Our hotel in Newcastle-upon-Tyne was close to the river and only a short walk from the local train station which could take us quickly into the city center. We started our visit with a walk. We admired the gorgeous Millenium Bridge, which tilts to let Bridge over the Tyneboats pass below, and saw them rigging the river Tyne for a boat race, to be held in conjunction with the local half-marathon - for which thousands of runners traditionally turn out, so that they have counted that the millionth runner will finish the race this year. This was explained to us by a friendly visitor from Brazil, who was back in Newcastle for a company meeting.
Newcastle and Gateshead are across the River Tyne from one another, but really close as the Tyne is crossed by eleven bridges. There are some nice old buildings, the remnants of the East end of Hadrian's Wall, and some snazzy new buildings and shopping centers. And of course St. James Park is a 56,000-seat stadium which was filling up this day for a football match between Newcastle United and Crystal Palace, which ended in a 3-3 tie.
Queen Victoria didn't like Newcastle much; it started when the city made a big mistake and sent the bill for a banquet in her honour to Buckingham Palace. From that point on she drew the blinds on her coach when passing through Newcastle on her way to Balmoral. After she died, the city received two pairs of her bloomers... or so the tour guide tape told us.
We found ourselves looking at (and for) libraries again in Newcastle. The Newcastle city library is at least the third to be built, most recently in 2009 -- each time the previous building has been demolished. There is also a subscription library which is apparently more prestigious called the Literary and Philosophical Society, or "Lit and Phil". We signed up for a guided walk Part of the City Wall from the first to the second library. Oddly we never quite made it to the Lit and Phil, as the walk ended at the new castle (or rather, what was left of it). Instead, we were treated to a fascinating glimpse of Newcastle history as illustrated in some of the many ancient structures and curious corners and side streets of the city.
Newcastle was near the eastern terminus of Hadrian's Wall, but it was not a city, or a town, or even a settlement or a ferry landing until the time of the Norman conquest. William's son built a castle here (over the remains of an old Roman fort and settlement) to provide a military strongpoint in the northeast. The first castle was wooden, but it was replaced by a stone castle a hundred years later. And a castle stronghold was definitely needed. Over the centuries the English fought off numerous Scottish raids. Our guide told us that Newcastle was loyal to the crown over the centuries, and indeed it held out for a long time against a roundhead and Scottish siege.
The city geography had much to do with the way the city grew. There were at least three steep ravines, pointing roughly north-south, caused by burns emptying into the River Tyne, all within the limits of the mediaeval city walls. The depth of the ravines was on the order of 50-100 feet, which meant it was quite challenging to move from east to west through the city, until you got up on top of the hill. This meant that architectural development was generally along north-south streets.
In 1530 a royal act decreed that all Tyneside coal had to be shipped through the port of Newcastle, from whence comes the phrase "taking coals to Newcastle" (to be shipped). Another interpretation is that this is a futile act, since Newcastle has historically always had more coal than it knows what to do with.
The coal trade, along with shipbuilding and commerce, made Newcastle so prosperous in the 19th Grey Street century that the elegant Grey Street was built, with its line of classical buildings, by the developer Richard Grainger, in just five years, at about the time that Earl Grey was pushing a Reform Bill through Parliament.
For reasons which are not clear to us, even though Newcastle had a famous private library, the Literary and Philosophical Society founded in 1793, it was the last of England's major cities to implement the requirements of the 1850 Library Act and finally build a free public library in 1880. All we can think of is that learning was deemed to be the province of the propertied classes only, and not the general public.
Our guide could have talked on forever, but we finally adjourned the walk a little over two hours after it started, still not quite reaching the Lit and Phil! And yes, we'd be happy to take the walk again.
On another day we started out by walking into Newcastle. New Bridge Street, which used to lead from our hotel downtown, was blocked when the freeway was put in, so if you are driving you have to detour around in order to get past the freeway, but if you are on foot, there's a long pedestrian bridge that goes high over the top of the freeway.
We may have mentioned that there were a lot of ravines where burns ran north down to the River Tyne, so as you head east and west through Newcastle, especially when you're close to the river, there are a lot of hills to negotiate. So when we crossed the freeway on this pedestrian bridge, we found ourselves at the third floor level of the Premier Inn (on the outside) where we then descended a long spiral staircase to street level.
But we were only a block away from the Laing Art Gallery, our first destination. Outside the gallery, the architect had placed benches which appeared to bend up out of the pavement - very attractive. The pavement even seemed to fold up to make way for trees and the side of the building! The first gallery, Northern Spirit, showed the spirit of life in the Northeast. There was some excellent art glass work done in the Tyneside area starting in the 18th century, along with some striking wood sculpture. Rescuing the Boat
Several of the paintings were not so much great art as they were realistic depictions of life in the region before cameras. For example, there were paintings of shipwrecks and rescue lifeboats being hauled out of the water by people, mostly women, pulling on long ropes. Presumably the husbands were included among the sailors being rescued.
In the middle of the museum cafe was a large marble sculpture, and the curator had also borrowed some rock specimens from another city museum because they were quite beautiful. Other exhibits celebrated the work of Thomas Bewick, a local wood engraver who set up a studio and did many wildlife etchings. There was a gallery with pre-Raphaelites and other European artists of the 18th and 19th century.
One of the big travelling exhibits is Jeremy Deller's All That is Solid Melts Into Air (after the book by Marshall Berman), which occupied several galleries at the Laing, along with an exhibition entitled Mariner 9, depicting an imagined life on Mars 300 years into the future. In balance, the Laing Art Gallery was a big winner for us, as we each found a number of works we liked, and there was even some overlap!
Leaving the gallery, we crossed the street to the library where we attended the first day of the annual book sale and picked up some detective stories and a book about the new library building. Then it was through the center of town, past the railroad station, where we appreciated a piece of civic art consisting of three bronze castings of men, past the Life museum to the Discovery Museum. The starting eye-popper is the Turbinia, the fastest ship in the world in 1897, powered by a steam turbine, which achieved the unheard of speed of 34.5 knots, nearly 40 mph. It's a beautiful, sleek vessel, a little over 100 feet in length, which dominates the central atrium of the museum. Black Gate near the Castle
With a skillful blend of physical exhibits, sound recordings, short videos, and interactive displays, the museum succeeds very well indeed in painting a picture of Newcastle right up to the present.
Although a fort and settlement during Roman times, Newcastle was pretty much abandoned until the castle was built as a northern defense by William the Conqueror's eldest son, and remained a sleepy crossroads until the coming of the industrial revolution, when all the coal became very important.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the region had a rapid buildup as a coal mining centre, accompanied by an equally rapid buildup of a shipping industry to supply a lot of the coal used in Europe. The availability of manual labor attracted immigrants and the city grew extremely rapidly, although most of the workers made very poor wages. Gradually in the 19th century the workers organized into unions and battled constantly for higher wages and better working conditions. When the Labour Party was founded in 1900 there was much support in the region.
Working conditions remained poor into the 20th century, occasioned by the Great Depression, the closing of unproductive coal mines, the two world wars, the slow rate of rebuilding through the 1950s, and the nationalization and continued closing of coal mines. For example, unemployment reached 20% in the region and when Prime Minister Thatcher was challenged about what her government was doing about it, she berated the questioner with an insistent demand that the local people ought to sell themselves to business.
Two of the most moving displays which hammered home these historical points were a video prepared by the local television company, documenting the important news during the period 1959 until the present, and a display of work-related equipment, paired with stories of how that equipment affected the working lives of Tyneside people. Another exhibit cleverly interwove two film clips - the construction of the Tyne High Bridge in 1925-8 and the construction of the Millenium Bridge. The parallels were At the Lit and Phil beautifully portrayed. We were moved, too, by stories of emigrants to Newcastle from elsewhere in the world, and how their working lives unfolded (some very well, some just got by.)
We couldn't leave Newcastle without seeing the Lit and Phil. Why would someone wish to purchase an annual membership, for nearly two hundred dollars per person, in a library when the public City Library is just down the street? Status?
The Lit and Phil was founded at the end of the eighteenth century and moved into its first (and present) quarters in 1825. When they were putting together their first card catalog, Melvil Dewey himself came to England to lend support and expertise. Decorating a table is one of the first miner's lamps invented by George Stephenson, the railway pioneer; they wanted him to lecture about it, but he was so shy he arranged for a substitute; however, the substitute's poor performance so enraged Stephenson that he found himself standing on stage, finishing the lecture. The audience loved it.
Anyone who wishes to read for a few hours may visit the public reading room and use its public collection, but non-members are restricted to that area only. Members, however, have access to the on-line catalog and may borrow books; for an additional Gramophone Membership fee, members can also borrow music CDs.
They have tried their best to maintain and increase their collection. A devastating fire around 1925 destroyed part of the building and burned about 9,000 books, but the damage was repaired and the building's structure was improved by the device of sandwiching pieces of stone between some of the wooden walls to discourage future fires.
The collection? Well, there are some mighty old books, and some new ones, too. Generous donors have provided collections from their personal libraries over the years. It appears that the building has just about reached its ability to store the collection, since some areas show books shelved in two rows. A committee of volunteers under the guidance of a retired bookbinder is engaged in repairing the more fragile items in the collection.
The relationship with the City Library is something no outsider could understand, although these days the Lit and Phil relies more and more on lectures and concerts which are free and open to the public to advertise itself. At the same time, the Mining Engineers' Library newly built City Library displays its collections to all, including an inventive area where rare books are shown under glass but kept in area where readers can relax near them.
For Something Completely Different, we went together to the open house at the first Institute of Mining Engineers which has now become the founding organization behind IOM3, the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining. One of the trustees had set up his hobbyist's steam train (engine, cars, and rails all made from scratch) downstairs, while upstairs was a rather magnificent library and reading room.
Here the library is designed for the use of the engineer members and is housed in a beautiful building. This was the first of the professional societies of mining engineers, begun after a dreadful mine collapse north of Newcastle in Queen Victoria's day. She commanded that investigations be undertaken to ensure that safety measures would be put in place in all English below-ground mines. Thanks to the efforts of the engineers, mining safety has greatly improved, but the mines themselves are disappearing from the landscape.
Jarrow: Bede's World At Bede's World
Bede's World is perhaps aptly named. The Venerable Bede (673-735) did in fact live here in Jarrow in a monastery all his life. It's hard to imagine, considering his isolated and rather primitive surroundings, but Bede was a powerful thinker, far ahead of his time. He excelled in science and mathematics, history, biography, poetry, education, and of course theology. He knew that the earth was spherical, modelled the tides, discovered the repeating cycle of the date of Easter, knew several languages, and was basically self-educated, having just the books in the monastery library along with the other priests and monks to teach him, starting at age 7.
He wrote a history of the English Church, biographies of the abbots, numerous commentaries on the Bible, educational works, and he was one of the editors of the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest Latin Vulgate bible prepared in Northumbria as a gift for the Pope. The museum called Bede's World taught us those things, but it had a much broader (indeed, probably too broad) extent. There were exhibits on heraldry, mediaeval life, farming displays, etc., which were no doubt introduced to make this museum attractive to school groups. We returned to our hotel greatly stimulated, and anxious to learn more about this hotbed of Christian education in 7th century Northumbria.
Beamish was the first open-air living museum in England. It aims to represent life at the time of the collision A Steam Truck at Beamish between rural farming communities and the industrial revolution (trains, steam-powered machines). This was our second trip to Beamish, and if we have the chance in the future, we'll probably return again. A friend says, "this is like Disneyland for adults", and we agree.
Beamish has a large piece of real estate, with coal mines, a miner's village, school, and church, a 1940s farm, an 1820s stock farm, a short railway line and station, and complete 1900s town with a wide array of stores, an early locomotive workshed, and dozens of old vehicles of every size, shape and description. Visitors choose from an assortment of cars and coaches to ride from one center to another. Currently they were celebrating agricultural vehicles, both steam and engine driven, as well as the usual array of draft horses and their carts. The whole thing was livened up by motorcycles, tricycles, early motor cars, and the whole thing was a great deal of fun.
Sunderland is another eastern industrial city, on the banks of the Wear River, about twenty miles from Newcastle. Before a railroad bridge was built over the Wear, Monkwearmouth (the name relates to both geography and ancient origins) was the railroad A Tree with Shadows terminus, and so a large station was built, along with quite an extensive freight yard. Passengers would disembark, walk across the pedestrian bridge to Sunderland, and continue their journey. But as soon as the railroad bridge was built, the passenger station was hardly used at all. Then, a few decades ago, even the freight yards were no longer used and the station was closed.
Since it was an 1850's era purpose-built RR station, it was - you guessed it - listed, and so could not be destroyed. The city turned it into an excellent little museum, perhaps the best part of which was the man wearing a badge reading "Town Greeter," which described him to a T. He was a fount of knowledge, a one-man tourist bureau. We really enjoyed talking to him and it started the day off well.
There was a lovely flower bed planted in front of the station, a great old ticket window, gentlemen's waiting room, and an exhibit of the freight cars whose job it was to transport passengers' cars to their destination, a practice that was popular in the 1960s.
We followed markers in the sidewalk, across the street and down the bank to the River Wear, with a wonderful large tree-like sculpture set along an attractively-reclaimed dockland until we came to the National Glass Centre. Before the rise of Pilkington in St. Helens near Liverpool to dominate the world's plate glass market, Sunderland actually had the title, again because of the abundance of sand, soda, lime, and coal nearby. There were perhaps a dozen different large glassworks along the Wear, all contributing to a sizeable economy, and a plethora of talented glass blowers. In addition to the historical exhibits, the Glass Centre had a showing of modern glass art, including the large sculpture that resembled a wheel of fortune in the lower lobby.
On the way back to the Metro Station, we walked past St Peter's Church, built on the old 7th century church of St Peter's Abbey, which has been partially excavated. Town Greeter had told us in no uncertain terms that Bede's World was a bit of a misnomer, since Bede was actually born near Sunderland. The two settlements at Jarrow and Wearmouth were actually two 'campuses' of the same remarkable monastery, heavily influenced by Roman and Latin styles, due to many trips to Rome.
North Shields Passenger Car Doors
We had a good old time at the Museum, learning that George Stephenson's son Robert, with the benefit of education, was able to advance his father's ideas. The Stephensons were a commercial success, taking the ideas of steam locomotives which had been under development for a long time, engineering them to be reliable and effective, winning the 1829 Rainhill Trials and the contract to develop the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, licensing their ideas for deployment on the Continent, and participating further in the expansion of the railways to London and the nation.
All this railway education was accompanied by a cheerful ride on a short excursion train in which we had a whole twelve-person compartment to ourselves, and two old locomotives front and back to push and pull the train!
The northernmost town in England, Berwick-upon-Tweed, is a picture-perfect tourist spot. Berwick was disputed for centuries between the English and Scots, so unsurprisingly it was strongly fortified. The high ramparts surrounding two sides of the city (the other two are protected by the river and the sea) afford numerous views, and the fine Victorian buildings have not been torn down. The Railway Viaduct
The train pulled into town over a beautiful old railway viaduct across the Tweed, and then it was just a few blocks to the center of town, dominated by the imposing old Town Hall. For a long time Berwick was an army post, but no longer; English Heritage has preserved the Regimental Barracks as a tourist sight containing the town museum and art gallery along with two military museums.
We liked the museum which told the story of the early military units stationed at Berwick and their foreign postings, since it neither glamorized military service nor failed to mention the honours and glories earned in battle. We passed the Lion House, which Lowry almost bought as a fixer-upper, and caught a nice picture of the allotments, where the town residents garden small parcels of land.
We shared waffles and fruits dipped in chocolate for lunch!
The best part of our visit (not counting the nice train ride) were the views from the ramparts. From the highest point, Meg's Mound, we could see the viaduct, the river, the town, and the sea with the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and Lindisfarne Castle in the distance.
Durham is a city of almost 90,000 people, about 13 minutes south of Newcastle by train. Built on high hills cut by the River Wear, it was the ancient seat of the Prince Bishops who held sway over Northern England from the time of the Norman Conquest until the nineteenth century. When the "prince" was dropped from the job description as part of Earl Grey's reform of parliament in 1832, the excess property was turned into a university - England's third.
The city is beautiful to look at, the cathedral large, and there are two castles - a winter castle in Durham city, and a summer castle not far away in Bishop Auckland, county Durham. The Death Chair
In 2003 we spent a month in Durham doing genealogy, but most of our time was spent in or near the county record office; today we made a return journey to refresh our memories and take a more careful look at the city center and its historic buildings. This summer we have spent most of our time in more work-a-day cities so we were surprised by being swarmed by tourist groups. We visited the large cathedral and the small city museum, and preferred the latter, even though the former gets three Michelin stars. To begin with, photographs were banned, for no good reason that we could see; then the cathedral was swarming with visitors and tour guides; and finally, large portions were roped off with extra furniture blocking the way. We did wonder about its structural soundness, since many windows had been filled in with stone.
The city museum, in an old church, covered the growth of Durham, its notable citizens, tradesmen, merchants, and political powers, in contrast with the large amount of coal mining - at one time almost all of the land in the county was given over to mining.
One intriguing exhibit was the "Death Chair," a sedan chair used to carry sick children to the infirmary, from which they seldom returned, hence the name.
The miners, of course, were poorer than dirt and had nothing to live on, let alone property to bequeath to the museum; so most of the items on display were taken from public buildings and city dwellers. But the story boards covered the tough life of the miners carefully, and it was clear that town and country formed a sharp contrast in economic class standing and political inclination.