Alex Jacobs calls himself a ‘German Geordie’, a man with roots in two great industrial cities. “My grandfather was a coach driver from County Durham, “ he explains. “During a bus tour of England he befriended a German tourist and kept boasting to the visitor about his wonderful daughter.
“Keen to meet her, the young man returned to Britain, driving all the way from Germany to Consett in a Volkswagen Beetle. When my mum answered the door he declared: ‘I have heard all about you’. It was love at first sight, but the man had to spend several nights sleeping in the car before he was finally admitted to the house. He returned to Germany, but after 731 letters and two years separation, they finally married.”
The German joined his wife in Newcastle and learned Geordie English. But this was the 70s, industry was on the decline in the North East, so the couple moved to the Dortmund area where Alex was born.
Alex regularly visited his Newcastle grandparents and as he grew older he brought his friends with him. “We were fascinated by the industrial landscape, a city trying to reinvent itself. I thought it would be great if there was a young guide who could explain it all.” Alex moved to Newcastle, and in 2008, age 27, qualified as the youngest Blue Badge Guide in the country.
“Many people think of Newcastle as a city made by the Industrial Revolution,” says Alex, “but the Romans built a fort and bridged the river here in 122AD. They wanted to safeguard the magic mineral that has defined the city’s history: coal.
“Centuries later, in 1085, the conquering William I sent his son to build a ‘new castle’ by the river – giving the city its modern name. The fortress protected medieval mining interests and Newcastle became so strongly associated with coal that it gave birth to the idiom: ‘coals to Newcastle’.
“By the 18th century there were a thousand collieries in the area, but transporting tons of coal from the mines to Newcastle and beyond was a problem. The solution came from the sooty Tyne Valley pit village of Wylam.
“George Stevenson was the illiterate son of a Wylam mining family. As a young boy he worked down the pit, but at 17 he educated himself at night school. Stephenson had heard that the Wylam pit was trying to develop a steam locomotive and he was determined to build a better engine. In 1814 he completed the Blucher, a locomotive that could pull thirty tons up a hill at four miles per hour.
“Stevenson went on to become ‘the father of the railways’, masterminding the Stockton & Darlington railway that linked the collieries with the River Tees and, in 1830, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway – the first intercity passenger steam railway line in the world – powered by the legendary Rocket.
“The forgotten man in this story was Wylam-born blacksmith Timothy Hackworth. He built a locomotive that took part in the trials to provide the train engine for the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. After a promising start, Hackworth’s locomotive suffered a cracked cylinder – a part that had been cast in George Stephenson’s workshop. We will never know if this was sabotage, but railway engineering was, literally and metaphorically, a dirty business.
“William Armstrong is another Newcastle hero. He designed a hydraulic crane that could unload ships quickly and cheaply. He developed a revolutionary cannon used by the British army in the Crimean War and sold armaments to both sides during the American Civil War. It is said that his company built the entire fleet for the Japanese Navy.
“There is one more Geordie genius I have to mention. History tells us that in 1879 Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb, but Edison’s bulb was a development of the original light devised by Joseph Swan. Swan demonstrated the invention in 1878 and his house was the first in the world to be lit by a light bulb. In 1881, thanks to Swan, the Savoy Theatre in London became the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity.”
This Geordie ingenuity, combined with iron ore, coal and the river meant that by 1840s nearly half of the world’s ships were made on the Tyne or Wear. But ship building declined and in the 1900s the collieries started to close; in 1994 Wearmouth Colliery, the last working Durham mine, shut – today it’s the site of Sunderland football club’s Stadium of Light.
“The people felt let down and unemployment blighted the region, but Geordies are resilient and the city started to reinvent itself. In 1998 an unexpected symbol of hope appeared alongside the main road into Newcastle.
“A 20 metre tall art work of an angel with 54 metre wide wings seems an unlikely candidate to change perceptions in an industrial city. Antony Gormley’s statue attracted plenty of criticism – spending £700,000 on a statue in a city in crisis seemed like a giant waste of money. But, like the statue’s steel that is designed to change over time, people’s feelings about
The Angel of the North have gone from bewilderment to affection, and the ‘The Gateshead Flasher’ or ‘Rusty Annie’ is nowadays as much a part of Newcastle as the Tyne.
“A wasteland of deserted warehouses during the 1980s, the city’s dockside is a new focal point for the city. Three projects in particular have come to symbolise this: the Baltic is a former flour mill that reopened as a contemporary art gallery; the Sage is a riverside concert venue designed in 2004 by Norman Foster and is home to the Northern Symphonia; and the Millennium Bridge across the Tyne is the world’s first tilting pedestrian bridge.
“By turning mills into galleries, steel into statues and engineering into public art, Newcastle has become a place that surprises visitors. It’s a great example of a British postindustrial city. I live right on the river Tyne in a converted Victorian warehouse – when I look out my window, there is the new Newcastle.”