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.

[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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Close-up of supports.


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.


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


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.



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


Sealed off entrance on Skinnerburn Road.


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]


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.

[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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Food On The Move: The Extraordinary World Of The Motorway Service Area

food on the move

Food on the Move is a lustrously presented social and cultural history of the motorway service area in Britain. After finding the distant origins of this non-place in the coaching inns of the turnpike era, David Lawrence traces the germination of the service station as we know it back to the post-war bureaucratic imbroglio it emerged from.

Lawrence treats the MSA not as a static historical subject but as a complex, ever-changing institution formed through a panoply of cultural, commercial and political processes. Following a traditional historical analysis of how we arrived at the present iteration of the MSA, Lawrence breaks the service station into its constituent parts and explores each discreetly—from table setting, portion control and nomenclature to shop, carpet and ecology.

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© David Lawrence

Although a serious work of historical scholarship, Food on the Move borrows the form of an architectural book and is furnished with beautiful archival photography. This is supplemented by richly-detailed scans of menus, advertising material and other interesting ephemera one might reasonably expect to have been lost. This book’s scarcity is surprising, particularly in light of its gorgeous presentation and unique subject. Admittedly the history of motorway service stations is a niche pursuit, but a slew of far inferior microhistories have been coveted by the reading public in the past decade.

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© David Lawrence




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Newcastle Through the Eyes of Nazi Planners

When war planners during the Second World War settled on aerial bombing raids as an effective strategy, the need for an unprecedented level of geographic intelligence intensified. In order to ensure maximum destruction both sides looked beyond traditional military targets—weapons storage facilities, airfields and bases—to the infrastructure embedded deep within the urban fabric of towns and cities that was vital in sustaining the war effort. Under this doctrine it was as useful to target a remote Army training facility as it was an inner city steelworks.

Nazi Germany employed a range of tools for gathering geospatial intelligence, from planting German spies on British soil to deploying Luftwaffe planes equipped with cameras on flyovers to create detailed topographical impressions of major targets. Perhaps the most useful data on British cities was inadvertently provided by the Allies themselves in the form of the ubiquitous Ordnance Survey maps of entire country. While most military sites of critical importance were excluded from these maps, they still furnished the German planners with a detailed—but largely generalised—knowledge of the geographical specifics of any city they needed.

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Cover page of Nazi Object Maps for “The Border” region. © Library of Congress.

Ordnance Survey maps certainly provided Nazi Germany with the most detailed cartography of Newcastle and Gateshead they could hope for. In a series of maps—entitled Militärgeographische Einzelangaben über England: Militärgeographische Objektkarten und Objektbildern or roughly The Military Geography of England: Object Maps and Object Images­—Ordnance Survey maps were overlaid with purple outlines indicating a ‘military object’.

RC Wheeler points out that although this project was grand in ambition, the ‘scheme was flawed by shoddy execution and by the inadequate base of topographic intelligence used to support it’. Wheeler’s analysis of the data used by Axis planners to map out Lincoln shows several mistakes, most glaringly the fact that ‘all but one of the engineering works are annotated “product unknown”—this in a city which had been one of the centres of production of tanks and aircraft in World War I’.

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Nazi map of the banks of the River Tyne, with markings denoting important strategic targets. © Library of Congress.

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Nazi map showing Blaydon and Scotswood with strategic targets marked. © Library of Congress.

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Nazi map showing the banks of the Tyne on the Newcastle side with important industrial targets marked. © Library of Congress.

The ‘object maps may have been ineffective as a war planning tool, but they’re an important historical document nonetheless. The Library of Congress has made available a full set of these pertaining to the route along the River Tyne and Wear on both sides, which you can browse online for free.

Library of Congress Militärgeographische Einzelangaben über England collection, originally published by Generalstab des Heeres, Abteilung für Kriegskarten und Vermessungswesen (IV. Mi.-Geo.) in Berlin 1941-42.

RC Wheeler, ‘German maps of England of World War II and associated publications’, Sheetlines 68 (Dec 2003): pp26-31.

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England’s Underwater Cities – Plashetts

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Map showing Plashetts. © Disused Stations

In a testament to the power of the legend of Atlantis, myth seems prevail when whispers of any potential underwater city are in the air. For decades the legend that an obscure mining village called Plashetts was submerged to facilitate the creation of Kielder Water has persisted. The artificial reservoir was constructed in the mid-1970s and opened in 1981 to meet the growing demands for water in the North of England. According to legend, if divers were to plunge to the bottom of the artificial reservoir they would be able to swim through the village, walk the streets of what once was Plashetts and perhaps even enter the old church or schoolhouse and bear witness to the toll 40 years of inundation has taken on a once-thriving community.

In contrast with Dunwich—which was the victim of natural forces—Plashetts was reputed to be the victim of enterprising planners and local officials. The myth was perhaps sustained by the British government’s history of using Compulsory Purchase Orders to seize land for large civil engineering projects. But would a malevolent authority really disenfranchise an entire village in their utilitarian zeal by clearing its population and flooding it with billions of gallons of water in order to strengthen their hydrological infrastructure?

Britain’s largely unwritten history of flooding remote rural settlements to create reservoirs only serves to add to the mystique. In 1939 the village of Mardale in the Lake District was submerged when the Haweswater valley became the Hawswater Reservoir to increase water supply to Greater Manchester in the North West of England. Before the submersion, its few villagers were moved out and the Royal Engineers were called in to demolish the buildings with explosives.  Mardale’s demise is well-documented and its story leaves little to the imagination but another one of its contemporary sunken villages of the early 20th century invites fables. In 1944 the former village of Derwent in Derbyshire was drowned to create the Ladybower Reservoir as a solution to increased demand for water in the East Midlands. Although the village was demolished planners left the church tower of Derwent standing as a memorial to the lost village. As the water levels rose steadily the spire could be seen poking out of the deep waters. It would eventually be destroyed with explosives in 1947 after being deemed unsafe. To this day, in the right conditions, the structural foundations of houses and even bridges in Mardale and Derwent can be seen.

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Church Tower in Ladybower Reservoir. © unknown, 1946.

Although a cartographic analysis will confirm that parts of what was formerly the village of Plashetts are submerged under Kielder Water, the true story is slightly more nuanced than folklore suggests. Plashetts was indeed once a thriving village with 500 residents and all the amenities you might expect of a classic village—place of worship, school and of course a village pub. Plashetts’s relatively short life began at the height of the mining industry in Victorian Britain when it was created to house workers of the nearby mine, quarry and brickworks. Its remote location in the rolling hills of Northumberland meant it could only be reached by rail. Plashetts railway station connected the village with Edinburgh to the South and Hexham to the North and served both freight and passenger services.

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Plashetts Railway Station in 1925. © John Alsop collection at Disused Stations.

The coal produced by the Duke of Northumberland’s mine was carried over the border into Scotland by pack ponies where it sold extremely well. By the start of World War I, the colliery at Plashetts employed 120 miners and its school had over 100 children enrolled. The village even had an active football team called Plashetts Rovers which played in a league with other local Northumberland sides. This paints a portrait of a blooming village very much in line with the legend—but this is where the real narrative deviates to contradict myth.

Subterranean conditions in the mine became increasingly torrid leading the miners of Plashetts to join the national 1926 General Strike by mine workers around the country who were protesting against decreasing wages and deteriorating working conditions. Although the national strike lasted just nine days, Plashetts held out for four months and by the time the miners returned to the pit the mine was more or less unworkable. The mine struggled on until 1928 when it was eventually shut down owing to a dramatic decrease in output. And so the mining industry which had been responsible for the birth of the village was also accountable for its death.  With the largest employer gone it was only a matter of time before residents left for opportunities elsewhere. Although the school managed to stay open until 1939, already by 1930—just two years after the colliery’s closure—the village was described as “remote and desolate, with many of its dwellings derelict, and a dwindling population”.

Although there were scattered attempts to revive the coal mine Plashetts had become completely desolate by the early 1960s. In 1962 the Forestry Commission took the decision to level the village completely, observing that all of the houses were in an advanced state of dereliction with no doors or windows and unstable roofs. Although the Royal Engineers Corp of the Army were scheduled to demolish the village, they were prevented from using their desired type of explosive. This left the forest workers themselves to destroy the shell of the village.

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Plashetts Wagonway running into Kielder Water. © Les Hull.

With the village almost completely demolished by the late 1960s—five years before the construction of Kielder Water—any rumours of an entire active village being flooded can be put to bed. The remains of most of the buildings can be found on land near the edge of the water, but that is not to say that parts of the remains of the old village were not submerged by the reservoir. Plashetts colliery itself was drowned along with the foundational remains of the village train station and some waggonway tracks in and out of the mine.

Archives of the Hexham Courant Newspaper

Beryl Charlton, Upper North Tynedale: A Northumbrian Valley and Its People

D.J. Coats, N.J. Ruffle, ‘The Kielder Water Scheme’, Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers

V.J. Hallam, Silent Valley: A History of the Derbyshire Villages of Ashopton and Derwent

‘The “Lost Village” of Mardale’, BBC Cumbria (November 2003)

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England’s Underwater Cities – Dunwich

For centuries we have delighted in the mythical possibility that the lost city of Atlantis remains undisturbed and exportable under the sea. Adventurers, explorers and even scientific investigators have dived into the mystery with the hopes of seeing the sunken city first hand. Atlantis remains elusive—its existence questionable—but the concept of the submerged settlement is not exclusive to the realms of legend.

In the United Kingdom thousands of communities have been lost in the past millennium. Their downfalls are mostly traceable to population shifts associated with rural flight and the decline of industry, but in a few unique cases entire cities and villages have been lost to water. Whether deliberately flooded or swallowed by the sea, the United Kingdom has more real underwater settlements than you might expect.

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© Dunwich Museum Fisk Collection

In the 12th century Dunwich, which lies on the Suffolk Coast of South East England, may have been as important as London to the nation’s commercial development. The affluent port city was the sixth largest in England, the capital of a Saxon kingdom and records from the period show that it had 19 places of worship and two hospitals. The city’s strategic location on the coast allowed it to thrive as a harbour serving shipping traffic from all around the world, attracting wealthy merchants who made it their base of trade. Much of Dunwich’s prosperity was owed to its blooming fishing industry and its fleet travelled as far as Iceland for fish to sell domestically and internationally.

Dunwich continued to grow well into the 13th century. The local shipbuilding industry was instrumental in helping King John enforce his recently-passed Magna Carta, kitting out military ships to fight the French who were complicit with the intransigent Barons opposing the new charter. By the middle of the century the port boasted 80 ships and was frequently called on to assist in military endeavours. Although there are no population records for the city at its zenith, Dunwich had all the hallmarks of a bustling medieval settlement—a plethora of places of worship, voluminous international trade and even parliamentary seats.

Despite the buoyancy of its markets, Dunwich’s existence was marked by a constant battle with nature. Throughout the 13th century officials frequently had to dig into the city fund to repair the storm-battered port. Its position on the fringes of the Suffolk coast meant that Dunwich was susceptible to flooding caused by freak weather and coastal erosion of the cliffs it rested on compounded the looming existential threat.

By 1268 local authorities had run out of money and failed to pay their debts and the city was seized by the King. The confrontation with the sea continued into the 14th century and in 1347 a storm destroyed more than a quarter of the city. This plunged Dunwich into permanent decline and was the first of many severe storms which ate into the city. By 1602 the combination of brutal storms and coastal erosion left Dunwich only a quarter of its original size and in 1755 the only remaining church had to be abandoned. By 2016, at least 2,000m of the old city had been lost. With churches, houses, farms and roads swallowed by the sea Dunwich is now a small hamlet with less than 200 inhabitants.


Map showing Medieval Dunwich. © Southampton University

For centuries the ancient city was the subject of local folklore which purported that the entire settlement lay dormant underwater—its infrastructure and architecture pristine, crying out for adventurers to map. One of the most persistent tales was that the bells of one of Dunwich’s submerged churches could be heard ringing from underwater during certain tidal conditions.

By the 1970s analysis of historical records by local historians had largely disproven the myth of the ringing bells, but hopes that vestiges of the old city remained underwater lived on. Dunwich held considerable allure for marine archaeologists and hands-on local researchers alike and it would eventually be local enthusiasts who catalysed progress in locating the remains of the city. Although excavations had taken place in 1935 by Ipswich Museum and in 1970 by The Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History, their investigations were confined to land. Members of the North East Essex British Sub Aqua Club were the first to take the quest underwater when they began a series of dives off the coast of Suffolk in 1970. Conditions could be treacherous and they faced a constant fight against poor visibility. The team were selective in their dives, taking advantage of the weather whenever possible.

Despite faltering initially, after a few attempts the divers located some masonry remnants of All Saints Church and more discoveries soon followed. Along with the church remains they found sections of wall up to 15 feet long and pieces of a bridge. The divers became more sophisticated in their search throughout the 1970s and by the end of the decade had started mapping the remains they had found, which included at least two churches standing tall along with several other buildings. Grids were used to calculate the dimensions of the remains as the team began to document their research meticulously. Their findings were published by Jean and Stuart Bacon in 1979 in a book titled The Search for Dunwich City Under the Sea. The husband and wife team had previously written Ancient Dunwich: Suffolk’s Lost City, the first comprehensive history of the town since Thomas Gardner’s 1754 account.

Progress remained steady but tidal conditions and visibility on the ocean floor oscillated between low and zero, severely limiting their surveying efforts. It would not be until 2008 when Stuart Bacon teamed up with Professor David Sear at Southampton University to find the lost city that the full extent of Dunwich’s remains was revealed. The project team drew on a range of historical maps to roughly determine the position of each part of Dunwich. They then used sonar technology to create a 3D map showing what had been invisible to previous divers. Sonar works by bouncing acoustic signals off targets and measuring the sound which bounces back.

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3D visualisation of the remains of Dunwich created using sonar technology. © Southampton University

By the time the project concluded in 2013 it had found six new ruins on the seabed and 74 sites of potential archaeological interest. The researchers were able to confirm the precise boundaries of the city limits and the probable ruins of the old Town Hall and five places of worship. Wooden structures were found at the Northern end of the boundaries, suggesting that this was the location of the commercially vibrant port.

Professor Sear, summarising the project’s findings, noted that Dunwich “is a sobering example of the relentless force of nature on our island coastline. It starkly demonstrates how rapidly the coast can change, even when protected by its inhabitants”.

S.E. West, The excavation of Dunwich Town Defences, 1970

Archive of Dunwich Museum

David Sear, ‘Touching the Tide Project Report: Dunwich Marine Archaeology Survey’

University of Southampton Press Release, ‘Secret streets of Britain’s Atlantis are revealed’

Jean & Stuart Bacon, The Search for Dunwich City Under The Sea


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