8 July 2021
A steep slope separates the Quayside from the Stephenson Quarter. The town walls once climbed this hill, connecting Close Gate at its feet to White Friar Tower at its summit. The 140 steps that ran along the parapet were known as the Breakneck Stairs.
A 26-metre-long fragment of the Stairs still survives, terminating at the top of Hanover Street. Not that we can see it on our walk this evening, buried as it is beneath a huge thicket of wild cherry, privet and ivy. Sunlight sieves through the gaps between their leaves, suffusing the green mass with a gentle glow.
The Stairs are bordered to the east by the shabby remains of the Hanging Gardens. Built in the early 1990s on the site of a Stephenson and Co. warehouse, the Gardens’ terraces once zig-zagged their way through an award-winning display of landscaped trees and ferns. A decade of neglect saw the Gardens become a cruising spot where vulnerable young men, often homeless and struggling with addiction or trauma, engaged in survival sex. One man, quoted anonymously in a report by a local charity, explained that sex workers operating out of the overgrown and poorly-lit passages were regularly subjected to assaults and muggings, concluding plainly that ‘it’s dangerous in the Gardens’.
Recent regeneration, including the arrival of the Forth Banks Police Station, seems to have pushed this hazardous trade away. Structurally, though, the Gardens remain unsafe and now lie sealed off behind a spiked steel barricade. After waiting patiently for people to retreat, nature has reclaimed the hill; butterfly bushes spill out between the bars of the fence and bow under the weight of prospecting carder bees.
A few yards behind us, a sign for White Friar Place points us toward another lost garden. For some 200 years, the Order of the Brethren and Friars of the Blessed Virgin, known locally as the White Friars, prayerfully tended here to their lands either side of the walls. The Friars may have used their land as other monastic communities did, to nurture flowery meads or a physic garden. Their patroness, the Virgin Mary, was sometimes depicted in medieval paintings as sitting inside an enclosed garden, known as a hortus conclusus, in order to symbolise the sanctity of her womb. The Hortus conclusus was also a feature in the grounds of medieval monasteries, taking the form of a cloistered or trellised garden, often with a fountain at its centre. Perhaps the White Friars of Newcastle honoured Mary with their own enclosed garden; a retreat from a fortified frontier in which a Friar might get an inkling of the peace that passes all understanding.
After the dissolution of the monasteries, the White Friars’ land was sold. For a period in the eighteenth century, the same soil sustained a walled orchard, gifting this place a name that has outlived both the subsequent felling of trees and the laying on of locomotive works in their place: Orchard Street.
A warm breeze blows up the hill like a sigh of relief. The sky is empty save for a waning crescent moon. Laughter from an unseen party of women erupts triumphantly over the faint chorus of kittiwakes: a portent, perhaps, of the fast-approaching Freedom Day. Jack comments on how different Newcastle seems compared to the cold and gloomy city we walked through in the winter. Once again, the path of the walls has reminded us just how much this place can change, day to day, season to season, year to year. The laughing women will leave town this evening, the kittiwakes will move on in the autumn. The ivy and privet will likely stay put until someone insists that planning prevail over neglect. Once the sun sets, a snapshot of a restless galaxy will peep out from behind the light pollution while, beyond it, infinite stillness will continue to rest, ready to be found and held.
Who, and what, is lost in all this hurried coming and going? The White Friars, of course, and the Tower they called home. So too, the Georgian orchards, the clattering engine sheds, and the Hanging Gardens’ thicket of snatched intimacies.
Who, and what, persists? The river and the high ground. The hill between them, and the stones that straddle it. The sky and the moon. Above all, the stillness; sought by the Friars in their trellised paradise, but no further from the young men snarled in the wilderness of the Gardens.
Presence itself; that much is always here.
Look closely enough at the surfaces of the walls, and they turn from relic to record, from a vestige of history to its witness. A few blocks of sandstone still bear the marks of medieval chisels, but all of them testify to the wind and rain that picked up where the masons left off. Over seven centuries, percolating raindrops have reshaped the face of each block, smoothing and spalling them, yielding ochre patinas and forming footholds for daffodils and daisies, moss and lichen.
The walls north of Morden Tower are still soot-stained from the days of the Gallowgate Lead Works, and the section that once looked out onto the Victorian workshops of Hanover Square is studded with joist holes for supporting lean-to sheds.
Look closer, and the sandstone tells a tale that stretches far further back than the nineteenth century. It began life as sediment deposited from sand dunes, when what is now the North East of England was an arid desert on the edge of a shallow sea. The blocks in the walls are a snapshot of the imperceptible slow dance of geological time; a process that plays out far beyond the barricades of human memory, and to which the evolution and extinction of species are but sparks given off by the grinding of tectonic plates.
Look closely enough, and the walls become a window into the future. After all, with enough pressure and enough time, all that we know and have known in this world -organic or inorganic- will become some sort of sediment. The certainty of this knowledge can feel oppressive, weighing down on the present like so many layers of sand. Look even closer, though, and the same certainty becomes a comfort. A distant wave, rising up to meet you on the dunes and carry you out to sea.
The crack resumes at full volume
in newbuild beer gardens,
where shivering pals, knackered and ecstatic,
commune under string lights.
Quieter is the data centre on Stepney Lane:
fenced off, out of earshot,
murmuring memory’s work
as we forget, and live.
A man unrolls a sleeping bag
in the doorway of Michael Kors,
back turned to the billboard flashing
LET’S BUILD THE NEW DIFFERENT.
There is blossom along the West Walls,
and Naked Attraction on the kebab shop TV.
‘I am used to bigger balls…I mean, do balls grow?’
‘D’you want garlic sauce with that, mate?’
8 August 1636
Ralph Tailor arrives at a modest Quayside house nestled just within the town walls. The owner of the property, Thomas Holmes, would usually be rowing his coal-laden keelboat around the tight bends of the Tyne and out to the collier ships waiting at the mouth of river. But today, he is bedridden in his loft room. Tailor is visiting the Holmes residence in a professional capacity; he is a scrivener, or will writer, and Holmes is dying of the plague. With the house boarded up to prevent contagion, Tailor is forced to improvise. He scales the town walls, unfurls his parchment on the parapet, leans toward the open loft room window and listens carefully as Holmes declares his last will and testament. The keelman leaves his share of his boat to his cousin Hugh Ridley, cash bequests to his daughters and siblings and ‘all the rest’ to his wife Ann.
Holmes is one of the 5,000 Newcastle residents who will die of the plague before the year is out; by December, the town will have lost nearly half of its population. Richer residents will flee to the countryside, leaving the middling and labouring classes to sustain the social and economic life of the town as best they can. Trade will slump, but not stop. Ralph Tailor will be ‘sent for’ to write the wills of the dying, while ‘keepers’ –women like Barbara Hall and Elizabeth Browne, who are paid a meagre wage to care for the sick in their final days– will enter the town records as their legal witnesses. Burials will take place at dusk to discourage large funeral gatherings. Ann Millborne will leave 20 shillings and some linen to her keeper, Jane Foster. Jane Robinson and Jane Young will be confined to an isolation lodge on the Town Moor after falling sick. Robinson will recover and continue to visit Young, who will die in September. Isabell Wiglesworth will visit her old friend Margaret Humphrey, despite the fact that Humphrey is housing a sick niece. A cordwainer called William Cooke will instruct his friends not to risk infection by visiting him and instead encourage them to ‘drinke twoe or three pottes of beere’ on his behalf. After the plague has passed, a town clerk will record the anonymous bodies of seven ‘poore things’ discovered just outside the town walls at Wardens Close. The Puritan merchant John Fenwick, writing during the First English Civil War six years later, will recast the Newcastle plague as a divine portent, unheeded by a Royalist town hell-bent on ‘superstition in worship and oppression in government.’
These details, recovered from the archives by the historian Keith Wrightson, offer fascinating glimpses of ordinary people responding to extraordinary events. Far from the apocalyptic images conjured up by John Fenwick, the picture of the town that emerges from the record books is one of both chaos and continuity, despair and determination, selfishness and solidarity. As Wrightson himself puts it, ‘when their world was threatened with collapse, the people of the city managed to hold firm; to contain the disintegrating forces that were unleashed among them.’
31 March 2021
While the impact of Covid-19 on Newcastle thankfully shows no signs of rivalling anywhere near that of the bubonic plague, the parallels between these two pandemics and their effects on the city are striking: the lonely deaths away from loved ones; the contrasting experiences of those privileged enough to stay out of harm’s away and those left with no choice but to work through it; the small acts of kindness from relatives, neighbours and friends; the yearning to restore personal proximity and connection; the shrill cries of ‘conspiracy!’ from a small but noisy minority.
On our walk along the path of the town walls this drizzly March evening, it’s this final, deflating connection that stands out most clearly. Near the West Walls, Jack and I spot an anti-lockdown sticker on a ticket machine that proclaims, ‘the freedoms you surrender today are the freedoms your grandchildren will never know existed’. A handful of similar stickers plastered to lampposts elsewhere along the walk allude to QAnon and the Illuminati. They partly command our attention because, in them, we recognise our own tendency towards pattern seeking and flimsy connection making. Psychogeography is, after all, only ever a few steps away from conspiracy theory. But they also prove difficult to dismiss because they reflect something of the present mood: the sense of being bewildered by complexity, of being unmoored from shared belief and experience, frantically grasping the next grand narrative that floats by. Without trying, the sticker evinces the possibility that one of the principal freedoms we might pursue as we follow the roadmap out of lockdown is the freedom to drift further and further apart from one another. Physically closer but still socially distant.
Along the path of the town walls there are two casinos, five gyms, 36 bars, 54 restaurants, approximately 1,800 hotel rooms, 2,000 purpose-built student bedrooms and 200,000 square feet of vacant commercial space. How quickly all of this will see immediate use again, remains to be seen. Some businesses are hanging on by their fingertips or are simply not coming back. Others have transformed themselves during lockdown or have even launched for the first time during it. Inside a café on the Quayside, a man and a woman huddle around a laptop, presumably planning their reopening. The man sips from his reusable coffee cup, the woman gnaws on the end of her pen.
Around the corner on Broad Chare, we happen upon a scene that predates, and will likely long outlive, the pandemic; outside Tesco Extra, three young lads are getting stoned in the rain. As we pass, one of them compliments Jack on his coat.
‘Are you from ‘round here, mate?’ he asks.
Jack confirms that he is. The lad grins.
‘I knew you were a Geordie,’ he continues, ‘I could tell by your walk!’
To illustrate his point, he mimes an exaggerated, Gallagher-style swagger. His woolie hat is emblazoned with the word ‘GUCCI’, spelled out in big white letters. He asks us what we’re doing and deems our answer –going for a walk– impressive enough to warrant a fist-bump. I offer him a Covid-compliant elbow instead.
‘I respect that,’ pipes up the second lad. I ask him what they are up to.
‘We came out to get mortal,’ he replies, ‘but the weather’s crap, so we’re going to finish these tinnies and go home.’ He gestures to a depleted six pack of Foster on the bench beside him. His fade is remarkably sharp, considering that barber shops have been shut since November. A third lad, face concealed by a straggly fringe, stands behind them, solemnly clutching an enormous spliff.
We try to maintain a two metre distance, which proves difficult as the lads have a habit of leaning in towards us each time they ask a question, forcing us to preface our answers with a subtle backwards step. Some of their inquiries –like ‘guess how old I am?’– are easy to answer, as only moments earlier, they have provided us with the requisite information. Others are disarmingly frank and searching.
‘What’s the one thing in your life that you regret the most?’ asks the lad with the fade.
I deflect. ‘Well,’ I reply, ‘it’s not things you do in life that you regret, but the things you don’t do’.
‘That’s mint, that like,’ he replies, initiating another elbow-fist bump. My glib answer seems to have resonated with the lad in the hat.
‘I work in a call centre, right,’ he begins, ‘and I do takeaway delivery stuff on the side. And I’m not gonna lie…I fuckin’ hate it.’
We ask him what he does want to do. He tells us that he’s always dreamed of setting up his own business.
‘I’ve got ideas, mate,’ he explains, ‘I’ve got loads of ideas. Yeah, I’ve got a hot temper and whatever, but I’ve got ideas.’ The silent lad offers him the spliff and he takes a long drag. ‘You’ve been to uni, mate,’ he continues, ‘you’ve got to concentrate so much for that like, I could never concentrate like that at school.’
‘Yeah, but there’s an easier path in life to follow if you’re more academically minded,’ I reply, unhelpfully.
‘Do you think I can make it in business?’ he asks, ‘honestly, do you think that I can?
I don’t really know what to say. Before I can come up with a half-decent answer, another dozen young lads turn up, pushing the size of our gathering well above the legal limit. We give our hasty goodbyes and leave.
We pass Trinity House. In the seventeenth century, the Corporation of the Trinity House was responsible for ensuring the safety of coastal shipping and the navigation of the Tyne. The Corporation’s records show that, around the time of Ralph Tailor’s visit to the Quayside, local craftsmen are undertaking repairs on the building – work for which they must have been deeply grateful, given the slump caused by the plague. While there are no references in the Corporation’s records to groups of young men defying quarantine orders to drink in public, Robert Jenison, the then-lecturer at nearby All Saints’ Church, does identify communal intoxication –or ‘company keeping’– as one of the sins that brought about this ‘fearful signe’ of ‘Gods wrathful displeasure’ on the town. Five years earlier, Jenison accepted a gift of four gallons of fortified wine from Trinity House.
Ralph Tailor’s own association with Broad Chare endures long after the plague of 1636. Enjoying success and status as a public notary, he becomes a member of Trinity House himself in 1655 and, in his own will four years later, leaves 20 shillings a year to ‘the poore people’ living in its alms houses. By the time of his death at the age of 58, Tailor has amassed a number of properties within the eastern stretch of the town walls. On our way back into town, we pass places like Dog Bank and Austin Tower, where his acquisitions once stood. Nothing survives of Tailor’s property portfolio, of course; even in his day, the town’s authorities were engaged in the development and enhancement of the urban landscape. Records from 1635, for example, show payments made to an individual known only as ‘the scavenger’ for removing ‘rubbishe from the Bridge and other places’. It was believed that such squalid conditions gave rise to the putrefied air that carried the plague.
Back in town, we arrive at Higham Place – a short street flanked by a stumpy remnant of a Georgian terrace on one side and the imposing Edwardian-Baroque façade of the Laing Gallery on the other. The brutalist Hadrian House complex squats at its far end, its ground floor parking area connected to an upper-level concourse by a concrete spiral staircase, emblazoned with a sign for The Hustler Pool and Snooker Club. The wind blows the drizzle slantwise, and tosses rubbish out of a skip in the car park. On the ground floor of an office in one of the terraced houses, a solitary middle-aged man squints at the screen of an Apple Mac. A quick Google search reveals that his employers are a PR company specialising in crisis management. Perhaps the pandemic has driven up demand for their services and necessitated the man’s late shift.
The sound of scraping alerts us to the presence of a tall slender figure descending the Hadrian House staircase. As he steps out into the street, we realise that this man, dressed entirely in black, is dragging a large wooden pallet and is being followed closely by a sheepdog. He shuffles over to the skip, clambers inside and rummages through its contents, while the dog sits patiently to one side and wags its tail. After some searching, he draws out an even bigger wooden pallet from the rubbish and hurls it out onto the car park floor. The resulting racket startles his dog and draws the crisis manager from his office. Dressed in a thin pullover, he stands shivering in the street.
‘Excuse me,’ the crisis manager says, his southern-accented voice too quiet to be heard above the wind.
‘Excuse me,’ he repeats, louder this time, ‘what are you doing?”
‘Nowt, mate,’ the scavenger replies, without bothering to look up.
‘I…I don’t mind you recycling timber,’ the manager continues, ‘but please make sure you tidy up after yourself.’
The scavenger stops and slowly raises his gaze to meet that of his interlocutor.
‘You won’t knaa I was here’.
A silent moment passes between them before they break eye contact and return to their respective night shifts. We walk around the block, and Jack says that he feels as if the strange scene upon which we have just stumbled has been playing out in that spot over the centuries. He imagines the crisis manager as a starched Victorian clerk, and the skip scavenger as a wandering rag-and-bone man. That would make us the loitering flâneur, surveying the city through a polished monocle and rendering it comprehensible to our respectable readership. Thinking back to Keith Wrightson’s account of Newcastle during the plague, I myself can’t help but think of ‘the scavenger’ paid by the town’s seventeenth century crisis managers to keep bad air at bay. In this analogy, I suppose, we take the place of Ralph Tailor, traversing the walls, quill and parchment at the ready.
At the other side of Hadrian House, we peer into the cark park. The scavenger is true to his word; both he and the mess he made have vanished. As he promised, there’s no sign that he was ever here.
Apart from this account, of course. We don’t know where he went or where he is now, just as the three stoners outside Tesco have no idea where Jack and I went after we bid them farewell. Assuming they have ever paid us mind since our encounter, they will have to use their imagination. In the end, that’s all we have at our disposal if we wish to repopulate the landscape with long-vanished figures: our stories and our imaginations. As Wrightson himself puts it in his history of Newcastle during the plague of 1636, although nearly all of the buildings in which the its population sheltered from the plague have vanished:
‘The records remain, and with them the city’s memory. You can read them for yourself. They contain voices. They tell stories. They name names. If you read the stories, the old city becomes peopled again; alive and spirited even in its distress. If you know the names and have imagined listening to their voices, you can walk the streets on a quiet morning and hear them whispering.’
Keith Wrightson, Ralph Taylor’s Summer: A Scrivener, His City and the Plague (2011).
Content warning: gender-based violence.
11 March 2021
Jack and I arrange to meet at Bath Lane. As I head out, I check the news on my phone. The BBC reports that ‘vigils highlighting women’s safety on the streets are being organised’ following the disappearance of Sarah Everard in south London last week. ‘Organisers of Saturday afternoon’s vigil on Clapham Common’, the article continues, ‘said local police had “told women not to go out at night this week”, but they say “women are not the problem”’. Jack arrives at around quarter to eight and we set off anti-clockwise. I don’t mention the headlines.
At the bottom of the street, we stop to take in Eilís O’Connell’s sculpture Ever Changing: an upturned stainless-steel cone, wedged into the pavement. O’Connell has said that she wanted the sculpture’s mirrored surface to reflect its surroundings, and it does: the town walls, the corner shop, the emergency housing providers Tyneside Foyer, the twinkling chandeliers of the Hadrian’s Tower champagne bar, me and Jack – all are collapsed into a single warped plane.
The sculpture is aptly named, given the number of establishments in its vicinity that have come and gone over the years. Tyneside Foyer was preceded by a sushi restaurant, which was itself preceded by a series of clubs, bars and pubs stretching back to the Victorian period. In 1966, the Piccadilly Club opened here, and was ran by Dennis Stafford until the following year, when he and his associate Michael Luvaglio were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of their colleague Angus Sibbet. Sibbet was a money collector for Luvaglio’s brother Vince, who supplied the north east’s working men’s clubs with fruit machines. The press dubbed the case the ‘one-armed bandit murder’ and presented Luvaglio’s Italian heritage and associations with the Kray Twins as evidence of organised crime’s tightening grip on Tyneside. The murder, and the media hysteria surrounding it, also inspired Get Carter, the Michael Caine film released, it just so happens, on 10 March 1971: exactly 50 years and a day before our walk.
Get Carter follows its eponymous antihero, ruthless gangster Jack Carter, as he returns to his native Newcastle to investigate and avenge the death of his brother Frank. Much of the film was shot on Tyneside, and we’ve barely walked another 200 yards before we encounter a filming location. In the early 1970s, what is now the Gunner Tavern pub on Pink Lane was Bower’s café. Bower’s forms the backdrop for an early scene in the film, in which Carter, setting his affairs in order before embarking on his vendetta, hands his teenage niece a wad of cash and orders her to ‘be good…and don’t trust boys.’
Jack admits that, although he’s seen Get Carter, he can’t recall much of what actually happens in it. While that might seem like an unflattering assessment of a film so often described as ‘iconic’, perhaps it’s not Get Carter‘s plot that leaves a lasting impression on audiences, so much as its unrelentingly grim tone. The film’s most celebrated scenes depict brutalised men in bleak environs: Carter throwing one of his victims off the top of Trinity Square car park, for example, or dumping the body of another in a coal conveyor. Less likely to be served up for praise are the scenes in which the film’s female characters are assaulted or killed, as they are both carelessly and meticulously. Carter’s plot to murder one such woman, Margaret, for her role in his brother’s death plays out across the locations on the path of the walls. For the rest of the evening, we keep finding ourselves wandering in and out of shot.
Following the walls along Orchard Street, we descend the steps to Whitefriars Place and almost miss the face peering out at us from the shadows: a large chalk drawing on the wall of a smiling figure in a hoody. Unlike much of the city’s graffiti, the sketch seems both intentionally pleasant and intentionally temporary. Above it, also written in chalk, is the label ‘St PETERS’. The name is intriguing; St Peter is the patron saint of shipwrights and bridge builders, both of which are appropriate, given the picture’s proximity to the Tyne. Those encountering the drawing after having just schlepped up the cobbles of Hanover Street would do well to recall that St Peter is also the patron saint of people with sore feet. The spelling, meanwhile, suggests a plurality: a gang of cheery-faced hoodies scattered across the city, of which this is just the first to come.
Down on the Quayside, a jogger weaves between couples taking evening strolls, while convoys of teenagers trundle past on orange e-scooters. The quiet is broken not just by their laughter, but by the pre-recorded guidance emitted from the scooter itself. Hey – we’re leaving the riding area. You should head back. After a year of lockdown, we can’t decide which sounds stranger: the chummy, American-accented voice of management software, or the sound of young people surrendering their inhibitions to the night. At the Swing Bridge, we intrude on another scene from Get Carter; it’s here that Carter rendezvous with a drug dealer and buys a package of heroin with which to poison Margaret.
Walking back up from the Tyne, we follow the smell of skunk along the City Road until it leads us to two young lads on Causey Bank sharing a spliff. Inside Price Watch supermarket on Melbourne Street, Sarah Everard smiles on the front pages of unsold newspapers. On the walkway high above the Central Motorway, two young women walking arm in arm cross our path, while, down below, workmen in orange overalls clamber up scaffolding to undertake repairs on the Telephone Exchange Building.
In front of the Starbucks in Old Eldon Square, a film crew interviews a Deliveroo rider. They ask him about his experience of working through the pandemic. He tells them that the gig economy isn’t what it used to be; there are more riders these days and it’s harder to get jobs. He sets off alone on his bike. The crew pack up their camera and boom mic and disperse.
We shuffle along the murky gap between the West Walls and the back of Stowell Street’s restaurants, trying not to trip over empty drums of vegetable oil. With the restaurant kitchens came the refuse bins, and with the refuse bins came the rats, settling in their hundreds into the cavities between the medieval stonework. There must be one or two scrutinising us as we pass by, the modern heirs to the watch on the walls. Hadrian’s Tower looms ahead of us, indicating that we’ve nearly come full circle. We just about make out the plaque commemorating Basil Bunting’s first public recital of ‘Briggflatts’ in the upper room of Morden Tower in 1965. Though Bunting is singled out for recognition, he is but one of the poets to have performed at the Tower over the years. Among the many other voices to have echoed off its whitewashed walls are those of Carol Ann Duffy, Geoffrey Hill, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Seamus Heaney, Elena Shvartz, Lemn Sissay, Alice Notley, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Geraldine Monk. The Tower also enjoyed a parallel reputation as a venue for noise music. My own introduction to Morden Tower some 13 years ago was a noise gig; I remember a woman in a cape generating droning sounds from contact microphones attached to her skull, and a suspicious carpet stain –purportedly sheep brains– spilled during what one veteran audience member would only refer to as ‘last time’.
The chilly upper room of Morden Tower is Newcastle in microcosm, holding a roughly recognisable shape as a cast of characters pass through whose stories echo, contradict and overlay those that came before them. The room stays the same; the room is remade. The city stays the same; the city is remade. For now, the room is shut, and already had been for a good few years before the pandemic. Maybe a new generation will find cause to restore and reopen it. Perhaps it will be finally surrendered to the rats. As for the rest of the city, there are many reasons to be hopeful.
18 March 2021
We set off just after eight and walk clockwise. We soon pass Old Eldon Square, which, in recent years, has served as the departure point for Reclaim the Night marches. In the week since our last walk, petitions highlighting women’s experiences of walking through cities at night have gathered thousands of signatures in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard. As we leave the well-lit city centre, we share stories from female friends about their experiences of walking through Newcastle. As we do, a walkway comes into view where, some years ago, one of our friends was sexually harassed, only to call the police and not be taken seriously. These are glimpses of a cityscape that is easy for me and Jack to ignore, or to not even see in the first place; following in the footsteps of a largely male tradition of psychogeographers, it is easy for us to venture out into the night, explore darkened alleyways and assume we will come to no harm.
On Trafalgar Street, we inspect the disused and dilapidated entranceway to Manors train station. To the left of the frontage is a bolted door, behind which there were once stairs leading up to an island platform. We are back on the set of Get Carter. In the film, Carter stands at the top of these stairs, the camera matching his gaze as he looks down to the street where Jack and I now stand. Margaret is saying goodbye to her friend after a night at the bingo hall. Carter stalks her along the City Road to her flat at Sallyport Crescent, where he abducts her at gun point and leads her away to her death.
On the bolted door this evening, there is a slightly peeled fly poster for the campaign to make misogyny a hate crime. The design features two women –one black, one white– raising their fists in a gesture of solidarity and, perhaps following recent events, triumph: only yesterday, the Government announced that it would ask police to record crimes motivated by sex and gender.
On the way down to the Quayside, we take a detour to All Saints’ churchyard. Despite the church’s all-encompassing dedication, there’s no sign of smiling St Peter here; only a brutalist office block named after the Venerable Bede, and another, formerly named after St Aidan, now converted into student accommodation and rechristened Urban Study Tyne. A man emerges from one of the houses backing onto the churchyard and vapes in the alleyway. The silence of the place opens our ears to the sounds emanating from the mauve sky glow: extractor fans humming, freight trains rumbling, car stereos dopplering, kittiwakes squalling.
The churchyard hasn’t always been this peaceful. In 1866, a local newspaper reported on the worrying trend of local youths excavating ‘the bones with which the soil teems and dispos[ing] of them to the marine store dealers.’ Heading down Akenside Hill, our eyes are drawn to a neon red inverted cross, hanging at the back of a darkened shop. It seems the trade in bones continues; a neat row of skulls dominates the window display, arranged behind vinyl transfers of hand-drawn pentagrams, Eyes of Providence, anchors, dollar signs, diamonds, cartoon breasts, and yet more upturned crosses. This is the home of the Skullen Collective: a feminist nail art studio that ‘before anything else a safe space for women’. A mural of a clenched fist, replete with painted nails, adorns one of the walls, marking out a reclaimed corner of the city.
On the way back into town, we clamber up the Long Stairs to Queen’s Lane. Once again, we step into a scene from Get Carter; it’s here that Carter, evading some gangland heavies, leaps over the side of the High Level Bridge, runs along a roof of a car garage and dashes down to the Quayside. In the Victorian era, the site of the garage was home to the workshop of monumental sculptor Robert Beall, who produced granite obelisks and marble crosses for the city’s expanding cemeteries. Earlier still, the site was the terminus of a narrow passageway called Sheepshead Alley, most likely named after its impoverished medieval residents, who would boil up and eat the offal discarded by butchers. All that remains now of these centuries of activity are the bones: an archaeological dig carried out on the site in 2012 uncovered skeletal fragments of sheep, cows, pigs, deer, birds and fish.
We turn left onto a litter-strewn footpath that cuts between luxury apartment buildings. Jack is struck by a memory of walking down here twelve years ago, boxes of unmarked assessment papers piled under his chin. For three months, he worked for a training provider that operated out of the penthouse of one of these gated blocks; management in one bedroom, Jack and the other idealistic young examiners in another. Their enthusiasm dwindled when it became clear that the enterprise was mainly a money-making scheme; in conference rooms in the nearby Royal Station Hotel, agency-hired tutors rattled through a fast-track adult literacy programme. The learners –a mix of older working-class Geordies looking to retrain, and younger highly educated Eastern Europeans– sat exams before lunch and found out whether they had passed by the end of the day.
Among the tutors, Jack tells me, were a white Zimbabwean from Consett who refused to teach the syllabus and instead told his Polish students that they could better improve their English by listening to Radio 4 panel shows, and another who told Jack that he once went on a pilgrimage to the Jura cottage where George Orwell wrote 1984 and brought back with him the bones of a Hebridean sheep called Winston, in honour of whom Orwell, the locals said, named the novel’s hero.
On the concrete steps leading up to Clavering Place, we are greeted by St Peter smirking at us from the wall. Impressively, in the week since our first encounter, he’s grown a fringe. Looking around, we notice other drawings in the same style: a boy with a halo, a girl with cartoon action lines emanating from her head, a dog next to a speech bubble filled with the word “WOOF!”
As we near the end of the walk, Jack tries and fails to remember the name of one of the fast-track learners from his time at the training provider. He knows that she was from Georgia, was in her early twenties, had a Masters degree in Contemporary Cinema and a love of the Coen Brothers, and that she was staying in a former pit village outside Chester-le-Street. This last detail seems incongruous, before I remember that, until the credit crunch started to bite, there were plans at the time to build a 200 acre film studio in County Durham. Two years later, the plans were scrapped, and the new Coalition Government closed the post-study work route for international students. Jack wonders whether she managed to find fulfilling creative work, whether it was here in the UK, back in her home country or somewhere else entirely. Without recalling her name, I suppose we’ll never know, but something of her spirit is echoed in the ebullient drawings that adorn her former place of study. In a sense, Jack has reconjured her back to this place simply by evoking her memory; so long as we are talking about her, she’s here. Not long after, both our conversation and our walk draw to a close, and we head home. She does, too – wherever that may be.
25 March 2021
Before I meet Jack, I’m lured off-course by the sound of house music on the wind. I follow it along St James Boulevard to a shisha bar that has recently launched opposite the purpose-built student apartments on Blandford Square. The people inside are blasting out beats with the windows wide open, and each snare hit ricochets off the multi-storey car park on the other side of the dual carriageway. I can’t tell if they’re torturing their club-starved young neighbours, or simply testing their sound system. Either way, it’s incredibly obnoxious. I find Jack, and we toy with the idea of making a noise complaint before thinking better of it.
We re-join the route walking anti-clockwise, stopping at the walls on Orchard Street. Jack is particularly taken with the late seventeenth century brickwork that fills the cavities left by Scottish artillery fire during the Siege of Newcastle in 1644. There is something arresting about this trace of the English Civil Wars; it’s a scar on the city, a reminder that our present is shaped by past conflict as much as anything else.
Long after the town walls outlived their function as a defence against violent invasion, they became the backdrop for explosions of internal conflict. When the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, visited Newcastle in October 1909 to promote his People’s Budget, local members of the Women’s Social and Political Union took direct action to pressure him to act on his personal support for women’s suffrage. In what the Votes for Women newspaper came to call the Battle of Newcastle, several WSPU activists threw stones at Lloyd George’s car and other prominent locations. One of these targets fell along the path of the walls; on Pink Lane, a window was smashed by Kathleen Brown, a 22-year-old daughter of a railway worker from Gateshead. Our detour to St James Boulevard means that we missed Pink Lane this evening, but it transpires that we crossed paths with Brown when we passed Central Station. In July 1909, she was met there by supporters after serving seven days in solitary confinement at Holloway Prison in London for throwing stones. Her spell in Holloway is one of the earliest recorded examples of hunger striking.
In 2017, Newcastle City Council honoured Brown with a plaque on Grey Street. It recognises the sacrifices that Brown and others made in order to advance the cause of women’s suffrage and, according to the speeches made at its unveiling, also expresses a debt of gratitude on behalf of the women who enjoy those rights today. It also, perhaps unintentionally, raises questions as to how we should relate to the violent acts through which Brown and the WSPU sought to bring about change. To what extent does our honouring or indeed our romanticising of the suffragettes reflect a desire to obscure their militancy? The 300-year-old bricks in the town walls may evoke a bloody national conflict, but it is one from which there is enough distance to detach ourselves. Compared to the ravages of the Civil War, the damage caused by Kathleen Brown’s single brick pales into insignificance and, yet, should we stop to dwell on it, we find ourselves in close enough proximity to its occurrence for it to cause discomfort.
Later in the evening, we arrive at Monument, where a Reclaim the Streets vigil was held over the weekend. Its plinth is adorned with placards, wilting flowers and handwritten cards bearing the names and ages of some of the women murdered by men in 2021:
Jacquelyn Price, 58.
Ann Turner, 52.
Carol Hart, 77.
Sue Addis, 69.
Michelle Lizanec, 44.
Samantha Heap, 45.
A hundred yards away from Monument, we inspect the benches of Old Eldon Square, each one commemorating a specific group of Second World War casualities. As we do, a woman patrols the area, drinking something from a plastic bottle, her hood pulled tight around her face like the drawings of St Peter. There are tributes here to those who perished on Dunkirk’s beaches, in the Arctic depths and beneath the blitzed rubble of Tyneside flats. We must look like we are struggling with the basic concept, because the woman soon approaches and shouts ‘they all died!’ at us. We thank her for her help and move on.
Nearing the end of the walk on Darn Crook, we have our final run in with Get Carter. A bingo hall stood some 100 yards up the hill from this spot, until it was demolished in 1976. It is from here that Margaret, the woman hunted by Carter, emerges at the start of the plotline we have spent the last three weeks intruding upon. As our walk ends, the grim sequence begins again.
Turning to face Stowell Street, we’re struck by the sheer density of history in front of us: the Norman church, the medieval walls, the Victorian terraces, the Edwardian Co-Operative Warehouse, the Irish Centre, the Chinese Arch, the Blair-era Citygate complex, the ubiquitous Hadrian’s Tower. Stowell Street alone bursts with the stories of the women who shaped it: Rosie O’Shea, the singer and co-founder of Rosie’s Bar, born in Ballyogan in 1851 and last seen on Ellis Island 28 years later; Koon Kiu ‘Ann’ Cheng, who, with her husband Peter, took a down at heel street in the late 1970s and turned it into a China Town; Connie Pickard, the artist and custodian of Morden Tower these last six decades. So many lives are woven into the walls, and so many more of course, have left no trace. We’ll run out of time before we can unravel them all, or else become entangled ourselves.
All the more reason to keep walking.
Alan Morgan Beyond the Grave: Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds
Get Carter images: getcarter.xyz/locations
During the Anglo-Scottish Wars, the burgesses of Newcastle stationed a hundred-strong watch upon the town walls. In the event of an overnight siege, it was the duty of the watch to sound the alarm and lead the fight to keep the invaders at bay.
Jack first tells me about the watch in the summer of 2019. I picture men with faces whipped sore by the wind, propped up by pikes, drifting into sleep and jolting awake again, like drunk blokes in a takeaway at the end of a night out. Anxious men, gazing out into a blackness so impenetrable that a few feet in front of them may as well be the face of the deep. Was it Scottish troops that they expected to come charging out of the darkness, or Border Reivers?
We conspire without haste to re-enact this medieval night shift. As most of the walls are long gone, it makes little sense for us to stand and freeze on one spot like the watch themselves did. Instead, we decide to walk continuously along them from sunset to sunrise, in a plan that is part psychogeography, part boy Scouts’ night hike.
We find a Saturday in July that we can both afford to write off and set out on our first attempt one Friday evening. Jack’s copy of The Great Walls of Newcastle offers some historical context, but proves less useful when it comes to actually charting a course along the path of the largely vanished defences. We rely heavily on our phones, pulling up Google Images of old maps, pinching them to zoom in and squinting at the magnified results. The data usage takes its toll and our phones die before we can complete a single lap. On our second attempt in September, for reasons we have explained elsewhere, we end up hunting UFOs in Gateshead.
We persist, nonetheless. The prospect of walking the same route over and over again proves irresistible, appealing to our folly and our pretension in equal measure. Why stay at home with loved ones when you can furrow a psychic groove through the city? In following this obsolete pathway, we inform bewildered friends and colleagues, we will develop a feel for Newcastle’s nocturnal rhythms; gain an insight into a night-time economy that provides the city with 7000 jobs and £500 million a year.
Or used to provide. Our third attempt at the walk is planned for what becomes the first week of lockdown. In our day jobs, Jack and I are fortunate enough to work from home. Those employed in Newcastle’s hospitality industry are not so lucky. To make the most out of my free evenings, I order a copy The Great Walls of Newcastle and accidently have it delivered to my old workplace in Gateshead.
Undeterred, I make the path of the walls my daily exercise route and start walking and jogging past an array of new signs and notices. Expressions of solidarity from a supermarket. NHS worship from a national music venue chain. Pub disclaimers insisting that ‘NO CASH IS HELD ON THESE PREMISES’. These corporate missives are punctuated by handwritten messages. The Prohibition Bar on Pink Lane jokes that its security is provided by the ghost of the venue’s former proprietor. A note tied to a tree announces the date and time of ‘a minute’s Silence to remember Key Workers lost.’
In the summer, the restrictions ease and I visit the Gateshead business park where I used to work. Jamie, the helpful receptionist, says that he hasn’t seen anything for me but will email if he does. It serves me right for using Amazon. A week later, Jack and I reunite for a fourth, socially distanced, attempt at the walk. It’s the first time that Jack has left Heaton in four months, and the atmosphere in the city-centre is not as he remembers it. Grey Street feels like the promenade of a depressed seaside town, sparsely studded with parties of uncharacteristically guarded drinkers. The snatches of conversations we overhear suggest that, despite their determination to release their inhibitions, most punters are fighting a losing battle with the strangeness of the moment in which they find themselves. We head home after a single lap around the walls.
Autumn brings a local lockdown, which I resolve to use to delve deeper into the history of the walls. At the end of the eleventh century, I learn, William II grants the land around the New Castle at Monkchester to its burgesses. He bequeaths them ‘ground and golde ful great to spend, to buylde it well and walle it all aboute’. In 1265, Henry III grants the Newcastle’s burgesses permission to raise taxes to fund the construction of defences and, by 1333, the town is surrounded by nearly two miles of walls that stand up to 25 feet high and are at least six feet thick.
At their fullest, the walls feature six fortified gates, 17 towers and a 15-feet-deep surrounding ditch called the King’s Dyke. The extensive provisions initially prove effective, successfully seeing off Scottish sieges in 1342 and 1388. Ironically, it is only after the English and Scottish crowns are unified in the seventeenth century that the walls are breached by Scottish Covenanter troops, firstly during the Second Bishops’ War of 1640 and again during the English Civil War in 1644.
As the threat of Scottish invasion recedes, the walls slide into obsolescence and disrepair. By 1695, the fortified gates are no longer locked and, while local guilds restore and repurpose some of the towers, officials in the eighteenth century deem portions of the walls ‘a hindrance to the despatch of business’ and have them razed. Profits from the coal trade and the colonies slush around the town with ever greater force, washing away medieval gates and towers to make way for modern roads and railways. By the time that Parliament passes the first Ancient Monuments Protection Act in 1882, most of the remaining defences have disappeared. In the end, it is capital, not the cannonball, that topples the town walls.
October brings a second national lockdown and no update from Jamie about my parcel. By this point, I can plot the path of the walls from memory. Starting at the west walls, the path runs parallel to Stowell Street and Bath Lane in China Town. After bearing south east across Westgate Road, it runs along Pink Lane and out onto Neville Street. Here, the imposition of the railway lines demands a slight diversion along Orchard Street, which leads first under the railway platforms of Central Station and then out onto a carpark flanked by two imposing fragments of curtain wall. A recently fenced off footpath through the Hanging Gardens requires a second detour along Hanover Street, which slopes down to Close and the Quayside. After following the Tyne, the path bears northeast through Sandgate and Pandon, taking in Sallyport Tower and Corner Tower, before making a final diversion across the Central Motorway. From there, it climbs north through Carliol Square and Croft Street, past Plummer Tower, before tracking west along New Bridge Street West and Blackett Street. After passing Grey’s Monument and Eldon Square, the path continues along Gallowgate, turning south to afford a final glimpse of the walls that enclose St Andrew’s churchyard, before completing the loop.
The path of the walls snakes through the commercial centre of the city and out to its peripheries, tracing a jagged line through places of affluence and deprivation. Sometimes these inequalities are reflected in the use of the walls themselves; Sallyport Tower, for example, has been reborn as The Secret Tower, a wedding venue that affords sumptuous views of the Tyne Bridge. The nearby Corner Tower, by contrast, remains formally unoccupied, though the mattress on its first floor suggests that it may have provided someone with shelter fairly recently. A hovel in the west walls between Morden Tower and Ever Tower has also become a makeshift refuge, furnished with two sofa cushions, pigeon feathers and an empty pizza box. The area behind Heber Tower, redeveloped into a Chinese pocket park, creates a space of cohabitation for otherwise estranged residents. Jogging one afternoon, I see two international students taking turns to use a cherry blossom tree as a backdrop for a photoshoot, swapping phones and running through a series of Insta-friendly poses, while two lads in trackies relax on benches either side of a chess table, their cans of Monster resting on the chequered board like oversized king pieces.
The built environment around the path consists mainly of shops and bars, flats and offices, car parks and building sites, seemingly sewn together with buddleia. Every so often, though, the ordinary gives way to the extraordinary. The view through the magnificent Chinese Arch at the top of St Andrews Street, for example, takes in the bonded backs of Stowell Street’s restaurants, the west walls and the King’s Dyke, all running in parallel towards the horizon, at which point Hadrian’s Tower jolts 270 feet skyward. The concrete walkway high above the Central Motorway offers a similar rush; Manors Car Park, pebble-dashed and rain-sodden, curves around four twisting lanes of traffic while, straight ahead, multicoloured apartment windows make Swan House look like an enormous Mondrian painting.
The path along the walls smells of gourmet burgers, Szechwan cuisine, designer perfume, artisan coffee, high strength skunk, stale urine, ripening rubbish, freshly baked bread, sewage, and kittiwake droppings. Overhead fly the flags of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the European Union, Singapore, the Spanish province of Rioja, the NHS and Greggs. Under foot lie tab ends, last autumn’s leaves, bin juice rivulets, a half-empty bag of Happy Shopper Salt & Vinegar Sticks, a wooden coffee stirrer, a dead pigeon (decapitated), a drawerful of underwear, a crumpled Snickers wrapper (regular size), face masks, a copy of the Metro smeared with Butcher’s Tripe Mix, a losing National Lottery Gold Edition scratch card, a crumpled Snickers wrapper (fun size), a bronze plaque honouring Ant & Dec, a dead pigeon (stomach burst open) and a galaxy of flattened chewing gum.
These are the things I notice during my nine months of walking and running. Normality, meanwhile, shapeshifts in my peripheral vision: taxi ranks fill and empty, restaurant kitchens shut and open. For the most part, I try not to look. Winter comes and goes. Jamie never emails.
As I write, spring is on its way, and so too are the first tentative steps towards recovery. Once the rules allow, Jack and I will set out again along the path of the walls. After so many false starts, we’ve decided to restrict our walks to a single lap undertaken on a single evening. We aim to walk this route more regularly, writing about what we see and learn while it’s still fresh in our minds.
What will come of all this remains to be seen. In this sense, we’re back at the watch on the walls, not knowing what lies a few feet in front of us. What will emerge from the shadows ahead? Signs of hope, almost certainly. My Amazon order, probably not.
Gian Tommasso Scala (c. 1545); Facsimile engraving of Scala map (c. 1590); John Speed and William Matthew (1610); James Corbridge (1723); Isaac Thompson (1746); Andrew Armstrong (1769); Robert Beilby (1788); Ordinance Survey (1858); Ordinance Survey (1938); Wikipedia user ‘Dbam’ (2008); Google Maps (2021).
I’ve been all over Town looking for a place to park. I was supposed to meet Joe at Central Station half an hour ago. The plan was simple enough – park up somewhere in the City Centre and we’d set off on our walk along the path of the Old Town Wall. Then I remembered there’s a Rugby World Cup warm-up match due to kick off at St James’ Park in about half an hour. In addition to the usual Friday night crowd, I’m competing for spaces with 50,000 England fans. I emerge unsuccessful from the multi-storey on Waterloo Street, stop to let five blokes dressed up as St George cross the road, then pull out onto the one-way system. My phone rings.
‘Where are you now?’ Joe asks.
‘In traffic,’ I reply, ‘next to the Happy Chip.’
‘I’m round the corner, give me a minute. Didn’t the Council shut that place down?’
I glance through the windscreen. He’s right. The takeaway is nowhere to be seen. In its place is a far more reputable looking restaurant. One that, unlike its predecessor, probably doesn’t offer side orders of magic mushrooms. Thanks to the Happy Chip, more bad trips must have started on this street than any other in Newcastle. I’ve edged closer to the junction by the time Joe finds me. He jumps in the front, moves the books strewn across the passenger seat into the footwell and makes himself comfortable.
‘I’ll park at yours,’ I say, ‘but you’re going to have to give directions. Which lane do I need?’
He doesn’t answer. He’s flicking through one of my dogeared Robert Anton Wilson books. With a hint of derision in his voice, he begins to read aloud.
‘“The inward-turning spiral is the shape of our galaxy. It is also the shape of the DNA molecule, the code of life, seen from above…”’
The car ahead pulls out, leaving me at the mouth of the junction.
‘Do I need to go straight ahead here, Joe, or turn right?’
‘“…The spiral thus suggests the old Hermetic notion of the-macrocosm-in-the-microcosm: that which is above is contained in that which is below.”’
The car behind honks its horn. I panic and drive straight ahead. We’re in the box junction when he finishes his recital.
‘You need to turn right here. Sorry.’ He closes book and waves it about. ‘You buy into all this, then?’
I’m too stressed by the one-way system to deal with his questions. The next junction is left turn only and, before we know it, we’re heading south over the Redheugh Bridge. Traffic in the opposite lane is stationary. I doubt we’ll be north of the river any time soon. Once we’re trundling along the A-road, I answer.
‘It’s not that he wants you to buy into his “take” on the shape of the galaxy. Those are just random ideas he’s throwing out there. His main point is that our experience of reality itself is a “take”. We filter sense perceptions according to our value systems without even realising it. Each individual is moving through a reality tunnel of their own construction.’
Joe peers out of the window at the road signs. ‘Well, it looks like our reality tunnel leads to Gateshead, so we better think of something to do when we get there.’ He bends down and rummages through the books in the footwell.
‘I suppose that explains why you’re into esoteric knowledge and conspiracy theories and all that, doesn’t it? It’s not that you actually believe any of it. They’re just reality tunnels to try out for a bit. Like taking acid to expand your mind, minus the risk of thinking you can fly and jumping out of a window.’
‘Really?’ He pulls himself away from his reading. He looks surprised by my reply, and more than a little smug.
‘No, I mean, that’s it: conspiracy theories. That’s what we can do tonight. You remember that YouTube video that I linked you about UFOs in Gateshead?’
‘The interview with a pensioner who claims he was abducted by aliens?’
‘He’s called Robert Hall. He’s a pensioner now, but it happened during the Second World War, when he was a boy.’
‘I mean, it didn’t happen, did it?’ He shoves the books back into the footwell. ‘Go on.’
I propose that we use our impromptu trip over river to visit the location of the sighting. Joe fails to suggest an alternative in the time it takes to find a Pay and Display. The only problem is that neither of us can remember exactly where Robert Hall’s encounter is meant to have taken place. We’ll need Wi-Fi.
I hardly struggle to find a parking space in Gateshead. The town centre is deathly quiet, and the plaza at Trinity Square shopping centre is completely empty, save for the huge stainless-steel sculpture in front of Nando’s that looks like a stargate portal forever on the verge of toppling over. In Tesco, I use the toilet while Joe researches the Gateshead Grey.
When I return, he’s scrolling on his phone.
‘It happened in Bensham. Well. I say “happened”. You know what I mean. Stephenson Street, it’s a mile west of here.’
I gesture towards the self-service coffee machine. ‘We should probably buy something.’
He continues scrolling. ‘I googled “Gateshead conspiracy”. The alien story wasn’t even the top link. I assume you’re familiar with the theory that Gateshead Council are installing 5G transmitters in lampposts?’
‘Yeah,’ I chuckle, ‘I know all about that. Saw people protesting about it when I was driving through Gateshead once. Thought it was an EDL rally at first.’
‘What do they think the Council is up to?’
‘Depends. There’s no coherence to it. Some of them think the Council are spying on residents to fine them if they forget to take their bins out. Others say genocide. I’m getting a coffee; do you want one?’
‘Just a decaf, cheers. If I drink the real stuff this late, I’ll be on edge.’
While he’s still scrolling, I buy two large cappuccinos. I’m risking a nasty migraine myself, but I could to with the boost after the Newcastle parking saga. Outside in the plaza, two teenage lads have materialised in front of the sculpture. As we pass, one of them glances up at me from his phone.
We stroll west under a sky crisscrossed with contrails. On Bensham Road, I spot a Masonic hall.
‘The lodges on Tyneside date back centuries, some of the oldest in the country,’ I say. I turn to Joe and, only half-jokingly, add, ‘This bodes well for our expedition.’
He shakes his head. ‘It’s a men-only version of the Rotary Club, Jack. It’s not a secret society.’
He stops, carefully prises the plastic lid from his coffee cup and proceeds to blow a hole through the layer of foam.
‘Going back to this reality tunnel thing. Surely the more interesting question is not what someone’s reality tunnel looks like, or what strange things people believe, but why we build reality tunnels the way we do? Why we believe what we do.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, take the anti-5G brigade. Aren’t you interested why they believe it in the first place? Why all of these middle-aged blokes are raging about lampposts?
‘They’re true believers,’ I reply. ‘They genuinely think they’re onto something. Why do you think it is?’
‘I reckon they want to feel like they belong to something something bigger than themselves. Let’s face it,’ he says, pausing again to blow his coffee. ‘They’re probably not going to be in the Masons, are they?’
We carry on walking. ‘I think you’re over-thinking it,’ I say. ‘I just think it’s fascinating. And kind of funny.’
‘Same with this Robert Hall,’ he continues, unperturbed. ‘The most interesting question isn’t “what did he really see?”. It’s “what was he feeling when he saw it?” Think about it. He’s five years old in 1940. Gas mask drills in school, barrage balloons in the sky. The voice of Lord Haw Haw coming through the radio static, taunting about a looming Nazi invasion.’
‘Or terrifying. I remember visiting the Imperial War Museum as a kid and seeing this road safety poster from the Blitz. “Look Out in the Blackout”, it was called. Traffic accidents were rising because it was so hard to see in the dark, so the Ministry of Information commissioned this poster. It was the face a black cat, one half bathed in light, the other half shrouded in darkness. The pupil of one of its eyes is a slit, the other is dilated. The tagline was something like “Take it easy, until your eyes get used to the dark”’.
He takes a generous mouthful of coffee. ‘Those green eyes, staring out from the darkness. It freaked me out, and I was just a visitor in a museum. Imagine seeing it on your way to school the morning after a bombing raid….’
Joe continues to debunk Hall’s story between gulps of coffee. I tune out. He reminds me of Gillian Anderson’s character in The X Files: the faithful Christian relentlessly sceptical about the possibility of extra-terrestrial contact. I suppose that makes me David Duchovny. He hasn’t noticed that I’m not listening.
We approach a streetlight and I give it a passing inspection. The post itself is old and weathered, but the lamp atop it is new and sleek, housed inside plastic casing. On its grey, oval-shaped underside, there are two sets of LEDs arranged like a pair of eyes and, below them, a mouth-like vent. It’s not on yet but it must be due to activate soon. I tune back into Joe’s commentary.
‘…maybe something traumatic happened to him. Maybe he was abused.’
‘Or maybe he just had a vivid imagination’.
‘Maybe. Whatever happened, he probably read some stories about alien abductions years later and, somewhere along the line, he’s mixed up his memories. The feelings are real. So are the images of aliens. But they were never connected by a single experience.’
We make a detour to Windmill Hills to take in the sun set. I grab a seat on a bench just up from St Cuthbert’s Court and, for a few minutes, neither of us speak. The setting sun stirs the sky tangerine and leaves the hills near Prudhoe shrouded in darkness. The city lights shimmer in the solder of the Tyne. I break the silence.
‘I saw a UFO once. I was on a family holiday in Llandudno. Must have been about ten. My Granddad and I were stargazing. I spotted this light flickering above the sea. I thought it was a satellite, so I pointed it out to him. And as soon as I did, it darted away from us and began to climb slowly upwards. Higher and higher.’
I check to see if Joe’s paying attention. He’s staring into the dregs of his coffee.
‘For a moment, it just floated there, right at the top of the sky. Then it hurtled towards us, getting closer and closer. I thought was going to crash into us. But it vanished. I found out afterwards that there was a major UFO sighting there in the early ‘70s. They called it the Welsh Roswell.’
Joe scrunches his cup. ‘Well. Who knows what you’ll see tonight.’
Joe hangs onto his coffee cup. I discard mine. We head south along Coatsworth Road, into Bensham’s strictly Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood, where we’re welcomed by the sign outside Dansky’s delicatessen. Its gold typography sparkles under the streetlights: ‘Your Friendly KOSHER STORE’.
‘It’s even quieter here than in the town centre,’ I say.
‘Obviously,’ Joe replies. ‘It’s the Sabbath. Everyone apart from us turning in for the night’.
Not quite everyone. In a Citroen parked outside Best One, there’s a one-man makina rave going on. An MC fires hundreds of syllables out of the speakers, too fast for our untrained ears to decode. The lad in the car raps along, word for word. On Windemere Street, we encounter more music. From an open window on the first floor of the Talmudical College, we hear an evening class singing Hebrew prayers in unison. Two students seem to have got away early and brush past us. The younger-looking of the two enthuses about Bensham in excitable Brooklynite English. He must be a new arrival. The older of the pair replies in Yiddish. He sounds exhausted.
On Bewick Road, an older Orthodox man catches our attention from across the street and walks towards us. Joe leans in and whispers. I can smell the coffee on his breath.
‘What are we gonna say?’
‘What do you mean?’
His speech is accelerating. ‘If we don’t mention the alien story, then we’re two gentiles from across the river loitering outside a synagogue with no good explanation. If we do mention aliens, we’ll sound completely fu—’
‘Are you two gentlemen okay?’ the man asks, his hands tucked into his coat pockets. ‘You look…lost.’
The man listens patiently as I give an account of our evening’s travels, carefully shorn of any references to UFOs. When I’ve finished, he introduces himself.
‘I’m Ben. Where are you from? Are you both local?’
‘I was born in Derby,’ I explain, ‘but my family are Geordies. My Dad grew up not far from here, actually.’ Joe says nothing and taps his coffee cup against his leg.
‘What about you?’ I ask.
He lets out a single, wry laugh. ‘Well. It depends how far you want to go back. My great-great grandfather was from Eastern Europe. Around the turn of the century, he set sail on a ship he was told was going to New York. It docked in Newport. He stayed in Wales for a bit, but some of his other relatives who arrived later moved onto London. You know David Baddiel? He’s a distant cousin of mine, from the London branch. He didn’t marry a Jewish woman, which is a shame.’
‘Ah, yeah, Morwenna Banks!’ I reply, ‘she’s great! Peppa Pig.’
Ben doesn’t seem to get the reference. ‘Yes. Anyway…when my great-great grandfather heard that there was a more observant community in the north east, he moved up the first chance he could and, well, we’ve been here ever since. That’s what attracted so many people to this community over the decades: our observance. We follow our traditions properly. Even if it means missing out on things like Greggs sausage rolls.’
‘Even the vegan ones?’ I say.
‘Even the vegan ones’, he replies. ‘These are the things that define who we are, trivial though they may seem. We’re also very proud to be British. I think minority communities have a lot to offer the country.’
‘Especially in a divided time,’ I say, ‘what with Brexit.’
‘Eh,’ Ben shrugs, ‘I think Boris will sort all that out. Even if his brother disagrees with him.’
It’s getting on. I crack a lame joke about it being time to ‘Leave’, and we say our goodbyes.
‘The Brexit thing is interesting,’ Joe says as we walk away. ‘The first time that freedom of movement ended in Britain was around the time Ben said his great-great grandfather arrived. The Balfour Government said it was about preventing criminals entering the country. Really, it was about reducing the number of Jews arriving from Eastern Europe. Do you what the legislation was called?’
‘What?’ I say.
‘The Aliens Act.’
‘It’s a sign!’
‘It’s a coincidence,’ he snaps.
‘I know, I know, I’m only joking. You alright?’
‘Yeah, yeah. Fine. Getting palpitations for some reason.’
The sun set has brought a chill to the evening. Back on the main road outside the Bensham Court flats, two figures ahead of us set fire to a bin. They’ve disappeared before we get a proper look at them. Acrid smoke rises from the rubbish and flames soon follow. Joe rushes to the other side of the fire and takes out his phone.
‘Should we call 999?’.
I watch him panic through the flames and feel a pang of remorse. I should have bought him a decaf.
We turn left onto Saltwell Road. Nearly 80 years ago, Robert Hall and his childhood friend sat somewhere along this street as hundreds of British troops marched past. Stephenson Street is the first turning on the right. Apart from the parked cars, it must have hardly changed since Hall’s childhood: short, lined on both sides by terraced houses and closed off at the far end by the railway embankment. Two lampposts, spread evenly along the street’s left-hand side, illuminate the darkness.
At the point where Robert Hall claims to have crossed the alien’s invisible barrier, we find an uneven line in the tarmac in the middle of the road. From the top of the hill, a dog walker looks down at us and talks into his phone and, for a moment, I wonder if I’m being too loud in my voicing my enthusiasm. On the right side of the street, there’s a shop that looks like it’s been shut for years. The sign above the door is painted black, but the surviving lettering suggests it once sold CB radios and antennas. The boarded-up windows are covered in graffiti. I try to decipher the largest tag: a capital B, followed by a lower-case e, what could either be a k or an n, and a number 1. The flick at the base of the number 1 curls out and back onto itself in a spiral shape. I look back up the hill. The dog walker has gone.
In the back lane, I switch on the in-built torch on my phone and point it towards the back of the houses. The same spiral tag has been sprayed on a couple of the garage doors. Overgrown buddleia hangs over one of the backyard walls and sways in the breeze. A glass bottle crunches under my foot.
‘Well, this is it,’ Joe says, the first time he’s spoken since the bin fire. ‘Seen everything you need to see?’
Something moves in the bushes behind the fence. We turn towards it and freeze. In the silences between the rustling, I feel my heart pounding. I point the torch towards the bushes. A pair of green eyes stare back.
Joe takes a picture with his phone and zooms in.
‘I can’t make it out in this light. I’ll go under that lamppost.’
Another rustle, and it’s gone. I switch off my torch. The overhead wires above the train tracks begin to chirp and hum. I look up the embankment in expectation. My neck is killing me. I brace myself for a passing train on its way to Durham. The blast of air and noise, the blur of carriage lights.
Nothing comes. All I can see is the silhouette of the power masts against the night sky. That, and the spots and lines drifting across my vision. I flick my eyes from side to side and the floaters dart away, save for a shadowy speck in the centre. I blink a few times to dislodge it, but it doesn’t move. In fact, each time I open my eyes, it’s bigger. The pain in my neck has moved into my skull. I scrunch my eyes shut and hold my breath for a second. The ground rumbles. I open my eyes with a gasp as a stabbing sensation shoots through the side of my face. I can’t see the sky. I can’t see a thing.
My stomach cramps. I bend over to heave and hear screeching, like breaks or screams. Then silence. I feel a gentle breeze on the back of my neck. The sickness and pain vanish, and I pull myself to my feet. I glance back up at the embankment and easily make out the overhead wires against the sky. I turn to Joe.
‘Did you hear that?’
He’s gone. I spin around and glance back up Stephenson Street. He’s at the top of the hill.
‘I think it was a cat in the bushes,’ he says when I catch up with him. ‘You alright?’
‘I’m fine. Thought I had a migraine coming on, but I’m fine.’
‘Should’ve had a decaf, too.’
We drag ourselves back up Bensham Road.
‘Disappointed that you didn’t see anything?’ Joe asks.
A young nurse approaches us. From the fragment of her phone conversation that we overhear, she’s about to start her shift at the Queen Elizabeth. I let her pass before I reply.
‘No. I don’t know. I need to lay off conspiracy theories.’
He laughs. ‘Worried that you’re starting to believe in them?’
‘No. It’s not that. It’s just…I used to think that I could go down the rabbit hole with this stuff and find my way back out, but…I dunno.’
‘Reality tunnels are built of sturdy stuff.’
At the top of the bank, we stop at St Cuthbert’s Church. At the east end, we find the stone steps leading to the crypt where Robert Hall claims the dead alien was laid to rest. The church has long been de-consecrated and above the steps hangs a sign for a handicraft business that makes mosaic mirrors made from recycled glass.
Closer to the car park, we pass the Masonic Hall again. I take a closer look. It must have been built in the 1980s. A few of the letters have fallen from the wall so that the sign reads ‘ateshead Ma-on-c-Hall’. A vinyl banner fluttering in the breeze reads ‘FUNCTION ROOM AVAILABLE: WEDDINGS, PARTY’S, SOCIAL EVENTS’.
‘They want to feel control,’ I say.
‘Or reassurance, perhaps. Join up the dots and follow the line through the chaos. But there’re no connections to make. None at all. They’re just scared of the dark, telling stories around the campfire.’
‘Who are, Jack? … Jack?’
Gavin Harvey, ‘The alien “killed with a coal shovel”’. The Northern Echo. 2011.
The first mile south is unfamiliar, at least to me.
Not to Jack, though. On the overpass above the Coast Road, he points out a weathered Art Deco building and, raising his voice above the rush hour traffic, tells me that it was built to house the Wills cigarette factory. In its post-war heyday, W.D. & H.O. Wills employed around 600 of Newcastle’s East Enders, Jack’s relatives among them.
‘My grandmother on my dad’s side,’ Jack says, ‘told me that, when she was growing up in Byker, there was always someone visiting the house dropping off free packets of Woodbines.
‘Where she was from,’ he continues, ‘every quarter-mile a generation managed to move north of the Tyne represented a step up in the world. South Heaton trumped Byker, High Heaton trumped South Heaton. Forest Hall was the ultimate destination. I remember telling her that my wife and I were settling south of the Coast Road. She couldn’t understand it.’
I get my bearings once we are west of Chilingham Road. I lived in this neighbourhood for much of my twenties and its streets are as overcrowded with memories as they are with parked cars. On Heaton Road, Jack interrupts my ode to the kebabs of Uno Pizzeria to request that we stop at Guildford Place.
In all the years that I strolled beneath the ash and poplar canopy that hangs over this secluded street, I never once stopped to wonder how it came by its curious assortment of houses: a single row formed from a post-war terrace and two Victorian bookends. As Jack reads from a local history pamphlet, I learn that Guildford Place owes its peculiar layout to the Luftwaffe.
At 10.30pm on Friday 25 April 1941, two high explosives and a parachute mine, most likely meant for the nearby Parsons’ Works, fell on Guildford Place and the adjacent Cheltenham Terrace. After the fire brigade extinguished the initial blaze, a fractured gas main caught fire. The bodies were still being recovered five days later. The final death toll was reported as 47, representing over a third of the civilian casualties that Newcastle would sustain throughout the Second World War. Entire households on Guildford Place perished in the raid and its victims ranged in age from nine weeks to 77 years.
That there is no commemorative plaque on Guildford Place is unsurprising. Local memorials to Britain’s civilian dead are a far rarer and more recent phenomenon than their military counterparts, testament to the fact that, during the period of post-war reconstruction, remembrance was rationed along with everything else. Blitz survivors were moved into prefabs and the Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour into Westminster Abbey. While it is comforting to imagine that the residents of Guildford Place simply saw their ordeals as unremarkable, it is just as likely that they found them to be unspeakable. Lest we forget, reconstruction is not recovery and, like the silence of the returning veteran, the redevelopment of a bombsite is a coping mechanism. Many of the War’s survivors buried their traumas along with their dead.
In recent decades, some communities have broken the silence. Significant anniversaries of the Blitz have been marked by the unveiling of monuments, plaques and sculptures commemorating civilians killed in a given city or by a specific explosion. The power of these memorials lies in their particularity, their decision to make the original site of devastation –a London Underground station, say, or a Glaswegian primary school– the focal point for remembrance. We now dwell in the long-since rebuilt cities that, as T.S. Eliot and others predicted in 1944, no longer bear the ‘trace of death from the air’. These modest memorials challenge we who were not there –that is, not here, then– to turn our backs on the future and, momentarily, fix our eyes on the past. Looking back, in hope or in tears, at the ruined lives of the dead is not a magical act of resurrection, but it is a loving act of redemption. The paradox of remembrance is that we recall the ruins of the past to save the past from ruin.
A Roll of Honour for the dead of Guildford Place and Cheltenham Terrace can be found in Ian Clough’s pamphlet The Night the Bombs Rained on Heaton, from which Jack reads excerpts as the house sparrows chirp above us. Eye-witness accounts of the bombing map the craters left in the lives of its survivors; stories salvaged from oblivion like heirlooms from the rubble. Each testimony has its own singular hold, a power quite distinct from the memorial’s uniform address. Long after the street is rebuilt and repopulated, its former residents can be found on a bookshelf, between the pages, forever on the cusp of recalling how it was.
Guildford Place Image: Evening Chronicle.