The medieval Black Gate in the historic heart of Newcastle is about to live up to its name as it takes on a new lease of life.
Originally, the 13th Century entrance to the castle which gave the town its name, it is to become the gateway to Old Newcastle – the location from which the city developed.
Work is now complete on a programme which began last April to overhaul and refurbish the Black Gate for its latest role.
In contrast to its name, the comprehensive makeover has left the Black Gate gleaming in as much as any medieval building can gleam.
It is 130 years since the completion of the last restoration of the building, after a successful campaign to save it from demolition.
The operation by Northern Construction Solutions Ltd has been a key part of the £1.67m Old Newcastle project, which aims to raise the profile of, and attract more visitors to, the concentration of history around the Black Gate and the adjoining St Nicholas Cathedral and Castle Keep, which itself is built on top of the Roman fort of Pons Aelius.
Most of the cost has been met by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“This is the original heart of the city, from which Newcastle grew,” says Old Newcastle project manager Kate Sussams.
The Black Gate revamp has cost £850,000, with another £200,000 earmarked for interpretation for visitors in the building and the Keep.
The project is being delivered by the Heart of the City Partnership, a company formed by the council, the cathedral and the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne,.
The Black Gate now has an external lift, clad in wood to better merge with the building, and which will allow access to three levels of the building, a reception area, shop and toilets.
Access to Castle Garth has also been improved by new walkways and ramps.
“A whole floor will be dedicated to the stories of people who lived and worked in the Black Gate and Castle Garth,” says Kate.
Another floor will be a learning suite for schools and community groups, which can also be used for events and will be for hire, for occasions such as birthday parties.
“It could be a fantastic venue,” says Kate. “It will be a portal to Old Newcastle, and puts the original heart of the city back on the map.”
The learning floor will be called the Harbottle suite, in honour of Barbara Harbottle, who died two years ago.
As the first county archaeologist for Tyne and Wear, she was responsible for overseeing the maintenance of the Black Gate and the Keep.
A past president of the Antiquaries, she led digs in the city at Blackfriars, and under the railway arches at Castle Garth, where hundreds of Anglo-Saxon burials were found amid the ruins of the Roman fort.
She also excavated the ditch in front of the Black Gate, which had been used as a rubbish dump in the 17th Century. It produced a wealth of evidence about the lives of everyday people in Newcastle at the time.
The excavations added to the long history of the site.
The first timber fortress – the New Castle – was built around 1080 on top of the Roman fort, on a plateau overlooking the lowest bridging point of the River Tyne.
It was replaced by the stone castle in 1168-1178, with the Black Gate added in 1247, complete with drawbridge.
The Black Gate was heightened in the 17th Century and Castle Garth became crowded with half-timber houses and pubs.
As overcrowding increased, the Black Gate was divided into tenaments, housing around 60 people.
In 1849-50, the Victorians built their railway between the Keep and the Black Gate which, together with the construction of St Nicholas Street, meant the clearance of many of the homes.
As the Black Gate emerged from the jumble, there were calls for its demolition.
But the Antiquaries, who had leased the Keep, campaigned to save the building, which they later used as a meeting place, museum and library.
The Black Gate was restored for the Antiquaries by Robert James Johnson, who was a member of the society and architect for the diocese of Durham and Newcastle, who also worked on the transition of the Church of St Nicholas into a cathedral.
Work will now start on the fitting out of the Black Gate, involving exhibition designers Studio MB, with a target opening date of early July.