A Day Out With Elspeth in Newcastle

Perhaps I was not alone in expecting long outskirts of industry and terraced houses, a towering football stadium, and boisterous hard drinkers frequenting the above.

Yes – these are all there, but I was surprised to see that there really is a castle, town walls and a large medieval parish church – one of 4. I could have also viewed the timbered buildings on the quay and the classical golden sweep of the city’s most famous street.

Not only is the city more ancient than I expected, but I discovered its wide arts – from stuccoed balconies to reclaimed biscuit factories to the triple cupped silver bra of the Sage music centre, to even poetry recitals in a bastion. (Cinemas are reviewed here).

And so I became intrigued – and then fell in love.

After living there, I reiterate that my first paragraph is not a misconception. Drinking’s well underway by the time the shops close, meaning that its rowdiness is several hours ahead of other cities. Newcastle divides between day cafes and rammed drinking venues, particularly so when black and white shirts descend on the city. I thought their roar was the Roman army come back to defend Hadrian’s Wall again – but no, just a home match.

But here, I’m going to reimagine Newcastle and suggest that its most famous aspects – the bridges and the classical town planning – are at the expense of others and are in some ways detrimental.

Newcastle is unlike the other industrial cities, in that it was big and busy long before cranes and mills. It’s more akin to Bristol – although with a different atmosphere.

Old pictures show how bumpy Newcastle is. Planners from the 19th C tried to flatten those bumps and to make straight and flat roads for cars and rail. That has been done with the loss of many of the timbered buildings, allowing transport to dominate the hills.

Newcastle’s 7 bridges are interesting because they come in a clump. But they are not all interesting individually. I like the two which are at river level.

But commerce requires that bridges are high to allow not only ships in but to carry mechanised transport. Even though the two bridges with moving parts are the best.

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The Tyne Bridge is distinctive and shapely, but when you walk under it or even over it, you’re overwhelmed by the size of the supports and the roar of vehicles. Great warehouses in its legs rise up, eerie and unused, whilst High Level Bridge (above) has huge struts like warring Transformers that cut through Newcastle’s oldest buildings. The tails of these bridges end at the brow of a gradual hill, meaning that their span is much wider than the 500 feet of river, and that each bank has a looming overhead metal monster with twisting complicated roads.

Especially in Gateshead, these spoil the town and so there’s little there other than the Sage and Baltic, and then hotchpotch hotels and slip roads. St Mary’s church yard – Gateshead’s only old building – is clipped by the Tyne Bridge.

And Newcastle castle garth is hewn in two by the railway, one of two buildings I would have avoided running the tracks The Victorians instead managed to sever the Keep from its gatehouse, and the peg timbered tenement communities of Dog Leap Stairs.

The more recent motorways mean that you can’t go north or west of the centre without encountering a large fast concrete snake.

 

My other issue is the planning of the 1830s. Grainger is so celebrated that a whole section of the centre is named after him. He has his own street and market.

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But I’m not sure that this man is as worthy as Newcastle makes him. It’s unusual that a builder is famous, rather than who designed what he made. Apart from Dobson, we might not know the names of Grainger’s architects – the Green brothers, Walker, Wardle, and Oliver. We do know Grainger’s chum Clayton, town clerk and advisor, who also gets his own street, and is probably the reason that Grainger was able to do what he did to Newcastle and have his plan chosen, even over the architect he worked with.

Even the English Heritage book about his titular town concedes that Grainger was ruthless and not philanthropic; he courted the rich and those who became so; he was also reckless, in his speculative and radical scheme which threatened his financial stability.

I squirmed that a builder’s death meant tolling bells and shut shops, but it is incongruous that such a local hero should have his debts carried posthumously for 40 years. His wholesale buying and destroying – he knocked down the first theatre royal in 3 hours of acquiring it and the mansion Anderson Place – would not be possible under current new ownerships which made restoration of the area so difficult.

Let me be clear that I am glad of the 1990s restoration of the Granger Town project. Let me also say that despite not being bothered by repetitive and rule based classical architecture – I prefer Edinburgh’s Old Town to new and York to Bath – that I do really like Grainger’s streets. One especially which I’m going to suggest is in the wrong place. But the warm stone and the scale is irresistible. Especially the curve of the best street whose breadth anticipates the motor car that Grainger cannot have foreseen.

But he could have foreseen the railway. Central Station, also with great pleasing curvature, was built by one of his colleagues. By the time Grey Street was being planned, the railway era was dawning.

The Lort Burn had been in the way for some time, but that no-one had filled it in yet was fortuitous. Grainger, coming into the age of rail, could have used that ravine as an open train tunnel, naturally cutting through into the city, as at Brighton. If he had money and inclination to fill and flatten the Lort, could he not have widened and used what was there instead?

My way would mean that the railway cuts the city longitudinally rather than vertically. Although it’s nice for rail passengers to see Newcastle from the train up high, it’s not nice for people in Newcastle to have to look at all those viaducts which carve up both sides of the river like Scalextric loops and continue into Ouseburn and Byker.

It would mean that you cross the river at a lower level than the King Edward and High Level bridges. Although less dramatic, it is more aesthetic for the banks.

The bridges which work are those which aren’t that much higher than the water – eg Corbridge; Durham – or they spring from a sheer gorge, such as Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. These also don’t have houses underneath and don’t require an elevated lead up road on the land.

I wonder why no real road was made – and hasn’t been yet – down to the place that the Tyne has been forded since Roman times. Why didn’t Grainger – who cast off so much of his predecessor Stephenson’s work, who might have been just as famous – widen Dean St and the Side?

It took another century for a real river crossing from a road which also didn’t terminate properly. How did the pilgrims get up Pilgrim Street til the 1920s? The Great North Road (today’s A1) is ancient and so it’s all the more surprising that this had not been done earlier.

Why not a wider dual use bridge, such as at Sunderland, or a double decker but with more space (more like Tower Bridge) – rather than the crammed together decks of the High Level which make the bottom bunk cramped and something you’re only too glad to get over.

When I see older pictures of Newcastle – such as a c1600 vista – I sigh. I also wonder how Grainger’s town looked before it was sliced by trains, and if Grainger had lived a little later, if he could have protected his work from ravages as great as those a century later under T Dan Smith.

Note that both these men had equally radical visions for the city.

Newcastle wasn’t bombed, and yet it’s suffered at the hands of its own developers.

I’d keep Grey Street of course – I’d have made that where Pilgrim Street is, leading to the Tyne Bridge, but the road needs lowering to make the arch aesthetic and to match the sloping roads through it.

Tall ships didn’t need to come through for long – no bridge was enough for the Mauretania!

Most cargo stopped at Newcastle, not passed though, and then building moved towards the sea where there are no bridges – I wish the cantilever at Shields had been built.

So the higher level is unnecessary.

The Gateshead side needs to looks as good – for it’s one thing to view from it (such as inside the Sage) but another to be on the Newcastle side and see scruffy disjointedness. What Grainger did right was to make the centre of Newcastle joined up. I like that he made his plan a triangle – like Bristol’s Park St – but not at the expense of the interesting topography that had been preserved for so long.

I’d have less but better bridges and less rail track so that useless brownfield sites are not created, and the slicing of the city is minimised, and I’d have kept more timbered buildings and Anderson Place and its gardens.

Elspeth Town – the other Newcastle! If only I’d been born a century or two earlier…

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