Newcastle : City of many layers

Newcastle upon Tyne

The layers of history in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne are really quite extraordinary. A Roman temple in a city suburb; the secret foundations of a Saxon church; a Norman castle; a medieval town wall; cherished churches and a fantastic friary. How about the fabulous fenestration of a seventeenth century quayside house or the Regency terraces and neo-classical streetscapes of Grainger Town. Not forgetting, of course, the bridges of steel that are masterpieces of Victorian; twentieth century and twenty-first century enterprise.

Tyne Bridges
Tyne Bridges © David Simpson

Ascending from the river front of the Quayside, where medieval merchants plied their trade exporting colossal quantities of coal we may head upward to the sweeping grandeur of beautiful Grey Street and its prominent monument to the Northumbrian Earl Grey. Then we find everything topped by the crowning space of sporting worship that is St James’ Park. It is hard not to be impressed by the visible story that Newcastle has to tell and much has been said about the dramatic eye-catching contrasts of townscape created by the multiple levels of the rising river bank so beloved of photographers.

The course of Hadrian’s Wall, once the very edge of the Roman Empire runs through the heart of ‘The Toon’ the modest Geordie term for ‘town’ that locals use to describe this remarkable place. The Roman wall follows Westgate Road out into the suburbs where suburban gardens at Benwell back out onto a temple dedicated to Antenociticus and the nearby crossing of an impressive Roman earthwork called ‘the vallum’.

Remnants of Roman Temple of Antenociticus at Benwell
Roman Temple of Antenociticus at Benwell, Newcastle © David Simpson

In the heart of Newcastle’s impressive old centre still stands the sturdy Norman keep of the great castle from which this city is named. It looms high above the Tyne as it has done for centuries, though sliced through and separated from its equally impressive and once integral neighbour, the Blackgate, by the determined sweeping curve of a Victorian railway linking the two sides of the Tyne.

Newcastle Castle including the Blackgate
Newcastle Castle including the Blackgate © David Simpson

The ‘new castle’ has for centuries been one of the city’s oldest buildings and stands on a site where the Roman fort of Pons Aelius had stood, protecting the bridge or ‘pons’ ordered, presumably, by the Emperor Hadrian, whose family name was Aelius.

Curiously enclosed within the old fort and subsequently enveloped by the later castle is the enigmatic foundation of an Anglo-Saxon church, seemingly the only major legacy from that great era of the Kingdom of Northumbria, a period of centuries in which Newcastle’s future role as a regional centre was strangely dormant. It was then a place seemingly known as ‘Monkchester’ its importance easily eclipsed by Jarrow, Corbridge, Hexham, Hartlepool, Wearmouth, York, Ripon and of course Lindisfarne.

Anglo-Saxon church at Newcastle
Anglo-Saxon church at Newcastle © David Simpson

Yet, this place on the Tyne would emerge in the succeeding millennium as the dominant town (and much later city) of our region. At first slowly emerging on the banks of the Tyne, under the protective gaze of its castle and the later town walls, Newcastle’s growth was built on the export of coal. Powerful burgesses asserted their power eastwards along the Tyne and into the neighbouring ports of the North East coast. At Trinity House off Broad Chare close to the Quayside we can see a legacy of this era.

Grey Street in the nineteenth century
Grey Street in the nineteenth century

Of a later era, are the ‘Grainger Town’ developments of which Grey Street is the culminating glory. The architecture of this period of prosperity is equally epitomised by the elegant beauty of the Central Station but there are perhaps slightly more modest buildings that conceal stories, events and associations with people whose innovative impact in some cases extended far beyond the Tyne.

Lit and Phil, Newcastle
Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle © David Simpson

This is no more so exemplified by the Literary and Philosophical Society in Westgate Road not far from the station where in one era or another Tyneside greats such as Richard Grainger; John Dobson; William Armstrong; Robert Stephenson; Joseph Swan; Charles Algernon Parsons; Thomas Bewick and Charles Earl Grey were members. The ‘Lit and Phil’ recalls an era of great confidence, innovation, belief and destiny that still evokes an enormous sense of pride in this city of many layers.

You can read more about the history of Newcastle in the following pages of the England’s North East site:



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