Today, Jesmond Dene and the adjoining Armstrong Park and Heaton Park are used by local people and visitors to enjoy walking and other leisure activities. But it was not always like this. In earlier times, over a period of many hundreds of years, there were water mills in the Ouseburn Valley to grind corn from local farms. Later, with the coming of the Industrial Revolution these rural mills were joined by other industries and the whole valley was a hive of activity.
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. The Ouseburn valley became covered in a dense forest of oak, ash, holly and hazel and this tree selection can still be seen today, particularly near Castles Farm Bridge at the North end of the Dene, although other species are intermixed. It would have remained a quiet wooded valley for thousands of years and been populated by bears, beaver, wolves and wild boar.During the last several hundred years, improved farming methods and the beginnings of industrialisation began to see some woodlands being cut down to satisfy the growing demand for timber and farmland, especially where the landscape was relatively flat and accessible.
It is probable that the steep sided valley we know as Jesmond Dene has always been wooded, but gradually, industries crept in and by the 19th century the Dene was home to watermills, various quarries and pits and an iron foundry. Prior to the mid 1800s the woodland was probably more straggly than today and interspersed with a heavy undergrowth of gorse, brambles and the like.
In the 1850s William George Armstrong (later Lord Armstrong) the armament manufacturer, (later Lord Armstrong of Cragside, Northumberland) bought up large areas of the valley. With his wife, he enclosed the land and transformed it into the landscaped parkland that we know today. With his fascination for water it is no surprise that he altered the river. A large waterfall, weirs and rock islands were created near to the mill, along with several bridges including the one from which to view the waterfall, and a network of footpaths. The waterfall is the biggest alteration to the river and was a result of blasting out the river bed downstream, while building up the area upstream. He also had a bridge installed to enable viewing of the waterfall. They additionally introduced exotic non-native species of trees and shrubs such as cedars, junipers, Californian Redwoods and the rhododendron.
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.
Lord Armstrong’s Banqueting House
Follow our Jesmond Dene History Trail which details the fascinating heritage of Jesmond Dene and Lord Armstrong’s deep involvement in its creation.
Jesmond Dene History Trail
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 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 walkup 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 a luxury hotel: Jesmond Dene House hotel.
Beyond Jesmond Dene House lies another Dobson-designed building which has associations with the Dene – Jesmond Towers. Once a girls’ convent school and now a private residence, 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.
Jesmond Dene’s ruined watermill
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.
Jesmond Dene mill, circa 1900. Via Library of Congress USA
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. Unfortunately it was badly damaged by the Home Guard, when they were practising using explosives in the Second World War.
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 diversmiracles, 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.