Castle and Moot Hall - View from The Swing Bridge
Standing 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.
A Footpath Since Roman Times
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 roadway 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.
Encroaching Houses Make The Fortress Unfit for Defence
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.
Evolution of The Castle
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 - A Hidden Gate or Door in The Castle Wall
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 roadway. 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.
Lazy Castle Wardens
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".
Shops Encroach As The Town Walls Form A Better Defence
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.
A Loophole in The Law - Northumberland Within Newcastle City Limits
The history of the Castle after this period is a history of decadence and decay. People in time were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased around it, and its precincts became a resort and sanctuary for debtors and offenders against justice; for, being; within the liberties of the County of Northumberland, the town authorities had no jurisdiction here. In the Castle Garth, tradesmen who were not members of any of the Newcastle Guilds, and who could not engage in business in the town, opened shops in defiance of the burghers and their laws.
A Street of Tailors and Shoemakers
Tailors and shoemakers seem always to have predominated in the locality. There is mention of the extraordinary gathering of cobblers here in the reign of Charles II, and down to our day we may notice the same peculiarity. Not so numerous as we can remember them, but still to be seen in goodly numbers on either side of the steep stairs, are the open shop fronts with row upon row of boots, shoes, and clogs, new and second-hand, displayed to allure the passer-by, just as foot coverings of another fashion were shown in the reign of the merry monarch, and probably long before.
Many of the shops, we are sorry to say, are now closed, depression in trade having evidently reached even this out-of-the-way spot. It is a place, nevertheless, worth visiting on occasion; for there is an old-world quaintness about the shops and the street of steps not often to be met with now-a-days, even in old towns.
A Secret Passage
The Postern alone is a sight an antiquarian would travel many miles to see. Above it used to stand the gaoler's house, and there is a tradition that once upon a time a subterranean passage led from it to the Keep hard by. Just below the Postern a lane runs from the stairs westward, under the outer wall of the Castle, and a little further down another (now called "Low Way") runs nearly parallel with it. There is no thoroughfare now through either of them ; both are blocked up as being unsafe by reason of the ruinous state of the adjoining building ; but at one time they used to lead out to near the head of the Long Stairs, and the upper one is probably the lane mentioned by Mackenzie, called in its east part Bankside, and in its western part Sheep's Head Alley.
A Past Relic
We hope it may be long before the fate of these lanes befalls the Castle Stairs themselves, for we could ill afford to lose such a relic of the past life of our old town and its people.