's statue glaring down from its plinth on the 'city' spur of the motorway and took his photograph. (See slideshow) He looks grim, even for an arms dealer. Unhappy? He might feel more so if he had been unlucky enough to have been placed next to Swan House. The southern end of the Central Motorway is certainly far less prepossessing; in fact it is a blighted, cheerless place in any weather. Abandoned by its corporate tenants last century, Swan House was converted into apartments and given a flashy contemporary name. It should have been demolished.

What is done is done. Roads have been widened, most recently around St Thomas' in the Haymarket. Of the remaining parts of the jig-saw of urban motorways planned to meet up here, there are currently no plans to complete. It seems unlikely anyone would try to do so now, much less likely they would find the public support Smith could count upon or buy. The days of T. Dan Smith are over. Guided only by a misplaced vision of equality, Smith did much damage to the city of his birth, even beyond the scope of the Central Motorway. Contrary to belief he did not profit from the schemes he laid in place, though others did. When I saw him in the flesh he was living out his time quietly in a tower block of quite intentionally inappropriate design for its setting, with, however, a great view of his one abiding legacy to Newcastle; the western spine of his 'grands projets' speeds past below.

Monday, May 9, 2011


A slight pause. I have been watching with interest as the new University of Newcastle Business School at Gallowgate takes shape. Ingeniously sandwiched between the former Newcastle and Scottish Breweries administration block (itself being converted into a hotel) and Pitt Street, the distinctive cladding and angular facades give this building a 'stealth bomber' appearance.

Behind lies the huge spaces of the former Scottish and Newcastle Brewery site, destined so it is claimed to become Newcastle's 'Science City'. Maybe. In these straightened times finance must be an issue. This is sad news. If the building designed for this impressive corner of the city - for too long neglected and stymied by single use and access problems - is an example of what to expect then this will be an exciting addition to the city, adding to a growing re-orientation westwards in the city's focus.

Taking advantage of the (nearly surreal) good weather I have compiled a portrait of the new building, tacking on one of another older development slightly further up Barrack Road; the fine 'in-fill' building which today houses a firm of city solicitor's, long a favourite new building. Let us be honest, how many have there been?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Venice of the North Part I


The dream of a city where a vision of the future could be built over the bones of an older one inspired T. Dan Smith. It was not a contemptible idea exactly. But the vision produced a nightmare to some.

Smith's often quoted phrase that he wanted to create "a Venice of the North" replacing canals with motorways, sums up planning hubris for me. His name is perhaps synonymous with stamping down on corruption in local government, corruption that took Smith to prison; he paid for his wrong doing and ended his life a controversial figure, not without supporters; his tangible legacy to the city of his birth however, is still here, huge and impossible to ignore, or sweep away. Its most fulsome expression for me is the notorious Central Motorway constructed in the early 1970s.

When I first arrived in Newcastle in 1971 work had begun on this giant civil engineering scheme to build four lane highways, parts of which were double decked, straight through the heart of Newcastle, knocking aside Victorian buildings and tree lined parks to carry vehicles into the very centre of the city; cars were to represent gondolas; concrete and tarmac, canals. I had never seen earth works on such a scale before and struggle today to imagine where I was standing when I gazed into those craters. I recall meeting an old man at the time, tall and distinguished, stumbling along a temporary pedestrian walkway over the mud who told me he thought he knew the city once but was now lost. Whole terraces of decent houses were knocked down and streets disappeared. Graceful Victoria Square gone, replaced by a combined flyover and underpass; Exhibition Park bisected and dozens of mature trees felled, a city cut in half. Trying to superimpose what was once there over what is now, is well nigh impossible. Yet, destructive as it was, this scheme for urban motorways was never entirely finished. More routes had been planned. As late as the end of the century, more bits of the network were still being built. Connecting these together has however, happily proved to be beyond Smith's successors.

Before the end of the 70s work on the Tyne and Wear Metro had begun, joining the two halves of north and south Tyneside with a short tunnel under the city, eliminating a huge number of road journeys and opening up distant suburbs to commuting. Then, a western by-pass carried long distance traffic well away from the city centre. The destruction of Newcastle City however remains a fact; the need for it ever more distant and remote like the dream that inspired it.

Walking about with my camera on a very warm April day in 2011, re-living these thoughts, I found a tree in Exhibition Park which still bears traces of the cross and question mark left by protester's who painted signs on so many trees to confuse the motor way constructor's tree felling teams. It did not work. Protests however, there were in plenty.

Monday, March 28, 2011

City of Bridges

I cannot think of a city which has the number and variety of bridges that Newcastle has. If you do, please write to me.

The city is actually built on a gorge, disguised by building now. Transecting this ravine gorge are other deep cut river valleys, hereabouts called 'denes'. One of these is the Ouseburn dene, partly covered over by Victorian planners but still an obstacle to road and rail. The Lower Ouseburn has some wonderful bridges; one, the 19th century marvel of railway building is being given a complete life enhancement. Serious work has begun to tackle this mammoth task. Speaking to a workman I discovered the timetable is no less than fourteen months.

Presently, work is under way to prepare the site. Heavy equipment will have to be deployed and the structure has to be replaced like for like since it is officially listed Grade II. Apart from that badge of national recognition it also carries the vital London to Edinburgh rail link. Traffic is continuous. The bridge will have to remain open for business throughout.

A new exercise and training yard has been constructed away from the bridge for use by the Stepney Bank riding school. Spring has also sprung so it will be interesting to see what effect the works has on wild life. I disturbed a Sparrowhawk from a tree beside the bridge so the outlook seems good – so far.

Wandering about (and abiding by the rules and not infringing the site boundary) I went on via Stepney Bank.

I like Stepney Bank. To me it has precisely the features I have remarked on more than once on this blog; informal, flexible spaces of a variety of interests and businesses. It is neither precious or self consciously 'arty'; graphic designers sit in offices next to garage repair businesses and a stables survives half way up. At the top of the 'bank' (rise), where this 19th century street dipping down to the Tyne, meets a busy and anonymous arterial road, the feeling of alienation common to such suburban spaces is thwarted by the robust bulk of a traditional British public house that might have brought a beaming smile to the face of G.K. Chesterton.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Waiting in the wings

Either the weather or my spirits have been wrong and some planned excursions have yet to take place; others are shaping in my mind. I have several points to raise, issues on which to muse.

Meanwhile George Shaw, painter, has an exhibition of his work on at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art ("The Sly and Unseen Day").

George Shaw. From "The Sly and Unseen Day"

Shaw's work reminds me of Philip Larkin's poetry. Larkin wrote from his adopted Hull and conjures up the flatness and bleakness of that region well, mirroring it's fading purpose (the nearby Humber Bridge, so vast, was described as "the bridge to nowhere") within his own private life and the desperation of internalised disappointment so typical of his finest poetry.

Shaw makes a similar journey through the post war housing estates of his native Coventry (before Hitler, as fine a medieval city as any on the Continent). He depopulates his world, leaving few traces of human activity above the menial: A bus stop, a dog shit bin, scrawled and scratched graffiti behind an abandoned working men's club are the few signs of life; the once fashionable blank walls and Bauhaus Light new town architecture re-cycled in minimalist images painted, as all his work is, in enamel paint, supposedly meant for model makers. Yet, there are some memorable things in the show, even if, in nearly forty works (by my estimate) the sun appears once only directly and once by reflection. Otherwise the Coventry weather is all pewter coloured skies and wet concrete. If that sounds dreary, it is the same dreary one finds in Bergman films or Chekov's plays. Haunting.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Grey days

Time is standing still after a week when it seemed we were well set on the path to Spring. Despite snowdrops appearing and birds singing – my pair of Blackbirds are on their second family! – the cold winds have returned today with a vengence and it's once again time to sit indoors and garner warmth.

A virus and a chronic condition were making me already miserable when I turned a corner and found a favourite group of trees had been felled and a tiny piece of newly created 'urban green space' now resembled the Somme in World War One. Developers have moved in and since all around there are new student housing blocks, I expect more of the same.

It was here on this unremarkable corner that I last saw Julia Darling alive. I knew Julia but slightly yet she always stopped to talk, balancing on her small bicycle one foot on the pavement, somehow expressing in her smile a feeling of having been fulfilled in meeting by chance. We both noted the odd coincidence that we ran into each other only here at this crossroads, three times in a row.

I never pass by now without thinking of her, a great smile and cheerfulness which I learned remained until death itself. Such are the inconsequentials of our lives; a gate in a fence we cannot see beyond, a view of a distant spire of some unvisited building or a sunlit garden wall; a few trees beside a road.


Julia's grave is in Old Jesmond Cemetery not far from my home. Half hearted attempts to 'tidy up' this fine old place did not get very far thankfully.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Makers and loosers

Two articles about subjects close to my own thoughts appeared in the newspapers this week.

Clive Aslet, "Editor at large" for Country Life magazine writes in The Daily Telegraph (19.01.2011) about the crushing weight of money and shortsightedness at work in town planning that some had kidded themselves had gone away.

Aslet writes: "The centres of decent towns like Kettering were flattened to provide new shopping centres. Terraces of artisan houses, where residents knew their neighbours and the children could play on the street, were torn down, with the families being repatriated to urine-scented tower blocks. Birmingham sacrificed its civic pride to the motorcar, its triumph proclaimed in the intertwined knot of access roads that is Spaghetti Junction."

"Today, most of us would breathe a sight of relief that such vandalism tends to meet stauncher opposition. But there are still a few dinosaurs to be found bellowing in the corridors of Britain's town halls. One of them is Councillor Len Clark, of Birmingham's planning committee. Having learnt little from the traumas of his city's past, he's had a go at the likes of The Victorian Society and English Heritage, calling them "middle-class idiots" for daring to stand up for a row of 19th-century and Edwardian villas".

However, Mr Aslet's final paragragh is over optimistic. If things have improved it must be simply that bad cases await us further down the road when money is available; and in any case, many towns have precious little left to knock about.

Read it all here.

Last Sunday's Observer carries an article on another theme of my posts, the eviction of artists' whose self-organised investment in neglected city spaces is taken over by property investors' pimping for a clientele who are art-groupies of a sort, but only up to a point ... The point being the low or no rent artists' need to be told to get out, having served their purpose. This tactic (something more deliberate I feel than mere phenomenon) is familiar to a few. However, as the head of one soon to be closed government urban regeneration quango here in north east England once told me to my face, artists' were collectively little more than perverts. Useful perverts apparently, when it comes to attracting money. The example of this tactic highlighted by the Observer happens to be in Berlin, but as I have pointed out here, it goes on around the world.

The wonder is that artists' don't yet seem to get it either and play along with these reptiles in suits until, bang! There goes the neighbourhood.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Shields Road Byker

Shields Road in Byker sweeps up hill from the impressive Road Bridge over the Lower Ouseburn. The bridge has featured before in these blog pages if only as a platform from which I could photograph the valley far below. The Ouseburn cuts sharply through sandstone to reach the Tyne, creating what was once perhaps an impressive gorge rather than valley, dividing the city into east and west. To the east Byker atop its own hill has seemed almost a town inside a city, distinct and, until the dreaded 70s, untouched.

More on Byker then, another day.

Recently, I wandered up this steeper than it looks road after a heavy snow fall, photographing what remains of some impressive 19th and early 20th century architecture. Equally impressive has been the late drive to maintain and renovate these fine buildings whenever possible. Shields Road thrives for some reason, despite the main shopping centre of Eldon Square and Northumberland Street being but a short bus ride over the bridge. Shields Road is an example of 'native loyalty' in action then, that and an instinct for a bargain! Renovation of the main road to assist pedestrians and some improvements to local facilities have helped restore commercial confidence.

Shields Road however demonstrates a melancholy fact: Newcastle over the gorge to the west might have also been restored and renovated instead of being swept away by demolition lorries during the architecturally deadening 60s and 70s 'boom years'. I present this slide show as proof that a sense of place and a feeling for community can and does work.