I cannot remember exactly when I first saw the Ouseburn area. It was many years ago, when I was an undergraduate. It was a place where some of my friends then went regularly for live folk music and real ale, and through which I walked with other friends in the early hours of the morning (when returning from nightclubbing in the City Centre to their flat in the East End of Newcastle upon Tyne). Back then, it was an area that I would have felt nervous about wandering around on my own. It felt like a place that had been abandoned in the daytime.
Around 1996, I briefly considered taking on a pottery workshop there. I had been made redundant and was embarking on an M Phil, but I was sorely tempted to change my mind and try developing a career as a ceramic artist, making handbuilt ceramic sculptures and vessels. I still regret not taking that plunge. More recently, I did life drawing at studios in the area. I was so nervous about trying to draw after a decade or more since the last life class, but the moment I smelt that particular smell of wood, white spirit and oils, I began to relax. I had missed so much being in a proper studio and it felt so much like my natural environment.
The Ouseburn Valley is somehow very much my sort of place. It is a place that is not so obvious. When you are above it, you cannot quite see where it is and how to get in, and when you are in it, the rest of the world seems far away. Unlike many of the others who are enthusiastic about the valley, I have never frequented the pubs much. I go to discover and look at the traces of its past (distant and recent), to watch and listen to the wildlife, to contemplate the river, and to talk to the farm animals (especially the chickens and bantams). Most of all, I go to take photographs and to think.
It is a place that seems to change constantly. The river and the plants in the valley change with the seasons, creating different kinds of sound. It is a place where sound is especially important, from the rumble of the Metro trains coming down the legs of the slender concrete viaduct to the bleating of lambs at their feet, from the gentle clinks and chatter outside the pubs to the snatches of songs as bands write songs and rehearse. Several times a year, a throng of smiling people fill the area, attending one of the big events such as The Late Shows in May, or the Ouseburn Festival in July.
The dereliction left behind by dead industries turns into an edgy sort of green paradise as plants colonise and cover the tumble of bricks that were once walls and the rusting corrugated sheets that used to roof some of those walls. There are flashes of colour from bullfinches and goldfinches. Some of this rampant greenery will be removed again as the derelict plots are redeveloped as offices, workshops or housing.
That was how I started to become more deeply involved with Ouseburn. I saw Northern Architecture tweet about a series of workshops that they were running from autumn 2011 to early 2012 about Ouseburn’s future. They gave us some training in how to look at and assess planning applications for substantial developments. I hope that they will be able to do some more work with us on this in the future.
I was not sure what to expect or what would happen at the end. I was nervous at the prospect of getting involved in a community thing, especially as it involved an established community, but as I attended the workshops, I realised that maybe I had relevant knowledge and experience that I could offer to help others. I had sort of forgotten that I know quite a lot about buildings, architectural design and the environment. We did an exercise of considering a potential development, and I rediscovered how much I care about people having a good environment. A bad environment can break lives and spirits.
So, I have committed myself to going to some more meetings in which we are exploring how we move things forward and make things happen. I am also doing some work that will help establish online communication about the events and issues. Last week, I was thinking that maybe this is the stage at which I step away from being involved. Over the weekend, I was drafting a report and today I have been mapping the content of a couple of existing websites (I find it hard to resist organising information). I suppose I am a volunteer, in an informal sort of way. I am not sure that that was what I intended to be, but Ouseburn casts that kind of spell on people.