Category Archives: Business

Why I’m excited about Sunderland 2021 (and why I think you should be too)

RICHARD CALLAGHAN explains why Sunderland’s bid to be the 2021 UK City of Culture will be a great boost for both the city and the whole North East region.

Before I tell you about why I believe Sunderland becoming UK City of Culture in 2021 would be great not just for the city but for the region, I have to declare an interest.

Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

As much as I would love to be able to make a living writing for esteemed publications such as this, I’m afraid I’ve actually got a day job working for the Sunderland City of Culture bid. Admittedly, this makes me less than impartial on this subject, but I can honestly say that, even if I wasn’t being paid to say it, I’d still think that City of Culture would be a great thing for the North East.

The UK City of Culture competition was founded following the success of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008. Culture had effected a transformative change upon Liverpool, the argument went, just as it had on Glasgow in 1990. Why should UK cities wait another twenty years to feel the effect again? The idea of the UK competition was that rather than seeing this boost once every few decades, it could be felt every four years instead.

Derry-Londonderry was the first city to win the title, being named UK City of Culture for 2013. If you’ve not already heard them, I’ll give you a quick run down of the numbers: 48 new start-up businesses as a result of their year. 25% rise in hotel occupancy in the first six months, with May to September the highest the city had ever seen. £5 back for every £1 of public money spent. £100m invested in the city through cultural programming and infrastructure. These are real numbers, real impacts.

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Hull will take the title of City of Culture next year. The city’s already feeling the effects. Look at any newspaper, watch the six o’clock news, check out whichever news site you prefer. There are already world class artists coming to work in Hull, ready to make great art in the city next year. I’ve got family in Hull, which has meant I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for that unfashionable city on the Humber. It is, like Sunderland, significantly nicer than people who’ve never been there think it’s going to be. And, with the boost from City of Culture, with next year’s prize on the horizon, it’s a city metamorphosing. Go to Hull today and what you’ll see is a place getting ready to transform itself, a civic chrysalis preparing for its year as the national butterfly.

All of the economic impacts are great. Much needed, much welcomed in the North East. But for me, the power of the City of Culture, the reason why it would be so fantastic both for the city and the region, goes beyond the economy. The North East is a fantastic place. We all know this. It’s the place I was born, the place I’ve lived most of my life, the place I’ve chosen to raise my family. It is my home. The North East, as a place, is profoundly important to me.

Yet, too often, the perception of those from outside the region is of a post-industrial wasteland, of economic deprivation, of somewhere we’d all leave if only we could. It’s a destructive narrative, one that must be argued against for two reasons. First, it makes it harder to attract skilled people to the North East, harder to attract businesses, harder to attract investment. Why would you want to move to a cultural backwater, or an economic sinkhole? Why would you want to come somewhere everybody else wants to leave?

Sunderland's Empire Theatre is one of the existing cultural icons withiin the city. Photo: David Simpson
Sunderland’s Empire Theatre is one of the existing cultural icons within the city. Photo: David Simpson

That’s the first reason, but for me it matters less than the second. The second reason is this. That narrative, the story we’re told about the North East, affects the way that we feel about ourselves. If the North East is a failed place, then the only people here are failures. If it’s somewhere everybody wants to leave, then the only people who stay are the people who have to. Because they’re not good enough for somewhere else. Because they couldn’t make it in Manchester, couldn’t hack it in London. They’ve settled for second best, accepted their lot. What that story says about us, all of us, is that we haven’t made a choice. We’re here because nobody else wants us.

Well, my friends, I’ve made a choice. I wouldn’t live in London if you paid me. For all its faults, for all its failures, I love the North East. There is nowhere else I’d rather live, nowhere else I’d rather raise my daughter. It’s a beautiful place, vibrant and exciting, with a fascinating history and a wonderful story to tell. That, for me, is the power of City of Culture. It’s an opportunity, a chance to tell a different story about the place, about ourselves. To make the argument for all of us who’ve chosen to be here because we want to be. The renaissance in Newcastle and Gateshead in the last two decades has begun to shift that narrative for Tyneside, but it’s time for the rest of the North East to see that kind of change.

If Sunderland becomes UK City of Culture in 2021, it’ll boost the region’s economy. It’ll attract national and international news coverage. It’ll bring world class art and world class artists into Sunderland’s communities, and offer people opportunities they’d never otherwise have. But it’ll go beyond that. It’ll help to change that story. It’ll mean that when people think of Sunderland, of the North East, they’ll not just be thinking “Post-industrial wasteland with three crap football teams,” they’ll be thinking, “They’ve got the Turner Prize there this year. They’ve got brilliant art exhibitions, groundbreaking theatre, fantastic concerts. They’ve got amazing events. They’ve still got three crap football teams (because some things never change).” That’s why I think Sunderland 2021 is important. That’s why I’m excited about it. And that’s why I think you should be excited about it too.

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To discover more about Sunderland’s 2021 City of Culture bid visit www.sunderland2021.com

Twitter: @Sunderland2021

Facebook: sunderland2021

A taste of chocolatey heaven in the North East

North Chocolate's Bev Stephenson
North Chocolates’ Bev Stephenson

The smell of chocolate increases theta brain waves, which triggers relaxation. What better a reason do we need to indulge in one of the nation’s favourite treats? HELEN GILDERSLEEVE samples gourmet chocolate that is made right on our doorstep in Newcastle and speaks to a producer from local business, North Chocolates.

The aptly named North Chocolates founded in 2013 is the brainchild of local lass, Bev Stephenson of Forest Hall in Newcastle whose products have been described as ‘more desirable than world peace’ and proudly won ‘Artisanal Producer of the Year’ (Newcastle Business Awards, 2015).

Made from the finest couverture (which means less sugar, no vegetable fats and lashings of cocoa and cocoa butter) they specialise in small batch gourmet chocolate bars from the classic to the unusual. Think surprising flavours that you wouldn’t expect at all to go with chocolate that just seem to work. It’s like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory here in the North East. The fact that they’re healthier than the average chocolate bar is an added bonus!

Chocoholics are spoilt for choice with North which has a core range of 15 to 20 flavours including popping candy, lemon and sea salt, lavender, chilli and lime and coffee and cardamom (a particular favourite of mine). Yum!

Ginger and Fennel chocolate
Ginger and Fennel flavour from North Chocolates

I was unleashed to try a couple of bars and I must say I will now be a regular customer at North. I’m a big fan of dark chocolate and ginger so when I spied the award winning ginger and fennel bar, I knew it was the one for me and boy was I right. It had the perfect combination of richness and smoothness with the delicious zing of ginger and infused fennel. It didn’t last very long.

Next I tucked into the lavender bar. The creamy milk chocolate is enhanced beautifully by floral lavender tones. I (almost) felt guilty breaking into it as North bars are packed so prettily, wrapped in an array of coloured foil complete with a quirky ribbon bow. These will certainly be high up on my Christmas list (family and friends, you know who you are).

I spoke with the chocolate goddess herself, Bev Stephenson, to find out the secrets behind her fantastic business:

How did you get into chocolate making?

I used to be a freelance journalist, specialising in food and lifestyle (The Guardian/ Observer, Metro North East) but then the recession hit! I’d been thinking long and hard about another career in food and I’d written articles on chocolate and played around with it a lot and thought I’d spotted a gap in the market. I got a lot of help from a friend who makes chocolate, went on a few courses and launched North in 2013.

Bev's chocolates are beautifully packaged
Bev’s chocolates are beautifully packaged

Is the business going well?

Very well! I took on an apprentice last year, Gillian Ibbotson, who has been fantastic and I won ‘Artisan Producer of the Year’ in the Newcastle Business Awards last November which was a huge surprise. I wake up some nights thinking I need to hire more people and go bigger but then I wake up the next night worried people will stop liking the chocolate!

Which chocolate is the most popular?

Some bars have won awards including the dark Ginger & Fennel and the milk Lemon & Lemon Sea Salt so they have a head start, but the Chilli & Lime, Coffee (using the Ouseburn Coffee Company beans) and my new one Liquorice & Blackcurrant have sold brilliantly. Bizarrely the milk Geranium is one of my other best sellers – geranium is very similar to rose so it’s a little like eating Turkish Delight without the jelly! It’s a real love or loathe bar but for those who like it they keep coming back for more.

Many people would view what you do as a dream job, would you agree?

I truly love this job but it has its ups and downs. When you’re covered in sticky chocolate and you’ve done an 18 hour day to try and complete orders and then you have to clean down your kitchen, do the marketing, the social media, the admin and then pack and deliver the bars then it can get a little overwhelming! But all small businesses have those pressures and when someone says they love what you’re producing and come back for more it’s honestly the best feeling in the world.

North Chocolate
A feast of flavours from North Chocolates

How do you sample?

Some people prefer milk or dark so I always ask them that first and I try to winkle out if they’re adventurous or prefer something more classic in their chocolate bar. I have some flavours that people hate and that’s no problem – we all have different tastes and palates – but sampling is important as we’re sometimes a little safe and they may try and absolutely love something they wouldn’t necessarily buy and that’s a great feeling.

Where can people buy North chocolate?

I’m mainly based in the North East in a lot of delis and shops around the region including Fenwick and some National Trust outlets. You can buy via the website: www.northchocolates.co.uk or if you click on stockists on the site, it gives you a list of where to nab your bars!

Twitter @bevnorthchocs

www.northchocolates.co.uk

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More chocolate makers and sellers around the region. 

There’s a wonderful variety of chocolate makers and chocolate sellers in and around the North East. Here’s a selection:

North Chocolates, Newcastle

Fabulous range of flavours from Bev Stephenson owner of Newcastle’s ‘Artisanal Producer of the Year’ 2015 (Newcastle Business Awards). Dark chocolate range includes Ginger and Fennel; Geranium and Orange and Chilli and Lime.  Milk chocolate flavours include Lavender and Lemon and Lemon Sea Salt. There are many others to try. For details visit www.northchocolates.co.uk or find  on Twitter @bevnorthchocs

The Chocolate Smiths, Newcastle

Unusual flavours made by The Chocolate Smiths of Newcastle include everything from bacon to bubblegum. Intriguing flavours include cheese and cracker and peanut butter and pretzel. The Chocolate Smiths sell through a number of North East  stockists. For details visit thechocolatesmiths.com or find them on Twitter @ChocolateSmiths

Kenspeckle, Northumberland

Kenspeckle of Northumberland make unique chocolates and home-made fudge created by a dedicated team who create favourites of yester-year with a traditional artisan twist. Notable products include Northumbrian Honey Truffles and Puffin Beak pralines.  Find them online at www.kenspeckle.co.uk  or on Twitter @kenspeckle_choc

The Little Chocolate Shop, Leyburn, North Yorkshire

Situated in Leyburn in Wensleydale, this small chocolate factory has a visitor centre where you can watch chocolate being made. You can sample the wares in the adjoining shop and cafe.  Visit online at littlechocolateshop.co.uk  and on Twitter @littlechocshop

Kennedys Fine Chocolates, Cumbria

Based in Orton village near Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria, Kennedy’s is a small family chocolate making company producing more than 90 chocolate varieties. Visit their website at kennedyschocolates.co.uk or on Twitter @kennedyschocs

Chcocolate Fayre, Barnard Castle (shop)

Chocolate Fayre of 31a Horsemarket, Barnard Castle, have chocolates and truffles specially hand made for their delightful shop in this county Durham dalestown. For more details visit www.chocolatefayre.co.uk or Twitter @ChocFayre

Hotel Chocolat, Newcastle (Shop)

One of a number of luxury chocolate sellers nationwide, the Newcastle store is based in Blackett Street. Visit online at hotelchocolat.com or on Twitter @HotelChocolat

Thorntons

Thorntons have several stores throughout the region. Find your nearest store here: www.thorntons.co.uk/custserv/locate_store.cmd or visit on Twitter @thorntonschocs

Entrepreneurs of Tyneside Past

ALEX ILES delves into the history of Newcastle and is inspired by three notable entrepreneurs

The Guildhall Newcastle
The Guildhall, Sandhill, Newcastle upon Tyne. Photo: David Simpson

This is my first blog for England’s North East, so it’s best to introduce myself. I own and manage a tourism company in Newcastle called Iles Tours, established in 2012.

I do a number of different tours and one thing that fascinates me is the region’s entrepreneurs who have inspired me in my own business.

Here I look at three such entrepreneurs from different eras in the history of Newcastle: Rodger Thornton (died 1430), Ralph Carr (1711-1806) and William Armstrong (1810-1900).

According to legend, Rodger Thornton’s entrance into Newcastle’s story has highly romantic beginnings:

‘West-Gate came Thornton in, 

With a hap and a halfpenny and a lambskin’.

In fact as the son of a minor noble Thornton’s father helped him start up in business in Newcastle. Membership of the trading guilds and involvement with the Right Honourable Company of Merchant Adventurers set up this young man well. The Adventurers met in the top of St. Thomas’s Hospital on the Sandhill where the modern guildhall stands today.

The Sandhill, Newcastle
The Sandhill, Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

There Thornton became involved in Newcastle’s most important trade during his lifetime – wool and hides. Wool was the petroleum of the Middle Ages and Newcastle’s wool was sold to the Low Countries where the major fabric producers were based.

It was the trade in wool that made Thornton successful, as a young man, although it was not an easy start. On some occasions during trade disputes his cargoes would spoil on the quayside while waiting to be sold or transported but bit by bit Thornton rose in power and wealth.

Brass depicting Rodger Thornton and his wife in St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle. Photo: Simon Neil Scott
Brass depicting Rodger Thornton and his wife in St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle. Photo: Simon Neil Scott

It enabled him to expand his business and invest in Weardale lead and local coal – two growing and very profitable trades in the North East of England. The investments paid off as the construction of churches in England and abroad meant there was much need for lead.

As his wealth increased Thornton was able to give to charitable causes – including vast quantities of lead for Durham Cathedral’s roof as well as great sums of money for St. Nicholas Church and St. Johns church in Newcastle. These donations were often written off as Rodger looked to ensure his place in heaven or perhaps it is better to see this as an ingrained understanding of the responsibility of the wealthy to care for the poor in the Middle Ages.

St John's Church Newcastle Photo: David Simpson
St John’s Church Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

Thornton also invested heavily in monasteries which were the schools and hospitals of the Middle Ages, providing education and healthcare for all in society.  Medieval merchants were also involved in politics as they were “between worlds” – not landed elite, not clerics or priests and not workers of the land.

Because of this Rodger became the MP for Newcastle for five years and was Mayor of Newcastle nine times. He sided with the King when the Percys of Northumberland rose against Henry IV and his wealth made him an important ally.

Town Walls Newcastle Photo: David Simpson
Town Walls Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

Thornton invested in the town watch, established a professional army and rebuilt the town walls. He held Newcastle against one of the most powerful lords in England and a grateful King Henry gave him the Percy lands in Yorkshire – making him a member of the landed elite. When I look at Rodger Thornton I learn that to fight for what you care about and invest in a location creates opportunities and opens doors in the future!

Ralph Carr is our second entrepreneur. As a young man Ralph’s father allowed his son’s membership of the Right Honourable Company of Newcastle’s Merchant Adventurers to slip, meaning that Ralph had to take an apprenticeship with the company to earn membership. During this term he took a break to visit all the ports that Newcastle traded with and learned about their needs, gaining a detailed knowledge of the North Sea and Baltic ports.

In the late 1700s there was an established oligarchy of merchants in the coal trade and breaking into this elite group was both hard and expensive – so Ralph branched out, investing in shipping, naval equipment, whaling, lead, insurance and millstones from Gateshead. He then went on to build alum factories, glass factories, lead works and linen mills.

These buildings in the Close near Newcastle's Quayside would have been familiar to Ralph Carr Photo: David Simpson
These buildings in the Close near Newcastle’s Quayside would have been familiar to Ralph Carr Photo: David Simpson

In later life he was so wealthy he was approached to become one of the first members of Newcastle’s first provincial bank.

The lesson I take from Ralph Carr is that when your path is blocked by groups with vested interests, take a step to the side and build areas that are not developed. You can do a better job in those areas and eventually get invited into new and exciting deals.

When he died Carr was worth £200,000 in old money or £300 million today – a highly successful man who started on an apprenticeship.

Our third entrepreneur is Lord Armstrong. From a young age William Armstrong was fascinated with engineering and mathematics but honoured his father and studied law. He practiced law for over twenty years, teaching himself engineering in his spare time.

Eventually he designed the Armstrong crane and approached his father and Godfather with the new business opportunity. They backed the project and the crane revolutionised the way ports functioned. This created a great amount of wealth for Armstrong and he became established in the business community.

Following this – for better or worse – he was moved by the loss of life for British troops during the Crimean War which he put down to ineffectual artillery.

William Armstrong
William Armstrong

This brought about the invention of the Armstrong Gun which required eleven patents because of its revolutionary design. Armstrong continued to produce these revolutionary guns and partnered Mitchell’s Shipyards to create warships on the Tyne.  He eventually produced ships for eleven great powers and in some ways prepared the world for the First World War.

Armstrong’s works at Elswick employed twenty five thousand people in Newcastle and were one of the largest employers in Britain. Alongside this, Armstrong was a huge supporter of renewable energies and saw a future where they would replace coal as the main form of energy.

In Armstrong I see that educating yourself, being dependable and ready for an opportunity may enable you to launch the business you always wanted to do.

I hope we have captured your minds and inspired you with these Newcastle Entrepreneurs. If you have enjoyed this blog, Iles Tours offers a tour focused on the entrepreneurs whose businesses and inventions have shaped Newcastle.

For more information visit www.ilestours.co.uk

or email Alex at info@ilestours.co.uk

Find out more about Alex and our England’s North East bloggers here

Full of beans in the North East

With 70 million cups of coffee consumed in the UK every day, it’s easy to see why we’ve taken to roasting coffee on our doorstep. HELEN GILDERSLEEVE explores the region’s growing independent coffee roasteries, suppliers and cafes.

Pumphreys at Grainger Market
Pumphreys at the Grainger Market, Newcastle

Tyneside’s longest reigning coffee supplier is the much loved Pumphrey’s Coffee, based in Blaydon. Established in Newcastle’s Flesh Market (near the Bigg Market) back in 1750, Pumphrey’s is a true family business. Directors Stuart Archer (Snr) and son Stuart Archer (Jnr) provide top quality coffee and are dedicated to meeting customer requirements whether that be coffee beans, teas, brewing equipment or espresso machinery.

Pumphrey’s strive to purchase the finest coffee beans from around the world and roast them to order in the traditional way with flames. This involves open flame roasting drums dating back over 80 years and under the careful eye of master roaster Stuart Lee Archer, Pumphrey’s aim to provide delicious tasting, fresh coffee to their customers’ choosing.

Since 1983, Pumphrey’s Coffee has been based at Bridge Street in Blaydon. The site comprises a warehouse, factory, training room and a coffee shop open to trade and the general public.

Newer to the scene is the equally popular Ouseburn Coffee Co (OCC), based in Foundry Lane in Newcastle’s Ouseburn area. Established in 2012 by a small band of artisan coffee roasters and baristas it offers a highly selective range of coffee from around the world. All OCC coffee is lovingly roasted in small batch lots and bagged up fresh the same day.

OCC Harvest Canteen, Jesmond
OCC Harvest Canteen, Jesmond

Established in 2012 and offering ethically sourced seasonal coffee the coffee is roasted and bagged by hand in small batches on Foundry Lane in the heart of the Ouseburn Valley.

The business has gone from strength to strength and opened the doors of its Harvest Canteen café in Jesmond in 2014.

Famed for its simple, striking black and white design, which carries through to Harvest’s décor, the cafe has a clean, chic and relaxing feel and coffee lovers can pick anything from a flat white or an espresso through to a 7oz latte.

The more eccentric of coffee drinkers may even want to try OCC’s Cold Brew. Using just fresh roast single origin coffee, slow cold water extraction and triple filtration, OCC don’t add anything else to their brew and it is recommended to be enjoyed either on its own for the ultimate kick, with water or even added to gin or rum for a boozy drink with a difference.

They also have a regular stall at the popular Tynemouth Station Market every weekend. I love nothing more than sipping one of their lattes whilst browsing the market. This year also saw OCC boasting its own counter in Fenwick’s all new Food Hall. It certainly looks like there’s more to come from these guys.

BLK Coffee Heaton
BLK Coffee Heaton

A particular favourite of mine is BLK Coffee on Heaton’s bustling Chillingham Road. BLK has a regular rotation of beans from around the globe for the most dedicated and adventurous of coffee lovers.

The brainchild of BLK is local lass Alison Bell, who has her own coffee inspired blog and website- Black Coffee and Other Stories. BLK also stock amazing cakes every time I go in. Keep up the great work, Alison.

Pink Lane Coffee
Pink Lane Coffee, Newcastle upon Tyne

For city centre folk in need of a pick-me-up, Pink Lane Coffee near Newcastle’s Central Station has established itself as one of the foremost speciality coffee destinations in the region, featuring in publications such as Grazia, ShortList and the UK edition of the Condé Nast Traveller since opening in 2012.

Pink Lane Coffee is a spacious and creatively designed café featuring local art work and a quirky décor. It even has its own mini library of books to borrow for those like me who often forget to remember their own.

They now roast their own beans called Colour Coffee which are served at various cafes across the North East. Owner, Anth Atkinson, set up shop in Sandyford where he hopes to encourage locals to enjoy independent coffee.

Since Colour Coffee was founded in November 2013, near Corbridge, Northumberland, the firm has sourced a range of seasonal coffees from across the world, taking a scientific approach to production, with laptops and temperature sensors used to monitor and replicate each successful roast. Who knew science could taste so good?

Other fabulous independents across the region include the very popular Flat White in Durham, Flat Caps Coffee and Laneway & Co in Newcastle, Cullercoats Coffee and The Boatyard in Cullercoats, Navaho and Coolaboola in Jesmond, Holmeside Coffee and Café Eighteen in Sunderland and The Mockingbird Deli in Yarm, to name a few.

We truly are spoilt for choice.

@BLKCoffeeHeaton

@OuseburnCoffee

@PumphreysCoffee

@PinkLaneCoffee

 

Find out more about Helen Gildersleeve and our England’s North East bloggers here

Northern England’s BIG place in the world

DAVID SIMPSON considers the size and importance of Northern England and its place in the world and argues that the whole of the North should have a much bigger voice

Right let’s be clear, right from the very start, when it comes to people, the North of England is a pretty BIG place to be:

1north

Scotland’s population is around 5.3 million by the way.

Now, I’m not suggesting for one moment that the North of England – or any part of the North of England for that matter – should break away from the United Kingdom.

Heaven forbid!

I mean, for a start, we wouldn’t have won quite as many medals in the Olympics.

However, the three regions that make up the north – and not just the cities – do need a stronger and bigger voice that’s in keeping with their place in the world. In fact part of the problem is that they need to have a place in the world. Too often they’re seen as the fringes of England.

They’re more than that, in fact in many ways they are the real England.

Yet somehow, somewhere along the line, we’ve been conditioned to think small and the truth is we are very far from that. We have our own distinct history and a population that many nations in the world don’t come close too.

The North has a story all of its own – and it’s a big story and with deep roots.

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And we played no small part in what made our nation so powerful and successful in the past. In fact we played a major role in changing the world:

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Even the North’s smallest region  could have a much bigger voice:

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Whenever we think about the North, we need to remember to think big and ensure that we get our fair share of investment and a bigger say in our affairs.

Great Britain is not just all about London.

Without the North, it would be Not So Great Britain.

So, always speak up for the NORTH and let’s start by making sure that we are properly empowered to do so.

 

If you like this post you might like this follow up post  more maps:

A BIG populous region, that’s bigger than many nations

 

Find out more about David Simpson and our England’s North East bloggers here

Toon tour of passion and pride

DAVID SIMPSON meets Newcastle tour guide, Alexander Iles, who talks about his popular city tours and his hopes for the region

I meet tour guide, Alexander Iles at Newcastle’s Journey Café to the rear of the the Laing Art Gallery. He’s very welcoming and offers me a coffee. My first impression is of an enthusiastic, engaging young man full of passion for Newcastle and very keen to share his knowledge of the city and region.

Alexander iles
Alexander Iles

He draws my attention to a nearby building that was home to Victorian architect, John Dobson and points out what looks like a plain pavement just outside the café. Alex explains that this is the controversial ‘Blue Carpet’, a worse for wear art installation of 250,000 glass tiles, completed in 1999 at a cost of £1.6 million. He’s clearly not impressed by its sorry state, but it’s great to have your eyes opened to something you might not have otherwise noticed and in this Alex excels.

Alex is the owner of Iles Tours,  a three and a half-year-old business providing popular walking tours that have become, in a very short space of time, a major tourist fixture in Newcastle. They are also a great treat for locals wanting to learn more about their city.

You’re left in no doubt that the success of the business  is down to Alex’s knowledge, determination and passion for Newcastle. We chat for more than an hour and I’m struck by his desire to share as much of what he knows about the city and the region as he possibly can. What he knows is exceptional. I learned much that I did not know and as a North East historian myself, I’d say my knowledge is certainly better than average.

Though only 25, Alex has soaked up facts, stories and insights spanning centuries and this all helps to make his energy and passion so much more infectious. In fact such is his passion that it’s sometimes hard to get a word in, but it’s endearing because what he has to say is so fascinating and inspiring. What’s more it’s all told with a conviction that Newcastle and the North East has an extraordinary story that just has to be told and that this is a city and region destined for great things.

“It all started in March 2012” says Alex, remembering the beginning of his entrepreneurial adventure fondly, “there was a blizzard on the day and I started asking people if they would like a tour of Newcastle.”

Alex had studied Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University and stayed on to follow up with a Masters in Innovation Creativity and Entrepreneurship. He believes his academic background helped him understand cultures and how to “take apart the method of idea generation.”

Post university and frustrated by his job searches, being told he was either overqualified or inexperienced, he opted for self employment.

“I didn’t want to do an office job and loved Newcastle” he reflects.

“When I was younger my family and I went to the Edinburgh Festival and I remembered the guides and thought, well, that is something I could do.”

Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne: photo courtesy of Iles Tours

As a student, Alex developed a great affection for Newcastle and in his preparation for business his passion for the city’s history was further ignited through absorbent research:

“I went into Newcastle Library and read every book I could get on Newcastle and wrote my first tour – the Historical Tour.

“From here I went out and started asking people if they wanted tours and contacting people about what I could offer them.”

In setting up the business Alex received guidance from PNE (Project North East) and Rise Up at Newcastle University who gave him a £400 grant to build a website and make the first flyers.

“It helped a lot, as I had a vision but not much finance to get off the ground.

“For research I went to York to learn about guiding and how the city of York structures things. I wanted to see how it was done in a place with lots of tourism so I could then see where Newcastle would and will be”

Alex is motivated when people get passionate about the region and start seeing it for what it is. He wants people to love the region and to fight for it too. I find him optimistic about the region’s future as well and he believes the North East is on the verge of another great period of prosperity.

His optimism is based on the belief that a new industry or technology will be found for the city. Let’s hope he’s right. Indeed, as part of his research into a new tour featuring the city’s historic entrepreneurs, Alex has learned much about modern technology developments and technology companies within the city and the region and this will feature in his latest themed tour.

I ask him what it is about Newcastle and the North East that he thinks is so special?

“This is the greatest region in England and has so much rich history that makes it so vibrant today” he says.

“The North East is a location with such a unique culture, it is English, but it’s not, it is communal, friendly, based on honesty and mutual respect with a huge sense of humour.

“The layers of history are near the surface with the ancient Hadrian’s Wall side by side with the modern parts of the region. It is also the durability of the location; it always picks itself up, has a bit of a laugh about it and gets on with the work needed”

Hadrian's Wall. Photo: David Simpson
Hadrian’s Wall. Photo: David Simpson

Typical customers on Alex’s tours are from all walks of life, ranging from school children on trips to students and professionals, to older people taking city breaks. He also undertakes corporate tours from time to time at the request of local businesses.

Around half of Alex’s customers are British, around a quarter are from Europe and the rest are from English speaking countries. He seems to get some great feedback from customers who are impressed by what they learn. This is certainly backed up by glowing reviews on Trip Advisor.

Alex clearly gets a great buzz from inspiring and educating people about the region. Even when they are local, he is keen to show that although they may ‘know’ their city there is always so much more to know.

I ask what kind of expectations or preconceptions visitors have about Newcastle on his tours and Alex has a view on this:

“I think many people think Newcastle will just be a party city. Geordie Shore has had a lot of influence on the way people view the city. Others think Newcastle is just flat caps, coal and ships – or the lack of all three! I like showing that there is so much more to the city than this.”

Alex has made many surprising discoveries about the city but one of the things that strikes him the most is how much the world owes day to day things to the city. He believes that the inventions and inventors who came from Newcastle and the region are often taken for granted despite the fact that they transformed the way the world works and I am inclined to agree.

Light bulbs, power stations, competitive rowing, cranes at docks are among the developments Alex mentions.

“Newcastle has been pivotal in how the world has worked” he says.

NewcastleQuayside
Newcastle Quayside, Photo: David Simpson

Alex is an entertaining teller of tales, but also a stickler for accuracy which is a good thing, but I want to know what are his favourite stories about the city?

“It depends on how people I am touring respond to it (the tour) as to which one is my favourite” he says.

“Currently on a personal level it is the story of Roger Thornton and Ralph Carr, entrepreneurial businessmen who were very influential in Newcastle during their day. I look to them as heroes in my own business. Both men started with some advantages but had to work hard on their business to succeed in Newcastle and grew to the level where they were two of the most influential people in the North East and able to protect and invest in the region through their finances.”

Alex undertakes a number of different kinds of walking tours in Newcastle, each with a different theme. There’s an historical tour, a cultural tour and a gory tour and, as mentioned, he is close to introducing the new tour focused on Newcastle’s entrepreneurs. He can also create bespoke tours for people on request.

His gory tour started this way after Newcastle Blood Bank wanted a medical tour of the city. Alex put together the tour for them and realised he enjoyed the material, so started adding and editing it.

Alex is of course not the only guide offering walking tours in Newcastle and the North East. There are many experienced, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides offering such services throughout the region,  so I want to know what he believes makes his tours different?

“I think it’s a combination of my passion for the region and wanting people to love the area as much as I do. Anyone can list off facts, but to create an engaging story you need to take the facts and make it relevant and comparable to the age in which we live. History is a lot of stories and you need to draw it out of the facts and help people feel it.”

So as the business begins to grow where does Alex go from here? Well, Alex is clear in his future ambitions:

“My dream is to expand Iles Tours across the North of England within the decade – from Glasgow and Scotland down to the south of Yorkshire and then to plan expansion into Scandinavia, northern Europe and eventually southern England.”

However, in the present he’s focused on our region and hopes to continue developing the educational arm of his business as part of a teaching group called Meet The Ancestors – where like minded businesses work to teach the past to schools and the region. Alex has also written a book that he’s hoping to get published entitled A Time Travellers Guide to the North East.

“It is a passion of mine to work in establishing festivals in the North East”, he says “and helping to get people passionate about their region” he adds, and it is in this, it seems to me, that Alex is a shining light.

For more information about how to book an Iles Tour visit the Iles Tour website at Ilestours.co.uk

Tour Duration

Typically a historical tour of Newcastle lasts 2 hours

A Gory or Cultural tour lasts around 1 hour 45 minutes

If people ask a lot of questions tours can be longer – though Alex says these are often the best tours!

Prices

£20 for an adult, £15 for a concession and £10 for a child.

 

The light at the end of the roadworks

Roadworks may be frustrating for motorists but PAUL WHITE advocates patience with these necessary improvements to our civilisation

I drove from Durham to the MetroCentre a couple of weeks ago.

In rush hour.

Before I knew it, I was there.

It was the second time I’d experienced this phenomenon in recent weeks.

Having spent many an hour, over the course of the last couple of years, negotiating queues and 30mph zones, this was something of a pleasure.

Does that make me a sad case? Probably not. I’m sure many others will have enjoyed the freedom of the newly expanded A1.

IMG_1360
Roadworks on the A690 in Durham. Photo: David Simpson

We had similar issues not so long back on the A19 when the New Tyne Crossing was being built. Ok, so there is more to come as connecting junctions of the A19 are to be upgraded, but when you consider that these are the remaining clogs in that part of our road network, then surely the long term benefits are going to be worth any short term roadworks.

I must confess that I come to this from the viewpoint of someone who appreciates civil engineering from having worked with organisations and businesses in that sector in the past. I think I perhaps have developed a greater tolerance to the work that goes towards improving civilisation in our region.

Yes, improving civilisation. Think about it, this is what civil engineering does – it creates the world in which we live, from utilities to roads, bridges and buildings, flood defences and energy.

I’m not saying I’m a saint when sat in roadworks. I get tetchy, just like anyone. However, when I think about the end result, I tend to feel more tolerant. So long as I’m not in a rush, but hey, I know I should have given myself more time.

Earlier this year, proposed plans were revealed for a £290m upgrade of a 13 mile stretch of the A1 from Morpeth to Ellingham, that will hopefully slash journey times from Newcastle to Edinburgh.

We still have some way to go to the south of the region, with the A1 upgrades in North Yorkshire, but if a trip to Leeds becomes such a smooth ride, are we really going to complain (much)?

IMG_1326
Roadworks. Photo: David Simpson.

The Durham “Busk Factor” dilemma

PAUL WHITE presents his entertaining analysis of Durham’s busking auditions which aim to vet the quality of buskers in the city, but who decides?

An interesting item came up on my Facebook feed at the weekend. A couple of musician friends had both posted a link to a Change.org petition against a new way of regulating buskers that is being established by Durham Business Improvement District (BID).

Neither of my musician friends actually busk, but they were vehemently against the idea. I read the introduction to the petition, found that I, too, agreed, and duly signed up.

At the time of writing, it’s 22 names short of 1,000 signatories.

Busker Thomas Donnelly of Chester-le-Street in Durham’s Silver Street: Photo: David Simpson

The essence of the tale behind this petition is that Durham BID is bringing in auditions for people to secure six-month busking permit in Durham City. Currently, no such licence is required to do so.

Having read both the petition and reports in the Durham Times, it seems that local people attending these auditions, alongside representatives of local businesses, the police, etc, will get to vote on which buskers get a permit. It’s either a straight yes or no from the “judges”. How demoralising for someone who has a bad night, or is just starting out to face rejection like that.

It seems the business community isn’t happy with the noise and this is what has started all of this kerfuffle. (Note to certain elements of the business community, when you get a quiet moment in your shop, just listen to some of the rubbish being piped in on your speakers. Scorpio Shoes, where staff have excellent musical taste, are excluded from that last statement.)

Now, having seen who gets voted for on the X Factor, I’m horrified by this prospect. It always seems those talented artists who have worked their backsides off, busking away, playing to one man, his dog and a pool table in local pubs, and who have actually developed a skill set, far too often get voted off in favour of bland, manufactured music and “characters”.

Can you imagine Jedward or Wagner lasting five minutes if they tried busking on Gala day?

Interestingly, my England’s North East colleague, Dave Simpson, nipped down to the city centre and talked to some buskers.

Irish piper Neil Chambers told Dave he wasn’t really against the licence, but his main concern is for the increasing use of pre-recorded music by buskers and I have to agree.

Irish Piper, Neil Chambers of Newcastle on Durham's Framwellgate Bridge. Photo: David Simpson
Irish Piper, Neil Chambers of Newcastle on Framwellgate Bridge. Photo: David Simpson

Neil said: “They should do what Dublin did: ban backing tracks to take it back to what busking should be, creating a nice atmosphere instead of overloud pre-recorded music which a lot of people think is insulting.”

I can’t imagine the “X Factor” style voting panel would agree that backing tracks are a bad thing. You can just imagine Cheryl Fernandez-Versini (surname correct at time of writing – I genuinely had to Google it to check) saying: “Ok Reggie and Bollie, that’s very good, but I need you to play something called a guitar.”

Fair enough, if what this proposal does is eliminate that element of pre-packaged musical hell. Isn’t it better to put efforts into stopping those anti-social people who blast music out of their phones as they walk down the street, or as they travel on public transport? Perhaps they could legalise grabbing those phones from the offending individuals and smashing them into a million pieces. I digress.

What I like about unlicensed busking is that it is, by its nature, rather self-regulating. If buskers are good, they will earn money and return. If they are terrible, they will not, with the possible exception of a busker many of you may be familiar with, who camps himself at the Newcastle side of the Millennium Bridge and is charmingly entertaining in his own inimitable way.

It seems that the members of Durham’s business community who have created the issue by complaining about the noise must not be bothered by the actual noise itself, if the proposed resolution of the situation is for buskers to be licenced. Then it seems it may be a matter of taste and, surely, all these events are likely to do is change the style and, to some extent, quality of the performers. It’s swapping one noise for another and isn’t that just institutionalised discrimination?

Should the petition fail and this goes ahead, I urge all fans of live music, the ones who go down their local when there is a band on, the ones who go to local festivals and open mic nights, to get themselves along to these events en masse and vote for the real talent they think deserves a slot.

But then, if these acts can wow a real live crowd, do they not deserve something a little more than being sent to play outside in the Great British Weather?

*The first Live InDurham busking audition event will be held at Whisky River on Thursday, August 18, from 7pm. Details are available at www.durhambid.co.uk/live.

Views expressed by our bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of England’s North East or Truly Awesome Marketing Ltd

What does the future hold for Ouseburn Farm?

HELEN GILDERSLEEVE finds out how a popular urban-based farm hopes to achieve self-sufficiency as it faces major cuts in funding

Ouseburn Farm and Viaduct
Ouseburn Farm

Based under Byker Bridge, the Ouseburn Farm in Newcastle is a rustic green oasis in the heart of the city.

Sadly, the popular farm may face closure after a key backer was forced to withdraw support, leaving a significant funding shortfall.

Established as a charity in 1973, the farm is owned by Newcastle City Council, though for the last eight years Tyne Housing Association (THA) have paid £100,00 towards annual running costs. Cuts in funding mean the housing provider can no longer support the farm beyond April 2017.

The free-to-enter farm is a much-loved feature of the Ouseburn townscape and is home to cows, pigs, sheep, goats and ducks. It gives an opportunity for city people to get close to farm animals and provides farm-based and environmental education for over 4,000 school children and students in term-time.

Workshops teach agricultural, horticultural and environmental skills to vulnerable adults and members of the public and are provided by a staff of six full-time and two part-time employees supported by up to 20 volunteers.

Closure of the farm would be a major loss to Ouseburn but things are looking hopeful, as the charity is making steps towards becoming financially self-sustaining. The Board of the Tyne Housing Association has transferred a carpentry workshop and two furniture shops in Wilfred Street, Byker to the farm charity to help generate the much-needed funds.

Further funds come from Ouseburn Farm Shop on Heaton Park Road which opened its doors at the end of June. The shop sells upcycled furniture that has been restored and recycled at the Wilfred Street workshop which in turn reduces a cost to the environment by helping reduce landfill waste.

Ouseburn Farm Shop
Ouseburn Farm Shop on Heaton Park Road

In addition, the shop sells homemade bakery items and preserves produced at the farm. It is very a positive step forward for the farm in its aim to become self-sufficient

The farm itself in Ouseburn Valley also generates income from its newly refurbished coffee shop and educational classrooms. Workshops are available which aim to teach school children, students, vulnerable adults, volunteers and members of the public about agricultural, horticultural and environmental projects.

A spokesperson from Ouseburn Farm, said:

“We’d like to give a massive thank you to Tyne Housing Association who have funded the farm for the last eight years and we remain positive that the farm, treasured by all the community – near and far – will get backing in the near future.

“If anyone would like to do their bit to help us then they are more than welcome to donate as much or as little as they can afford.”

Ouseburn Farm Newcastle upon Tyne

Ouseburn Farm

Councillor Stephen Powers, Cabinet Member for Policy and Communication, said:

“The Council has had a long involvement with the farm and was instrumental in saving it ten years ago when it was discovered that the old City Farm was situated on land that was heavily contaminated from its historic use as the site of an iron works.

“Because it was recognised as an important and much-loved attraction in Ouseburn, which also had great potential, in 2006 the Council oversaw a major project to clear the contamination and replace the old buildings with a new environmentally friendly building.

“An innovative agreement with Tyne Housing Association for them to take over and develop the Farm has been very successful and I am very keen to see the Farm’s future secured. Both the Council and Tyne Housing face serious financial pressures in a time of austerity and so it is essential to find an alternative external funding source so the Farm can continue its excellent work with schools, volunteers and vulnerable adults.

“It is one of the key visitor attractions within the Ouseburn Valley alongside Seven Stories, the Victoria Tunnel and the various galleries, pubs and cafes and is integral to the emergence of the Valley as a unique and vibrant area of the city.

“The Council will work alongside THA to find a way of securing the future of the Farm after April 2017 and would be happy to talk to anyone who is interested in becoming involved with such a fantastic place.”

To find out more about Ouseburn Farm visit:

ouseburnfarm.org.uk

To donate to Ouseburn Farm, visit their Just Giving page here 

Tweet @OuseburnFarm

BuzzCloud takes the sting out of beekeeping

Honey Bees: Photo BuzzCloud
Honey Bees: Photo BuzzCloud

Bees play a critical role in plant pollination, making them a crucially important part of our ecosystem. JONATHAN JONES visits a County Durham business that could make beekeepers of us all with the help of 21st century technology.

A COUNTY Durham environmental business hopes to take the sting out of beekeeping, and encourage more people to become beekeepers, with a 21st century bee hive, monitored through a smart phone app.

Long seen as a specialist industry, traditional beekeeping requires sometimes expensive equipment, can be time consuming, and land intensive.

But new business BuzzCloud buzzcloud.global, in Tantobie, County Durham, hopes to change all that, with the development of a bee hive, linked to the ‘internet-of-things’, which will enable anybody to become a beekeeper, and more importantly protect a species that is fundamental to life on this planet.

The ‘internet of things’ is a development of the world wide web, which gives everyday objects, such as vehicles and buildings, Internet connectivity, by embedding them with electronics, such as sensors and actuators, which can be monitored using a mobile phone.

Roger Lewis, director of BuzzCloud, and his colleague, Fraser Lindsley, are seeking funding to manufacture the first hives for public testing. They already have a number of hives at beta test sites across the UK, including locations on North Tyneside and in Leicestershire.

A BuzzCloud Hive: Photo BuzzCloud
A BuzzCloud Hive: Photo BuzzCloud

And they’re hoping to use crowdfunding, against bank lending or venture capital, to fund the production of the first hives available to the general public.

Crowdfunding works by asking thousands of people, not necessarily in the UK, for small amounts of money to fund the projects they are interested in.

BuzzCloud is seeking an initial $20,000 (approximately £15,500) on the Indiegogo site www.indiegogo.com, one of the largest crowdfunding sites in the world. The official launch takes place on July 15.

Mr Lewis explains: “We chose crowdfunding as it allows us to raise the relatively small amount of money required for the initial project, through people who have an interest in helping bees. We chose Indiegogo as it’s one of the largest crowdfunding sites in the world.

“If this initial crowdfunding phase raises the money required for the test hives, we’ll then look at future crowdfunding when we are ready to go into production of hives that will be available to the general public. Starting small like this also provides real market validation.”

The public launch will follow analysis of the initial information collected from ten beta test hives.

Mr Lewis, originally from South Africa, and who also lived in Malawi (in central Africa), plus other parts of Europe, before settling in Tantobie, is an electronics and IT professional who wants to put his skills to good use protecting bees.

He believes there is no other beehive around that can monitor the life of the bees within it so effectively, although hives have been developed in Australia to make the process of harvesting the honey easier.

As well as being able to monitor the hive remotely, using the BuzzCloud mobile phone app, users will also be able to change settings, such as raising the temperature of the hive, in particularly cold periods, or to help deal with pest infections, such as the Varroa Destructor mite, which can destroy entire hive populations, typically 40,000 – 60,000 bees.

BuzzCloud will use 3D printing and cutting technology to create the hives, using sources of recycled cellulose.

Once further funding is secured, it is hoped the first bee hives available to the public will be produced in a specialist, automated industrial unit, in County Durham.

And hives will be produced in a variety of sizes to meet the requirements of the urban beekeeper.

Mr Lewis said: “We’ll be looking to develop smaller hives, which can be put on a balcony, or in a confined space, in urban locations.

“Larger hives will be capable of producing 25kg or more of honey, with the smaller hives, half that amount.”

And as for those people put off beekeeping by the prospect of being stung, Mr Lewis said: “Perhaps the best thing about this new approach to beekeeping is that you don’t have to be a beekeeper!

“It’s no longer necessary to get suited up in a clumsy beekeeping suit and gloves just to monitor your beehive – we make it possible to do almost all the monitoring needed using your mobile phone or tablet. This does not mean that remote monitoring can eliminate all manual inspections, it does however sharply reduce the number of times the hives need to be manually inspected.”

 

Visit the BuzzCloud website buzzcloud.global

 

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