We plodded to the bluff, and saw a void
Between striated and serrated walls
Of stone. The raptors ruled that absence, toyed
With’the wind that herds and harries clouds, and bawls
Around the pinnacles, and, crumbling, falls.
Those currents which they’ve bridled, can they see
As interweaving pathways in the air?
And do they revel in their mastery,
Who seem to move in that which is not there,
And dance in three dimensions, debonair?
Perhaps in every life, though feebly planned,
One time arrives – perhaps, in some, it’s more –
When that which you inhabit, you command,
And, rapt in being, in your sky you soar.


We were convinced that the birds we’d seen were eagles. When we got back and zoomed in on our grainy photos, we realised – there was no getting away from it – that they were vultures.

Well, what does it matter? I reckon, it’s all about what G. K. Chesterton meant when he talked about the difference between the mythical lion (the symbol of chivalry which appears on shields and the England shirt) and the real lion (which lives in Africa and is probably no more noble than any other predator). He argues that the mythical one, firstly, does actually exist as a concept, even if it hasn’t got a physical incarnation; and secondly, that it actually matters more, in cultural terms, than the real lion – which most of us are also quite unlikely to see from day to day. What we wanted to have seen was a flock – if they would deign to appear in flocks – of mythical eagles, which are noble and valiant and monarchs of all they survey. We didn’t want to have seen a flock of vultures, who, as we know, work in estate agents or the City of London or the nastier end of journalism.

What we actually saw, however, was a phenomenal spectacle. And there’s nothing like finding yourself admiring something you didn’t expect to like, to make you acknowledge the prejudices you didn’t know you had.

You will see, even now, that I have felt obliged to call this poem “Griffons”.


Self-Loathing on a City Scale

1898 map

This article was written before the revision of the Blue House Roundabout scheme was announced.

How much does Newcastle City Council hate the physical fabric of this city? And what is the cause of its implacable rancour?

The city’s worst offences against itself are – perhaps – in the past. Those were the days when T. Dan Smith brought about the demolition of a sizeable chunk of the city’s Georgian centre, getting embroiled in bribery and corruption along the way. Those were the days when the Central Motorway punched through the historic urban fabric to the east of the centre, ensuring that visitors’ first view of the city from the end of the Tyne Bridge would ever more be that of a long concrete maw swallowing travellers and spitting them out again.  Meanwhile, poor old Gateshead, which has always been the poor relation, was being pretty much ripped up to make room for a tangle of highways. Nobody has ever been able to put this right.

Newcastle seemed to have learnt since then. The fairly recent St. James’ Boulevard, which also has to deal with traffic in volume, is nonetheless attractively open and safe for pedestrians and cyclists to use and cross. It shows that good traffic management is possible here.

Now Newcastle City Council wants to return to the bad old days with its appalling plans for the Blue House Roundabout. At present, it’s a busy, but functioning, junction occupying a particularly striking location – the intersection of two broad avenues of lime trees, some 130 years old, which cross the historic open spaces known as Duke’s Moor, Little Moor and the Town Moor. These spaces are under the jurisdiction of the hereditary Freemen of Newcastle upon Tyne, who have been exercising their right to graze cattle here for a thousand years or so. They form a green belt around the city centre and make its inner suburbs surprisingly pastoral.


NCC’s plans are simply to whack a motorway-style roundabout on the Moors.


It’s a scheme so egregiously anti-environmental that I almost wonder whether some sort of destructive game is being played here – a desire to amass the greatest number of points against:

We’re going to replace the junction with a bigger one.
Ten times bigger.
On public open space.
That’s been there for a thousand years.
Entailing the felling of a 130-year-old avenue of lime trees.
Without adequate cycling or pedestrian crossings.
On one of the key cycle routes from the suburbs into town.
When a recent report showed that the junction could be made safer and more efficient with signals and lane improvements.

You could only really make the scheme worse if you sent little bunny rabbits out to be run over at hourly intervals. As it stands, it’s a massively overblown statement of bad intent, an expensive way of sticking two fingers up to the city.

So why is the City Council so keen on the scheme? Is it simply intransigence and retrograde thinking? After all, everyone was doing things like this in the 1970s, and the canards that more road capacity cuts congestion, and that less congestion means more economic growth, are birds that are surprisingly hard to shoot down permanently; you think they’ve been killed off for dead, and then they come back to life. And some people’s minds work at geological speed.

I think there’s more to it, though, and it’s a question of identity.

The trouble is that Newcastle City Council seems almost ashamed of being in charge of a beautiful, functional and historically-significant city. They think it’s not what people want from the place. People expect Newcastle to be Grim Oop North; they expect Get Carter. When they get here – once they’re off the Central Motorway, that is – they find spacious neoclassical streets, landscape design on the grand scale, and green spaces extending into the heart of the city. And the City Council can’t handle being so la-de-da. Like the rich girl in the song – and I’m showing my age here, I apologise – they “think that poor is cool”. Whether that means economic poverty – we’ve still got plenty of that, NCC, don’t worry – or poverty in decision-making, or poverty of the urban environment. And we are all the worse for it.

You can comment on the plans here.


by Josephine Ellis, Blue Kayak