Newcastle is changing

Above ground, the English city of Newcastle is changing. The symbols of industry have shifted from the practical to the nostalgic.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

Updated:

Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle, England

Above ground, the English city of Newcastle is changing. The symbols of industry have shifted from the practical to the nostalgic.

The ports, the mining, the shipbuilding, the manufacturing – it all once defined this northern centre.

But now Newcastle is building a new reputation represented by a modernisation of the shells leftover from the bust of the industrial boom.

Good examples are everywhere – such as the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in an old flour mill building on the Tyne River. One of the areas where this modernisation is particularly flourishing, though, is in the Ouseburn Valley.

It’s just a few minute’s drive from the centre of Newcastle although good bike paths and a nice walkway along the river make it easily accessible in a variety of ways.

Ouseburn Valley and Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle England

The valley was once the cradle of Newcastle’s industrial revolution but it fell into disuse in the middle of the previous century. Buildings became derelict, the canal once used to transport goods became polluted, and the empty parklands became rubbish tips.

Ouseburn Valley and Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle England

But then the artists started to move in. The empty buildings provided cheap and spacious areas for painters, musicians and performers. Colour began to appear in the drab husks of heritage.

Ouseburn Valley and Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle England

More recently, with the boom of the technology age, the digital creatives saw the potential in the area.

The interiors of the buildings were redeveloped into modern offices and small digital agencies, boutique architecture firms, shared workspaces and cultural organisations filled up these spaces.

The work going on inside the walls would seem foreign to those who constructed these buildings but the names retain the historical link – The Biscuit Factory, The Mushroom Works, North Grange Glass, Cobalt Studios.

Ouseburn Valley and Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle England
Ouseburn Valley and Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle England

As I walk around the Ouseburn Valley one afternoon, windows into the buildings give me glimpses of young trendy professionals working in the shared spaces.

A boat tied up the side of the canal promotes Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books.

There’s a community farm with animals and crops…

A music venue is preparing for a gig later in the evening while a pub across the road is promoting traditional ales…

And construction of apartment blocks on the edges of the area demonstrates the growing popularity of the residential opportunities.

Ouseburn Valley and Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle England

Above ground, the changes are pronounced. But below ground, the history runs deep – quite literally.

Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle, England

In one corner of the Ouseburn Valley precinct is a red metal door cut into a wall. Walking past, you might not think too much of it. But if you were to open it and go inside, you would find a passageway to Newcastle’s past.

Ouseburn Valley and Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle England

This is one of the entranceways to the Victoria Tunnel, a narrow long passage that stretches for 2.5 kilometres under the city.

It was built in the 1840s to transport coal down to the river. For twenty years, wagons would roll from the top of the tunnel, down a slight incline, laden with coal to waiting boats.

The empty (and much lighter) wagons were winched back to the top.

It was closed in 1860 but stayed untouched. It was so structurally sound that during the Second World War it was used as an air raid shelter for the residents of Newcastle.

Many nights a siren would sound and the war-weary would descend to one of the tunnel entrances and spend the evening below ground.

Can you imagine cowering under the low narrow arch of bricks, shivering from the northern English winter, the sound of bombs exploding above you?

Ouseburn Valley and Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle England

Of course you can’t. Luckily most of us alive today have not experienced that. But several years ago the tunnel reopened again – this time for tourists.

It is now possible to get a small taste of what it’s like to be inside this artery of Newcastle which has helped the city survive in more than one way.

The only way to access Victoria Tunnel is through a guided tour, which is run by the non-profit Ouseburn Trust. Although this is becoming a very popular tourist attraction, there is something comforting about how non-touristy it is.

The guides are all volunteers who donate their time because they are passionate about Newcastle’s history. The entrance fees are low and are merely to cover costs (£5 for adults and £2 for children).

Ouseburn Valley and Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle England

There are speakers within the tunnel to add some sound effects to replicate the different periods of the site’s story. But other than that, nothing has been done to it.

Each member of the tour is given a hardhat and a torch – luckily. There are no lights in the tunnel so the torch is vital. And the roof is quite low at points so the hardhat is very much appreciated!

Only 700 metres of the tunnel are included in the walk – but that’s more than enough.

It can take a while to shuffle along in the dark and it’s really the stories that make the experience once you’ve seen and felt the tunnel for yourself. The construction is fascinating but it’s the history that’s most interesting.

Ouseburn Valley and Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle England
Ouseburn Valley and Victoria Tunnel, Newcastle England

In some ways, it reflects what is happening above ground. A piece of infrastructure built for the coal industry was adapted almost a century later to respond to the needs of the community.

In the case of Victoria Tunnel, it was as protection during a war. For the rest of the buildings around its entrance here in the Ouseburn Valley, it’s to survive another crisis – a financial one.

Above ground, the English city of Newcastle is changing. With the times.

How much does it cost to visit Victoria Tunnel?

Victoria Tunnel costs £5 for adults and £2 for children.

When is Victoria Tunnel open?

Victoria Tunnel tours run at the following times:

  • Thursdays at 6.30 pm;
  • Fridays at 10.30 am and 1.30 pm;
  • Saturdays at 10 am and 1 pm (plus some weeks at 3.30 pm);
  • and some Sundays at 1 pm and some Wednesdays at either 10.30 am or 1.30 pm.

Where can you organise a tour?

You can book tickets by heading the Osbourne Trust website.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of NewcastleGateshead but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

15 thoughts on “Newcastle is changing”

  1. I have heard so many cool things about Newcastle over the past few years. I wish I had managed to make it up there when I was living in London. Definitely on my list of places to visit next time I am in that part of the world.

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    • It was a really cool place. I would love to have spent a bit longer and maybe set up base for a little bit in one of those creative share sites. Oh well… there’s always time! 🙂

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  2. I love it when cities bring derelict things back into life. A few former coal mines in Germany have been turned into restaurants, art workshops and even public swimming pools for example. Looks like a great little tour.

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  3. I’ve heard some good things about Newcastle, things above the ground. But I’ve never heard of this tunnel. Such a nice place to learn the history of the city and experience how it was like for the locals during the war. It appears to me, though, that many English cities are transforming themselves from their past industrial glories to a more dynamic and challenging future, with varying degrees of success.

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    • The tunnel is becoming quite a popular tourist attraction but it’s definitely not well-known. That’s part of the charm, I think. I really love the idea that things are changing above it but there’s still this passage to the past. And you’re right that many cities in England are trying to transform – Newcastle is a great example of how it’s been done well and been successful.

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    • I feel like they had to make a really conscious decision to start turning things around (although now a lot of it is happening quite organically). I guess it’s difficult for some of those cities to admit the truth that an industry has died and they need to innovate to survive. I agree with you – kudos to Newcastle for their attitude!

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      • Hello Michael, I knew about the tunnel 62 years ago , I served my time as electrician in Ouse street with a company called northern electrics this was a three story building, the top two flats were residential the bottom our premises. At the rear there was a garden which only had access through the door at the front the through a yard at the back of the garden there was a door this lead into a tunnel this I believe the one in you topic. Next door to our building there was a haulage company by the name of Rankin Haulage across the road was Maynard Sweets and Steneberg Haulage. I,m 80 now and sadly I cannot remember every thing as clear as I use to. Hope this is of some use rags JLM.

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