I wish this kind of articles were accompanied by many pictures, or at least some.
Here’s one of Grey Street.
One of the few benefits of the pandemic was to encourage outside seating for restaurants. Revisiting Newcastle I was struck by the amount of outside seating available going down to and on the Quayside. It has become pleasantly continental in feel. The good weather also helps. The view along the river in Newcastle can be thoroughly recommended.
The TD Smith era motorways and buildings have certainly desecrated Newcastle and become clogged during rush hour but did enable a quick connection to the Airport out of rush hour.
I would encourage Unherd to commission similar essays about other northern cities. The controversy of 60s redevelopment will surely be a constant theme.
However it is important to consider the context in which the redevelopment schemes were made. On the one hand was the motive of greed that manifested itself in discovered fraud (as distinct from likely other scenarios, the full extent of which never became public). On the other was a genuine optimism for the future, to reinvent Victorian cities and usher in the modern world. That sense of ambition and optimism was arguably lost forever in the 1970s but there was nonetheless a genuine commitment and desire to regenerate and revitalise cities such as Newcastle, notwithstanding that the schemes ultimately proved unsuccessful and in many instances unpopular and controversial.
This is not to condone what happened to Newcastle but it is to argue for an understanding of the circumstances of the era in which the schemes were formulated. After all, if we can recognise the folly of those who tear down statues without paying attention to how things used to be, then surely the same applies when looking at 60s urban planning and the need to understand the context.
A novel which explores this in a sensitive way, albeit north of the border, is Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan (1999). A great book I thought.
Yes, a lot of people thought what was done at the time was a good thing. Architectural brutalism was widely admired in architectural and civic circles. One of the reasons I am not over keen on the proposal in an article in yesterday’s Unherd to free local authorities from much of the current planning constraints, suffocating as these may be, is the thought of what architectural horrors might be unleashed by aesthetically challenged civic leaders.
Same for Birmingham where I live. They could easily make it lovely. But they don’t.
Which suggests that perhaps it’s not that easy.
Same for Ipswich and other towns in East Anglia. No, not because it’s not that easy but because councillors tend to be ignorant philistines.
With the UK’s economic policy heavily tilted towards London and SE England, cities beyond sadly have to grab at the crumbs dropped by the big developers – which, needless to say, are typically cheap eyesores. Just look at the horrible mess that Manchester has become. A vision it is not.
If you think that cities/towns in the South-East have been lavished with money you haven’t seen what has happened in Portsmouth, Southampton or Basingstoke. But then I suppose this isn’t really the South-East, although Hampshire does get lumped in with them by officials – have they never heard of Wessex?
Birmingham has been ugly since the industrial revolution. There is a reason that Tolkien used it as his basis for Mordor.
I thought that was Taggart
Ha ha, brilliant!
The D road in Stoke, another pean to corrupt local government of the socialist variety.
Twenty seven years after moving south, I still think of Newcastle as home. Thank you for this evocative piece, superbly written. Another commentator asked for photos. I agree with them, they would help those unfamiliar with the city. But I don’t need them myself. The superb architecture of Grey Street is hardwired into my memory.
But one thing … if the central motorway survives, keep it. What is done is done, and it too has curves and character that help make Newcastle the great city it is today.
Central motorway’s ‘curves and character’ mean my heart is in my mouth every time I (reluctantly) use it – there’s one particular ‘scissor junction’ where the concrete partially conceals the traffic needing to cross, and vehicles loom up behind the driver’s right shoulder. But in fact all of it is just horrible, all the more so because I am old enough to remember the lovely streets & buildings it replaced.
True enough but it does keep the traffic moving and mostly out of the city centre. In a way it has worked well, but one cannot but regret the damage done. Though T Dan did a lot more, and little or no benefit
Yes, I guess with satnav I tend to get rather complacent looking out for road signs these days, but getting on and off the central motorway has be the toughest challenge I’ve ever faced when driving alone.
I’d have thought that travelling from the east towards the Tyne bridge would be relatively straightforward, but on a recent trip I managed to find myself down on the quayside on the wrong side of the river!
You’re right about that junction. Terrible planning.
My sons recently graduated from Northumbria University where they shared houses in the Jesmond, West Jesmond and Shieldfield areas some just off Osborne Road. It is no accident that Newcastle and Northumbria Universities are popular with students for the social life they get in a lively city. The motorways do make passing through Newcastle easy but parking can be a problem – though the JustPark app proved useful on their graduation days. Some fine cityscapes in the centre and very walkable.
As a result I know the rather hairy scissors junction HeatherW refers to. Well there are two I can think of.
Wake me up before we cross the Tyne
Welcome me back to what’s mine all mine
Carry me into the heart of the Toon
See me smile by the light of the moon
T Dan was my hero
He did what was needed for Newcastle and he was prepared to pay the price
The Metro system and Eldon Square saved the city,still the only city you can walk from top to bottom
Grey Street is what we call ‘all fur coat and no knickers, it’s a facade and yes at face value a beautiful street
The Geordie Tribe love a night out, the Toon brings us all together, go and experience it when it’s jumping up and down
The saddest part is that the area on the ‘wrong’ side of the motorway is in need of even more regeneration than the city centre. On recent visits Byker/Heaton looks in worse a state now than it did in the 80s, when I used to live in the Northeast. On the plus side what was the unloved side of the Tyne – Gateshead – has a much livelier spirit about it.
“In a huge city, it is a fairly common observation that the dwellers in a slum are almost a separate race of people with different values, aspirations and ways of being. One result of slum clearance is that a considerable movement of people takes place over long distances, with devastating effect on the social groupings built up over years. But one might argue that this is a good thing when we are dealing with people who have no initiative or civic pride. The task is surely to break up such groupings, even though the people seem to be satisfied with their miserable environment and seem to enjoy an extrovert social life in their locality.”
So wrote Newcastle’s city planning officer, Wilfrid Burns, in 1963.”
This is the start of a Guardian article by Anna Minton that comments that only 20% of the population of the Byker area that was demolished received housing in the Byker Wall and she concludes that redevelopment schemes are rarely in the interest of the inhabitants of the area despite the Byker Wall now having a Grade ll classification and surviving when many contemporary developments have been torn down.
The Sage and the Baltic centre have certainly improved a previously industrial area in Gateshead.
Gateshead Council have had a much more positive approach the last 20 years or so and actually seem to want their residents to prosper. Newcastle City council seems to take a much more antagonistic view.
I think you need to be careful how you phrase things about places unless you live there in the here and now. I’ve lived in Newcastle over 35 years in various parts of the city. Got the last 18 years I’ve lived in Heaton. It may not have the airs and graces of Jesmond or Gosforth and it suffers from some council neglect compared to those more middle class areas. But I wouldn’t now live anywhere else. It has the most interesting, mixed community of people – intellectuals, artists,writers, actors, medics, educators. It has a growing and vibrant number of artisan eateries and small shops. Ethically and politically I feel surrounded by like minded people in Heaton, and not forgetting it’s beautiful Victorian park which is well used by many. I am very aware that only a few hundred yards up the road from me I see serious poverty in Byker. So I understand what you are saying. But my point is that living in different parts of the city requires a more nuanced and time-place sensitive view which is more complex than areas first appear.
Thank you for an interesting and indeed an inspiring article. Newcastle to me is the perfect city, in the right place, if the right size, a fascinating history, and still generating an enormous pride and originality among her citizens.
Mr Smith I suspect meant well in the early days, and lots of his initiatives were valuable – the Civic Centre, the central motorways (if only they had gone under), the Metro, the sense of geordie pride rekindled. But he became too dictatorial and then corrupt.
There has to be a case for independence for the North East, to throw off the dead load of southern bureacracy and rebuild a proud spirit of enterprise and independence. Not on the lines of the horrid goings on north of the border, more of the Republic of Ireland of the ’80’s and on. Without the graft.
My knowledge of Newcastle and the area is limited to the soldiers that it produced… Superb men to a man….
A wonderful read. As a Geordie who was forced to move to the South East for economic reasons I found that Tyneside is not just economically deprived, but in class conscious England, its natives are seen as grossly inferior by the ruling toffs of Westminster, Eton and Oxbridge.
Agree with many of the comments about the refreshing nature of this article, with history, geography, architecture and urban politics intertwined like a well-planned civic centre.
As a native of the north, i can identify with the problems and poor solutions foisted on it’s populace during the post-war period. It’s taken a long time but i do sense there’s a stirring in the former bastions of the industrial revolution towards a greater appreciation of environment and cultural capital. The author mentions the number of pavement cafes where food and drink can now be enjoyed when the sun shines, something unseen until fairly recently (more prominent since the mentioned pandemic and perhaps warmer summers) and many urban centres in the north now have a more cosmopolitan feel. Outside those centres however, post-industrial blight may take much longer to turn around.
Another feature that brings a greater sense of pride and community is the restoration of canals; as places for leisure as they snake through the countryside and in the canal basins which form oases of peace and civilised living in the centres themselves.
In Sunderland they pulled down a fine town Hall in the heart of the city in 1970 to replace it with a modern building that now lies decayed, neglected and forlorn.
However, recently Hylton Castle, a long neglected castle near Sunderland, has recently undergone restoration as has the Georgian Parish Church of Holy Trinity in the old East End. So you are right there has been some stirrings of appreciation for the area’s cultural capital at last.
If sustainable architecture is to mean anything it must be to reuse and restore our architectural heritage rather than replace them with buildings that fail to be worth restoring in due course.
I hate to say it, but Sunderland is a magnificent looking town.
The bypass plans were implemented on the orders of central government and were drawn up before Smith’s time, so why is he getting the blame? The Royal Arcade was in the way of the bypass. Smith had it carefully dismantled, with the intention of rebuilding it further back. The succeeding Conservative government chose not to carry out those plans. They are responsible for it’s loss, not Smith, who was the only person who tried to save it.
Smith cannot be blamed for the “ugly” appearance of Eldon square either. The West Side of the square was demolished before the plans for it’s final appearance were drawn up. That was 7 years after Smith’s time as head of the council.
His convictions had no connection with his time as head of Newcastle council, and had no involvement with Newcastle. Calling him a “corrupt politician” is inaccurate, as his convictions didn’t take place whilst he was in office.
Also, John Dobson didn’t “design” the Royal arcade. It was a straight copy of the Lowther arcade in London.
An enjoyable article. I consider many post WWII architectural designs to be crimes against humanity. Imagine how our nation could look if beauty, wellbeing and heritage were prioritised in any new developments.
I’m interested to know if anyone could recommend any good books on the appalling architectural assault on Britain and the West?
I love Georgian and would relish a revival of this style which draws on complimentary modern innovations used to magnify its beauty.
The Heritage Site | Adam McDermont | Substack
Excellent read is The Fight for Beauty by Fiona Reynolds
Less interesting but worth skimming is How to Save Our Town Centres by Julian Dobson
Things are never this simple. The slums in the city could be smelt when you walked by. There was genuine poverty. People wanted a better,newer City. Smith had been to Chicago – his first trip abroad – and came back inspired to make Newcastle this exciting metropolis. With an architect who promised he could deliver many projects on time and to budget (with the aid of stuffed envelopes) lots of things happened quickly. OK Smithy nicked a few quid but his love for the city was real and he was a respected man. However don’t forget the legacy of other Newcastle architects like Yates, Barnet and Winskel whose buildings still stand and admired today.
Smith’s corruption charges had no connection with Newcastle. His time at Newcastle was investigated, there were no “stuffed envelopes”.
Is the architect you’re referring to John Poulson?
Poulson built nothing in at all in Newcastle.