A month or two back I left the comfortable surroundings of London and ventured up north to Newcastle. Newcastle is a place I knew very little about, and what I did know was largely influenced from Auf Weidersehen Pet, which my father watched as I was growing up from battered old VHS recordings. I’d also recently seen a very moving documentary on Ian Nairn, where his pronunciation of it (‘NewCASSLE’) furthered my inquisitiveness. Accompanied by Steve, I made a bee-line to the nearest Cemetery to see what was what. That happened to be the churchyard of St Nicholas in Gosforth.
The Church is strikingly severe, built out of beautiful sandstone – which has partially blackened from all the years of soot from the coal-mining industry that once proliferated locally. It was built, like most of Newcastle, by an architect by the name of John Dobson: Dobson was a local man who had honed his flair for design in London. After qualifying as an architect, he soon returned to Newcastle to build all manner of things, from Churches to municipal buildings. He later went on to build Newcastle Central Station which, had the scheme not been subjected to financial pressures, would have been the most impressive train station outside of London.
The headstones of Gosforth are gorgeous. I suspect that many a mason cut their teeth working these stones into suitable memorials, and it’s strange that many of the London ones we’ve seen don’t have the same kind of vitality and flourish. Steve was impressed with a table tomb which had now found use as a garden feature, surrounded by pots of various shrubs. It was also good to see the Daffodils this far north were still in bloom, representing new life in the shadow of those who’ve had theirs extinguished.
A number of those buried here died in accidents at the local colliery – this is recorded on their tombstones, from John Dees who was ‘killed in an explosion of Gas in Gosforth Colliery June 14 1849’ to John Ord who, at seventy-four years of age, was still working and met his end after being crushed by Coal Tubs. The danger these men must have faced seems alien to a resident from down south, where industrial accidents such as this never really receive much prominence on headstones.
As we walked around the Victorian section, admiring the gargantuan tomb of the Brandling Family (who were a wealthy land owning merchant dynasty who helped employ Dobson in the improvements of the Church), Steve noticed something. “What is that?”
I’ve seen this in old Churchyards before and it is to be expected in a place that claims to have been in existence since 650AD. Steve’s foot had scuffed the top part of a human hip bone. It had been cleanly cut just below the ball joint – presumably as a grave was being dug for another burial and had been dislodged. Stupidly, I exclaimed ‘Oh Jesus, who’s is this?’ almost expecting several hundred people to emerge out of the dirt in a Pythonesque manner saying ‘ooh that’s mine actually, chuck it over here would you?’ How old it was and how long it had been separated from its owner is anyone’s guess, and I gently nudged it towards a big granite obelisk so that it was no longer on the main pathway.
We had to leave shortly afterwards: I was having to be physically restrained from instigating my own Time Team expedition to see if I could find its owner. The beauty of this little corner of Newcastle shouldn’t be overlooked, and neither should the heritage that took the lives of many of its former occupants.