Archive for Newcastle upon Tyne

The Byker Grove Connection

Posted in Biographical, History, Television with tags , , , on September 21, 2016 by telescoper

One of the interesting things about having a blog that has been running for some time is that old posts continue to attract comments even after many years. Some of the posts that have been getting comments recently are about my early childhood growing up in Benwell which is to the West of Newcastle upon Tyne; you can find a couple of examples here and here. The place has changed beyond all recognition since I was a kid, which I suppose accounts for the fact that people are googling about looking for memories of what it used to be like.

Here is a Google Earth rendition of the area I grew up in..


We used to live in one of the two cottages right next to Pendower School, which was just off Fox and Hounds Lane.  You can see road that led to the front of our house, just between the text of “Benwell Village” and “Fox and Hounds Lane”.  The cottages and school are now demolished, and a housing development stands where they were. That’s all in the middle of the top of the image.

My Dad used to run a  shop which was was on the corner of Whickham View and Delaval Road, about halfway down the image to the left. The green strips to the East of Delaval Road and running parallel to it were all terraced when I lived there. Virtually everything has now gone, but it was a nice little community with old-fashioned little shops.

What drew my attention recently however, is that there is a location (to the top left of the image) marked Byker Grove., right next to where I used to live. When I was a lad that was  Benwell Towers, which we were told was haunted – presumably to scare us off trying to get in. There was a rather scary and formidable fence separating the grounds of Benwell Towers from the School, but it was not unknown for kids to climb it…

There have been buildings on the site of Benwell Towers since the 13th Century. A tower house was built there in 1221 and stood until it was demolished to make way for the current, much larger, building which was constructed in 1831. The old building was for a time owned by a branch of the Shafto family, of Bobby Shafto fame. At the time of the construction of the new building, Benwell hadn’t been engulfed by the westward sprawl of Newcastle itself and was very much a separate village. “Benwell Village” still felt like a distinct, self-contained community, when I was growing up there in the Sixties.

The “new” Benwell Towers was, for a time, the residence of the Bishop of Newcastle, but when I lived there it was being used as a base for the National Coal Board and used primarily as the Headquarters  of the Mine Rescue Service. There were some pits still open in those days.  When the Coal Board didn’t need it any more, it became a tacky nightclub called The Mitre

That’s all I knew about the place as I never really visited it again after going to University . But a chance comment on this blog followed by a Google Search revealed that when The Mitre closed the building was used to film the long-running TV series Byker GroveI knew about the programme, but had always assumed it was filmed in Byker (which is in the East End of Newcastle) rather than Benwell (which is in the West End). It certainly never occurred to me that it was made just a hundred yards from where I grew up. You live and learn.



Frederick Douglass and the Freedom of Newcastle

Posted in History with tags , , on February 2, 2016 by telescoper

You can learn a lot by looking at Google, even if you don’t use it to search for anything.

I found out – via the Twitter feed of Bonnie Greer – that yesterday’s Google Doodle was this:


The picture is a representation of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), whose name was quite new to me until yesterday but whose remarkable life story turns out to have a strong connection with my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Douglass was a prominent social reformer and campaigner against slavery, and for other forms of social justice, including equal rights for women. The most famous expression of his political philosophy is the following quote:

I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.

Once a slave himself, Douglass escaped from bondage in 1838 and, while on the run, wrote his first autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave which quickly became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. He eventually made his way to England, where he went on a speaking tour,  impressing audiences around the country with the power of his oratory, his obvious intellect, and the conviction with which he held his political beliefs.

Slavery was unlawful under English common law at that time so technically Douglass was a free man from the moment he set foot in England, but the same would not be true if he returned to America. His English supporters wanted him to remain here, but he had a wife and three children in the United States and wanted to return and continue the campaign against slavery there. But as soon as he set foot back in America he was likely to be seized and returned to his “owner”.

Then, in a remarkably generous gesture, the people of Newcastle upon Tyne solved his problem. They collected enough money to pay his “owner”, Thomas Auld, for his freedom. He returned to America in 1847, a free man, where he remained true to his beliefs and spent the next 48 years continuing his various campaigns. He died of a stroke in 1895, aged 77.

Frederick Douglass was undoubtedly a remarkable man, passionate and courageous with a great gift for public speaking. A Google Doodle is a small honour for such a hero but I’m sure it has at least led to many others besides myself finding out just a little bit more about him.

And if you’ll forgive me for saying so, it also gives me yet another reason to be proud to be a Geordie.  Perhaps it’s true that the people of Newcastle upon Tyne are the most generous in the UK

P.S. Newcastle upon Tyne is not in the Midlands.


The Fog on the Tyne

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , , , , on July 29, 2012 by telescoper

Recently I’ve been digging our boxes of old photographs, and boring all my Facebook friends by posting lots of scans I made from them. I seem to remember this particular batch came as a result of a stroll along the quayside of the River Tyne during one of the vacations when I was an undergraduate. I’m not very good at keeping records (or taking pictures for that matter) but at a guess I’d date them as 1984.

I’ve posted them partly because I think they’re quite atmospheric – there really was Fog on the Tyne that day – but also because the views they depict have long since vanished.

For example, there is now a new bridge – the beautiful Gateshead Millennium Bridge  – roughly at the position from which this first picture was taken. In the background (i.e. to the West) you can see the iconic Tyne Bridge and the Swing Bridge. Notice also that in those days the quayside to the right (on the Newcastle side) was virtually derelict; now it is buzzing with fancy cafés, bars and restaurants. In those days the Quayside was a rough and rather dangerous place, especially at night.

This one is of the Baltic Flour Mill, on the Gateshead side of the River Tyne, in the days when it was a disused flour mill. It’s now a famous art gallery and exhibition space, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.

Next one shows a couple of trawlers tugs (see comments below). In fact there is a famous Fish Quay at North Shields further along towards the mouth of the Tyne; it dates back to the 13th Century.

And finally this contraption, which I assume is long gone. I never worked out what it was for. Any suggestions?

The Geordie Particle

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 20, 2011 by telescoper

As the media frenzy abates after the latest experimental results from the Large Hadron Collider show tantalising but inconclusive evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson, it’s perhaps now time to focus on the hard facts surrounding this elusive particle. At yesterday’s Christmas lunch I stumbled upon one piece of information of which I was previously unaware and which is clearly of national importance. The eponymous creator of the Higgs particle, Professor Peter Higgs, was in fact born in the fine city of Newcastle upon Tyne, which really is in The North. This fact identifies him as a Geordie, although having just heard him on the radio I think there’s not much sign of it in his accent.

Anyway, in honour of this important discovery I respectfully submit that  The Large Hadron Collider should be given a more appropriate name,  i.e. The Geet Big Hadron Basher. And I’m sure God won’t mind if the Higg’s boson is henceforth known as the Geordie Particle.

A Bridge Too Far

Posted in Education with tags , , , on June 11, 2011 by telescoper

My commitment to the education of the great unwashed knows no bounds. Tonight’s subjects are architecture and geography.

Not a lot of people know that the relatively unknown Sydney Harbour Bridge is in fact a cheap replica of a much more famous structure in a much more interesting location:

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Tyne Bridge

Smalltown Boy

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , on September 13, 2010 by telescoper

This time of year always fills me with nostalgia. All the talk of new students arriving, taking their first steps on a new life away from home, reminds me of the time many years ago when got on the train in Newcastle and made the long journey to Cambridge with most of my belongings in suitcases. No-one in my family had ever gone to university before I went to Cambridge – and  none have gone since, if truth be told!

I’d only been to Cambridge once before (for the interview). When I got there, after several hours’ travel, and sat down in the room in Magdalene College that had been allocated to me, I felt someone (possibly me) had made a terrible mistake and there was no way I would ever feel like I belonged there.

In fact, I’m now feeling second-order nostalgia, because one of my very first blog posts, almost two years ago, was about that trip. I remember sitting in the garden writing it just as I remember sitting in my new room in Cambridge all those years ago thinking “What on Earth am I doing here?”.

Having set  off on a sentimental journey, I might as well complete it with this  track from Bronski Beat which – for reasons which I hope are obvious – completes the sense of wistfulness. This was released in 1984, a  couple of years after I left home, but I’ve never been one to let mere chronology get in the way of self-indulgence.

Sad Streets

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on December 15, 2009 by telescoper

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?

Divided Loyalties

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 16, 2009 by telescoper

It’s easy to tell that summer is on the way. England are playing the West Indies at Cricket. It’s the penultimate weekend of the Premiership football season. The undergraduates are taking their exams. I’m sitting with a pile of projects to mark. And it’s raining.

I suppose I have to mention the football. My team, Newcastle United, gave themselves a chance of avoiding relegation on Monday night by beating local rivals, Middlesborough 3-1. A win today at home against Fulham would pretty much have guaranteed safety. They lost 1-0. It now looks inevitable that they will be relegated after 16 years in the top flight.

It’s a thankless task being a Newcastle supporter. I’ve followed them all my life and they have managed to avoid winning any competition of any significance since the Fairs cup in 1968 (now called the UEFA cup). They have loyal fans and a wonderful stadium, but somehow seem completely unable to convert that into success on the field. This season they were doomed as soon as the manager Kevin Keegan quit over the owner Mike Ashley’s refusal to allow him to be involved in signing any players. After a period without a manager, during which they lost game after game, the club appointed veteran relegation specialist Joe Kinnear, who did OK for a while then at Christmas had to go into hospital with heart problems. Another run of poor results followed until, in desperation, the club appointed the iconic former player Alan Shearer to his first managerial position. His lack of experience showed, though, and he’s only managed to win one game. In short, the season has been a shambles.

When my father died (about 18 months ago), I thought that my interest in Newcastle United would wane. Football and music were the only two things we had in common after my parents split when I was about 12 and I went to live with my mother. I saw him only rarely in later years,and much of the time we spent together involved talking about football. However, I still find myself getting nervous on match days and looking anxiously for the scores whenever they’ve been playing. It’s like there is an umbilical cord that still connects me to my home town and I can’t get rid of it.

That feeling was reinforced yesterday when, following a conversation at the RAS Club last week, Robert Smith sent me a booklet that he had received when he attended a conference in Newcastle in 1965. The Official Guide to Newcastle upon Tyne (priced 2/6) filled me with a mixture of nostalgia and amusement. Ironically, given the football team’s inadequacies the motto of the city is FORTITER DEFENDIT TRIUMPHANS, which was also the motto of my old school, the Royal Grammar School (also mentioned in the booklet).

The little picture on the left shows the armorial bearings of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne. The official blazon is: Arms:- Gules three Castles triple towered Argent. Crest on a Wreath of the Colours. A Castle as in the arms issuant therefrom from a demi Lion guardant supporting a Flagstaff Or, flying therefrom a forked Pennon of the Arms of Saint George.

Supporters: – on either side a Sea Horse proper crined and finned Or.

Obviously supporters don’t guarantee success, even if they’re proper crined and finned.

Of course, I shall be disappointed if and when Newcastle get relegated next week, but I don’t go along with all the guff in the newspapers about how it will have dire consequences for the city. They’ve been relegated twice before in my lifetime, and the world didn’t end then nor will it now. In any case, I’d reckon the Football Club has taken much more out of the economy of Newcastle in recent years than it has put back into it. Hard-earned cash from supporters has gone straight into the pockets of overpaid players and inept management staff. Maybe relegation will shake the Club up, which will be good in the long run.

Anyway, every cloud has at least one silver lining and this one has two. At the start of the season, I was prescient enough to place a large bet on Newcastle to get relegated at quite long odds. I expect to be handsomely compensated by Mr William Hill when they do go down. The other thing is that they will have to play Cardiff City in the Championship next year, which will give me the chance to see them play in Cardiff’s brand new stadium.

Incidentally, Cardiff City blew their promotion hopes in spectacular fashion. Needing only to avoid losing to Preston North End by 5 goals in order to secure a place in the play-offs, they lost 6-0.

Meanwhile we’ve been coming down slowly from the high that was Thursday’s launch of Herschel and Planck. I was surprised to see Matt Griffin in the department yesterday afternoon because he was actually at the launch in Kourou. He had left after the launch and flown directly back to Cardiff (via Paris). Our other representatives will return over this weekend, and things will start to get back to normal.

Matt told me that he was so impressed with the professionalism of Arianespace, that he wasn’t at all nervous about the launch. Matt’s instrument, SPIRE, will switch on during 22 May and testing will start. I’m sure that Matt and his team will be more than a little nervous about that!

Assuming both Planck and Herschel work satisfactorily, the next problem we will have to face is the deluge of data that will shortly be upon us. The astronomers at Cardiff University have submitted an application for rolling grant support from STFC (not Swindon Town Football Club) to enable us to extract scientific results from new data especially from Herschel. Unfortunately, though, the coffers are pretty bare and it seems very unlikely that we will get the substantial uplift in funding we need to carry out the work on a reasonable timescale.

A rolling grant is intended to support an ongoing research programme. Typically the grants cover 5 years’ funding, enabling the group to offer longer term contracts to staff than is allowed by the 3-year standard grant format. After 3 years of the rolling period, the group has to bid again for another 5 year period but the timing means there is always two years’ grace, meaning that if renewal is not recommended the group still has two years’ funding so the plug isn’t pulled immediately. If an extension is offered but at a reduced level of funding, a group might decide to refuse the new grant and carry on with its existing two years, perhaps to apply in the following round.

The problem with the current financial situation is that STFC barely has the funds needed to continue its existing rolling grants. In other words if all the groups applying for rolling support declined their new contracts and rolled on their existing grants, STFC would only just be able to pay them. In such a situation there would be no new grants or any kind of increase in existing rollers. The implications for successful exploitation of Herschel and Planck appear to be grim and there could well be a lot of difficult decisions within the department to be made if we have to operate within a much reduced budget.

It would be ridiculous if a billion-dollar mission like Herschel ends up stymied because of the relatively small sums needed to exploit the data, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Football teams aren’t the only organizations to suffer from bad management.