Angel of the North
Overlooking the A1, on the southern edge of Low Fell, the Angel of the North stands on the site of the colliery baths of the Team Colliery (or Ravensworth Ann Pit), a mine that operated from the 1720s to the 1960s and which claimed at least 80 lives during its operational years.
In 1989 this industrial site was reclaimed and the following year, partly inspired by the success of the sculptures at the Gateshead Garden Festival, it was decided that the site should become the home to a major landmark sculpture.
Sculptor Antony Gormley was selected in 1994 to create what would become the region’s most iconic landmark with £800,000 of funding secured for the project.
Manufactured of steel at Hartlepool, the Angel was transported to the site in three sections on low loaders in a journey that took five hours. Once assembled, the Angel was unveiled on February 16, 1998.
The central, 65 feet high, ribbed human figure of the sculpture weighs 100 tonnes and is modelled on Gormley’s body. The two outreaching wings resemble those of an aeroplane and weigh 50 tonnes each with a span of 175ft, almost the same as a jumbo jet. They tilt inwards by 3.5 degrees offering a welcoming embrace to those visiting the region.
It is estimated that this impressive rust-coloured Angel is seen by 33 million people every day. That’s roughly equivalent to one person every second.
Today this awe-inspiring, beautiful work has become a symbol not just of Gateshead, Tyneside and the region as a whole but is recognisably one of the icons of Britain.
Part of the romance of the structure is of course in its setting on the edge of Gateshead Fell overlooking the A1 with the green valley of the River Team to its west.
In 1800 Gateshead Fell was a wild uninhabited heath studded with “miserable huts” and cottages occupied by muggers, cloggers and tinkers. It was part of Gateshead’s common land, belonging to the freemen of Gateshead and Gateshead’s Lord of the Manor, the Bishop of Durham.
It was exposed land on which preacher John Wesley found himself lost in a snowstorm in February 1745, “many a rough journey have I had before, but one like this I never had” he later recalled. In 1809 an act of parliament was obtained for dividing the fell with permission for developing roads, drains, wells and quarries.
Development began in earnest in the 1820s when many poor dwellings were demolished and a church was built dedicated to St. John. Consecrated in 1825 it was built on Sour Milk Hill, now part of Sheriff Hill. Living on the Fell soon became a matter of improved status.
Low Fell developed on the western part of the fell overlooking the pretty valley of the River Team with views of Ravensworth Castle. In the 1850s Low Fell was “a large village” through which a new turnpike road (Durham Road of 1826) passed through, studded with numerous pleasant villas overlooking the Team. To the east near Windy Nook is the suburb of High Fell, also once part of Gateshead Fell.
The poet Thomas Wilson (1773-1858) was born in Low Fell. His works include ‘The Pitman’s Pay’ and ‘Weshin’ Day’. From a poor mining family, Wilson progressed to become partner in the Tyneside alkali manufacturer Losh, Wilson and Bell. Another talented son of Low Fell was the singer and songwriter Alex Glasgow (1935-2001). Glasgow composed the songs and music for the popular play ‘Close the Coal House Door’. He also wrote scripts for the TV drama ‘When the Boat Comes In’ to which he sung the famous ‘Dance ti thye Daddy’ theme tune.
The first private house lit by electricity
The Underhill Residential Home in Kells Lane, Low Fell has a place in world history as one of the former homes of the Sunderland-born electric light bulb inventor Sir Joseph Wilson Swan (1828-1914) who lived here from 1869 to 1883.
In Swan’s day this picturesque building was his private house, simply called Underhill but its significance is recalled on a plaque on the outside wall. It recalls Swan’s residence and notes that Underhill was the first private house in the world to be wired for electric lighting and was thus the first to have electric light bulbs installed.
Swan, who was also a major pioneer of practical photographic processes invented and demonstrated the first light bulb known as the incandescent electric lamp in Newcastle. This occurred prior to its development by the American inventor Thomas Edison who usually takes the credit today because he was quicker at acquiring a patent.
Swan’s first wife died in 1862 and he moved to Gateshead in 1869 where he lived with his second wife (previously his sister in law). Here, the children of his second family were born. After Swan’s departure, Underhill served as Beaconsfield School. It is now an old people’s home.
Wrekenton and Eighton
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Wrekenton was open land. It was the site of a small house called Red Robins, a pub called the Seven Stars and a row of cottages called St Helena Row.
Around 1820 a village was established by Mr Warburton, who named it Wrekenton at the suggestion of the historian, the Reverend John Hodgson. The name was chosen because the new village was divided from neighbouring Eighton Banks by a Roman road called Wrekendyke on the southern boundary of Gateshead Fell parish.
Today, the Wrekendyke follows the B1288 and A194 ‘Leam Lane’, towards White Mare Pool roundabout. Wrekenyke means dyke of the fugitives and was reputedly inhabited by Romany gypsies before the Victorian village was built.
Early spellings of Eighton, a place nearby, suggest it means ‘high settlement’ which is an apt description. In the nineteenth century, sandstone quarries around Eighton were the source of the misnamed Newcastle Grindstones that were famed throughout the world.
Nearby Springwell, technically in Washington, is named from being the source of the River Don that eventually enters the Tyne at Jarrow. A colliery opened at Springwell in the 1820s and was operated by the Liddells and later the Bowes family.
Harlow Green east of Eighton has a name that comes from the Anglo-Saxon Hare-Law meaning grey hill.
Birtley at the southern extremity of Gateshead Borough lies to the south of Low Fell and the Angel of the North. It is rather hemmed in sort of place being separated from Eighton and Harlow Green on the edge of Gateshead by the A69. On its eastern side it is even more cut off from Washington, in the City of Sunderland by the A1(M) even though it is only metres away. On its west side it is separated from the open countryside of the Team Valley around Ouston and Kibblesworth by the railway of the East Coast Main Line. Perhaps Birtley’s closest connection is with the neighbouring town of Chester-le-Street in County Durham to which it is continuously linked by housing.
The name Birtley means ‘the bright clearing’ and it belonged to the Neville family from the 1300s to 1569 but had previously belonged to the De Birtleys who took their name from the village.
Coal mining took place here from as early as the 1300s and by the 1700s Birtley was mostly inhabited by miners. It was still a village in the nineteenth century but grew to absorb Barley Mow, Portobello and Vigo to the south. Portobello commemorates the British naval victory at Porto Bello near Panama. Vigo commemorates a naval victory of 1702 over the Spanish and French near the Spanish city of that name. Barley Mow was named from a local pub.
An iron works existed at Birtley from the 1820s on the west side of the Durham Road and was operated by the Perkins family of Birtley Hall. One member of this family, Colonel Perkins (1821-1871) is commemorated in a prominent statue in Birtley Village Square. The Perkins name is also remembered in the former mining village of Perkinsville near Chester-le-Street, which was built by the family in 1856 to supply coal for the Birtley iron works. Today the Birtley iron works site is occupied by the Komatsu factory.
Birtley’s Belgian village
Birtley has an extraordinary link with the nation of Belgium as for a short time it was home to an entire village of Belgian nationals. In February 1916, during the First World War, an agreement was made between the British government and the Belgian government in exile whereby Belgians would manage the armaments factories at Birtley and provide labour.
A town called Elisabethville, named from the Belgian Queen was built just north of Birtley and occupied by around 6,000 French and Flemish speaking Belgian refugees along with injured Belgian soldiers.
Fenced off from the rest of Birtley with strict restrictions on access, there were around 40 streets in the town with names like Rue De Namur and Rue De Bruges and a main street called Boulevard Reine Elisabeth.
The houses were huts but Elisabethville had its own school, police force, nunnery, a church, several shops, a hairdressers and licensed premises. There were three choirs in the town, a brass band, a debating society and the Belgians even had their own newspaper.
After Christmas 1918 the war was over and all except around 30 Belgians (who married locals) returned home to Belgium. New streets with English names were built on the site of the town and local people moved in. Today the hut-houses of Elisabethville have long since gone but Birtley’s Elisabeth Avenue marks the site of what was once Boulevard Reine Elisabeth.