Old Newcastle

The Black Gate and the Castle Keep

The Black Gate and the Castle Keep

I fell in love with Newcastle many years ago when I had to attend business meetings just outside the city. On one occasion, as I was walking back to my hotel, one of my northern colleagues pointed out the historic features of ‘Old’ Newcastle to me whilst our colleagues continued to talk business. It was on this occasion that I first heard about the historic Castle Keep and the remains of the curtain walls that were part of the city’s medieval castle’s defences.

The castle keep is a fine example of a Norman keep; it was built by Henry II between 1168 and 1178. The Castle Keep website tells us that “it stands within a site that also contains: an early motte and bailey castle built by Robert Curthose, the son of William the Conqueror: an Anglo-Saxon cemetery and a Roman Fort (Pons Aelius)”. The keep is situated in a naturally defensible site on a steep sided promontory overlooking the River Tyne. I enjoyed spectacular views of Newcastle from the rooftop.

Near the castle keep is the Black Gate which is one of the last additions to the castle’s mediaeval defences. It was built between 1247 and 1250 as the gatehouse of the barbican, a walled, defensive, entrance passage that led to the castle’s north gate. Over the years the black gate has had many different uses and has been much altered over time. The name Black Gate has nothing to do with the gate’s appearance, it derives from Patrick Black, a London merchant who occupied the building in the first half of the 17th century.

St. Nicholas Cathedral

St. Nicholas Cathedral from the Castle Keep

Not far from the Black Gate is the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas which started life as a humble parish church, only becoming a cathedral in July 1882 when, due to the rapid growth of the industrial population, Newcastle separated from the ancient diocese of Durham. Soon after the castle was built, the first parish church was built on the site where we now see St Nicholas’ Cathedral. The first, wooden building was rebuilt in stone towards the end of the 12th century and was subsequently damaged by fire on two occasions leading to repairs and other modifications over the years including the addition of the stone crown and tower in the 15th century moving the church to much the same form as we see today.

To the rear of the Cathedral, in a street that is quaintly named ‘Amen Corner’, is the curious Vampire Rabbit. The rabbit (or is it a hare?) sits atop an ornate doorway which is now the entrance to an office. Although there are many theories, nobody seems to know the meaning of the strange creature.

The city has many archaeologically interesting buildings including an elegant Edwardian shopping arcade that is contained within the triangular triple-domed Central Arcade building. The arcade is underneath a glass barrel-vaulted roof and is decorated with fabulous tile work.

For those who like art there is the Laing Art Gallery. The gallery which focuses on British oil paintings, water colours, ceramics, silver and glassware houses permanent exhibitions including an 18th-19th century gallery and the Northern Spirit Gallery that celebrates the achievements of artists and manufacturers from the North East. The gallery displays temporary exhibitions regularly.

 I have stayed in many Newcastle hotels over the years; my current hotel of choice is The Vermont. It faces The Moot Hall which has a columned portico to the front and to its rear, is based upon the Parthenon.  If you are lucky your room in The Vermont will provide you with a close-up view of the Tyne Bridge, one of several iconic bridges spanning the Tyne it links the city of Newcastle with the town of Gateshead.

The Millennium, Tyne and Swing bridges

The Millennium, Tyne and Swing bridges with the Moot Hall in the foreground

Near to the Tyne Bridge is the historic Swing Bridge opened in 1876 to replace an older Georgian bridge that prevented large vessels from moving ‘up river’.  Opening in 1849, the High Level Bridge is even older than the Swing Bridge and is the oldest of the existing bridges. It was designed by railway engineer Robert Stephenson and it has two decks; the upper for the railway and the lower for the road. A more recent addition to the line-up of bridges crossing the Tyne is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, which is a pedestrian and cycle bridge linking the waterfronts of Newcastle and Gateshead.

Tynemouth priory, castle, gun battery and coast guard station

Tynemouth priory, castle, gun battery and coast guard station

Further afield is Tynemouth with its Spanish Battery, the towering memorial statue of Admiral Lord Collingwood (Nelson’s second in command at Trafalgar) and Tynemouth Priory and Castle. The castle and priory site contains interesting historical features including gun batteries that were used in the first and second world wars and a former coast guard station (not open to the public). Within the priory church the Percy Chantry is the only part to remain complete although it has been much restored.  It has a vaulted ceiling with finely carved bosses that are well worth studying. The headland where the priory and castle ruins are situated offers spectacular views over the sea and the mouth of the river Tyne.

I have not explored all of ‘Old’ Newcastle and there is much more to Newcastle than its history. It is a vibrant city with many restaurants, pubs and clubs to explore depending on your preferred choice.

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