'What makes a Geordie?' debate to be held in Newcastle

Newcastle University event will examine links between heritage and the Geordie character as Tony Henderson explains

Angel of the North

So what is it that goes into the mix to make a Geordie? Or, depending on the definition of Geordie, a Northumbrian or Wearsider?

The links between heritage and identity will be explored in what is already a fully booked event at Newcastle University next week.

Among the ingredients which will be considered is what bonds people to their surroundings and gives that sense of place.

What physical landmarks make people feel that they belong in the North East, and feel proud to do so? What anchors individuals to the landscape?

There are some pretty obvious candidates - the Tyne bridges, Newcastle’s Grey Street and the Monument, Tynemouth Priory headland, Durham Cathedral, Hadrian’s Wall, castles like Alnwick, Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh, Penshaw Monument. And that new kid on the block, The Angel of the North.

Or is it natural heritage - the Northumbrian beaches, the Cheviot Hills, Simonside, the moors of the North Pennines, High Force?

James Davidson Dunstanburgh Castle
Dunstanburgh Castle

That trickles down to the more local level. What is it that links people to their village, town or neighbourhood?

So much for the tangible. What about the intangibles in the heritage/identity equation? How about the shared passions of St James’ Park and the black and white, or the Stadium of Light and the red and white?

The case has long been made that it isn’t simply about football but in the way that the team is bound up with the identity of the city and tribal identity.

In the North East, the tribes even have names - Geordies and Mackems.

What binds people is the shared dialect and vocabulary, traditional and more recent music, the writing and a humour forged as a bulwark against adversity and which was a way of getting through the harshness of the day in the mines, shipyards and factories.

Or what about a regional character shaped by many centuries of border warfare and battles like Neville’s Cross, Homildon Hill, Otterburn and Flodden.

The distinctive flavour of the North East has been broadcast to the rest of the country via TV’s The Likely Lads, When the Boat Comes In, Byker Grove and Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

Byker Grove cast in 1998
Byker Grove cast in 1998

Even Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield had a go in their hilarious running sketch about a plummy southern family who kept a “pet” Geordie and paraded him for the amusement of their well-heeled dinner party friends.

National surveys have shown that a Geordie accent is regarded as positive, warm and friendly.

It is all a rich seam for the Heritage Alliance to mine as they stage their Heritage & Identity: What Makes You Who You Are? event at King’s Hall in Newcastle University on November 5.

The debate, especially relevant after the Scottish independence vote, will be led by Dr Loyd Grossman, chairman of the Heritage Alliance and is being sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance.

The panel will include Dr Rhiannon Mason, senior lecturer in the university’s international centre for cultural and heritage studies, North of England Civic Trust director Graham Bell, and Izzy Mohammed from Birmingham Library.

This will be the fifth such event to be staged by the alliance, which is the umbrella organisation for almost 100 independent heritage organisations, from the National Trust to local groups and societies.

Their total membership is 12 times that of the main political parties and, according to the alliance, heritage-led tourism is worth £26 billion to the UK economy.

So it matters and the results of the Newcastle debate will be fed back to Government.

Previous events have been in Cambridge. on heritage and tourism, in Bristol on heritage and profit, in York on heritage and TV and in Birmingham on heritage and philanthropy.

Newcastle castle keep and the Tyne Bridge
Newcastle castle keep and the Tyne Bridge

But when it came to heritage and identity, Newcastle was a stand-out choice, says alliance chief executive Kate Pugh.

“Newcastle and the North East was the right place to hold this event because of its strong regional identity,” she says. “We want to examine what it is that creates identity, the sense of belonging, the emotional bond between people and places.

“It raises questions such as what do people think is the most powerful symbol which represents the North East.”

There are also the less obvious such as the night-out North East propensity for wearing the minimum of clothing in freezing conditions.

“That is amazing,” says Kate, who comes from Bath and works in London. “But my son studied at Newcastle University and he has a lot of respect and affection for the North East.”

With her southern background, what is her impression of the North East?

“I think of strong family ties, and a sense of grittiness that produces resilience in the face of adversity, and a strong bond between people and place,” she says.

Rhiannon Mason says: “The North East is a very distinctive place. It is different from anywhere else - you know you are in Newcastle,

Fans cheer during the match between Newcastle United and Liverpool
Newcastle United fans

“It is also about what we understand heritage to be - is it buildings, the natural environment, the geography, music, traditions, customs, cultural institutions?

“When you talk to people about this they speak about places, the river, the coast, a favourite part of the city which feeds into their stories of who they are.

“Then there is the distinctive accent and vocabulary, which provides a powerful sense of difference.”

Another issue is migration. Take the big influx of Scots and Irish in the 19th Century as they sought work in the booming industries of the region. How much do subsequent generations feel themselves to be North Eastern?

The there is globalisation and the spread of a common social media culture - does it erode or strengthen local identities?

Loyd Grossman says: “ I’m really looking forward to this debate in Newcastle. It is just the right place to discuss why a strong sense of identity is deeply rooted in place and history.

“Our heritage allows us to recognise regional diversity and differences and yet gives us a platform to share with others. I’ll be fascinated to hear what others think of the power of our heritage to generate that sense of place and feeling of belonging which I believe is exceptionally powerful in the North East.”

Help define our identity

Readers of The Journal are being invited to contribute to the heritage-identity debate.

The Heritage Alliance is asking readers to answer the following questions:

* What is the most powerful symbol of your neighbourhood?

* What is the most powerful symbol of the North East?

* If you had to describe the North East in three words what would they be?

* What characteristics do you think make up a true Geordie?

Send your answers to mail@theheritagealliance.org.uk or call 0207 233 0500.

The alliance will also be asking the same questions of the region’s MPs and the audience at the Newcastle debate.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer