On the banks of the Tyne at Jarrow stands a strange-looking building; conventional brick walls, pretty ordinary windows, but with a roof that is definitely flying saucer.
The clue to its function lies in the fact that its twin lies across the river, just visible above the bow of a tug heading upstream. This is one of the entrances to Britain’s first purpose-built cycling tunnel, though it also serves pedestrians for like the barrels of a shotgun this is two tunnels in one. Opened in 1951 it incorporates what were at the time the world’s highest single rise escalators, though these days they are rarely active. Luckily there are small lifts at either end.
I first visited the tunnel as a small boy, taken there by my godmother and her then boyfriend I think as part of a child minding session. I probably never went near it again until 20 years ago when working on North Tyneside I would regularly cycle through it, both for the enjoyment of cycling but also more practically because it was faster than sitting in the queues of traffic that built up at the Tyne Tunnel for vehicles.
The tunnel then is an old friend, and though I no longer have cause to use it practically it remains an interesting spot for photographs. I took my youngest daughter Holly there a couple of years back and miraculously found an almost identical shoot in a local lifestyle publication a few weeks later.
Like any old friend, the tunnel is showing its age, and what were once pristine ceramics are now crazed and cracked, giving rise to all manner of excrescences upon their surfaces. As one pedestrian remarked on see me with my camera there today:
“It’s dropping to bits isn’t it?”
Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!
Aside from its visible charms, the place also has its own unique soundscape, the buzz of cycle wheels spinning in an enclosed environment, the echo of distorted voices, the ebb and flow of footsteps and in between the constant hum of the strip lights whose fluorescence also shifts, creating an eerie movement in the shadows.
As I was ready to leave today I heard another sound. A man virtually skipping down the static wooden steps of the escalator came into view, and John became today’s portrait. I was less sprightly as I breathlessly climbed up to daylight once more. Heavy camera bag you know.