Giants of the Landscape in the North East of England

Angel of the North

By Barry Sheppard:

As far as I’m aware, one region which has not been covered in Under a Grey Sky as of yet, is the North-East of England.  In truth, it is a place I haven’t thought about in quite a while myself, until recently.  So this edition of Under a Grey Sky will be more of a walk down memory lane than a walk of a physical nature.

The North-East of England is a place that I know quite well, having spent a couple of years living in the region in the late 90s.  I have a lot of good memories, and many more fuzzy ones, of a place which I haven’t visited in quite a while yet still occupies a special place in what passes for my heart.  One of my enduring memories of that period was when a group of us decided to go, and (unsuccessfully) explore the famous Hadrian’s Wall.  Our primary failure being that we couldn’t find it!  I still don’t know how we managed to miss a structure that goes on for 73 miles and is ten foot high in places, but safe to say the feats of Shackleton or Livingstone were in no danger of being surpassed by our hardy band of intrepid misfits.

Regardless of our failure to find this supposedly historic structure (the late Irish philosopher John Moriarty, in his epic work Dreamtime stated ‘Our eyes are for seeing hard facts. Hadrian’s Wall is a hard fact’. I shall dispute this and take an agnostic stance this time, I won’t believe in its existence until I see it with my own eyes), there are many other landmarks of note, both historic and contemporary.

One of the region’s many treasures is The Earl of Durham’s Monument, more commonly known as Penshaw Monument.  Situated a short inebriated stroll (as many of my journeys were measured in those days) from the Chester Road University of Sunderland campus, the monument is a tetrastyle replica of the Temple of Hephaestus, and was built in 1844 in honour of the First Earl of Durham, John George Lambton four years after his death.  Dominating the area’s skyline it looks oddly out of place in the greenery of Houghton-le-Spring.  The folly can be looked upon as a somewhat late edition to the Greek revival architecture movement which became fashionable in Britain and parts of Europe and North America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Considered such an integral part of the area’s history and culture, it is even featured on the badge of the often or nearly-relegated Sunderland Football Club.

A mere eight miles or so from this monument to a member of the British establishment stands another very different shrine.  The Angel of the North is an imposing 66 foot iron giant by the artist Antony Gormley.  Erected in February 1998 (I had the honour of seeing the huge hunks of metal being brought to the site) it caused controversy among some, particularly local Conservative politician Martin Callanan.  However, it has since been recognised as an important landmark, not to mention a symbol of the region’s regeneration over the past number of years. It has been estimated that sculpture has been seen by some 495m passers-by since it arrived on the site of a former colliery bath house which overlooks the A1 and the East Coast Main rail line.  The location of a former colliery is highly significant as it was an area which defined generations of the local population, having been mined from the 1720s until the late 1960’s.  It has therefore been argued that the sculpture played a large part in redefining local identity and reinvigorating a diminished civic pride.

Two giants on the local landscape, yet two very different tributes which go a small way of defining the people and history of one of Britain’s great regions.  There are many more landmarks, both big and small which tell the story of the North East, hopefully the clear memories outweigh the fuzzier recollections as I try to relay some of my excursions from this period.

Words: Barry Sheppard
Picture: Tony Grist (via Wikimedia)

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3 thoughts on “Giants of the Landscape in the North East of England

  1. Phil Scraton

    This piece brought back memories for me also, Barry. I was in Ushaw College seminary from the age of 12. It was high on the moors between the then working pit villages of Ushaw Moor, Esh Winning and Langley Park. We survived the ferocious winter of 1963, breaking the ice from our washbowls, I had my first under-age pint in a pub having absconded for the best part of a day with my mates – we hitched a lift to Consett and I saw my first x-rated film ‘The Hill’ – little did I know then that one day I would be researching deaths in custody. Just leaving the College would have been sufficient to bring the severest physical punishment! We climbed back in through windows at dusk and no-one dobbed us in. Thropton, near Rothbury, in Northumberland was my first independent camping holiday soon after I escaped the seminary for good. Alnwick, Holy Island and Durham City (first ever sight of a juke box: Bob Dylan ‘masters of War’ and Barry Maguire ‘Eve of Destruction’; and first ever cappuccino – I was supposed to be visiting the dentist – what a rebel!) are all places I love despite them being in close proximity to the place that robbed me of my youth!

  2. Thomas Peacock

    Phil, I too was at Ushaw, 1960-64. Congratulations on Freedom Of Liverpool Award. Tom Peacock.

  3. Patty O'Boyle

    Having just watched the Hillsborough documentary repeat until this time in the morning, as a Liverpool girl ( where I met Jim O’Boyle who went to Liverpool University) I was moved and heartened by your fight (Phil Scraton). When Jim saw your name he recognised you from Ushaw,(Underlow 1960) and the Cafe and skiving you describe above. I little thought I would end up living here in Durham or going to the University as a mature student. Thank you for your work , the and for the memories. Patty and Jim O’Boyle. PS we met Tom
    and John last year at a reunion. jimoboyle47@btinternet.com

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