I noticed yesterday that an old post of mine about my childhood in Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, was attracting some interest. It’s one of the interesting things about running a blog that, quite often, an old post you thought was dead seems to get someone’s attention who sends it on to some others and then, all of a sudden, it’s getting dozens of readers. I’m not sure who or what was having a look at this particular one, but it did spur me on to try to dispel my hangover after the staff Christmas lunch by having a look around the web to see if anything new had turned up since I last posted about Benwell.
At first I was delighted to find this photograph, taken sometime in the sixties, showing the old trolley bus terminus at Delaval Road. This view is eastwards, looking along Benwell Lane towards Newcastle itself. The road going south towards the river (to the right) is Delaval Road and the complicated system of wires overhead enabled the electrically powered trolley buses to turn around and head back into town. These buses were phased out when I was little, but I remember them quite clearly, especially the rather comical palaver involved in trying to keep them attached to the wires.
To the left of the picture you can see a wall with trees behind. This marked the southern end of a small wood (“The Spinney”) inside which was the small cottage we lived in. The road behind the camera, the continuation of Benwell lane, is Whickham View.
It was nice to see this picture. It made me all nostalgic. Benwell was never actually Belgravia, of course. It wasn’t at all a wealthy neighbourhood and parts of it were quite rough, but my childhood there was pretty happy and there was a real sense of community to the place, helped by the presence of lots of little shops and good transport links.
Now look at essentially the same view, taken in 2009.
Superficially, the area hasn’t changed that much but all the shops are boarded up and all the houses abandoned. Even the road itself is in a state of disrepair. In fact, all the once busy streets leading down towards the Tyne to the south of Benwell Lane are now quite deserted and the whole area scheduled for demolition. You can see many more pictures of this depressing scene here.
I moved away from Newcastle in 1982 when I went to University. I therefore missed the terrible effect that the recession of the 1980s had on the streets I had grown up in. It also had a direct effect on my father, who separated from my mother when I was about 12. He ran a small business selling educational supplies (paper, pens, art materials etc) to schools and pre-school playgroups. Most of it was wholesale but he also ran a small shop which, at first, was on Benwell Lane. In fact it was one of the two shops you can see by the light blue car in the first picture, although this snap was taken a while before he took it over. I think it was a cake shop before that.
After some modest success he moved just along the road a bit to slightly larger premises on the corner of Whickham View and Delaval Road, i.e. just to the right of where the camera is positioned on the opposite side of the road to the greengrocers. He lived in a flat above this new shop, which formerly sold wool and was run by an old lady called Mrs Ludgate.
As time went on and the recession bit harder, the social and material fabric of Benwell gradually deteriorated. There were increasingly frequent burglaries and car thefts. It became a no-go zone at night. His business started to fail and debts began to mount. The stress of watching the neighbourhood falling apart and coping with the constant threat of break-ins at the shop and his flat eventually got too much for him. He packed everything he could into his van and fled to the South coast to live with his sister in Weymouth, leaving the dilapidated shop and all his debts behind. I’m sure there’s a similar story behind all the other empty shops in Benwell.
Looking at these bleak photographs of the deserted streets and houses of my youth filled me with sadness, not least because they seem like portents of the future of British science. In ten years time will we all be poring over pictures of abandoned observatories and research labs?