Neil Munro, a former City Guide for Newcastle upon Tyne, took members on their very own guided tour of old Newcastle’s streets from the comfort of Wooler’s Cheviot Centre. Neil was well equipped to negotiate the way through numerous lanes and roads with his extensive experience in Adult Education and the Education Service of Tyne and Wear Archives.
We learnt first about the early bridges over the River Tyne in Roman times and why they were positioned in a particular place. The Pons Aelius was a Roman fort and settlement on the north bank of the Tyne. In Saxon times there was a cemetery where the castle now stands. The son of William the Conqueror was the first to erect a castle of earth and timber there about 1080. In succeeding centuries it was rebuilt in stone. Masons from all over the country came to the town to provide building expertise. Both the Black Gate and The Keep have been recently restored and re-opened to the public and are well worth a visit.
From 1400 Newcastle was designated a Town and a County, thus earning certain rights and privileges. The oldest street in Newcastle is the mediaeval Side, still cobbled, which runs down to the Quayside from St Nicholas Cathedral. Dog Leap Stairs lead from the Castle Garth to Side. The name refers to ‘a narrow slip of ground between houses’. In 1772 Baron Eldon, later Lord Chancellor of England, eloped with Bessie Surtees making their escape, according to folklore, on horseback up Dog Leap Stairs, quite an achievement as they are extremely steep!
The town was vulnerable to attack from the Scots, so a wall was built around it commencing 1280 and a tax levied to fund it. It was not permitted to build up against the wall. A surprising amount of the wall survives, sometimes in the most unlikely spots of the present city.
Admiral Collingwood was baptised and married in the then Church of St Nicholas so it is not surprising to find an adjacent street of fine buildings named after him in 1810 after his death. It provided a through route between Pilgrim Street and Westgate. Many of the streets near the wall are named after the towers. These include, Pink Lane, Westgate, and Neville Street. The wall was not breached until the Civil War.
Pilgrim Street recalls the pilgrims who made their way to the Shrine of our Lady in Jesmond. Nearby Gallowgate is derived from Galler Gate (gate or gata meaning street), the road to the gallows. Here prisoners from Newgate Prison were executed from `1400, the events being recorded in ancient parish registers of St Andrew’s Church, the oldest in the town.
The Keelmens Hospital, set back from the Quayside in All Saints Parish, is an early example of men providing for themselves by contributing to build an Almshouse for keelmen and their dependants. Holy Jesus Hospital is another building provided for the needy of the town. It was built by the Freemen of Newcastle.
Along the Quayside numerous “chares” can still be found. These narrow medieval alleys or lanes retain the term “chare” such as Broad Chare with its magnificent Trinity House and Pudding Chare. Others have picturesque names such as Breakneck Stairs and Long Stairs. The Benedictine nuns of St Bartholomew’s lived where Nun Street now stands. St Mary’s Place near the Haymarket recalls St Mary Magdalene, with its leper hospital outside the town wall. Wesley Square is named after John Wesley whose visit in 1715 was to him memorable for “the sight of so much drunkenness”.
Other famous men connected with the town included Roger Thornton, Harry Hotspur, Thomas Bewick and John Marley, all of whom gave their names to streets in the town.
This talk encouraged us on our next shopping trip to Newcastle to take a closer look at streets which may be familiar to us now for their shops and restaurants. We shall look at them with different eyes in future.