Church tower and old stone built gatehouse
Architecture,  History,  Monday walks,  Newcastle-upon-Tyne

A city walk in Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Newcastle is a spacious, extended, infinitely populous place. It is seated upon the River Tyne, which is here a noble, large and deep river, and ships of any reasonable size may come safely up to the very town.

Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724)

Defoe went on to praise the industry in Newcastle:

They build ships here to perfection, I mean as to strength and firmness, and to bear the sea; and as the coal trade occasions a demand for such strong ships, a great many are built here. In Newcastle there is considerable manufacture of wrought iron.

But while the first part of his description may hold true today, these industries have long since departed the Tyne. Instead Newcastle is focused on more modern industries such as electronics but also on education (there are two universities), culture and tourism.

A city walk

I visit the city so often I no longer consider myself a tourist, though local Geordies may disagree! But I recently saw it anew through the eyes of tourists when I hosted a group of former Virtual Tourist members for a weekend meeting in the city. Thirty-six members from thirteen countries came together for our (usually annual) Euromeet. Wanting to give them the best possible introduction to the city I booked some expert guides to escort us on a walk through some of its most interesting and historic sites.

Group of people on a city street
VTers waiting for our city walk to start

Our route took us from Grey’s Monument in the city centre via the old medieval markets, the cathedral and castle, and down to the Quayside. These are all areas I know well, yet I learned a lot from our excellent guide. But my greatest pleasure was in seeing my friends enjoy the city’s architecture and history.

Please join me on a walk along our route for Jo’s Monday Walks. My photos were taken not just on that Euromeet weekend but also on many other visits to the  city; so the weather may look even more changeable than is the norm for northern England!

Grey’s Monument

Almost always referred to just as ‘The Monument’ by locals, this impressive column forms one of the focal points of life in Newcastle, and one of the city’s best known landmarks. Situated at the top of Grey Street, it was built in 1838 to commemorate the passing of Prime Minister Earl Grey’s Great Reform Bill of 1832, which paved the way for universal suffrage. Anyone who’s been to London will be tempted to compare it to Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, and in fact the two great men were both sculpted by the same artist.

Tall column with statue on the top
Grey’s Monument
Tall column with statue on the top
The top of Grey’s Monument

The Monument is a popular meeting and gathering place. If getting together with friends ‘doon the Toon’, Geordies will often suggest its wide stone steps as the place to meet. So it was a natural place to start our city walk, which began with an introductory talk from our guide. She gave us an overview of the city’s history and then moved on to talk specifically about this part of the city.

Grainger Town

The transformation of the old medieval city into today’s elegant streets was born of the vision of one man, John Clayton, who was the Town Clerk at that time. He commissioned the local builder and developer Richard Grainger and the North Shields born architect John Dobson to transform this area in the 1830s and 1840s. Their work, so typical of the Classical style of his period, can be seen throughout this part of the city and gives it a strong sense of coherence. In fact, Richard Grainger was said to ‘have found Newcastle of bricks and timber and left it in stone’.

Grainger’s style is at its best in beautiful Grey Street, which was the next point on our walk.

Grey Street

This is considered by most people to be Newcastle’s finest street. The poet Sir John Betjeman said of it:

As for the curve of Grey Street, I shall never forget seeing it to perfection, traffic-less on a misty Sunday morning. Not even Regent Street, even old Regent Street London, can compare with that descending subtle curve.

Portico held up by classical columns
The Theatre Royal

Near the top of the street is the Theatre Royal. Unlike the rest of the street this was designed not by John Dobson but by brothers John and Benjamin Green. It replaced an earlier Theatre Royal of 1788 that stood in Mosley Street; it opened on 20 February 1837 with a performance of The Merchant of Venice.

The Central Arcade

We soon turned off Grey Street into this lovely Edwardian shopping arcade. It is located in the Central Exchange Building, which fills the triangle made by Grainger Street, Grey Street and Market Street. Our guide told us that Grainger originally built up this plot to serve as a new town hall; but the council decided against using it. Instead it became a corn exchange (hence the name), later a subscription library, and later still a vaudeville theatre.

The current building dates from 1906, when it was rebuilt following a fire, but retains the ornate frontages of 1840. Nowadays the shops here are modern ones. But even if you’re not in the mood for shopping it’s worth a visit to see this beautiful relic of Edwardian Newcastle.

The Grainger Market

Although it has been recently refurbished, this market in the centre of town retains much the same character and range of stalls that it has held for years. It was built in 1835 by Richard Grainger, with the architect being John Dobson. At the time of opening the local paper described it as being the most beautiful in the world. This is a good place to come for fresh fruit and vegetables, and there are several butchers selling locally produced meat from the farms of Northumberland. More recently a number of street food sellers have taken over some of the stalls, setting tables and chairs outside.

But in addition to these there are a number of idiosyncratic Newcastle establishments. These include the Weigh House, where you can be weighed for a charge of 10p; many locals go regularly to check up on their weight. But that wasn’t its original purpose, as I learned from our guide. When the market was first established there were no controls on traders’ weights and measurements; so shoppers would bring their meat purchases here to be weighed to check they’d got what they paid for!

There is also a very early branch of Marks & Spencer, the second to be opened in the country after the first store in Leeds. It dates back to 1895 when it was a Penny Bazaar and is the world’s smallest Marks and Spencer store. These days the items on sale cost rather more than a penny; but there are still end of range bargains to be had.

High Bridge and Old George Yard

We turned off Grey Street into High Bridge. This owes its name to a former bridge over the long-buried Lort Burn which ran down this hill into the Tyne. Our guide told us that if you visit this part of the city at dawn, when it’s deserted, you might be able to hear the Lort still flowing beneath the city streets.

Narrow cobbled street
On High Bridge
Round sign with historical information
Historical plaque about the Lort Burn

I walk along this street frequently; but I’ve never detoured to explore Old George Yard (other than to visit the pub of the same name!) We learned how the yard occupied the long narrow plat of a medieval burgage plot. And we saw the curved wall that made it easier for horse-drawn carriages to turn when this later became the inn’s stables.

People in a cobbled courtyard
In Old George Yard
The Bigg and Cloth Markets

We emerged from Old George Yard at the foot of the Bigg Market. This is the site of the town’s medieval markets. The name ‘Bigg Market’ has nothing to do with size, but comes instead from bigg, a type of barley formerly sold here.

This area has helped to give Newcastle its reputation as a party city. It is surrounded by clubs and bars, from whose doors young people, almost always more than a little inebriated, spill out at regular intervals; these days (it seems) to be captured for TV audiences as a sign of the declining values of modern Britain. Always in the flimsiest of garments, even in the depths of winter, and always travelling in packs, they are continually in search of the next cool place, the next meeting with a new best friend or potential romance. But from what I have seen these young revellers are for the most part far more interested in enjoying themselves than in causing trouble, despite what the media might suggest.

Row of restaurants with people sitting outside
Restaurants in the Bigg Market

At its eastern end the Bigg Market splits into two smaller streets, also both former markets. These are the Cloth Market and Groat Market (groat = oats without husks). Today these are separated by a modern insurance office built in the 1970s on the site of the Victorian Town Hall. The Cloth Market was once home to Balmbra’s Music Hall, immortalised in the song, ‘Blaydon Races’. The bar on the site is still named Balmbra’s and is currently being restored.

Black plaque with annotated map of a river
Plaque about The Blaydon Races song, opposite Balmbra’s
St Nicholas Cathedral

Our next stop was by the city’s Protestant cathedral (the Roman Catholic St Mary’s is near the station and wasn’t on our route). It was built in 1350 (after fire destroyed an earlier church on this site) and became a cathedral in 1882. Its most noticeable feature is its unusual lantern tower, which was constructed in 1448. For hundreds of years this was a main navigation point for ships using the River Tyne; it remains one of the most striking landmarks of the city. It is appropriate therefore that the cathedral is dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and boats.

Tall church tower with ornate roof
St Nicholas Cathedral, the lantern tower
Looking up at a large church building with elaborate tower
St Nicholas Cathedral

On each corner of the lantern are gilded statues. They depict Adam eating the apple; Eve holding out the apple; Aaron dressed as a Bishop; and David holding a harp. We didn’t have time to go inside the cathedral, but instead continued to the nearby castle remains.

The Castle

There are two remaining parts of the ‘new’ castle that gave the city its name, the Black Gate and the Keep.

The Castle was founded by Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror in 1080; it was, like many Norman castles, of the motte and bailey type. The original would have been made of wood; it was rebuilt in stone during the reign of Henry II, between 1168 and 1178, with the addition of a keep.

During the reign of Henry III between 1247 and 1250 the Black Gate was added. When the town wall was completed in the mid 14th century the castle became isolated within the new defences and lost its importance. As early as 1589 it was already being described as old and ruinous. People began to build houses and shops in the ‘Castle Garth’, the area within its old walls.

Large stone built gatehouse with tiled roof
The Black Gate
Tall square stone tower
The castle keep

By the 1800s the Castle Garth was a bustling community full of slum housing, shops, taverns and a meeting hall. Most of this was demolished when the railways were built in the 1840s, cutting right through the castle as they still do today.

Railway tracks and a square stone tower
The castle keep seen from the station, to illustrate my point about the railway lines!

All that remains of the castle is on one side the Black Gate, roughly oval in shape, and on the other the Castle Keep. The latter was significantly restored and altered in the early 19th century, with battlements and corner turrets added to create a more Romantic notion of what a castle should look like.

Merchants’ houses

From the castle we descended one of the many steep flights of steps that lead down to the Quayside area, where the city was born. We emerged by some of the earliest houses still standing in Newcastle, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. They were owned by the merchants who had grown rich from trade on the river; they built homes here so that they could easily watch from the first floor windows for their ships coming in.

Row of tall houses, some half-timbered
Medieval houses

One of the houses is known as Bessie Surtee’s (on the left in my photo above, by the parked car). It is noted for the elopement of its eponymous resident with John Scott, a coal merchant’s son, as the plaque below the window from which she made her escape explains. This happened in 1772, and caused a great scandal within the two families concerned; although the couple married in Scotland and later again in Newcastle. Despite his humble beginnings, and this inauspicious start to his married life with Bessie, John went on to become Lord Chancellor of England, so can be said to have done very well for himself.

We passed the Guildhall, now a Hard Rock Café, and paused near the Tyne Bridge; not under it however, as the many kittiwakes nesting here pose a threat to hair dos and clothing!

White and grey bird on green girders
Kittiwake on the Tyne Bridge

Our guide talked about all the bridges. She then led us along the Quayside to finish the walk by the newest, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. I’ve covered this part of the walk in another post, however, so I will finish at this point. I hope you’ve enjoyed the walk!


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