The Streets of Newcastle – Castle Garth Stairs

Castle Garth StairsStanding upon the Swing Bridge over the Tyne at Newcastle; and looking up at the steep hill on which stand the Castle and the Moot Hall, it is hard to imagine the state of the declivity before its face was covered by the blocks of houses which now crowd it. Still harder is it, looking up the Castle Garth Stairs, hemmed in as they are on either side by high buildings, to recall the time when it was a mere footpath running up the wooded side of the hill to the ancient British fort perched on its summit. Yet it is not unreasonable to suppose that such was the case, and that the footpath occupied this very site. However this may have been, there is no reason to doubt that there was here a road way up the hill at least as early as A.D. 120, when Hadrian built his bridge across the Tyne, for it would be the nearest means of access from the bridge to the Roman castle, which was built where the Moot Hall now stands. It is probable, too, that stairs were then formed, and that they have ever since followed the same line.

At what period houses were first built on either side of the stairs it would be hard, if not impossible, to determine; but it is unlikely, as long as the eminence above was occupied by fortifications fit for service, that any buildings would be allowed here to form a sort of covered way for an attacking enemy. What was the nature of the buildings on the hill top in Saxon times, when Newcastle was the abode of religion and went by the name of Monkchester, we know not; but, in the time of the Conqueror, his eldest son Robert erected a castle here, afterwards rebuilt by William Rufus, and again replaced, in the reign and under the direction of Henry II., by the magnificent pile of which the Keep and some other portions still remain.

The Postern which stands near the head of the stairs, as shown in our illustration, and which Dr. Bruce says is the only Norman Postern extant in England if its circular arch is original, is a proof of the importance attached to this climbing road way. The arch does not go straight through the gate tower, but, for greater security against an attacking force, changes its direction about half way, and goes off at an obtuse angle from its original course. So we may safely conclude that for some time after the building of the Castle no houses were built upon the stairs. But we know bow the Castle Wardens in time began to neglect their duties, and suffered the place to fall into disrepair; for, when Edward III. came to the throne, “the castle of Newcastle-on-Tyne was so decayed that there was not in all the castle a single house or room where one could be received, nor one gate which could be closed.” Of all this neglect advantage would doubtless be taken by enterprising citizens; and so dwellings and shops would be erected on the stairs. King Edward set to work with vigour, and repaired the castle; but, as the town walls were now completed, there was less need of the inner fortress, and the clearing of its approaches might not be thought so necessary as before.

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