Factory Night @ Dunston Staithes, Gateshead

Built by the North East Railway in 1890, the staithes were used to load coal arriving via train from the North Durham coalfields onto ships. They were used until the 1970s and were finally closed in the 80s. The staithes were reopened as part of the National Garden Festival in 1990 but have remained derelict since. Part of the structure was damaged by fire in 2003. Today, the staithes are reputed to be the largest surviving structure of this type in Europe, and are protected as a Listed Building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

In 2002, work began on a development of stylish riverside apartments and houses designed by Wayne Hemingway. Known as Staithes South Bank, this development celebrates the area’s heritage as well as improving the setting for the historic structure. Unfortunately, in the early hours of 20 November 2003, a section of the Staithes was destroyed by fire. As a result, access onto the Staithes themselves is usually not possible, but Gateshead Council agreed special access to a lucky few creative people for this last Factory Night of the programme. A short tour by Clare Lacy (Senior Conservation Officer and Peter Bell (Senior Countryside Officer) provided insight into its unique history and the wildlife that its home to.


E. Optional 

“ So what’s your interest in the Staiths?”

“I’m interested in the industrial archaeology.”

“ Do you mean architecture?”

“Yes. Sorry. I get my words mixed up.”

“ That’s OK. I understand…”

And then. We are offon the last Factory Night of the current programme. In this case though, it’s more of a factory afternoon – and a sunny one to boot.

Hats from the van and boots from the boot. I’m a size 10.

The concept of Factory Nights arose when rednile members were discussing their own struggle for balance – between project management and personal creativity. The consensus was that they and, by default, other artists had a simple something in common. They wanted to explore interesting places SO – Factory Nights was born.

And now. Here we are…walking over pallets, through stinging nettles and brambles.

Arrival. Pause…and an introduction from a conservation person…some background info followed by some sensible but highly palatable instructions –

“There is no access to the lower level of the Staiths but you are free to do whatever you guys are here to do.”

You can’t say fairer than that can you? Hang on though. What are (is?) the Staiths? Or is it Staithes? I am told that the ‘e’ is optional but I’m not so sure. Anyway –

The Staiths is a large multi-level timber structure that emerges out of the south bank of the Tyne protruding, marginally, into the river. It looks a bit like a curved pier – but a regular punctuation of cogs and girders signal that it wasn’t designed for leisure activities. It was constructed in the late nineteenth century as a loading platform for bulk materials, usually coal, shovelled and shifted from train to vessel.

As industry declined, so did the structure, slowly becoming what is now a rather distressed and inaccessible leftover from another age. A hidden gem for sure but strangely enough, this is quite a visible hidden gem – it’s just that you can’t get to it! Birds can though – waders mainly. They like the mud flats. Otters do too.

And now. We stand on the North Staiths and a little more info comes our way. Amongst the information there are hints of aspiration –

“I would love to see this lit in winter.”

But – the birds would be disturbed. Ah yes – wild life and the need for balance (that word again).

The wind blows. People separate and move off to take their own post-industrial promenade, high above the river and mud, exploring in any way that they wish. Some people sketch and some people take photographs. I do this but I also have a number of conversations – quite brief and not with everybody. I am interested in why people are here and I am especially interested in what people ‘do’.

There is a man that draws fantasy/scientific insects.

There’s a writer for film that wants to be “more of an artist”.

There’s another writer seeking raw material. “Writing is writing,” she says.

There’s a wind-proofed musician who has just made an album.

There is an amateur photographer but her camera is much better than mine.

There are many more. Time passes quickly.

There are good hours and bad hours (those you would wish away) but this was a good hour…or two.

Sometimes good hours simply happen but these particular hours were designed and devised and I do not underestimate the logistics of the situation. The picking-up, the dropping off, the hats, the boots and the chats – with the Council Officers of Gateshead and the managers of Taylor Wimpey. These successful negotiations are the mechanics that enable the day, but beneath this there is something else that drives the day.

I’ve heard it said. Creative people are an odd lot (ha) but, as artists themselves, rednile know what other artists want – what they need and what they like. They understand that though ‘creatives’ might enjoy working to a brief they are equally capable of formulating their own working structures. What I am trying to say is – they don’t need to be told what to do. In fact they tend to delight in finding their own way and, from there, identifying concerns and developing concepts. Factory Nights offers this opportunity to anybody who cares to respond. In this sense it is fundamentally democratic and uncompromising. Kinda rare actually. Oops.

I am drifting into pontification.

It’s time to leave the boardwalk.

And then again. It’s a short drive back to the Staiths Show House for toilet, nibbles and a whetting of whistles. As we are encouraged to enter I hear a familiar voice –

“It’s sunny outside.”

“Do you mean sunny?”

“What? Yes. Oh I see. It’s a word check.”

Touché. This could be the place to end, where I began – with childish insolence?

It was a sunny day and a good time was had by all.

By David Goard

rednile presents the Dunston Staithes Factory Night in partnership with Gateshead Council.

FUNDED BY: Factory Nights is made possible with funding from Northern Rock Foundation and Arts Council England. With thanks to Gateshead Council Conservation Team, Public Art Section and Taylor Wimpey.