I have memories of this town as a gray, depressed, former industrial giant that’s been turning its previously abandoned and decrepit riverside industrial spaces into hotels and arts centres — those that haven’t been torn down already. While my cynical assessment isn’t far off, this visit offered another side of the area — and the sun came out. The day we arrived, I first checked out the Baltic, one of the aforementioned arts centres — this one in a former flourmill. It was in between shows; though in a room off the lobby, a lovely video of an immense concrete slab being poured and raised in a Berlin factory, set to Glenn Gould playing Bach, was surprisingly moving, and even beautiful. Gould played slowly and simply on the soundtrack — it wasn’t the headlong rush of notes that you often hear in Bach — which gave a kind of majesty and grandeur to the shots of concrete being poured, smoothed and eventually raised up like the 2001 monolith (or, in this case, like the décor of the Toronto theater where Gould was playing and recording).
I then pedaled upriver along a waterfront promenade, where at certain points, men leaned against the railings with their fishing rods dangling and thermoses of tea at their sides. Below were the muddy banks of the Tyne. The water seemed low; perhaps this part of the river is a tidal estuary, but a sign said the Tyne is traditionally and notoriously muddy and shallow, and therefore for centuries it was unfit for navigation by decent-sized ships. Odd for a town known, until recently, for its heavy industry.
At some point the river was dredged, which opened it up much more to shipping — though most of the industry lies downstream, closer to the mouth of the river. I pass a Rolls Royce engine factory (they make aircraft engines, not just cars) and another factory that makes tanks. The muddy riverbanks are filled with stuff people have chucked down there — shopping trolleys (lots of those), traffic cones, bicycles, baby carriages and even a wheelchair — one that I hope was no longer needed.
After our show at the Sage, a symphony hall encased in glass caterpillar skin, a local friend of Mark’s mentions that there is a bike path that leads to the sea, and there’s even a bike tunnel under the river somewhere downstream. The next morning is gorgeous and sunny, and Natalie, Jenni and I head out, cross the Millenium ped bridge and head west towards the North Sea.
It’s a gorgeous bike path, right? (at least in spots) and of course we were super lucky to have such a sunny day — not exactly an everyday thing here. I should be working for the local tourist board with these sunny pictures! The path often veers away from the riverside and fields to accommodate the remaining bits of industry, or a housing estate.
Eventually we see signs for the tunnel, tucked in the middle of a derelict industrial zone. We follow arrows to a tiny, round, 30’s-style deco structure; it houses two wooden escalators that descend deep into the Earth. They’re not working, though one could walk down them. Luckily there is a little square building right behind the circular one, with one word on it: “lift.”
Sure enough, there are two small, green-tiled tunnels at the bottom — one for peds and one for cyclists. Incredible! No one’s around, though it’s obvious the tunnels have just recently been cleaned — there’s a faint smell of cleanser. We zoom on through. I imagine that back in the day, there was quite a bit of traffic between the working class residential zone south of the river’s mouth, and the factories and shipbuilding on the north Tyneside. There is also a little ferry nearby for the same purpose — it doesn’t accommodate cars.
The Lawless Lands
We emerge on the other side and pause to consider whether to aim for the sea or to head back along this side of the river. A young man on a bike emerges from the tunnels and asks if we need help. We ask about the distance to the seaside and if there’s a place to stop for tea. Our time is limited so we can’t do it all. He opens his backpack and produces a plastic pouch stuffed with detailed maps of the area — it turns out that this guy, James, is the area bike path coordinator! He has no idea who we are — that we performed in town last night — though he certainly knows we’re not from around here. James advises us to head back along the river, as the sea is actually quite a ways further on, and this side is easier and more scenic. He offers to show us where the path approaches the remains of a Roman fort and the eastern end of Hadrian’s wall. The fort is partly buried under a car park, but quite a bit of the foundation is visible.
This was nearly named the northernmost point of the Roman Empire. Hadrian’s successor built yet another wall further north — the Antonine Wall, 100 miles away — but it wasn’t feasible to defend and was therefore abandoned. For 300 years this wall became the main instrument used by the Empire to regulate travel and trade between north and south. It extends clean across the whole of England — from east to west coasts — and was about 15 feet high and 10 feet thick. In many places there was a ditch on the northern side, and earthwork fortifications on the southern. Built in AD 122, it took three legions of men six years to complete, and there were over 30 forts along the length of the wall. The wall and these lands were abandoned — not because of some momentous war, battle or invasion by men in kilts — but because, like all empires, they overextended themselves. Shades of Iraq and Afghanistan — a country nicknamed, for good reason, the graveyard of empires.
James has marked his map where improvements need to be made and where sections of the paths might be linked up. In one area the path peters out near a former industrial site, which is currently being dug up by a group of Geordies who tell us we can’t get through that way. We go back to the road for a bit and James leads us onward, along a section on which horses once towed wagons heaped with coal, on wooden rails (this was pre-steam). We reach a lovely pub overlooking the city — The Free Trade Inn— where we have tea before we all move on.
I had already scheduled a meeting with Diana Hamilton, the curator of Belsay Hall, a manor and castle 25 minutes outside of town that is (surprise!) being turned into an arts centre. Well, not exactly — but they do invite artists, musicians and fashion designers to install pieces in the empty hall or on the grounds. Stella McCartney has a piece on view there now. Nat and Jenni join me, and on the ride out we get the story of the hall.
It seems the family held the property for many generations — as they’re inclined to do. Over the years they married “wisely” and managed to increase their land holdings until they owned everything as far as the eye could see. A small village was engulfed by the property, and the Laird at the time relocated the villagers outside their property (!), building a new village for them with a school to boot. During the Victorian era, the family squire took his Grand Tour. It was de rigueur for a person of means, wishing to be erudite and in possession of good taste, to take a tour of what was understood to be the font of civilization — the ruins, homes and classical architecture of Greece and Italy. Upon his return, he knew what he had to do: construct a Palladian Villa on the crest of a Northumberland hill, with clean lines, symmetry and columns inside and out. The family would evacuate their old-fashioned castle — which was difficult to heat anyway— and move into their tasty new classical digs.
To emphasize the cleanliness of line, he had rainwater channeled indoors. The rainspouts emptied into pipes that snaked through (mainly) the servants’ quarters — an innovation that would cost him dearly in the future, as dampness and heat are major issues in Northumberland (though they’re no big deal in Tuscany, of course).
As often happens, the wealth of the landed gentry eventually dissipated and diminished. To top it off, at one point the man who would become the property’s final owner became a Christian Scientist. His relatives, fearful that he would leave all the remaining holdings (including the mansion and the old castle) to the church, persuaded him to donate it to the National Trust — a state organization in the UK that looks after hysterical places such as this one. He agreed, with a stipulation: that the contents of the house be removed — every carpet, chair, painting, table, spoon and knife — and the house remain forever bare.
Quite a place! No wonder the idea of turning it into an arts centre occurred to someone — it has the emptiness of a gallery. Usually these historic houses are filled with period furniture, as if the owners had just moved out. Down in the wine cellar, the acoustics were astounding — to be “correct” the house needed one, though it was never used, as it went against the new religion. Diana told me that Antony did some kind of audio recording here, but we haven’t heard it. The three of us spontaneously improvised, taking advantage of the incredible echo.
[Link to video]
The house was made of stone quarried out of the back garden, and the owner cleverly had the rock dug out in such a way as to create a meandering canyon, where he introduced all sorts of exotic plants. They thrived amazingly well, as the gulch now had its own microclimate. It looks like an Italian grotto! These gardens are a local tourist attraction, particularly in the summer — the English love their gardens, and this one is beautifully eccentric.
Further on we pass what appears to be an old stone church peeking out over a grassy hill, but we’re told is just a folly — a building constructed to please the eye and create a mood. Set dressing in the real world. Nice to be flush enough to create your own universe!
Just beyond the grotto were the castle ruins — the McCartney piece was in the main dining hall.
It turns out that after this structure was built (around 1370), the wealthy began building fortified houses in the area. The surrounding landscape is dotted with little castles and these fortified homes, walls and defensible structures. The area was known as the Lawless Lands — or the Debatable Lands — as ownership, security and property were constantly in flux for 300 years (!). Until about 500 years ago, the area resisted the authority of both Scotland (to the immediate north) and England. Everything was contested — debatable. Many people survived by reiving, or raiding their neighbors’ land for cattle, sheep and anything else one could transport back home. The reivers built their own fortified strongholds in the area, many of which remain today.
Having a fortified house was essential for protecting some of your goods and your family. There were entire reiving families, many of whose names survive: Armstrong, Graham, Elliot, and Maxwell. The first man on the moon and Richard Nixon are both believed to be descendents of reivers — no surprise in the latter case. When James I became king, the practice was gradually stamped out, and many of the families moved to America or Australia. One might say that explains a lot, but ah… no comment.