Jesmond Dene: The Crown Jewel of Newcastle’s parks

Photo by Marco Angelo on Unsplash

Jesmond Dene is a unique haven of peace and tranquillity for the people of Newcastle. It is a narrow wooded valley that follows the river Ouseburn between South Gosforth and Jesmond Vale, providing an important wildlife corridor right into the centre of Newcastle. There is a spectacular mix of native and exotic trees, and the Dene is home to a lot of wildlife, notably the Kingfisher, the Red Squirrel and many woodland birds. The Dene stretches for over three kilometres and has many areas of tranquillity.

​[Disclaimer: I will be cheating ever-so-slightly and referencing a few places from the adjoining Heaton Park]

Creation of the park ​

​The land was first set out as a private park in the 1860s, for wealthy industrialist Lord Armstrong and his family to enjoy. ​​He re-created a natural, rural setting with the dene’s wild woodland, rushing waterfalls and deep pools, adding exotic plants and bridges, which can still be seen today. The public were already well used to visiting the area, as Lord and Lady Armstrong – who had lived in a house in the Dene since they married in 1935 – allowed people to walk the paths on two days a week – for a small fee.

William George Armstrong
Photomechanical print after Lock & Whitfield., CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Armstrong later presented the main area of Jesmond Dene to the Corporation of Newcastle upon Tyne for the benefit of its citizens in 1883. This gift included the Banqueting Hall and several houses, as well as 62 acres of land, although the Armstrongs maintained control in their lifetime. The park was formally opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1884, where they planted a turkey oak – now a mature tree – near the Banqueting Hall.

The council was requested not to alter the Dene in any way which would “render them more artificial than at present”; according to local newspaper reports at the time, they agreed and the whole proposition was met with loud applause.

The park contains a number of interesting and unusual features which I have tried to list in full below –

​Armstrong Bridge

​The Dene is the home of Armstrong Bridge, which has a fairly unique feature in that, as it stands on land mined from coal, was designed it so that would adjust itself if the ground below moved; it was the first bridge in the world able to do this. It carried traffic up until the 1960s, but cars were banned in 1963 because the bridge could not bear the weight from the increase in traffic.”

Photo by Philip Atkinson on Unsplash

Pet’s Corner

​Jesmond Dene contains a free-entry petting zoo known as “Pets’ Corner”, founded in the 1960s to enable city kids to experience farm life and to learn about animal care. It is home to a number of residents including visiting pigs and sheep from partner farms, goats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, ducks, poultry and fowl.

​Pet Cemetery

Not far from Pet’s Corner, this part of the Dene is known as Coleman’s Field and the plot is the site of headstones that remember some 20 pets, most of which were buried around 1970. The newest one belongs to Emma Jane, a poodle who died in 1991, at the age of 15. Many Jesmond residents think this piece of land has always been a pet cemetery, however it was never officially recognised as one. Few people can remember how and why the first headstone appeared, however burials on this plot began around 1969. By the end of the 1970s, the “cemetery” was closed for burials by the park manager.

​Real Tennis

Jesmond Dene Real Tennis Club is one of only 27 Real Tennis courts in the UK and 46 in the world. Built in 1894, the court is situated on Matthew Bank between Jesmond and South Gosforth and is only 2-3 miles north of the centre of Newcastle.

Jesmond Dene Real Tennis Court
GNU Free Documentation License

​WW2 artefacts

Jesmond Dene House was used as HQ for 80 men of No. 2 Company of the 12th Battalion Northumberland Home Guard during WW2 and various modified tunnels and a pillbox are still present.​

Jesmond Dene House Now a Hotel and Restaurant still has many original features both inside and out
wfmillar / Jesmond Dene House

The Shoe Tree

No one knows when or why it started, but there (although technically part of Heaton) that is covered in shoes. A sign at the bottom reads “The shoe tree is an old Sycamore, which reaches nearly 40 metres high. There are lots of different stories about how the shoe tree came about, but it is thought some time ago this fine, but ordinary tree became the shoe tree when young people celebrated the completion of their exams by throwing their shoes high into the branches. This has continued and there are now shoes of all different types, showing the fashion trends of the last 20 years. The shoe tree was made famous by the novel “The Taxi Driver’s Daughter” by Julia Darling.” It’s so famous the council have to maintain it regularly in order to ensure the tree’s survival.

The Old Mill

Nestled in the heart of Jesmond Dene is the Old Mill, one of many mills that bordered the Ouseburn. The building that you see today is thought to date from the mid to late 19th century and is believed to have incorporated remnants of the earlier mill building. The mill is now in partial ruin, but you can still find some of the original machinery inside. The mill was bought by Lord Armstrong in 1862 and, although it was never used as a mill from the time of its purchase, it was still used as a dwelling house until the 1920s.

Photo by Philip Atkinson on Unsplash

​The Cattle Run

​In 1870 less than 400 [people lived in Heaton, in just 76 houses, it was a small village surrounded by open country side growing crops and herding cattle was the way of life before the village began to expand in the 1880s.

For centuries cattle had been driven down to pasture by the River Ouseburn from the fields above the valley. When Lord Armstrong was given the land, he had a deep channel dug so that cattle could follow the old track and be kept away from visitors.

​St John’s Palace

The Dene contains ruins of the manor house that Adam of Jesmond, Sherif of Newcastle built around 1260. Despite its name King John never visited the house – he died 50 years before it was finished. Adam was friend and protector to Edward, King John’s grandson. The House was built during a time of civil war between the Barons and the King. Adam wanted his house and land to be protected, so he gave it thick walls and built it like a small castle. Fortified houses like this could not be built without the King’s permission, which Adam was given as he was a supporter of the King. Records exist showing Adam became unpopular for embezzlement and extortion and applied to Henry for a licence to enclose, fortify and crenellate his house. Adam left his house when he joined Prince Edward, as one of his bodyguards, on crusade to the Holy Land. The Prince returned and became King Edward 1, but Adam never came back.

and finally… late night police chases

I grew up next to this park and recall many a happy stroll through its long and winding route next to the river Ouseburn; what you won’t see written is what actually happened down there on a Saturday night in the late 1990s, which is why I am here to help fill in the gaps.

The park is surrounded by several housing estates and is very easily accessible, which means that it was (and maybe still is) a magnet for the local teenage population. This meant that, come the “witching hour”, gangs of said teenagers descended upon a dark forest, bottles of White Lightning and fireworks in hand. Given that mobile phones were not readily available at that time, the next best form of entertainment was the local police force. One of the group would be nominated to call up the local constabulary  and explain that loud detonations were being heard in the vicinity of the bridge. Ten to fifteen minutes later the police car would then usually show up, at which point a series of fireworks would then be launched in its general direction. The aim was not to inflict injury on the police officer, rather to instigate  a late night chase through the forest, as this was the best form of thrill-seeking a 14-15 year old could hope to achieve given that they weren’t yet allowed to visit the nightclubs down the Bigg Market.

​To summarise..

If you ever happen to be up North then I would of course strongly recommend a visit to ​the Dene and its adjoining parks, but don’t recommend organising your own police chase whilst there.

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