Wednesday, 3 June 2015

A modest birthday wish

When did Newcastle-on-Tyne become Newcastle upon Tyne?

That was the question posed on a Facebook page I enjoy visiting to look at old photos of the toon.

It was the cue for a lot of fiercely patriotic Geordies to assert that it had always been called Newcastle upon Tyne, at any rate since it stopped being called Pons Aelius.

Reminding themselves, for good measure, that it had been a proud county in its own right and never a mere part of Northumberland.


The finest street in England ...
... leading to the finest riverside in England ...
... via a magnificent railway arch ...
... bearing the world's least likely warning sign

Clearly no one recalled, as I do, a decree being handed down that we should stop calling the place Newcastle-on-Tyne, which was the normal form when I was a small boy.

I can’t remember whether it came from the City Council or the Post Office, and remarkably in the age of Google and Wikipedia I can find no record of he pronouncement being made, but I guess it was around 1960.

I do distinctly remember my father moaning about having to change the wording on our letterhead, and the postmarks on all local mail changing to the longer and grander form of “upon Tyne”.

A few years later my dad had occasion to moan again when the introduction of postcodes demanded another print job, and I was grateful for his blood pressure that the change in the county boundaries in 1974 did not make him print the things again.

Because although we were shunted from Longbenton in the historic county of Northumberland to North Tyneside in the new-fangled and bogus county of Tyne & Wear, our postal address remained “Newcastle upon Tyne”.

We lived yards from the city boundary and I cherished the grand sign bearing the coat of arms and the legend welcoming visitors to the “City and County of Newcastle upon Tyne”.

The road sign was much better than this; shame I never took a photo of it

It was one of those distinctive things, like yellow buses, the Tyne Bridge, singing Blaydon Races, and displaying unquenchable loyalty to an underperforming football team, that set Newcastle apart and gave me a surge of pride in my birthplace.

Which was, indeed, described as “upon Tyne” on my 1954 birth certificate.

I must admit that I have always thought of Newcastle as being part of Northumberland, not least because of the large, white LNER signs precisely halfway across the river on the King Edward Bridge, proclaiming that that was where Durham ended and Northumberland started.

Then there was the fact that Northumberland County Council based itself next to the New Castle, in what is now the Vermont Hotel, until the end of the 1970s. If, as I must accept, Newcastle was recognised as a county in its own right in 1400, it seemed odd that it took the council nearly 600 years to take the hint and move their base to Morpeth.

(They should, of course, have gone to Alnwick, which as any fule kno is the true county town of Northumberland, but that is a story for another day.)

A claim undisputed in Alnwick

Finally, and critically for a royalist like me, Newcastle did not have its own Lord-Lieutenant, but was part of Northumberland for this purpose. Though I note with pleasure that the first Duke of Northumberland, when appointed to this role in 1753, was titled “Lord Lieutenant, Custos Rotulorum and Vice-Admiral of the county of Northumberland, and Lord Lieutenant of the town and county of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.”

It seems a shame, given this quirky history, that we have not managed to create any pleasing apocryphal tales, like the widely-held misconception that Berwick-upon-Tweed is still at war with Russia over Crimea. Maybe we should work on that.

One fact on which we can all sadly agree is that is Newcastle formed part of the county of Tyne & Wear from its creation in 1974 until its welcome abolition in 1986. Why it retains a vestigial existence for ceremonial purposes, such as the Lord-Lieutenancy, is a total mystery to me.

Just plain wrong. Good riddance.

I am very proud to be a Novocastrian, Northumbrian, Englishman and Briton. But I can no more identify with Tyne & Wear or NewcastleGateshead than with the European Union.

Today, coincidentally, is my 61st birthday. If anyone else can remember the official clampdown on “Newcastle-on-Tyne” and let me know who issued that order and when, it would truly make my day.

mail@keithhann.com

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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