When the sunlight is thrown in a certain way through horse chestnut tree leaves, I am reminded of all the times that I’ve been an aspiring cyclist. I’m reminded too of all the times that my new found enthusiasm for a life on two wheels faltered as I failed to master the incline out of Newcastle’s Jesmond Dene and on to the grandeur of Armstrong Bridge, dismounting said bike and wheezing as I pushed the offending object to the top. Of course, this was only a slight hill on the edge of a city suburb. But to me it was Alpe d’Huez and I, sadly, was not Gino Bartali.
Plodging through the leaves gathered by the side of the road on my daily walk to Northumbria University, the dream persisted. Like a woman from the age of steam trains, buttered crumpets and Betjeman, I pictured myself gliding gracefully by the chattering river Ouseburn on September mornings, woollen scarf streaming behind me in the warm, shifting breeze. There, in the Autumnal sepia-tinged splendour of Jesmond Dene, I’d read the Brontë sisters and eat Granny Smith apples, pretending I was in the grounds of some country house or other instead of just two miles from the centre of Newcastle. I ignored the fact that this wasn’t 1911 and I wasn’t Virginia Woolf; if I had the right sort of bicycle then there was no reason why I couldn’t assume that role.
I first took action to make this dream a reality at the beginning of the second year of my undergraduate degree when, stumbling along Heaton’s Chillingham Road with a particularly nasty hangover one morning, I happened to pass a vintage shop with old prams, pushchairs, and tricycles stacked outside. My attention was caught momentarily by a white 1980s road bike, complete with mud guards, stand and bell, propped against the window. With a spontaneity surely inspired more by the Bombay Sapphire still coursing through my veins than the strength of my fantasy, I entered the shop – and left pushing a bicycle of my own.
My purchase was an unmitigated disaster. The tyres were bald and deflated and, when I tried to ride it home, it veered, worryingly, to the left. It weighed a tonne, was virtually impossible to pick up, and the pedals had an unfortunate habit of sticking every so often, resulting, inevitably, in my being thrown violently to the ground. It was a death trap, yes – but my god, wasn’t it a stylish death trap? On sunny Saturdays, in Ray-Bans and brogues, I would head out through the streets of Jesmond onto the wooded paths of the Dene, past the Old Mill where teenage boys jumped one by one into the water, and beyond the neo-Tudor splendour of Jesmond Dene house. It was with sadness that, some months later, surveying the scratches and bruises on my legs, I eventually had to concede that my bike was, in fact, trying to kill me, and it was time to say goodbye.
Other bikes followed, but it’s my white 80s bike I picture, when, on a Monday morning some years later, I find myself strolling through the Dene in my old brogues and flowery dress, with the weak winter sun filtering through the treetops like stained glass in a church window. There is something essentially romantic about a walk by oneself in Jesmond Dene that stirs up the hornet’s nest of memory, so that while my senses are alert to the warmth of the coffee cup seeping through my gloved hands and the Cocker Spaniel nonchalantly dragging the oversized branch along the pebbles, I’m always only half in the moment, set loose in a kaleidoscope of fleeting impressions: swinging between the outstretched hands of my parents down by the water mill; the goose-flesh raised on the back of my neck when I stumble, by accident, upon a chilling collection of tiny headstones in the pet cemetery; a scorching June day revising French verbs by rote in the long grass, and, of course, mornings spent whizzing up and down the river banks on my white bicycle.
Nestled on the outskirts of Newcastle are five interlinked green spaces that make up the Ouseburn Parks: Jesmond Dene, Paddy Freeman’s Park, Armstrong Park, Heaton Park and Jesmond Vale. The Dene is a three kilometre network of bridges, paths and open spaces in a narrow wooded valley, originally gifted by Lord Armstrong to the people of Newcastle in 1883 after he purchased and enclosed the land for his private use in the 1850s. The park was formally opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales and local people flocked to the green spaces in a time when Newcastle was marked by industry.
For all its leafy Victorian splendour, however, there remains a curious and unexpected urban undercurrent to Jesmond Dene, suggestive of its close proximity to the metropolitan environment. Gorgeous wooded paths wind round ancient trees, while fairytale stone bridges arch across the river over which dragonflies hover and in which Labradors swim.
And yet, every now and then, the hulking white profile of a high-rise block of flats looms above the trees to the South, like a curious schoolboy poking his head above the wall of the Secret Garden, and at certain places the roar of traffic on the main dual carriageway to the coast can be heard above the kingfishers (the dawn chorus, considered by experts as one of the best in the world, was professionally recorded by top sound recordist Chris Watson in 2008).
Red squirrels and all manner of birds dash back and forth between a variety of exotic trees introduced by Armstrong to the Dene back in the 19th century. A woman walks a Lurcher in wellies and waxed jacket past two men in suit jackets, flicking through their iPhones and heading back to the city to complete the day’s work. Horse droppings are scattered across the partially resurfaced road. Suddenly, you turn a corner and crumpled cans of Stella spill out of a bin. The stroller in the Dene dips, continually, between country rambler and city escape artist, oscillating between the two faster than you can say ‘picnic blanket’.
It is a place of contradictions, placed literally and figuratively on the border between nature and industry, idealism and reality. This is part of its appeal, and the reason I’ve continued to come back here all my life. As someone brought up a stone’s throw from the real countryside of Northumberland, I find I prefer the sculpted wildness of Jesmond Dene to ‘the real thing’.
When I was five-years old, it was the Dene I got excited about visiting, being strapped into the car and knowing that I’d be able to pile out and into Pets Corner – the menagerie of goats, pigs, and guinea pigs as exotic as lions and zebras and monkeys to a small child. It brought far more joy than days out to Rothbury or Otterburn. There’s always been something about the artifice of the Dene, and the sense that I can leave it just as quickly as I came and walk up to a café in Jesmond in less than ten minutes, or hop into a car and blast along the Coast Road to Tynemouth in 20, that has appealed to me.
In a way, I feel connected to the story of the city via the Dene, entwined with the many generations of people who have popped in and out of Armstrong’s wonderland labyrinth of blue and green. How many people have enjoyed moments of fleeting escapism on sunny evenings, leaving behind the red brick terraces and backyards of Heaton? How many mothers have brought toddlers on days out in the summer holidays, settling them down on picnic blankets and slathering sun cream on to peeling arms and noses? How many young couples have walked hand in hand beside the waterfall, watching the Autumn leaves shift and settle on the grass? How many old couples have done the same? Jesmond Dene is the story of the leisure time of a city, a picture of where people go to escape when their time is their own to do with as they please.
I have one particularly vivid memory of Jesmond Dene as a child that stays with me today. I imagine that I was six or seven at the time. It was the end of a hot day and I’d just finished an orange ice lolly, which had mainly melted down the front of the frilly sundress and all over my jelly sandals. We had come to a fork in the path: one trail carried on along the river while the other wound up into the silence of the trees. My Dad and older sister were chatting and laughing about something and, feeling left out and dragging my feet behind them, I wandered off up the top path as they continued on the lower trail. After a few moments, I turned round – they were nowhere to be seen. With my childish sense of abandonment, I decided to keep walking, oblivious to the panic I was causing my Dad. The sun slanted through the thick green of the leaves, casting shards of light over the path in front of me and across my hands and face. I remember being fascinated by the swarm of midges floating in the middle of the path, running into them and batting them away from my eyes and mouth. I’m not sure how long I wandered there by myself, but I clearly remember the path coming to the underside of a low bridge. Set into the side of a hill and shaded by tall trees, the bridge was small, claustrophobic and dark. When I walked beneath it my footsteps echoed and I was frightened. I ran through with a new sense of panic and the realisation that I was lost. Would I ever be found? As I rounded the corner and burst into tears, there was my Dad, bounding up some crooked, narrow steps from the lower trail with outstretched arms and a look of sheer relief all over his face.
He carried me back to the car in his arms, stopping beside the river so I could watch the mother duck and her ducklings glide along the water, my tears drying in the last of the sunlight. We started the slow walk up the hill to Armstrong Bridge, the noise of the traffic growing in the distance. And it’s here that I find myself walking 20 years later, paperback in hand, with the whirring of bicycle wheels behind me.
Photos by Phil Pounder