Blaydon and Ryton


Blaydon’s name is thought to mean ‘black hill’ or ‘bleak hill’ and was once a village noted for an irregular street, containing “a few rude and homely cottages” until industry brought growth in the nineteenth century.

River Tyne at Blaydon
River Tyne at Blaydon © David Simpson

By the 1850s, Blaydon possessed “several handsome and substantial dwellings” with its growth stimulated by coal and industry. In the 1700s the Hazard and Speculation Pits were established at Low Shibdon and became part of the Blaydon Main Colliery. The colliery reopened in the mid nineteenth century and operated until 1921. In the 1850s industries at Blaydon included a chemical company, brick works, engine builder, steel forge, glass maker and sawmill.

Keelmen, were still an important trade in the 1850s, but railways increasingly threatened their livelihood. Of course Blaydon is most famous as the setting for the Blaydon Races, a horse racing event immortalised in song.

The Blaydon Races
The Blaydon Races

One well-known nineteenth century Blaydon character, John Brown, the Blaydon bellman is remembered in the song as Jackie Broon. He lived in Blaydon’s Wesley Place and is buried in Blaydon cemetery. Since 1981 the annual Blaydon road race for athletes and joggers has been held from Newcastle to Blaydon more or less following the course of the journey mentioned in the song. Each race is set in motion by the ringing of Jackie Broon’s actual bell which is looked after by Newcastle’s Discovery Museum.

Blaydon Races

The Geordie anthem ‘The Blaydon Races’ has made the name of Blaydon famous throughout the world. Written by the Gateshead-born music hall performer Geordie Ridley (1835-1864), many places mentioned in his song are actually on the Newcastle side of the river. It is at Blaydon that the journey portrayed in the song finally culminates after the crossing of the Chine Bridge “reet into Blaydon toon”.

This bridge was the Chain Bridge, a suspension bridge of 1831 that was the predecessor of the present Scotswood Bridge. It was arguably the most attractive bridge on Tyneside but became increasingly unsuitable for modern traffic needs and was replaced by a new bridge in 1967.

River Tyne from the Scotswood Bridge
The River Tyne looking west from the Scotswood Bridge © David Simpson

The other Blaydon landmark mentioned in the song, the Blaydon Mechanics Hall has long since gone. In one of the verses of his song Ridley mentioned his forthcoming performance at Blaydon Mechanics Hall, possibly one of the first places the song was ever sung.

Racing had started at Blaydon in an official capacity in 1861 on an island in the Tyne called Blaydon Island. In 1887 it was transferred to Stella Haugh, a site that was later home to a power station. The races were last held in 1916 when they were abandoned due to rioting caused by allegations of race fixing.

The first public performance of the song by Ridley was on the fifth of June 1862 at a testimonial for the great Tyneside rower and sporting hero Harry Clasper, which was held at Balmbra’s Music Hall in Newcastle. The song was composed as an advertisement for a Geordie Ridley concert to be held at Blaydon and describes a coach journey from Newcastle to Blaydon.

In Ridley’s time ‘The Blaydon Races’ song was nothing like as well-known as it is today and it was only at the beginning of this century that it was made popular by a Tyneside comedian called Scatter.

Blaydon Races art installation
Blaydon Races art installation of 2013 by artist Andrew McKeown near the site of the races © David Simpson

In 1862 the Blaydon Races were to be held on the island in the middle of the River Tyne but they were called off when a heavy storm made it impossible for the horses to plodge (wade) their way across to the race course. This storm is recorded in the last verse of the ‘Blaydon Races’ but most of the events referred to in the song actually took place in 1861.

River Tyne, Blaydon
River Tyne, Blaydon © David Simpson

The last Blaydon Races were held on the 2nd September 1916 but had to be abandoned when a riot broke out following the disqualification of a winning horse.

Aw went te Blaydon Races,
’twas on the neenth o’ Joon,
Eighteen Hundred and Sixty Two,
on a summer’s afternoon,
Aw teuk the bus frae Balmbra’s an’
she was heavy laden,
Away we went alang Collingwood Street,
That’s on the road to Blaydon.

Oh me lads ye shud a’ seen us gannin’,
Passin’ the folks upon the road,
Just as they were stannin’
Thor wes lots o’ lads and lasses there,
All wi’ smilin’ faces,
Gannin’ alang the Scotswood Road
Te’ see the Blaydon Races.

We went past Armstrong’s factory,
and up te the `Robin Adair’,
Just gannin’ doon te’ the railway bridge,
The bus wheel flew off there.
The lasses lost their crinolines off,
An’ the veils that hide their faces.
An’ aw got two black eyes and a broken nose
In gan te Blaydon Races.

Chorus: Oh me lads…

When we gat the wheel put on away we went agyen,
But them that got their noses broke,
they cam’ back ower hyem.
Some went te the dispensary,
an’ others te’ Doctor Gibb’s,
An’ some sought oot the infirmary
to mend their broken ribs.

Chorus: Oh me lads…

Noo when we gat te Paradise
thor wes bonny game begun,
Thor wes fower and twenty on the bus,
Man hoo they danced and sung
They called on me to sing a sang,
aw sung them `Paddy Fagan’
Aw danced a jig and swung me twig,
That day aw went te Blaydon.

Chorus: Oh me lads…

We flew across the Chine Bridge
reet into Blaydon toon
The bellman he was callin’ there
they call him Jacky Broon,
Aw saw him talkin’ te some chaps,
an them he wes persuadin’
Te’ gan an’ see Geordie Ridley’s concert,
In the Mechanic’s Hall at Blaydon.

Chorus: Oh me lads…

The rain it poor’d doon aal the day
an’ myed the groond quite muddy,
Coffy Johnny had a white hat on,
They were shootin’ “whe stole the cuddy?”
There wes spice staals an’ monkey shows,
an’ aad wives sellin’ ciders,
an’ a chep wiv a hapeeny roondaboot,
shootin “now me boys” for riders.

Chorus: Oh me lads..

Geordie Ridley based his ‘Blaydon Races’ on an American song called ‘On the Road to Brighton’ also simply known as ‘Brighton’:

O my, you had ought to see us going,
Two forty in the sand and the old horse a blowing
O my, you had ought to see us skyting
Three fast boys on the road to Brighton

This song is American and refers to Brighton that is now part of Boston in the USA. It concerns a group of hell-raising young men who hire a horse-drawn wagon and head out on road trip. A number of verses describe their journey, including this one in which they receive black eyes:

We drove out to Fresh Pond and then we went to Newton,
Drove out to the Norfolk House, then we went to Brighton,
My friend got ina mus, then we went a fighting,
And we got black eyes just by going out to Brighton.

In truth Ridley’s lyrics are far superior and more entertaining in telling a story than the more superficial original that sounds rather like a group of hooligans boasting about their antics.

Stella : Hall of Fame

Stella, along the Tyne west of Blaydon is a small community whose ancient name stelling-ley described riverside meadowland where fish was caught. Today Stella’s housing estate occupies the site of Stella’s prominent, landmark power station. Called ‘Stella Power Station South’, it stood for around 40 years until demolished along with Stella North (across the river at Newburn) in the 1990s.

Stella Hall near Blaydon was demolished in the 1950s

Stella’s most historic building, Stella Hall has also sadly gone. Demolished in the 1950s it was originally a medieval manor given by the Bishop of Durham to the nuns of Newcastle in the 1100s. In Elizabethan times it came into the hands of the Tempests who built the hall and in 1640 was headquarters for the English army at the Battle of Newburn. This battle triggered the Civil War and in 1651 the hall was stayed in by Cromwell. In the eighteenth century it was home to the Jacobite Widdrington family and modified by the architect James Paine.

Joseph Cowen

In 1829, the influential politician, Sir Joseph Cowen was born at Stella Hall. Called the Blaydon Brick (partly from his father’s brick business) he was owner of The Newcastle Daily Chronicle. Cowen had a keen interest in European revolutionary movements and entertained the Italian patriot, politician and general Giuseppe Garibaldi at Stella Hall, presumably with tea and biscuits.

Axwell Park on the west bank of the Derwent between Blaydon and Whickham has an Anglo-Saxon name that derives from ‘ac schele’ meaning ‘oak tree shelter’. The estate came into the hands of the coal-owning Clavering family of Newcastle in 1629. One family member, Sir Thomas Clavering employed the architect James Paine to build the present Axwell Hall in 1758. This impressive Palladian hall is currently being developed for apartments.

Ambrose Crowley and Winlaton

Winlaton, south of Blaydon means ‘the farm belonging to Winelac’. Coal was mined here from medieval times when the Neville family held mining interests but there was no major settlement until 1691 when a Quaker, Sir Ambrose Crowley (1658-1713) opened a nail-making works. Crowley established furnaces and forges at Winlaton and Winlaton Mill for iron manufacturing.

Parish church of St Paul at Winlaton
Parish church of St Paul at Winlaton, designed by the Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi © David Simpson

Products included nails, tools, chains, wheel hubs, anchors, hinges and pots. His works were probably the biggest in Europe at the time. Crowley had been an ironware manufacturer in Stourbridge, Worcestershire. He moved to Sunderland around 1685 to escape restrictive pricing and using Russian and Swedish iron supplied Thames shipyards and the London Admirality.

His workers from Liege were harassed in Sunderland for their religion, so Crowley relocated to Winlaton, building a community away from the trouble of the towns in the rural setting of the Derwent Valley. He utilised the water power of the Derwent for his industry and exported via Blaydon.

Crowley was ahead of his time. His company had sickness benefits, a management committee and a medical team. The workers “the Crowley Crew” were staunchly Anglican (the company had its own chaplain) and were fiercely protective of their rights. They were not averse to an occasional fight with workers of the rival firm of Hawks‘ in Gateshead.

Ryton © David Simpson

Ryton and Crawcrook

Ryton is a pretty village along the Tyne to the west of Gateshead with a name meaning the ‘place where rye was grown’. It has a medieval church and a village green with an 18 feet high market cross dating to 1795.

Ryton © David Simpson

Mining took place here from medieval times but became more extensive in the nineteenth century when the Stargate, Emma, Addison and Clara pits opened in the parish.

Ryton © David Simpson

Close by Crawcrook means the corner, nook or crooked piece of land inhabited by crows. It possibly refers to one of the neighbouring bends in the Tyne, most likely that now occupied by Ryton Golf Course. Crawcrook was described in the Boldon Book (Durham’s Domesday Book) in 1183.

The village was historically a centre for mining. Crawcrook’s Kepier Chare housing estate is named from the medieval hospital of Kepier at Durham that owned land at Crawcrook until the mid 1500s.

Along with Blaydon, Ryton, Chopwell and Rowlands Gill, Crawcrook was one of a small number of places that were historically in County Durham despite lying on the north (or west) side of the Derwent. These places are all now part of Gateshead, but the castle town of Prudhoe across the Stanley Burn west of Crawcrook is in Northumberland which it always has been.

Gateshead Quay and Town Centre

 Medieval Gateshead

Felling and Heworth

 Angel of the North, Low Fell and Birtley

The Team Valley | Whickham and Gibside

 Newcastle upon Tyne 

Shotley Bridge, Ebchester and Hamsterley


Blanchland and Derwentdale 

 Washington  | Chester-le-Street

 Stanley | Beamish



North East England History and Culture