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JESMOND DENE HISTORY TRAIL
To appreciate how the valley we now call Jesmond Dene was formed, it is necessary to go back some 300 million years when this area was one vast delta. As time passed, the waters of the delta receded, leaving behind massive deposits of sediment which, over the years, became compounded to form the shale and sandstone layers present in the Dene today. Following the Ice Age, the great glaciers melted and many rivers and streams formed which cut their way to the sea. The Ouseburn was one of those glacial streams and played its part in the formation of the Dene. Rising on Callerton Fell, near Ponteland, some eight miles from the Dene and in its early days probably a raging torrent, the Ouseburn on its journey to the River Tyne gouged the deep valley which now forms the Dene. The warmer climate also brought vegetation and over the years large areas of Northumberland became covered with great forests which, as man industrialised the region and farming methods improved, were cut down to satisfy the varying need for timber and increasing need for land.
It is probable that the area we know as Jesmond Dene has always been wooded but, prior to the mid 1800s the wood was probably straggly and interspersed with a heavy undergrowth of gorse, brambles and the like. The trees present were mostly oak, ash, holly and hazel, all indigenous to this country, and this tree selection can still be seen near Castles Farm Bridge at the North end of the Dene.
In the 1850s, William George Armstrong (later Lord Armstrong) the armament manufacturer, acquired at various times the land which now forms Jesmond Dene. He enclosed the land and planted it with exotic trees and shrubs, laid paths and built bridges. Lord Armstrong used the Dene as his own private parkland but allowed access to it by the public twice weekly, on payment of a small entrance fee which went to the local hospital. In 1883 Lord Armstrong presented the main area of Jesmond Dene to the Corporation of Newcastle upon Tyne for the benefit of its citizens and in 1884, the park was formally opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales. To commemorate the occasion, the Princess planted a turkey Oak near the Banqueting Hall. This tree, now mature, can still be seen adjacent to the South end of the Banqueting Hall, near to a second tree planted by Alderman H Benson in 1933 to mark the 50th anniversary of the occasion. Since then, the Dene has remained a popular resort for the citizens of Newcastle and, despite heavy pressures put upon it, still retains a particular charm of its own.
What then can be found in and around the Dene to remind visitors of the old days? Modern times have seen the demolition of many ancient reminders of the past, but we can still find tangible remains linking the past with the present. The purpose of this the history trail is to guide the visitor to places of historical interest to be found in the Dene, and hopefuly, to awaken the romanticism to be found in all of us.
Castles Farm Bridge to the Water Wheel
The suggested starting point for this historical walk is at Castles Farm Bridge at the north end of the Dene. Standing on the bridge looking upstream, there stretches before us the extension of the Dene purchased by the City from Lord Armstrong. On the left, note the magnificent house known as Craghall. Standing in extensive grounds it was built about 1820 and is at present a home for retired people. In 1844 a gardener working in the grounds discovered two stone Cists (kists) or containers. In one was a decorated food vessel, in the other a funerary urn of a later period. Both vessels were in good condition. The discovery of the Cists is a reminder that even early man found Jesmond Dene a desirable place to live.
Turning to look downstream, on the right can be seen as glimpse of the Racquet Court; built by the Noble family for their private use as a Real Tennis court, it incorporated a 2-storey house at the western end for a tennis professional named Lambert. The building is now used mainly for badminton. Leaving the bridge, we walk up the short but steep hill and on the right, find Castles Farm. The farmhouse, a listed building, has very thick castellated walls and dates back some 250 years. There are two follies in the garden but very little is known of their history. Retracing our steps to the bridge, we enter the Dene by the East Gate and take the upper path, noting the typical English woodland as we pass through. After a short while we reach Blackberry Crags – massive sandstone cliffs festooned with ivy.
High on the far side of the valley stands Jesmond Dene House, originally built in 1822 from neo-Tudor designs by John Dobson; it was then known as Black Dene House and later renamed Jesmond Dene House. In 1871 it was taken over by Sir Andrew Noble and considerably enlarged by Norman Shaw and F W Rich. Many important guests have been entertained at the house, including Princes from Egypt and Japan, Rudyard Kipling and Admiral Lord Beatty. The house is now being converted to a luxury hotel. Beyond Jesmond Dene House lies another Dobson-designed building which has associations with the Dene – Jesmond Towers. Now a girls’ convent school, this ornately gothic style building incorporates work from about 1817 to 1833 and was bought and occupied by Lord Armstrong’s partner, Charles Mitchell, around 1870.
Turning left, we descend into a quarry which on a fine summer’s day is a veritable suntrap. The quarry, shown as Blaeberry Crags on earlier maps, was worked for sandstone which is of a very high quality and is said to have made grindstones which were shipped all over the world. Leaving the quarry by the lower path we can see on our left, high in the bankside a seam of coal – not of very high quality, but a reminder of the number of small drift mines once along the bank of the Ouseburn.
From here we rejoin the Ouseburn and keeping to the left bank, pass North Lodge, with stepping stones directly in front, and continue to Jesmond Dene Waterfall with its bridge and ruined mill. The Waterfall, an awe-inspiring sight when in full spate, was constructed in the late 1800s by the then Lord Armstrong to provide a more picturesque view. Below it stands the old Water Mill, one of many mills which bordered the Ouseburn in years past. Dating back to the 13th Century, the mill was occupied for three or four generations by the Freeman family who used it as a flour mill. Ownership then passed to a man called Pigg who ground spoiled grain into pollards, a kind of feed for pigs. The lease next transferred to a Mr Charlton who used the mill for grinding flint which was barrelled and carted to a pottery near the mouth of the Ouseburn, and the remains can still be seen of the cobbled path along which the flint was hauled; the ground flint was used in a process of putting a glaze on the finished pottery. The watermill was an overshot mill late in its life span and the last waterwheel was removed in 1978 for rebuilding and eventual replacement. The mill was bought around 1860 by Lord Armstrong from a Dr Headlam and, although it was never used as a mill from the time of its purchase, it was still in use as a dwelling house until the 1920s.
The Water Wheel to the Banqueting Hall
Travelling from the mill along the banks of the Ouseburn, we arrive at another interesting building having been known at various times as Heaton Cottage or Deepdene House. It was used for principals in the firm of Armstrong until they bought their own houses, and was occupied by the Noble family from 1861 until 1870; it adjoined an old cornmill, parts of which still remain. The young Sir Andrew Noble entered the Military Academy at Woolwich in 1847 and later joined the Royal Artillery. As a ballistics expert, he was invited by Lord Armstrong to join the Elswick Armament company and succeeded as head of the firm after Lord Armstrong’s death. Many foreign visitors were entertained at the house as potential armament buyers and the Hancock brothers, John and Albany, were often entertained as family friends. Deepdene House was the Fisherman’s Lodge restaurant for many years but is currently closed.
After leaving the shuttered Fisherman’s Lodge, we travel alongside the Ouseburn to the next bridge known as Ivy Bridge, which we cross and climb up towards the Banqueting Hall. In 1835 Lord Armstrong had built himself a house to the west of the Dene, and a separate Banqueting Hall was later built on its western side; a rather dull but imposing Italian-style building designed by Dobson in the early 1860s. The interior walls were covered with pictures and with statues in niches and on pedestals; a water-driven organ divided the main hall from the reception room and long windows gave a series of glimpses of the Dene outside. Because so much of the Banqueting Hall was below the level of the road, a separate gatehouse, designed by Norman Shaw, was built in 1870. Sadly, Lord Armstrong’s house no longer exists and it is some years since any ball or other public function has been held in the Banqueting Hall; the remains of the latter is now a controlled ruin but still presents a tribute to the architectural grandeur which was typical of Dobson’s work. A 1951 video of Jesmond Dene shows the interior of the banqueting hall.
The Banqueting Hall to St Mary’s Chapel
Cross Jesmond Dene Road opposite the Banqueting Hall and enter a small copse by the wooden gate provided. The copse, a small Dene formed by the course of a stream called the Moor Crook Letch, contains the remains of the Chapel of Our Lady of Jesmond or St. Mary’s Chapel. The oldest church or chapel in Newcastle, this was probably built by the Grenville family, one-time Lords of Jesmond, early in the 12th Century, from which date are the remains of the pillars of the chancel arch.
The chapel is first mentioned in 1272 in an Assize Roll which records how five clerics helped a criminal escape from Newcastle Gaol – first to Jesmond Chapel and then to sanctuary at Tynemouth. Although the chapel was at one time in the possession of the Priors of Tynemouth, division of the manor between three sisters in 1333 led to confusion as to rights over the chapel and, at one time, three separate Chantries were maintained by their descendents; this confusion resulted in much scandal and damage, including stolen jewellery and chalices and in 1364, Edward III took claim. In 1549 the Mayor and Burgesses of Newcastle paid £144.13.4d to Edward VI to purchase the chapel and adjoining Hospice and in turn sold them to Sir Robert Brandling.
The Chapel has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries because of the divers miracles, reputed to have taken place among the sick who attended the Chapel and the neighbouring Holy Well. Even today there is an organised pilgrimage to the Chapel every year when a service is held in the ruins. Pilgrim street, in the centre of Newcastle, probably derives its name from being the route the pilgrims took on their journey to the Chapel. Following the Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries, the building thought to have been a hospital was rebuilt as a house, and the Chapel became a barn and stable; it passed through several hands until bought by Lord Armstrong who gifted it to the City.
St Mary’s Chapel to Armstrong Bridge
Leaving the Chapel, we make our way to the Holy Well, which is situated some 200 yards west. On the stonehead is inscribed the word Gratia; the full inscription is, however, said to have read: Ave Maria Gratia Plena (Hail Mary full of grace). The well at one time was reputed to have been a warm spring and in cold weather a cloud of vapour issued from it – be that as it may, the waters of the present well are clear and ice-cool. The reputation gained over the centuries for miraculous cures of various ailments still remains today and people even now fill small bottles with the well’s water for its medicinal values. The well was acquired by the Corporation in 1932 and it having deteriorated considerably since then, it was decided in 1982 to renovate the site and to take the opportunity to have a full archaeological investigation. From this it appears that the doubt that existed early in the century as to the exact site of St. Mary’s Well was justified as the present structure does not date back beyond the 17th Century. There are known to have been at least two other springs in the vicinity of the Chapel and it may be that one of these at least marked the site of the original miraculous cures.
Leaving the well, we re-trace our steps to Jesmond Dene Road and walk south towards Armstrong Bridge passing on our left side the site of Stotes Hall. Stotes Hall, regretfully demolished some years ago, dated back to the 17th Century and was originally a stone-built house, one of the many erected for the yoemen of the North of England during the reigns of the late Tudors and early Stuarts. In 1607 it was rebuilt and again, in the 19th Century, it was modernised and later altered until it stood three storeys high. The house, prior to demolition, showed both Tudor and Jacobean influences. The house in the 16th Century stood on what were called the Gibson lands, and in 1658 Sir Richard Stote bought the land from Sir Francis Anderson; from that time the house became known as Stote Hall. The old house was reputed to have been a resting place for Oliver Cromwell on one of his visits to the area, but it is best known for having housed a school opened in 1760 by Dr Charles Hutton, a great mathematician.
From Stotes Hall we descend back into the Dene by Cherry walk and crossing the wooden footbridge we pass through Pets’ Corner with its display of foreign birds and animals, a delight to children for many years, and arrive at Millfield House. Originally a flourmill, parts of the house are at least 100 years old and the mill race which carried water to the mill can still be traced along the side of Red Walk in the Dene. The last occupant of the house dug up in the extensive gardens at different times, a coin of 1777 and a workman’s token of the same date. The house is reputedly haunted by the ghost of a murdered serving maid which has been seen on several occasions. The ghost has caused no alarm and is affectionately called Elvira.
Adjoining Pets’ Corner is a pleasant grassed area known as Coleman’s field, once the site of Coleman’s farm. From here we get a magnificent view of Armstrong Bridge spanning the Ouseburn valley. The bridge was presented to the citizens of Newcastle by Sir William George Armstrong and opened on 30th April 1878. The contractors for the masonry were Messrs. W E & F Jackson. It is a lattice girder bridge, 550 feet in length with a 25 foot carriageway. Varying in height from 30 to 65 feet, it is supported on seven columns 70 feet apart – each end of the bridge rested on massive masonry abutments and, despite its solid construction, presents a light and ornamental appearance.
Armstrong Bridge is a landmark held in high esteem and affectionate regard by the citizens of the city. It is a listed structure and care is taken to maintain the original character of the bridge. Recently, the west abutment has been stabilised and tapered but it remains open to cyclists and pedestrians.
Armstrong Bridge to Heaton Park
From Coleman’s Field we take the right hand path directly opposite the main gates and climb steeply up until we leave Jesmond Dene by the gate on to the approach road to Armstrong Bridge. Crossing the road we enter Armstrong Park, presented to the Corporation by Lord Armstrong in 1880, and keeping to the main path we come to a small bridge which crosses a narrow stone-faced underpass bisecting the park from east to west. This feature was build by Lord Armstrong in the late 1800s to enable a local farmer to drive his cattle through the park to the low-lying pastures bordering the Ouseburn below. From the bridge can be seen the remains of an old windmill. Nothing is known of the history of the mill but it would be one of the many which dotted the area when wind and water sources of power were at their peak. It is recorded that in 1827 there were 49 windmills, 12 watermills and 18 steam mills in and around Newcastle. At this point we leave the main path and make our way to the path below where we find, in the bankside, a stone-surrounded well. The lintel bears the inscription Ye olde well of King John. This inscription is of Victorian origin and is a typical piece of Victorian Hokum, the well having no connection with King John or the nearby ruins of the locally-called King John’s Palace, although it is said that the stone trough of the well came from there.
Rejoining the main path, we soon leave Armstrong Park and enter Heaton Park where, bearing left, we arrive at King John’s Palace. These ruins standing on high ground overlooking the Ouseburn valley are the remains of a fortified house and principal seat of Adam of Jesmond, at one time High Sheriff of Northumberland and reputed securer of Newcastle’s rights in the Town Moor. The ruins are locally known as King John’s Palace, although no part of the existing building is of the time of King John. However, in MacKenzie’s History of Newcastle of 1827, we find mention that Heaton was in the Barony of Robert De Gaugy who was highly distinguished by King John and there is a tradition that His Majesty retired, when in the North, to a fortified palace in Heaton which was the residence of this Nobleman and it may be that this tradition has caused a mix-up. There is a similar conflict with regard to a visit said to have taken place in 1299 when Edward I stayed in Heaton and gave 40 shillings to a boy bishop and his colleagues for entertaining him by singing Vespers at the feast of St. Nicholas.
Adam of Jesmond was a knight and staunch supporter of Henry III, and his house was build circa 1255. Records exist showing Adam became unpopular for embezzlement and extortion and applied to Henry for a licence to enclose, fortify and crenellate his house. Very little remains of Adam’s dwelling, just two sides of a square tower with two window openings, but it was probably as large as most fortified houses of the period. The main structure would have angled turrets and battlements surrounded by accommodation for the dependents, stalling for horses and cattle, and stores for harvest produce. The last record we have of Adam is a protection dated 1270 when Adam went on the seventh and last Crusade to the Holy Land with Prince Edward, Henry III’s son. The protection states to our beloved Adam of Gesoume, bearer of the cross, going with us and our eldest son beyond the seas in aid of the Holy Land. Adam did not return from the Crusade and the ungrateful Town allowed the house to collapse into disuse and disrepair by the late 1500s, although there was an attempt to repair it in 1911 by the Society of Antiquities.
Heaton Park was once part of the Ridley Estate and Heaton Hall stood at the south-east side; there were traces of an earlier medieval building on the site and it may well be this which is confused with King John’s Palace. Heaton Hall in 1617 was owned by Henry Babington who was visited that year by another royal person, King James I, who knighted his host when leaving. The hall was rebuilt in 1713 by one of the Ridley family when two towers were added. Nothing now remains of the hall, the site of it being under the housing at Shaftesbury Grove.
Our historical trail now ends, but as we leave and make our way through Heaton Park it is worth recalling that not far from here, along Newton Road, is the site of the terrible mining disaster at the Heaton Mains Colliery where on the 30th April 1850, workings collapsed at the lowest extremity of the mine. There were 105 persons in the pit at the time, of whom 30 escaped – 41 men and 34 boys died. The bodies of the dead are supposed to lie beneath a mound in that part of Heaton known as The Spinney, where one tree was planted for each life lost.
The trail info above is based on a booklet to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Dene’s official opening, a booklet produced by Parks & Countryside Ranger Service, Newcastle City Council. A version of the trail info is available on this PDF.