When the Roman Emperor Hadrian came to Britain in 122 AD he set about building his famous northern frontier wall between the Cumbrian coast and the North Sea, and at the eastern end he constructed a bridge and fort on the River Tyne known as Pons Aelius, or Hadrian’s Bridge.
The wall was later extended to Segedunum (now called Wallsend), and the fort at Hadrian’s Bridge has become the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
After the Romans left, little is known about Anglo-Saxon Newcastle, which is surprising when you think that the great chronicler of the time, the Venerable Bede, was living only a short distance away on the other side of the river at Jarrow.
What we do know though is that the original Roman bridge was replaced, and that bridge too was replaced after a fire in 1248. Today, the site of all these bridges is occupied by another one – William Armstrong’s practical and wonderfully designed Swing Bridge of 1876. There are now seven bridges that span the river from this part of the city and this is definitely one of my favourites.
The quayside next to the Swing Bridge was the hub of Newcastle life for centuries. The area around The Close and Sandhill was home to merchants and ‘Hostmen’ who were basically middlemen controlling the transport of coal between the producers and those who shipped it down to London. This part of the quayside still retains some fine 17th century buildings that would no doubt have belonged to some of these wealthy sea merchants.
Most of the working quayside ran between Sandhill and Sandgate, a poor, overcrowded area that was home to the ‘Keelmen’. These were a tough breed of people, many of whom were Reivers from the Border Country, and it was their job to transport the coal in their keel boats from the riverside to larger ships further down-river.
The hard working, hard drinking Keelmen had their own style of dress, and even their own songs, and during the 18th century there were over 1600 of them employed along the quayside, but the introduction of staithes which allowed coal to be delivered by train directly to the ships eventually made both the keels and the men that handled them surplus to requirements.
It’s not just the Keelmen that have disappeared but also most of the ‘Chares’. Imagine if you can, what it would have originally looked like along here when the riverside was occupied by jetties. The space between these jetties was gradually reclaimed and built upon, creating narrow alleyways that led down to the river. There are only a few left including Broad Chare, which as its name suggests, was wider than most, and at number 25 is a great pub/restaurant called the Broad Chare which I can highly recommend.
One thing that hasn’t disappeared is the iconic Tyne Bridge. I used to think that the Sydney Harbour Bridge was probably based on Newcastle’s, but in actual fact it was the other way around, and to add to the confusion the Tyne Bridge was built before Sydney’s.
The reason for this confusion stems from the fact that Dorman Long of Middlesbrough, who were the builders of both bridges, started building the Sydney Harbour Bridge seven months before it was decided to build a smaller version in Newcastle. The Tyne Bridge was completed in 1928 and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932.
A walk along the Quayside today is very different from how it used to be. There is still a market here on Sundays, but most other things have changed. Redevelopment has created a riverside walkway with bars, restaurants and night clubs as well as art installations, sculptures, and yet another bridge.
The Millennium Bridge has quickly become one of the area’s favourite landmarks, and deservedly so. Technically speaking, this bridge belongs to the other side of the river because its official name is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, but as the majority of first time visitors will reach it from the Newcastle Quayside I decided that it made sense to include it here.
The design includes a tilting mechanism that takes less than five minutes to fully open and in a way that has earned it the nickname of the ‘Blinking Eye’.
This pedestrian bridge perfectly complements the arch of the Tyne Bridge and at night is transformed by coloured lighting.
Just like the River Tyne itself, the fortunes of Newcastle has ebbed and flowed ever since Hadrian built the first bridge here, and even if Geordies mourn the passing of their past heritage at least they’ve got a cleaner river and a much nicer quayside to view it from.