Between 2009 and 2016 I made over 20 Tyneside films which are available on the Alikivi You Tube channel. In 2012 Vanished was a documentary about the lost heavy industry on Tyneside now commemorated by pieces of public art along the riverside.
They reflected the past of coal, steel and shipyards which dominated our landscape. In 2004 when I was making a video about art on the riverside I filmed some of them from a helicopter capturing the location of the piece.
On the seafront in South Shields is the Conversation Piece with Tyne Anew on the north side of the river, and on the banks of the Tyne at Hebburn I talked to artist, Charles Quick, who designed Flash.
In 2002 I was invited to put a proposal in for a piece of artwork for Hebburn Riverside park. After talking to people in the area and doing some research about the history of the area I discovered there were lots of industries in Hebburn, but not so evident anymore – shipbuilding, coalmining, cokeworks and electrical engineering.
One thing that would link all those together was industrial flashes of light from the arc welding or the cokeworks.
I worked with many different communities to design flashes of light and these were orchestrated through a number of LED’s on the top, it was all solar powered so it really was looking to the future. There was no cabling linking any of the columns, it was all radio controlled. There was a radio receiver that tells all the columns when to come on and off.
They can come on at night and there’s a timetable so they always come on in the dark, and also 30 second flashes of light every 15 minutes during the day. So it was a piece that would work in the day and at night.
Also featured in the film was former Whitburn colliery miner, now artist, Bob Olley.
Well I worked at Whitburn Colliery from 1957 till the colliery closed in ’68. Whitburn was a wet pit mostly and I was working in the east yard seam three miles out under the North Sea. It took us three quarters of an hour to get in and three quarters of an hour to get out. I think it’s because it’s such an adverse industry, danger, and whatever else, a sense of humour developed.
When the colliery closed it was the push I needed to get out. When I first went into the artistic side of my life the stuff I did was very dour, mostly pen and ink work. Then I moved away from coal mining for about 15 years then suddenly I got this urge to go back to the subject.
Up to about 15 years ago I would say most people in the North East their lives were influenced by the coal industry. The amount of people that were involved with the transportation of coal, the winning of the coal, the processing of the coal, everybody’s life was touched by coal.
There was a lot of railway lines which used to criss-cross around South Tyneside, now they are used for walking and cycle paths. One man who remembers what it was like was John Cuddihy.
Well I was 40 years on the railway I worked at Sunderland, up to Consett, Darlington and over to Durham. Mostly worked South Shields station, High Shields station and Harton Junction. You had a Harton railway system and you could see the trains coming from Hilda Yard and through the tunnel under where the La Strada nightclub was, then up to Harton low staithes and then we’d run the wagons back.
Then under the British rail system you had the huge system at Green Lane, a massive system at Tyne Dock bottom where you used to get these big nine ’F’ engines hauling these ore trains all the way to Consett. They would haul through Green Lane at high speed. The fireman used to be really fit to haul all the way up a bank to Consett.
If you were on the Marsden Rattler you could travel from Westoe Lane, a huge station with a signal box there an’ al – it was very impressive. You could travel through from Westoe to Whitburn and travel back it was only a short distance done on an aged rolling stock.
After that they pulled it all down, done away with it all together, there’s photographs of how it was and I took one in 1995 of the station. After that they built flats on it you wouldn’t think there’d been anything there – it’s a shame.
By the mid 1980’s there was virtually no shipbuilding on the Tyne, but one man who spent the early years of his working life there, was Vince High.
I started working in the shipyards when I left school in 1975. My Grandad had been a welder, also my uncle. So it was a natural thing for me to aspire to be the same as them, the fact that they were welders was a no brainer for me – I wanted to be like them.
A lot of the guys prided on the fact that they never lost anytime at all. I have visions coming back of the time there was a roller shutter that used to come down dead on 7.30am.
So if you were at the top of the bank and the shutter was coming down, myself and my mate would saunter down happy to lose a quarter hours pay, but you’d see some guys running down, throwing their haversacks under the shutter just before it hit the ground and doing a commando roll into the yard just to save a quarter hours pay.
Looking at the river now compared to say 20 years ago it’s actually incredible. Clearly the shipyards to all intents and purposes are gone, that high employment is gone, but what I think is happening is we’re trying to make an alternative use for the river now.
Whereas at one time it was about industry, work and employment, now it seems to be about improving the housing and getting people actually living near the river again.
Watch the film here with narration by Tom Kelly and music from Ron Smith.
Gary Alikivi May 2021.