I write this to the jaunty strains of the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings’ platter Jubilee Stomp, courtesy of their trumpeter and vocalist, Mike Durham, who also happens to have been the highest bidder for my services in this year’s Independent Charity Auction. Or rather, his wife Patti snaffled me up as a present for Mike, who, as well as being a jazz musician and a sesquipedalian, manages to be a deep topographer of considerable intensity.
So it was that I detrained at Newcastle, unfolded the Brompton and set off to pedal the three miles up to the Durhams’ house in the leafy ‘burb of Jesmond. This was not most people’s vision of Tyneside: no smuts, flat caps, or whippets in sight, no fog on the river, no fishes on little dishes, only the long strip of Osborne Road, flanked by stony villas, into which had been sunk boreholes called things like The Billabong. Presumably the students who rent here often throw over their studies to go walkabout in the outback of intoxication.
Mike and Patti Durham have done their fair share of walking about too. Both of them haled originally from the south — Surrey and Sussex respectively — but they’ve been Oop North for more than 30 years now. Mike took a job with Procter & Gamble straight out of university, wooed Patti and swept her away to Northumbria. I suppose Tom Stoppard would say something arch about bringing Durhams to Newcastle — but then I’m not him.
Then they went walkabout. In the process of raising two children, the Durhams spent time in Cincinnati, Stockholm and Osaka, as Mike was posted hither and thither by soapocracy. The Durhams were remarkably insouciant about their globetrotting. Patti spoke of the squeaky cleanliness of the 1970s Swedish socialist paradise and how in Japan she and her blonde children were followed about by hair freaks. For Mike, Swedish was a doddle to pick up — “I walk, you walk, he walk — no declensions, see?” While in Osaka he and a fellow jazzman acquired a rhythm section by sauntering through the red-light district with their lugholes open.
Now retired, Mike has taken to sauntering the environs of Jesmond, arguably becoming rooted there in a way that only a transplanted growth can. He took me on a tour of his sacred sites, once he’d talked me through the highlights of his collection of 250-odd brass instruments. These glare-blared in immaculate glass cabinets: a synaesthetic cacophony.
We headed for the valley of the Ouseburn and the pleasure gardens of Jesmond Dene created by the pioneering engineer William — later Lord — Armstrong. After the Crimean War this was where the Armstrong breech-loading guns were tested, but later meadows, walkways and picturesque water features were conjured out of the newly post-industrial landscape. In the 1880s, Armstrong gave the gardens to the city.
On a summer’s weekday, Mike and I more or less had the place to ourselves, and we wandered down through the lush trees, stopping to examine the remains of the mills that used to grind here and the ruins of a 12th-century chapel connected by tunnel to the opulent banqueting house where Armstrong entertained his foreign clients. Now, this too is in ruins, another fine example of municipal desuetude. But that didn’t bother us. At least Armstrong’s Bridge is still here to admire: a wrought-iron tone poem of a thing, spanning the gorge 65ft up, its piers supported by their own weight on enormous iron rockers.
I haven’t the space to include all the sights Mike showed me but what I can say is that the valley of the Ouseburn was a more or less perfect rift through time and space: sundering prosperous Jesmond from the outer limits of Heaton and Byker, its wooded lips sewn together by Armstrong’s bridge and the A1058, which, in 1995, was sunk in an underpass, despite the efforts of migratory eco-warriors.
Patti joined us for lunch at Caffe Ti Amo in Jesmond Vale. Here we ate delicious clams and marvelled at the safety helmet that, having fallen off the back of a lorry three days earlier, was still outside on the pavement. The helmet was a nice symbol of the Lower Ouseburn Valley, which we strolled along after we’d eaten. In contrast to the Dene, this was a landscape that had fallen off the back of history’s lorry: a palimpsest of industrialisation, where coal wagons once rumbled, ore was crushed to extract white lead, and flax milled.
The Ouseburn was fed into a culvert in 1906, which emerges under the arches of three contrasting bridges: road, rail and metro. From here it was a hop and a skip down to the banks of the Tyne. Our walk ended beside beached, clinker-built boats. Former fishing boats, once hardworking craft, one of them was now dubbed Idler. How apt.