I awoke on the Wednesday morning after a great night’s sleep in total silence which I was now becoming used to with my recent stay in Broadstairs. Where I live in London it is a constant cacophony of sirens (I live just off a main road and have a main police station, two fire stations and a major hospital all close to me), road noise, shouting youths and all the other nuisances of urban life but I am so used to it all now that I do not even register it. When I go somewhere quiet I find it very strange for a night or two.
I knew I was going to be left to my own devices most of the day as Paul works from home and was in the middle of a major time-critical project and Sue was going to be working in a local charity shop that afternoon. Well, I am used to looking after myself so that was never going to present problems. I had the Metro system sussed and the world, well Newcastle city and environs, was fairly much my oyster. I wasn’t going to venture too far as I was under orders to be back at 1600 as Paul was planning a trip to North Shields to sort out some details of a forthcoming gig and he was also throwing about the possibility of “a few tunes” somewhere which, with Paul, can mean just about anything but is invariably great fun.
When I ventured outside for my morning smoke (did I mention before that I am down from 30 a day to three and feeling pretty smug about it?) I decided to try to get bit arty with the camera which I do from time to time and the result is one of the images you see above. They never actually amount to much but I have fun taking them. I was shuffling back and forth trying to line up my shadow dead centre and did not notice a young couple coming up behind me who offered a friendly greeting and a slightly puzzled look. I muttered something about trying to capture shadows and felt like a right idiot. David Bailey I am not.
Sue had very kindly given me the run of her extensive library, much of which was devoted to local and regional titles and I seized upon an excellent book called “Jesmond from mines to mansions” by a local historian called Alan Morgan and published by Newcastle City Libraries. OK, it is a pretty niche work and never going to be in the bestsellers list but I do like reading about places whilst I am there and this was perfect. In truth I could happily have sat in the living room wading my way through that library and never gone out of the door but I resisted that temptation. After a bite to eat Sue offered to show me another route up to Jesmond if I wanted a look round and I happily took her up on her offer.
Jesmond is a charming leafy suburb having sprung up on previously agricultural and mining land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hence the title of the book I was by now avidly devouring, and we began our walk along Jesmond Dene Road with the Dene on one side and very nice houses on the other. This was the area where the industrial magnates of the Northeast had large estates and where the emerging upper middle class moved out to the suburbs. The process was facilitated by the coming of the railway which now forms part of the Metro system I had ridden the previous day. In many ways I found it reminiscent of Betjeman’s “Metroland”, the suburbs to the North and West of London which were built about the same time and for the same reasons. They were named after the Metropolitan railway which itself has now been incorporated into the London Underground system in much the same way as the railway here has.
On the way we passed by St. Mary’s Chapel but we did so at a rate of knots as Sue is a keen walker and doesn’t hang about when she wants to get somewhere. I marked the spot mentally and shall tell you all about it in a moment. The imposing St. George’s church was another landmark on the route filed for further investigation. We arrived at the charity shop where I was introduced to Sue’s colleague and then had a quick look round. I have rarely seen charity shop like it and I spend a lot of time visiting them. The only other area that I know of which comes close in terms of charity shops is Chelsea, a very posh area in London, where I used to pick up some great bargains. All the clothes in this shop were flash designer labels, looked like they had been worn once if at all and had price tags to match. Fair enough, I am no fashionista but I’ll bet they were still priced at a fraction of what they cost new. I don’t mind that as it is all in aid of St. Oswald’s Hospice, an excellent local charity. Most of the kit here was far flasher than I could ever carry off and there were no books that I fancied so I took off for a look round Jesmond.
I was fairly well orientated by now and made my way easily to the Station or more precisely the Lonsdale Hotel directly beside it and which I had noted the previous day. On the way I passed the Royal British Legion Club where, in addition to the memorial “Lest we forget” bench which are becoming very popular now, there was the excellent carving of a “squaddie” of what I believe is World War Two vintage and apparently carved out of a single tree trunk. I thought it was an excellent piece of work, I wonder how long it took to complete.
Paul had told me that the Lonsdale was a good place to watch sport and it seemed to be that way inclined with lots of large screens about the place tuned into a sports channel even in the early afternoon. The Lonsdale is part of the Greene King hospitality chain (the largest in the UK) which originated with a brewery in Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk and which I had read recently was being taken over by Hong Kong’s richest family. The deal was actually finalised the day after I was there and I could not help but muse on how many long-established British business are now under foreign control but that is a subject for another time.
I noticed that they had a Seniors Menu here which was a concept I found very popular all over this area. Perhaps I just didn’t look for it before but it does not seem to be as prevalent around London and, having recently joined that illustrious band, I am all in favour of the idea. It was the usual pub grub suspects when I checked the menu even though I wasn’t going to eat there. The pub was virtually empty as you would expect on a chilly November Wednesday afternoon but the welcome was warm enough and the lady behind the bar never batted an eyelid when I asked for my odd cider spritzer concoction.
With the pub duly reconnoitred, it was time to go for a mooch round and I could not resist taking the image you see above which quite tickled me. I am guessing the vehicle belongs to a newlywed couple starting off their married life in Jesmond and I can think of a lot worse places to do it.
One thing that struck me very forcefully about Jesmond was the amount of student accommodation hereabouts and Paul and Sue confirmed that it was very popular for that. I suppose the large old dwellings lend themselves to loft conversions and splitting up into multi-occupancy dwellings and I believe it became so prevalent a few year back that it got out of control and the local Council had to introduce all sorts of bylaws regulating parking, loft conversions, landlords and the like. I saw several very large old buildings along Jesmond Road with signs earmarking them for development as student residences. I suspect some property developers are making an absolute killing here. Other large old residences are now serving as hotels, guesthouses and private residential homes for the elderly.
It is strange how things change over time. I read in the book I mentioned above that initially there were no pubs allowed in Jesmond due to the religious and social sensibilities of the landed gentry whose land was sold off at a good price for the development of the area. Presumably they didn’t want the “commoners” rolling round the place drunk and offending their finer feelings. Nowadays Osborne Road is renowned amongst the hipsters of “the Toon” for it’s watering holes and partying. With all the students in the area, there were certainly some sights to be seen the next night on Hallowe’en but that is to get ahead of myself.
I just had the one pint and then headed back in vaguely the direction I had come to have a closer look round and I hadn’t gone far when I chanced upon the car in the image above and couldn’t resist an image. I am guessing that Mr. and Mrs. Davey are fairly newly-wed and starting married life in Jesmond. It is certainly a fine place to do it and good luck to them.
Walking back along the aptly named St. George’s Terrace I retraced my steps to the imposing church of the same name, the spire of which dominates the skyline hereabouts. Regrettably, like so many other places of worship it was closed up and I had to content myself with some exterior images which you can see below.
Like all of Jesmond it is relatively modern, dating to 1888 when it was dedicated and, also like most of Jesmond, it was funded by an industrialist, in this case Charles Mitchell, the business partner of Lord Armstrong who figures so prominently in the story of the area. It was built to the design of one T.R. Spence and unusually for a relatively little known architect it has the distinction of being Grade I listed. This is the highest level of legal architectural protection available to a building and granted only to “buildings of exceptional interest”. Not only did Spence design the building but also much of the stained glass and metalwork. He was involved in the Art Workers’ Guild, was a founder member of the Society of Designers and evidently a very talented man all round.
The beautiful Church Hall, also by Spence and pictured above, is Grade II listed and I found it very pleasing on the eye. I really would love to go back and have a good look inside.
After the Church I deliberately deviated from the route Sue had brought me so I could have a bit more of a look around and after negotiating a few fairly affluent looking residential streets I found myself back on Jesmond Dene Road and approaching the building you can see below which was to both delight and sadden me. As the images show it was the banqueting hall for Sir William (later Lord) Armstrong as the huge house he had nearby was not big enough for the lavish functions he organised. It was built in 1860 – 1862 to the design of John Dobson who basically designed most of central Newcastle including St. Thomas the Martyr Church and the wonderful railway station I have mentioned before. As if that wasn’t enough quality architectural input, additions and a lodge were added in 1869 – 1870 to the design of Norman Shaw, another notable practitioner of the time. Amongst many other buildings he designed the old New Scotland Yard (if that makes sense) for the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in central London and which remained police HQ until 1967 when it moved to Broadway. The Broadway building has now been demolished to make way for expensive residential development and the Met police have moved yet again.
With this beautiful building in front of me you may well ask why I was saddened and actually this only came later when I started to look into the history of it. Armstrong gifted it to the people of Newcastle in 1883 to be “used for lectures, recitals, concerts, banquets and meetings under the themes of the arts, literature, science or education”. All well and good and relatively recently it served as a temporary home for the Northern Sinfonia until they relocated to the Sage arts centre in Gateshead but it more recently srtill has been left unoccupied and I did read somewhere that it is now a “controlled ruin” whatever that might be. I also read that the Council have applied to the charity Commissioners to change the terms of the original bequest, presumably to allow them to make money by selling it off for development. It appears that local government in Newcastle is still as bad as in the days of T. Dan Smith. Go on, I’ll bet you look him up now if you don’t already know of him, a terrible man. That is what saddens me.
I was heading in the general direction of St. Mary’s, the small ruined chapel we had passed earlier and it was not difficult to find being up a little side road which has, like many other roads here, been thankfully closed to through traffic thereby preventing them from being “rat runs”.
No, is is not a grand ruin like Rievaulx Abbey in the nearby North York Moors but I found it rather appealing and, as always, found out some interesting facts whilst researching it, like the origin of the name Jesmond for a start. In common with many other places of pilgrimage St. Mary’s is there due to an alleged sighting of the Vrigin Mary, presumably holding the infant Jesus, as the name Jesmond literally means Jesus Mound so now you know as well! The visitation was allegedly in the late 11th century but I am always rather dubious about such “sightings” as it is no coincidence that pilgrims meant money for the local clerics and I am by nature a cynic., especially in matters of religion.
Whatever the truth of the matter many people visited the shrine and a small chapel was erected. At one time it housed religious relics, another aspect of the Judeo-Christian mythology I am very dubious about. If all the claims are to be believed some saints must have been biological freaks judging by the number of alleged body parts that are venerated worldwide. What is not in doubt is that the Church made money and St. Mary’s was once ranked alongside Canterbury and St. Paul’s cathedrals. Pilgrim Street in central Newcastle which just about exists still having been swallowed up by the A186 was where the faithful stayed before trekking up to the chapel. There is also a “holy well” nearby but my attempt to visit that later on was thwarted by a very muddy path and my pristine white training shoes. In fairness, I did not envisage offroad walking when I went to Newcastle.
The chapel was naturally deserted and it was very quiet on this autumnal morning which gave the place something or an air of serenity. As the images show, it is obviously still used as a place of religious significance for people although I am sure it has long since been deconsecrated. I found several small makeshift shrines in niches in the walls and, although they were open to the elements and therefore slightly weatherbeaten, I found them somehow quit touching.
The chapel was first documented in 1272 so it was obviously fully functional by then and, whilst it now appears quite inconsequential, it was once part of a much larger complex. As recently as 1896 the Ordnance Survey map shows the remains of a hospital complex about 50 yards away which was initially there to attend to the needs of the many sick pilgrims who visited. Like much else in the area the hospital was obliterated in the housing boom of the late 19th and early 20th century and no trace of it remains.
In the interest of fair reporting I should point out that whilst the site is dated back to shortly after the Norman Conquest, the remains you see today are what is left of the side chapel which dates to the 15th century which is still fairly ancient. In talking to my many North American friends I find this to be something that they invariably remark upon when speaking of Europe in general and the UK in particular. There are literally tens of thousands of such places just waiting to be stumbled upon and all dating to centuries before North America was officially “discovered” even though it is now archaeologically proven that the Vikings were on that continent from the late 10th century. Sorry, Columbus.
I am a great lover of stained glass and I was rather surprised to find a good example here although it was obvious from the condition of the rest of the remains that it could not possibly be original as a closer examination was to prove. An exhaustive search of the internet, normally reasonably productive, has completely failed to yield any information as to the provenance of this rather attractive piece. I must ask Sue about it as she is bound to know and I shall then amend this post accordingly.
I could happily have wandered aimlessly around Jesmond all day and would have discovered all sorts of things as I did on another walk a few days later but at that time of year there was not much light left and, as I mentioned above, I was on a deadline to get home so I strode out arriving bang on time.
After a quick coffee Paul and I grabbed the instruments and saddled up for our trip to North Shields. In Paul’s case the case (I did that on purpose – honestly) was his mandolin case as his banjo weighs a ton. I know this from personal experience of having lifted it. This is not a problem in the car but we were heading back onto the Metro and the image above shows the functional and not particularly attractive Jesmond Station in the gathering gloom.
About 45 minutes later we emerged at North Shields Metro and it was cold. When I say cold I mean it was Arctic, with biting wind coming in straight off the North Sea. When I played in Sweden and Finland some years ago it was February and March with -26 degrees in Vaasa but it did not feel as cold as it did in Northumberland in early November. We didn’t hang about and strode out for the mercifully short walk to the wonderfully named Magnesia Bank pub.
I was glad to get in out of the cold, especially as we had already passed a couple of decent looking pubs on the way and we entered what was like something out of the twilight zone! It is a huge place, having formerly been a bank as the name suggests, then a social club before being converted to a pub and with only two blokes at the bar and the young barmaid it felt very, very empty. If you are wondering about the Magnesia part of the name, it refers to the nearby Magnesia Stairs and I’ll tell you all about “stairs” in a moment. As well as being very, very empty it was very, very dark.
There were lights on behind the bar and damn few on elsewhere, it really was a bit strange but not unfriendly. One of the guys at the bar left as soon as we came in and the other a short while later. I do hope these facts are not related. Before he went, I had a chat with the second guy who turned out to be from Kilkeel in Northern Ireland and not too far from where my family live. Kilkeel was formerly a thriving fishing port but like so much of the British fishing industry it is now all but finished, primarily due to EU interference. There is still an active fleet in North Shields and this chap “commuted” back and forth to Co. Down to work on the boats here.
With the only other patrons departed the barmaid came over and sat with us for a chat. Well, she had nothing else to do. The reason we were there was that Paul was trying to sort out details of a gig he was playing there the next month but the manageress was not there and, despite a few ‘phone calls from our new friend we didn’t actully get to meet her. It is not surprising Paul was organising a gig there as it seems to be a very music orientated venue if the numerous posters and the online presence are anything to go by. Apparently Liam Fender, brother of the more famous Sam and a musician in his own right, is a regular here and plays gigs in the Maggy Bank as it is apparently known to the locals.
After a couple of drinks we took off from this rather odd place and back into an early evening that seemed to be getting colder if such a thing was possible. I suppose the reason was that we were making our way down to the water’s edge and the wind was coming at us straight off the river, having originated in the Arctic it seemed. There were a few decent sized trawlers alongside although they seemed deserted and I didn’t even take an image which I suppose I should have but I just didn’t want to take my hands out of my pockets!
I did, however, expose my digits to potential frostbite to capture the image above, which is of one of the many “stairs” I mentioned above and which seem prevalent right along the banks of the Tyne. It seems you cannot get to or from the river without either descending or ascending a fairly steep gradient. If I had paid more attention in Geography class in school I could probably tell you about erosion and geological formations and the like which would explain why it is like that here and not in somewhere like London where there isn’t a hill worthy of the name anywhere near the river. I didn’t so I can’t but, take it from me, Newcastle is steep and would certainly keep you fit if you walked a lot there. I thought this image was quite atmospheric for some reason and, by way of context, I have included another image taken the next day of a “stair” in Central Newcastle in daylight.
Like so many other waterfronts, North Shields is getting a bit trendy from what I imagine it was like years ago as a bustling fishing port with all the rough edges that entails. Nowadays it seems to be one cocktail bar / bistro / restaurant after another and in many ways it reminded me of Leith, the port for Edinburgh which is very similar. The fish and chip shop Paul was heading for was a bit further on from the stairs so we moved briskly until we came to the very welcoming (i.e. warm) looking Waterfront “chippy” and what a place that turned out to be. It was ever spotless with the unique smell of a proper fish and chip shop and ever so slightly upmarket but none the worse for that so time for a look at the menu.
The plan was fish and chips. We had just walked past a trawler so no doubt the fish was as fresh as it could be and I do love locally sourced produce, low food miles etc., it was obviously the local delicacy so, almost inevitably, I did not order it! I really am perverse some times, OK most of the time, but I had seen an item on the menu and could not “unsee” it to use a word I do not particularly like as I do not think it is a proper word but it fits the bill here. OK, we were up North but not quite in Scotland but I had spied an item on the menu that I just cannot resist – haggis.
Haggis is one of those things like tripe, liver and Marmite that divides opinion sharply but I absolutely adore it. I know that many of my readers will be aware of it but I am constantly amazed to find that I have readers on this site from places like India, Malaysia, China and all over the place which I find very gratifying and I thank those people. For the benefit of those who may not know, haggis is a traditional Scottish dish made of minced sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, oatmeal, spices and suet and the whole thing encased in the sheep’s stomach lining. I know it does not sound particularly appetising but believe me it is. The Americans do not agree and it is actually banned there on health grounds – their loss. Whilst I have described the traditional version, there is another type specifically designed for deep frying and it is essentially a long sausage shaped haggis battered and put in the hot oil. You can see what it looks like in the image above.
The lovely waitress told me that it would take about 15 minutes to prepare so it was obviously cooked to order which suits me. I have to apologise to Paul here as he had to sit about waiting for his logical fish and chips and which you can see in the other image above. What can I tell you about the food? I have been lucky enough to have eaten in some very fine restaurants and this, in it’s way, was every bit as satisfying as any of them. It was just delicious and a portion size to satisfy the stoutest (in any sense of the word) trencherman. If I was still writing travel reviews for Virtual Tourist I would be recommending this place highly. Sadly, that is not an option open to me any more but I shall pass this on as a tip if you should ever happen to be in North Shields.
Had we gone home at that point I would have said I had had a brilliant and interesting day and been very content with it but the travel Gods that I firmly believe in, and who I have mentioned before, were saving the best until last as they often do. Another short walk took us to the Low Lights Tavern on the very appropriately named Brewhouse Bank which looked great from the outside and I instantly fell in love with when we walked in the door.
In case you are wondering about the name, it is nothing theatrical, it refers to one of the two lighthouses along the shore, the Low Light and the High Light which date back to 1727. If I may risk a fairly obvious and pretty poor wordplay here, the Low Lights was to prove to be an absolute highlight of my trip and no mistake.
The Low Lights is the oldest pub in North Shields and, whilst it is only documented as far back as 1836 it is generally reckoned there has been a tavern there for at least 350 years. It is a proper old building and I had to duck to get in the door to access main bar which you can see and two side rooms, both of which have proper open fires, another plus. A quick glance at the blackboard showed the daily specials and by all accounts the food here is excellent. I know they source all their veg from a local farm shop and the fish is straight off the Quay 100 yards away. There are all sorts of curiosities about the place including a poster stating that “Even the Luftwaffe couldn’t close us” which refers to a bombing raid in May 1940. The pub was thankfully unscathed and the bombs fell in the Tyne. I highly doubt the pub was the intended target but it is a nice story.
Whilst the fabric of the pub is wonderful, it is not that which makes the Low Light so very special. As always it is the people. Paul introduced me to the two guys who run the place who were both utterly charming and decent singers when they were finally persuaded! By the time I had got the drinks in, served by wonderfully friendly staff who took my strange cider concoction in their stride admirably, Paul had arranged for us to play and told me to break out the guitar. I should point out that the owners had no idea we were turning up. They knew Paul from previous sessions but had obviously never seen me before. No problem, it was the work of moments to loose the beast and tune it and off we went.
There was no plan and we didn’t have a set idea of how long we would play for or even if we would be thrown out for annoying the locals but no danger of that. We started off with a few of the Irish standard tunes and songs and then it just went into overdrive as one of the owners harangued people into singing so we were effectively the “human jukebox” again. All types of songs, some sung in keys unknown to musicology and a few of which I had never heard before but, as we have done so often before, we managed to cobble some sort of accompaniment together. Naturally, Paul and I were hit with numerous requests and we had a stab at most of them with the Eagles seeming to be particularly popular.
We had numerous offers of drink from both the owners and the punters and Paul seemed to be enjoying his bitter so I was a bit miffed to be on “short rations” and having to explain to people why I had to decline their wonderful hospitality lest they get offended. I don’t remember what particular bitter Paul was drinking and there was an excellent selection and they even have their own house bitter brewed locally for them. Ridiculous as it sounds, I was still finding playing without drinking a bit of a challenge. I know it is purely in my head but I still feel odd performing without a few pints in me. I’m sure I’ll get over it as I don’t have much option really.
We met some fantastic people there and there was no shortage of musical talent despite my earlier comment. I lent the guitar a couple of times to several people who all made a very good fist of their chosen numbers. I have included an image of one of them and also the couple who were sitting beside us and who asked us to come and play at their wedding nearby that Saturday. Honestly, I m not making this up, why would I? The groom’s family were all coming over from Ireland and they thought it would be great to have a bit of session before the proper musicians turned up in the evening. We had to regretfully decline as we had other plans made but it was just indicative of the type of evening it was. I just adore gigs like this and I know Paul was loving it as well.
There was one member of the audience who didn’t ask to borrow my guitar although in hindsight I rather wish he had. I somewhat cryptically alluded in my last post to crossing paths with a proper pop star so here is the story. I mentioned Sam Fender earlier in this post and the reason I know he is a bona fide celebrity is that I have not followed popular music since the 1980’s and even I have heard of him, apparently he is hugely popular and winning awards hand over fist. Sadly, I read a few days ago (December 2019) that he had to cancel part of his UK tour due to a throat problem, so get well soon Sam. It was only much later on that Paul told me he had been in the bar and sitting about four feet from me when we were playing.
Whilst I was researching this post some time after the event I was looking for an internet link for the pub and found their facebook page so I just skimmed it to see if there was any mention of us playing. There was no mention as such but merely a couple of “live” clips which I think the owner must have taken and streamed on his ‘phone. One of them has 1,400 views which is far more than I have for anything on my own Youtube channel! Towards the end of the second clip which is not my finest musical moment as I didn’t know what tune Paul was going into (I suspect neither did he when he started the set) I was vamping like Hell to find the key which I eventually did. If you look just beside me towards the door, I believe that is Mr. Fender sitting down but of course I could be wrong, it has been known.
At this point I shall resist the temptation to start name-dropping some of the rich and famous people I have played for and I should hasten to point out that it is nothing to do with any musical talent on my part but by being lucky enough to have played with those that have. If you are really interested, get in touch and I’ll bore you with some stories. Ask me the one about playing for the Russian mafia or the one about the 500 Philippino bikers and the local Governor. Stop it now, Fergy!
I said we had no plan when we went out and we didn’t really but I am quite sure that whatever we had envisaged when we started playing at about 1930 wouldn’t involve playing solid until midnight and thereby missing the last Metro back to Jesmond, which is a bit of a trek, but that is what happened. With many fond farewells and promises to return and play again some time (we mustn’t have messed up too badly to be asked back) we poured ourselves and the instruments into a cab for home and bed.
This trip had been a complete whirlwind already. I had set foot on the train in London about 36 hours earlier and had seen and done so much already with a lot more planned including two more booked gigs which I was really looking forward to. In the next post I unleash myself on Newcastle, get up close and personal with the many bridges over the Tyne and try to learn Russian from a Monopoly board so stay tuned and spread the word.