When you live close to a place, it’s easy to take it for granted. Newcastle upon Tyne is my nearest city, only ten miles away, yet I rarely visit. Walking down to the quayside on my first day of jury service, I feel as though I’m in a foreign city. It’s early, so the streets are almost empty. The sun, during this heatwave, gilds the sandstone of the buildings. Tables and chairs lining the pavements outside the restaurants are unoccupied. Lorries are unloading, preparing for the day ahead. I walk, coffee in hand, at a leisurely pace. At times like these, I can imagine being happy living in the heart of a city.
To reach the quayside, where the law courts are located, I walk down Grey Street. I begin at the monument to Earl Grey, whose achievements as prime minister in the 1830s are possibly over-shadowed by the tea that is named after him. From the monument, the street sweeps steeply downwards in a grand arc. Some of Newcastle’s finest architecture is found here: imposing Georgian buildings of honeyed stone. This is the grandest street in the city and has been voted one of the most attractive in the UK.
At the bottom of the bank, the impressive arch of the bridge that carries the railway over Grey Street is the gateway to the street known as Side. This is one of only two medieval streets left in the city. I turn the corner and hear a cacophony of kittiwakes. The kittiwakes of Newcastle are unique, the most inland colony of the birds in the country. Kittiwakes aren’t like other gulls, which are now used to living in towns and cities and scavenging our leftovers. They are true sea birds, who live here for a few months of the year to breed. The first kittiwakes arrived in the 1950s to roost on the Tyne Bridge and the buildings surrounding it and they have returned every year since. In August they head out to sea once more. (Cameras weren’t allowed in the court building while I was on jury service so these photos were all taken on my phone. Those of the kittiwakes don’t do justice to the volume of birds nesting here.)
Here at the quayside is ‘Bessie Surtees’ house’. Actually, it is a pair of merchants’ houses from the 16th and 17th century. One of the tenants was Bessie’s father. She climbed from a first floor window to elope with John Scott, later the Lord Chancellor of England, in 1772. They travelled to Scotland to get married. The houses are five stories high and would have had shops at street level and residences above. Inside, there are rare examples of Jacobean domestic architecture.
Newcastle is famous for the bridges that span our river, the Tyne. The bridges are important to those of us who live here. They’re a source of pride, but also a recognisable sign of home. Travelling back here from the south by train, I would sigh with pleasure as the train rolled onto the High Level Bridge and the vista of the bridges told me I was home. There has been a bridge here since Roman times, when it was a stone bridge known as the pons aelius. Others came and went, until the current Swing Bridge, which rotates 360 degrees to let river traffic through. It opened in 1876 and is on the site of the old Roman bridge.
The Tyne Bridge is the most famous of the bridges on the river. It was opened in 1928, designed by the same architects who designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which opened in 1932. But there are five bridges within this short stretch of river. The High level bridge opened in 1849. It has a road and pedestrian walkway on the bottom level and a railway above. The Queen Elizabeth II metro bridge opened in 1981 a few days before the city’s metro started running.
Gateshead Millennium Bridge is the most recent bridge to cross the Tyne. The bridge carries cyclists and pedestrians to the south of the river, where the Baltic art gallery and Sage music centre are based. It opened in 2001 and is known as the ‘blinking eye’ because of the way it tilts open. I’d never seen the ‘eye’ open, until one lunch-time, when, freed from the jury assembly room, I walked along the quayside at just the right moment. The quayside has been re-branded as the city’s ‘seaside’, complete with a ‘beach’ and deck chairs.
There are periods of time that feel like gifts. The moments I spent this summer walking by the river in the early mornings, were an unexpected bonus of carrying out my jury service. Pieces of stolen time, accompanied by a soundtrack of kittiwakes.