Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: February, 2013

Decline and rebirth in an area that it is always changing, but of which we can be so proud

As a volunteer in the West End of Newcastle a few years ago, I attended a community meeting in the Carnegie Library on Atkinson Road. About halfway through the meeting, a woman at the back of the hall declared “ I have lived in Benwell all my life. It is a marvellous place and I would never live anywhere else”

I did a double take.  Although the West End was at the heart of the industrial revolution, its recent history has been turbulent and it is not the easiest place on the eye.  What warranted  this  loyalty?

Newcastle is often described as a series of villages. I suspect the people of the East End would say much the same about Walker or Byker.  What makes us feel so proud of the area we live in? I asked this question visiting four separate exhibitions about the illustrious history of the West End  last week.

I started at the new West End  Library,  a multi purpose centre  boasting 1000 visitors a day and thankfully not under threat of closure, to see an exhibition of mining history  from Roman times. It has been produced by the Mining Institute in partnership with local residents.

 In half term week, I doubted whether many of the young people clustered round the computers would realise they were sitting on top of one of the most  prolific coalfields in the country. It is a shame that we do not value our industrial heritage and make it more apparent to the passer by. It is difficult now to recognise the remains of the Charlotte Pit just across the road from the library.

The library  houses the 17,000 photographs that comprise the West Newcastle Picture History Collection, lovingly  put together by a small group of volunteers. Pride of place goes to Jimmy Forsythe’s black and white photography of the West End before the latest phase of demolition. It  ranks amongst the finest documentary photography you can see anywhere.  The joy of the collection is the way that a vast array of photos of the buildings and people of the West End jostle along side each other in carefully catalogued binders.  Where else could you find such a comprehensive record of the last hundred years?

Then off to see the newly opened West End Stories exhibition at the Discovery Museum; an eclectic collection of objects  gathered together by the museum in partnership with community groups. They include a commemorative police baton that was used to put down the strike at Vickers in 1898 which left me wanting to know more of the industrial history of the times. There is also fascinating footage of building the Cruddas Park flats in the 1960s. The chief planning officer  smokes a pipe  in his  vast office and appears from a bygone age. The flats  are now on their way to being refurbished or demolished which underlines  how quickly the landscape can change.  

At  Denton Burn  Library, sadly facing closure in a few months time, a small exhibition of men’s lives brings home the working  conditions of  a generation ago.  Somehow, the verbatim accounts  make a greater impact than a historian’s gloss on the facts. “ In those days” Ted Clark recalls” you could walk out of one job into another” – and jobs in completely different trades –  but as Stan Brown, a shipyard worker tells us, it was “ a dangerous place” where ”safety only came in as you got more modern”. The old days are not romanticised in these accounts.

Finally, lunch in St James’ Church Hall which is being developed into the Centre for Heritage and Culture for the West End and currently showing  an exhibition of memories of war and peace. A display case contains the correspondence between the War Office and Charlie Devlin’s family who received a series of proforma letters informing them that Charlie was missing in action, taken prisoner of war and  finally repatriated. What must it have been like to have such envelopes fall through your letter box?

The exhibition  includes accounts from refugee children fleeing from Nigeria and Zimbabwe and now living in Benwell which brings the experience of war frighteningly up to date. A knitted spitfire and barrage balloon hang from the ceiling and in a case can be seen a knitted air raid shelter complete with chairs, beds and occupants – all knitted by local residents specially for this exhibition.

  In the graveyard outside, Richard Grainger’s tomb has been restored and the other gravestones cleaned up.  They remind me that the  wealthy businessmen  of Newcastle lived in the  grand houses of the West End in the nineteenth century.

The Rector of St James’, Catherine Pickford, tells me she is always struck by the stability of the community  –  people who have lived in the same street all their lives –  as much as by  the way that the West End  has coped with decline and rebirth. 

It is an area that has lived with bulldozers – and continues to do so. Scotswood is a huge brown field awaiting new housing which shows no sign of coming.  It is an area that has lost its industry – Adamsez sanitary ware and Ever Ready batteries as well as the Armstrong works – and  developed  some outstanding  community  projects like Riverside Community  Health Project and Pendower Good Neighbours Project. 

According to Judith Green from the Heritage and Environment Group, it is a “community that has experienced a turbulent and difficult history during the past half century but retains  a strong sense of local pride and confidence which includes a passion for exploring,  sharing and celebrating its amazing history.” 

Visit their exhibitions or take one of the walking heritage trails available from the Heritage Group and find out for yourself.  If we could bottle this community spirit and apply it elsewhere, the world would be a stronger place.

For information about St James’ Heritage and Environment group visit

Wouidn’t it be really nice to do absolutely nothing for Lent – at least for some of the time.


Look out for me tomorrow. I will be celebrating. It is Shrove Tuesday so I might throw a pancake party. But first, I must decide what to celebrate.

If I have fallen out with you, it could be worth tracking me down on Wednesday. I will be making amends for my wrong doing and saying sorry. Quite a long list there to address.

On Thursday, I  will set up a jar for my small change and give it all to charity on Easter Day. It is a day to be more giving.

While on Friday, I will be listening to the news and offering a prayer for those in need in troubled parts of the world.

And I will be probably be wearing a wrist band proclaiming that ‘I’m not busy’.

It is the start of Lent this week; the season of 40 days, excluding Sundays, that lead up to Easter.  Christians mark the time of Jesus’s temptation in the desert and his journey to Jerusalem where he was crucified.

Somewhat to my surprise, my church has adopted a new approach to Lent. We  are expected to be ‘nice’ to everyone around us through a series of small specific actions  prescribed in the little manual from Church House Publishing,  ‘Love Life Live Lent’. See to find out what you could be doing too.

This is a departure from the traditional sackcloth and ashes  adopted for the season of Lent. It is very nouveau Church of England; not in this case inspired by the new Archbishop but something of which he might approve. It is a campaign to live up to our ideals and act our faith in our daily lives. As Timothy told us in his New Testament letter “ do good… be rich in good works and ready to  share”.

My  friends in the happiness movement would approve.  They advocate changing your self and changing the world through small positive actions that include “doing kind things for others “ and looking for the good in those around you” .  The agenda looks very similar to the ‘LLLL’ handbook that will be my little red book for the next forty days.

 And the wristband? That is courtesy a campaign that urges us to make time and space during Lent to slow down and reflect.  ( It also has some sharp ideas about changing behaviour. For example, stop using your smart phone as an alarm clock and ban it from the bedroom. Those text and emails can wait until  after breakfast tomorrow morning

Busyness is a state of mind that has nothing to do with workload or domestic commitments.  We don’t make great decisions or experience our emotions when we are engulfed  in the minutiae of life. Perhaps I should stay off Facebook for Lent, or just catch up with my virtual friends on a Sunday night?

‘Not busy’  recommends dedicating a short measured time each to do nothing. At  Shepherds Dene we go further and  offer the chance to spend a whole  day in silence every Friday during Lent.  Our guests reflect on the opening homily, walk in the grounds, curl up with a book and go away refreshed.  A great sense of peace descends on the house and I commend the experience to you.

Does all this ‘nudging’ of our behaviour really work or is it just the spiritual equivalent of giving up chocolate for forty days? I recall the encouraging voice of my piano teacher, trying to improve the performance of a man with very limited musical ability. “ That’s very good” she would say soothingly in my ear as I plonked out my grade pieces. I have tried to adopt her practice of encouraging those around me because I know that a pat on the back does motivate me and encourage me on.

My teacher may have been over  zealous  in her praise but I did then listen to her  help as to how to play the right notes in the right order in time to the beat.  I fear I never really mastered the art of playing the piano  but I did learn the value of giving positive feedback.

Even if an outburst of kind acts and compliments can seem forced at first, they set off a chain reaction and then happen without thinking. “As Mahatma Gandhi said “ you have to be the change you want to see in the world”. And if enough people join in, the streets around my church will be transformed next week and the world the week after.

I have raced ahead of myself and flicked through the forty pages of Love Life  Live Lent to find out what is in store. Forthcoming injunctions include saving water, being a good neighbour  and listening more carefully. Daily actions will involve inviting someone I don’t know  very well round for a cup of tea and finding something I don’t use and give it away.

Amidst all this good citizenship, there is not much mention of sin or suffering. I may be old fashioned but the story of the cross involves  an honest examination of where we have failed in order to seek forgiveness. You cannot  really enter into the great joy of the resurrection on Easter morning or experience the excitement of a new chapter  opening up in your life  up without first putting some devils behind you. Lent is the time to try to  do so.

But I see no harm at all in a programme that is relevant to Christians and non Christians alike of being a light in the world and will do my best to nice for the next six weeks.

I have even realised what I can celebrate tomorrow to start the season off. Faithful readers of this column may recall that I have not been able to drive a car for the last ten months. After a long delay caused by understaffing and longwinded procedures at DVLA,  a new licence landed on the doormat just the other day. It was only after the intervention of Guy Opperman MP to whom I am very grateful.

  Guy  made an excellent speech supporting gay marriage  last week and that victory, to my mind, is a much  greater reason to celebrate. Isn’t it surprising how many things you find  to celebrate when you set your mind to it?

George Hepburn  is Warden  of Shepherds Dene   www.