Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust
From the medieval period, Tyneside was the centre of an extensive coal-mining industry, and by the 19th and early 20th century numerous pits stretched along the higher ground overlooking both banks of the River Tyne. Coal was carried from the mines by hundreds of tramways, and later railways, to be loaded onto barges or directly onto ships for export to other parts of Britain and further afield. Although the mining industry has now gone, parts of the associated transport infrastructure remain. Sections of the Tyne and Wear Metro light rail system follow routes originally created for moving coal; and Tyneside benefits from an extensive network of footpaths and cycle paths exploiting disused tramways. Another element of the mining infrastructure was the use of riverside staithes, which were raised structures carrying rail lines so that coal could be loaded directly from wagons onto waiting ships. There were once around 30 of these along the banks of the Tyne.
A survivor is the Dunston Coal Staithes complex that was built in 1893 by the North East Railway and was closed in the 1970s and is now a listed building; it is more than 500m long and reputedly the largest timber structure in Europe. The derelict structures were repaired in 1990 for the Gateshead Garden Festival but subsequently suffered vandalism including several major fires. The staithes comprise 98 trestles, each consisting of four cross-braced upright timbers and mounted on a base formed from four timber piles of Eucalyptus Marginata (‘Jarra Wood’ imported from Australia) with further cross-bracing. The trestles are surmounted by longitudinal beans upon which the rail deck is mounted.
Following fires in 2003 and 2010, a £1 million refurbishment was undertaken which allowed the western section to be opened from 2015, and it hosted heritage open days, a market and events such as a dog show. As part of this refurbishment, exploratory test-pitting was undertaken to examine the condition of a number of the piles and trestles that had suffered the worst decay and fire damage. During this work, NAA was commissioned to create a permanent record of parts of the structure not usually visible.
Test pits were excavated against some of the trestles just above the high-tide level at the south-western end of the structure. The bases of several uprights had been burnt away, while the arrangement and condition of buried timbers was unknown. Timbers revealed during the work were hand-cleaned, photographed and drawn, and a written record was made including an assessment of their condition.
In addition to recording the original structure, an important result of the work was identifying previous ad hoc repairs to the structure. The southern trestle was examined and it was apparent that the first two trestles to the south, furthest from the water, had each been remounted sometime during the 20th century on a concrete pier. Nearer to the river, the trestles stood on their original timber piles but incorporated replacement timbers, while non-standard steel clamps indicated replacement of metalwork in places. Some below-ground timbers were in surprisingly good condition, despite burial in damp ground for over a century, while others were badly rotted or fire damaged.
The project also afforded an opportunity to examine the natural foreshore upon which the trestles had been constructed. The original surface was identified in several of the test pits and comprised a laminated sequence of alluvial clay, which had become buried by dumps of ash, coal, clinker and rubble.
Despite the effort in 2015 to make the Dunston Staithes a valued community asset, it has unfortunately continued to attract vandalism. Fires in 2019 and 2020 caused severe damage to this spectacular structure which remains on the Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register and its future continues to be uncertain.