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]

002034:Billy Purvis as a clown Swain J. Undated

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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