Issue 210
September/October 2019


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Sep 16, 2019

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Biscuit-upon-Tyne

Nick Jones samples the wonder that is Ouseburn reborn and revitalised

I'M STANDING under Hadrian's Wall, not far from Wallsend on Tyneside, scoffing a chocolate biscuit, dreaming of toffee, mushrooms, and limes – a foodie nightmare!

Hadrian is several feet above my head. I hope he doesn't come crashing through the roof. Built in 1842, Ouseburn's Victoria Tunnel was a waggonway to transport coal from the Town Moor to the river Tyne.

Like Edinburgh's Scotland Street tunnel, it didn't last long and was latterly used for mushroom growing, as an air raid shelter, and a cold-war testbed (check out Adinda van t'Klooster's neon 'Rainbow Code' art installation, sadly no more after flooding).

Coal and shipbuilding defined Ouseburn for nearly two centuries. No longer. Few looked twice at this muddy, smelly, tired post-industrial backwater, haunted by the ghosts of biscuits, toffee, and Scandinavian cattle.

Low tide reveals the timbered bones of old coalers mired in sludge. Across the Tyne, Gateshead Council supercharged corporate, big-ticket stuff like Angel of the North, Sage, and Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.

The Blinking Eye Millennium Bridge revitalised the Quayside. Visitors arrived. Cafés, restaurants, hotels and niche business followed.Others went down river; enterprising individuals, artists needing affordable studio space, visionary entrepreneurs.

The Ouseburn Valley Cultural Quarter was born, re-inventing itself as a centre of creativity, and, now a 'hidden gem' for tourists. Serendipity in action. The collective energy of key players is impressive, with an impact well beyond the area.

Northern Print attracts artists from North Yorkshire, Cumbria, and Northumberland, runs an educational outreach programme with schools, promotes an International Print Biennale, and hosts a regular exhibition programme.

Coming this autumn is new work by Julian Meredith. Working directly with the texture of wood, he prints from whole planks, on a big scale. Found birds also feature, sensitively, beautifully, thoughtfully done.

The Biscuit Factory is said to be Britain's largest independent art gallery showcasing over 250 artists, and receiving over 50,000 visitors a year. 36 Lime Street's 40 artists' studios took over a flax mill. The Seven Stories Centre for the Children's Book makes a fascinating family day out, and is an important archive of original work by illustrators.

Mushroom Works houses more artists' studios. The Toffee Factory is home to a wide variety of unusual and creative companies, including online marketing firms, textile designers, virtual reality companies, and web designers.

But there's more.... Biscuit Factory offspring have popped up – Biscuit Tin, Biscuit Box. Even a Holy Biscuit, recently relaunched as Shieldfield Art Works, and committed to 'Socially Engaged Art'.

A highlight for the area is Ouseburn Open Studios, one in the spring and another in November – on the 23rd and 24th.

This is an antidote to Black Friday's strong-arming people to part with their cash to national chains and multinationals. Originally a small artist-led initiative, it's now a Big Thing with up to 8,000 people visiting, spending, eating, drinking – a thumbs-up to small, local, artisan, hand-crafted, well designed, beautiful, tasty, tasteful and unusual product.

Initiatives like this fly under the radar of global capitalism, an alternative economic model, valuing one-to-one relationships between maker and user, eschewing advertising hype and fakery.

All good, demonstrating the energy that created Tyneside is alive and kicking. But begging questions, such as how vulnerable this creativity is to global ups and downs. Or is it the way ahead, more self-sufficient and sustainable, strong enough to withstand such rough waters?

I wonder how Ouseburn's cultural energy and community can best engage and contribute to improving quality of life for all who live and work here. At present, for example, it's difficult for artists to find affordable accommodation, as developers take advantage of the student accommodation market. It's a challenge for all those who have invested so successfully in the area.

Fortunately the Ouseburn Trust is on the case, ensuring the benefits of regeneration reach all.

When you do visit, make sure you do your homework, and allow plenty of time to enjoy Ouseburn's many delights.


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