Thursday 11 July 2024

Alston Arches, Haltwhistle: Some Observations

Every time I scoot past Haltwhistle on the A69 bypass, I glance over at the famous Alston Arches and wonder at their peculiar form. It's the line of mini archways running through the piers that grab my attention. It is a very unusual feature of an otherwise robust piece of civil engineering. So this week I decided to go and have a closer look.

Firstly, I wanted to get a nice view through those archways - and, yes, they line up beautifully. How very strange:

I took a few more snaps....

(This last one is taken from the opposite, southern end)

(from OS Maps - Alston Arches Viaduct can be seen slightly right of centre) 

The Alston Arches viaduct was built in around 1850 to facilitate the movement of passengers and especially industrial stuff (lead, mainly) to and from, well, Alston. The line leaves Haltwhistle Station and bends gracefully over the River South Tyne, before heading south. It is a thing of beauty, but that line of arches has puzzled historians for decades. For no one quite knows why they are there. It was once assumed that there was a plan to drive a footway/bridge through the gaps for pedestrian/cart use, which is a lovely (and surely unique) concept; but others think it more likely that they were built into the bridge's construction to lighten the structure's weight, which is, after all, only supported by timber piles.

The bridge was finished in 1851, officially opened in November 1852, then half-destroyed by a flood a month later. It was repaired, but the southernmost pier, being completely rebuilt, was NOT provided with a little archway as per the rest of the bridge's substructure. So if the idea was to build a pedestrian walkway through the piers, well, the plan was clearly abandoned following the flood. On the other hand, maybe it was a 'weight thing' - who knows?

There are plenty of info boards and plaques, mind you. As you can see, the viaduct's useful existence didn't last more than a couple of decades, though it hung on for a good deal longer - before finally being closed in 1976:

(click on images to enlarge)

So, yes, the viaduct is now cross-able on foot, to which lofty spot I found myself quite accidentally by a somewhat circuitous route:

(looking south)

A few other observations. Down at river level I noticed that the (concrete?) base over which the water flows was reinforced with what look like lengths of old railway lines:

And I also noticed that inside the first mini archway, many of the large stones on the floor had Lewis holes in them. They were about three inches long and quite crudely made - which made me wonder if they could be repurposed Roman stones. Lewis holes, though, were in use right up until the twentieth century, so maybe not:

Despite my hour's worth of investigative probings, I'm still none the wiser about those pesky mini archways. Wish I was an expert on Lewis holes, too. Still, my curiosity has been satisfied, and it's one more little task ticked off my history bucket list.

Any input from someone who has a better understanding of these things would be greatly appreciated! 

Thursday 4 July 2024

The Palace Theatre of Varieties, Haymarket

Whenever I ‘gan doon the toon’ I invariably call in at the Oxfam shop on the corner of Percy Street and St.Thomas Street. The block of properties on this small parcel of land is an untidy affair: low-level, temporary-looking efforts, which do nothing for the general demeanour of the streetscape thereabouts. I’m on the hunt for second-hand books, of course - it being one of the few establishments in the city centre to offer such fare. Just round the corner, on St.Thomas Street, and forming part of the same uninspiring block, can be found a couple of other businesses, one of which, The Mean-Eyed Cat micropub, often separates me from my money from time to time, too.

Though there isn’t much to please the eye architecturally on this otherwise quite handy little spot, this hasn’t always been so. For, until c.1960, the site was occupied by the fancily-named ‘Palace Theatre of Varieties’. Built in the 1880s, it is perhaps best known for being the very first venue in the city to show moving pictures - movies, in other words - which notable event occurred on Thursday 26th March 1896. The ‘Cinematographe’, as it was called, was offered up to the public for about a week and a half, the theatre beating its main rival, the Empire Theatre of Varieties on Newgate Street, by a mere two days to this historic first. A promotional leaflet/poster informs us in March 1896 that “This commodious theatre has been reconstructed, handsomely redecorated, elaborately upholstered and magnificently lighted by electricity, and is acknowledged to be the favourite place of amusement in the city”. Better than the Oxfam bookshop and The Mean-Eyed Cat, then.

The double-headed rivalry between the two Newcastle theatres represented a very early move for the UK’s provinces in the world of ‘movies’, the craze seemingly migrating from London straight to Tyneside, missing out the country’s other major cities. The films themselves were nothing to get especially excited about, being little more than peep-show-type efforts lasting a few seconds - with titles like ‘Cats Dancing’ or ‘Acrobat Turning Somersaults’ - but the die had been cast. Within months, both theatres were showing greater ambition - with colour films making the breakthrough as early as 1897. Surprisingly, though, moving pictures never really took off until the technology improved in the Edwardian era. In the meantime, institutions like the Palace Theatre of Varieties reverted to, well, theatre-like entertainment for the most part.

The establishment had begun life as the People’s Palace, a theatre which seems to have been founded/built in the 1880s. It was reconstructed in the 1890s, as per above, reopening as the ‘Palace Theatre of Varieties’ in December 1895. Its new manager, Thomas Barrasford, was an early enthusiast of the ‘moving pictures’ phenomenon - hence the groundbreaking move of March 1896.

The heavily-revamped affair had a three-tier auditorium capable of seating between 3 and 4,000 folk. There was also an orchestra pit, and ‘four handsomely furnished boxes’ - and every seat in the house had an unrestricted and full view of the stage. The newly-appointed venue was lauded in the press and supported enthusiastically by local dignitaries.

As early as 1903 the theatre was deemed to be in need of yet another sprucing-up, as well as not a little further restructuring. The following image is dated 11th July 1906, and shows the theatre to the left, and St.Thomas Street stretching into the distance:

The theatre now had marble stairs, mahogany dadoes and panelling, richly-embossed wallpaper, decoratively plastered ceilings (featuring paintings), and ‘heavy carpets’. The colour scheme was ‘cream and gold’.

It remained thus until the 1940s, when its facade was radically altered. Then, after a period of gradual decline, the Palace Theatre of Varieties was closed in 1958 due to a radical downturn in touring shows - and demolition followed in 1961. As far as I’m aware nothing much happened to the site thereafter until the eventual appearance of the present-day gaggle of low quality establishments.

Above: The Palace Theatre, c.1960. It has just been closed, sold, and was due for demolition. Note the remodelled facade of the 1940s. St.Thomas Street turns away to the right.

Note: The first establishment in Newcastle city centre which was dedicated solely to showing films was the original Olympia ‘tin’ cinema on Northumberland Road, which operated as such for a few short, experimental months in 1903. This later burned down in 1907, and was replaced with a second incarnation in 1909.

[Major sources - both quite excellent - are the 'Music Hall and Theatre History website' at and Frank Manders’ Cinemas of Newcastle (2005)]

[The images are copyright-free but have been sourced at Newcastle Libraries Flickr page at ]

Wednesday 26 June 2024

Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Fragments of the Past, Vol.3

I'm pleased (and relieved) to say that Volume 3 of my series entitled Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Fragments of the Past has now been released on Amazon. Again, it's 200 pages long, available as a paperback and eBook, and is packed with articles long and short on a myriad of aspects of the city's history. Click on the image in the left-hand column for more info + purchase options.

Two important points:
(1) Remember that all profits from the book are donated to the Great North Children's Hospital - this amounts to about £1.50 per sale. Leaving a generous rating/review, too, would help things along. Thanks to anyone who buys a copy - I've already sold a few without even publicising it!
(2) If you're a member of the North East Heritage Library Book Club, then please note that copies of this book are likely to be heading your way soon ... so there's no need to buy a copy now!

Anyway, the next project is well underway, so I'll bring you news of that later this year. Hopefully.

Thursday 20 June 2024

Return to St.Andrew's Church

A few months ago I posted an article on a visit to Newcastle's St.Andrew's Church - see here. Well, I am going to selfishly run the old gal past you again today - but, I hope, for good reason.

Firstly, here is (Holy) Trinity Chapel on the north side of the church:

There's a bit of info on the chapel on a large brass plaque (and, yes, that is me reflected in the same!):

And more detail can be found here:

So, as you can see, the honking great organ shown on the right of the first picture wasn't moved there until the 1890s. Previously, the font used to be situated on the spot - and this can now be found under the tower:

Don't worry, I shall not keep you any longer than I have to with this trivia. But I just had to tell someone about it. I visited the church to take these photos on 30th May 2024, which just happened to be 200 years to the day since the baptism of my gt-gt-grandmother, Elizabeth Hudson, at that very same font when it was situated in Trinity Chapel. It was kinda odd to be stood in that particular place on the exact date of the bicentennial.

And that 1824 event is the oldest ancestral link I have with my hometown. So the family is now into its third century of association. Just, mind.

Monday 10 June 2024

Shaftoe Crags' Shadows of the Past

(click to enlarge)

The other day I spent a couple of hours wandering around Shaftoe Crags, Northumberland - you know, the area a little to the west of Bolam Lake. I'd been to the latter many, many times over the years, but this time we decided to drive straight past the same and head for a small lay-by at Bolam West Houses and, well, try something new for once.

Off we set in a westerly direction, then executed a clockwise tour of East Shaftoe Hall Farm, the trig point, then up through the crags themselves via the famous Salters Nick. Then it was back in an easterly direction to the car. It was all very nice, and we didn't get wet.

Salters Nick

Let me first of all say that I know nothing of the area in question, including its history. The land marked in a yellowy-brown wash is Open Access land - and it easy to see why, as its rocky demeanour renders it pretty useless for farming. It probably hasn't changed very much for thousands of years, and, as you can see there are plenty of references to ancient stuff - or sites of antiquity, as they are more properly known. 

I printed out the above map for navigational purposes and the more I studied it the more I noticed just how many of those ancient sites there were. In what is a very small area there are TWELVE such spots - 6 old 'settlements', 3 tumuli, 1 old fort, 1 standing stone and another named 'Shortflatt Tower'. In addition to this little lot - and not marked as 'ancient' on the map - are FIVE 'lost villages', namely, West Shaftoe, East Shaftoe, Harnham, Shortflatt and Bolam (see Beresford's Lost Villages website ). This makes SEVENTEEN places of historical interest in total. Amazing!

It does get you thinking just how much historical 'stuff' is out there waiting to be properly investigated. I've not looked into the history of Shaftoe Crags in any detail, but a quick search of the internet for the area does not reveal a great deal of info about the crags and their surroundings.

If anyone has any observations or comments then please feel free to contribute below.

Monday 27 May 2024

Remnants of Carliol Tower

This is all that is left of Carliol Tower, which once formed an important cornerstone of Newcastle's old town walls. They sit under the staircase of the City Library, looking out over John Dobson Street and the Laing Art Gallery. The inscription on the metallic plaque is pretty much impossible to read (it being too difficult to get near enough to the same!), so here's what it says:

"1307-1968. These stones from the Carliol Tower which was demolished when the former Central Library was erected in 1880, form a link with medieval Newcastle, and were handed over to the architects by Alderman Lady Wynne-Jones BA on February 8, 1968.
Sir Basil Spence, Glover & Ferguson Architects. Councillor Joseph Cox, Chairman."

The tower formed the north-east corner of the town's medieval perimeter wall, and was situated in what is now the cycle lane of John Dobson Street, precisely where the pedestrian crossing is which links the library to the Laing Art Gallery. Unfortunately it had to go when plans were afoot to lay the new road in the late 1960s.

It is interesting to ponder where exactly the stones were during the period 1968-2009 (2009 being when the new library was opened). I certainly don't remember seeing them in the building which existed from c.1968 to c.2009. Perhaps someone out there can enlighten me.

You can read more about Carliol Tower in an article in my soon-to-be-released 3rd volume of Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Fragments of the Past. I'll let you all know when it becomes available!

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Newcastle's Lost West End ... and a Photo Archive!

A couple of days ago I visited Newcastle's West End Library on Condercum Road for a talk entitled 'Lost Farms of the West End'. The chap who was supposed to be taking the talk, Ian Farrier, was ill and had to hand over the reins at the last minute to a colleague (whose name I don't think we were ever given). Despite the unexpected change of plan, the event was a great success - so my thanks must go to the mystery lady who stepped in.

It is not my intention to fill you in on all the detail here, but suffice to say that, well, being a native of the West End, it was all fascinating stuff. I was born in the General Hospital, lived for 18 months in South Benwell, then moved to, and grew up in, Denton Burn. The talk covered, in the main, Benwell, Elswick and Fenham, but strayed into Kenton, Denton and much else besides. Very, very interesting.

When we think of what the West End was like in the distant past, we imagine that there must always have been plenty going on in what is now, after all, densely populated suburban sprawl. However, up until the mid-1600s the outlying area to the west of Newcastle was almost completely empty, with a scattering of small villages surrounded by a myriad of huge open fields of 'strip farming'. Locals would live in their little village and each family would tend to a handful of specially-allocated strips of land, each located at different sites, often a mile or more apart. The outstanding example of one of these 'little settlements' that still (sort of) exists is Benwell village to the immediate west of Benwell Towers. Additionally, of course, the odd scrap of 'ridge/rigg and furrow' can also be seen here and there, being a remnant of the old strip farming method.

Strip farming was hugely inefficient. So, in time, the local landowners (with the help of various 'Enclosure Acts') scrapped the traditional way of tending the land and created large 'enclosed' fields that could be farmed in a more 'industrial' way. This is pretty much the pattern of the countryside we still see today. It was at about this time, too - the late 1600s onwards - that new farmsteads were created at the centres of these new networks of fields. Some of these old buildings still survive, many have been altered/replaced and a great deal of them demolished. At the same period, these new fields acquired names such as Long Riggs, Cottage Field or Pond Field.

When, in the 1800s and early 1900s, this land found its way back onto the market for sale, property developers moved in and started building houses for the booming industrial classes of the city's suburbs. Only then did we really have intensive human activity in this part of the world. Many of the old field names survived this dramatic transition, and any little villages, hamlets and farmsteads were swept from the map. A few of the old buildings have hung on, but most have disappeared - some within living memory (including mine!).

I'm guessing that this story could be repeated the country over. Makes you hungry for more information!

Two big, big recommendations come from all of this. First of all, there is the website of the St.James' Heritage & Environment Group - a priceless resource for those with West End interests. And secondly, for those with general Newcastle interests, you have simply got to have a look at the group's Newcastle Photo Archive - which is brilliant, covering, as it does, much, much more than the West End.