Interlude: Newcastle to Jarrow

Heroes of the Revolution—fences—industrial decline and revival—Segedunum and Wallsend—last ferry—South Shields—Jarrow church—Bede—miner’s lamp—Jarrow marchers

THE LAST LEG of my journey from Birdoswald, where the Dark Ages began, to Jarrow, where Bede first lifted the veil on those obscure centuries, started with a walk across Newcastle’s Swing Bridge in the company of an old friend, Dan Elliott. A decade ago we made a film together calledHeroes of the Revolution, for which we travelled from one of Durham’s oldest coalfields down to the Tyne and then along it to the sea. Dan’s cinematic, unsentimental directorial eye made me see the past as a new sort of narrative: situated in the present, constructed from images rather than words, allowing the story to emerge as a dialogue with the viewer. So I asked him to walk with me, from his flat in Gateshead, to Jarrow and to share his perspective on a much earlier cast of heroes. Dan is a native of these parts, knows them better than I do; and neither of us had walked this route before.

The Quayside, now thinly peopled but once crowded with wharfs and shipping, carried us beneath the green steel arches of the Tyne Bridge along a promenade that features Law Courts, solicitors’ offices and trendy eateries; on the south side the shiny Sage concert hall, Baltic Art Gallery (converted from a flour mill) and college flats reflected the sky back at us from their glass walls; only the low, functional outline of a Royal Naval Reserve establishment and its single grey patrol boat tied alongside are reminders of a maritime past.

The tilting Millennium footbridge, the last to cross the Tyne before it encounters the sea, and a paragon of engineering elegance, completes a set of seven bridges over the river. It is an overconstructed, superhuman landscape. But we found the quietness of the river, overlooked mostly by expensive flats with plantless, lifeless balconies, too eerie. Urban rivers need to be busy. With little to look at except an unchanging, endless set of railings, we fell to talking of our latest projects, travels and favourite places. Dan spends much of his time in Berlin, whose own Dark Age boasts a wall, or the fragmentary remains of a wall, that really was designed to keep people out. That discussion led to the Middle East and its tribal conflicts (more walls) and thence to the tribal kingdoms of our own Early Medieval world of warlords, fanatics and religious propaganda.

At some point we came to realise that the modern route along the river is all about fences: gated housing complexes, culs de sac leading to defunct factories with no way through for the traveller on foot; whole sections of the river blocked off by new developments stalled for lack of funds. The land is deserted; the riverside inaccessible, emasculated, the river abandoned. A marina seemed to offer visual excitement: particoloured boats shone bright in the sun; masts pricked the sky and the groan and creak of buoys and fenders made a change from the generic background drone of distant traffic; but there was nobody about and all the signs seemed to ward off the curious.

A little further along, on a northern reach of the river, we began to see signs of life after death: offshore oil-servicing industries; plant-hire compounds; small engineering firms; cable manufacturers with ships moored alongside. Then cranes; not the famous Walker cranes of the vast Swan Hunter shipyard (where we had filmed in its last, sad days) whence the Ark Royal was launched; those are gone, sold off or scrapped. Just off Wallsend High Street (whose name rather speaks for itself) we passed the tidy ruins ofSegedunum, the Wall-supplying and terminating Roman fort, looking not quite so incongruous in a post-industrial land as it might. It could be a bomb site cleaned up. We had a beer and a sandwich in an encouragingly ordinary working pub at Willington Quay, then found ourselves forced to make a wide detour around the giant-swallowing entrances to the twin Tyne Tunnels that take the A19 beneath the river to emerge in Jarrow. We were channelled through a grassy business park with rigid, laid paths, token benches, easy-maintenance borders and cycle lanes. It’s a creepy landscape, overdesigned, inorganic and inhuman, a stage set existing more in the imagination of town planners than in the lives of people. Close by is the entrance to a Victorian pedestrian tunnel that connects Wallsend with Jarrow, but it has been shut for maintenance these last couple of years and may never reopen; so we were forced to make another diversion, this time around the North Sea Ferry Terminal, before an improvised navigation brought us to North Shields and a more modest ferry, connecting the town with South Shields on the other side of the river. We passed a truncated row of terraces, all boarded up bar one or two recalcitrant residents. I look at such things as an archaeologist: abandonment and scavenging behaviour being the stuff of which the material past is made; Dan looked at them as a potential film set for one of his melancholic tales of real life. Either way, they fascinate: lives lived; families moved on; memories fading.

Tynemouth, site of a monastery in Bede’s day and perhaps earlier, lay a mile further on towards the north-east. Even I remember the jumble of wharves and bonded warehouses that once lined the river here before they were levelled for housing projects that never materialised. There is something enriching to the eye and imagination about communities that develop organically; grand plans are often inhuman in scale; like Hadrian’s project or Newcastle’s 1960s T. Dan Smith-inspired concrete high-rises. We came back down to the river at North Shields, which boasts a working fish quay, is resilient enough to be a lively place still and is connected to the rest of Tyneside not just by its long-lived ferry boats but by the Metro rail system, an arterial route that nevertheless distances the river even further from people’s lives. It seemed odd to cross the Tyne on a boat: this is the very last passenger ferry on the river but, I am glad to say, much used and cherished by workers, families and trippers; a pleasantly communal experience after so much walking through a land abandoned by people and governments.

The short distance from South Shields to Jarrow took us through an older landscape of small manufactories; smaller shops; Methodist chapels; terraces of houses, their front doors flush with the pavement; women with prams and elderly couples carrying small shopping bags; then around the vast complex of the Tyne Dock, a million-car car park waiting to take Nissan’s polished beasts of burden across the world. Dan and I are fascinated by these human, often neglected landscapes of everyday survival, labour and unknowable relations. Past and present are constructed from unglamoured lives; their familiarity can blind us to their intrinsic narrative riches.

Immediately west of the Tyne Docks, squeezed between the filthy sewage-rich mud-flat channel of Jarrow Slake and an oil depot, lies Bede’s church: St Paul’s, Jarrow. Its survival—having perhaps been looted during a Viking raid in 794 (if the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’sDonemutha’ is indeed Jarrow), abandoned after further attacks in 874 or 875, refounded two hundred and eighty years later, dissolved by Henry VIII and later cared for by Victorian antiquarians—is a small miracle. It contains the oldest surviving stained glass in Britain; small fragments, it is true, but they stand as an unmistakeable metaphor for a new light shining. A recent ground-penetrating radar survey has shown that a crypt might yet survive intact below the floor of the existing chancel.

A Latin dedication stone records that a church was built here in the year 685 by Abbot Ceolfrith on land donated by the unlucky King Ecgfrith:


The dedication of the basilica of St. Paul
on the 9th day before the Kalends of May

In the 15th year of King Ecfrid;
and in the 4th [year] of abbot Ceolfrid, founder,
by the guidance of God, of the same church

The monastery, begun in 682 and supported by the king’s grant of forty hides of land, was built by twenty-two brethren, half of them tonsured monks; the early Northumbrian monastic foundations emphasised the virtues of manual labour and strict poverty, the value of individual spirituality within a common enterprise. The church, one of that new generation of permanent stone structures paralleled at Ripon and Hexham, would have been furnished by gifts from its patrons, including the king who personally marked out the site of the altar. Windows aside, it would have been lit by torches and by lamps in hanging bowls; the altar, as Eddius’s testimony says of Ripon, decorated with jewels, ornate psalm books and rich cloths. The monks, in contrast, lived in austere cells, poorly lit if at all and probably unheated. The monastery was carefully sited at the mouth of the River Don (now a shadow of its former self); on the east side, now subsumed by the unending Nissan car park, a royal township may have lain, later recorded as Portus Ecgfridi—Ecgfrith’s harbour.

Jarrow is a twin of St Peter’s in Wearmouth, built some five miles to the south and eleven years earlier by Benedict Biscop, scholar, mentor and intrepid traveller: they were ‘one monastery in two places’. Between them, in the year 716, they supported six hundred monks. Bede (673–735) spent his entire life here, his outstanding scholarship one of the fruits of a mature intellectual church and of Biscop’s libraries, which themselves were borne out of the new relationship between landholding rights and patronage. Jarrow’s scriptorium, part of a substantial complex centred on two churches and their burial ground, and whose remains were excavated by Rosemary Cramp’s team in the 1960s and 1970s, produced three of the great bibles of Early Medieval Europe—a stunning expression of hybrid Latin, Anglo-Irish and British cultures reflected in the art and literature of the Golden Age of Northumbria. That cultural hybridisation speaks for Britain’s patchwork of linguistic, spiritual, material and genetic regions and localities, its exuberant mongrel races. Rosemary Cramp (now Dame Rosemary, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at Durham University) makes the striking point that the dimensions of this structure are ‘interestingly comparable with the large secular halls of the period’.89 The whole resembles a township, a suitable residence for the highest level of nobility from whose ranks the abbots and abbesses of this Golden Age were recruited. Fragmentary hints of a monastic vallum were traced during the excavations, but have not yet been proven.

Close by, the open-air museum at Bede’s World has recreated the sort of landscape that might have been familiar to Bede: the modest hall of a minor thegn; a sunken-floored building perhaps used to store grain; the stalls, sties and pens of a small farm complete with grunting pig-boar hybrids, native oxen and vegetable plot. A reconstruction of the enigmatic ‘grandstand’ which in Edwin’s and Oswald’s day stood at Yeavering at the northern edge of the Cheviots has recently been added, and a museum celebrates both the spiritual and cultural heritage of Bede’s Northumbria in its transition from a self-doubting post-Roman world of fragile realities to one of self-confidence with an idea of a rational state looking to the future.



From Northumbria, Benedict Biscop made the pilgrimage to Rome, not just to honour the saints and martyrs but to gather fragments of knowledge that he might bring home to seed Northumbria’s new age of learning. His second journey there was a book-buying expedition. On his third trip he accompanied Theodore of Tarsus, one of Canterbury’s great archbishops and an impressive scholar, back to Britain. In later years Ceolfrith, resigning his abbacy at Jarrow, also travelled to Rome, taking with him one of three pandects, or complete bibles, as a gift for the Pope. He did not survive that last journey; but the Codex Amiatinus, now in Florence, did: it is a worthy monument to that half-forgotten cultural landscape. Bede himself hardly travelled at all; but his many important works, not least of them books on time and geography, were copied and distributed across Europe, seeding in their turn an age of scholarship which brought the light of intellectual reason—albeit ecclesiastically uncompromising—to Europe and was paralleled by a later great age of Arab scholarship in the south.

Dan and I filmed inside the church in 2004; but not because of Bede or the Early Middle Ages. We wanted to record Jarrow’s small but significant part in a later enlightenment. On a window sill in the nave of the church sits a miner’s safety lamp. In May 1812 a terrible explosion in a local pit killed ninety-two men and boys. The then vicar of Jarrow, the historian John Hodgson, was instrumental in the formation of a Society for the Prevention of Accidents in Coal Mines, which commissioned the Cornish chemist and inventor Humphry Davy to construct a lamp which would cast a safe light underground. The idea and technology of industrial safety was another Jarrow export, eleven hundred years after it enjoyed its first industrial revolution.

Tragically, Jarrow’s most famous crusaders, the two hundred and seven marchers, accompanied by their local MP, Ellen Wilkinson, who set off from here to walk to London in 1936 to beg for help during the Depression, were discouraged by the Labour Party and the trades unions, ignored by government (Stanley Baldwin refused to meet them) and spurned by the nation’s capital; their scant reward for a three-hundred-mile journey on foot a pound each for the train fare home. The last of those extraordinary ambulists, Con Shields, died in 2013 aged ninety-three.

Dan and I also took the train home: a modest two pounds seventy for the dozen or so stops to Gateshead that completed the circle of a short walk through two millennia.

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