Monday, December 31, 2012

Up North

My very best wishes to one and all for 2013.

Meanwhile, I am cheered to learn from the ever reliable and trusthworthy Mr Andrew Gilligan that things are not a bad as they are made out to be ... But read this season cheer for yourselves in full here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

In the post

A letter signed by north east artists and artistes has appeared in the Guardian. It criticises the planned ending of financial grants to supported arts venues in the city I have mentioned previously. Please follow this link to the B.B.C. web site article and another to the letter.

Despite my sympathies, I am sceptical of an arts policy (sic) that was so closely based on a business led model. It was always about retail.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Discovering what is already there

As the future for the arts in this fair city (of road schemes) begins to darken, I turn my attention as everyone does at this time of year to those 'Best of 2012' lists to see what I missed, undervalued or am pleased to see caught someone else's eye.

Architecture critic Rowan Moore's choices are only known to me in photographic form (at time of writing, but here's hoping). As I glanced down the list I found in his advice or plea to architects (and or planners) "discovering what is already there" an echo of something I have believed in for years past. I'm grateful for any support.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Quietly flows the Ouseburn

Days of rain swell the tiny Ouseburn. No surprise there. I once saw the water up and over Ouseburn Road and the allotments beside the Burn flood so frequently the allotment holder's could try growing water cress.

Some recent images. I shouldn't say so, but I like this piece of nature with a mind of its own flowing along now with a slightly sinister gliding rustle rather than tinkling over stones as formerly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Nose, face, cut

The financial meltdown that followed global banking speculation has only just begun to impact on all our lives; that's correct – I wrote 'only just begun'. We haven't seen anything yet.

 Newcastle City Council faced with a massive cut in its annual budget have decided in its turn to cut all arts funding in a sweeping decision that will impact on every supported organisation in the North East from high profile venues to one person bands. Nobody escapes.

The following letter appeared in the "Newcastle Journal" last week. Written by a respected consultant, Bruce Reed, it sets out the well understood economic argument that spending on the arts benefits the wider economy. Well understood by anyone who has been paying attention that is.

 The letter*:

 "Last night an American friend in Vermont, USA, e-mailed me to say that her local paper was featuring a piece about two concerts of all-British music in which she was playing this weekend.

Next year she and her husband are coming to London, then the North East, to see, hear, and experience our culture.

 This morning I read in the Journal that Newcastle City Council are to axe spending on 10 cultural organisations in the city.

 When our company produced its report, two decades ago, on the economic importance of the arts in Tyne & Wear it kickstarted investment in the arts in the area - including the Arena, Sage and Baltic. The report had been entirely funded by the private sector (Sir John Hall, Tyne Tees TV and others) to help calculate which kinds of arts had what kinds of impacts on the economy, and their overall value.

From our surveys of users at arts venues, and interviews with businesses, arts organisations, and other research, we identified several different kinds of impacts including:

  • they often spent very little in the cinemas, art galleries and museums, but their indirect expenditures in shops during the day, and on meals, drinks, local travel and accommodation was almost £40 a day per person in 1990 prices (we found 'culture-driven' tourists spent more than the average)
  • executives in big organisations, and leaders in influential local and national jobs said that the quality of what was on offer from the arts (the reason for building the Sage, and supporting local theatre companies), the choice of different art forms for all the family (the economic rationale for investments in Seven Stories, the Arena, and Dance City), the liveliness of discussions about arts and our cultural heritage (which the Baltic, Laing Art Gallery and Discovery Museum, all stimulate) was what make it worthwhile for them to move to - and stay in - the North East.

The overwhelming conclusion from the study was that the range of direct and indirect economic impacts on local employment and spending induced by the arts dwarfed the costs of council spending on them.

 Our culture is precious, and the evidence shows that consumers value it highly - but only if the choice and quality available makes it worth being here to experience it.

 In the years to come, we hope that the culture on offer to our American friends and other visitors is sufficient to make them think it is worth coming North from London - and then coming back for more of it.

 Yours sincerely,

 Bruce S. Reed"

 This is the big business basis for arts spending founded on solid research into verified facts. The arts repay their grants and financial support. Quite apart from tourism, the arts provision of a city or region was long ago recognised as being of significance for inward investment; companies like high quality art provision and amenities that flow from them.

 This is what puzzled me about the dismissive reaction of sometime head of government agency One North East (defunct), Jonathan Blackie when I asked if his organisation accepted the role of arts in city regeneration. Surely, the case was made? Apparently not as far as he was concerned. Now it looks as though all that historic investment in excellence and diversity (not least by artists') is the latest in a growing line of victims of the credit fuelled retail culture One North East were so eager to encourage in its stead.

* This letter appears by kind permission of the author.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Life in Art

This weekend past the Ouseburn valley hummed to the sound of ... Well, wind and rain. But the weather did not hold back the crowds (yes, crowds) who came along to view the Cluny Open Studios event. The artist's and craftspeople who opened their workspaces cannot have been disappointed at the numbers coming through the doors.

The work of a constructivist artist took my eye. Some potters and a textile craftswoman who makes beautiful purses and small bags from re-cycled cloth and buttons. A Chinese artist who paints lovely images of jagged mountains and snow covered pines with the softest of brushes. Up and down the stairs of this wonderful old warehouse we slogged on three good legs.

We couldn't do more than a few things this year due to mobility difficulties; we managed the Biscuit Tin, more studio's in what was once an office block on nearby Warwick Street and itself another branch of the 'Biscuit Arts Empire', a subject for another post soon. Many of the studios in the 'Tin' were shut by the time we hobbled up but I did like the work of one artist in particular for his sincerity, an amiable anarchist who uses wood cuts and a graffiti style art to promote, um, ... anarchy I suppose. He showed some small ink drawings that chimed with me. I liked how he had found a direct way to see his surroundings, unacademic and true. We talked and I found myself once again marvelling at all the endeavour that artists bring to the scene on such slender means. But for a far sighted few, our lives in cities would be bleak indeed. Little of this has been centrally funded, or, even funded at all. Unless you count the artist's themselves.

Compare and contrast with the High Street. Here the lights are turning off and 'fire sales' are rife. The Christmas lights remind me of that famous scene in Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now', you recall, the one of the battle at night around a bridge that is hung with coloured lights. There is around us now, one feels, a similar sense of panic bordering on chaos.

It seemed only yesterday I was being lectured on the harm the presence of artist's do to the interests of the real saviours of our cities, retail. O, Jonathan, where art thou (now)?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Milking time

It begins.

Two leaflets through my door touting new accommodation at "Portland Green", the favoured name for the new student housing blocks on Portland Road, built by well known warehouse and storage facility builders, Metnor. It's essential to have the right name, a name that appeals to estate agents and their hangers on. Portland Road Halls of Residence might not do.

Rents are eye watering:

"Rooms from £97/week" with small print underneath (+£18 all inclusive weekly service charge).

Rooms £115/week then. From. If you are one of the lucky ones who get in early. Then there is the £200 deposit of which, sadly, £50 is non refundable.

The organisation responsible for managing this nice little earner goes by the name of 'DIGS', redolent of a long since vanished age of cheap rough and ready flats and rooms where generations of students 'dossed down' - literally on mattresses next to the floorboards in most cases.

Now, – and there is a lovely fresh faced chap on another plug, er, leaflet, who looks too young to be able to get into debt legally, complete with headphones and fashionable 'gear' in view – the room's will have WiFi and 'superfast' broadband, cable television and en suite showers plus "superb transport links" that are not apparent at time of writing. Fortunately for the rather slightly built young man on Leaflet No. 2 (entitled "This is my place" rather than "these 'ere are me digs, like") there are also 3/4 sized beds. Students, eh?


To the ambitious academics who began to think they might be rather good at playing business, caution! There is a cloud on the horizon and it presages much that will cause consternation in the boardroom as we now call the University chancellors office.

This from the B.B.C. brings potentially fatal news for those Strategic Earnings Plans.

Soon, very much sooner than it took Metnor to knock up these DIGS, those wily Orientals will add two and two together, see the gap in the market and put Newcastle University p.l.c. and, or, Northumbria Learning Experiences Inc. out of business.

What then will become of Portland Green? Plan B ...

Monday, November 12, 2012

Alphaville Revisited

News today of the 'new' Gateshead town centre. Scant details and the usual image can be viewed by following this link.

This kind of architecture is precisely what is swallowing chunks of our towns and cities and turning them into corporate spaces devoid of any sense of place, time or history. Something entirely similar is planned for Sunderland's old Vaux brewery site on a dominating position overlooking the River Wear.

The Gateshead scheme replaces this (infamous) car park below as previously covered on this blog. Follow link.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In praise of trees

Long ago in the last century, your humble correspondent briefly worked in a Parks Department of a London Borough. Fortunately, I was not asked to plant or tend anything. There were qualified people to undertake such tasks. While I was there I learned to admire these dedicated people and marvel at what they put up with from the public; more politely than I might have been!

A regular subject of complaint from local people was street trees.

The trees were variously alleged to be 'dangerous'; causing mischief with foundations; making a mess. The more subtle complainant optimistically opined that they were dead (this last in winter ...) Most of these complaints were gently batted away, or sometimes a manager was sent round to calm the troubled minds at the other end of the telephone.

In all my time in this city  I have never seen a better autumn display of turning foliage on the streets. It underlines a fact: While planners have knocked the city about those responsible for managing our parks and gardens and civic spaces have done a superb job. Many a faceless piece of 'urban renewal' is now slightly more bearable for having trees with which to soften it's bleakness.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

The autumn leaves

For some reason I've noticed the street trees around Battlefield cum Shieldfield more this autumn than in other years.

Street trees on Goldspink Lane October 2012

Despite of the depredations of this city's planners our parks and gardens are looking particularly fine and when the sun returns I hope to take more photographs to prove it.

It's nice to have something very positive to write for a change.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Autumnal stroll

The new student accommodation blocks are rising; the East Coast Mainline Bridge at Byker is still under wraps and the sunshine has returned. In fact we have had better weather now summer is over ..

The trees around Battlefield are showing lovely colours as they fade and fall. This somewhat 'temporary' open space (not officially and was excluded by Newcastle City Council from their successful National Lottery bid to revitalise the Ouseburn Parks, but no matter ...) has gained a nice sense of permanancy in the short time I have come to know it. 'Battlefield' though it remains if we want to keep it part of the local scene. Vigilance is what is required.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Two for the road

Two articles - one a review - by architectural journalist Rowan Moore on topics of significance to this blog and I hope other readers.

First, Moore's review of a book of essays by Jonathan Meades, the cultural commentator and 'contrarian'. Meades has made several fascinating documentaries for B.B.C. television, mostly recently a series on France (Jonathan Meades on France). Meades carries on where others leave off when it comes to pulling off wings from cherished contemporary or near contemporary ideas about culture and society; it is helpful in this regard that he has a mastery of the one liner, the metaphor and the quip direct that few do possess.

I pick out from Moore's review the following to give a flavour of the whole:

Architecture, the most public of endeavours, is practised by people who inhabit a smugly hermetic milieu which is cultish. If this sounds far-fetched just consider the way initiates of this cult describe outsiders as the lay public, lay writers and so on: it's the language of the priesthood. Architecture talks about architecture as though it is disconnected from all other endeavours, an autonomous discipline which is an end in itself. Now, it would be acceptable to discuss opera or sawmill technology or athletics or the refinement of lard in such a way. They can be justifiably isolated, for they don't impinge on anyone outside, say, the lard community – the notoriously factional lard community. To isolate architecture is blindness, and an abjuration of responsibility.

"Notoriously factional lard community" is pure Meades.

Better yet: –

It doesn't matter what idiom is essayed, it is the business of attempting to create places that defeats architects. Architects cannot devise analogues for what has developed over centuries, for generation upon generation of amendments. They cannot understand the appeal of untidiness and randomness, and even if they could they wouldn't know how to replicate it.

That is post Nairn.

The second piece is Moore's views on art and regeneration ("housing market renewal" – a term that stinks of the focus group) published in the London Observer (23 September 2012) focused on Liverpool, a city that has been kicked about for all sorts of reasons, none of them good or even true. Yet, these observations apply equally to Newcastle and a dozen other cities and towns across the country.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Your place or mine?

Since summer departed the skies have largely cleared of cloud and some bright, albeit cold, days have encouraged me back on the beat.

I've wanted to record the progress being made on the large and imposing student blocks being built on Portland Road overlooking Battlefield a.k.a. the City Stadium; but grey skies discouraged me. Until now.

The slideshow below records my recent walk from Sandyford in a loop around the district. Apart from the sizable new addition to the skyline, please note the wonderful facade of the Biscuit Factory art emporium receiving the reflected light from neighbouring existing student accommodation on Shieldfield Lane; next, the replacement of La Gabbia restaurant by the 'Ernest' café bar (of which I have heard good reports already) and The Tower (plus vintage shop), of which I hope to learn more.

As yet no sign of work beginning on the planned several more accommodation blocks of equal size on the former paint factory site; these should have been finished by this date. These were to house the expected influx of students, Chinese leading the way, that were expected to join expanding courses at the two local universities. That particular business model has been broken by the Great Slump, Credit Crunch, or whatever you like to call it ... That and, as I have mentioned previously, news filtering through of China's (very clever) move to build it's own universities en masse* and thus attracting overseas students (including, I expect, many Brits) to China to study at considerably less expense than they would incur studying in the United Kingdom.

In more ways than one, watch this space.

* B.B.C. 2 television's 'Newsnight' (08.12) reported China is 'planning to build a hundred new universities'; one well informed old friend told me this figure is by a long way an underestimate. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

It's all about location

The B.B.C. wrote to me. I would like to tell you it was an offer to make a programme about concreting over open spaces ... But it wasn't. Instead they simply and politely told me (and dozens more locally) that the Beeb would be undertaking filming for a children's serial in a café on our street for a week.

Such a lot of organisation goes into a film shoot. Yet, from my casual glances outside, it involves lots of people sitting around waiting, just as we have been told by so many actors on countless talk shows.

Mr T–, the lovely man who owns Tia Amo's bistro café, didn't let on when he told me he would be closing for three months to take a holiday in his native Italy. I hope someone has told him whose moved in and how much they've altered his cafés exterior ...

Meanwhile, the latest over-scaled student accommodation block is taking shape (if that is the word) beside Portland Road. There is no sign at all as yet of any work beginning on the several blocks destined for the nearby paint factory site. Given the changed circumstances and rapidly changing U.K. higher education "business model" I am not surprised.

In large part this held that there would be for some time to come a very lucrative stream of Chinese students beating a path to study in the United Kingdom. No longer true it seems, if indeed it ever was. Instead we now have the intriguing possibility of U.K. students trekking to China to take advantage of far cheaper degrees in a society where the cost of living is also well below the U.K.'s. To think: Somewhere in that vast country, constructors are getting apartments ready for a wave of foreign students flying from high fees and staggering accommodation costs.

It can happen.

But if so, what is the future for this sprawling site?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Cruddas Park photographs

A slideshow of a selection of photographs taken recently of the Cruddas Park demolition and re-vamped tower blocks. The weather was in keeping with our lost summer.

Friday, July 27, 2012

New for new old: Cruddas Park redux

Visiting an apartment in one of deified architect Le Corbusier's most famous schemes, art critic Robert Hughes was amused to find the interior at odds with the severe Modernist principles of the building that contained it. The sharp angularities and 'truth to materials' (concrete) were not for the occupant. Frills, tassels and decorative patterning – kitsch and tat in other words – were everywhere on view. The principles began and ended on the drawing board.

This mismatched zeal – evangelicalism one might call it – was at the heart of the problems that beset the re-development of Cruddas Park in Newcastle's West End in the late sixties. It has resulted in confusion, disruption and finally, an expensive failure. Today the new Cruddas Park is coming down; or, most of it.

I recall well being shown Cruddas Park from afar as I waited on the platform at Newcastle Central Station to catch a train south at the end of my first visit. "No architect would live there" was my verdict. I had seen similar high rise complexes in and across south London and heard of the dislocation, alienation and health problems that afflicted occupants. Crime too.

Cruddas Park is sited in what was once the wealthiest suburbs of Newcastle, High Elswick. Today this area's past is best appreciated in what remains. A few old buildings and evidence of vanished ones in railings and stone walls left behind. But to get the real measure of the district's past perhaps the best place to look are its cemeteries. Huge ornate and Victorian tombs mark the passing of the rich elite whose vast houses dotted Rye Hill and High Elswick. Below, alongside the River Tyne, were the factories and industrial strength that supplied the wealth to pay for the grand homes.

Two long wars and industrial decline put paid to that. By the end of the Second World War the decline was absolute. There would be no coming back.

At the Second World War's end in Britain a brave new world based on more egalitarian thinking replaced privilege. The Welfare State ushered in not just a health service and improved schooling but opportunities in govenance for a generation that had been marginalised and ignored beforehand, women and men of modest backgrounds who found the doors to the Town Hall were open and they had the keys in their hands. Among them was T. Dan Smith.

I have written elsewhere about Smith so will not go over the ground again. He is still a controversial figure; for many, a villain who had a deserved and mighty fall into disgrace, to others a failed leader of brilliance, mostly misunderstood. The new Cruddas Park scheme of the sixties had been one of Smith's ways to re-imagine Newcastle. His chosen tool was Modernist architecture. He sought to re-invent the city, to wrest Victorian and Georgian Newcastle into the 20th century and, as I see it, away from its visible past, draped in memories of class superiority, of birth and status. Many others had the same dream at that time.

The problem was that Modernism's founders were no less intent on privilege than those they replaced, albeit somewhat differently focused – the "life of the mind" – rather that plutocracy. These leading figures of the European avant garde were, in reality, as distanced from the lives of 'ordinary men and women' as the Victorian magnates whose empty and vandalised houses were pulled down to make way for the building of high rise flats (with all 'mod-cons') such as Cruddas Park. The people from the Victorian terraces that combed the steep sides of Scotswood in row upon row were decanted into 'homes in the sky' for their eventual and assured 'improvement'. What happened was the destruction of one community and the creation of a dysfunctional one. Within a few years the problems steadily mounted, exhibiting themselves in numerous ways; private and social. Finally, all these added up to one big problem. Initially, planners blamed the people. Increasingly the people blamed the planners.

Across Britain these social problems were tackled in numerous ways. Specialist teams – youth workers, community artists, health care centres and social clubs tried to knit people together and tackle the chronic sense of neglect and marginalisation. Structural issues – condensation was a continuing problem for many schemes – were 'dealt with', again and again. But finally, decades after the dawn of this new age, the dispensation of fitted kitchens and inside toilets was found not to have produced the one thing the whole enterprise had set out to achieve: A settled and happy community.

Acknowledging that fact required a new generation and the realisation that there is not a bottomless pit of money to throw at chronic housing problems. Now Cruddas Park has been re-developed once again. In the process, many of the blocks are being demolished. Apparently, money to re-furbish all the blocks was not to be had. Whether entirely by circumstance or design I wonder. The benefit will be to have another chance to build Jerusalem.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Uses of Culture

An article on the B.B.C. website tries to summarise the impact of investments in arts venues on towns as diverse as Middlesbrough, Margate and of course, Gateshead. Was the money well spent and has it had an impact? The questions come as the first of these regional mega-schemes, the Baltic contemporary arts centre, marks its tenth anniversary this month. Read the full article here.

The correspondent seems convinced that for an ex-industrial town such as Gateshead (who made the effort that Newcastle has been happy to embrace across the Tyne following its own calamitous efforts in the public art arena) the investment has produced real benefits. Visually, I think there can be no question that this "Bilbao" effect has succeeded in changing, at least in part, the face of what is simply a brutally ugly 60s road scheme with a run down town centre. The message the article conveys about a similar attempt to 're-brand' Middlesbrough is less clear cut. Middlesbrough's MIMA has shown some very high quality work, but is hampered by its position. In contrast, on my visits to the Baltic, I've noticed how the often stunning views over the Tyne Gorge and river far below entrance visitors to the upper floors more than what's in the galleries. The nesting Kittiwakes on the building's narrow ledges at eye level and their tiny downy young were the focus of much interest on my last visit.

In truth, the arts were useful to developers. Attempts to lure commercial enterprises to take the place of jobs lost in heavy industry, engineering and the like were largely unsuccessful due to profound economic realities. Culture was a useful tool to help "transform perceptions", but only if the agencies were sincere and 'in it' for the right reasons. I believe this to be true of Gateshead; there is a consistent pattern to the investment focus. Others have seen the arts boom of the late 20th century as merely useful.

I found out for myself how shallow this could be when I spoke to the former head of the recently defunct government quango, One North East, Mr Jonathan Blackie. At a public forum Mr Blackie made it clear to myself and others present that he regarded the arts as an undesirable distraction from his true calling – retail. He may have been a promoted above his abilities estate agent – unkind as that is to consider – but the ambition to turn Newcastle into High Street U.K., a chic consumer-borrowing driver of economic prosperity, failed; some of the empty shops are now being let at 'peppercorn' rents to arts organisations and collectives rather than stand forlorn and empty shells ... Happily, Mr Blackie has gone off to higher things, hopefully where his enthusiasm for shopping will find its outlet.

Meanwhile ...

The Ouseburn Festival is coming.  21st & 22nd July. I hope the weather behaves itself.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rain, rain, go away ...

Fed up by being forced indoors day in and day out by rain and grey clouds, I walked down to the Lower Ouseburn on an errand; I didn't take my camera. The new build at Portland Road was noisily continuing; a great high metal box in which to house more students. La Gabbia, an Italian restaurant hidden away on the side road to Stepney Bank has closed down. The students who have moved into the surrounding halls of residence are mostly Chinese. That fact and the recession might explain why. A new antiques and 'vintage' place has opened next to the car repair workshop. Further on, I looked at the railway bridge for any sign that the work is coming to an end. None. Work on restoring the bridge has been going on for over a year now. A workman sauntering across the road did not seem the 'approachable type' so I didn't stop to ask when. It has been so long now I have almost forgotten what the bridge looks like.

The East Coast Mainline Byker Bridge 
before being shrouded (2011)

Many walls of buildings on the Lower Ouseburn road covered with black curlicue graffiti. "California [something]" was a favourite motif judging by the number of times it had been applied to walls and doors. The restored house, a lone survivor from the heyday of this industrialised valley in the 19th century, standing alone and as yet unoccupied on its corner spot, has been graffitied as well; one or two of the 'art' kind applied to a shutted doorway and a window. A pair of Bullfinches flew over the road. A mother gave up encouraging her toddler son to follow and carried him to her car.

A new (to me) building has gone up next to the Ouseburn facing the city road bridge. In keeping with trends, this one has a bespoke name – The Toffee Factory. Was there ever one such here? By the lead works? Factory is somehow oddly inappropriate. Not oddly enough? To my eye this building isn't exactly offensive. There are somethings I like, principally the brickwork, which uses a modern (expensive) rusticated brick type that suits the situation. But large flat  coloured panels in baby sick green have been applied on the upper parts facing the main road. About as restful as a poke in the eye. Below, on the Ouseburn level, fronting the building is one of those car parks and 'hard garden' areas with stainless steel tubes for traffic bollards and slippery-at-all-times 'marble' steps, finished off with handrails and Scandinavian wood and tubular stainless steel benches arranged with views over the narrow and still stubbornly muddy Ouseburn. It has super safe 'corporate culture' written all over it. The skyline to the west, the city horizon punctuated still by spires, that too reflects the consolidation of corporate architecture; even distant Gateshead College across the Tyne peeping out from behind the soulless Jury's Inn hotel, looks like a business centre; maybe that's what it is.

Yet, by walking a few yards back into the Valley comes a welcome view of dereliction: A fragment of a standing brick wall encasing a piece of old pipe, left behind for some forgotten reason; a sprawling patchwork of cement of different ages forming a hard standing, invaded now by buddleia and ruderals. A bird chirped from the rank stream side vegetation beyond the undeveloped wasteland that was the reason for the over budget Lower Ouseburn barrage and for a moment I though of Reed Buntings; impossible here. The Lower Ouseburn remains then, for while longer, a mixture of wreck and opportunism.

I walked up the steep hill to Byker past the scrap yard gates, a marvel of neglect, past the battlements of the Byker Wall, that, contrariwise, as it deteriorates further, unlike most things, is actually less and less interesting. Glimpsed inside the infamous fish-paste and chocolate camouflage pattern walls. What an dismal place, a failed 'people's project' indeed. Shambolic, it ought to come down as once the Council bravely proposed. It is, of course, Listed and lauded to the skies by distant architectural authorities. I suppose the test of any such building is, would its supporter's live there? Well, would they?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Safe as the Bank of England

A continuation.

My recent walk took me finally into the centre of this city via the notorious Central Motorway at Swan House. Constructed as the focal point to the grandiose plans to create a "Venice of the North" in the 60s – gondoliers were to be replaced with cars; no one in that naive time could foresee that soon the world and his mate would be up for car ownership and the new urban motorway saturated in turn. Nope, this was going to be like 'Metropolis': A very well ordered Rational Society experienced by a new kind of human being, making objective choices in accord with logical principles set out by intellectuals. The Modernists had foreseen the future and now, in this then magnificent Georgian–Victorian city, a great experiment was going to prove them correct. Heaven on earth was obtainable. Pass the slide rule!

I went to capture the last days of the Bank of England building that has stood unoccupied and unloved at the base of Pilgrim Street  for many years. (Pilgrims did walk this way – to visit the shrine of Our Lady at Jesmond - "Jesus' Mound"). In these times watching a Bank crumble into dust is an enjoyable novelty. I doubt this one did much by way of lending to me and thee. I cannot remember seeing anyone going in or out. Like everything from here down to the magnificent Tyne Bridge, the architecture is appalling. Here some of this city's most historic sites were pulverised or marginalised in the enormous effort to build this cornerstone of the Modernists' 'New Jerusalem'. Now the Bank building is coming down after less than fifty years of existence. How I wish the opportunity to demolish the vast Swan House office block itself, empty and unusable, was not grasped a few years ago!

By some piece of 'fast footwork' the empty office block was re-vamped for flats - though demolition was strongly urged. I wonder, looking up, what the new residents do for natural light? The breathless 'now and happening' tone of the subsequent 'lipstick on a corpse' makeover betrays perhaps the absence of any residents who come out in daylight.

Behind the (ex) Bank lies the yards of Bell's Court, opening off Pilgrim Street. This is also mostly now gone to dust or cleared for a car park. I can just remember the alleyway and cobbles beside a dark tenement when it was home to the 'Spectro Arts Centre' in the 70s. It was a slight remainder of an older, pre-'Classical' Newcastle district. Somewhere nearby the infamous French 18th century revolutionary Marat lodged when briefly living in the city awaiting his chance to return to his homeland and take a bath ... A physician, Marat, when not formenting violent overthrow of the world order, had spent time ministering to the horses at Seaton Delaval Hall.*

Nothing of value however, impedes planners. Their overbearing certainty in their own judgements brought merely impermanence and loss to one of the oldest parts of a celebrated city. I recall a firm of demolition specialists (in another city) whose dirty lorries charged about revealing on their battered tail gates this slogan: Watch it come down. Still watching ...

Link for the Holy Jesus Hospital here.

*Thanks to S.B. for information on Marat in Newcastle. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

While the sun shines

Making my way during our recent heatwave (some pessimists say 'summer') towards town via City Road. This is an area that has undergone a mostly unseen re-development in recent years and the area that languished after the Central Motorway sliced it off from the city centre to the west has come back from the dead.

Just enough of the older architecture – styles that reflect the heyday of the commercial history of the nearby Quayside – remains to give this under rated enclave a character of its own. To think, but for film making collective Amber Films (especially the late Murray Martin), it would all (yes, all) have been pounded into the ground. The usual 'roll over and die' attitude that town planners like to encourage in their chosen victims failed because Amber artfully and comprehensively undermined the City Council's case for clearance. Using photography and taped interviews the 'unseen' Quayside told its own unique, diverse story in a subsequent highly popular exhibition at Amber's own Quayside gallery space. Within ten years this attractive diversity had stimulated a landmark re-generation scheme (whose mediocre leadership took pains to distance itself from the radical community roots of this renaissance). By a whisker Newcastle was spared, in part at least, the disease of 'totalitarian' corporate office blocks that have blighted one sea or river frontage after another around the globe.

To me it is ironic that Martin, a socialist of an independent kind, could easily have become a property millionaire had he chosen. Amber bought their own Quayside complex at a rock bottom price and, as I came to know afterwards, were offered other properties nearby at similarly low market values. Within a few years valuations were several ten fold higher.

Murray Martin, film maker and activist, 1943–2007
(photo: Amber Films)

See also: More than a fig leaf

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Threatened by sunlight?

After the wettest April for a hundred years (and cold!) we were due some warmer weather. What we got in this land of extremes was a heat wave.

I have wanted for a while to show just how popular 'Battlefield' is with sun bathers and strollers; naturally, I am reluctant to intrude on people's privacy, so discretion and some longer range shots will suffice, I hope, to give something of the appeal this rapidly developing and popular open space (deliberately excluded from Newcastle City Council's Ouseburn 'green corridor' National Lottery bid); thirty five years ago this patch of uninteresting grass had a few stick saplings planted around it. A forlorn place I remember thinking.

Got that wrong, I am happy to say.

My title for this post is taken from verbal remarks made to me by a P.R. representative working on behalf of Metnor Group p.l.c., developers of the old paint factory site. He described the adjacent open space as "threatening".

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Beyond the pail ...

Groping along seeking shade from the pitiless sun — (Yes! A week after dreadful cold and dank weather, we now have Hades: The World Tour for our daily sufferings!) — I saw one of the recently planted street trees wilting. Who could blame it?

Wilted. It should look more like this below —

— a little more sprite and less limp.

Action was called for! I made up my mind to do the necessary and cart water to where it was needed. On the way I could marvel in the transformation wrought by a week of sunshine. The old place (Sandyford) looks positively Mediterranean, though somnambulent in the heat of a Sunday afternoon.

Firstly, the pail was filled and then carried to the thirsting sapling to revive it.

The watering tube is thoughtful. How many are ever used?

Streets emptied by sunlight. Later I guarantee the scent of flowers will give way to more pungent ones from barbecues.

A summering Herring Gull wafts past the few streaks that pass for clouds this week.

A clematis overpowers the heat with a gorgeous display, alas! too brief.

Nor bird would sing, nor lamb would bleat,
   Nor any cloud would cross the vault,
But day increased from heat to heat,
   On stony drought and steaming salt;

— from Mariana in the South by Tennyson

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Springing Up

One welcome new initiative locally has been to re-plant 'lost' street trees.

Lost is an euphemism, obviously. They got run over by cars. The newly planted trees now come with some protection - not much, - but better than none. Hopefully this will work at least until the trees are established.

A surprising common complaint among locals, those that can be bothered to respond (some give me the impression they live for little else) is trees: The leaves are litter in the autumn; the shade is too over powering; or they simply get in the way of cars ...

Most of the newly planted trees are a species of Sorbus, 'Whitebeams', and are of a modest size when fully grown. In the autumn their bright red berries attract birds. I once watched a flock of Waxwings, largish and attractive plumaged visitors from far Scandinavia, bouncing around one of the few mature trees in this very street.

Here's to the future, something to off set the forest of 'To Let' signs that are now a permanent feature of the local Sandyford scene.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Reign in Glory

Once a year down my street a tree comes into glory. For two weeks (less if there's a strong wind) it stands like some magnificent piece of confectionary, smothered in pink. Not perhaps my colour choice, but I have come to treasure this annual event and marvel how this otherwise lopsided (trimmed by passing lorries!) cherry with straggling growth shrugs off it's ordinariness for a few days and glories in life.

More on our street trees to come.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Whither spring?

Under slate grey skies for the past week, hardly a day goes by without rain, time to recall just how exceptional March was. When will we see weather like it again?

Photographs taken recently around 'Battlefield', beginning near my home overlooking the Ouseburn at Jesmond Vale and winding through the site and finishing up next to the work camp for the restoration of the East Coast Mainline Bridge at Byker.

Note blackened grass: A sign of just how relaxing our early, early spring weather was, a burnt patch left by a disposable barbecue!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Under wraps for a bit longer

I re-visited the work being undertaken on the East Coast Main Line (E.C.M.L.) rail bridge.

The weather was just entering a long, fine, dry spell. As I worked away trying to do justice to the subject, a workman spoke to me.

"You should see what's like inside". Rhetorical obviously, since access to the site is exclusively for trained and cleared personnel, but it opened up an opportunity for a welcome conversation.

I gathered from this that the work involves re-placing some of the the 19th century metalwork in exactly the same style. Pieces are manufactured off site and installed. At the same time, shot blasting is carried out using grit under intense pressure to 'grind' away the dirt and old paintwork. Meanwhile the bridge, a vital transport link between London and Scotland, had to remain in use night and day.

The bridge is a Grade II listed structure of historic importance in the story of Britain's railways. The work reflects that significance in the great care taken. Environmental considerations also mean by-products produced by the work cannot be released into the surrounding land and air. (As I wandered under the bridge to photograph the scaffolding, a large bird of prey flopped out of a tree; flowers are punching through leaf litter to get to the sun; so something has been done right.)

Work was timetabled to last fourteen months, which means, if I have calculated correctly, sometime this summer the wrapping shroud will be removed and the bridge returned to view. Can't wait.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Spreading the news

The outlook seems to be slightly more rosy for Gosforth Nature Reserve following a very vigorous local campaign and some astute good work by supporters in exposing a rancid scheme to cement over Newcastle's Green Belt.

Guardian blogger The Northener has sat up and taken note.

Protesters' site visit 2011 © Judith Anne Tomlinson

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

It Begins ...!

Hammering sounds drift down my street. The earliest of early Springs is here and the earth is moving.

Finally, after what seemed an age and at least four separate 'schemes', the old paint factory site is being prepared for building work to commence. In a way it's a relief. Now we (I?) can concentrate on what is coming into view rather than being plotted behind closed doors. I captured some of the activity, including, incredibly, a long shot of youths attempting to hold on to their precious piece of 'track' that had been their informal skate board park, while huge earth movers lumbered by them as in some dystopian fantasy film.

I doubt there would be much support for my own desire to see the site kept as open land, albeit with a purpose; skate boarding park, tree shelter belt and walks down to the Lower Ouseburn, coupled with spreading re-generation of old industrial and commercial sites to a variety of new uses. Instead a vast student city complex will rise up. It might be worse.

Hopefully the arrival of a large new population will encourage enterprises interested in cateing for the in-coming young people; two new supermarkets have opened in and around the district recently. I hope so. Maybe the field will interest some for it's potential as a free space. The more obtuse ideas planned for this piece of free land may not happen; the quasi-privatisation of urban green space delayed if not halted.

In any case I'll be watching, recording and reporting.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Learning to plan Part II

I like dereliction.

So did John Constable, one of the 19th century's great landscape artists. He once wrote (in defence of his vision then so out of kilter with the accepted taste) -

"The sound of water escaping from Mill dams ... Willows, Old rotten Banks, slimy posts & brickwork. I love such things ..."

In cities the equation of dereliction to crime and even disease is simply made. Yet, the fact that such places exist and go on being recreated by a restless economy intent on consuming its own innards as it were, producing fertile ground for those whose means are perennially slender and tastes lean toward the frankly neglected and, or, unprecious. Le Bateau Lavoir in early 20th century Paris, Docklands in London towards the end of the century and New York's Greenwich Village post World War II, Berlin's 'artist quarter' latterly, may today be chic addresses for the wealthy; once they decidedly were not. I had these thoughts in mind as I continued my recent walk around Rye Hill in Newcastle's west end.

Reaching the foot of the bank that runs down from Rye Hill through Newcastle College's ever expanding campus, I was confronted by Jury's Inn, built a few years ago over what had been a car park and long before that, the old Cattle Market. A frightful prospect it is too. It took something like genius to squander the opportunity this magnificent site had going for it: A commanding position overlooking the Tyne Gorge and the western approaches to the city, it is also the first building one notices entering the city by train from the south. It is so trivial it is not even banal.

I turned away, attracted by the back streets. First I had to pass by the graphite coloured walls of the newest building on the campus.

Beside the newly built Lifestyle Academy (the worse feature of which is, perhaps, it's name) begin a series of back lanes and alley ways that sidle around 60s era commercial premises, characterised by that baldness of purpose, designed with a lack of any pleasing detail, that are the trademark of all trading estates everywhere. Many of these low yellow now red brick 'units' with metal roller shutters and close wire mesh over metal framed windows embrace a run down look they were always destined for, moreso for their misplaced confidence in the authority of gaudy plastic signage. Some of these 'business premises' are ear marked for demolition to make possible further expansion of Newcastle College. One old filling station and forecourt have gone already and the site is presently being re-developed for a new Sixth Form College.

Yet, I hope not all of this maze of time expired investment goes for re-development. In my mind's eye I see in this present neglect a chance to do something on the margins, where penniless creative talent lives. Following London or New York, I could imagine here clubs, bars even health and fitness centres, specialist food shops, and more besides, bringing life where today students take short cuts and the pigeons wrestle with gulls for bits of 'berger.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Game, set and match?

I will believe this when I see it.

Gosforth reserve plans 'withdrawn' - The Journal

Mark my words, Newcastle City Council planners don't give up easily. This open land will remain in limbo unless it is placed 'irrovocably' beyond the grasp of developers. It should be purchased by wildlife interests and leased for agriculture and other approved activities.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Learning to plan Part I

Rye Hill. I saw this district go up in flames in the early 1970s.

Not as the result of urban protest, but one of the late major spasms of 're-development' sweeping Newcastle inspired by the grandiose dreams of T. Dan Smith. Great Victorian mansions were being torn down and their wooden bits pieces and floorboards were heaped up and burnt on newly cleared earth. By twilight homeward bound school children danced around the flames.

Many years later I had a conversation in a bar with an architectural salvager; he told me he had gone into a large Victorian house on Rye Hill to see two workman swinging away with sledge hammers, smashing to bits a newel post carved from a piece of green Connemara marble at the foot of a formerly grand staircase ...

The great and good of Newcastle had lived on Rye Hill when today's smart addresses were meek suburbs on the outskirts or even more modest villages further afield.

Now Rye Hill is a housing estate on the road to Cruddas Park. Newcastle's 'West End' as a whole has suffered a catalogue of problems that are usually bundled up in the evasive shorthand term "inner city".

I took a stroll with my camera this week when a high pressure front brought the first clear blue sky for weeks. Rye Hill was only part of my exploration. I wanted to record and comment on developments in and around Newcastle College, a rapidly expanding Further Education college. The excellence of the work I have seen over the past few years at student's final shows has impressed. Testimony for the college has filtered down to me. But welcome as the news about course standards are, I am pre-occupied with something else. Good and bad transformations of urban space and the 'unitended' consequence that comes from neglect as much as it ever did from planning.

The old settled Victorian community has vanished. It went long before the arrival of the wrecking ball; by the era of Smith's vaulting ambition, the huge staterooms and multiple floors of these mansions, high above the Tyne to the west of the city, were dosshouses and worse. Like the bleak home of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, time and history had by-passed them. A few streets of smaller Victorian terraces somehow or other survived, tucked away beside Summerhill Square and to my eyes offering a reproach to the newcomers constructed on the cheap in fish paste coloured brick, houses that have had several expensive facelifts, award winning designs that appealed to panels of planners and architects yet proved virtually uninhabitable as completed. What, one thinks, is new?

Part II to follow.

For details of the late "Mr Newcastle", T. Dan Smith, see earlier posts or simply google it yourself.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


More on the attempt by Newcastle City Council, assisted by developers Persimmon and Bellway, to surround Gosforth Nature Reserve with bricks and mortar and make even more inroads into the city's Green Belt.

A map is good place to begin:

(Oh, dear ... This official map shows a 'wildlife corridor' that comes down the Ouseburn, including the 'battlefield' site, a site specifically omitted from the Council's National Lottery bid for the Ouseburn Wildlife Corridor. Why was that?)

The map forms part of a detailed and compelling argument against plans to build 500 new homes alongside Gosforth Nature Reserve.

The map was part of a detailed submission. Here in full is Natural History Society of Northumberland's chair Dr. Chris Redfern's letter to Harvey Emms, Director of Planning.

"Harvey Emms,
Director of Planning
Newcastle City Council
Civic Centre
Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8PD

3rd January 2012

Dear Harvey

NewcastleGateshead Consultation on Core Strategy, Strategic Land Review and Green Belt Assessment

The Natural History Society of Northumbria is one of the oldest institutions in Newcastle, having been formed from the Lit & Phil in 1829. During our long history we have sought to advance scientific knowledge of the natural world, protect the flora and fauna of the north-east and to provide opportunities for people of the city and surrounds to study and learn about it. We own the Great North Museum: Hancock and its natural history collections.

We currently have around 1,000 members, the majority living in Newcastle and neighbouring areas. Our members include experts on wildlife and conservation, many of them academics working at the Universities of Newcastle, Northumbria and Durham. We publish the regions only scientific journal on natural history, the Northumbrian Naturalist. We carry out research and conservation work across the region and are represented on the Newcastle & North Tyneside Biodiversity Action Partnership as well as the management committees for Holy Island and Coquet Island. We played a leading role in establishing the Wildlife Trusts in our area and continue to work closely in partnership with them.

The Society has managed Gosforth Park Nature Reserve since 1931 and the main thrust of our response to the City Council’s consultation on the Core Strategy and Strategic Land Review relates to the proposed Salter’s Lane Neighbourhood Growth Area. However our scope is broader than this nature reserve and in our response we also provide our views on other aspects of the Council’s Strategy.

You are already aware that we object to the proposal to create a Neighbourhood Growth Area at Salter’s Lane as we believe that sites 4667 and 4926 do not meet planning guidelines due to the unacceptable impact on local wildlife and a nationally important nature reserve that can not be mitigated against, as well as your own Green Belt, Green Infrastructure and BAP objectives [BtB emphasis added]. There are also a range of significant secondary problems that would be associated with developing this site which provide further evidence against development including flooding/ hydrology/drainage, traffic congestion, loss of amenity and subsidence. On their own each of these issues would be a concern, but in combination it is clear that this is not an appropriate site for development. There are many sites available on the fringes of GatesheadNewcastle that do not threaten important wildlife sites and wildlife corridors or are at risk from flooding – these sites should be developed ahead of Salter’s Lane in line with planning guidance.

Indeed this was also the conclusion that council planning officers came to when this site was first assessed as part of the greenbelt review. For reasons that we do not fully understand  [BtB emphasis added] this site was later “combined” with that for Gosforth Golf Course for the purposes of re-assessment and consequently this combined parcel of land then scored sufficiently highly to fall though the sieve, but then with only site 4667 being designated for possible development due to no apparent physical or policy constraints (contrary to its initial assessment [BtB emphasis added]). We believe there is not a logical or reasonable basis for council officers to have taken this approach and as a result the assessment in this case is flawed and these sites should be withdrawn from the Core Strategy.

Gosforth Park Nature Reserve and the surrounding countryside is one of the city’s greatest natural assets. It is a place that local people value highly and is unique in the city. There are few such important wildlife sites in the UK’s major cities and Newcastle should be proud of this asset. In 2011 the reserve has featured on BBC Springwatch and in publicity surrounding Newcastle’s title of Sustainable City. We, along with most of the people living in North Newcastle, have a different vision for this part of Newcastle and we call upon the Council to align its plans with the community [BtB emphasis added]. Instead of building homes and damaging the city’s finest natural asset we want to see the reserve and wildlife corridor protected, celebrated and improved for wildlife and people, to act as one of the “jewels” in the city’s Green Infrastructure. A place that will attract and retain families and middle-income households to NewcastleGateshead.

As the Minister for Planning spelt out in his introduction to the draft National Planning Policy Framework in 2011 [BtB emphasis added]:

“Our natural environment is essential to our wellbeing, and it can be better looked after than it has been. Habitats that have been degraded can be restored. Species that have been isolated can be reconnected. Green belt land that has been depleted of diversity can be refilled by nature – and opened to people to experience it, to the benefit of body and soul."

We are very disappointed with the approach taken by the Council in putting this site forwards for development. Firstly we were not adequately consulted  [BtB emphasis added] about the criteria used for the Council’s greenbelt assessment (it is depressing to note that whilst Gateshead Council consulted with local councillors and the local community in developing its plans Newcastle Council did not). Secondly there has been no attempt (either before or during this consultation) by council planning officers to make contact with the Society and meet with us at the reserve to see the site for themselves and some of the issues at stake. [BtB emphasis added] It is simply not sufficient to view the site from the road, as the most sensitive part of the reserve is not visible. In the absence of any request for a site visit our Director did invite Councillor Murison and Catherine McKinnel MP and both have had a tour of the site, as have Persimmon Homes, Nick Brown MP and other Newcastle councillors. Freedom of information requests have shown that council officers were prepared to engage in detailed discussions with Persimmon Homes about the future of the site. [BtB emphasis added] If the planning process is to be fair and open this approach should also extend to other stakeholders. We hope that in future the Council will attempt to pro-actively engage with all partners and stakeholders at an early stage on issues that are of importance to the City, rather than consult selectively and publish your own views, setting up confrontational dialogue.

We have taken considerable time and effort [*] to provide a detailed and evidence based response as we feel that during informal discussions some council officers and councillors have not fully understood the issues we have raised or the ecological sensitivity of Salter’s Lane.

Below we set out our detailed response to your consultation on a Core Strategy for NewcastleGateshead and the corresponding Strategic Land Review and Greenbelt Assessment in 5 sections:

Section 1: Planning Assumptions & Comments on Approach Taken
Section 2: Response to Policy CS3 (1a) Neighbourhood Growth Area - Salter’s Lane
Section 3: Other Core Strategy Comments

We trust that Newcastle Council will consider our response and act accordingly and we look forwards to working in positive partnership with you in future.

Dr Chris Redfern

* I have not included the lengthy and highly detailed documents the Society have provided. These list protected national and internationally important species found or associated with the reserve.

BtB Comment: It is pellucidly clear from this document (written with patience and a complete lack of rancour on Dr Redfern's part) that Newcastle City Council is up to its old tricks again. It behaves in bad faith over planning matters, something of a tradition.

Find out more from Natural History Society of Northumbria.

For latest news and details of how to support the campaign against the destruction of Gosforth nature reserve there is a dedicated web site here.