Sunday, 11 January 2015

Visit to the Staiths

Following Wednesday's talk by Suzanne Hutton, I signed up for the site visit to Dunston Staiths.

Along with a couple of other Newcastle University Fine Art students and Bridget (the staff member who had arranged the talk), we walked from the University, met up with Suzanne at the train station and then walked over the High Level Bridge to Gateshead Riverside Park.

Suzanne told us that the area of Gateshead running parallel with the Tyne was called the Bankies. This area used to be unpleasant to live in, but now it has been turned into modern housing.

Riverside Park was landscaped during 1960-1970. During the late 1980's and in the early 1990's a number of sculptures were introduced within the park. The development of the park as an ‘art venue’ and a valuable open space for local people continues to this day.

We entered Gateshead Riverside Park and looked out for the sculptures that are on display here permanently:

Cone - Andy Goldsworthy (1992)

Rolling Moon - Colin Rose (1990)

Once Upon a Time - Richard Deacon (1990)

In her lecture the previous day Suzanne had talked about the public art project organised by rednile projects that had taken place in Gateshead Riverside Park. The images made the park look well maintained and lush, with lots of visitors. As we walked through the park I realised how different it seemed now. It was a site of fly-tipping, and we hardly passed a soul, which didn't surprise me as it was a dingy place to be. This demonstrates the importance of maintaining areas once temporary public art projects have ended in order to encourage audiences to use the space properly.

As we exited the Gateshead Riverside Park, we reached Dunston Staiths and Staiths South Bank. Staiths South Bank is a development of 777 homes on a brownfield site that had previously been occupied by Redheugh gas works for almost 100 years.

"Central to the concept for Staiths South Bank are the principles of good design, affordability and innovation with the intent on creating a ‘community’ where people want to live. Design and masterplanning were by Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway in partnership with George Wimpey and the Ian Darby Partnership. Their partnership with George Wimpey began when they criticised the 'Wimpeyfication' and 'Barrattification' of Britain in the media, setting the challenge for house builders to think harder about design.

Intrinsic to the design and layout of Staiths South Bank is a move away from the identikit new-build housing that has typified UK developments since the 1960s. A key feature of the scheme is the provision of public, private and semi-private spaces, which integrate and complement (rather than conflict with) the transport and circulation infrastructures. 

Staiths Southbank has been designated a home zone – a development that has been designed for people not just traffic.

On entering the development, roads are wide with cars and pedestrians separated by defined roads and pavements. But more further in and roads will become narrower, pavements will become wider and the bias towards the pedestrian more obvious. Strategically placed trees and shrubs replace speed bumps; all houses are built around communal green areas; car parking is away from houses and even the wading birds have more rights than motorists.

Each phase of the project has its own ‘play strategy’, which calls upon children’s imagination by placing adventurous and unusual equipment within the streetscape. The play strategy also extends to adults through the introduction of seats and benches where residents can meet and congregate.

Within Staiths’ streets, two-storey semis nestle against three-storey townhouses and flats of various shapes and sizes. This results in a broad mix of property type within the same building line and courtyard, something rarely seen today in England. Inside, there’s a choice of traditional layout: open plan or even ”reverse living” with voluminous living rooms on upper floors with ceilings that extend up to the eaves.

The external designs of the properties give a sense of individuality to each home, displaying a range of sustainable materials, including render, brickwork and cedar wood cladding. There are interesting features such as glass bricks set into finished walls and matching mortar colour on the brickwork. The subtle variations in colour and the roofline variations are proving popular with residents.

As well as the varied housing, there is an assortment of gardens and courtyards, some with sandpits and play areas for families with young children, others more suitable for those with teenagers, and so on. With most houses, private gardens back onto south facing communal 'pocket parks' with facilities for all age groups, including permanent barbecues which are free for residents to use. Reclaimed timber has been used to produce outdoor seating, play equipment, gateways and many other features. Wherever possible, recycled railway sleepers were used as retaining walls and it is planned that in the future, these will be used for for 'kickabout walls' within a junior play space that's still to be constructed adjacent the site boundary. The timber features and willow binstores have all been made and installed by local craftsmen.

An abundance of trees, hedges and climbing plants soften the scenery and attract wildlife – wherever possible, trees remaining from the site were reused. Special arrangements have been made to protect the indigenous wading birds (including limiting development work to certain times of the year and in conjunction with the tidal flow of the river Tyne).

Detailed consultation lies at the heart of the project, and extends out of the development itself to working with the council on the restoration of riverbank walks and cycle ways linking up to the other areas of the city and English Heritage on the reopening of the historic Staiths wooden structure."

In September 2014 Suzanne opened Staiths Cafe bar in what was once the Sales Room of the Housing Estate. Overlooking the Dunston Staiths, it literally lies at the heart of the community, and even in my short visit I got a sense that it is a hub and somewhere for locals to meet up and socialise. The cafe serves homemade food cooked using local suppliers. The cafe also acts as a small shop selling eggs, milk and bread along with some tinned and packaged staples. The attention to detail is evident - furniture and crockery is well-designed, and Suzanne selects the artwork that is displayed on the walls.

Following a delicious lunch at The Staiths Cafe, we met Kari Vickers, Activity Manager of Dunston Staiths who kindly gave us access to walk on the Staiths and gave us a fascinating talk about the impressive structure.

"Dunston Staiths on the River Tyne is believed to be the largest timber structure in Europe, at its height, 5.5m tonnes of coal a year was taken by rail from the Durham coalfields and loaded from the Staiths onto ships waiting on the river, which transported coal around the British Isles and Internationally.

The North Eastern Railway Company opened Dunston Staiths in 1893 to meet the growing demand to export coal and to save the rail journey to the docks at the mouth of the river. A second set of Staiths was built adjoining the first in 1903 and a tidal basin dug out, providing six berths in all, where colliers could be loaded at all states of the tide.

Dunston Staiths fell into disrepair during the latter half of the C20th, as the coal industry declined. It was fully restored in the 1980’s with the gantries repaired and redecorated, but in a non-operational condition. Used as a focal point for the National Garden Festival held in Gateshead in 1990, the public could then walk along the top of the structure and view the chutes and other machinery used in loading the ships, it was also a performance area and art gallery.

A fire in 2003 seriously damaged the monument, destroying a section which detached the eastern end to create an island.

Ecologically, the Tyne is considered to be the third most important tidal area in the North East. When dredging stopped, the lagoon silted up rapidly to create mudflats providing an important feeding area for wintering and migrant wading birds. The detoxification of the two rivers has encouraged the establishment of increasingly interesting natural habitats around the Staiths, including an important Saltmarsh Garden, a rare resource in the urban environment and of significant conservation interest.

The Staiths structure currently provides an undisturbed roosting area for a range of bird species including grey heron, lapwing and redshank. Otters, an internationally protected species, also use the Staiths, Saltmarsh and adjoining areas of the Rivers Team and Tyne."

We were lucky enough to spot a seal swimming in the Tyne beneath the Staiths, and Kari informed us that this is not an uncommon sight. Apparently there are two seals living in the area feeding off the salmon.

The structure is currently being restored. Alongside this restoration, an activity plan supported by the Friends Group and Volunteers aims to reconnect the Staiths and Saltmarsh Garden to the local area, develop awareness and understanding of its significance, and give the project long term sustainability through interpretation, events, activities and learning programmes.

While the Staiths will be substantially closed to public access during the winter months when surfaces become slippy and to protect breeding birds, it is planned that the western end of the Staiths will be open to the public during the summer season.

The white poles along the Staiths were lamp posts.

For more information about Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust and the Dunston Staiths, please visit

It was a fascinating and inspiring day, and I am very grateful to Bridget for organising it, and for Suzanne and Kari for being so generous with their time and for sharing so much with us. I now intend to work on a proposal for some artwork that would respond to the site.

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