Is Ouseburn the coolest place in the North East?

Some call it the coolest place in Newcastle, others might find it tricky to identify on a map, but that's slowly changing as Mike Kelly reports

David Lawson One of David Lawson's pictures from the book Bridging the Ouseburn
One of David Lawson's pictures from the book Bridging the Ouseburn

Writer Sue Bright has worked in the Ouseburn area of Newcastle for over 30 years and it’s obvious she loves the place.

However she candidly admits that in the early days there wasn’t much to love. 

“There were lots of derelict buildings and cut and shut car workshops,” she said.

Today the derelict buildings have been revamped thanks to 30 years of regeneration and if you were to see a cut and shut car – a crime phenomenon  when two halves of crash damaged vehicles are welded together, painted and sold on to unsuspecting punters – it’ll probably be part of an art installation.

For Ouseburn is the home of a strikingly diverse cultural scene, attracting a variety of people from students, ordinary locals to a middle-aged arts crowd. 

“It’s evolved into a creative hub,” said Sue “and it’s all down to the dedication of people.”

For fans of real ale, music, the arts and architecture, it boasts many attractions.

It is the home of the Cluny; the Free Trade Inn; the Cumberland Arms; the Tyne Bar; the Star and Shadow Cinema and the Tanners Arms.

Then there’s Seven Stories; the Biscuit Factory, Stepney Banks Stables and Hoults Yard.

Writer Sue Bright
Writer Sue Bright
 

It’s a healthy list made all the more remarkable that they are concentrated in so small an area.

And if you’re a fan of bridges it’s the place for you.

For even more remarkable is that while the nearby River Tyne gets much – deserved – coverage for its  bridges, there are 13 crossings over the Ouseburn river.

It is the focal point of a project for Sue which grew in the telling, the end result her book: ‘Bridging The Ouseburn’.

She said: “I started writing the book about this time last year, realising that there was an anniversary coming up. 

“The new New Glasshouse Bridge was built on May 21, 1878, and the Byker Bridge built on October 19, 1878. Previously I had done a leaflet, about 30 years of regeneration in the Ouseburn with Ray Bland (of the Ouseburn Trust)

“We thought it would be appropriate to do another one but when I started putting it together, there was far too much information for a leaflet.

“I handed the text to Colin Hagan at Northern Design to see if he liked the idea or didn’t – you always get an honest answer with him.

“He was very enthusiastic, beyond our expectations. We got a photographer in to take all the colour shots – David Lawson – then we thought we don’t want anyone to meddle with our work and decided to publish it ourselves.”

In all it took Sue about six months to research.

“But I’m a librarian and genealogist, it wasn’t that hard,” she said.

And a stickler for the facts, another reason for writing the book.

She said: “Researching it, it became obvious there was a lot of misinformation out there. I wanted to put the record straight.

“There’s a famous black and white picture of a bridge in the Ouseburn and its got viaduct framing it and you can also see a smaller bridge. The opening line of the description says the Ouseburn flows under Crawford Bridge. It doesn’t.  It actually flows under James & Co Bridge.”

It has to be said there is such a density of bridges and crossings, it’s not surprising errors can be made.

David Lawson A picture from the book Bridging the Ouseburn by David Lawson
A picture from the book Bridging the Ouseburn by David Lawson
 

Sue commented: “We were looking at 400 years of civil engineering in a half-mile stretch of the Ouseburn. It’s almost impossible to take a picture of one bridge. Most pictures have at least two, sometimes four.”

The Ouseburn river rises in the fields near Callerton to the north east of Newcastle and flows south eastwards through Woolsington park, Gosforth park and Jesmond Vale before reaching the Lower Ouseburn Valley where it joins the River Tyne at Newcastle’s East Quayside.

The area was at first farmland and remained so, separate to Newcastle, until the 1500s when its incorporation into the city began.

Over the years coal mines, lead factories and flax mills have operated there, as well as glassmakers and potters.

“It’s something that has evolved since Roman times to the Industrial Revolution – it was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in Newcastle.

“It is home to some of the most innovative engineering in the history of shipbuilding.”

The innovation was necessitated by the fact the valley was once so steep sided.

The first of the 13 crossings of the lower valley occurred at the shallowest part of the river, a natural ford, close to where the Cluny Slipway slopes down today.

The first wooden bridge across the Ouseburn was built in 1619 on the Quayside Road across to the Glasshouses which was replaced 50 years later with a stone one.

There followed Crawford’s Bridge and James & Co Bridge in 1801.

Then came the Ouseburn Railway Viaduct (1839); the New Glasshouse Bridge (1878), Byker Road Bridge (1878), the Low Level bridge (1908); the Ouseburn Culvert (1911); Ouseburn Bridge (1959); Byker Metro Bridge (1982) and finally the Cluny Footbridge in 2003.

Sue said: “We looked at each crossing and what might be unique about them because all are so different.”

However, try as she might, she can’t find anything to recommend the 1959 built Ouseburn Bridge.

“A concrete construction” she said with some disdain.

It proved a challenge for photographer David Lawson. “He took a picture of it at night with the boats backlit which made it look OK but there wasn’t anything really to say about it.”

The book was launched last month at a weekend celebration to mark the 135th birthday of the New Glasshouse Bridge and the Byker Road Bridge.

All the money raised will go towards the annual Ouseburn Festival with which Sue is also involved.

It’s a surprise to learn she does not actually live in the Ouseburn area.

She said: “I’m actually a West End person, I live there but have worked in Ouseburn for nearly 30 years.

“For the last 18 years I’ve been working at Newcastle Autocentre.

“Before that I used to sell sandpaper then I went to university to do what I should have done at the age of 18,” said Sue, 56.

“When I was 40 I went to Northumbria to do information and library management.

“Before that I did family history at Newcastle University.

“There are lots of friendly, passionate people who have worked here for a long time. They are dedicated to making it special.

“It’s a lovely place to visit. It’s a hidden gem.

“There is a minority of people who don’t want us to promote it, to keep it for themselves.”

She added: “There’s some housing developments almost started.

“This time next year could have new people moving in.

“I think it will have an effect on the feel of the valley. Good or bad? We’ll have to wait and see. I’ll have to sit on the fence with that one.”

:: The book can be bought from The Ouseburn Trust, Arch 6, Stepney Bank or from The Tyne Bar on Maling Street on the Quayside or from Sue at Newcastle Autocentre, Hannington Place, Byker. You can see a copy at the Local Studies Collection Newcastle City Library, or Tyne & Wear Museum Archives at Blandford House. Contact Sue at: info@ouseburnancestors.co.uk

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