Courts and Alleys
The Old George sign in the sky
Bigg Market looking south

Sat. 31st March., 2001

The 18th century saw a rapid increase in population and businesses in Newcastle.

In common with other walled towns, the very means of defence became a constraint on growth, and in particular growth in economic activity.

If there is any challenge that mankind hates it is a restraint on its ability to amass greater profits from dynamic trade.

The solution, at least to start with, was to build on unused plots within the town, and the dawn of the 18th century saw green spaces, often gardens, covered over with stores, houses and workshops.

Part of this intricate honeycomb of courtyards thus created still exists around the Bigg Market area. The later town planners, Dobson, Clayton and Grainger, left this tranch virtually untouched during their wholesale redesigning of the city centre.

The Bigg Market (Bigg = a type of barley formerly sold here) today is dominated by that large brick edifice that separates the Cloth Market on the left from the Groat Market to the right. (Groat = oats without husks) Built by the might of an insurance company during the 1970s, it replaced the old Town Hall, built in 1858. This building now sports a massive illuminated television screen, currently advertising Disney films and Swiss watches.

This elegant lane runs from St. John's Church, at the junction of Grainger Street and Westgate Road to the Bigg Market. Its attractiveness is now enhanced by the cleaning of some of the buildings and the addition of reproduction period lamp standards.

Unlike modern ones, they seem not to be able to detect the difference between night and day.

There are some popular ale houses here, and Saturday morning is a time for clearing the drunken mess from the night before. The not so gentle scent of stale spilt beer and disinfectant hangs in the air as the rubbish bins stand replete with the detritus of last nights revelry.

Here is Pudding Chare, named from the Pow Dene, a small river that still runs under the pavement. This little water course was bridged and eventually buried during the building here.

Pudding Chare runs from the Bigg Market, in the distance in this photo, to Collingwood Street, emerging at
Collingwood Buildings.

St. John's Lane
Pudding Chare looking towards Bigg Market
Pudding Chare entrance to Wilson's Yard
Wison's Yard (Swill-son's Yard?)
Cloth Market looking south
Old George Yard entrance at Cloth Market
The Old George Public House
Old George Public House annexe
Eastern end of Old George Yard
Old George Yard from east

Wilson's Court has an imposing entrance on Pudding Chare, but after going through the arch in what is now expensive town flats the size broom cupboards, the lane shows its true nature.

Once the fronts of small buildings tacked onto the larger ones, it has long since lapsed into rear access when the larger businesses absorbed the smaller buildings.

Wilson's Lane has a mediŠval feel as the river of foul effluent running down the middle gives off a nasty smell, and rubbish collects in those blue corporate wheelie bins, from the catering businesses whose tin chimneys belch chip and pizza fumes during opening hours.

Here the Cloth Market runs from the Bigg Market to Mosley Street and St. Nicholas Square. That white building in the distance is to the back of the statue of Queen Victoria, sitting in imperial splendour atop the plague pit.

The second last white building in this street, with the black entrance lobby is the site of Balmbra's Music Hall, immortalised in the song, "Blaydon Races".

Those cobbles running across the pavement here signify the entrance to Old George Yard, named from the public house situated there. This lane runs from here via a crooked leg to High Bridge, originally leading to a bridge over the Lort Burn. This steep sided river, flowing to the Tyne at Sandhill, was filled in during the 1830s by a quarter of a million cart loads of waste and covered by Grey Street and Dean Street.

This entrance to Old George Yard was for may years flanked by Pumphrey's coffee house. This company, based in Blaydon, imports and roasts distinctive coffee blends. The coffee house was a popular meeting place for business folk and shoppers, whilst the retail side did a roaring trade in freshly roasted beans. The company now trades by mail-order and has a stall in the Grainger Market.

The Old George dates from the 17th century, and since that time has absorbed some adjoining property.

This lane throngs with party people during summer nights, the cobbled area here and to the right forming a patio for drinkers.

This lane has long since been closed to vehicles, but there is evidence of carts being used here. They must have been forced to turn at the far end as not even the most athletic horse and elastic cart could negotiate the narrow turn and steps leading to the yard at High Bridge.

Further along the lane this is an entrance to the Old George annexe, complete with period style lantern.

So many commercial premises, after cleaning and renovations sprout unsightly electrical boxes and a filigree of cables. It should be possible to route these ugly cables out of sight, and maintain the pleasing brick relief unsullied.

I wonder how much trade really goes on here now. The guitar shop at the end promises to be lively, although it was just wakening from slumber at 1100hrs, Attica, purveyor of chic bric-a-brac was closed, and the right hand side premises of an interior designer was firmly shut for the weekend.

Those gloriously out of place bracket lamps speak volumes for the sensitivity you can expect from this firm.

That last arch on the left leads to the stairs down to the yard adjacent to High Bridge.

The cast iron Victorian Bollard is an excellent example of the simple, functional design of street furniture of the time. Its phallic suggestion is at odds with a society that clothed piano legs so as not to offend the sensitive sensibilities. The Victorians were masters of hypocrisy.

The press of development eventually became too strong to resist, and the walls having see their last defensive action in 1745, were largely flattened during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The irresistible march of big business tends to trample on tradition that it sees as an irritant at best and a block to "progress" at worst. It is good that the City Council and other interested people are now strong enough to preserve our heritage and incorporate it into the modern commercial activity. Long may we have the power to do so.

1989 Ordnance Survey Map of Bigg MArket area

Ordnance Survey Map of 1898, copyright Alan Godfery Maps, Leadgate, Consett, Co. Durham. ©1981

Click here to see high quality album copies of these and other photographs from the same shoot

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