Former Heritage Education Officer Alison Stancliffe looks back on the early years of the Ouseburn Trust and the place of heritage education in its regeneration partnership with the City Council. Do you remember visiting the valley? Tell us about it in the blog comments.

December 2021 

It’s 25 years since the Trust’s founding, and the valley has changed dramatically in that short span of time. Regenerated buildings and businesses are everywhere. The Ouseburn is popular and cherished and just voted ‘one of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods’ by Time Out! But it’s still a place where the past speaks to you around every corner. That’s a real testament to the efforts of untold numbers of people to keep it special, and I’m really privileged to be able to count myself among them.

I ran a Heritage Education Service in the Ouseburn from 2003 to 2010 - exciting years when many of today’s sights and attractions were planned and delivered.

Nowadays it’s no surprise to see a group of children obviously out on a school visit in the Valley. Maybe on their way to Seven Stories, or the Victoria Tunnel, or the Farm, each with its own education workers. But when I joined the Ouseburn Partnership’s heritage project in 2003 I had no competition. As the new education outreach officer I had the whole valley as a living resource for my work and a heritage expert, Mike Greatbatch, as my boss. Much of it lay dormant, ready for redevelopment.

Mike had begun to work for the Ouseburn Partnership’s ambitious urban regeneration project in the late 1990s. That was when the relatively new Ouseburn Trust and the City Council joined forces to lay the foundations for the ‘Live Work Play’ Ouseburn we have today. He was employed as the Partnership’s Heritage Manager in the first regeneration phase. Subsequently he successfully secured the first of three successive Heritage Lottery grants, allowing him to continue his role and bring an outreach education officer into the expanded team.

But what were Mike and I doing in a regeneration team, when we were, on the face of it, concentrating on the past?

Here’s a quote from my first job description:

‘Responsibilities are to further the regeneration strategy by assisting in the delivery of the Heritage Community Education project, by providing a service in order to increase the number and variety of groups using the River Ouseburn catchment area’.

I worked with all ages, but primary schools were my main target. The Partnership’s location was largely an unknown quantity in the city. Most Tynesiders had negative perceptions of Ouseburn, if they had any at all. So we had to set about changing minds. My first brochure for school visits was an early attempt to do that, using the strapline ‘Small world - Big discoveries’.

I ran activities from urban planning and river studies, to art and engineering, and delved into documents from the Victorian era. The core of the heritage education programme was the history of ‘living memory’. While Mike conducted historical research, he also made it his business to get to know older people who could tell him tales linked to the valley’s built heritage.

Brochure of adult education courses, 2004

I recruited reminiscers who brought the silent buildings and curious corners of the valley to life. Under the spell of living memory, the ‘hill’ over the Ouseburn Culvert was revealed as the Tip, a forbidden playground where Jean Chesters would look for ‘boody’, and the Cluny slipway was where a bunch of wee lads truanting from school (always a popular story, this) disastrously fell off their home-made raft into the smelly burn and got spanked by their mothers.

It wasn’t just children who were fascinated by tales of early 20th century Ouseburn but accompanying adults lapped them up too. A parent or grandparent would add to the stories being gathered by the Trust or produce a photo for the growing archive.

Mike was good at for had many ways of coaxing memories out of people, including reunions in St Ann’s Church of people who had lived in the old ‘Battlefield’ terraces around it. One of the folks I met through the reunions was a sprightly man in his seventies called Bob Martin whose best friend was Ernest Smith, the young hero of a local wartime tragedy that I had only recently found out about. 

Bob and Sonny Boy (Bob’s nickname for Ernest) were the ones who overturned that raft I mentioned, by the Cluny slipway. I knew children would love the story and they did. He would hold a class of children spellbound with his memories of wartime life when he was their age - just as reminiscer Basil McLeod does for today’s generation of children on school visits to the Victoria Tunnel.

Bob wasn’t the only Martin school groups met in the valley. We’d visit Jackie Martin (no relation), a volunteer in Stepney Bank Stables’, and he’d charm us with an altogether different set of memories - his life as a stable lad and chain horse rider in the pre war years and the long and hard hours he worked, when he was barely older than the children were.

Jackie Martin in the stables 2004

By the end of my time in the valley I had a dedicated education room in Ouseburn Farm. Luxury! But when I started, I had no indoor visitor base. Happily, the local community, particularly the members of St Ann’s Church, stepped up and offered space for lunch and toilets - always the first thing needed on a trip. Even the Cluny was used on one occasion – when cleaners arriving before opening time found children cross stitching pictures of St Ann’s and boats!

My outdoor classroom lent itself to all sorts of visit trails. One trail that has lasted from the very first year of visits resulted from coming across a press cutting from 1891. It was about the death of an eighteen year old girl, Elizabeth Dowson, who had worked in the Ouseburn Lead Works and had died a horrible death from lead poisoning.

Lizzie’s short life and death became the way into learning about 19th century social history, as I and my volunteers took children on a voyage of discovery into the past along the Lizzie Dowson trail. Standing on Crawford’s Bridge I would say, “Lizzie walked over this every day to the lead works. It’s buried under that hill.” I’d point ahead, to the tree covered hill of rubbish, then we’d look at a dismal Victorian photo card showing the view in Lizzie’s time, and shudder.

Lizzie Dowson trail

I built up a precious team of hardworking visit volunteers. Enthusiasts themselves, they loved sharing the valley’s delights with young people. “I like being a sheepdog”, one remarked. You did need to know of course how to get children safely across a road, but like the reminiscers, their main skill was bringing the past alive to their charges and they would turn their hand to anything and also share their own talents. Volunteer Barbara Thompson, was a great storyteller but also an expert cross stitcher, so guess whose idea the Cluny trip was.

Phil Thirkell, a stalwart of the Trust’s Heritage Group, was the longest serving. He had first come to the valley through one of Mike’s adult education courses, and with some trepidation agreed to help me on my very first school visit. I simply couldn’t have developed my education service successfully without the contribution of such people.

The other fabulous resource I had was the good will of the people who worked around me – artists, poets, and potters who’d work with me on inspiring art and craft projects linked to the valley’s history or natural environment.

A perennial favourite was glass artist Sue Woolhouse, who’d happily welcome groups to her studio inside 36 Lime Street. She once helped a class to transform their classroom windows, based on the stained glass in the stairwells of Steenbergs flats on Lime Street. Once the Co-op’s abattoir and boot factory, the site had been renovated as one of the first regeneration projects.

Stained glass window project

I also worked with ceramicist Charlie Allen, who had his studio in Hoults Yard, the former site of the Maling Pottery. In the early 2000s the yard was fairly empty of traffic and we’d explore the largely intact factory site to spot signs of the pottery’s past greatness. Charlie would explain the pottery process in his studio with its tantalising crate full of Maling pieces he’d collected. Then back at school, he would teach the class to paint their own porcelain plates in the same style.

Charlie Allen in his studio

I loved both sides of my work, interpreting heritage and championing regeneration. The people who were drawn into the education service evoked the specialness of the valley in the early years of the Trust more than any amount of marketing literature.

Sometimes when I was taking a group along the riverside walkway we’d see a figure waving at us from the other bank. Joe Campbell, secretary of the Ouseburn Homing Pigeon Club, would show youngsters how to ring a racing pigeon, telling tales of his prize bird winning a race home from France. We might catch a glimpse of Sue Woolhouse in her studio overlooking the river, or meet Jean Chesters on her way home after sharing childhood reminiscences with a class. Or at Crawford’s Bridge we might come across Jackie Martin, out with his pony and cart, on his way to fetch carrots for the horses of Stepney Bank Stables.

Joe Campbell at his pigeon cree, 2005

The multiplier effect of work like this meant that hundreds of Newcastle families and teachers began to see Ouseburn in a new and positive light.

The central core of our programme was engaging with people and so there is no obvious evidence of our work in Ouseburn’s built environment. But we left a legacy in the form of the Victoria Tunnel programme, heritage walks and an array of education resources on the Trust’s website, including documents aboutLizzie Dowson’. Her family’s story, like to so many others we uncovered, was one of grinding poverty and a green place made toxic by industry. It still moves and engages young people, who cannot help but make comparisons with today’s vibrant valley. You couldn’t have a much better endorsement for regeneration!

Alison and children at the Victoria Tunnel entrance, 2004