Winter transforms the steep-sided valley that cuts deep into the city of Newcastle, but the rushing waters of Ouse Burn are far too restless to sleep…
The soft gravity of snow muffles the sounds of the city far above, a steep path cut with wooden steps winds down into the deep cleft of the river valley. Ouse Burn courses its way past relics of a distant age, through a tiered, urban oasis of deep greens and loamy browns, studded with hidden outcrops of stubborn yellow sandstone. The oasis runs like a seam of natural vitality, almost into the heart of Newcastle. In the North East a Dene is just this – a steep valley.
That delicious crunching sound of feet in fresh snow brings a flood of memories, all gathered in winter’s crisp palm. The air cools as I descend, smiling absentmindedly, away from the sunlight-strewn, caffeinated hubbub of the open-air Saturday market on Armstrong Bridge, where down-jacket clad Jesmondites shop away their hangovers.
Crossing the Ouse Burn, I walk up to the other side of the ravine and follow ice-clad paths under a dense, evergreen canopy, a white blanket of snow covering every branch. Holly branches reach overhead, laden with red berries just in time for Advent. I suddenly realise I’ve been hearing an insistent murmur for several minutes, which sussurates in my ears like fragments of song from a badly tuned radio.
It’s the restless, rushing voice of Jesmond Falls…
One of the Fall’s outriders appears on my left, as squat hissing rapids. The rocky shelf of tumbling whitewater is overlooked by a derelict building, roof long caved in, for the brittle winter sun to fill, as if searching for a some lost fragment of history. It’s made from the same golden yellow sandstone as the valley’s walls, and seems to glow with its own, wan light.
As I climb down the riverbank and unpack my camera gear, a white labrador rushes silently past me and launches into the Burn, swimming for the rocky shelf. She pulls herself up in the middle of the weir, on a stone untroubled by the tumult, and stands heroically for a long moment, head turned over her shoulder, perhaps towards the insistent chirping of a guardian that’s been utterly drowned out by the water’s roar…
As I approach Jesmond Falls across the polished ice of the humpbacked bridge over Ouse Burn, the tumult looks picturesque and contained, as pleasing to the eye as it was designed to be.
It’s only as I scramble down tiers of rough sandstone boulders, encrusted with pools of slick ice, and through layers of complacent distance, that the Falls reveal a different character. I focus on my footing, stepping down the tiers until finally I am a single, careless slip away from a tumble straight into a deep, seething cauldron of pounding water. Searching tendrils of ice bracket the Falls, grasping at the impatient torrent, but the reservoir above the falls is far too heavy with time
The roar in my ears is complete, and its song is one of fury. The Falls cascade in a focussed rush, as if chasing down the source of some ancient slight, long forgotten but never forgiven. For a moment, I forget that this waterfall is man-made, installed in the Dene by Lord Armstrong who bought the land, and the Old Mill it contained, in the 1860s.
It’s as if proximity to this mad rush of water has unmasked some lurking demon, drummed into life by the incessant churning of the Industrial Revolution’s water mills and then caged by this grandiose, Victorian-folly-on-steroids.
As I turn and walk from Jesmond Falls, winter sunlight burns through a prism of cloud in a golden violet wash. The grip of the ice seems stronger up here, above the rushing waters below. The deep, still pool in front of me casts the sky back up at itself, as if trying to shrug off the attention of the sun.
There’s a view of the Old Mill, which dates back to the early 19th Century (before 1820), from high on the side of the Dene, on a disused footpath, which was truncated by a landslide in 2012.
The way that it still stands beside Ouse Burn, at once built from the landscape and apart from it, seems to make it not just a monument for an Industrial Heritage, but also for perspectives and truths lost with the passing of generations. It seems to be a metaphor for lessons we should have learned, revelations we should have had, but somehow just didn’t hear and didn’t heed.
As I stare at its walls, a jumble of yellow sandstone blocks, tessellated into a once-coherent mass, its ruined windows stare back at me. A cyclops eye and a yawning, toothless mouth shouting a sermon I am too distant to hear, through the last leaves of autumn that cling on, long past their season…
I trek up and out of the Dene, retracing my steps along footpaths coated with snow, or armoured sheets of re-frozen melt water. Tired limbs sap my mind as the cold finally bites through layers of goose feathers. I’m already fantasising about the warmth of a cosy pub and the first refreshing nip of cold beer on dry lips.
I almost don’t see the bench, placed carefully by the side of the path, gazing doggedly out into what seems like the thin air hanging cold and heavy over Jesmond Dene. Turning to my right, I see the perfect sliver of Ouse Burn carved through the canopy of trees, tumbling down its rocky course, holding aloft the humpbacked bridge and Jesmond Falls; the pride of Lord Armstrong.
As I set up my tripod for a long-lens shot, two lads wearing Newcastle United duvet coats stop alongside, interrupting their own conversation to wonder: “Oh, wow!” “Ha! Is that what you said wanted to see, like?” “I don’t suppose it was, no!”
Remembering that benches are put there for a reason, I turn to them with a grin: “Always stop at the bench, that’s the rule!”
All photos ©Matt Ray 2023, all rights reserved