Heritage Open Days 2021 (10-19 September)

Celebrating the history of Newcastle’s Ouseburn Parks

Every September, organisations, businesses, community groups, and volunteers come together to mark Heritage Open Days – England’s largest festival of history and culture.

To mark this year’s Heritage Open Days, which takes place from Friday 10 to Sunday 19 September, we’re taking a look at the history of some of Newcastle’s most popular parks, and their connection to one of Britain’s great industrialists.

During the 19th century, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle became a hub for Britain’s expanding industrial revolution. Thanks to the power of the River Ouseburn the dene was the perfect location for watermills, quarries and pits, and even an iron foundry.

In the 1850s, William George Armstrong – owner of the Elswick Works manufacturing plant in Newcastle – began to purchase large areas of the land by the sides of the River Ouseburn, from South Gosforth to Warwick Street. In 1851 he inherited more land in the area following the death of his former work colleague and close friend, Armorer Donkin.

After marrying, William and his wife Margaret Armstrong moved to Jesmond Dene and began to cultivate what we know today as one of Newcastle’s most beautiful public parks. Whilst the Armstrong’s Northumberland residence, Cragside, is arguably their most well-known landscaping project, Jesmond Dene was their first.

They began to transform the area by planting new and exotic plants and shrubs, including cedars, junipers, Californian Redwoods and the rhododendron. They created footpaths and walkways, as well as bridges to enjoy the views over the river. Their most dramatic transformation was the introduction of a large waterfall.

Many historians have referred to Lord Armstrong as an early environmentalist, with a passionate interest in renewable sources of energy, like water and solar power. Much of his work in Jesmond Dene reflected this enthusiasm, and paved the way for innovations he developed in Cragside, including the milestone of the building being the first house in the world to be lit by electricity.

Jesmond Dene remained a private area of land throughout the 1850s and 60s as it was developed, but members of the public were invited to experience this stunning new oasis in the heart of their city twice a week, with the small payment required gifted to a local hospital.

In 1879, Lord Armstrong gifted the first of three areas of land to allow the then Newcastle Corporation to create a new public space for the rapidly growing population in the city. That area of land is known today as Heaton Park.

1883 saw Lord Armstrong gift his second and third areas of land – Armstrong Park and Jesmond Dene. The three linked areas of land we’re collectively known as Armstrong Park, which have since returned to their individual names.

Jesmond Dene and its connected Ouseburn Parks – Armstrong Park and Heaton Park – were officially opened to the public in 1884 by the Prince and Princess of Wales.

The Armstrongs continued to live in Jesmond Dene until Margaret’s death in 1893. Lord Armstrong then moved to Cragside until his death in 1900.

Upon gifting his land to the Newcastle Corporation, Lord Armstrong said that Jesmond Dene Park must be used as a park and recreation ground. His wishes are respected to this day.

To celebrate this year’s Heritage Open Days, Urban Green Newcastle and the Friends of Jesmond Dene will be running a free heritage walk through Jesmond Dene on Thursday 16 September. The tour will begin at Ouseburn Parks Visitor Centre in Jesmond Dene at 13:30 and finish at approx 15:30. Whilst the walk is free, booking is essential to ensure it can be delivered safely. Please visit the eventbrite page to secure your place.

If you’d like to know more about the history of Jesmond Dene and its connection to Lord and Lady Armstrong, you can find more information on The Friends of Jesmond Dene website – www.jesmonddene.org.uk.

Yvonne Shannon from the Friends of Jesmond Dene also wrote this fascinating article about the Armstrong’s’ long history with the Ouseburn Parks to commemorate a visit from William Watson-Armstrong of Bamburgh Castle, who visited Jesmond Dene to mark the founding of Urban Green Newcastle.

You can find out more about Heritage Open Days, and search for more events taking place across Newcastle and the North East, by visiting heritageopendays.org.uk.

Images courtesy of Newcastle City Library Photographic Collection and National Trust.