Category Archives: Business

Speaking up about our past

DAVID SIMPSON argues that history could play a bigger role in how we market our region when presenting ourselves to the world

Imagine going for a job interview where you weren’t allowed to say anything about your past, an interview where you couldn’t say anything about your past achievements or the challenges you faced or the ways you’ve inspired and motivated people.

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle Photo © David Simpson 2018

We will allow you to say that you’ve got all the right attitudes and ambitions and that you have all the right skills in place but how are you going to prove it? Well it’s going to be hard especially as the competition, under the same restrictions, will be saying exactly the same things as you. So how are you going to demonstrate that you’re unique, that you’re special that you’re different?

Well, you’re going to struggle when it comes to saying something interesting and unusual about yourself. Of course in business there are no such restrictions, people want to known about your past because it demonstrates who you are, what you have achieved and what you might be able to achieve in the future.

Now, this is what frustrates me as someone with a passion for our region’s history. You see, surely the same goes for our region too? When it comes to marketing our region to the world we shouldn’t be coy about our history and past achievements, there’s no rule to prevent us from speaking of our past. We can be selective of course, who wouldn’t be? However, we shouldn’t be shy about it. The problem is sometimes we forget what we’ve actually achieved and it’s a good idea to refresh the memory now and again. It’s a great boost for confidence.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge
Gateshead Millennium Bridge : Photo © David Simpson

Look we’re in a market, competing with places across the world and when I say we, I mean all of us because everyone who lives and works in the region or even those who are just visiting are at some level potential ambassadors for the North East. We can all play a part in telling the world our great story and all the great things that we can do and all the great things that we have achieved in the past.

Yet there still seems to be a lot of amnesia around, forgetfulness or perhaps a lack of confidence in our story. The present, like the future is very important of course and in attracting investment to our region it’s great to say we are home to world leading companies: Nissan, Siemens Procter and Gamble, Hitachi Rail Europe and many more. It’s great to talk about our fabulous highly-skilled workforce, our partnerships, our infrastructure, transport networks, ports, airports and of course our world class educational establishments.

This is all good and we can be particularly proud to say that in our region it is often more than enough to get the world to sit up and take notice.

The thing is, though, just as with the job interview, you can guarantee that all the competition are all telling a similar story even if they may not be telling it quite so well.

So when it comes to the opportunity to demonstrate something unique, something different and special about ourselves as a region it’s a chance to share the extraordinary links and influences that we often have with the wider world. It’s here that we have an opportunity to shine and this is where our past comes into play.

Now I think in the world of business, history is too often seen as something of a novelty sideshow, or a dust-laden trinket that we bring out now and again to show off like a half-loved antique. It can be seen as something that is beneficial to our tourism industry and little else besides. The exception perhaps is in its contribution to our region’s townscapes, landscape and inherent beauty which we are not quite so shy to promote.

Marketers have recognised these visual attributes and this has been demonstrated by the impact of skilled photographers and film makers who have showcased the region’s glorious attributes in wonderful stunning, panoramic colour. This is great, it helps attract people to our region to see what it’s really like and that can only be good for business.

So we love the stage setting that is the North East but we also need to remember the rich array of stories and achievements from the past that this grand stage has hosted. We need to tell those stories boldly and with confidence.

In our region we have a phrase ‘Shy bairns get nowt’ which means if you don’t ask for things or if you don’t speak up with confidence, you will not receive. Ironically, it’s one of our region’s favourite phrases, yet too often we are rather shy about speaking up about our achievements. We are shy about asking for the recognition we deserve. This is certainly true when it comes to our history.

For example here in the region we pioneered electric light for the world: the story of Sunderland’s Joseph Swan; Newcastle’s Moseley Street; the Lit and Phil; the grand mansion at Cragside in Northumberland; a Benwell light bulb factory and even a house in Gateshead that’s now a care home played a massive, massive role in bringing electric light to the whole world.  Yet all we ever hear about is the famed American inventor, Thomas Edison who seems to have that famous light bulb permanently and unreservedly screwed tightly in a permanent place above his head as if it was his idea alone.

Joseph Swan and Charles Parsons number amongst the famous industrial pioneers associated with the region
Joseph Swan and Charles Parsons number amongst the famous industrial pioneers associated with the region

Our role in this world-changing era of history was every bit as important as the contribution of Edison and yes, I dare say it, probably more so. It’s shameful that Britain as a whole knows so little about this and this may be partly due to our region’s ‘shy bairn approach’ when it comes to recognition of our cultural and scientific achievements.

Then we have the railways and the first public railway ever, which opened here in the region. There are arguments of course but the Stockton and Darlington Railway was there before its counterpart from Liverpool to Manchester that we hear so much more about. Is it because those two cities are seen as less provincial than the twin Tees Valley towns? Why? It’s probably down to our modest, shy bairn values again.

And even before those railways, we had the unique ‘Newcastle Roads’, the west’s first railways, horse drawn wagonways that existed here in the region long before the days of locomotives. And we may continue: Stephenson’s Rocket was the victor at Lancashire’s Rainhill railway trials as every school child knows it, but too often we forget it was built on Tyneside. So let’s speak up.

And then there is our present year 2018 and next year 2019 and so on and so on. Yes, even that is down to us. How? Well it was a Northumbrian scholar and saint – arguably the most influential man in his time – that popularised the system of dating our years from the supposed birth of Christ.

Yes, it was Jarrow’s own Bede that brought about the adoption of this system of numbering our years that came to be used across Europe and subsequently the entire western world. Just think about that, that’s a pretty major contribution to our world as we know it today. Bede, incidentally, also had the distinction of being the very first English historian as well. He was the first English historian in the whole of the English speaking world and by the way, he knew, quite confidently, that the world wasn’t flat.

The Venerable Bede
The Venerable Bede

There are so many things our region has given this world. Sometimes they are major industrial developments, sometimes they are quirky cultural contributions but they are all worth knowing and sharing as part of our story. We must make sure our young people know these stories and that every businessman and every ambassador at every level knows them too.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral. Photo © David Simpson

What about the world-changing architecture of Durham Cathedral or James Cook’s discoveries in the Pacific and Australia? How about Washington, the world’s most influential capital, which traces its name back to a small North East village? These are all part of the story of the world.

Let’s not stop there. Think about Durham lad, Jermiah Dixon who created the Mason-Dixon line which divided the north from the later ‘Dixieland’ of the south in the American Civil War, or Redcar and Washington’s Gertrude Bell who drew up the borders of Iraq. How about the region’s part in the development of football across the world? What about the first ever football World Cup – won by a team from a Durham mining village.

We could talk about the starring role the region has had in the movies, whether it be Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall or the majestic Bamburgh Castle, not to mention the role of Alnwick Castle and Durham Cathedral in the Harry Potter movies.

Oh yes, Hadrian’s Wall, almost forgot, the world’s largest Roman archaeological feature marking what was once the northern boundary of Europe’s greatest Empire.

Milecastle 39 Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall. Photo © 2018 David Simpson

We could talk about our language and dialect too which has some of the oldest English features in the English speaking world. Indeed some of these features date back to Bede’s time. Surprisingly the Northumbrian language had a profound influence on the speech of Scotland rather than the other way around. I mention this because it’s a reminder that we played a big role in some notable developments in the world’s most influential language.

In fact even our darkest periods have had some impact on language in this respect. Think about the battle-worn Border Reivers of Northumberland, Cumberland and the Scottish Borders who in times past brought into use phrases like ‘blackmail’ and being ‘caught red-handed’ a colourful and interesting feature of our language and our past. Alright, perhaps our connections to such phrases are something we might want to reveal with caution in the world of business.

Well ok, what about all those reiver surnames that still proliferate across the region today? You are going to encounter them everywhere. Reiver names can now be found all across Britain and the English speaking world in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. There must be millions of people with these name but how many of them know their connection to our region and know that our fascinating story is also a big part of theirs.

So if you’re doing business with an American Armstrong or an Australian Robson, or a Charlton, a Milburn, a Shaftoe, a Hetherington – there is a long list of names – it might be worth mentioning the connection. It’s an unusual opportunity to connect with our region and it is in my view one of the great untapped selling points of our region.

So when asked at that interview if there’s anything unusual or interesting we might say about ourselves as a region, we can see that we have plenty to say and plenty that we might share beyond the wonderful attributes of our workforce and our infrastructure.

However, we do need to lose the amnesia, embrace our history and start remembering our story. We need to be unashamedly proud of our past.

Just remember that ‘shy bairns get nowt’ and lets start speak up about our past achievements.

You never know; it might just get us the job.

Whisht! lads ‘ I’ll tell ye aboot the Tangled Worm

County Durham-based Tangled Worm is a new  North East based business publishing poster prints with a bit of difference with an emphasis on Northern heritage,  fun facts and just a little frivolity.

Worm legends poster
Worm legends poster print

“We specialise in colourful poster prints with an emphasis on information, quirky facts and northern history as well as occasionally delve into other educational themes like science” says owner David Simpson, 50.

David Simpson
David Simpson

Based near Durham City Tangled Worm was set up in November  by David, a former writer with The Northern Echo best known as the author of a number of books about the North East.

“I want to produce prints that are colourful, fun and informative” says David  “and I’m especially keen to focus on Britain and particularly the North of England but also want to produce prints that are just for fun”.

A colourful print featuring 150 jokey 'batty book titles'
A colourful print featuring 150 jokey ‘batty book titles’

One of David’s most popular prints is a map featuring over 1,000 rude and curious place-names in North East England which includes such wonders as Common Slap, Old Man’s Bottom, Comical Corner, Goodwife Hot, Make Me Rich, Crackpot and Stinking Goat. It also includes explanations for some of the more familiar unusual names like Pity me and Unthank as well as a wide range of place-names with an international flavour like Moscow, California, Boc Chica, Philadephia and Toronto that pop up throughout  the region.

Curious place-names of North East England
Curious place-names of North East England

Northern history themed maps include the troublesome Border reiver surnames: Robson, Charlton, Milburn, Elliot, Armstrong and many others whose murderous raiding and livestock rustling culture dominated Northumberland and neighbouring border counties in Tudor times. The map includes a few tales associated with some of the most notorious reiving families.

Representing a more distant period is a map showing the Iron Age tribes of the North and the routes and events of the subsequent Roman invasion. Another map features the principal Roman features of the North and two very detailed poster print maps depict the Kingdom of Northumbria in the Viking age and in the pre-Viking era complete with details of raids, invasions, murders, settlements and lists of the all the Kings and Earls based at Bamburgh and York.

The Iron Age North
The Iron Age North

It’s not just about history though, Northern culture is well represented. Products include a Geordie Dictionary poster featuring explanations and origins for over 500 North East words and a unique map showing the names of 1,400 notable northerners ranging from scientists, celebrities, singers, comedians, inventors and notable industrialists from Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Hull in the south all the way up to Berwick. All the northern counties from Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire up to Northumberland are featured.

There’s even a map depicting the North East ‘worm’ legends which provided the inspiration for the business name.  In case you’re wondering, worms are wyverns, legendary serpents that feature in ancient stories that are entwined and entangled with the mythology of invading Vikings, Angles and Saxons.

David says he loves unravelling such tales and history in general to reveal strange roots and sees the world as a place of entangled mysteries and puzzles waiting to be solved, untwisted and enjoyed with wonder. This goes for science too – his colourful Periodic table is one of his latest additions which explains how the elements combine in ways to make up our universe.

Periodic Table
Periodic Table

“In the same way as the knights of old defeated the by slicing up those worms I like to break up knowledge into morsels for entertainment and enlightenment. It hopefully whets the appetite to learn much more.”

Visit Tangled Worm Poster Prints at

https://tangledworm.com

Tangled Worm

 

The ancient ‘broken’ counties of Tyne, Wear and Tees

Why is the Wear an appendage of the Tyne? Why is the ‘North Humber Land’ of Northumberland  so far north of the Humber? Why is so much of the River Tees not even part of the ‘Tees Valley’?

In this blog, historian DAVID SIMPSON laments the loss of the straightforward traditional, easy to understand historic counties of the North East and Yorkshire.

traditional counties
The flags of Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire

Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland are ancient counties with roots going back a thousand years or more but something changed in the 1970s that left communities confused and disembodied in a legacy that continues to this day.  It was during that decade that those long-lived county regions were broken into little pieces, redefined for economic or political purposes and given artificial names that were in some cases little more than marketing brands.

Take Yorkshire for instance. It was recorded as ‘Eoferwicscire’ as far back as 1055, though its roots are much older than that. It developed from the Viking Kingdom of York and its three ancient ‘Ridings’. Indeed it was the Vikings who divided Yorkshire into the three parts called ‘Ridings’ (North, West and East) from the Norse word ‘thrithing’ or ‘þriðjungr’ meaning ‘third part’.

Despite this ancient division the Vikings didn’t re-brand the three individual bits with cumbersome names. They kept things clear. Yorkshire or ‘York’ as it was often simply known remained intact and the ‘Ridings’ remained in place up until 1974.

It was in 1974 that London’s brutal battleaxe of bureaucratic boundary changes hit Yorkshire as it did many other places in Britain. A new county called ‘Humberside’ was hacked out of Yorkshire’s south eastern corner and it annexed rather a lot of Lincolnshire too. People from Hull, wherever they might venture, now had to justify that they were still in fact Yorkshiremen, maintaining their centuries old right.

In 1996 Humberside was of course ultimately abolished and quite rightly too. It was then that the East Riding of Yorkshire re-merged (now the only riding) and although Hull’s separate city status was acknowledged, its place in Yorkshire is clear.

It was in 1974 that Cleveland was created too.

Now, as a name Cleveland was not without precedent. Even the Vikings knew of it, calling it ‘Cliffland’ in their time. As an ancient district it was part of Yorkshire and exclusively part of Yorkshire, that is to say part of that giant historic county south of the Tees. This Cleveland – the real Cleveland – stretched as far west as the little town of Yarm, encompassed Middlesbrough (a monastic cell in medieval times) and stretched right down to the River Esk at Whitby taking in the Cleveland Hills and the beautiful Cleveland coast.

The Yorkshire town of Yarm lies within a loop of the River Tees
The Yorkshire town of Yarm lies within a loop of the River Tees. It was part of the Cleveland district of Yorkshire. It is part of Stockton-on-Tees Borough. Unlike Yarm, Stockton was historically a County Durham town.

However, the new 1974 County of Cleveland was something quite different to the old Cleveland district of Yorkshire. The new Cleveland still included Middlesbrough and Yarm and some of the Cleveland coastal towns but this county of Cleveland was, in historic terms, an awful anomaly.

For a start, Hartlepool, the ancient sea port of County Durham was annexed to Cleveland’s expanded realm along with the historic Durham towns of Stockton and Billingham and pretty villages like Egglescliffe and Norton. Yet south of the Tees much of the real, historic Cleveland was not included in the new county. So, bizarrely, most of the Cleveland Hills and the village of Carlton-in-Cleveland were not included in the new County of Cleveland.

The nonsense of ‘Cleveland the county’ eventually ended (as it did with Humberside) in 1996 after an existence of only 22 years but it was only to be replaced by a new kind of nonsense some twenty years later.

The so-called ‘Tees Valley Combined Authority’ (an awful mouthful it has to be said) began life as a ‘local enterprise partnership’ in 2011 but then became a combined authority in 2016. The new authority was more or less identical to the county of Cleveland, but now also included the historic County Durham town of Darlington which had long been the focal town for South Durham.

There was apparently much support for this new combined authority across that region with 65 per cent of people voting in its favour. In fact, on closer examination (according to Wikipedia) there were only over 1,900 responses to this question – that’s not very many when we consider the Tees Valley region has a population of 700,000.

The town of Barnard Castle remains in County Durham
The town of Barnard Castle stands on the banks of the Tees but remains in County Durham

What makes the term ‘Tees Valley’ really confusing is its geographical scope. For example, you can walk along the south bank of the River Tees opposite Darlington Borough and you are firmly in Yorkshire but for some reason you’re definitely not in the Tees Valley. Similarly up in the Dales you find that Barnard Castle and the surrounding countryside of Teesdale isn’t part of the ‘Tees Valley’ either.*

‘Barney’ as it is known to locals is the capital of Teesdale, on the north bank of the river and still in County Durham as it has been fro many centuries.

Then we have Hartlepool an historic town with an extraordinary history that was once one of Britain’s major sea ports is situated on the North Sea coast. Hartlepool was never a port on the River Tees but is included as part of the Tees Valley.

The reality is of course that Tees Valley is rather a nice marketing term for Teesside with Hartlepool and Darlington thrown in for good measure. It has no real historic meaning beyond that. If you think about it though Tees Valley has a quite a nice ring to it and it is a much more pleasing name than the now deeply ingrained and for some reason widely accepted term ‘Tyne and Wear’ which the American writer Paul Theroux compared to ‘Time and Wear’ (as in worn by time) but we’ll come to that ‘county’ in a  moment.

North of the Tees (and yes we do mean the Tees) the name Northumberland (or in Latin style ‘Northumbria’) survived the Viking annexation of Yorkshire. It was a reminder that the whole of the North was once the name of the ancient kingdom of everything English north of the Humber.  During the Viking era this remaining Northumbrian rump split into two parts with the land between the Tyne and Tees ultimately becoming County Durham, but the term Northumberland continued to be used north of the Tyne.

Durham developed as a kind of buffer state between Viking Yorkshire and the rest of Northumberland. Centred initially on Chester-le-Street (Conecaster) and then later Durham City it was focused on the revered shrine of St Cuthbert. ‘St Cuthbert’s Land’ as the fledgling County Durham was known was later called ‘Haliwerfolc’ (meaning Holy-man-people and certainly more northern than the ‘folc’ of Norfolk). It was recorded as Dunelmensisschira meaning Durham-Shire in 1100 but ‘shire’ or ‘folk’ never caught on as part of Durham’s name.

Durham City
Durham City – the capital of the Prince Bishops

As a County Palatine ruled by Prince Bishops, the name County Durham later came into being as the Prince Bishops’ powers depleted. We should not forget that their influence was extensive across the region. I’m always amused by road signs telling yo that you’re entering the ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ on the A19 near Sheraton just north of Hartlepool or on the A1(M) south of Washington. The ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ in fact begins at the Tees and ends at the Tyne not according to some modern make-shift administrative boundary. In fact it ends about a quarter of way across the Tyne on the Gateshead side.

The boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead were founded by the Prince Bishops marking the very beginning of those places as towns. Hartlepool was the Prince Bishop’s port, Stockton the site of one of their major castles. The Priors of Durham founded the port of South Shields.  And of course the links between Washington (Washingon CD for  County Durham) and the beginnings of the esteemed family of that nameis also directly linked to the Prince Bishops. Agreed that all of these events are a very long time ago but these places are still linked to the unique history of Durham. It’s part of what makes them special and interesting and different and part of their historic identity.

The seal of Prince Bishop Hugh Pudsey who established the boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead
The seal of Prince Bishop Hugh Pudsey who established the boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead

Durham continued to act as a kind of buffer state in post Conquest times with its defensive focus now, like that of Northumberland, directed towards the constant inroads of invading Scots. In later times Durham’s rich medieval roots were eclipsed by a new era of industrialisation. It became an industrial powerhouse of shipbuilding and engineering and above all coal mining with a population straddling the banks of the three great rivers of the North East and the Durham coalfield itself stretching north to the banks of the Tyne.

County Durham of course shared the Tyne with the neighbouring county of Northumberland (and with Newcastle) and shared the Tees with Yorkshire. It’s true that some of the strongest regional identities developed in the riverside communities where the allegiance can be more to the river rather than the county but this isn’t adequately reflected in terms like Tees Valley or Tyne and Wear.

Tynesiders and Teessiders and Wearsiders all identify most closely with their riverside communities which unite each of the people in each of the three areas. I think it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear anyone identify themselves with Tyne and Wear or Tees Valley – unless they’re a politician.

The Wear is odd man out as far as the three great rivers go as it was never a shared river in terms of county allegiance. It was and undoubtedly still is the County Durham river, rising in the Durham fells before flowing through Weardale, the historic town of Bishop Auckland, the City of Durham and Chester-le-Street. The  it leaves the county without any apparent natural reason, eventually entering the sea at Sunderland in what is or was the largest and perhaps proudest of all the Durham towns – though now of course a city. It is to Sunderland to which this County Durham river is now most closely linked yet for the entire course of County Durham’s history up until 1974 it was entirely a County Durham river .

Historic view of Sunderland harbour at the mouth of the Wear in County Durham
Historic view of Sunderland harbour at the mouth of the Wear in County Durham

Today Sunderland is no longer in County Durham and any glance of the map shows that has become an appendage of the so-called ‘Tyne and Wear’.

Like Cleveland and Humberside ‘Tyne and Wear’ was established as a county in 1974 and despite its let’s be honest ugly name is still somehow going strong today, although now as a unified partnership of individual boroughs and cities linked by economic interests and an admittedly excellent integrated transport system.

Like ‘Tees Valley’ the Tyne and Wear makes much sense on an economic and business level but culturally and geographically there is something highly contrived about the term ‘Tyne and Wear’. In my view, any label given to a geographical entity that includes the doubtfully justifying word ‘and’ in its title must clearly have some kind of inherent disunity at some level. It might work for a business partnership but for political geography the term ‘and’ never really convinces.

Wearside, the City of Sunderland has a population of around 270,000 people that includes large, neighbouring towns, but in reality places like Washington and Houghton-le-Spring which may close relationships with Sunderland are really separate entities.

Tyneside by comparison is mostly a continuous almost homogeneous urban region (perhaps not an endearing description) straddling two sides of the Tyne. Tyneside has a much larger population than Wearside with around one million people – a point, incidentally, rarely taken into account when comparing the relative size of support for the rival Tyne-Wear football teams .

It would be interesting to know what people think of the old counties and if they still fell an affiliation to them within the Tyne and Wear and Tees Valley regions. I suspect older people, particularly in outlying towns and villages in boroughs and cities like Gateshead, Sunderland and Newcastle may still have a closer affiliation to traditional counties rather than the modern ones and those in the larger towns connect more closely with terms Tynesider (or Geordie), Wearsider/Mackem or Teessider.

On my travels I have certainly found an affinity with older people to the traditional counties such as County Durham in places like Houghton-le-Spring and Hetton-le-Hole. North of the Tyne Newcastle, Gosforth and particularly North Tyneside: Whitley Bay, Tynemouth and North Shields in particular certainly seem to me to have something very Northumbria in their nature and personality as much as they are ‘Geordie’ when compared to say Gateshead or South Shields to the south of the river.

Of course the Tyne (like the Tees) despite its different communities unites as much as it divides, whether it be in the form of the wider ‘Geordie’ culture or in sporting terms where Tyneside is mostly ‘United’ in Newcastle as its focal centre.

Bridges on the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead traditionally linked the counties of Northumberland and Durham
Bridges on the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead traditionally linked the counties of Northumberland and Durham

Yet in 2016 a vote on a region-wide North East devolution deal suggested that in another sense the traditional county divisions may still be strong.  Durham County, Sunderland, Gateshead and South Tyneside all voted against the devolution plan for a North East combined authority. In other words all the places in the old County of Durham. **

However places north of the Tyne: Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland all voted in favour. Subsequently a new deal was formulated solely focused on the region north of the Tyne – the Northumberland of old.

Historic identities dating back thousands of years are perhaps harder to shift than we realise despite the brutal machinations and manoeuvrings of London bureaucrats and local marketing men.

 

*Note confusingly 1974 also saw the annexation of that part of Teesdale south of the River Tees from Yorkshire into County Durham, moving places such as Romaldkirk and Mickleton into Durham. The administration of Teesdale is of course focused on Barnard Castle, historically a County Durham town on the north side of the river.

** The ‘Tees Valley’ counties were not included in the North East combined authority vote as they already had their own version of this.