July 27, 2022

There’s a glorious curvaceous grandeur to Victorian railway architecture. I love the sinuous bends of those northern English stations whose geography prevents them from being termini but who nevertheless try to give themselves the airs of one. None is greater than Newcastle: John Dobson’s cathedral in iron and sandstone to the great god, Progress, and to the heaped wealth earned by coals from Newcastle.

Were Britain’s cultural geography more widely distributed, Dobson would be rightly renowned as one of our greatest architects. For where John Vanburugh or Gilbert Scott built mansions or churches, Dobson created streets. And what streets! Newcastle was made, economically and physically, by the coals beneath it and the waters running through it, gouging a steep valley through the sandstones, mudstones and coal seams beneath the city.

They crafted the stage for England’s greatest street, Grey Street, whose name, appropriately for a radical borough, celebrates Earl Grey’s 1832 Great Reform Act and whose form moulds itself into the sheer banks of the city curling down from Grey’s Monument to the quays of  the great mercantile River Tyne. With the high steel bridges spanning the river and the merchants’ palaces beneath them, you might almost be in New York rather than Newcastle.

The city started life as a bulwark against revolt: first as the eastern anchor of Hadrian’s wall against the Scots (fragments still remain) and then as the Norman Novum Castellum against the rebellious north Saxons of the Kingdom of Northumbria. But if the city’s name comes from war, her nature comes from commerce — and geography.

At some point, probably in the late 12th or early 13th century, the good burghers of Newcastle began shipping coal down the coast to London where it was known as “seacoal” and was unloaded at Seacoal and Newcastle Wharfs on the River Fleet, still recalled in their modern street names, Old Seacoal Lane and Newcastle Close.

The trade caught on fast, mentioned in Royal Charters from 1253 and used to fuel the smiths and lime-burners of Westminster Abbey’s 13th-century reconstruction. By 1306, as lords temporal, lords spiritual and commoners gathered for Parliament in the week after Whit Sunday, they were greeted by a new and unfamiliar acrid smell. It was burning coal, arriving from Newcastle, landed on the Fleet and consumed by blacksmiths, artisans and households across the capital. Coal burned longer, hotter and slower than mere wood. It also stank. Revolted, parliament passed a ban on burning coal while it was in session. Had anyone paid any attention to this official attempt to ban innovation then the history of Britain, Newcastle and indeed the world might be completely different. But no one did.

The world liked coal because it was cheaper and more efficient than wood; a poor family in London spent about 10% of its income on coal. To enjoy the same heat from firewood would have cost two-to-five times as much. Coals from Newcastle kept the poor warm and made Newcastle rich.

Successful places are never one-trick ponies, or at least not for long. Mineral wealth must be transferred into human capital or invested in other trades or manufactories if it is not to be dissipated within a generation. The hard-working Geordies did just that, publishing books, building ships, blowing glass.

They also turned their industrial town into a world city. The high point came in the early 19th century when the city had accumulated sufficient wealth to be cultured but not enough to become sclerotic. It had vigour and faith. All the best developers are self-made men and Richard Grainger was no exception. The son of a seamstress and a Quayside porter, he started life as a carpenter but he married well and had both the gift of the gab and the gift of making money. By the time he was 44 he had master-planned, financed and built the 90-acre Grainger Town: one monument (to Earl Grey), one theatre, one meat market, nine streets, 10 inns, 12 taverns, 40 houses, 325 shops and pilasters and porticos without number, all curving down or cutting across the steep slopes to the Tyne and all sheathed in Northumberland’s radiantly golden sandstone.

If Grainger was Newcastle’s producer, then the director was his principal architect, John Dobson. Dobson was a self-made man as well. The son of a market gardener and a draughtsman of genius, he was designing damask cloths from the age of 11 and apprenticed as an architect by the age of 15. His designs, or those of his office subordinates, spanned out across the city centre, carving it anew in “Newcastle Classical” if not as an Athens for the North then certainly as a Sparta, Memphis or Delphi: Eldon Square, Grey Street, the Royal Arcade, Clayton Street.

Arguably Dobson’s greatest feat was Newcastle Central Station, an epic poem in glass and iron besides Grey Street’s sinuous sonnet. Commissioned by the “Railway King”, the Victorian railway promotor and fraudster, George Hudson, it was opened by Queen Victoria and, alongside Liverpool’s Lime Street Station, was the first railway station in the world to use curved iron ribs to support an arching roof. It is also breathtakingly beautiful: power and innovation made scintillatingly carnate. Thank heavens the Victorians built our railways.

But if few cities flew as high, few subsequently fell so low or so nearly committed total self-immolation. Industrial Newcastle promptly besmirched its city centre, be-griming it in smog and smuts. And post-industrial Newcastle abandoned it and tried to destroy the city’s glory. If Richard Grainger and John Dobson are Newcastle’s heroes, then her villain is the Sixties council leader, T. Dan Smith, described in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as a “local government leader and criminal”. Visionary and energetic but venal and wrong-headed, he was imprisoned for corruption. His greatest victim, however, was not financial probity but Newcastle herself whom he very nearly “unseamed from the nave to the chops”. The formal and monumental Eldon Square was needlessly sacrificed for an ugly and introverted shopping centre. The exquisite Royal Arcade, modelled by Dobson on Parisian and London templates, was murdered for a roundabout. Town Hall, Corn Exchange, much of St Nicholas Square and many grand terraces were likewise pillaged and ransacked. Too often today in the city centre you turn a corner from dignified splendour into the bathos of a brick wall or a flyover. As the architectural historian, Gavin Stamp, put it: “Newcastle remains a magnificent city, but it would look even better… had T. Dan Smith been rumbled and imprisoned much earlier.” It would be richer too.

Sixties Newcastle is a nightmarish maze of underpass, overpass, dual carriageway and roundabout; the planning and design is idiotic ugly, stressful, de-humanising and, critically, constraining. The town centre is hemmed in by “big roads” in a pattern which makes city centres poorer and less prosperous.

But this could be fixed. No immutable law of economics or physics says that fast roads must pass through city centres or sequestrate them from their hinterlands. Gravity does not demand that new buildings be super-scaled and faceless. What a corrupt Sixties politician willed can be unwilled. An unseamed street can be restitched. And the road to “levelling up” (or whatever our new Prime Minister calls it) winds through Newcastle, and Hull and Grimsby and Darlington and Carlisle and Rochdale. The sheer glory and grandeur and wealth and opulence of our industrial urban infrastructure is shamefully underused. All could provide attractive, purposeful fulcrums for so many more lives lived, schools created, meetings made and jobs worked.

We are still prisoners of our geography. If our great industrial towns no longer enjoy proximity to seams of coal or fast flowing water, they do enjoy the potential for sustainable lives led with neighbourliness, comradeship and dignity. Their ability to provide the pleasurable and cultural agglomeration effects of the Italian renaissance town or the Greek city state lies in their streets and their physical beauty, and is ever more attractive in the age of the zoom call and global warming. Who would want to live in burning Toulouse or Florence when balmy Newcastle or Sunderland awaits?

Come on Newcastle: abandon the idea of “regeneration” as a merely technical exercise. Put the love back in. You have one of England’s greatest city centres. Grow it. Restitch it back into the surrounding suburbs. Unravel the knotted, air-polluting, dual-carriageway nonsense that strangles it. Mess up the mess they call an urban motorway. Create new buildings that people actually like. Sing more loudly and shamelessly of your city’s beauties and beneficence. You have nothing to lose but your roundabouts.