Aa went to Blaydon Races,
'Twas on the 9th of Joon,
Eiteen hundred an' sixty-two, on a summer's efternoon...
So goes the famous Geordie anthem ‘The Blaydon Races’ penned by George ‘Geordie’ Ridley in 1862. It was written to celebrate a horse race and carnival in Blaydon, a small town situated a few miles from Newcastle on the other side of the River Tyne. The song, written in the original music hall style of the Victorian era, describes an eventful coach journey from Newcastle to get to the races. It includes wheels falling off coaches, trips to the infirmary, old wives selling cider, and incorporates many memorable lines such as ‘Aa danced a jig an’ swung my twig that day aa went to Blaydon’. Geordie Ridley, born in 1835, was sent to work at his local colliery at the age of eight and by the time he was 18 he was working as a wagon man transporting coal. A bad injury at the pit forced him to leave and he began earning a living as a singer of Irish and Tyneside comic songs. He died in 1864, only two years after writing the Blaydon Races.
The song has since become synonymous with the fans of the city’s famous football club, Newcastle United. As today is the 9th of June (spelt ‘Joon’ by Ridley), and seen as the closest thing to a National Geordie Day by many from Newcastle, Northumberland and other parts of the region, this article pays homage to the great city, its history, its culture, and some of its favourite sons and daughters, past and present. It will bring your attention to things that Geordies (natives from Newcastle and the surrounding area) should know, and also some lesser known facts that will probably surprise a few people, be they from the region or not. So lads and lasses, if you’re ready, read on for a canny Geordie education!
Newcastle began life as a small Roman settlement with little more than a bridge, a fort and some dwellings and dates back to 122 AD. During this time it was known as Pons Aelius which is Latin for Hadrian’s Bridge (Hadrian being the Roman Emperor at the time). Around the same time work began on an incredible wall that was built across Northern England to keep the barbaric and unconquerable Scots out. The Roman Wall, or Hadrian’s Wall as it is also known, stretches from Carlisle in the West to Wallsend, near Newcastle, in the East. In order to locate when the city first became known as Newcastle one must fast forward several centuries and, more specifically, to the year 1088 during the time of Norman occupation. William the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert Curthose was building a castle on the site of the old Roman fort to defend the city from its neighbours in Scotland and it was this ‘new’ castle that gave the city its name.
The ancient county of Northumbria that extends northwards past Newcastle, and ends at the Scottish borders, is littered with castles. Perhaps the most picturesque are those at Bamburgh, Warkworth and Alnwick. The latter, owned by the Duke of Northumberland, was used as a location in the Harry Potter films. Just off the Northumberland coast is Lindisfarne. Also known as Holy Island, it is famed for its monastery and the Lindisfarne Gospels, the earliest surviving Old English copies of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and thought to date back to the early 8th century. To the south of Newcastle is Durham, a small city steeped in history with its notable cathedral and castle, also built by the Normans. Just outside of Newcastle is the enigmatic Angel of the North. This giant angel sculpture, the brainchild of renowned sculptor Antony Gormley, can be seen whilst driving along the A1 and is a sign to every Geordie that they are almost back home.
Newcastle was once famous for its coal mining industry and was therefore a driving force for the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the phrase ‘It’s like bringing coal to Newcastle’ is a well known idiom to describe doing something that is superfluous or unnecessary, a bit like running the sprinkler when it is raining. The area was also key to the birth of the railways, with one of its pioneers, George Stephenson, otherwise known as the Father of the Railways, coming from Newcastle. It was Stephenson, an engineer, who first worked out how to use high-pressure steam to power a locomotive engine. He famously invented the ‘Stephenson Rocket’ and also built the first public railway line in the world. He also invented a safety lamp for miners. His thirst for improvement was typical of the great innovators and free thinkers of the Industrial Revolution. The city also became one of the most important shipbuilding areas making many sea vessels not only for the United Kingdom, but also for the rest of the world. Charles Parsons, the great scientist and engineer, also from Newcastle, invented the steam turbine and in 1897 went on to build the 100 ft Turbinia. Fitted with turbine machinery and achieving speeds of 34 knots, it was the fastest ship in the world.
Another famous inventor and scientist from the region was Joseph Swan, an early developer of a successful incandescent lightbulb. The lightbulb had already been around for many decades but Swan made significant breakthroughs regarding its viability as a commercial product. In 1879 he successfully demonstrated a working lamp to over 700 people in a lecture theatre in Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society Library, making it the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity. The main drawback to his lightbulb was that it could only burn for 30 minutes before burning out. Thomas Edison saw this problem and corrected it by using a filament that would burn for much longer, making it a commercial success. The two would subsequently clash over patents and when Edison unsuccessfully tried to sue Swan they decided to go into business together. Forming the Edison and Swan Electric Light Company, also known as Ediswan, they would work collectively on further perfecting their life works. In 1879 Swan was also lighting up the streets of Newcastle making Mosley Street the first in the world to be illuminated by electric street lighting. Ten years later the city would also have the world’s first proper power station, given that modern electrical power supply was invented in Newcastle. Another great Industrialist, Lord Armstrong, also a native of Newcastle, and inventor of guns and artillery, owned Cragside. This beautiful stately home near Newcastle was the first house in the world to be powered by hydro-electricity and would later also be the first to be fully lit by Swan’s incandescent lightbulb.
On the political stage, Charles Grey, former Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, was leader of multiple reform movements, most notably the Great Reform Act of 1832, which increased the franchise and not only gave more people the opportunity to vote but also appeased the working classes by increasing workers rights. Hailing from Newcastle he was also in power as the Abolition of Slavery Act passed in 1833. Grey’s Monument, built in 1838, is a constant celebration of his achievements. It stands at the head of Grey Street, which just like Earl Grey Tea, is named after him. As one of Newcastle’s most dazzling jewels, Grey Street in recent years has been twice voted best street in the UK in a poll by listeners of BBC Radio 4. It is certainly beautiful with stunning Georgian architecture, dating back to the 1830s, and has a perfect curve that leads down to the city’s Quayside area. There is another proud statue of one of Newcastle’s other favourite sons, Lord Admiral Collingwood, which stands several miles from the city where the river meets the sea at Tynemouth. Like so many of his contemporaries, Cuthbert Collingwood embarked upon his naval career aged only 12 and was to have an illustrious career at sea. In later years he was partner to Nelson in many of the Napoleonic naval victories and became his successor at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. After Nelson sadly lost his life during the early stages of the conflict, it was Collingwood who bravely led the British fleet to decisive victory against the joint forces of France and Spain. Britain now ruled the waves.
In this brief history of key historical figures from Newcastle it may have been noticed that women have not had a mention so far. This is largely due to the fact that the role of women was very different to what it is today. In a world of inequality, women were seen as inferior and a lack of power meant they were unable to make the same impact as men in society. Things did slowly begin to change, mainly due to the Suffragette Movement which gained momentum in the ealy 1900s. As a result of many years of campaigning, partial equal rights were achieved in 1918 when over 8.4 million women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote but it would not be until the Representation of the People Act of 1928 that women received the vote on the same terms as men (over the age of 21). One notable woman, Emily Wilding Davison, from Morpeth in Northumberland, fought her entire life for women’s rights. A tough militant activist and member of the region’s Suffragette movement, she was arrested on nine occasions, went on hunger strike seven times and was force fed on forty-nine occasions. A key figure for winning women the right to vote, she became famous for being trampled to death after running out in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. A statue of her was unveiled in Morpeth in 2018 which shows her on hunger strike in prison. Another famous woman from the region was Grace Darling from Bamburgh. A lighthouse keeper’s daughter, her bravery and participation in the rescue of survivors from the shipwrecked ‘Forfarshire’ in 1838 brought her national fame. She and her father risked their own lives by going out to the shipwreck in a tiny rowing boat. As a result they managed to bring several survivors to shore in what were intolerably dangerous conditions.
Sadly the old industries of coal mining and shipbuilding that kept the region in employment for many years, have since disappeared. This led to high levels of unemployment and a bleak future for the younger population. The song ‘I’m Coming Home Newcastle’ by Busker (see video below) beautifully illustrates what it was like for people in Newcastle during the times of recession in the 1970s and 80s where people had to move further afield to find employment. The hit TV comedy series of the 1960s and 70s ‘The Likely Lads’ was set in Newcastle and, written by Dick Clement and Geordie writer Ian Le Frenais, it encapsulates some of the difficulties of life in the region during this period. A similar theme of hardship was later taken up in the 1980s hit TV programme ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’, also written by Clement and Le Frenais. It tells the story of three Geordie bricklayers who, unable to find work in the UK, have to go to Dusseldorf in Germany to gain employment.
In recent decades, however, the city has reinvented itself as a powerhouse in business, arts and sciences. It is home to two world class universities and students make up a large percentage of the population. Newcastle University is prodigious for research, law and dentistry (and as a result is very popular with trainee tooth fairies), whilst Northumbria University focuses on business. There are several museums and galleries including the Centre for Life with its Science Village, the Discovery Museum which highlights the history of the city and houses Parson’s ship, the Turbinia, the Great North Museum formerly known as the Hancock, and the Laing Art Gallery, opened in 1904 and designed in the Baroque style. There has been huge regeneration and investment in the region, particularly on the Quayside. With the Sage Music Centre, an imaginative and modern structure designed by architect Norman Hunter, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, a converted flour mill and venue for the 2011 Turner Prize, and a spectacular array of iconic bridges over the River Tyne, it is one of the most photogenic river fronts in the country.
The Tyne Bridge, with its striking through arch structure and impressive twin towers, is perhaps the greatest icon of the city. Quickly winning a place in the hearts of the local people, it symbolizes not only Tyneside’s industrial past, but also its recent regeneration. It was completed in 1928 and used as a model for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Another notable bridge is the High Level Bridge which was the first in the world to be built on two levels, the top one for train lines and the lower for road transport and pedestrians. The Swing Bridge, built in 1876 by Lord Armstrong, uses hydraulic power to turn 900 in order to allow taller ships to pass by. At the time it was the largest swing bridge in the world. The most modern bridge is the Millenium Bridge which is also known as the blinking eye bridge due to its shape and tilting method. The Quayside’s reputation promises to be enhanced even further over the next couple of years as building work will soon begin on a huge leisure complex in Gateshead on the other side of the river, which will include a new 13,000 seater indoor concert arena, conference centre, hotels, restaurants and bars. At the same time work will shortly begin on the Why Aye Wheel which will be the biggest in Europe, and even bigger than the London Eye.
Newcastle is famous for its lively nightlife which attracts many visitors to the region. The Geordies love a night out and a good drink. In the Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice Destination Awards for European Nightlife destinations, four of the UK’s nightspots finished in the top 10; Newcastle was awarded 3rd Place behind London, and Berlin. In more recent times it has become very popular with stag and hen parties and the city has gained a certain notoriety for its drinking and noctural frivolities. This could be thanks partly to the reality TV programme ‘Geordie Shore’, famed for its late night drunken debauchery and perpetual partying. The world famous Newcastle Brown Ale, also known as a bottle of dog or a bottle of broon, is also from Newcastle and its popularity allows it to be exported globally. Another thing the city is famous for is Greggs, the largest bakery chain in the UK. It specialises in savoury snacks such as pies, pasties and sausage rolls but also does delicious sweet products such as custard doughnuts and peach melbas.
Many people wonder where the name Geordie comes from and two possible explanations exist. One explanation derives from the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. A year earlier a German Protestant had been apppointed as King of Great Britain, despite strong claims from the Catholic James Stuart, also known as the ‘old pretender’. A large army of Scots and Northumbrians wished for James Stuart to take the crown and called themselves the Jacobites. All Northumbrian towns declared support for the Jacobites with the one major and important exception of Newcastle. As Newcastle’s trade and livelihood depended so vitally on royal approval, its merchants and gentry could not risk becoming involved in a plot against the new king so officially the folk of Newcastle had to declare for King ‘Geordie’ – Geordie being a nickname for George. This in turn angered the Jacobites who began referring to those supporters of King George as Geordie’s men. The other explanation discounts the historical theory and suggests that it stems from George Stephenson who, as mentioned earlier, invented a miner’s lamp. This was in 1815 and over time the lamps and then the miners themselves became known as Geordies. It is not clear which explanation is true but, either way, it does not detract from the fact that Geordies are still some of the greatest people on Earth! Famous for their friendly welcome and good sense of humour, they are typically seen as honest working class folk who may not have much but would give the coat off their back if you were cold.
The Geordie accent is one of the most endearing in the United Kingdom with expressions such as ‘Why aye man’, ‘Y’alreet pet’ and ‘Gannin doon the Toon’ meaning ‘Of course’, ‘Are you alright darling’ and ‘Going to the town centre’. The dialect contains a large amount of vocabulary and distinctive words and pronunciations not used in other parts of the United Kingdom and has much of its origins in the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxon populations who migrated to England after the end of Roman Imperial rule. This language was the forerunner of Modern English but while the dialects of other English regions have been heavily altered by the influences of other foreign languages, particularly Latin and Norman French, the Geordie dialect retains many elements of the old language. An example of this is the pronunciation of certain words; ‘dead’, ‘cow’, ‘go’, ‘house’ and ‘strong’ are pronounced ‘deed’, ‘coo’, ‘gan’, ‘hoos’ and ‘strang’ which is how they were pronounced in the Anglo-Saxon language. ‘Bairn’ and ‘hyem’, meaning ‘child’ and ‘home’, respectively, are examples of Geordie words with origins in Scandinavia. Some words used in the Geordie dialect are used elsewhere in the Northern United Kingdom. The words ‘bonny’ meaning ‘pretty’, ‘howay’ meaning ‘come on’, ‘stot’ meaning ‘bounce’ and ‘hadaway’ meaning ‘go away’ or ‘you’re kidding’, all appear to be used in Scotland together with ‘aye’ meaning ‘yes’ and ‘nowt’ meaning ‘nothing’. Many words, however, appear to be used exclusively in Newcastle and the surrounding area, such as ‘canny’ (a versatile word meaning ‘good’, ‘nice’ or ‘very’), ‘hacky’ meaning ‘dirty’, ‘netty’ meaning ‘toilet’, ‘hoy’ meaning ‘throw’ and ‘hockle’ meaning ‘spit’. From the aforementioned information, one should therefore be able to work out what ‘Haddaway or al hockle on ya’ may mean (with ‘al’ meaning ‘I will’ and ‘ya’ meaning ‘you’).
Geordies are a very proud nation and at the heart of Geordie life is the football club, Newcastle United, formed in 1882. They play at St James’ Park, one of the few grounds in the country to be located in the city centre. It is known as the Cathedral on the Hill due to the fact it is built on a hill and football is seen as more important than religion. Newcastle fans are known as the Toon Army and the club’s nickname is the Magpies taken from the black and white stripes on their shirt. They have won the league four times, the FA Cup on six occasions and the Inter City Fairs Cup once. But for all its passion and rich footballing heritage, the club has had little or no success for over 50 years. The last time they won a cup of any importance was in 1969 when they won the Inter City Fairs Cup, a forerunner to the Europa League. Prior to that, domestically they won the FA Cup three times in five years, in 1951, 1952 and 1955. In the 1990s they came agonisingly close to winning silverware on numerous occasions. They finished second in the Premier League in 1996 and 1997 and also lost in successive FA Cup Finals in 1998 and 1999 before getting knocked out in the Semis in 2000. They have also appeared in the Champions League with the highlight being a 3-2 victory against the mighty Barcelona in 1997. They also became the first club to lose their first three Champions League group matches but still qualify for the next round after miraculously securing victories in the last three. Famous Geordie footballers who played in the black and white stripes include Jackie Milburn, Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer, whilst Kevin Keegan, whose father was a Geordie miner, won promotion with the club both as a player and manager and took the Magpies so very close to title glory in 1996. The Charlton brothers, Bobby and Jackie, famous for winning the World Cup with England in 1966, were born just up the road in Ashington. Although neither played for Newcastle, Jackie did manage them for a while in the mid-80s and never forgot his roots. Bobby Robson, manager of England in the World Cups of 1982, 1986 and 1990, was also from the region. He went on to manage Newcastle for several years leading them to the higher echelons of the league. The club was taken over by new Saudi-backed owners in 2021. Now dubbed ‘the richest club in the world’, the fortunes of the once mighty Magpies are expected to change for the better in the coming years.
In the world of rugby Jonny Wilkinson, who famously scored the drop kick winner against Australia to win the Rugby World Cup for England in 1993, was a Newcastle Falcons player for many years and helped them to the Rugby Premiership title in 1998. Newcastle have also hosted important rugby finals in recent years including the Heineken Champions Cup and the European Rugby Challenge Cup, both taking place at St James’ Park. Another iconic event for the region is the annual Great North Run, the brainchild of North East runner Brendan Foster. This half marathon has been going since 1981 and is the largest current mass-participation running event in the world with now almost 60,000 runners competing every year and raising millions of pounds for very worthwhile charities, many in fancy dress costumes. Tony ‘the fridge’ Morrison, who up until recently participated every year, was given his nickname because of the fridge that he had strapped to his back whilst completing the course. The Race begins in Newcastle, before passing over the iconic Tyne Bridge, into Gateshead, and ends along the seafront in South Shields in front of huge crowds.
There are many famous Geordies from the world of showbiz. The most notable musicians include; Brian Johnson (see funny video below), the lead singer from ACDC and previously of Newcastle 1970s glam rockers Geordie, Sting, formerly of the Police, Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, the Animals who famously sang ‘House of the Rising Sun’, Lindisfarne and their classic ‘Fog on the Tyne’ made even more famous by Gazza in the 90s, Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, the Lighthouse Family, Cheryl Cole from Girls Aloud, Perrie Edwards and Jade Thirlwall from Little Mix and, most recently, North Shield’s very own Sam Fender. TV personalities, Ant and Dec, previously of ‘Byker Grove’ fame, are also from Newcastle as are the ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’ trio Timothy Healy, Kevin Whateley and Jimmy Nail. Actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson famous for ‘Blackadder’ and ‘Mr Bean’ is from Newcastle and prior to his career in comedy he gained a degree in engineering at Newcastle University. Film director Ridley Scott who made ‘Titanic’ and the ‘Alien’ films is a Geordie as is his brother Tony Scott who directed ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Days of Thunder’. Interestingly, their great uncle, Dixon Scott, designed and built the Bijou News-Reel Cinema in 1937 which today is known as the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle’s very own independent cinema. Other noteworthy Geordies include; actress Jill Halfpenny, TV chef and one half of the Hairy Bikers, Simon King, Ross Noble, the stand-up comic, Catherine Cookson, the best-selling author, Chris Donald, founder of the adult-humour comic ‘Viz’, and Jamie Bell who played ‘Billy Elliot’ in the successful film and West End musical of the same name. More recently he played Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin in the Hollywood blockbuster, ‘Rocketman’. ‘Vera’, the hit crime detective TV series is also set in Newcastle and her author, Ann Cleaves, lives along the coast at Whitley Bay.
Newcastle, it would seem, has had more than its fair share of ups and downs through the years. But every time it gets knocked down, it simply gets back up again with a greater tenacity to succeed and a determination to improve. Its people are its strength. They are friendly and generous. They graft hard with a quiet optimism for the future. It is a proud city built on the innovation and individuality of past Geordies who helped to change the world. During times of hardship when it has been left to fend for itself it manages to find dynamic ways to reinvent and rejuvinate itself as its survival instincts kick in. The same could have been said for Geordie Ridley. After his accident down the mine as a young man, he too had to reinvent himself, finding fame as a talented singer in the city’s music halls. He would be truly amazed to see how his beloved city has evolved since he wrote the Blaydon Races in 1862 and thrilled to hear his famous song being performed with such pride and passion at St James’ by 50,000 fellow Geordies. The fact that it has been adopted as a Geordie national anthem is a great tribute to Ridley, a man who, despite a life of hardship, just got on with it. His memory and his song, so important to Geordie culture, will live on for many many years to come. Below, for your enjoyment, are the lyrics, retaining all of the original Geordie dialect, together with a video of the song. Enjoy ya’sels and gan canny!
Happy Geordie Day everyone!
The Blaydon Races
Aa went to Blaydon Races, 'twas on the ninth of Joon,
Eiteen hundred an' sixty-two, on a summer's efternoon;
Aa tyuk the 'bus frae Balmbra's, an' she wis heavy laden,
Away we went 'lang Collin'wood Street, that's on the road to Blaydon.
Ah me lads, ye shudda seen us gannin',
We pass'd the foaks alang the road just as they wor stannin';
Thor wis lots o' lads an' lassies there, aal wi' smiling faces,
Gannin' alang the Scotswood Road, to see the Blaydon Races.
We flew past Airmstrang's factory, and up to the "Robin Adair",
Just gannin' doon te the railway bridge, the 'bus wheel flew off there.
The lassies lost their crinolines off, an' the veils that hide their faces,
An' aw got two black eyes an' a broken nose gannin' te Blaydon Races.
When we gat the wheel put on away we went agyen,
But them that had their noses broke they cam back ower hyem;
Sum went to the Dispensary an' uthers to Doctor Gibbs,
An' sum sought out the Infirmary to mend their broken ribs.
Noo when we gat to Paradise thor wes bonny gam begun;
Thor was fower-an-twenty on the 'bus, man, hoo they danced an' sung;
They called on me to sing a sang, aa sung them "Paddy Fagan",
Aa danced a jig an' swung my twig that day aa went to Blaydon.
We flew across the Chain Bridge reet into Blaydon toon,
The bellman he was callin' there, they call him Jackie Broon;
Aa saw him talkin' to sum cheps, an' them he was pursuadin'
To gan an' see Geordy Ridley's concert in the Mechanics' Hall at Blaydon.
The rain it poor'd aall the day an' mayed the groons quite muddy,
Coffy Johnny had a white hat on – they war shootin' "Whe stole the cuddy."
There wis spice stalls an' munkey shows an' aud wives selling ciders,
An' a chep wiv a hapenny roond aboot, shootin' "Noo, me lads, for riders."