Mud on the floor. Excrement coating the walls (mostly kittiwakes'). Dark. Dank. Very dank. An unlikely origin for our programme for this year’s Being Human Festival. But we were inside one of the towers of the Tyne Bridge, gathered to hear a series of talks about verticality in urban design, led by Newcastle University’s Architecture Research Collaborative. There was a palpable sense of excitement among the audience - and indeed the convenors - about the research being presented, but also at having entered into a seldom seen secret space. This was Being Human 2016. And it was there that we began our planning for our ambitious series of events designed to connect as many people as possible to other unfamiliar places, and hidden histories, along the River Tyne.
Everyone knows that Newcastle is a city that draws its identity from its river: the Romans’ Pons Aelius, the coal trade down the river and onto London, shipbuilding, the regenerated quayside, ‘Fog on the Tyne’, the Tyne Bridge itself, that 400-metre recumbent Capital D that celebrates its ninetieth birthday on 10 October this year. For our Newcastle University Being Human hub we wanted to look further, both upstream and down, from the river’s origins to its endings. This is why we’ve titled our series ‘From the Source to the Sea’. That means presenting research that explores the river, and its impact on the humans who have lived in its catchment, all the way from the Northumbrian uplands, through the city, out into the North Sea. It also means actually taking our research out of Newcastle – upriver, to a venue in the rural heart of the Tyne Valley; and then following the current back east, to venues at the coast. And indeed even beyond the coast if you choose to join the walking tour that will take you out along the feat of engineering that is the pier at North Shields, jutting 900 meters out into the waves. (Wrap up warm: this is mid-November we’re talking about.)
Our journey starts at The Sill, the new National Landscape Discovery Centre, located in the tiny hamlet of Once Brewed, deep in the South Tyne valley. Here, historians, hydrologists, geographers, planners and storytellers will be gathering to think about the river’s place in the changing environment and in culture. The Tyne has been written about for centuries, celebrated for its rugged rural beauties. But it’s also the epitome of an industrial river: ground zero, one might say, of the Anthropocene (the epoch – our epoch – in which humans have permanently altered the earth’s systems). A week later, and 60 miles away at South Shields Sailing Club, we’ll be exploring similar themes but from a marine perspective, thinking about how the region’s industrial past has written itself even onto the seabed. In between, we’ll be going underground, with a tour along the Victoria Tunnel, first designed to transport coal down to waiting ships on the river; tracing the path of one of the Tyne’s urban tributaries in the footsteps of creative writers; and exploring how the region as a whole can be read as both ending (the end of England, when viewed from the south, before unruly Scotland) and hence also an origin for modern notions of Englishness (as Paul Readman will argue in his public lecture).
Our final event takes us back to one of the sources of the river, to Kielder, where the North Tyne was dammed in 1982 to form Britain’s biggest reservoir. Just before the valley was flooded, a young Kathryn Tickell went with her father to visit each abandoned house. There they played, for one last time, the folk tunes that had animated those dwellings through dozens of generations. Kathryn and her band, together with the author David Almond, will recreate that moment through music and readings, inviting us to think, from yet another angle, about the long and complicated relationship between a river and its people.
These are just some highlights. There’s more besides - all of it of interest to anyone intrigued by how a river entwines itself with people’s lives and shapes the places through which it flows. Happy 90th birthday to the Tyne Bridge! But there’s a lot more to the River, its places and its people, its history and its future, than just that single most iconic of its crossings.
Image copyright: main image courtesy of Newcastle University