Tuesday, 30 November 2010

North Blyth Staithes (c.NZ314823)

If, like me, you love seeing the North-East depicted in old movies, then you’ll know all about the classic British gangster flick, Get Carter. A marvellous 1971 effort – if for no other reason than to see so much of the region as it was forty years ago – the closing scenes are famously acted out on Blackhall Beach, just north of Hartlepool.

However, the scene immediately preceding the ‘beach chase’ between Michael Caine and Ian Hendry (where the two are seen scrambling over giant coal staithes, before progressing to the beach) was actually filmed thirty miles north, at what used to be North Blyth Staithes. Nowadays, there ain’t much to see on the seafront at the Blyth estuary – and it is really quite peaceful; but at one time it was a hive of activity. As recently as the early 1960s, it was Europe’s busiest port for shipping coal, with five sets of staithes and numerous other loading points. But the subsequent decline of the coal industry led to to the staithes being left as idle skeletons for many years, until the North Blyth set – originally built during 1910-23 – were severely truncated in the 1990s.

Nowadays, Blyth makes a decent living, ironically, from importing goods. This amounts mainly to material for the nearby Alcan works – namely, alumina and, believe it or not, coal.

For some absolutely splendid ‘then & now’ shots of the North Blyth Staithes (and dozens of other scenes from the famous film) see the Get Carter Tour website. Look for the ‘Locations Tour’, and then the ‘Staithes’ links. Super stuff.


Friday, 26 November 2010

Lost Vikings (c.NZ305840)

Cambois – another of those odd-sounding place-names of the North-East – is situated on the Northumberland coast, roughly equidistant from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea to the north and Blyth to the south. Pronounced ‘Kammus’, it’s name is Celtic in origin, and means ‘bay’. And, in 1859, it was the the site of a small but unusual archaeological find.

The discovery in question amounted to a cist burial containing three bodies, an enamelled disc-brooch and a bone comb. A ninth century tumulus on the east side of the River Wansbeck had been excavated, and of the bones only the skulls survived (believed to be that of a woman, aged 45-60, and two males, one in his 20s and one in his 40s). What made the find so unusual was that the mode of the burial and the objects found indicated that it was Scandinavian (i.e.Viking) rather than Anglo-Saxon.

Viking influence in Northumberland in the ninth and tenth centuries was negligible, with both finds and place-names being very thin on the ground. But even if the Cambois cist was not an actual Viking burial, the interment is certainly heavily laden with Scandinavian influences.

It was, and still is, a bit of a mystery.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Bomarsund & a Piece of Military History (NZ270845)

What an odd name for a village, you may think. Slap bang in the middle of the south-east Northumberland coalfield, this little settlement on the short stretch of road between Bedlington Station and Stakeford offers a curious little conundrum to those who are interested in the origin of our place-names. A quick search of the internet soon solves the problem, of course. And it turns out that this former pit village owes its moniker to an obscure piece of British military history buried deep in the folds of the Crimean War.
It all began with Sweden’s defeat at the hands of Russia in the Finnish War of 1808-09, after which the Aland Islands and Finland became part of the Russian Empire. Despite the terms of the peace treaty forbidding it, Russia began to build a fortress at a place called Sund on the Aland Islands from 1832 – in the strait between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea. This was a strategically sensitive spot on the globe, and the British were not happy about it. So, during the Crimean War of 1853-56, we (and the French) took the chance to blow the still unfinished fortress to smithereens in 1854. The ruins can still be seen today.
The Battle of Bomarsund, as it was called, must have been seen as quite an important victory at the time, for the guy who sunk the brand new pit shaft in the middle of nowhere a little to the south of Stakeford decided to call it Bomarsund Pit – officially known, however, as Bedlington F Pit. Sunk in 1854, the new colliery soon attracted a few rows of houses, and the village was born. The pit finally closed in 1965.

Friday, 19 November 2010

North Seaton Hall (NZ297866)

You can barely imagine it today, but in the middle of a 1960s housing estate in North Seaton, near Ashington, there once stood a fine classical house which went by the name of North Seaton Hall. Pictured above in its declining years, it may even hold the distinction (according to his daughter) of being architect John Dobson’s very first commission in 1813.

However, there was without doubt a building already on the site – and known by the same name – throughout most of the eighteenth century. Directories give 1710 as a possible starting point, when the Watsons were in early residence. It is more likely that Dobson carried out alterations in 1813 – and was most certainly back on the estate in 1831 to add some outbuildings (workers’ cottages and, possibly, the Gothic lodge).

The grounds occupied a wooded site north of the present B1334, near to the junction with the A189. The Watsons remained in residence until deep into the Victorian era, the estate falling into the hands of prominent industrialist Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell in the 1880s. In the 1950s, Pevsner noted the hall’s “very neglected” state; and in 1960 it was razed to make way for modern housing.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Sporting Capital of the North-East? (NZ275875)

This little piece will come as no surprise to those of you with even a passing interest in North-East sport, but there may just be a few readers out there who are blissfully unaware of Ashington’s rich sporting pedigree.

For what is still regarded by many as a village – but a damned big one at that – Ashington has produced a good deal more than coal in its long, proud history. In fact, it is probably fair to say that its reputation for producing footballers over the past century outweighs all of its other claims to fame put together. For it has produced dozens over the years; and has recently branched out into other sports, too.

‘Wor Jackie’ Milburn is perhaps the most famous of them all – at least among us North-Easterners. He is arguably Newcastle United’s most famous player, and probably Ashington’s best-loved son. His exploits for ‘The Toon’ are legendary, punctuated by three F.A.Cup wins in the ‘50s. Just as famous, of course, were the cousins of Jackie’s mother, namely, Bobby and Jack Charlton, whose exploits we are familiar with – and this talented pair were also born in Ashington. But ‘Wor Jackie’ also had some famous first cousins of his own: the four-brother set of Stan, George, Jimmy and (another) Jack Milburn all played at the top level, amassing hundreds of appearances for several teams.

But they weren’t all related. Jimmy Adamson was another Ashington man who made good, becoming a Burnley legend. And there have been plenty more besides – many of them still playing today in the lower echelons of the game. Additionally, Sir John Hall, the man who was for several years connected with the running of Newcastle United, was born in nearby North Seaton.

In recent years it has been the turn of cricket to bring the village (town?) its dose of fame. Steve Harmison has excelled for Durham and England, and was once rated the world’s best bowler; and his brother, Ben, is not far behind him, too. In golf, Ken Ferrie almost stunned the sporting world when he led the 2006 US Open for most of the week before finishing sixth. And in basketball, Alan Hoyle has made quite an impression.

Must be something in the water, as they say.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Newbiggin’s Famous Librarian (c.NZ309876)

John Gerard Braine is the chap in question. Some of you may even remember him as a stalwart of the ‘Angry Young Men’ movement of British playwrights and novelists of the 1950s. He wrote several novels, the most famous being his first, Room at the Top, published in 1957.

Braine was born in Bingley, near Bradford, in 1922, leaving school at 16 to work in, firstly, a shop, then a laboratory, and a factory. By 1940 he found himself working as an assistant librarian in his home town. There are conflicting accounts of his biographical detail during the 1940s, but he seems to have abandoned his career around 1951 and moved to London to try his hand at writing. He struggled for some time writing articles and doing some radio work, before contracting TB and being forced into an extended period of convalescence.

Though much of the early to mid-50s were spent in hospital, he somewhat surprisingly popped up in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in 1954, where he worked in the town’s library for a couple of years. One can only assume that it was considered part of his recovery programme. It was here that Braine both met his future wife and put the final touches on Room at the Top. He’d been working on the text for some six years before it finally hit the bookstands in 1957. Sadly, the library building in which Braine worked has now been demolished, the site now being occupied by a small car park.

Room at the Top was a massive success, selling 5,000 copies in the first week, 35,000 in the first year, and half a million by the end of the 1950s. It was made into a film in 1959 – “the first British film to take sex seriously and the first to show the industrial north as it really was” – and won two Oscars and three BAFTAs.

Braine left Newbiggin-by-the-Sea for the south of England in 1956 to lap up his success, penned another eleven novels, and died London in 1986, aged 64.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Newbiggin’s Long Stretch (NZ314880)

Newbiggin-by-the-Sea has several claims to fame – my favourite, perhaps, being its place in submarine telegraphy history.

The laying of telegraph cables under the sea must have been a heck of a job, especially when you consider that it began as long ago as 1850 with a stretch across the English Channel. This unravelling of the first cable – presumably, an immense task – was thwarted by French fishermen after three days when they accidentally severed it. A year later they tried again, but ran out of wire before they reached the continent, bodged the repair, then had to do it all again a few weeks later.

So by 1868, they’d had a bit of practice. And this time it was the turn of the North Sea, and the first ever link-up between the UK and Scandinavia. The scheme was part of a master plan to link England, Scandinavia and Russia, by the Dane, C.F.Tietgen, using contractors R.S.Newall & Co to make and lay the cables. The vessels Archimedes and Chevy Chase were chosen to make the journey.

All that seems to survive of the momentous occasion is a short report in The Times which informs us that on 9th September 1868 “cables were floated by tar barrels, towed ashore by Danish seamen in longboats, then pulled up the beach by horses and placed in trenches cut by local fishermen – they terminated in the ‘Cable House’.” Longboats, eh?

Anyway, this was a notable first for Newbiggin, believe me. And the ‘Cable House’ actually still exists! Here it is…

The building's owners still received rent for what is known as ‘wayleave’ (permission for the cable company to access their equipment) until as late as 1960 when the firm set up by C.F.Tietgen all those years ago (The Great Northern Telegraph Co.) finally ceased to operate from the town.
More information on the industry’s history can be found here. The above photograph was lifted from http://www.newbigginbythesea.co.uk/ . Oh, and there’s a nice picture of the little plaque you can (just) see above here.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Alcan Aluminium Plant (NZ295898)

Lynemouth’s famous Aluminium Smelter and Power Station, known locally simply as ‘Alcan’s’, is one of only three such plants in the UK (the other two being in Anglesey and Lochaber). The smelter was opened by the Canadian company in 1974, shortly after the construction of the power station needed to run it.

Aluminium comes from ore called bauxite. Before the ore reaches Lynemouth, it is first processed into alumina. The plant then extracts the metal from the alumina by heating it. And as the production of one tonne of aluminium requires the same amount of electricity as an average family does in 20 years, a cheap and handy source of power is needed to facilitate the process. Hence the existence of the nearby power station. Until they closed, the coal mines of Lynemouth and Ellington supplied the fuel for the power station – since when coal has been brought from local opencast operations, Scottish mines and a little from overseas. Bauxite is not found in the UK, and is brought from Jamaica and Australia – after it has first been processed into alumina in Ireland. Two trains bring a total of 42 wagons of alumina to the doors of Alcan every day from the port of Blyth.

The chimneys of both the power station and the smelter dominate the landscape for miles around, though it is a very thermally-efficient concern. It remains a major polluter, though, despite recent improvements. So much so, in fact, that its very future is in doubt. The development and employment of ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ technology and/or the using of biomass as a fuel instead of coal may yet save its skin.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Whale Wonder (c.NZ305915)

From J.Hodgson’s A History of Northumberland, Pt II, Vol.II of 1832:-

The mouth of the Line [Lyne] was rendered remarkable by a spermaceti whale of the species called physeter macrocephalus being killed at it on August 8, 1822. It was 61 feet long, and 37 feet 4 inches in girth. The breadth of its tail was 14 feet; of its head 10 feet 9 inches; and the space from the eyes to the nose 21 feet. The upper jaw projected 5 feet over the lower one, which had two rows of teeth, externally resembling ivory, but porous and ash-coloured within. Its height, when first thrown on shore, was 12 feet; and it produced 9 tons and 158 gallons of oil. It was claimed by the proprietors of the land on each side of the Line; but the admiralty settled the dispute between the claimants by seizing the oil, and fixing their broad arrow upon the bones, which were latterly given up to Mr Cresswell-Baker, and removed into the pleasure grounds at Cresswell, where they will be long admired as objects of rarity and vastness of size. For several days after it was killed, immense crowds of people flocked from the adjacent country, and even from great distances to see it; and its stupendous size never failed to rivet the attention of all who viewed it. Whales of this kind are natives of the Greenland seas and Davis Straits; but they are occasionally found further south.
Other sources have the poor wretch being initially wounded by being thrown against the rocks, hounded by locals trying to kill it, and being finally ‘put out of its misery’ by the local blacksmith with a makeshift harpoon.

Cresswell Hall was demolished in 1938. Not sure what happened to the whalebones.