So Peeps, today we learn that Newcastle has a Castle and the city derives its name from an order issued by William the Conquerer, to build a “New Castle on the Tyne”. We also learn that Mark Knopfler spent some time on the Dog Leap Stairs as we, like him, made our way ‘Down to the Waterline’.
Bill Humphrey is an old school friend who spent a lifetime in education and his task today is to teach a small but select group about the history of this wonderful building. He’ll also be touching on the escapades of marauding bandits from both north of the border and from the south and then guide us to the top of the tower for a bird’s eye view of the Tyne bridges and the rest of the city.
We’re gathered at Northallerton Station where I’m distributing the cheap day return tickets for the journey to Newcastle with dire warnings that they must be accompanied by our Old Farts Passes (OFP’s) that trigger the 30% discount. The train is running a few minutes late but there is no concern and the banter is good as Pete exposes us to his new toy It’s a Snoring App that runs on his phone. It records when you snore, how loud it is and even makes a recording of it for you to play back in the comfort of your home or indeed on a railway platform on the way to Newcastle. Dave has named me the “Snore Master General” following a walk that we did a few weeks ago where we shared a bunk house type room with numerous others and it has to be said that none of them was impressed with the duration or volume. I’m a little perplexed as to why anyone would want to stay awake to listen to me snoring, but that they did and one in particular took the good Lord’s advice, “Pick up thy bed and walk”, He said, so he took his mattress and bedding, walked into the albergue’s kitchen and slept in there.
The journey is only 40 minutes and quite scenic to boot. Before we know it we’re crossing the Tyne and into Central Station where Bill is waiting complete with pre-purchased tickets for the Castle.
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The station is comfortably busy but there are no issues leaving and suddenly we’re on Neville Street enjoying the sun.
Bill has an extra treat planned and takes us into the grandly named Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle. It was founded in 1793 as a ‘conversation club’ and houses over 150,000 books. It opened in 1825 and is now Grade II* Listed. Various groundbreaking demonstrations of new technology took place here, such as George Stephenson’s miners’ safety lamp in 1815 and the lecture theatre was the first public room to be lit by electric light, during a lecture by Sir Joseph Swan in 1880.
It’s a priceless building as antique as some of its books and as we enter the main hall we see only half of its capacity. The room is about forty feet high with books stacked on wooden shelves right up to the ceiling. About half way up there is a walkway that hugs the wall all the way around both rooms and enables access to the books that are on the upper part of the walls. It’s ordered but chaotic and I love it. At the end of the main hall and off to the left is the other room, it’s slightly smaller but only just. At the end nearest me there’s a spiral staircase!
Now, I do like a spiral staircase and venture up it expecting to be stopped but that doesn’t happen so, within a few seconds, I’m on the walkway above the books and free standing shelves. Everything is now below me on the ground level and I’m able to access both rooms without returning to the parquet floor. I walk around the skyway then down another flight of steps that are all but hidden in the corner of the main hall then head across to the admin desk.
Laura and Karen are on duty and I stop to voice my appreciation. They’re clearly proud of ‘their’ society and readily tell me about it adding that my friends and I would always be welcome to call in to have a coffee and a read without any cost. It’s excellent and if I lived in Newcastle I know I’d be there regularly. It also smells good!
As we leave we drop a small donation into a box and by the looks of it many others have done the same, it’s voluntary so anyone who would like to read or partake of coffee and some warmth but is financially short would not be barred from this wonderful place.
Outside in the sun again and walking towards the object of the trip. It’s only five minutes from here and both towers are visible, one on our side of the track and the other opposite. Bill is telling us about Robert Stephenson and his actions that nearly resulted in an irony that would have destroyed the castle by ‘progress’ after it had survived hundreds of years of possible destruction by marauding Scotts, local and royal bandits and even a civil war.
Stephenson had one objective and that was to see London and Edinburgh linked by rail in as straight a line as possible and the castle was in the way. The solution was simple, demolish the bit in the middle and lay the tracks through it, and that’s exactly what he did. We’re fortunate in as much as there was a significant objection to this destruction and as a consequence we still have the two towers and evidence of the walls and foundations.
Bill gives us a general introduction to the castle in the form of little stories that include the fact that the earliest evidence of fortification of this place was over 1800 years ago when the Romans were shivering their laurels off guarding Hadrian’s Wall.
By 800 it was the site of a Saxon Church and this became more significant when the Normans invaded the South Coast in 1066, By 1088 they’d made an appearance on the Tyne and built their own fort deliberately planting it on the Saxon Church graveyard presumably to make a statement as to who was in charge. This was a wooden structure and it would be another 100 years before it was rebuilt in stone on the orders of Henry II.
Bill quotes a wonderful order by William the Conquerer who appreciated the strategic importance of having a presence in the North East (Northumberland as it was then i.e. anything north of the Humber) telling his son he wanted a “New Castle on the Tyne”.
We make our way to the first tower. It has the sinister but descriptive name of ‘The Black Tower’ and Bill explains its history and construction. I’m a little disappointed when it turns out that the likelihood for its name is that it is named after a merchant called Patric Black; ah, well, I did have visions of the black death or something equally unpleasant but you win some, you lose some. It turns out that it’s the newest part of the castle built between 1247 and 1250 and is the entrance to a curved barbican where intrepid invaders could be held back by a drawbridge, two huge wooden doors six inches thick with a space in between where bowmen could aim their deadly arrows through murder holes at their helpless victims. Bill also describes the other options for the defending troops; things like superheated sand dropped on the victims from above or a couple of buckets of boiling oil to help it stick; Oooh, they had some fun in those days!
If they survived this element then the following narrow corridor sweeping around to the right had castellated walkways above where the bowmen could line up for more sitting duck target practice. There is no evidence that anyone actually got this far but the fact that the facility was here shows how robust the defensive thinking had been at the planning stage.
We’re shown upstairs to a small exhibition of the history of the tower together with details of important people who’d been either around at the various times or had been influential with the tower. Well worth calling in.
Back on the boardwalk and we’re looking at some of the original walls that have their foundations exposed so we can see the stones that our forebears had handled and planted below ground nearly a thousand years ago, it’s fascinating.
There’s a hole in the ground and we’re informed it’s William Herron’s Pit. He was made the Sherif of Northumberland and was seriously corrupt. He built the pit where he could throw in the local traders with trumped up charges and took money off them to let them out (or indeed, not to throw them in); however, justice was inequitable anyway and a good example is the following: In 1301 Henry Tod and Hugh de Alnemuth were charged with the murder of William Hulhope, a crime punishable by death; however, they were pardoned when it was discovered that their victim was a Scot!
We’re directed under the viaduct and Bill continues to talk, he’s showing us the markers that Indicate the extent of the walls then we’re out of the arch and standing next to the Keep. As we walk he’s telling us about the status of the castle grounds after Newcastle was made a county in it own right. The Castle remained the property of the County of Northumberland so did not come under any new city rules which meant that there was plenty of dubious practice within its grounds and all to the frustration of the local administration. Nobody paid rates or taxes and there was an abundance of ladies of the night together with a more than adequate supply of ale houses. It was said that the limited number of streets would flow with blood and urine – a bit like the Big Market a Friday night.
Bill’s in full flow now licking his lips as he gives us the detail on a small cavity accessed via an outer wall, “This”, he explains with an elevated level of enthusiasm, “…is where the Gong Farmer would dig out the errr, excrement and quite often, dump it in the moat”. I did ask him to run that past me again and essentially, this guy is a shit shoveler, only allowed to work at night and by dumping the poo in the moat any unwelcome bandits could be infected by all sorts of unpleasant things. A kind of Tudor biological warfare.
In 1847 the Keep was in serious danger from the development of the railways but the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne successfully campaigned against the proposals. They succeeded and the tower not only survived but was also developed. In return they were able to negotiate a nominal rental for their meetings right up until 2009.
The building is fascinating and certainly good for the health as we travers the various floors, anti-rooms, main rooms and medieval lavatories. The tour is literally topped off with a visit to the top of the building where access is astonishing and the views of railway, river bridges, famous buildings and the cathedral are wonderful, we spend upwards of half an hour up here.
You can see the ‘masons mark’ on some of these stones, it signifies that it is his work and that he’s got to this point and needs to be paid. It’s incredible to imagine we’re looking at his work after so many hundreds of years; just fascinating.
We’re still talking excitedly about the visit as we walk towards the Cathedral and pass a street sign, “Amen Corner”, not surprisingly it has its roots in religious practice and is, in fact, where processions of clergy from St Nicholas’ Cathedral would end their prayers.
As we look at the sign The Cathedral is behind us and Bill asks if we’d like to go in? Well, do dicky birds fly and fish swim?
It looks quite compact from the outside but that impression is dispelled instantly on entry. It’s beautiful inside with impressive stone pillars reaching up to very high ceilings. There are exquisitely colourful stained glass windows with the added advantage that the sun is shining through them today and it’s casting colourful sunbeams in the fine dust that’s suspended in the still atmosphere.
I light a candle for my lovely wife Linda then sit and stare; first at the candle, then at the kaleidoscope of gently floating dust fluorescing in the sunbeams created by the coloured mosaic of images in the windows. I contemplate our wonderful life and feel cocooned in love and it’s beautiful.
Another ten minutes and we’re off this time to the oldest (or one of the oldest) pubs in Newcastle. iI’s the Old George and lurks in a back street that even today could welcome a coach and four with ease. (The pies are good!)
As we leave the pub, Bill invites us to the quayside and we walk down Dog Leap Stairs. In 1772 Baron Eldon, later Lord Chancellor of England, eloped with Bessie Surtees making their escape, according to folklore, on horseback up these steps. There is also a mention of Dog Leap Stairs in the hauntingly nostalgic Dire Straits song “Down to the Waterline”.
Sweet surrender on the quayside
You remember we used to run and hide
In the shadow of the cargoes I take you one time
And we’re counting all the numbers down to the waterline
Near misses on the Dog Leap Stairways
French kisses in the darkened doorways
A foghorn blowing out wild and cold
A policeman shines a light upon my shoulder…
We walk a half mile or so and cross the The Gateshead Millennium Bridge and study its mechanism that enables it to blink. Bill tells us that it ‘blinks’ every lunchtime in the summer and I ask if there are casualties…
This stretch of Tyne is wonderful and we get several ‘Tyne Photos’ that include the High Level bridge with it’s two stories, rail traffic on top and vehicles underneath, The Swing Bridge and, of course, The Tyne Bridge. There are seven bridges that link Newcastle with Gateshead all within a mile and to top it off, the Gateshead side now has the wonderful Sage for concerts and conventions and the Baltic for art.
We spend half an hour on the top floor in the Baltic sitting on some comfortable Chesterfields and drinking coffee whilst enjoying the sun and the classical sight of The Tyne gently flowing to the North Sea enhanced by the iconic bridges and topped off with the Sage, just fabulous.
We intend to catch the 1608 train and make our way back along the river, no hurry, it’s too good for that. Then up more steps and we’re back at the Keep. The sun’s still shining but it’s getting colder and we’ve very nearly had enough.
The day’s been fabulous.
This is an excellent trip and I would recommend it but advice would need to be taken if you have disabilities.
Enjoy the snaps…G..x
With Cecilia Kennedy, George Renwick, Dave Rider, Peter Hymer, George Preston and Bill Humphrey – thank you all for a great day and further thanks to you Bill for being our guide.
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This is life after an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm open repair. Don’t be afraid of the operation, it set me free. Please be encouraged and inspired to walk, it’s liberating…G..x
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