The Olympic torch arrived in Gateshead in spectacular fashion – down a zipwire from the top of the iconic Tyne bridge, to HMS Calliope, moored at Gateshead quayside. This morning it starts the day’s journey from outside The Sage, Gateshead’s spectacular concert venue. The Sage is like a concert hall from the future. It’s beautiful, with state of the art design to create superb acoustics. I’ve started going to concerts there at least once a month – I can’t get enough of the place.
The Sage is a quite new icon of the North East, opened in 2004, and the torch will pass another recent icon, the Angel of the North, the huge Anthony Gormley sculpture, erected in 1998 and overlooking main roads into Gateshead and the East Coast Main line railway line. For Geordie folk coming back from the savage south, it’s a signal that they’re almost back home to civilisation.But the torch will also pass by a much older structure that many North-Easterners considered iconic of their home, when Anthony Gormley’s great, great, great granddad were a lad. Penshaw Monument was built in 1844, as a half-sized replica of the Temple of Hephaestus, as a tribute to John George Lambton, Earl of Durham. It’s especially iconic to Sunderland-born folk like me – aka Mackems – as it features on the badge of Sunderland football club.
That meeting of past and present is very typical, I think, of this whole area. It is not, as some people think, a land of coal tips and bleakness. It’s a beautiful part of the UK, with pretty countryside in the Tyne Valley and a spectacular coastline, with lovely sandy beaches. North-Easterners who grew up building sand castles on the beach at South Shields, or Cullercoats, will merely scoff at the pebbly beaches of the south-east coast. You might have the weather, but we have the sand. Why you’re not a proper North-Easterner unless you’ve been at least nearly caught by the rising tide and trapped on Marsden Rock sea stack.
Another distinctive and old sight on the coast is Souter Lighthouse, with its famous red and white striped paint job. We lived near to Souter when I was a child. For years I believed the child’s toy of a stack of coloured rings placed on a pole was called a “souter” as my family nicknamed it that because of its vague resemblance to our famous local lighthouse.
But the region is also scarred by the past, in many ways. It was once a powerhouse of industry. The railways began with George Stephenson’s work in the area and there were extensive coalfields and many communities dependent entirely on the pits they grew up around. Ships were built on the region’s two great rivers, the Tyne and Wear. Both coal and shipbuilding are almost entirely gone now. One of my grandfathers was a miner, though had retired by the time the industry began to decline.
My other grandfather was for a time a drayman for the famous Vaux brewery in Sunderland, sadly closed in 2000. And for those of you trying to pronounce that that like “vo” in your heads, you wouldn’t get far in Sunderland with that, where it’s pronounced “vorks”. Vaux hung onto the past right up until its demise, still using traditional horse drawn drays for some beer deliveries. My grandfather worked on the drays in the 1970s and I always remember him being in a plaster cast for a couple of months, after one of the dray horses broke his leg. Dray horses are big strong beasts!
The torch heads on west as far as the historic market town of Hexham and then onto Consett, another town where a dying industry – in this case steel – changed the town and its people forever when it vanished.
It ends the day in Durham, where the past still thrives. Durham’s an ancient place, with evidence of settlement going back 4000 years, but the present city was founded in AD995. The ancient cathedral houses the remains of St Cuthbert and St Bede, making it a place of pilgrimage in the middle ages. The cathedral dates from 1093, the castle also from the 11th century. As Durham is a hill, enclosed on three sides in a meander of the river Wear, it’s a naturally defensible place, and always played a vital role in defending England from those dastardly blue maniacs from the north – the Scots.
For all its problems and the challenges its people face, after the decline of their traditional ways of life, the north-east is still a beautiful part of the country, where the past and the future intertwine.