Regenerating a river: how the future of the River Tyne could be its past

By Erin Gill

I’m not the first – or even the thousandth – person to feel that there is something genuinely thrilling about the view from Newcastle’s quayside across the River Tyne to the enormous, undulating Sage Gateshead. It’s a view that is supported, rather than undermined, by the much older architecture of St Mary’s church, which is immediately adjacent. The view is enhanced further by the way both buildings are framed by the glorious bulk of the Tyne Bridge and by the double curve of Gateshead Millennium cycle & footbridge.

Seeing it again recently with colleagues from the Power & the Water environmental history network, I felt a surge of gratitude toward the many individuals – none of whom I know – who made this ambitious plan for the Gateshead riverside a reality. My guess is that a good many of them were – or are – employees of Gateshead City Council or other organisations currently under pressure as England operates under the grip of public sector ‘austerity’.

The renewal of the Gateshead portion of the Tyne riverside isn’t something that was bound to happen. It takes a city – or two, perhaps a whole region? – filled with determined and rather ambitious people to turn an urban regeneration project of this scale into a lasting success. I have lost count of the number of times people I know from the North East have told me what a wonderful place the Baltic-Sage-Millennium Bridge-Newcastle Quayside area is. They usually add that when they were young (or when their parents were young – it depends on the age of the speaker) that the area was too rough for them.


‘You didn’t go down there.’

Their comments have made me wonder about the now-erased urban industrial waterfront. I particularly wonder about its decline. My friends’ comments suggest there might have been a time after the waterfront’s heyday as an industrial workspace, when it was in decline and when it became less a place of work and more one of malicious mischief, a place of danger after dark, and sometimes during the day. Is this accurate?


Newcastle and river Tyne

Newcastle castle keep across the Tyne to Gateshead, 1950s.
Source: Wikimedia Commons


Tyne Bridge

Sage Gateshead with Tyne Bridge in foreground. Photo by Christine Matthews, Geograph










I wonder also whether I have understood the regeneration story correctly. First was Gateshead Millennium Bridge, beautiful to look at, but even more exciting to use. Designed by architects Wilkinson Eyre, it opened in 2001. Next was Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, creating a new use for a derelict flour mill. Completed in 2002 it was first imagined by public sector body, Northern Arts, in the early 1990s. Then in 2004, the stunning Fosters & Partners-designed concert hall, Sage Gateshead, opened. Gazing at it initially from the Newcastle side, I was reminded that the North East is a region that has a history of ‘big’, ambitious structures – from the Tyne’s many bridges to Durham Cathedral to the now Grade II*-listed Byker housing estate, completed at the end of the 1970s.

Given the enormous scale of Sage Gateshead, it’s a good thing that Fosters’ design proved so successful. The Sage looks ‘made’ for its setting. By contrast, the architectural horror that is the Hilton Newcastle Gateshead and several of the identikit blocks of flats recently built on both sides of the Tyne in the vicinity of the Baltic do not inspire. Too much more of this type of mediocrity and the Tyne riverside running through Newcastle & Gateshead risks looking as awful as London upstream from Vauxhall Bridge.

Having created a cultural zone on the Gateshead side, complemented by the social zone of Newcastle quayside with busy nightlife and handsome Victorian municipal architecture, is there anything missing? I wonder if the time has come for the Tyne’s industrial heritage to be made more visible. Not with some twee quayside museum. That wouldn’t do, and surely has been considered and rejected already. I’m imagining something that says: “this was a big and mighty working river, a liquid highway. Today, it may be a river of leisure, but not long ago it was a river of graft.’

Dunston Staithes

Part of Dunstan Staiths, Gateshead. Photo: Erin Gill

The ideal opportunity is already there, on the riverside: Dunstan Staiths, that incredible wooden structure a bit upriver from the Sage, also on the Gateshead side. It was built as the final link in a network that allowed coal mined in the North East to be transported by rail and loaded onto ships. From Dunstan Staiths coal was carefully cascaded into waiting boats. Now standing mute, Dunstan Staiths is a testament to the North East’s history as the source – for a short time – of the world’s coal. There were dozens of these huge wooden structures along the river. Only Dunstan Staiths remains, and it only partially. Can it be revived and protected in some imaginative way? Now that the heart of Newcastle’s and Gateshead’s urban riverside has been re-cast as a cultural and social space, can’t the next project remind residents and visitors of the past? Of the machines, the pollution and the toil of working people.



  • Peter Coates

    ‘You didn’t go down there’…Erin invites us to ponder the transitional period, that liminal space, between the Newcastle-Gateshead riverfront’s industrial heyday and the regenerated waterscape of today that she writes about. Sandwiched between the past’s landscape of labour and the current landscape of leisure was perhaps a time and place – maybe more completely lost and forgotten than the preceding era when coal and shipbuilding ruled – ‘of malicious mischief, a place of danger after dark, and sometimes during the day’.

    Perhaps my own experience of growing up in a comparable urban setting – Merseyside in the late 1960s and early 1970s – can provide some relevant insight. Though Newcastle never matched Liverpool’s eminence as a port, Merseyside and Tyneside have a lot in common: both are twin-cities (Newcastle/Liverpool and Gateshead/Birkenhead); both rivers hosted major shipyards (Birkenhead’s Cammell Laird and Wallsend’s Swan Hunter); and both have produced disproportionate numbers (relative to their size) of famous musicians, actors and footballers.
    It was just another (double) history lesson back in 1974, in a school on the northern fringes of Liverpool, when I was in what was then called the Lower Sixth. Four of us were dutifully taking notes on something excruciatingly dull like the Second Reform Act of 1867, dictated by our A-Level history teacher – whose nickname, by the way, was the Python-inspired Spiny Norman (bête noire of Dinsdale Piranha). It was a lovely day in September. ‘Sod this’, exclaimed Spiny in mid-sentence, ‘let’s go down the docks’. So we piled into his bulbous grey Volvo and headed south for the Liverpool waterfront, down the Dock Road, with its pub on every corner, most of them now boarded up. Spiny was a dyed-in-the-wool Scouser who knew the docklands like the back of his hairy hand. We spent a heady couple of hours prowling around the abandoned landscape of docks and warehouses – which had finally shut down in 1972 – brushing past weeds and slipping through holes in the rusty wire fences, with Spiny spinning stories about Liverpool’s maritime glory days – stuff that, sadly, never made it onto the history curriculum or into our notebooks. It was only later, when I came back to look around the regenerated and restored Albert Dock complex when it re-opened in 1984, that I realized that this was the precisely the place that Spiny had brought us a decade earlier.

    I cannot speak for the night, when it may well have become dangerous. But during the day, for a schoolboy who felt as if he was playing hooky (skiving off, in Scouse), this derelict waterfront in Liverpool was a (pre-health and safety, pre-UNESCO World Heritage Site) place of delight, a place of history that had not been sanitized by the heritage treatment. History still in the raw, like Dunston Staiths.

  • Sue Regan

    The idea of ‘danger’ depends on who you are, what your experiences have been and what you want. I lived on Newcastle’s Quayside in the late 1970s and spent many hours walking around exploring during the day and visiting the bars during the night, throughout the eighties and still now. The huge derelict sheds often provided minimal shelter for many homeless men, too drunk to get a room in the Sally Bash as the local hostel was known. The crumbling quayside edges were a TWOCcer’s playground – boy racers speeding and daring each other, squealing handbrake turns and the final daring flourish – to drive the car over the edge and into the river, jumping at the last minute. In those days, it was common knowledge that anyone who fell in the Tyne would die poisoned before they’d drown. I remember The Baltic very well, an ancient dark pub where anyone over five feet tall had to duck through its doorways. All sorts of deals were done, usually in the back room, and I was warned not to go there by nearly everyone. It was pulled down to make way for The Eye on the Tyne, a pub with no redeeming features as far as I can tell. I lived in the Keelmans Hospital and the Barley Mow was my ‘local’ for years- watched the Live Aid concert there all day. The Egypt Cottage and the Rose and Crown will be remembered by many, both on City Road. The smell of soapiness from the Procter and Gamble factory, which was beside the Rose and in front of the Tyne Tees studios, used to be as strong on some days as the smell from the bone factory blowing along from Pottery Bank. But obviously, not so unpleasant. Many women got paid a few extra pounds to have products tested on their skin at P&G.

    Much more besides, but I don’t think you can separate the Gateshead regeneration from the Newcastle side, much of which happened through Tyne and Wear Development Corporation. Anyone else remember the Interceptor Sewer project works? Without that, the rest could not have happened because the river truly stank. Also, look at Amber Films archive and the story of how and why it wasn’t all pulled down, even tho that was the plan from T Dan’s time.
    Yes, it was considered dangerous and had a bad name, and there were all sorts of goings on, but this was never the whole story – the quayside was also a place of hidden history and some remnants still remain. The sunday market has cleaned itself up but can anyone save The Cooperage? Love Lane warehouse has been revived as flats, but the Barley Mow (as was) is a burnt out shell – being left to collapse on itself? We’re better now at imagining a future which includes rather than demolishes the past, and even developers can see the economic value for tourism (both home and away visitors). But all these regeneration initiatives – from Gateshead Garden Festival onwards – have relied on public funding and leadership to get the infrastructure works done, before the private sector commits to bring its profit-making projects to the party (apartments, hotels, bars, restaurants). So how might that happen now?

  • David Gerrard

    Peter’s recollections are accurate – the more commendable for being four decades ago to this month. I also remember us going the whole length of the course of the old Liverpool Overhead Railway (the Dockers Umbrella) – all the way to the Dingle where George “Spiny” Norman had taught previously.

    In those days no-one really knew what to do with the docks – and serious consideration was given to demolishing them. Which would have been a terrible pity as their architecture is a thing of beauty. I think the prevailing attitude of the time was that there was no use for them as the dock trade had moved further up towards the mouth of the Mersey to the new container docks.

    A couple of other thoughs spring to mind. Liverpool has a wealth of splendid Georgian and Victorian architecture – which the city planners did their very best to destroy in the years following the second World Way – they seemed hell bent of emptying the city of its population and sending them to concrete developments outside the city boundaries. So the docks I imagine were just lumped in with the gadarene rush to demolish. Fortunately most of the demolition didn’t happen.

    My mother, now dead for over a decade, who worked as an office girl in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board building during the war – could never conceive how anyone in their right mind would want to live in the docks. No matter how well they had been “done up”. If you made anything of yourself you lived as far away as possible. These were bleak industrial places – not fit for living in. I wonder whether any of us as seventeen year olds when we looked over these old dock buildings imagined that one day we would hope to have enough money to live there alongside the city’s rich footballers and other professionals. Liverpool is not unique in this respect – I lived in Cardiff for a few years – and again the dockland side of the city – Tiger Bay – as it’s sometimes known was a fearsome place which was best avoided after dark. Now – with the new developments you’s be lucky to but a flat there for less than half a million pounds!

    For anyone interested, there is an excellent web site called Liverpool Then and Now – it’s run by a photographer who takes old photographs of Liverpool and goes to the precise place where they were taken and blens the old with the new. He’s done them all over the city – from the docks, city centra and the suburbs. Well worth a look to understand how the shape and look of Liverpool has both developed and is still much the same.

  • Erin Gill

    Places of (reputed) danger are often much safer than those issuing the warnings care to admit or to discover for themselves. Thanks Sue for the memories of Newcastle quayside in the 1970s and 1980s! I agree that the public sector has been the catalyst behind regeneration in the North East and that environmental improvements are often the forgotten element that set the stage for cultural and social regeneration – they pave the way for the higher-profile projects. Leaving aside momentarily the question of funding, what would you choose as the next project for Newcastle & Gateshead? Any ideas?

    One of the biggest – and toughest – questions facing those in the regeneration business in London and the South East (and New York, etc) is how to regenerate without setting off the spark of excessive gentrification. When regeneration takes place reasonably slowly, allowing local residents to adapt and to find new roles in a gradually-evolving social and cultural space then it works. But when its rapidity makes too many people feel lost in a world that used to be theirs then it becomes ‘uncomfortable’. It’s a very difficult balance to strike. Where I live – in Brixton, South London – what has been a healthy pace of regeneration has accelerated recently, creating a neighbourhood that too many locals aren’t sure is theirs any more. We need to take a breather!

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