National Character Area 14

Tyne and Wear Lowlands - Description

The Tyne and Wear Lowlands today

The gently undulating and rolling land is incised by the valleys of the rivers Tyne and Wear and their tributaries: the rivers Derwent and Browney. Densely populated and heavily influenced by urban settlement, industry and infrastructure, the impact of widespread mineral extraction (mainly coal) has changed the landform and land use. As the coal industry declined in the late 20th century, spoil heaps, open cast and deep mining sites have been reclaimed and incorporated into a landscape of varied uses, mainly agriculture, forestry, industry, housing and amenity uses such as country parks, ponds and lakes.

Woodland cover is irregular and farmland is divided by small, gappy hedges with few hedgerow trees. These open areas are interrupted by shelterbelts of conifers or small plantations on restored sites, or by blocks of mixed and deciduous woodland. On large country estates, good-sized, mature specimen broadleaves are a characteristic feature. The extensive urban areas and open arable land contrast with incised, wooded river valleys of semi-natural, broadleaved oak, ash and alder. These are often on steep sides of narrow denes or bluffs overlooking small flood plains. The former Great North Community Forest aimed to increase woodland cover by 30 per cent by regenerating derelict land and there is potential to explore new community forest schemes.

Agriculture is a mix of gently rolling terraces of open arable and mixed farmland with low hedges and few trees or woodlands. This has resulted from land clearance and piecemeal enclosure of rough ground and farmland from the medieval period, and comprehensive reorganisation of farmland in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the mid-19th century, scattered farmsteads provide testament to the mechanisation of agriculture in this area with wheel houses for horse engines being a particular feature. On land restored from spoil heaps or open cast mining, pastures for sheep grazing are divided by fences or strips of mixed or coniferous plantation. These landscapes lack maturity and urban fringe land uses such as pony grazing are found around settlements.

Flowing north to east, the NCA is split down the middle by a central flood plain of the incised, meandering River Wear and its tributary, the River Browney, while the northern area is dissected by a prominent physical and cultural feature, the River Tyne and its tributary, the Derwent. The Tyne and Wear form two major catchments and the headwaters of these rivers lie to the west, in the North Pennines NCA. Here, they drain remote moorland flowing through narrow, steep valleys, over soils often saturated by heavy rainfall. This can lead to downstream flood risks to major settlements within the Tyne and Wear Lowlands NCA.

The northern and largely urban part of the NCA comprises the spreading conurbations of the lower Tyne which have expanded along with a network of main roads, railways and power lines. The urban settlements have their distinctive qualities. Newcastle upon Tyne lies on the crossing point of the Great North Road over the Tyne and a series of bridges at several levels cross over the river, connecting with Gateshead on the south bank. Built on the site of Pons Aelius, a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, and at a strategic crossing point of the River Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne was generally confined within the city walls. In the 19th century, it expanded rapidly due to the growth of engineering, ship-building and chemical industries. Together with Gateshead, the conurbation developed as a major riverside trading centre handling goods from the surrounding coalfield areas. Its wealth was reflected in the many prominent public buildings in the town centres, built in local sandstone. Of particular note are the buildings in the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne, designed in the neo-classical style by John Dobson.

Newcastle upon Tyne has other striking features, notably a substantial area of common land at its heart, the historic Town Moor, and a number of Victorian bridges built across the Tyne. Further south, the historic centre of Durham is located on a prime defensive site, high up on a bluff in the middle of a tight meander on the River Wear. The castle and cathedral, built during the 11th century, stand above the tight-knit houses and streets of the old town. This townscape, combined with its dramatic setting above the steep wooded slopes, forms an historic landscape which has been designated a World Heritage Site. Industrial prosperity is also revealed through the large number of country houses, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, set in parkland, in the countryside around main settlements. As 30 per cent of the NCA is greenbelt, there are opportunities to create more green spaces and improve links to existing ones, particularly in urban areas. Further south, the area is more rural and settlements are smaller and widely dispersed.

Owing to the continued expansion of settlements over decades, structures and building styles are mixed. Typical of the mining villages are the terraces of grey or red brick workers’ housing with grey slate roofs. Later styles included estates of post-war public housing and the planned new town settlement of Washington.

In this post-industrial landscape, most semi-natural habitats are fragmented, covering only 4 per cent of the NCA. Waldridge Fell, the largest, most diverse lowland heathland in the north-east of England, is found near Chester-le-Street. Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it supports a variety of habitat communities (mires, scrub, bracken and a mix of acid grassland and heatherdominated vegetation) and includes an area of common land.

The Tyne estuary, relatively long, narrow and modified, has limited estuarine habitats with mudflats and salt marsh in the tidal area around North Tyneside. It also supports regionally important numbers of wintering waterbirds and breeding shelduck and is an important migratory route for salmon and sea trout. Despite urbanisation and fragmented habitats, the entire length of the estuary forms an important wildlife corridor and otters and kingfisher regularly use it and its connecting tributaries. Manmade structures also play a role in providing habitat for kittiwakes which nest under the Tyne Bridge and breed on quayside buildings such as the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and the purpose-built kittiwake tower in Gateshead.

The coastline consists of soft sandstones, although dolomitic limestone crops out in small areas at Tynemouth and Whitley Bay to form sea cliffs. Part of North Tyneside is designated a Ramsar site and an SPA (it is part of the Northumbria Coast SPA) as well as Northumberland Shore SSSI, mainly for the important numbers of wintering shore birds, whereas North Tyneside’s intertidal habitats provide winter feeding and roosting habitats. Tynemouth to Seaton Sluice SSSI is geologically important as one of the best exposures of Coal Measures strata in Great Britain. Fishing remains one of the main commercial activities here, contributing to the local economy, with North Shields being a main fishing port and the terminus of sea ferries to Norway and Denmark.

Recreation and tourism play an important part in the NCA with many visitors to its distinctive towns, cities and coast attracted by its varied culture and history, which includes the legacy of the Industrial Revolution (mainly coal mining and ship-building) and the ecclesiastical heritage of Durham with its World Heritage Site (Durham Castle and Cathedral). Durham’s 11th-century motte-and-bailey castle is an early example of Norman architecture commissioned by William the Conqueror to defend the peninsula and is now University College established in the 1830s. Durham Cathedral is a prominent feature in the landscape and was designed and built under William of St Carilef, the first prince-bishop appointed by William the Conqueror in 1080. Newcastle upon Tyne boasts part of Hadrian’s Wall and Jarrow has St Paul’s Monastery where the Venerable Bede (an English monk and author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People) lived for a time. The creative arts have flourished in this NCA. Historic Durham inspired painters such as J.M.W. Turner and John Sell Cotman; more recently, Antony Gormley’s contemporary, iconic sculpture, the ‘Angel of the North’, is seen by travellers to and from the area as it overlooks major road networks into Tyneside and the East Coast Main Line.

Four per cent of the NCA is classified publicly accessible, having numerous country parks, Local Nature Reserves and other green spaces which link urban areas with the countryside and coast. Old railway lines and wagonways have been converted to cycle routes and footpaths, and common land, coastline, historic settlements and country estates offer a wide range of recreation opportunities. Part of the 135-km coast- to-coast National Trail (Hadrian’s Wall) includes walks along the River Tyne and the centre of Newcastle. A 23-km National Cycle Route runs from Newcastle upon Tyne along the riverside to the coast at Whitley Bay, and Town Moor common land in Newcastle covers 400 ha, where Freemen of the city still have the right to graze cattle. Following the closure of the Great North Community Forest project, there are currently no active community forest schemes in this NCA.

The landscape through time

The undulating land and broad valleys of the Tyne and Wear Lowlands NCA are largely underlain by Coal Measures rocks of Upper Carboniferous age, consisting of a succession of shales and sandstones with numerous coal seams. Permian rocks overlie the Coal Measures cropping out in small areas at Tynemouth and Whitley Bay. These sea cliffs consist mainly of soft sandstones and dolomitic limestone and underlying rocks are overlain by a mantle of boulder clay or till deposited from ice sheets which covered the area during the last glacial period.

Glaciation altered drainage patterns by blocking the original northwards route of the River Wear and diverting it eastwards, where it cut a new channel through the Magnesian Limestone Plateau entering the North Sea at Sunderland. Increased flow of streams during de-glaciation caused down-cutting of existing river courses which can be seen in the classic incised meander gorge of the River Wear at Durham. It forms a naturally defensive site where Durham Castle still stands. Other incised valleys include the denes or steep-sided valleys in which tributaries of the River Tyne flow.

The history of settlement includes bronze-age clearances of the heavily wooded landscape. The Roman settlement established at Newcastle was of strategic importance, being the crossing point of the Tyne by the main north-south route, and this influenced the location of other settlements. Most medieval settlement was re-written after the Harrying of the North in the late 11th century. However, original medieval settlement patterns were preserved within the Palatine of Durham (extensive territory originally under the control of the Bishop of Durham), seen today in the regular rows of house plots (tofts) and garths (enclosed ground). The ecclesiastical monuments of Monkwearmouth, Jarrow and Durham Cathedral are testaments to the power and influence of the Church during the medieval period.

Arable production has taken place since the medieval period, with linear farmsteads dating from the late 17th century. By the late 18th century, enclosure of arable fields was complete, followed by the remaining commons and open pastures. Fields were large and regular, reflecting the ease with which the open fields of the medieval townships could be re-ordered when production was re-organised around larger, centralised farming units. While farmland often retains the traces of earlier boundaries, later re-organisation was accompanied by the wholesale rebuilding of farmsteads around courtyards for fattening cattle, and buildings for mechanised corn threshing and processing fodder.

The underlying Coal Measures have been a valuable economic asset to the area, and coal has been exploited since Roman times. This initially took place in coastal and river areas but as steam power and technology developed, the working and draining of deep mines became possible. This transformed the settled landscape, especially during the 19th century when many new pit-head villages were established along with industrial infrastructure and urban expansion. Most building stock dates from the mid-18th century with sandstone being the traditional building material. Large numbers of country houses were built within their own designed parkland in the 18th and 19th centuries, reflecting industrial prosperity and numerous Victorian mining and industrial terraces of brick and slate can be found in Jarrow and County Durham.

Newcastle upon Tyne originated as a small Roman settlement close to the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall and the crossing point of the River Tyne. In the 11th century, Robert Curthose (son of William the Conqueror) built a motte-andbailey castle which gave ‘new castle’ its name. The most prominent remaining structures on the site are the Castle Keep and the Black Gate, which were built later in the 12th and 13th centuries. During the 19th century, Newcastle and Gateshead expanded, as major trading, engineering and ship-building industries emerged along with innovators and engineers such as William Armstrong, Joseph Swan and Robert Stephenson. Icons of this era are the dramatic bridges which were built to link Newcastle and Gateshead across the Tyne including High Level Bridge (1849), being the first combined road and rail bridge in the world. Some of Newcastle’s finest Victorian buildings lay within Grainger Town, today a high-quality shopping outlet and conservation area containing 29 Grade I and 49 Grade II listed buildings.

Throughout the 20th century, major industries were in decline, due to global competition. In 1936, the famous protest march against unemployment and poverty in the north-east of England set out from Jarrow and over 200 people walked 300 miles to Westminster to lobby Parliament.

Today, this area is an active industrial and commercial centre for port-related, ship repair and offshore industries, manufacturing, out-of-town retailing and tourism. In Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead, former shipping premises have been replaced with office developments and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge provides links to the older Newcastle quayside. In Gateshead, the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and the Sage Gateshead music centre, designed by Norman Foster, symbolise the regeneration of the quaysides into thriving, cosmopolitan public spaces. The Metrocentre, Europe’s largest shopping and leisure centre lies close by, attracting visitors from the UK and beyond, with many Scandinavians visiting the area via the nearby port of Tynemouth. In the urban conurbation of Newcastle and Gateshead, particularly in the north and west, there is continued pressure on the greenbelt for land to develop housing, business and new roads.

Farming and fishery industries have helped to feed large populations around the industrial and port centres, along the rivers Tyne and Wear and in the rest of the UK. The North Sea remains an important fishing ground and the marine environment provides spawning, nursery and feeding areas for many species of fish. Along the coast are built heritage conservation areas containing Grade II listed buildings, such as the North Shields Fish Quay Conservation Area, Tynemouth North Pier and Lighthouse and Tynemouth Priory and Castle.