West Road, Roman Wall and Riverside
Here we briefly explore the history of the western parts of Newcastle like Benwell and Fenham and neighbouring riverside areas such as Newburn; Elswick and Scotswood. Firstly, we head out along the Westgate Road which here becomes the West Road and follows the course of Hadrian’s Wall.
Places along this route include Arthur’s Hill; Fenham; Benwell; Denton Burn; East Denton and West Denton. All of these places were once separate villages and lie along the northern edge of the ancient Roman Empire.
From the Dentons we continue to the villages of Walbottle and Throckley at Newcastle’s western edge. Just south of Walbottle and Throckley is Newburn on Tyne in the riverside area. From there we turn and follow the riverside eastward back towards Newcastle’s centre though Lemington, with its glass cone landmark and on to Scotswood, where we follow the famous Scotswood Road through Elswick, back into central Newcastle.
Newcastle Helix to Arthur’s Hill
From the centre of Newcastle, the Westgate Road (A186), follows the course of Hadrian’s Wall in that typical Roman arrowshot fashion heading west from Newcastle’s castle keep and the Central station area.
In the city centre where the castle now stands was Newcastle’s Roman fort of Pons Aellius. From here the Westgate Road follows the course of Hadrian’s Wall. The road crosses St James Boulevard and reaches the Leazes area of the city near St James’ Park football stadium.
The edge of this ancient empire then skirts the southern edge of an exciting new modern development called Newcastle Helix, where progressive businesses and their associated residences will focus on bringing “healthier, longer, smarter and easier lives to the world” in what is undoubtedly “one of Europe’s most exciting innovation hubs.”
Soon the ancient frontier of Rome marked out by the Westgate Road passes the southern outskirts of one of Newcastle’s nearest suburbs, Arthur’s Hill.
Given the course of the ancient wall, you might be forgiven for thinking that the legendary King Arthur defended some hill hereabouts in the immediate post-Roman era with which he is associated.
Sadly, Arthur’s Hill, is not named from the legendary or semi-legendary King of the Britons but from Arthur Cookson, the son of Isaac Cookson, a builder, who constructed the houses hereabouts.
Fenham, the western neighbour of Arthur’s Hill, is also to the north of the Roman wall and its name means ‘homestead on the marsh or fen’. Compare this to the boggy explanations for Byker and Walker in the wall country to the east of Newcastle and you can be certain the Romans had chosen their frontier country well.
In the twelfth century Fenham belonged to the medieval crusaders called the Knights Templar and passed later to the Knights Hospitalers of St John of Jerusalem. From the eighteenth century Fenham belonged to the Ord family who lived at Fenham Hall, built in 1745. It later became a convent school and teacher training establishment. Here at Fenham, with Benwell to the south, Westgate Road becomes the West Road but continues to follow the course of the Roman wall.
At Benwell, surprising remnants of Hadrian’s Wall survive amongst the housing. Benwell’s Anglo-Saxon name was originally ‘Binnan wealle’ which means, ‘behind the wall’ or ‘within the wall’ and describes Benwell’s location close to the Roman frontier. The Anglo-Saxon era was of course after the Roman period. For the Romans, Benwell had been the site of a Hadrian’s Wall fort called Condercum.
The outline of the fort itself can barely be traced but one of two very remarkable survivals here is a Roman temple, a place of worship that stood in the civilian settlement or ‘vicus’, just outside Benwell Roman fort. This particular temple is unique as it is dedicated to a deity called Antenociticus and no other temple anywhere in the world has a dedication to this particular god.
A helpful information board explains that almost nothing is known about Antenociticus though a head was discovered from a statue in 1862 depicting him with almond-shaped eyes and flowing curling hair. Like the later churches which are of course the temples or places of worship of the Christian era, this temple had a nave which terminated in an apse, though it is very modest in size.
It is thought Antenociticus was a local god worshipped in this particular locality long before the Romans arrived and was then Romanised as part of the typical process of adopting and Romanising local religions.
The fort of Condercum remains largely buried beneath modern housing but the defensive Roman ditch called the ‘vallum’ can be clearly as well as the nearby temple. A significant surviving feature of the deep defensive vallum at Benwell (always to the south of the wall) is a crossing point just south of the fort site. This would have been manned to ensure that those who intended to cross had good reason for doing so.
The later post-Roman village of Benwell developed a little to the south of the old Roman fort in an area called ‘Benwell Village’ but there is little to be seen from earlier times other than old stone walls bordering the village streets. Nearby is the Tudoresque Benwell Tower, built by John Dobson in 1831.
In a more recent age Benwell Tower doubled for ‘Byker Grove’ – the youth centre that featured in a BBC children’s TV drama of that name (1989-2006). The series made a name for the young Geordie actors Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, who later, as talented TV presenters, became award-winning household names in British television and have dominated the country’s light entertainment in a most extraordinary way ever since.
Benwell Tower once belonged to the Bishop of Newcastle. It is a castellated tower and replaced the demolished Benwell Hall that had belonged to the Shafto and Bowes families. A pond in the grounds of the tower was named ‘Ben’s Well’ and this caused some confusion amongst some later historians over the origins of Benwell’s name.
Benwell was a coal mining area by the nineteenth century and included a new nearby village called New Benwell centred around Adelaide Terrace, along with an industrial area on the riverside just west of Elswick called South Benwell. One pioneering industrial development here was the South Benwell Electric Light Works associated with the early pioneering developments of electric light, that started on Tyneside in the 1890s.
Denton Burn, West Denton and East Denton
There are three Dentons : Denton Burn, East Denton and West Denton. The name Denton simply means, ‘settlement in the dene/valley’ which is of course the valley of the Denton Burn.
The burn separates the Dentons from Benwell. This valley is quite wooded in the neighbourhood – a typical dene – and enters the Tyne near Lemington Gut in the Scotswood area to the south, near to where the A1 crosses the river.
As at Benwell, features of the ancient Roman wall crop up amongst the twentieth century housing. A turret on Hadrian’s Wall guarded the wall at Denton where it descended into the valley and is known as the Denton Hall turret. The turrets of the wall, just like the forts and milecastles were placed at specific intervals.
In the Denton area the West Road and Hadrian’s Wall intersect with the present day A1 at a major roundabout and beyond this, the West Road becomes the A69 which is the course that the Roman Wall follows until it reaches Blucher and Walbottle. There it follows Hawthorn Terrace passing through Walbotttle and neighbouring Throckley to the west.
Blucher, Walbottle and Throckley
Blucher, Walbottle and Throckley are all situated within a former mining district. Blucher was the name of a colliery, its name inspired by the Napoleonic Wars and is named from the Prussian Field Marshall Gebhard Von Blücher who fought alongside the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. George Stephenson, who of course worked in this neighbourhood at nearby Wylam named one of his colliery locomotives Blücher. It was at nearby Newburn that Stephenson first tried out his famous Rocket locomotive.
Neighbouring Walbottle has a much older name and origin than Blucher, going back to Anglo-Saxon times and means ‘abode on the Roman wall’. ‘Bottle’ is an Anglo-Saxon element occurring in North East place-names such as Newbottle, Shilbottle and Bothal. About a mile north of Walbottle we find the source of the Ouseburn which flows through Newcastle’s northern and eastern suburbs.
Hadrian’s Wall passes through Walbottle and neighbouring Throckley which is the last village in Newcastle and Tyneside. Heddon on the Wall just to the west is in the county of Northumberland.
Newburn lies on the River Tyne in the far western reaches of Newcastle to the south of Walbottle and Throckley. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘New Burg’ meaning ‘new fort’ or ‘new manor’.
In Anglo-Saxon times the ‘vill’ or ‘manor’, belonged to the Kings of Northumbria. It was seemingly a place of importance, being the lowest point at which the Tyne could be forded. Interestingly, New Burg could also feasibly be translated as ‘New Castle’.
In 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest, a nobleman called Copsig, who had been appointed by the Normans as Earl of Northumbria was captured by the Northumbrians at Newburn while attending a feast and was beheaded.
A hall associated with the Northumbrian royalty stood hereabouts close to this important fordable point on the river and the Norman church of St Michael in the village perhaps stands on an earlier Anglo-Saxon site.
On August 28, 1640 the Battle of Newburn was of major national importance as its events helped trigger the English Civil War. The Battle of Newburn Ford (there were two fording points here) involved the forces of King Charles I against an army of Scottish Covenanters.
Charles had been forced to call the ‘Short Parliament’ (he had suspended parliament for some time) to call on their support for military action against the invading Scots. Parliament refused to help until the King conceded certain demands but he refused.
Charles dismissed the Parliament and resolved to fight with the limited resources that he could command and was inevitably defeated in the battle. The highly trained Scots under General Leslie mounted a cannon on the tower of Newburn church and lined other cannons along the riverside, scattering the English over on the Stella and Blaydon bank of the river with their bombardment.
A steelworks opened at Newburn in the 1820s giving rise to a local nickname ‘New Sheffield’ that was used at the time. The present bridge across the Tyne at Newburn dates from 1892 and is perhaps the least-known bridge in the Tyneside area. It links Newburn to the Stella and Ryton areas across the river. In fact Newburn is very much on the fringe of Newcastle and Tyneside and still retains a village like appearance.
Lemington, with its Anglo-Saxon-sounding place-name lies to the east of Newburn. Its most remarkable landmark is the prominent cone-shaped brick building of 1797 that is a remnant of the Lemington glassworks that were established in 1787. The cone can be seen to the west of the Scotswood Bridge and is now home to a fireplace and stove company.
The Lemington Gut, which enters the Tyne here underneath the bright, white two-arched Lemington Bridge of 2001, is actually part of the former course of the Tyne. Here the river once formed a rather tight S-shaped bend.
The top half of the meander that created the ‘S’ was cut through around 1880 by the Tyne Improvement Commission. This also deepened the river at Blaydon. The gut is fed by a stream that flows through the wooded Sugley Dene but the gut itself is a remnant of the old course of the River Tyne rather than the mouth of the stream.
The south half of the S-shaped river course occupied the rounded riverside meadow land that still forms one of the most distinct bends on the whole course of the Tyne. Called Newburn Haugh, here the river forms a sort of bracket shape and is home to Newburn Business Park. Until the river improvements of the 1880s there was an additional feature here on the southern edge of the haugh in the form of an island.
Here the river once split into two parts briefly before it re-joined, forming a complete island and a venue for the Blaydon Races, including the famous races of 1862 that were immortalised in song. A similar island called the King’s Meadow also once existed between Dunston and Elswick. In 1887, the races moved to a site at Stella Haugh, a little to the west of Blaydon.
A neat new bridge called Lemington Bridge dating from 2001 carries a road across Lemington Gut into the neighbouring business park on Newburn Haugh. There are three further bridges across the Tyne itself in this area just downstream from Lemington. They are the concrete Blaydon Bridge of 1990, which carries the A1 across the Tyne; the old Scotswood Railway Bridge of 1871 which carries a water and gas main across the river; and the Scotswood Bridge, a road bridge of 1967.
Named from Richard Scot who enclosed a wood here in the fourteenth century, Scotswood grew in the nineteenth century. This was under the influence of the Tyneside industrialist William Armstrong, who built his famous armaments factory along the Scotswood Road close to the Tyne. The factory is of course mentioned in the Blaydon Races.
The most notable landmark of this stretch of the Tyne is the Scotswood Bridge which dates from 1967 replacing the earlier Chain Bridge (mentioned in the Blaydon Races), a suspension bridge of 1829 that had been widened and strengthened in the 1930s.
Scotswood was noted for its coal mining as well as its links to engineering. Thirty-eight people died in a colliery disaster at Scotswood’s Montague Colliery in March 1925 when the mine was flooded by water from the neighbouring Paradise Pit.
Paradise probably recalls a rural area on the fringe of an industrial one. Paradise and Scotswood Road both feature in the lyrics of the Blaydon Races.
The Armstrong factory on Scotswood Wood has, along with its present successor, served the area for over 160 years. For long known as the Armstrong Vickers Work, the present factory building was officially re-opened in 2015 by football legend Alan Shearer OBE as a centre for the Reece Engineering group.
The riverside areas linking Scotswood and Elswick along the Tyne were once called Paradise and South Benwell. Elswick is thought to derive from Aelfswige’s Wic meaning, ‘the farm belonging to Aelfswige’, an Anglo-Saxon. Henry, the son of King David of Scotland, held fishing rights at Elswick in the twelfth century.
Until the instigation of improved drainage techniques in the 1860s the centre of the Tyne at Elswick was home to a 30 acre island called the King’s Meadows that was home to its own pub called the Countess of Coventry.
In the late 1830s the famed Newcastle builder Richard Grainger bought most of the land at Elswick for industrial development and intended to build a railway terminus. His expenditure almost bankrupted him. Fortunately he was bailed out by John Clayton. It brought an end to Grainger’s illustrious building career.
In 1847 the industrialist William Armstrong bought five and a half acres of this land alongside the Tyne to build the armaments factory which proved to be a much greater success than Grainger’s speculative venture.
Armstrong and his factory became the biggest employer in the Elswick and Scotswood areas with around 25,000 people in the company’s employment, with a significant numbers of incomers from across the country including Ireland and Scotland. This industry was the main reason for the birth and growth of Newcastle’s western suburbs and their numerous terraced streets.
In addition to armaments, Armstrong made the Elswick and Scotswood areas famous for their shipbuilding and particularly their war ships. Shipbuilding development was facilitated by the opening of the Armstrong-built Swing Bridge in the Newcastle Quayside area in 1876, replacing the old low level stone Tyne Bridge.
The river route from the Elswick and Scotswood areas to the sea was now open to ships. Warships became an important business from the 1880s and in the period 1895-1905 almost the whole of the Japanese navy was built along this river front.
At Elswick the Scotswood Road is a busy dual carriageway that gradually veers away from the river and finally terminates at Marlborough Crescent and the Centre for Life in the centre of Newcastle.
Other roads follow the course of the riverside, while a long-distance pathway called ‘Hadrian’s Wall Path’ used by cyclists and pedestrians hugs the riverbank all the way into the Quayside area, accompanied by the neighbouring Skinnerburn Road as it approaches the most westerly of Newcastle’s central bridges – the Redheugh Bridge. This area was once home to the Elswick Lead works.
Shortly before the road and path pass beneath the bridge, a road called Shot Factory Lane shoots off to the left up the bank towards Newcastle Arena. One is a reminder of a busy industry and manufacture; the other an icon of the city’s important modern leisure and entertainment industry.
The arena itself stands on land that had once been a mass of railway sidings associated with neighbouring industries and the Forth Banks Goods station which stood up the bank between the Redheugh and King Edward bridges.