Nairn’s Towns

nairns towns

Nairn’s Towns is a collection of writing by Ian Nairn at his acerbic best. As one of the few critics of architecture to eschew purely aesthetic modes of analysis, Nairn instead focused on the character and feeling of buildings and towns. This proclivity for affect is reflected by his praise for structures as diverse as Everton Water Tower, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, Sheffield’s Globe Works, Newcastle’s Victorian railway infrastructure, Charles Church in Plymouth and the entire Welsh town of Llanidloes.

Nairn’s original essays, written in the early 1960s, exude optimism about the future of planning and conservation but he is altogether more deflated when re-evaluating in his late-60s postscripts. The reissue by Notting Hill Editions includes insightful post-postscripts by Owen Hatherley, but the publisher has taken the dubious typographical decision of printing them entirely in italics, which, to be frank, is daft. Nevertheless, we must credit them for illuminating such an important work in the history of planning.

The BBC made a wonderful documentary telling Nairn’s story a few years ago called The Man who Fought the Planners which deserves an hour of your time if you’re interested in British planning history.

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Charles Church in Plymouth, the bombed out shell of which remains on an ostensibly inaccessible traffic island on the approach to a major retail development in the city. © Kevin Colyer, 2002.

 

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Gateshead’s Unbuilt Airport

It’s hard to imagine the North East’s international airport being anywhere other than Newcastle. It is, after all, the largest city in the region and has strong business, transport and financial links. But the location of the airport was not always a foregone conclusion.

As air travel increased in both viability and popularity throughout the 1920s, local authorities all over England were pondering whether they should build their own airports. Particular encouragement was given to the North region by the Air Ministry, who were adamant an international airport would contribute to their economic recovery in the aftermath of the General Strike of 1926 and a decline in core industries like coal and heavy manufacturing. Spirited by this, a Municipal Airport Special Committee was set up in 1927 to mull over the possibility of an international airport somewhere in the North East. It was a rainbow committee, with representatives from Newcastle, Northumberland, Durham, Gateshead and South Shields and some of the small councils trying to argue to the case for their own.

By 1929 a location had been agreed on by the councils of Felling, Washington, Boldon, Jarrow and South Shields, and despite trepidation from the bigger councils of Gateshead, Sunderland and Newcastle, Felling was settled on as the best location. The plans show that the airport would be built over a 200 acre area, centred at Whitemare Pool and engulfing large swathes of land on what is now the Leam Lane Estate, including two farms and Heworth Golf Course. The plans also outlined the infrastructure that would need to be built to service an international airport, including a new bridge across the River Tyne at Pelaw and a ‘super highway’ to cope with growing traffic demand.

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A map from 1910 showing the land which would have been cannibalised by the Gateshead Airport. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2016). All rights reserved.

If these plans ever materialised, there’s a good chance the Leam Lane Estate and possibly even parts of Wardley Estate would never have been built. This invites some interesting counterfactual speculation as to how Felling might have developed if the Gateshead Airport went ahead—where, for example, would the huge council estate have been built? It also begs the question as to what, if anything, would happen to the rest of Felling. Might Gateshead have been a bigger commercial rival to Newcastle than it is now? Perhaps it would have been called Newcastle Airport anyway, a bit like London Stansted, which is actually 40 miles from central London.

Even after Felling was announced, infighting dogged as some of the larger councils started jockeying for their own airfields to be converted into airports. By 1939 there was little progress and very little had actualised. One thing that had become certain by then was that Felling would not be the right place for an international airport.

Joan Hewitt gives some of the crucial reasons the plan eventually fell through:

  • Felling Urban District Council could scarcely afford the initial investment costs, never mind development and upkeep fees
  • All of the land allotted for the airport was prone to mining subsidence. This would later also pose a problem to the developers of council estates in the area
  • Headgear from the nearby Follingsby and Wardley collieries would pose a risk to low-flying aircraft
  • The bulk of the business community who would be making use of international flights already lived in Newcastle
  • Sunderland preferred to use Usworth Airfield in their own area. It had already been developed during the Great War and would pose less of a risk than a new development in Felling

The onslaught of the Second World War put an end to any hopes of a civilian airport, but following the end of the conflict the joint committee was resurrected and eventually agreed on Woolsington Aerodrome as the sensible candidate for development into an international airport.

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Woolsington Airfield, which would eventually become Newcastle International Airport. © Chris Morgan.

Hewitt points out that one remnant of the Felling airport dream does still remain though.

When Felling Council built Fisherwell Road in Pelaw, the road was made very wide, in case it should still be needed as the approach road to the Pelaw High Level Bridge.

If you find Fisherwell Road on a map, you can plot roughly the route the new ‘Pelaw High Level’ bridge would have taken across the River Tyne and through to Whitemere Pool.

Sources
North East Regional Airport Committee minutes, held in Tyne and Wear Archives (MD.NC/298).

Joan Hewitt, File on Felling (year unknown).

 

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Global Undergrounds: Exploring Cities Within

Global Undergrounds Exploring Cities Within

In his introduction to Global Undergrounds Geoff Manaugh tries to get to grips with the allure of subterranean spaces. He recognises that ‘the underground lends itself well to mythology’ and posits that even ‘if our cities didn’t have undergrounds, we would need to invent them’ in our popular imagination. Later in the volume, Stephen Graham is more cutting in his take on the cultural resonance of the underground:

 

As the surface environments of many cities become burnished with the identikit accoutrements of stage-managed spectacle, homogenised corporate consumption and gentrified stone-blasted ‘heritage’, urban tourists now flock in increasing numbers to ‘shadow architectures’ of bunkers, tunnels and subterranean spaces packaged as ‘authentic’ tourist sites, as part of the wider growth of so-called dark tourism.


The editors of Global Undergrounds have taken our fascination with the sub-surface world as their starting point for looking at 80 interesting places around the world. As the first academic survey of its kind, each entry is refracted through the lenses of social and cultural theory, with rich historical context provided by each individual contributor. Dobraszczyk, Galviz and Garrett eschew the traditional geographical ordering, opting instead to group the sites by categories like ‘memory’, ‘resistance’ and ‘edges’, elevating Global Undergrounds above the many passive compendia of subterranea that have sadly proliferated in the past couple of decades.

Stormdrain

© Acmo, 2009.

 

Central to the book is the editors’ desire to push our understanding of these spaces beyond thinking of them as mere landscape quirks, highlighting the power struggles (economic, social, physical) that are represented by many of them. In this way Global Undergrounds is a reaction against the lazy listicle ‘top 10 nuclear bunker’-style lists that litter books and the web, making it a very timely intervention in a hugely undertheorised field of study.

The staggering diversity of the places in this book is represented by a cross-section of the best entries, which include the Pyongyang Metro system, Stockholm’s Atomic Bomb defences, the Brighton Sewers and the Brescia Underground. These are sewn among a tapestry of defunct civil deference infrastructure, lost rivers, cities below cities, caverns, caves, mines, doomsday vaults, utility tunnels, catacombs and abandoned underground stations.

Although there are a few noticeable dips in quality on occasion—to be expected of a volume with more than 25 contributors—for the most part the articles are engaging and fall in line with the editorial vision of recontextualising underground places as more than just curiosities for sanitised tourism or uncritical gawking.

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Newcastle’s Big Clean-up

One of Newcastle’s defining qualities is the unique townscape created by its Georgian and Neoclassical sandstone architecture. Geordies take great pride in this architectural heritage and it’s no surprise that Grey Street—one of the paragons of sandstone—was voted Britain’s ‘Best Street’ by the BBC a few years ago. But for decades there was a clash between this aspect of Newcastle city life and another of our defining characters—heavy industry.

A century of heavy industrial activity in and around the centre of Newcastle has no doubt had a significant impact on the local environment, and one of the most visible manifestations of this was that years of sooty deposits from the city’s many industrial chimneys had collected on the sandstone buildings.

By the 1950s this had become an issue for locals, leading the council to embark on a clean-up programme to restore the hundreds of city centre buildings affected back to their former majesty. A process of cleaning began and throughout the 1960s and 70s buildings all over the city—including Grey Street and Central Station—were thoroughly scrubbed down. Below, for example, you can see numbers 2-12 Grey Street prior to cleaning and after.

Unfortunately, the majority of the photographs from the days of sooty buildings were in black-and-white, making it difficult to appreciate the state some of them were in. To truly appreciate just how black Newcastle’s buildings were, your best bet is to look at one of three buildings which managed to escape the clean-up and is still standing covered in soot to this day—the Church of St Thomas the Martyr in Haymarket, Claremont Buildings on Newcastle University’s campus and Pape’s Building opposite Central Station.

 

Images
Top left – Pape’s Building © Andrew Curtis, top right – Claremont Buildings © Stephen Richards, bottom – Church of St. Thomas the Martyr © Chemical Engineer.

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Planning for Destruction After the Death of Coal in County Durham

The English village brings to mind images of luscious rolling fields, beautiful stone built cottages with thatched roofs and winding country roads.  These are the places words like ‘genteel’, ‘quaint’ and ‘idyllic’ were made for. Travel companies lure weary city-dwellers into England’s villages with promises of tranquillity and unspoiled landscapes feeding into the popular imaginary of villages as somewhere altogether disconnected from the techo-industrial matrix imposed by urban life.

Villages in County Durham at the peak of the coal mining industry, however, were of an entirely different character.  With rows of cramped, poorly-constructed terraced housing and dirt roads, they represented what Mark Benney calls ‘an extraordinarily uniform picture of bleak ugliness to the stranger with standards set by South of England villages’. The villages were constructed out of necessity—as mining operations proliferated in 19th century County Durham, colliery-owners had to build accommodation for the previously-dispersed rural populations which gravitated towards the pits for work.

Between 1800 and the 1840s County Durham’s population swelled from 100,000 to 350,000. Increased population movements like this were typical of the century, with traditional agrarian workers enticed to the coalfields by promises of a better life. Most of these great swathes were locals from rural areas, but people from non-mining towns like Darlington and impoverished families from Scotland and Ireland also flooded in.

People seemed to be magnetically drawn to every new pit that was sunk. This steady supply of workers was good news for companies running the mines, but it forced them to grapple with a tough dilemma: how can we house the new employees and their families, and what is the cheapest possible way to do so? This resulted in what local authorities described as ‘long, straight terraces of mean industrial housing strung along highways or packed close together in grid-iron blocks, like patches of Manchester slum set down on open moors and hillside’.

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Documentary photographs from the County Durham Mining Village of Craghead, taken by the BBC in 1938.

At its height County Durham covered 500 square miles and stretched from the banks of the River Tyne to the Tees and from the east coast across to what is now Cumbria. By the time the mining industry reached its zenith in 1913 there were over 350 settlements in the region. Many of them were hastily assembled and it was not unusual for people to report ad hoc villages appearing seemingly overnight. Others were old rural settlements expanded and adapted for their new residents.

Historical accounts—in their haste to chronologise and peruse grand narratives about the mining industry, often gloss over the fact that village residents were not just one-dimensional characters who had fallen into the back-breaking monotony of harsh and often dangerous manual labour, descending the shaft every day, toiling for a pittance and returning to their underwhelming dwelling to eat whatever their wife had prepared. Despite the relative squalor, the villages were not lifeless shanty-towns. Each community was uniquely vibrant, a place where people could lead active and fulfilling social, cultural and civic lives. They were places where children were raised and families were built. Residents decorated and made improvements to their own homes and established working mens clubs, welfare institutes and co-operative stores. This forged a shared sense of community and helped strengthen the common identity shared by the miners, their wives and families.

Structurally and even functionally, much of the housing had not been fit for purpose in the first place, but by the 1920s observers and campaigners were opining about the derelict state of some villages. The fortunes of the coalfield villages were inextricably intertwined with those of the coal industry, so when the market began to decline in the 1930s, many of them were pushed into further dereliction and poverty. The state of housing and infertile job market became a cause for concern to both the national and local government as capital and population began leaving the region. A national government study of poverty in the area concluded that new industries needed to be attracted to County Durham, with many new industrial parks opening in the region.

Despite attempts by the British Government to resuscitate the coal industry with nationalisation in 1947, by 1951 villages were haemorrhaging population and the problem had metastasised to most of the 350 mining communities in the County. High unemployment—owing to the decline of the coal industry and a raft colliery closures shortly after the war—forced entire communities to look elsewhere for work. Families began moving to centralised urban areas in proximity to new factories, warehouses and offices, leaving once-thriving villages ghost towns. The industrial geography of County Durham started to shift into new towns like Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe. Such towns had grown out of the New Towns Act of 1946. The Act allowed local authorities to masterplan organised towns from scratch, a process that was at odds with the hasty construction of extemporary settlements during periods of rapid industrialisation.

Following World War II the local government in County Durham was faced with the problem of supporting the 85,000 people who still lived in in the dying mining villages. In 1951 a County Development Plan was developed to address the perceived issues. The impetus for the plan had been the passage of the Town and County Planning Act of 1947, which centralised planning and put responsibility in the hands of local authorities. The new law vested considerable power in local councils and compelled each of the United Kingdom’s 147 planning authorities to create their own development plan.

The 1951 County Durham Development Plan was far-reaching and made full use of the authority’s new ability to exercise benevolent paternalism over its population. In the view of the plan’s architects, the villages had ‘outlived their usefulness’ and the solution was a ‘gradual regrouping of population’. This involved categorising all of the towns, villages and hamlets in County Durham according to their potential to continue existing productively. Category A settlements had increasing populations and were marked to receive significant investment for growth. At the bottom of the pile Category D villages—which covered most of the mining villages—would be either left to die or actively killed. A block was put on funding these settlements and the County would take every opportunity to acquire property, rehouse the residents and then destroy the villages completely. The masterplan identified 114 such areas.

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Map showing the location of Category D villages spread throughout County Durham. Scanned by Marsden Banner Group

The topdown scheme met with opposition at all levels, from residents to the hyper-local authorities responsible for administering sub-regions. Resistance to erasing the villages was effective and there was little progress throughout the 1950s. Although complete clearance had been avoided, the County had successfully followed through on the policy of not providing investment in the declining areas. By the early 1960s, support for the policy had waned amongst the officials charged with executing it. It came as a surprise, then, when the County stubbornly upheld the policy in the Revised Durham County Plan issued in 1964 and sought help from the national government to expedite the implementation. The new plan retired the Category D designation, replacing it with six new categories. Despite this bloated imbroglio there still remained categories devoted to condemning settlements to death by starving them of vital funding or clearing the property completely. In fact the number of such areas rose to 121—7 more than in the original 1951 categorisation.

As the County pressed on opposition became fiercer and more organised. Local council members representing endangered villages formed the County Redevelopment of Villages Action Committee (CROVAC) which lobbied politicians at all levels and held local meetings. One such meeting was attended by shadow government ministers who offered their support against what they saw as the ‘legal vandalism’ planners were committing. Throughout the 1960s, coverage in local and national press lifted public opinion to an all-time high, increasing the appeal of the campaign to the remaining official supporters who were beginning to have doubts about the destruction policy. Indeed many local councillors who had initially supported the clearances publically changed their minds.

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Survey given to residents of Witton Park, a Category D village. © R. Snowdon.

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Pamplet produced by Witton Park Defence Committee, protesting against forced rehousing. © R. Snowdon.

Progress for the County was glacial owing to the successful grassroots campaigns and changing ideas about how to deal with the emerging geographies of industry and poverty. In 1977 the policy was officially revoked, and County Durham pledged to support the former coalfield settlements. Despite the plan’s overwhelming failure, three of the 357 pit villages were demolished.

Marsden was one of them. Sitting on the cliffs between South Shields and Whitburn, it was completely demolished in the early 1960s displacing hundreds of residents. In many ways Marsden was typical of the Category D villages. It had entered a decline after the First World War–its school had closed in 1931 and the population gradually shifted to nearby collieries or industrial towns. Nevertheless, according to one source the supposed slum of Marsden ‘had a bowling green, tennis courts, football [and] cricket pitches and a pavilion’ while ‘many people grew their own food in allotments and fished in the sea’. Today members of the Marsden Banner Group are trying to claim back a part of their heritage which was abruptly destroyed. Members of the group help forge links between the displaced residents and write personal histories of the village, continuing the sense of place and identity of a place which no longer exists.

Although only three villages were completely destroyed, many were partially demolished. Witton Park village was archetypical of this. The narrators of a recent documentary about the settlement describe it as ‘a village of absences of houses, of streets and in people. Gaps exist giving it a disparate and sometimes forlorn feel’. People were re-located to the sprawling council estates nearby, essentially gutting the village. Walking through Witton Park today the sense of architectural pastiche is strong—one terraced row includes two system built early 20th century council houses shoved between a pair of 19th century stone buildings. The two newer houses are almost like a scar in the original street, which was cut open and gutted by the Category D designation.

Despite attempts to destroy the mining communities through destructive urban planning the sense of identity in all of the settlements—even those which have vanished—remains strong. Stephenson and Wray, in their study of former pit villages, found that ‘these communities appear to be regenerating themselves using the cultural capital accrued through tradition, and maintained by festival and exhibition’. This is certainly true in Marsden, where relatives of former residents have restored the pit’s banner over the past couple of years. The banner bears the rather fateful slogan ‘firm as a rock we stand’.

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Images of Marsden Village which was demolished following its designation as Category D. Images all provided by the Marsden Banner Group and come from a variety of their sources.

In County Durham the interplay of a complex nexus of social, economic and political factors coalesced to leave large swathes of the population in poverty. Rapid industrialisation in the 18th century and the subsequent decline of the national coal industry left the County with hundreds of settlements which were not fit for purpose by the end of World War II. As deindustrialisation took hold County Durham’s planners made full use of their exhaustive new planning powers in the 1950s to plot a demographic shift out of villages and into new urban centres. Although it would be wrong to blame the County’s destructive response for the overall decline of the villages, their haste to relocate populations was unsympathetic and sought to erase the sense of community and identity that pit village residents felt.

This deliberately destructive planning serves as a cautionary tale. Although viewed as a mistake and anomaly by the planning community, it seems strikingly relevant given the recent downturn in the economy of Teeside, County Durham’s neighbour. For decades the region relied on its steel industry until their largest plant was closed in October 2015. It has left over 1,700 workers without a job in a region which was already struggling to find work for its unemployed. Hopefully planners will have the failure of County Durham in mind in their attempts to compensate for their newfound unemployment.

Sources
B. Caudwood, ‘Marsden Village’, Marsden Banner Group (http://www.marsdenbannergroup.btck.co.uk/MarsdenVillage)

Carol Stephenson and David Wray, ‘Emotional regeneration through community action in post-industrial mining communities: The New Herrington Miners Banner Partnership’, Capital and Class 87 (2005): 175-199.

D. Senior, Growth Points for Durham, pamphlet for Durham County Council, undated.

Gary Pattison, ‘Planning for decline: the ‘D’-village policy of County Durham, UK’, Planning Perspectives 19 (July 2004): 311-332.

Mark Benney, ‘The Legacy of Mining’ in Mining and Social Change: Durham County in the Twentieth Century by Martin Bulmer (ed.) (Routledge: Oxon, 2015).

Ronald Snowdon, Condemned to Die: Housing Action and Social Justice South West Durham 1949-1979 (Unpublished masters thesis at the University of Durham, 1979).

Russell Davies, ‘Planning for Destruction’, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, May 20th 2008.

William A. Geenty, County Development Plan Written Analysis: Prepared for The County Council of Durham (1951).

 

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A Burglar’s Guide to the City

burglars guide to the city

In A Burglar’s Guide to the City Geoff Manaugh takes a look at architecture through the eyes of a burglar, positing that those looking to surreptitiously enter buildings see and make use of the built environment in a fundamentally different way to the rest of us. In exhaustively chronicling the ways various thieves—some successful, many not—have exploited and reimagined the architectural world around them, Manaugh traces the history of heists from Houdini to the Hole in the Ground Gang.

The book is quick off the mark to link architecture and burglary and sets the tone with the tale of George Leonidas Leslie, a 19th century architect who used his knowledge of buildings to break into them. From panic rooms and casino floors to freeways and tunnels, Manaugh goes on to bring every imaginable form of the built environment into his analysis. Overall A Burglar’s Guide to the City is a well-tempered mix of architectural theory and crime history with good dose of journalistic legwork.

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The Infrastructure Art of Renzo Picasso

Renzo Picasso (1880-1975) was an Italian architect, planner and artist whose work often concentrated on the utopian potential of vertical planning through skyscrapers—or cloudscratchers as he often referred to them. Although little known outside of Italy, Picasso spent time in dense metropoles like London, Philadelphia and New York City studying every aspect of urban life. This fascination led to a series of unique illustrations of city infrastructure, many seen from unique perspectives.

The Renzo Picasso archive has been lovingly restoring his drawings and producing high quality prints to finance the acquisition of more of his works. You can find more of his art and information about his life on their website.

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All © Renzo Picasso Archive.

 

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The Circus in Newcastle

In his 1833 Register of Remarkable Events John Sykes has a short entry for the opening of a circus in Newcastle on October 29th 1789.

The Circus or Amphitheater, at the Forth, Newcastle, was first opening under the direction of Messers. Jones and Parker, equestrians from London, to a brilliant audience. It was built under the direction of Mr. David Stephenson. The very curious roof was constructed by the late Mr. Bulmer, builder.[1]

According to Thomas Oliver—the architect of Leazes Terrace—the amphitheater was short lived and shortly after opening ‘was abandoned by them’. By the time he was writing in 1831 it was being used as a riding school.[2]

It is not unusual that the Forth area would find itself the home of a permanent circus. In a previous post I outlined the history of the area as a venue for the annual Easter Hopping fair in Newcastle and pointed out that it was home to other permanent attractions like landscaped walking grounds, a wrestling arena and even a bowling green.

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Wood engraved circus post bill advertisement by Thomas Bewick for Jones and Parker from the British Museum’s collection.

In the late 18th century circus acts consisted of equestrian performances, daring rope tricks and musical fanfare. Jones and Parker, who owned and operated the Newcastle circus, were some of the early pioneers of this nascent art of entertainment. James or George Jones—possibly both—and William Parker had been collectively involved with the Royal Circus in London and later the Edinburgh Equestrian before opening up a slew of venues in the North and eventually in Newcastle.[3] It was in their Edinburgh that John Bill Ricketts—who would later go on to found the first American circus—learned the trade.[4] We know that Ricketts was, in fact, a headline performer at the Newcastle Circus in 1789 thanks to one of the most unlikely sources.

Thomas Bewick is remembered as a pioneering engraver and authority on natural history and indeed his magnum opus—a History of British Birds—is without question one of the most important works in that field. But, according to his biographer, ‘his favourite subject was undoubtedly the circus’.[5] Bewick actually lived in The Forth when Jones and Parker built their circus, an in fact lived so close to it that the street he lived on was renamed ‘Circus Lane’ when it opened in 1789. Bewick began to illustrate advertisements for the Newcastle Circus which appeared in newspapers and on posters around the city. One such advertisement was a pen and wash design for ‘Mr. Rickett’s Night’ depicting a man jumping from a barrel suspended in the air onto a galloping horse. Another such show bill promised ‘a grand display of Trampoline tricks over men, horses, etc., by Mr. Parker’.

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Circus riders; acrobats standing on two horses from the British Museum’s Thomas Bewick collection.

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Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from the British Museum’s collection.

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Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from the British Museum’s collection.

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Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from the British Museum’s collection.

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Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from the British Museum’s collection.

Very few secondary sources—in fact none written after the Industrial Revolution—pinpoint the precise location of the circus. None of the early 1840s Ordnance Survey maps of the area show a circus in evidence so it is likely to have been demolished by this time. Thomas Oliver’s 1830 plan of Newcastle is far more helpful. It shows both the circus at the top of Forth Banks, up past the Royal Infirmary (now the site of The Centre for Life) and loosely enclosed by Forth Pl. and Thornton Street.

The exact location is likely to be where St. Mary’s Cathedral now sits, opposite the Central Station. It’s no surprise, then, that the street running up the East side of the Cathedral is called Bewick Street! St. Mary’s was built between 1842 and 1844, so we can say with certainty that the circus building was lost between 1831 and 1842, meaning it would have been less than 50 years old. There appears to have been a schoolroom on Bewick Street in the late 19th century, which is sweetly ironic given its previous iteration.

References
[1] John Sykes, Local Records: Or, Historical Register of Remarkable Events (1833): 353.

[2] Thomas Oliver, A New Picture of Newcastle upon Tyne (1831, reprinted 1970): 59.

[3] Kim Baston, ‘Transatlantic Journeys: John Bill Ricketts and the Edinburgh Equestrian Circus’, Popular Entertainment Studies Vol. Vol. 4, Issue 2 (2013): 6.

[4] Ibid.: 5.

[5] Jenny Uglow, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (2007): 234.

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Newcastle’s Skywalks

When T. Dan Smith took over the reigns as head of Newcastle City Council in 1959 he became one of the first local leaders in the United Kingdom to recognise the importance of urban planning in coping with the bundle of problems faced by cities and towns all around the country. Smith wasted little time and soon after his appointment named Wilfred Burns as the city’s Planning Officer. Burns came with considerable pedigree, having been involved in the reconstruction of Coventry after large parts of the city were leveled in aerial bombing raids during the Second World War..

By 1963 Burns and his small team had published the infamous Development Plan Review which proposed a wholesale redevelopment of Newcastle’s city centre. The audacity and ambition of the plan thrust Smith into the national spotlight, and in professing his desire to transform the city into the ‘Brasilia of the North’ Newcastle soon became synonymous with a strain of planning that would later become one of the most publicly-reviled in history.

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T. Dan Smith. © Amber Online, 1987.

Part of the impetus for wholesale change in British city centres in the 1950s was the increasing number of cars on the road. Automobiles—although still a mark of affluence—were becoming more widely available to the public following the end of the war. Towns which had been built to Victorian—or even medieval—blueprints were sagging under the weight of city centre traffic problems. Alleviating city centre traffic became one of the central concerns of 1960s planners, and in Newcastle Wilfred Burns sought to strike a balance between pedestrian and vehicular accessibility in his proposed urban designs.

His solution was segregation. Pedestrians and traffic would occupy discrete zones in an ideal Newcastle, with neither having to interact with the other.

To achieve this segregation it was necessary to consider whether the vehicles should be dropped to a basement level, whether the pedestrian should be lifted up to a new ground level or whether vehicles should be on top of the pedestrians.[1]

Burns settled on a mixture the first two, believing that elevating pedestrians above road traffic would create the most vibrant and enjoyable city centre experience. This amounted to creating a dense network pedestrian decks and walkways that traversed the whole city centre all the way from the top of Northumberland Street rolling down to the banks of the River Tyne. In theory a pedestrian would be able to walk the length of the entire city centre without having to cross a single road.

The effect of this scheme is, therefore, to secure segregation of pedestrians and vehicles in the vertical plane, provide for easy servicing to all the shops and to provide car parking facilities with access to cars at the road level but egress by pedestrians on to the shopping deck.[2]

 

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Proposed elevated shopping area. © Wilfred Burns.

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Proposal for re-development of Newcastle city centre including elevated precincts and walkways. View from the top of Nortumberland Street. © Wilfred Burns.

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Model of proposed changes to Newcastle city centre. © Wilfred Burns.

As the mockups and models show, Burns was zealous in his application of this theory. The topography of the city is significantly altered and if it had been carried through to the end, the city would look entirely different today.

Although Burns’s Newcastle masterplan enjoys a certain auspicious position in planning lore (more for its novelty than its dexterity), the majority of his ideas were never realised. Any hope of a cohesive implementation were dashed by a mixture of public dissatisfaction and financial constraints. Some elements of the city centre scheme did see the light of day but progress was glacial and granular. Both the Central Motorway system and Eldon Square were born out of the pair’s plan, although they were both long gone from Newcastle City Council before the projects were completed.

Other developments were more fragmentary. Smith succeeded in attracting some noted architects to the project, most notably Basil Spence (Central Library, 1968) and Arne Jacobsen (unrealised Hotel plans, 1967) and his commissions fueled the ascendancy of the industrious Ryder & Yates (various projects, notably in Killingworth).

These projects represent the most enduring facets of T. Dan Smith and Wilfred Burns’s legacy but there are other fragmentary, ghostly remains of their utopian dream hidden in the city’s built environment. Chief among them are the vestigial remnants of the grand elevated pedestrian walkway system. Some of them are tucked away in largely unvisited parts of central Newcastle while others are used with relative frequency.

A small network of skywalks built to carry pedestrians from Basil Spence’s central library over the Central Motorway and into the East End of the city is the most prominent remaining example.

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While this section is fairly complete, other parts of the skywalk network were built speculatively with the obvious assumption that they would be completed one day. The most startling example of this is an unfinished elevated walkway to nowhere that runs under the Tyne Bridge.

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Unfinished walkway under the Tyne Bridge.

Plans to create skywalks over Northumberland Street were never realised, but they were fully anticipated by the developers of what is now Primark’s building. If you look closely at the side of the building, you can see blocks poking out of the the walls running in a line all the way along. Far from being architectural flourishes, these anachronisms are structural ledges which were originally intended to support a skywalk. They are also in evidence on the back of the neighboring old Mcdonalds and old HMV buildings.

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Unused skywalk supports along the side of Primark on Northumberland Street.

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Close-up of supports.

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Further unused skywalk supports on the back of the McDonalds and old HMV buildings.

Another skywalk which was built is an offshoot of the library walkway network stretching down past Manors car park into the run down East Pilgrim Street area. This one allows egress to the car park itself, which was one of the primary functions of the walkways. There’s a fenced-off stub of walkway which was presumably meant to connect to an elevated walkway along the side of Bank House, which is now demolished.

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The Manors elevated walkway and stub viewed from the derelict base of the former Bank House building.

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Manors skywalk stub overhanging on the left – presumably intended to connect to an elevated walkway on the side of Bank House. The concrete structure pictured was the base of Bank House and presumably survived demolition because a structural support for Swan House is built into it.

If Burns’s plans for a city of elevated pedestrian walkways were ambitious, Ryder & Yates’s proposal for the regeneration of the Quayside area was audacious. As the hub of Newcastle’s industry, the Quayside enjoyed over a century of prosperity but by the time T. Dan Smith was in office it was deeply derelict and left reeling from years of post-war deindustrialisation and neglect. Smith turned to the trusted Ryder & Yates to figure out how to revitalise the area and—possibly inspired by Wilfred Burns’s love of pedestrian decks—came up with the Tyne Deck plan.

Ryder & Yates proposed decking over the River Tyne, from one side to the other, and building a sprawling conference centre complex on top. Few can deny the sheer audacity of this plan. It’s doubtful whether even the most radical members of Burns’s planning team would have countenanced the idea, but its very conception captures the  utopian mood of the 1960s planning scene in Newcastle.

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The proposed Tyne Deck © Ryder & Yates, 1969.

The development in visual terms of the monumental building complex in an area of historical development representing continuity of major achievements and thus unifying the aspirations of the Region… The destruction of a boundary and the formation of a new City of Tyneside … The transformation of an area potentially the most vital on the Tyne, from dereliction to the centre of public activity, a symbol of re-birth… The upper Tyne transformed into a linear lake with all the advantages to be derived from the constant water level with its banks not exposed disfigured and eroded by an ebbing tide… A reservoir beneficial to the Water Company particularly on the completion of the Solway barrage for retaining water from the Lake District.

The deck would have contained in its structure sluice gates to control upstream water levels, locks to allow small craft through, and a salmon leap. “The principal function of the deck is to create an acceptable site for the erection of important public buildings that will be related to the new administrative boundaries, and to the Region. Acceptable in the sense that the Deck being part of the river is the common inheritence of Tyneside, reaching beyond reactionary parochial attitudes and, in terms of precise location, the historic centre of the people of the Tyne.[3]

— Ryder & Yates Architects, 1969.

 

Foonotes and References
[1] Wilfred Burns, A study in Re-planning at Newcastle Upon Tyne (1967): 27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ryder & Yates, ‘Tyne Deck’ in Northern Architect – Journal of the Northern Architectural Association (May 1969), extract posted on Skyscrapercity.

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Newcastle’s Secret Park and the Hidden History of City Fun

Most Newcastle residents are familiar with Leazes Park, Exhibition Park, Gosforth Park and Jesmond Dene. But few are aware that there’s a park hidden away in central Newcastle. You can be forgiven for not knowing it’s there, after all two of its three entrances are completely sealed off and you have to walk through an abandoned car park to get in. It’s not exactly nestled in luscious parkland either—on one side are highly contaminated lead works and on the other a derelict wasteland formerly home to railway stables.

The Redheugh Bridge Park is not somewhere you find by accident on a nice leisurely stroll around the city centre. It is tucked away under the Redheugh Bridge, and was presumably built by Newcastle City Council during the construction of the third version of the crossing. Its existence has never been publicised and there are scant references to it online. What is especially baffling is that the park has always been remote and uninviting—it seems like an unusual place to try and carve out a slice of serenity.

Evidently very little effort goes into maintaining the park and it is essentially in a state of dereliction. After negotiating inaccessible entrances and fighting through undergrowth, the parkgoer is sure to be disappointed by what they find—a series of benches whose design is obviously drawn from the distant industrial influences of the area. It’s possible that the park is a casualty of the recession, certainly two of the entrances seem to have been fenced off between 2008 and 2012. In its present state Redheugh Bridge Park is not quite a hidden gem… more like a hidden dreg.

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Disused car park under the Redheugh Bridge that must be passed through to enter the park.

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Sealed off entrance on Skinnerburn Road.

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Sealed off entrance on Shot Factory Lane.

The present surroundings of the park make its location questionable, but looking back into the history of the Forth Banks area reveal the park to be a real anachronism. Although the area became heavily industrialised in the second half of the 19th century, The Forth previously lay just outside of the boundaries of the city wall. In his early 1736 account of Newcastle, Henry Bourne describes the Forth as ‘a place of pleasure and recreation’.[1] Bourne alludes to—but does not expand on—’an ancient custom for the Mayor, Aldermen and Sheriff of this town, accompanied with great Numbers of the burgesses, to go every year at the feast of Easter and Whitsunday to the Forth, with the maces, sword and cap of maintenance carried before them’.

R.J. Charleton, writing in 1885, sheds further light on this ancient custom. As well as being a centre of leisure with a permanent bowling green and pleasant walking grounds, the Forth annually played host to an event called the Easter Hopping. This appears to have been a grand fair attended by many of the residents of Newcastle and the disparate villages surrounding it which it would later engulf. The Easter Hopping boasted shows and booths with all kinds of delights.[2]

One of the main crowd pleasers was the show of Billy Purvis. Purvis was a stalwart of 19th century North East England and was a forerunner to the modern celebrity. Purvis’s ‘popularity was established by his performance at fairs, races, feasts, hoppings, and other similar places of public amusement’ all around the North East, where he would dexterously play the part of ‘dancing-master, conjurer, piper, play-actor and showman’.[3] Writing in 1857, just four years after Purvis’s death, Forydyce notes that he would ‘not unfrequently [be] exhibiting at the mansions of the gentry’.[4]

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Billy Purvis dressed as a clown by J. Swain, undated. From Newcastle Libraries’ Local Studies Collection. 

Some of the other attractions of the Forth during the Easter Hopping were also permanent fixtures. These included the Newcastle Circus and a wrestling ground where tournaments were regularly held.

The precise location of this wrestling ground turns out not to be far away from the Redheugh Bridge Park. The first edition Ordnance Survey plan from 1855 lists the land that would eventually become the railway stables (which were knocked down to create the wasteland neighbouring the park) as being a ‘Wrestling Ground’! This is the exact location where the ‘Newcastle upon Tyne Wrestling and Great Northern Games’ was held every year until the North East Railway Company bought the band in 1876.[5]

The constant sources of pleasure in the Forth led some to call it the People’s Park, so all told it is not quite the most unusual place to find the Redheugh Bridge Park. The area’s use started to shift from a rural place of communal leisure toward heavy industrialisation in the middle of the 18th century, and in 1752 the Newcastle Infirmary opened in the Forth. New streets were built through it, including Neville Street and Scotswood Road, and in 1850 railway lines cut through the heart of the Forth to the new Central Station which was built opposite the location of the old circus.

The curious name of the area—the Forth—likely comes from the old English ‘firth’ which denoted ‘a space between trees or a shady place’.[6] Some have speculated that this may refer to the area’s relative position ‘in the shade’ of Newcastle’s town wall, but according to Charleton the name dates back to ‘ancient times’ when ‘the Forth was covered by a dark and gloomy forest, sacred to the rites of the Druids’.[7] According to him, the first mention of the name is ‘when Henry III licensed the townsmen to dig for coals and stone [in a] certain field called Le Frythe’.[8]

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The remnants of something in the depths of a derelict wasteland in Forth Banks. Strip away a layer and you’ll find it was a railway stable. Strip away another and you’ll find it was a wrestling ground and the site of Newcastle’s own version of the Olympics.

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Overhead image showing the respective location of Redheugh Bridge Park, the former railway stables and former leadworks on the Forth Banks. Satellite imagery © Google.

References
[1] Henry Bourne, The History of Newcastle upon Tyne: Or, the Ancient and Present State of That Town (1736): 146.

[2] R.J. Charleton, A History of Newcastle upon Tyne From Earliest Records to Its Formation as a City (1885, reprinted 1978 edition): 348.

[3] William Fordyce, The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham Vol. 2 (1857): 268.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Entry HER4893 in the Tyne & Wear Historic Environment Record.

[6] Anna Flowers and Maria Hoy, What in a Name?: Some Newcastle Street Names Explained (1992).

[7] Charleton, p. 347.

[8] Ibid.

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