The grandly titled City Stadium is a well-used green space at the south end of Heaton. In all weathers, you’ll find runners, cyclists, walkers, outdoor gymnasts, playing children, allotmenteers and many others enjoying the fresh air and perhaps a coffee.
But it’s not always been like this. We asked Heaton History Group’s Keith Fisher to delve into the archives and his memory bank to tell its story:
‘Having friends and associates on both sides of the water, I’ve always been rather impressed with the degree of separation caused by the River Tyne. Despite the arrival of the tunnel in 1967 and now that I live in North Shields, getting to friends’ homes in South Shields still requires at least thirty minutes of driving (plus tolls) to cover no more than a mile as the crow flies.
What has this got to do with Heaton, you may well ask; well, even today, the Ouseburn valley presents a somewhat similar – albeit less severe – impediment. And 100 years ago it was a distinctly difficult obstacle during journeys east to west and vice versa. Between the city centre and Heaton there were few options that didn’t require labouring first down and then up a very steep bank.
A typical symptom of the enthusiasm to avoid Byker Bank for example can be seen by the number of people paying the pedestrian toll to cross the Byker Railway Viaduct (yes, folk paid to walk over) which was approximately 72,000 per year. So the first option was the building of the Byker Road Bridge in 1878 – you had to pay to use that as well, of course. Admittedly the toll was withdrawn in 1895 when the city corporation bought the bridge and it soon had to be widened because of increased traffic: a very familiar modern-day story.
The City Road route was relatively level, so you could bypass Byker Bank by crossing over Glasshouse Bridge and cutting across the western edge of Byker and Heaton with only the slope of Albion Row to contend with. OK, maybe we can consider that as an option, but if you needed to deliver anything by handcart from the town centre to Craigielea on Heaton Road then that was a long way out of your way on a cold and windy day.
I mention pushing heavy laden handcarts because my maternal grandfather, having retired as a lion-tamer in the circus, took to the variety theatre boards and would transport his props on a handcart. His sons, my uncles, were commandeered to labour on his behalf and they complained to me about it until they died.
Fortunately for the waggoneers, in the same year as Byker Road Bridge opened, another improvement arrived, as did so many, from Lord Armstrong: I never stop waxing lyrical regarding his unstinting benevolence, despite his motives being held to doubt in certain quarters. He had apparently bowed to the demands of Lady Armstrong – who was horrified by the sight of poor old horses dragging carts of coal up Benton Bank – and built Armstrong Bridge at his own expense, before giving it to the city council, insisting it remain toll-free.
Back in 1900, as far as the council were concerned, a more central route to all the new industries and residencies in Heaton from the town was desirable, but the best that was going to be achieved would still involve a steep bank.
Shieldfield, like the city centre, is far lower down than the centre of Heaton, and if we think that Warwick Street is steep today, imagine what it must have been like a century ago with a 30 metre deep Ouseburn Valley across its way. In mitigation, the new route would only be an uphill struggle in one direction; it would create new land for housing development; plus, it would provide a waste disposal facility in the centre of the city for 40 years.
During my youth in the ’50s and ’60s, everyone referred to the City Stadium as ‘The Tip’ because for the previous 40 years it had been the destination of both domestic and commercial refuse while the 100 foot deep valley was brought up to Shieldfield’s level. We didn’t generate much waste back then, did we? Couldn’t afford to!
The council’s plan to develop the infilled valley with houses never came to fruition because building regulations stiffened and residential development on infilled land was forbidden.
But first, culvert the Ouseburn. And to do that city engineer F J Edge decided that François Hennebique’s system was the method of choice: what we know today as reinforced concrete. The French Hennebique system was pioneered in this country by L G Mouchel with offices in Jesmond; work was initially executed by engineering firm W T Weir and Co of Howdon.
Actually, my mention of Craigielea on Heaton Road was not without significance. Its first resident, Joseph Lish, was an early pioneer of reinforced concrete and has many buildings to his name: up here, the best known being the Dove Marine Laboratory in Cullercoats. As early as 1874, he had exhibited his own invention: ‘Tilo-Concrete’. Lish was prominent in his profession both regionally and nationally. At one stage he was the President of the Society of Architects, whose Gold Medal he was awarded. He died in 1922 at the age of 80.
The Corporation might have saved themselves a great degree of trouble if they had awarded the contract to Lish, and we shall see why as we move on; although I suspect that the real problem was city councillors expecting the impossible by yesterday for no more than the price of a pint of beer and a bag of pork scratchings.
Looking at the above plan it can be seen that filling up the narrowest portion of the valley came first (‘WORK No.1’). This allowed an extension of Newington Road to link with Starbeck Avenue in Sandyford. It is also apparent that the burn had travelled a good way west before turning towards the Tyne in the south, slowly eroding away the bank and creating the large loop that the engineers by-passed by hugging the steep bank at the end of Stratford Grove. The shading and black bars are mine. The following picture shows the original river course in the foreground running left to right. Also apparent is the height of Newington Road above the valley floor, and it is at the foot of Warwick Street: hard going, even for horses.
The tunnel is 2,150 feet long. Construction used 850 tons of steel and 17,000 cubic yards of concrete. It is 30 feet wide and 20 feet high; at its apex it is only 8 inches thick, supporting 90 feet – or 2·5 million cubic yards – of compacted waste material. Started in 1906, it was interrupted by flooding and old colliery workings and became a huge financial embarrassment to the corporation, resulting in a stoppage of work and a change of contractors very early on… sound familiar?
What did they do with the water in the meantime?
There were two pre-existing facilities: one was a large bore sewage pipe heading for the Tyne. Yes! Who remembers the smell of the Tyne on hot days before the interceptor sewer was built? Or what was worse, the smell of the Ouseburn which itself was an open sewer until the middle of the 1970s when a big pipe was buried running from one end of the valley to the other. It is not always 100% sealed, as many folk will probably be aware when walking past various manholes at certain times, but I still vividly recall, from my early years, the large, open, vertical grills of the outlet pipes choked with unmentionable material that was the norm back then.
The second was a weir and sluice gate in Jesmond Vale – as it happens, mere yards from the beginning of the future culvert – which diverted full-flow water into a mill-race that more or less paralleled the burn, passing alongside the original large lead works, then under the railway bridge where it powered a flint-mill. That mill does not look big enough to warrant construction of a 3,000 foot long race, so who contributed to the cost? Early maps show nothing definite, even though the race is in existence by 1859. It’s curious: why take a mill-race all that distance to power a rather insignificant flint-mill that is only yards from the burn itself? There are many references in old newspaper accounts of ‘washing tubs’ and I suspect they are referring to the mill-race heading for the original lead works before it moved under the railway bridge and straddled the burn itself. Maps are full of interesting activity around the burn; there are all sorts of mysterious doings – both old and new; and also up the hill a-ways, where we find a huge brick-works I never realised had been there. The red rectangle on the OS map below indicates the point where the Ouseburn absorbs the Sandyford Burn, coming down the back of Portland Road from Lambert’s Leap on Sandyford Road. It is now culverted under Grantham Road.
The above picture shows us the sewage pipe (bottom left) carrying its share of the burn while in the distance, top right, can be seen the original route of the burn and mill-race. All of the property visible was compulsorily purchased and demolished; much more, it would turn out, than had been initially anticipated.
The following pictures give us a good idea of the construction process. Reinforcing poured concrete with iron bars is a fairly common sight nowadays but back then it was relatively novel and the entire endeavour was officially photographed for posterity.
The next photo shows tipping activity; and the inset shows ‘scrannin on the tip’ (as it was known) by folks foraging for usable material. In the background can be seen the slowly submerging parabola of the culvert roof. Many people will remember the smell of the tip; I can certainly remember the smell of similar activity as they began to widen Lansdowne Gardens at the other end of Jesmond Vale; I believe that was still going on through the ’70s: dreadful!
All things considered, it was a relatively unsatisfactory project: original cost estimates spiralled out of control; work was halted; suggestions it be abandoned were voiced. The council had been anxious to get cross-roads established as soon as possible: that was achieved in the first six years; and having rapidly built heavily above the Jesmond Vale section, repairs soon became necessary in order to strengthen the walls.
If you look closely at this aerial photo from 1938 you can see how the extension to Warwick Street was accomplished; it is also apparent why getting an extension from Newington Avenue up to Starbeck Avenue was achieved so quickly as the valley is comparatively narrow at that point.
The white border on this 1945 photo shows the extent of the area being filled; these two aerial shots indicate the lack of progress during the war years, as it seems it remained untouched; so where was all the rubbish going?
Speaking of war: during my youth, many folk told me that the culvert had been an air-raid shelter during the war, as many of them used it – but most of us are completely unaware of the extent of the facilities provided.
Marian Jones describes what must have been the finest public air -raid shelter in existence: a concrete floor was laid across the tunnel sealing off the burn below and thick concrete blast-walls were installed across the entrances. Gangways accessed a space big enough to accommodate up to 3,000 people. As well as lighting, there were benches, bunk-beds, a canteen/shop and a well equipped and manned hospital room.
Susan Bright tells of an office for air raid wardens, a youth club, a religious space, and a staging area for musical performances. And, in 1943, a library and reading room were added. Entrances were under the railway bridge and at the foot of Warwick Street, with gangways giving access to the shelter.
Many people didn’t even wait for the sirens and simply headed down there every night – with blankets, pillows, flasks of tea and cocoa etc – when the bombings were at their worst. In 1941 this unplanned and intense activity unfortunately led to a crack 100 feet long appearing in the wall of the tunnel and that section had to be cordoned off. Even so, this was as luxurious an accommodation as was possible during such fearful times; a lot better than those in Anderson Shelters in back gardens or even the Victoria Tunnel. Better again than the London Underground tunnels, as the culvert shelter was purpose built and exclusive… hence the extraordinary facilities.
Today’s evidence of the culvert’s existence is decidedly removed from the original construction. When I was a nipper exploring my vast dominion, the entrance to the culvert was mostly unchanged, except for the metal railings preventing access at the Sandyford entrance. You could see the construction but that was all. The exit under Byker Bridge, however looked like this in the early 1960s.
We little lads can find adventure wherever, along with wet shoes, muddy knees and diphtheria.
Now the picture is very different, most evidence of the entrance and exit has been obliterated, except what you see in my 2021 photos.
The first is the Vale.
The south exit is even more inaccessible, which has a lot to do with raves held there around 2017. Ubiquitous graffiti provides further disguise.
With the war over and housebuilding on the tip forbidden, what could be done with the land created by the culverting and levelled by infill? How about a sports stadium? Here’s an ‘Evening Chronicle’ sketch from the 1950s of the plans.
Seating for 86,000 people (Yes, eighty six thousand!) was augmented by a further space for 8,500 standing. Car parking was to be on three floors below the stands. Indoor sports, ice rinks (yes, plural), and badminton courts were also planned. T Dan Smith proposed spending £500,000 to prepare such a stadium for the British Empire Games. (Renamed the British Commonwealth Games by the time 1966, the year he was targeting, came round). ‘The best intentions’ right? We got a wooden hut and a cinder track, plus the grand name.
Build by Numbers
I passed our – so called – City Stadium on an almost daily basis riding the Number 1 or 2 bus to and from town during the ’60s and early ’70s, and remained mystified by the enormous forest of stone blocks, all numbered in white figures, scattered over the near corner of the unrealised City Stadium. It turned out they were the Royal Arcade waiting to be resurrected at some future time and place. I was equally mystified by their disappearance sometime during the ’70s; at least I assume it was then because I was in and out of Newcastle throughout that decade and was gone almost for good by the ’80s: just like the Royal Arcade, the prestigious City Stadium and our Empire!
Now, if you drop by ‘the tip’ you’ll see the unmistakeable signs of gentrification, the most recent phase of the rich history of this patch of Heaton. What went before has almost, but not quite, been forgotten. But should we be making more of our heritage? The Victoria Tunnel has become a tourist attraction. Perhaps I’m biased but I reckon the City Stadium and Ouseburn Culvert has an even more exciting history. Conducted tours anyone?’
Researched and written by Keith Fisher, Heaton History Group. Thank you to Carlton Reid for information about the washing tubs.’ Photograph of the Victoria Tunnel courtesy of ‘The Evening Chronicle’.
Can You Help?
If you know more this part of Heaton or have memories or photos to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing email@example.com
The author’s personal archives
‘The Ouseburn Culvert and the City Stadium’ by Marian Jones; ‘The Newsletter of the Ouseburn Trust Heritage Group’, Spring 2008.
‘Bridging the Ouseburn’ by Sue Bright; Ancestors Publishing, 2013
Funny, isn’t it, how once something becomes generally accepted it gets, well, accepted? Take Armstrong Park’s ‘cattle run’: according to an interpretation panel in the park, this distinctive feature was sunk for bovine use by Victorian industrialist Lord Armstrong.
The livestock, goes the story, were herded through this costly railway-style cutting because the route had long been used for leading cows to pasture.
‘When [Lord] Armstrong was given the land’ the panel explains, ‘he had this deeper channel dug so that cattle could follow the old track and be kept apart from visitors and their carriages.’
Using archive materials, period maps, and copious illustrations, local resident Carlton Reid explains why the lottery-funded interpretation panel is, in all likelihood, wrong:
‘For centuries, cattle had been driven down to pasture by the River Ouseburn from the fields above the valley,’ states the interpretation panel. The moss-covered panel is situated to the side of the upper of two bridges which span the 200-metre-long sunken feature in Armstrong Park. In the 19th Century this lozenge of land which now sports the ‘Shoe Tree’ was known as Bulman’s Wood.
Even though I argue here that the feature wasn’t designed for cows, I refer to it throughout this piece as the ‘cattle run’. Another descriptive convenience is the interchangeable use of Armstrong Park and Bulman’s Wood for roughly the same 29-acre plot of land.
There’s a linear east-west feature marked on the large-scale map attached to the Deed of Gift of September 1879 in which Armstrong gave this woodland in perpetuity to the people of Newcastle, but it’s not labelled as a ‘cattle run‘.
The feature was constructed not in the 1850s, which the interpretation panel seems to suggest, but in 1880 when the council — then known as Newcastle Corporation — owned the land.
Armstrong may have handed Bulman’s Wood to the people of Newcastle via the council’s stewardship but, ever the canny speculator, he inserted a clause in the deed allowing him to continue draining the parts of Heaton which he wished to later develop for housing.
I also speculate that, with the Victorian equivalent of a nod-and-a-wink, the Corporation incorporated Armstrong’s pre-designed linear feature into their plans for what they named Armstrong Park.
Remarks on a cutting
The cutting today known as the ‘cattle run’ starts on Ouseburn Road, rising and curving to finish unceremoniously in a quagmire forming the southern boundary of the plots administered by the 103-year-old Armstrong Allotments Association. Waterlogged and overgrown, this patch of land is understandably little-visited today. (Wear wellies.)
As the interpretation panel rightly points out, the cutting’s high-quality sandstone blockwork is reminiscent of Victorian railway infrastructure.
Some of the sandstone blocks and their coping stones have fallen to the ground — or, more likely, were pushed — and they lie scattered on the feature’s floor, an ankle-twisting deterrent to those wishing to walk along the ‘cattle run’.
There are two pillars at the Ouseburn Road entrance of the ‘cattle run’, eight courses high and capped with flat coping stones.
If you brush fallen leaves to one side, you’ll uncover rusted remains of iron railings where, within living memory, a gate once closed off the sunken feature at the roadside pillars, one of which is decoratively triangular.
At the opposite end of the ‘cattle run’ the sandstone blocks fade almost to ground level. This entrance is marked by stumpy, ivy-covered pillars, only one of which is now easily visible. This pillar, only a couple of courses high, is capped with a pyramid-shaped coping stone.
‘The quality of the stone work was intended to be seen,’ an archaeologist told me, ‘but not by agricultural labourers and cows.’
Hanna Steyne specialises in 19th Century landscapes. I sent her a great many photographs of the ‘cattle run’ and surroundings, including drone shots, and she also accessed period mapping to get the contemporary lay of the land.
‘I would not expect decorative column features on a structure only to be used for agricultural purposes,’ she pointed out.
On several period Ordnance Survey maps, Armstrong Park’s elongated feature is marked with a finger-shaped 100ft contour line. It’s likely that the masonry of the ‘cattle run’ shored up what was once a natural feature in Bulman’s Wood, a feature that the ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ in 1884 called a ‘deep gully’.
As shown on the map from Armstrong’s 1879 Deed of Gift, this gully contained a linear feature prior to the following year’s construction of the ‘cattle run’.
Hydraulics innovator and arms manufacturer Lord Armstrong was, of course, a noted philanthropist. Five years after handing Bulman’s Wood to the people of Newcastle he gifted the larger Jesmond Dene to the city. This provision of an amenity for his fellow citizens was generous but, back in 1878 when he first discussed the gift, would he really have commissioned a channel in a deep gully to keep cows away from people in a park he was soon to give away? It’s far more likely that when he charged his agents with designing the cutting, he and they had something else in mind.
By the time the cutting was built in 1880 the land was owned by the Newcastle Corporation. The council had no need for such a feature so it was likely to have been built on Armstrong’s orders, and with his cash, on the undocumented understanding that he had a commercial use for it.
According to a Historic Environment Record, the ‘cattle run’ is a ‘stone-lined animal kraal which took Armstrong’s cattle from grazing land to the east to the lower pasture land to the west, without disturbing visitors to the park. What was the historical source for this citation? ‘Pers. Comm. Jesmond Dene Rangers, 2004,’ says the record. There’s nothing wrong with using such local knowledge — especially when such ‘personal communications’ were gleaned from folks out there in all weathers looking after our parks and who, in the course of their work, probably hear their fair share of handed-down history — but it’s odd that the entry only cites unnamed 21st century rangers rather than providing 19th century sources.
For Lord Armstrong to go to the considerable expense of sinking a bovine passageway, it would, you might think, have to be a feature in regular use and therefore would have been of at least passing interest to the local press. Yet not in any of the long and detailed descriptions of Armstrong Park in contemporary newspapers have I found mentions of a ‘cattle run’, a ‘kraal’ or any other bovine-related use for the feature.
Nor have I found any period maps, not even those of the largest scale, that mark the feature as a ‘cattle run.’ The only maps to do so are modern and crowdsourced such as OpenStreetMap, a volunteer-edited online resource founded, coincidentally, in 2004..
Don’t have a cow, man
Might there have been a time-out-of-mind cattle track through the deep gully of Bulman’s Wood? Maybe. According to an 18th Century field-name map, there were two large fields to the west of what became Heaton Road: North Cow Close and South Cow Close, both of which belonged to Low Heaton Farm. On the other side of Heaton Road there was a P-shaped field called ‘Cow Loan’ belonging to Heaton Town Farm.
There was also Benton Bridge Farm, which according to the censuses between 1891 and 1911 was a dairy farm. The farmhouse was at the junction of Ouseburn Road and the Newcastle to Benton turnpike, today’s Coast Road. It is now a house called Woodburn, that, in exterior design, is little changed from the 1890s.
Bingo, you might think, cows. However, the existence of these three field names and dairy farms in the vicinity does not necessarily mean that cows would be taken to pasture on fields beside the Ouseburn.
Might cows have been taken down to the Ouseburn not for pasture but to drink? Thomas Oliver’s 1844 map of Newcastle shows Heaton Road, Heaton Hall’s garden that would become Heaton Park’s bowling green, and Ouseburn Road and, close to where the cattle run would be later built, there’s a field boundary.
There’s no path marked at this point, for cows or otherwise, and it’s possible that cows might have been herded along the edge of this field and down to the river.
But as there were several water sources in or near the cow-themed fields was there any real need to lead cattle to a stream? Archaeologist Hanna Steyne thinks not:
‘From the topography identifiable from mapping, it seems highly unlikely that cows would be heading for pasture down by the river — there seems to have been plentiful farm land on which to graze cows.’
The three large fields may have corralled cows in the 18th century but, by the mid-19th century, only one of them — Cow Loan — was still being used for that purpose, and this only fractionally. According to an 1868 document mapping Armstrong-owned land in Heaton, only about an eighth of the fields worked by Heaton Town Farm and East Heaton Farm were devoted to pasture. (Today, these fields are mostly in the area around Ravenswood Primary School and the Northumberland Hussar pub on Sackville Road.)
As has been discussed previously on this website, Heaton Town Farm was an arable and dairy farm, owned through the 18th and most of the 19th Centuries by the aristocratic Ridley family once of Heaton Hall.
Sir Matthew White Ridley, the fourth Baronet, was the farmer of the family. He had a ‘thorough liking for agricultural pursuits, and took a deep interest in all matters relating to the farm’, reported an 1877 obituary ‘As a breeder of cattle, he was known throughout the whole of the North of England.’
Ridley sold Heaton Town Farm’s land and buildings in 1865. All were either then or soon after that owned by Sir William Armstrong. From the 1840s to the 1860s, the farm was leased by the 4th Baron Ridley to George Cairns. In the 1861 census, Cairns (who also features in records as ‘Carins’) was listed as working 145 acres of mixed farmland, employing ‘4 men, a boy and women labourers.’ Cairns lived with a housekeeper, a ploughman, a 19-year-old Irish dairymaid and a 14-year-old ‘cow keeper’. By 1881, it was still a dairy farm but was now just 27 acres.
Clearly, there were cows in this part of Heaton when Armstrong or his agents commissioned the feature which became known as the ‘cattle run’, but by the 1870s there would have been just a small number of them rather than herds so large and potentially disruptive that they required a cow cutting.
In the 19th Century, ‘dairy farming was seen as a fairly abhorrent activity,’ said Steyne, ‘and one which should be hidden from the delicate middle classes.’
Armstrong himself owned several Newcastle farms, at least two of which had cows on them. He kept small herds at Castles Farm (near to today’s David Lloyd fitness club) and at Benton Place (underneath today’s HM Revenues and Customs building off Benton Road). However, it’s unlikely these herds would have ventured as far as Bulman’s Wood, so we’re left with the small number of cows at Heaton Town Farm and Benton Bridge Farm. (By 1916, Benton Bridge Farm housed just three cows, said to be ‘shockingly emaciated’.)
‘The idea that cattle would be walked through a formal Victorian park is fairly strange,’ suggests Steyne.
‘The whole point about Victorian parks was that they were controlled “natural” environments — nature made beautiful — but deliberately separated from the reality of the [actual] natural environment.’
Even if the much-reduced number of cows in the locality during the 1870s and 1880s still used a ‘traditional’ route through the steep-sided gully in Bulman’s Wood, why would Armstrong care to preserve this? Cows are not eels, and the Ouseburn is not the Sargasso Sea. For a practical man like Armstrong, and probably for countless others before him, the sensible herding route would have been down the long-existing Jesmond Vale Lane.
If the ‘cattle run’ wasn’t for cattle, what was it for? An 1880 newspaper report about the opening of Armstrong Park explains that it was for pedestrian use. The ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ was clear: it was a ‘sunken footpath’.
The ‘new park is rapidly progressing towards completion’, began the report.
‘The ivy-covered mill on the eminence immediately above [the bank] has for many years been a conspicuous object of interest from the vale beneath’, explained the period writer, meaning the old windmill in Armstrong Park.
‘Beyond this ground, the boundaries of the park terminate at a hedge growing on the border of a fine grass field [where] it is intended … to erect villa residences, and in order to render these accessible from the Ouseburn road, a sunken footpath, which will be finished from plans suggested by Sir William, is at present being made.’
(That’s it: the ‘cattle run’ was a sunken footpath for villa owners; quest over. True, but let’s carry on anyway, there’s plenty more to parse.)
The 1880 writer continued:
‘This path runs immediately through and underneath the park, but is in no way connected with the public pleasure ground.’
According to this contemporary description, a ‘wooden bridge forms a portion of the carriage drive over the path, which is also crossed in the middle path by a neat rustic bridge.’
Today, these two bridges are the large upper one over the ‘cattle run’ at the carriage road and the smaller one down the path from the Shoe Tree. Both bridges now have metal railings, and both are made from stone not wood. The bridges have been rebuilt some time after 1880, but let’s continue with the contemporary description.
‘An elegant waterfall will be seen from both structures,’ wrote the correspondent.
Wait, what, a waterfall? Where? It ran parallel to the ‘cattle run’. To confirm its existence I pulled back some of the overgrown foliage to unveil the vertical rock face over which the cascade once ran.
Just like the well-known waterfall in Jesmond Dene — the subject of countless paintings and photographs — the hitherto unknown one in Armstrong Park was built rather than being wholly natural.
Given similar landscape shaping in Jesmond Dene, it’s possible that the cascade was Armstrong’s idea, or perhaps that of his friend, the naturalist John Hancock, co-founder with his brother Albany of the museum which until recently bore their name. Some of the Dene’s naturalistic features, such as its ornamental rockeries, were either designed in whole by Hancock or in association with Armstrong.
The 1880 newspaper report has a vivid description:
‘The water, which is obtained from the fields beyond, will flow through a 15-inch pipe, placed for a distance beneath the sunken footpath, and then securing an outlet between the carriage drive and the rustic bridge, will dash merrily onwards over an ingenious arrangement of rocks, falls and ferns, until it at length mingles the purity of its stream with that of the singing burn beneath.’
(The original rocks remain, and there’s still a pipe in situ, although it’s a modern one, concreted into place.)
The waterfall pre-dated Newcastle Corporation’s ownership of Bulman Wood. According to a report in the ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ of October 1878, the waterfall — described as a ‘small cascade’ — was fed by a spring that ‘runs evenly the whole year through’.
Armstrong Park has several perennial springs. Heavy rain landing on year-round saturated ground is now channeled by numerous drains but, before these were constructed, Bulman’s Wood would have been almost permanently boggy, and, during high rainfall events, there would have been a rapid runoff of stormwater down the deep gully.
Water on the brain
Bulman’s Wood, according to the ‘Chronicle’ report, was owned by a Mr. Potter. (Actually, it was owned by Armstrong, who had inherited the land in 1851.) The Mr. Potter in question was Colonel Addison Potter, who lived with his large family and many servants at Heaton Hall, once the seat of the White-Ridley family but bought in 1840 by Colonel Potter’s father, the coal owner and industrialist Addison Langhorn Potter, Armstrong’s uncle.
Armstrong bought land in Jesmond and Heaton as it became available, adding to the land he inherited from his father’s close friend Armorer Donkin, a rich Tyneside solicitor.
Armstrong Senior and Donkin were town councillors, and thick as thieves. In the 1820s and 1830s, the Armstrong family would spend holidays at Donkin’s country retreat in Rothbury. Young William developed a taste for open water fishing in the Coquet River during these holidays and loved the area’s hills, weirs, and waterfalls, a landscape he would later go on to recreate in Jesmond Dene before doing similar at Cragside.
Armstrong Junior had a lifelong fascination with water’s potential for motive power. From a young age, he was afflicted with ‘water on the brain’, joked his family.
After leaving school, Armstrong was articled with Donkin, a bachelor who treated the bright youngster as his adoptive son, heir to his fortune and his land in Heaton. Armstrong worked for some time as a solicitor in Donkin’s firm but his real vocation was as an inventor and engineer with an abiding interest in the growing science of hydraulics.
Donkin lived in Jesmond Park, a grand house in Sandyford with gardens and woodlands sloping down to the Ouseburn. Jesmond Park was famous among Tyneside’s elite for ‘Donkin’s ordinary’, a weekly Saturday luncheon where the great and good — and the rich and influential — would meet to exchange ideas as well as contacts and contracts.
Armstrong, eager to ditch his legal work and forge a living as an engineer, was a habitual attendee at these dinners, no doubt enthused after talking with visiting Victorian luminaries including Isambard Kingdom Brunel. For the young Armstrong, it would have been a short stroll down the slope from Jesmond Park to the deep gully that later became the ‘cattle run’.
There’s a linear feature in the gully shown on the 1864 Ordnance Survey map. The 200-metre-long feature is drawn like a road, with parallel lines. But it’s too narrow to be a road and isn’t dotted, so it’s not a footpath, either. Nor is it a field boundary. The nearest equivalent, on this particular map, would be a mill race.
While there’s a mill race in Jesmond Vale, opposite the gully and one of several mill races in the Ouseburn valley, there’s no known water mill in Bulman’s Wood.
The linear feature on the map was too straight to be natural and, if you were looking down from the lower bridge, it curved to the right as it neared Ouseburn Road. This “J”-shaped tail — which can still be seen on the ground today — curved in the opposite direction to the later ‘cattle run’.
There are footpaths marked on the 1864 map that follow and cross over the linear feature and its J-shaped tail. Many later maps plot both the tail and the ‘cattle run’.
The feature shown on the 1864 map is narrow, about the width of the mill race opposite. It’s probably an open-to-the-elements storm drain, yet large enough to be plotted on a map.
‘[The] little stream which runs through [Bulman Wood’s] dell is sunk deep in a stone-lined channel,’ reported ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ in 1884, adding that it had been built because it had been ‘difficult to prevent the rivulet when flooded from breaking the banks away.’
The ‘Chronicle’ didn’t give a date for the stone-lined channel’s construction but as it’s marked on the 1864 map, it must have been built sometime before 1858 when the OS map had been surveyed.
Could the channel on Donkin’s land have been used by Armstrong — or constructed, even — for experiments in hydraulics? Maybe. Armstrong certainly cited the Ouseburn as a stream that could power machinery.
‘The transient produce of useless floods’ Armstrong told an 1845 meeting at Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society ‘could become available as a permanent source of mechanical power.’
He wanted to harness the ‘vast quantities of water which pour down brooks and watercourses … in time of rain.’
A newspaper report of the meeting said Armstrong ‘proceeded to point out the advantages which would result from the principles of impounding surplus water and causing it to act as a column, by referring to … the Ouseburn.’
‘Suppose,’ posited Armstrong to the august audience, ‘that instead of having a succession of six mill races and six falls, as was the case on the Ouseburn, the first mill race were continued along the banks of the stream gradually getting higher and higher above the natural channel of the brook, to within a short distance of the Tyne where a single fall of upwards of 100 feet might be obtained.’
There’s no documentary evidence to connect Armstrong’s 1845 desire for a high mill race to the probable storm drain down the gully in Bulman’s Wood, but he would have been well aware of the water feature’s existence.
The run-off from the storm drain was later employed for the scenic waterfall introduced above.
‘The stream of water,’ continued the 1880 newspaper report, ‘has been diverted along a channel of masonry almost at its highest point after entering the grounds, and it is brought along its artificial bed until opposite the larger of the two rustic bridges, where it is thrown over a rocky ledge in a high fall.’
While undoubtedly scenic, the waterfall also had a practical purpose. The storm drain which created it was said to also drain the upper field, which today is the waterlogged patch of ground between the end of the ‘cattle run’ and the multi-coloured plots belonging to the Armstrong Allotments Association.
‘Ingenious drainage [in Armstrong Park] has in several instances converted marshy, sodden land into pleasant places,’ reported the ‘Chronicle’
If this ‘ingenious drainage’ dates back to the 1840s or 1850s that’s only a decade or two after the introduction of the transformative Deanston method of agricultural field drainage. The work of James Smith of Deanston in Perthshire used drain tiles and narrow pipes beneath fields. Smith created the technique in 1823, but its use only became widespread after a journal published details in 1831.
‘Smith o’ Deanston’s the man!’ exclaimed a character in ‘Hillingdon Hall’, a now-forgotten but popular-in-the-1840s novel by Robert Smith Surtees of Hamsterley Hall, Rowlands Gill. ‘Who ever ‘heard o’ drainin’ afore Smith o’Deanston inwented it?’ continued John Jorrocks, an upwardly-mobile, country-sports-loving businessman who, wrote Surtees, couldn’t pronounce the ‘v’ sound.
The new method of drainage led to a revolution in British farming, financially boosted in 1846 by the Public Money Drainage Act. This largesse enacted by parliament extended generous farm improvement loans to landowners. (Many parliamentarians owned large estates at this time.) Previously soggy and unproductive land became highly profitable arable fields which, for 15 or so years, made the rich even richer.
The ‘now common accompaniment of a country gentleman,’ pointed out Surtees in ‘Hawbuck Grange’ (1847) was a ‘draining-pipe.’
After going ‘boldly at the Government loan’ another Surtees character was said to have transformed a ‘sour, rush-grown, poachy, snipe-shooting looking place’ into land ‘sound enough to carry a horse.’
Deanston’s method of introducing smaller-bore, more frequently placed drains was an improvement on former methods, wrote the landed Surtees, who described ‘gulf-like drains as would have carried off a river … but there was no making head against wet land with stone drains, the bit you cured only showing the wetness of the rest.’
The stone-lined watercourse in Bulman’s Wood was more likely to have been a storm channel than one that could drain a field, but contemporary descriptions are divided on the subject.
Even though, according to the 1864 map, it looked like one, the watercourse wasn’t a mill race, Duncan Hutt, a local watermill expert told me. ‘There is no clear evidence for any feature nearby being a conduit for water to feed a mill.’
He added: ‘The [cattle run] is far too steep to be a watercourse for a mill, [it’s] more likely something to help provide some surface drainage in times of heavy downpours in the past.’
Archaeologist Steyne agreed:
‘The identification of a drainage watercourse and a decorative waterfall to the north of the line of the cattle run, would correlate with the information in the mapping indicating earlier drainage from the land to the east, and then a later stone-built feature running alongside.’
An 1894/95 OS map shows the ‘cattle run’ to be a full-on watercourse, printed blue. This was probably a mistake by the map makers. (Mistakes were common — on the same map, Hadrian’s Wall is marked not as the Roman Wall but as the Romam Wall.)
‘It is very possible that the earlier drainage feature became less visible and was confused in the mapping with the later cattle run,’ suggested Steyne.
‘Land was not completely resurveyed for each new map, only changes added. The fact that both were perhaps unused, or fell into disrepair shortly after construction might explain [the anomaly on the 1894/95 OS map],’ she said.
‘Land for housing’
During the first 75 years of the 19th Century, the British landed aristocracy were the wealthiest class in the world’s richest country. For the last 25 of those years this wealth had at least partly come from the huge profits enabled by government-sponsored field drainage. But the good times for many of these landed elites did not last. A dramatic fall in grain prices following the opening up of the American prairies to cultivation led to a steep decline in British agriculture. This agrarian depression started in the 1870s and continued until the mid-1890s resulting in British fields that had previously been money-spinners losing much of their value.
Between 1809 and 1879, 88 percent of British millionaires had been landowners; from 1880 to 1914 this figure dropped to 33 percent.
‘Land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure,’ complained Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.
For the elites, it became prudent to sell land rather than farm it.
Urban farmland, in particular, could generate huge one-hit profits, with expanding cities such as Newcastle in desperate need of space for housing.
Heaton landowners Colonel Addison Potter, Sir Matthew White Ridley, and Lord Armstrong and others could — and did — make handsome profits by selling off their fields for building plots. These three in particular were voracious sellers of land, especially Armstrong who employed agents that developed housing estates on his behalf.
Armstrong, of course, also gave away land to the people of Newcastle, but the gift of his extensive Jesmond Dene ‘garden’ wasn’t perhaps as purely philanthropic as it is usually portrayed — creating an attractive country park from a steeply sided valley that might have proved too deep to fill and flatten was a savvy move for a housing developer.
‘The more he bestows, the richer [Lord Armstrong] becomes’ , a magazine calculated in 1889.
Creating the amenity of Jesmond Dene as a sweetener to help sell the plots on his extensive housing developments in Jesmond and Heaton made perfect business sense. Likewise, Armstrong Bridge wasn’t commissioned by its namesake to ease the burdens of packhorses climbing Benton Bank — a backstory usually attributed to the kindness of Lady Armstrong — but as a high-level road approach for the prestigious properties Armstrong planned to develop on both sides of the Ouseburn valley.
On the plus side, his shrewd philanthropy prevented any infilling of Jesmond Dene. Many of Newcastle’s other denes disappeared under landfill — a third-of-a-mile segment of the Ouseburn valley near Warwick Street was culverted in the early 1900s and crammed with rubble and other rubbish. However, the land created on top of the Ouseburn Tip — which is now the ‘City Stadium’ — proved too unstable for housing.
Similarly, today’s plots owned by the Armstrong Allotments Association only exist because the land they were carved from proved unsuitable for building use.
Armstrong originally planned to develop this land to create Heaton Park Estate, an exclusive neighbourhood of mansions overlooking the Dene.
In 1878, Armstrong instructed his architect Frank W Rich to ‘lay out villa residences upon the land to the eastward of the park,’ Rich had ‘already marked off into building plots the whole of the land which lives above Bulman’s Wood,’ reported the ‘Newcastle Courant’. but, as has already been discussed on this site, these villas would not be built.
Problem: ‘the ground here forms a natural basin, and a spring rises just above it, and runs evenly the whole year through,’ revealed the ‘Courant’, adding that the land was ‘soft and swampy.’
Solution: ‘The water … is now carried away to form a small cascade,’ reported the ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’
This cascade was the waterfall parallel to the ‘cattle run’. The waterfall, and the rivulet that formed it, were carried through one of the two arches beneath the lower of the two Armstrong Park bridges. The second arch spans the ‘cattle run’.
Except, remember, it’s not a ‘cattle run’, it was a sunken footpath, reported the period newspaper mentioned earlier. A sunken footpath from Ouseburn Road to Armstrong’s putative posh villas; a sunken footpath for use by the villa owners, or perhaps to be used as a hidden-from-view passageway for servants or tradespeople.
‘The quality and style of the stone work would support [the] suggestion [that this was a] pedestrian route to link the road to proposed housing,’ concluded Steyne.
The sunken footpath was built by Newcastle Corporation in 1880, working to plans drawn up by Armstrong or, more likely, his agents. Although decorative and with its own sylvan cascade, the expensive railway-style cutting didn’t help sell the plots — the thirteen posh villas never got built.
By 1884, Rich had modified the plan, dividing the development into 41 plots. However, after fresh surveys revealed the land to be unsuitable for housing, this plan, too, fell by the wayside.
The sunken footpath was itself sunk, with no longer any reason to exist.
Armstrong died in 1900. His will stipulated that part of what would have been the Heaton Park Estate should become allotments. Other parts of the would-be development lay fallow until the 1920s when almost 100 houses were erected on the land that had been deemed unsuitable forty years previously.
Heaton Park Estate never made the jump from Rich’s drawing board, but a similar development to the north of Armstrong Bridge proved more successful. In 1894, Rich (probably acting for Armstrong) was advertising ‘Villa SITES for Sale on Jesmond Park Estate.’ Significantly, the adverts stressed that on these plots the ‘drainage [was] perfect,’ which suggests that the drainage for the plots on Heaton Park Estate had not been perfect.
Jesmond Park Estate was a commercial success, and some of the large houses that stand back from the roads Jesmond Park East and Jesmond Park West are among the most expensive properties in Newcastle.
The ‘cattle run’ was built in advance of the prestigious housing it was designed to service, perhaps constructed early to act as a sales tool to attract rich house hunters. It had been built on land owned by the city council by railway engineers who were working to plans commissioned by Lord Armstrong via his jobbing architect Frank W. Rich.
It’s possible that work on the cattle run was done by Rich’s assistant, H.G. Badenoch.
‘When Lord Armstrong presented the beautiful Jesmond Dene to Newcastle, the erection of the lodges, making of footpaths, and building of bridges was … in Mr. Rich’s hands, and I superintended most of the work,’ remembered Badenoch later in life.
Badenoch also reported that he had conducted ‘all the surveying, levelling, and setting out of streets’ for Lord Armstrong’s housing developments in Jesmond and Heaton.
The unsung Badenoch might have also been responsible for converting what had been a pre-1860s storm drain in Bulman’s Wood into Armstrong Park’s scenic waterfall.
There has never been a ‘cattle run’ in Heaton. The linear feature now known by that name was built as a sunken footpath next to a tumbling cascade. The cascade may have tumbled for some years, but it failed to drain the sodden field above it, and as the sunken footpath ended in a quagmire and not, as was planned, at the foot of thirteen posh villas, it too was a flop.
Knowledge of the ‘cattle run’’s true purpose was lost soon after its use became moot. Ordnance Survey maps didn’t label what was — and remains — a distinctive ground feature. A large-scale OS map of 1907 managed to pinpoint small items such as urinals but didn’t state the use of the feature that ninety or so years later became known, wrongly, as the ‘cattle run.’ A 1942 OS map got the closest, labelling the feature a ‘subway.’
Other Armstrong-commissioned subways exist, including the fully-covered one from his Banqueting House to St. Mary’s chapel, and another in Jesmond Dene to Blackberry crags.
Sorry, Newcastle City Council, but the lottery-funded interpretation board you installed in 2010 is incorrect — the ‘cattle run’ was built for people, not cows. But let’s look on the bright side: while Armstrong Park loses a bovine superhighway, it gains a long-lost waterfall.
Researched and written by Carlton Reid. Photographs by Carlton Reid. With thanks to Marek Bidwell, Sarah Capes, Ann Denton, Keith Fisher, Henrietta Heald, Duncan Hutt, Chris Jackson, Alan Morgan, John Penn, Yvonne Shannon, Hanna Steyne, Les Turnbull, and Will Watson-Armstrong.
He’s also a historian – his recent books include ‘Roads Were Not Built for Cars‘ and ‘Bike Boom’ both published by Island Press, Washington, D.C. The ‘cattle run’ isn’t the first infrastructure he has shown to be wrongly labelled: in 2017 he discovered the existence of hundreds of miles of 1930s-era Dutch-style cycleways paid for by Britain’s Ministry of Transport but which fell out of use so quickly that they became buried under grass or were misidentified as service roads.
If, like so many other people, you’ve been enjoying exercising in the green haven that is Jesmond Dene this spring, perhaps you’ve wondered about those in whose footsteps you’re walking: people like William and Margaret (later Lord and Lady) Armstrong, of course, who, in 1835, were given 16 acres of land in the Dene by Margaret’s parents as a wedding present and, who, in turn, later gifted the landscaped park he developed there to us, the people of Newcastle; but also Jane and Isabella, artist daughters of engraver Thomas Bewick, who loved to walk there as elderly ladies (They both lived into their 90s); eminent naturalists John and Albany Hancock, who lived nearby, and the family of Armstrong’s trusted lieutenant, ballistics expert Sir Andrew Noble, lucky enough to live in the Dene itself, first of all in Deep Dene House on the High Heaton side of the Ouseburn, now sadly a semi ruin but most recently known as Fisherman’s Lodge, and latterly in Jesmond Dene House, now a boutique hotel. What all of these people have in common (and also in common with, reportedly, a growing number of us today) is that they took a great interest in the natural world, especially that of their own locality.
It is Andrew and Margery Noble’s son, George, who we have to thank for a fascinating book called ‘Birds of Jesmond Dene’ published in 1931. In it, he lists and comments on ‘merely those birds which I and one or two relatives and intimate friends have observed. My memory, alas! goes back over sixty years so I have taken that period roughly as a time limit.’
Thus the book is a valuable document which gives us a feel of how the bird life of the Dene has changed over a long period, from the late 1860s to 2020, as well as giving us little glimpses into life in the Dene during the period Noble writes about. This article is not a scientific study but, just as Noble did, we have enlisted the help of a small number of fellow Heatonians and local birdwatchers to get a better understanding of the range of birds that have been seen in recent years and allow rough comparisons with the period Noble covered. And we have the added advantage of being able to scour Twitter for those birds thought worthy of special mention by today’s 140 character chroniclers. It’s certainly not an exhaustive or official list though. We have also expanded the area covered to the whole of Heaton, although most of the birds listed have been seen in Heaton’s various parks.
Jesmond Dene is, of course, essentially a wooded valley and so many of the birds seen there could be described as ‘woodland birds’. Apologies to ornithologists as it’s certainly not a scientific classification and many of the birds listed will often be seen in other habitats too but most build their nests, and are often seen, in and around trees. Many of our common garden birds would fit into that category.
Here are the woodland birds of Jesmond Dene as mentioned by Noble in 1930 in approximate order of how common he considered them to be, along with some contemporary observations:
Robin (or ‘Redbreast’, as Noble calls it) ‘Very common and breeds’ It’s perhaps surprising that he says no more about this perennial favourite, which has such a close relationship with man. Nowadays: Still resident in and beyond the Ouseburn parks. in In 2011 Peter Candler, Managing Director of Jesmond Dene House, Noble’s old home, posted a photograph on Twitter of one in the garden there. Lovely to be able to start with that direct link with the past.
Dunnock (‘Hedge Sparrow’, as Noble calls it) ‘Very common and breeds regularly.’ Nowadays: Still a common, if often overlooked bird, in the Dene and elsewhere in Heaton. Mike Cook says it’s ‘best seen having a free lunch in Pets’ Corner’.
Song Thrush ‘Very common and breeds’ . Noble includes his own painting of one in the book. Nowadays: Although according to the RSPB ‘in serious decline’, we’re lucky to still have them in and around the Dene. In January 2020, James Common tweeted that he’d seen good numbers in Heaton Park.
Chaffinch ‘Very common and breeds.’ Nowadays: Still resident in the Dene and other Heaton parks and gardens, but, again, is said to be in decline, possibly because of disease.
House Sparrow ‘Very common. A pair of pure white sparrows, which had evidently just left the nest, once appeared on the lawn of Jesmond Dene House. The family was away at the time, but one of our maids, in some mysterious way, managed to capture them. She amused us afterwards by saying they looked like angels amongst their darker brethren. Poor little things! They paid the penalty of their beauty by dying a martyr’s death.’ Nowadays: While still a common sight in the author’s north Heaton garden, Mike Cook reports that, although a common resident until 2005, they are now only occasionally recorded on the periphery of the Ouseburn parks.
Starling ‘Very common and increasing species. Nests every year. It is curious to think that sixty years ago it was, comparatively speaking rare.’ Nowadays: More common in the streets and gardens of Heaton than in the Ouseburn parks themselves.
Blackbird ‘Common and breeds. I have found many nests of this species placed on the ground on the banks of the burn in the grounds of Jesmond Dene House.’ Nowadays: Very common, of course, in the Dene and in other parks and gardens.
Blue Tit ‘Common and breeds’. Nowadays: A beautiful bird but such a common sight at feeders and in nest boxes that only artist, Sophie Foster, has mentioned them on Twitter in the context of Jesmond Dene. She found an abandoned nest, which she took home to photograph and study to understand how it was constructed and the materials used.
Great Tit ‘Common and breeds’. Nowadays: Again very common but neither the majority of our birders nor the Twitter community thought it notable enough to mention specifically.
Wren ‘Common and breeds’. Nowadays: It’s a secretive bird which tends to lurk in the undergrowth and so perhaps more common in and around the Dene than many people realise.
Rook ‘Common resident. There was a rookery near the Banqueting Hall till quite lately but I fancy this has been deserted. A small one was started some years ago in the grounds of Jesmond Dene House but as it was just above the chicken pen it was discouraged.’ Nowadays: Only recorded very occasionally flying over.
Redwing ‘Arrives in large numbers in the autumn.’ Nowadays: Still seen in winter. In March 2017, Gareth Kane tweeted ‘Flock of redwing in a beautifully sunlit Heaton Park this morning.’ Mike Cook suggests checking out yew trees with berries in autumn.
Fieldfare ‘As above.’ Nowadays: Another winter visitor to be seen in and around Heaton occasionally, especially during harsh weather. Marek Bidwell photographed one on a crab apple tree during Beast from the East in March 2018. Mike Cook says they’re most likely to be seen around the edges of Paddy Freeman’s playing fields.
Hooded Crow ‘Regular winter visitant.’ Nowadays: Not recorded by our birders – in the UK, breeding birds are confined to the far north and west, although apparently migratory birds can occasionally be spotted on the east coast of England. Interesting that they were once more common.
Coal Tit: ‘Quite common, though I don’t think we have seen a nest’. Nowadays: Still resident in the Dene and the wider area, although only visiting birder, Sam Porter, thought to mention a sighting on Twitter last October.
Jackdaw ‘Still fairly common’. Nowadays: Resident in the Ouseburn parks and seen regularly around Heaton.
Cuckoo ‘Regularly heard each year. In 1915 they appeared to be very plentiful, being heard and seen almost daily during the season. One was caught in the nets set to protect the gooseberries…’ Nowadays: No reported sightings in and around the Dene but the author heard one this May in Rising Sun Country Park, which isn’t too far away so listen carefully while there’s less traffic noise.
Spotted Flycatcher ‘Regular summer visitant. EC: I was walking along a path by the burn when I saw in an oak tree a shabby old blackbird’s nest… when I went to examine it, a flycatcher flew off and I found a neat new nest had been built inside the blackbird’s, like the lining of an entrée dish.’ 2020: Bred in the Dene up to about 2003 but not recorded since then.
Linnet ‘Common. Much commoner in past years when the Dene was less formally laid out and there were more patches of gorse and bramble.’ Nowadays: No recent reports even though the RSPB says, ‘There are concentrations along the east coast from Kent to Aberdeen’ including in parks and gardens. The linnet is, however, another bird in long term decline.
Greenfinch ‘Common though not quite so much as formerly when it used to breed very plentifully.’ Nowadays: Perhaps the same could be said today. They are seen in Heaton’s parks and gardens but they’re another species which has declined, partly because of disease.
Goldcrest (‘Golden Crested Wren’, as Noble calls it) ‘Seen every winter as recently as January 1928.’ Nowadays: Although tiny and difficult to spot, resident in and around the Dene. James Common posted a photograph on Twitter during snowy weather in March 2018: ‘This Goldcrest spent a good quarter-hour feeding in the lower branches of Holly in Heaton Park this afternoon. One of the species hardest hit by bad weather, it was promising to see it nab a few morsels’.
Willow Warbler (‘Willow Wren’, Noble calls it) ‘Still nests regularly. Miss Adamson: I saw such a pretty sight the other day. I was watering my begonias with a hosepipe… when a little willow wren came and bathed in the spray. It flew onto the apple tree nearby and sang its thanks and then came back and finished its bath.‘ Nowadays: A summer migrant which bred in the Dene until the turn of the century but now just recorded on migration. James Common reported one in Heaton Park on 10 April 2020.
Garden Warbler ‘Not uncommon. We found a nest of this species many years ago.’ Nowadays: No recent records although, as they sound like blackcaps and are difficult to spot, they may go unreported.
Woodpigeon ‘Fairly common’ is all Noble had to say. Nowadays: Most of our contemporary birders didn’t think to mention it at all and nobody has excitedly posted a sighting on Twitter but if they had they may have simply said ‘ubiquitous’. The woodpigeon has increased in numbers by some 87% in the last thirty years or so. In the countryside, it’s said to have benefited from the cultivation of oil seed rape but here in Heaton, it’s one of the birds that has gained most from our increasing provision of food on bird tables.
Bullfinch ‘ Not uncommon. Nested within the last few years and seen in 1917.’ Nowadays: A few resident pairs in the Dene. James Common photographed one in Heaton Park during the harsh early spring of 2018 ‘Bullfinch from Heaton Park this afternoon – appeared grateful for the sunflower seeds placed out by a kind local. Who wouldn’t be in this weather?’ They also love the plum trees in Iris Brickfield, especially in early spring.
Tawny Owl ‘This bird is, I think, more plentiful in the Dene than formerly. From the fact it can be heard all year round, I fancy it may still be considered a breeding species… When I was a boy, this bird always came under the disgusting denomination of vermin and was ruthlessly destroyed. [It] does occasionally take birds but makes up for this by the enormous quantity of rats and mice it destroys.’ Nowadays: More often heard than seen but Gareth Kane reported seeing one by the Ouseburn in November 2012 and Marek Bidwell has had one in his Heaton backyard, although he says they’re more often to be seen or heard in the tall trees at the bottom of Jesmond Vale Lane.
Woodcock ‘There are generally one or two seen every year on autumn migration. Some years ago, I saw one quite unconcernedly feeding on the lawn of Jesmond Dene House’. Nowadays: A rare winter visitor but Anthea James reports seeing one in her North Heaton garden and Gavin Dudley has seen one on Shields Road!
Wood Warbler (‘Wood wren’j ‘Occasionally seen.’ Nowadays: Rarely recorded on migration. Mike Cook saw one in May 2002.
Kestrel ‘Still occasionally seen. Some years ago we had high hopes that it might breed in the quarry of Jesmond Dene House.’ Nowadays: Mike Cook says that they bred in a ruin at Castles Farm until 1996 but now only occasionally sighted. In November 2015, birdwatcher ‘Lophophanes’ tweeted that he’d seen a kestrel with a rat in the Dene, his first sighting of one there ‘for ages’.
Redstart ‘We used to see the redstart every year and a pair nested in our garden more than once’. Nowadays: Gavin Dudley saw one in his High Heaton garden in the 1990s.
Sedge Warbler ‘Some thirty five years ago I remember finding no less than three nests in one afternoon.’ Nowadays: No recent reports.
Chiffchaff ‘Have not heard or seen it for some years but I heard its note constantly in the sixties.’ Nowadays: It appears that chiffchaff is a success story over recent years as the distinctive onomatopoeic call of this summer visitor is regularly heard in all of Heaton’s parks from March onwards. Tom Middleton photographed one in Iris Brickfield in April 2015 and they have been heard by all our correspondents in and around the Dene this spring.
Grasshopper Warbler ‘I remember this bird’s curious note as one of my earliest recollections. It must have bred regularly during the sixties as we heard it year after year.’ Nowadays: Mike Cook recorded one in Jesmond Vale in July 2007.
Whitethroat ‘Used to nest fairly frequently in the Dene but I have not myself seen a nest or bird here for some years.’ Nowadays: The last one recorded by Mike Cook was in June 1996.
Magpie ‘Often seen in the late sixties. I remember a nest in a clump of high trees at a spot not far from the east end of Armstrong Bridge.’ Nowadays: Amazing to think it was still uncommon in Heaton even thirty to forty years ago but a success story over the last few decades and one of the easiest to spot birds in the Dene and throughout Heaton.
Brambling (‘Mountain Finch‘ as Noble referred to it) ‘One roosted regularly all through the winter in a shrub outside the library window of Jesmond Dene House.’ Nowadays: A sporadic winter visitor. Gavin Dudley recalls seeing a flock in Heaton Park in the 1990s.
Nightjar ‘This bird was not uncommon years ago, I remember that my father shot one within yards of the fence on the east side of the Dene.’ Nowadays : A nocturnal summer visitor to Britain not reported in Heaton in recent years. They are normally found on heathlands, moorlands, in open woodland with clearings and in recently felled conifer plantations.
Treecreeper (Simply ‘Creeper’ Noble calls it) ‘Not very common.’ Nowadays: Resident in the Dene and Heaton and Armstrong Parks. Dick Gilhespy posted a photograph on Twitter in March 2017.
Goldfinch ‘Seen in the grounds of Jesmond Dene House a few years ago. Nested two years in succession in a pear tree at Craghall, 1911 and 1912. The nest… was given by me to the Hancock Museum’. Nowadays: Now commonly seen and heard in the parks and gardens of Heaton, they are a bird that has done well in towns and cities during recent years, spotted at just 8% of feeders in 1972 but by 2012 were seen at 87% of them.
Marsh Tit ‘Somewhat rare. Seen in the quarry of Jesmond Dene House in 1916’. Nowadays: A one off sighting for Noble and in recent years neither marsh nor willow tits, which look very similar, have been seen locally by our birders. Despite their name, marsh tits are most often found in broad leaf woodland, and also copses, parks and gardens so, in theory, the Dene would suit them, although they are said to be more common in southern England.
Sparrowhawk ‘I have not seen this bird for some years’. Nowadays: Another 21st century success story! Resident in the Ouseburn parks and often seen around Heaton. In January 2013, Gareth Kane tweeted ‘Saw female sparrowhawk hunting long tailed tits in Heaton Park this morning.’ And in October 2017, James Common noted ‘ Sparrowhawk twisting and turning through the chimney pots of central Heaton just now in pursuit of a pigeon. Awesome to see!’
Tree Pipit ‘I have not seen this bird for many years. In 1869, I found a nest with 5 eggs in it above the Flint Mill.’ Nowadays: Not reported by our present day ornithologists but, as the RSPB describes its habitat as newly planted conifers or open heath in western UK, that’s perhaps not surprising. Again, Armstrong’s young plantations may have briefly suited it in the 1860s.
Blackcap ‘This bird was pointed out to me by John Hancock when I was a very small boy. Nest seen by LA and EC for several years.’ Nowadays: Although, blackcap is historically a summer visitor, increasing numbers overwinter in Britain. In January 2015, Marek Bidwell noted: ‘Female #blackcap on my feeders in #heaton #newcastle; last sighting on 12th Jan 2014 almost exactly a year ago’ but also in April 2016, ‘Lophophanes’ tweeted ‘ Male blackcap singing Jesmond Dene, first of the spring.’
Hawfinch ‘Seen by me two or three times and always when the yew berries were ripe.’ Nowadays: Hawfinch are now among Britain’s rarest / most difficult to spot resident birds and haven’t been reported in Jesmond Dene since the 1980s.
Icterine Warbler ‘Shot in the garden of Crag Hall about twenty five years ago by the gardener. This specimen… [was] presented to the Hancock Museum.’ Nowadays: No recent reports but clearly rare back in the day too – and made rarer by the shooting!
But there are also woodland birds seen nowadays that George Noble and friends didn’t mention seeing at all between the 1860s and 1930:
Collared Dove: Even if you don’t know what they look like, you’ll be familiar with their call which sounds like ‘U-NIIII-TED’! Not recorded as breeding in Britain until the 1950s, they are now common throughout Heaton but have declined in the parks, now being more likely to be spotted on roofs and in gardens.
Long-tailed Tit: Numbers have risen nationally since the 1980s and that certainly seems to be the case in Heaton, where acrobatic flocks are a fairly common sight in our parks and increasingly gardens.
Jay: Rare before 2003 but now breeding. All our present day birders and many Twitter users report seeing jays in the Dene and local parks.
Nuthatch: Resident in the Ouseburn parks. Marek Bidwell says they especially like pecking at the old walls on Jesmond Vale Lane.
Great Spotted Woodpecker: Its distinctive drumming is often heard, particularly in Armstrong Park. Geoff Forrester managed to photograph this bird at its nest near Pets’ Corner.
Ring-necked Parakeet: Britain’s only naturalised parrot, despite many having escaped from private collections, only began to breed in the UK in the late 1960s. They spread north from the south east and, having been first recorded in 2014, they have probably been breeding in Heaton Park for the last couple of years.
Waxwings: These beautiful winter visitors tend to be seen in larger numbers in Britain, especially the east side, when harsh winter weather affects their native Scandinavia. Marek Bidwell says they are occasionally seen around the bowling green near Heaton Road. They’re also quite often seen around the Coast Road around the junction with Benfield Road. A large flock settled on telephone wires on Huntcliffe Gardens a few years ago.
Siskin: Gavin Dudley reports them being fairly regularly winter visitors to his High Heaton garden bird feeders in the 1990s. Mike Cook saw one in the Ouseburn parks in January 2019.
Red Kite: Introduced successfully to Gateshead in the early years of the twenty first century, they are occasionally seen over Heaton. Birder, Jack Bucknall, reported seeing one circling over Shields Road in June 2018.
Redpoll: A rare visitor, Mike Cook saw one in March 1997 and visiting birder, Sam Porter, tweeted about seeing one fly over Heaton and Armstrong parks in October 2019.
Harris Hawk: an escapee from captivity of this American species was first spotted in Jesmond Dene in late 2014 and often in 2015. Since then a number of escapees have been spotted, most recently in April this year.
Lesser Whitethroat: A single migrating bird seen by Mike Cook over Paddy Freeman’s lake in May 2002.
Peacock: Marek Bidwell was astonished when walking along Park Head Road a few years ago to hear ‘ the most unusual call high in a tree that made me think of a jungle. I looked up and saw a peacock.’ It turns out it had escaped from Pets’ Corner!
Buzzard: A number of our birdwatchers have reported seeng their first buzzards flying high over Heaton during 2020’s lockdown, whether that is a coincidence or a result of increased prey or birdwatchers enjoying more time staring at the sky from their yards and gardens, it’s difficult to know.
What about birds associated with the Ouseburn itself? Here are the ‘water birds’ Noble mentions, again roughly in order of how common they were.
Moorhen (‘Water Hen‘, as Noble called it) ‘Common and breeds. Although we constantly had two or three nests on stumps or stones in the burn… they seemed hardly ever to get more than one young away… I have no doubt they were taken by pike, of which there were a good many in the water or possibly rats may have been the culprits.’ Nowadays: Still common and easy to spot in and around the Ouseburn and in recent years at Iris Brickfield in North Heaton.
Pied Wagtail ‘Still quite common. Old and young birds seen together every year about the burnside.’ Nowadays: Although included in the ‘water birds’ section, they are perhaps more commonly spotted in Heaton’s streets. Gareth Kane tweeted about one on Stratford Road in snowy weather in March 2018, the ‘Beast from the East’. There’s often one around Chillingham Road and the author saw one in May 2020 on Rothbury Terrace.
Grey Wagtail ‘Fairly common. Still seen about the burnside. Used to breed regularly above the Flint Mill’. Nowadays: Often seen along the Ouseburn. Gareth Kane reported seeing one while out running in March 2013. Marek Bidwell recommends the burn near Pets’ Corner as a good place to spot one. The author saw one on the Ouseburn in May 2020 near the newish metal footbridge by the flyover.
Common Sandpiper ‘A tolerably regular summer visitant. Has bred within the last few years’. Nowadays: Gavin Dudley has seen one under the bridge by the flyover ‘but it was a long time ago’. Let us know if you’ve seen one.
Sand Martin ‘Up to about eight or ten years ago, this bird bred above the sandstone quarry at Crag Hall.’ Nowadays: Rare but Mike Cook has two records of sightings from 2003 and 2004.
Mallard (‘Wild Duck’ is the name Noble uses) ‘Used to be seen fairly frequently in hard weather, being no doubt attracted by the food for the tame ducks that my father kept’. Nowadays: Mallards are so common on and around the Ouseburn and in Paddy Freeman’s pond, that it’s hardly ever mentioned by local birders. Has definitely done well over the last century or so.
Kingfisher ‘We once saw five of these birds, three young and two old ones. Still occasionally seen… one seen at Crag Hall on 22nd November 1927. Also seen in 1929 and 1930.’ Nowadays: Regularly seen but possibly no longer breeding. In December 2019, Gareth Kane tweeted ‘Nothing like watching a kingfisher fly along the Ouseburn to lift my spirits on a Monday morning!’ and they lifted many a spirit during this year’s lockdown too. Perhaps more surprisingly, in winter 2015/16, one spent several weeks around the pond in Iris Brickfield.
Dipper ‘ I fear that this bird is perhaps not as often seen owing to the pollution of the stream from Gosforth village and the consequent destruction of the larvae upon which it fed… although ‘Miss Adamson informs me that it certainly did breed here. The nest was under the waterfall, and when she was little, her old nurse used to take her there daily to watch the birds flying out and in…’ Nowadays: There have been regular sightings since 2006. In July 2019. Marek Bidwell wrote on Twitter: ‘I spotted a #Dipper at the top of @JesmondDeneOrg this morning – it had retreated into a rocky crevice to escape the torrent of steaming water cascading down the Ouseburn, creating humidity that I would more typically associate with a tropical rain forest rather than #Newcastle.’ Earlier, in 2016, he managed to photograph a nesting pair ‘under the bridge at Cradlewell’. He has not seen them there since and says there may have been a problem with rats or vandalism.
Grey Heron ‘Seen flying so low that it can said to have been seen actually in the Dene’(Ethel Cochrane, Noble’s sister)‘ Nowadays: The occasional, mainly young, heron can still be seen in Jesmond Dene in an around the burn. Gareth Kane photographed one in November 2018. Marek Bidwell has seen one fishing near Castle Farm Road. There are also occasional sightings on Iris Brickfield.
(Red breasted) Merganser ‘Mr Alfred Cochrane tells me that in February 1929, during the very hard weather, he saw a merganser in the burn, most of which was frozen over at the time. The stream has not been frozen over more than twice in the last 40 years, at least solid enough for people to walk on the ice. The other occasion was in January 1895.’ Nowadays: More recently, Gavin Dudley has seen a pair in the Dene.
Water Rail ‘Seen in the burn at Craghall in 1910 or 1911’ (Colonel Adamson). Nowadays: A rarity just as in Noble’s time but in February 2013, a ranger posted ‘First ever film of a Water Rail in Jesmond Dene! I was really lucky to see this (only 4th ever record in the Dene) and even luckier to catch some nice feeding behaviour on film.’
Snipe ‘In February 1929 Mr Alfred Cochrane saw a snipe near the bridge in the grounds of Jesmond Dene House. Doubtless it was driven to the burnside by the extremely cold weather.’ Nowadays: A single record in August 1995.
Green Sandpiper ‘I have included this bird… although the two occurrences come somewhat outside my time limit. John Hancock in “Birds of Northumberland and Durham” stated a specimen… was killed in Jesmond Dene on the 26th July 1843 and adds … a fine specimen… found dead [at Craghall] in August 1855.’ Nowadays: No recent reports.
Little Grebe ‘Seen in the burn just above the bridge at Crag Hall in late summer of 1910 or 1911’ (Colonel Adamson). Nowadays: Still a very rare visitor but Mike Cook recorded one in December 2008.
But there are also so called ‘water birds’ that George Noble and friends didn’t see at all between the 1860s and 1930 but which have been recorded in more recent years:
Mute Swan: Occasionally sighted but this year, for the first time anyone can remember, they built a nest on Paddy Freeman’s pond, perhaps partly because council cuts and lockdown have meant more debris than usual to use for nesting material. They even made an appearance with ranger, Sarah Capes, on ‘Look North’!
Common Gull: Occasionally spotted among flocks of black-headed gulls, Mike Cook’s last record was in January this year.
Reed Bunting: They were a common sight on the reeds of the Iris Brickfield pond, certainly up to a few years ago and one year, a pair were regular visitor to garden bird feeders in the North Heaton bungalows, including the author’s.
Canada Goose: The author photographed and tweeted about seeing one in the Iris Brickfield in March 2015. It was facing down a pair of magpies. They are also occasionally seen in Paddy Freeman’s.
Coot: The author saw a coot on the pond on Iris Brickfield a few years ago. Mike Cook last saw one in the Ouseburn parks in April 2012.
Cormorant: Gareth Kane’s report in January 2020 was the latest of a number of sightings of this coastal bird.
Goosander: Marek Bidwell has seen a female at the top of the Dene near Castles Farm Road. Mike Cook’s most recent record was in January 2020.
Tufted Duck: Also seen from time to time in Paddy Freeman’s, most recently by Mike Cook this March.
Goldeneye: Gavin Dudley has seen them in Paddy Freeman’s pond. Mike Cook has recorded two in November 1991 and December 2011.
Mandarin Duck: Mike Cook reports regular sightings between November 2002 and September 2003 and sporadically until 2013.
Wood Duck: Mike Cook reports that one was a regular in the winter of 1995 and another from April 2002 to 2003.
Teal: a single report from Mike Cook in September 2011.
Curlew: Gareth Kane saw two among the beech trees in Heaton Park in the winter of 2010.
Redshank: Recorded by Mike Cook close to the stepping stones on the Ouseburn in November 2004.
Great Crested Grebe: Gavin Dudley reports seeing one in recent years.
Common Tern: A single sighting over Paddy Freeman’s lake by Mike Cook in July 2007.
Farmland (and cliff)
Noble lists a number of birds as being common on the fields on the east side of the Dene ie inHigh Heaton. From the Coast Road to Castles Farm Road, even in 1930, the only buildings shown on a map are a couple of farm houses and High Heaton Cottages on what we now call The Spinney.
Mistle (‘Missel’) Thrush ‘This bird bred year after year in the grounds of Jesmond Dene House in a tree close to the road and in full view of passers-by’. Nowadays: Still commonly found in the Dene and around Heaton, it is more a bird of open spaces than its cousin, the song thrush. In May 2020, Gareth Kane photographed a parent and young in a nest in a tree on the banks of the Ouseburn.
Swallow ‘Common and breeds’. Nowadays: The most recent records from Paddy Freeman’s are September 2015 and around that time they also used to sometimes be seen flying low over Iris Brickfield field and pond.
House Martin ‘Used to breed every year at Crag Hall.’ Nowadays: Good numbers nest in some of Heaton’s terraces and at Heaton Community Centre. They can occasionally be seen hunting insects over the trees in the parks.
Swift ‘Occasionally seen. I fancy these have become much more common over the Dene since St George’s Tower was built.’ Nowadays: Although the numbers are much smaller than even a few years ago, small numbers of swifts still return to Heaton skies and roof spaces every May.
Skylark ‘This bird was very common in all the fields on the east side of the Dene. I found a nest with three eggs on 3 May 1870. These eggs are still in my collection… the ground where they used to breed so plentifully is now covered with villas and tennis courts’ (Presumably Jesmond Park East and West and Melbury Road. Ed). Nowadays: You’d have to go to the Town Moor or Rising Sun to hear skylarks today.
Partridge ‘My father had the shooting of the fields on the east of the Dene and occasionally he got quite a good bag’. 2020: Again, you might spot them at Rising Sun or the Town Moor.
Corncrake ‘I have not heard its note for some time but it was common and bred regularly in the fields east of the Dene. I remember being told that six nests were found in one field alone when it was being mown’. Nowadays: Sadly now confined to Western Scotland and Ireland, except perhaps on migration.
Lapwing (‘Green Plover’) ‘Used to breed regularly in the fields east of the Dene. I had some eggs in my collection taken in April 1877 and marked with the words ‘taken within 10 minutes walk of Jesmond Dene House’. Nowadays: The nearest lapwing to Heaton the author has seen is by the pond behind the Wills Building, visible through a fence just before the Newcastle United training ground.
Yellowhammer ‘I found a nest on the east side of the Dene containing two eggs, many years ago but it was a very common bird in the sixties.’ Nowadays: Not reported by any of our birders in the Dene or Heaton.
Pheasant ‘Occasionally seen in former years, no doubt having strayed down from Gosforth Park, where they used to be reared in large quantities. One seen early in 1930.‘ Nowadays: Anthea James reports seeing one once in her North Heaton garden. Mike Cook has recorded two, in April 1994 and June 2015.
Quail ‘My father shot one in the sixties, the skin of which I had for a long time in my possession. This bird was killed within a few yards of the Dene fence.’ Nowadays: No reports.
Black-headed Gull; Herring Gull; Lesser Black-backed Gull. Noble lists these three birds together and comments ‘I do not know how far these birds may be considered as birds of the Dene. They are seen in great quantities every winter flying close over the Dene and I think they occasionally alight in the field opposite the old Flint Mill. When the Dene was in the country, they often pitched in the surrounding fields’. Nowadays: Gulls are a common sight all year round throughout Heaton. Large flocks of black-headed gulls can be seen on Paddy Freeman’s playing fields and Iris Brickfield in winter; herring gulls can be seen year round in both parks and around Heaton roof tops; lesser black-backed is now a summer visitor and becoming more common.
However, there are also ‘farmland’ (and ‘cliff’) birds that George Noble and friends didn’t see at all between the 1860s and 1930:
Feral Pigeon: Descended from the rock dove, a farmland bird, which have been bred in captivity for many years and been very successful in their return to the wild, creating a new habitat in city streets as well as parks and gardens. The white ones are descendants of the occupants of a dovecote that used to be in Pets’ Corner. Did George Noble really not see any up until 1930 or did he not think they really counted?
Stock Dove: Distinguished from feral pigeons in flight by their lack of a white rump and from wood pigeons by their lack of a white patch on the side of their neck and white band on their wings. Their songs differ too. Resident throughout the Ouseburn parks.
Carrion Crow Only fairly recently separated as a species from the closely related Hooded Crow, which Noble did see, but, unlike its cousin, now ubiquitous all year round.
Greylag Goose: Mike Cook recorded one in January 2000.
Peregrine Falcon: Local naturalist, James Common, has reported several sightings from his home in Heaton’s terraces, including via this tweet in December 2018: ‘Peregrine silhouetted overhead at first light, Herring Gulls going beserk. My second record this Winter on my street in Heaton…’
Sir George Noble and friends recorded 74 different species in the almost 60 years between the 1860s and 1930, 58 of which were reported by our local birders in the 30 or so years between 1990 and 2020. Of those species not recorded in more recent times, 11 were considered by Noble to be common at some point during his recording period.
In addition, our birders recorded some 35 species that Noble and friends didn’t see, around 10 of which we could classify as very or relatively common and 25 rare.
So somewhat surprisingly, the final score is Noble 76 Nowadays 93. We have a number of advantages, not least of high speed communications to report sightings and social media on which those sightings can be permanently recorded. We also stretched the geographical area covered a little more than Noble did. But on the other hand, Noble and his friends and relatives had the advantage of actually living in the Dene itself.
We can argue all day about the numbers but what is clear is that Jesmond Dene and the other parks of Heaton are a precious historic and environmental resource, which we should both enjoy and do our very best to conserve for future generations.
Researched and written by Chris Jackson of Heaton History Group with huge and much appreciated input from our local birders, Marek Bidwell, Michael Burnie, Mike Cook, Gavin Dudley, Geoff Forrester, Anthea James and Gareth Kane, along with additional assistance from David Noble-Rollin and Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club and the many Twitter users mentioned in the text.
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