Shaft! 8 – Shaft on the Tyne is All Mine (Tyne Tunnel ventilation shaft buildings)

Like gigantic up-ended Alpenhorns, two enormous upturned cones dominate their surroundings in Jarrow and Howdon, either side of the River Tyne. Unadorned concrete, stretching high into the sky, they pack an enormous visual punch. I don’t know about all those Viking-influenced artworks of George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire magical horns. I’m pretty sure that the Horn of Winter looks like this:

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Tyne Tunnel ventilation shaft building in Jarrow. © Copyright Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph.org.uk page

In reality they are the chimneys of the ventilation shafts for the Tyne Tunnel, which opened in 1967, the idea of an electric monorail having earlier been rejected, possibly as more of a Shelbyville kind of an idea. They were designed by Ryder and Yates, an architectural practice that specialised in Modernism and Brutalism and worked on many buildings in Newcastle and the surrounding area. I know it was only the week before last that the article was about Liverpool’s Kingsway Tunnel ventilation shafts, but during the research for that, I accidentally came across some information for these two, and it was too good to keep for later.

You see, according to Newcastle City Council’s Tyne and Wear Archaeology Office, the Tyne Tunnel’s ventilation shafts were intended to respond to the character of the local area… and at the same time were inspired by chimney pots in Venice. The one in Italy. I have looked long and hard and I have to tell you now that I can’t find any particular connection between Tyneside and Venice, except for a crane which was built in Newcastle by Armstrong, Mitchell and Co and shipped out to Venice in the 1880s.

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Tyne Tunnel entrance and ventilation shaft building, Howdon. © Copyright Mick Garratt and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph.org.uk page

The Tyne Tunnel ventilation shaft chimneys do respond to the area in the sense that they are impressive structures which are defiantly modern, and therefore the sort of thing Newcastle has been building for ages, best seen in its stunning array of city centre bridges, each one exemplifying the impact of the latest advances in transport and engineering.

The Tyne Tunnel ventilation shafts, to me, slightly suggest an architect doing what they wanted to do anyway, and then reverse-engineering an explanation for it. Also a client who failed to ask, “What, exactly, and do bear with me because I’m only a city planner and not an architect, do two concrete cones that are based on chimney pots in Venice, have to do with Tyneside, England? You see, I know that the Italians were masters of glassmaking in the middle ages, and that there’s a glass works down in Monkwearmouth, but that’s on the River Wear, isn’t it? It’s not on, you know, the Tyne. Also there was that crane we sent there in the 1880s. Is that it?”

Ryder and Yates simply liked Venetian chimney pots, I think, and just used the shape whenever they could. Several of their buildings sported them. Some of them are still there, like these on a former British Gas Engineering research building:

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Former British Gas Engineering Research Station, Killingworth. © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph.org.uk page

I expect they told British Gas that they responded to Killingworth’s links to Venice’s local gas supply market.

It might be crossing your mind by now to wonder just how much these north-eastern chimney pots look like their counterparts in Venice. This gives a good idea:

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Chimneys in Venice, Italy. Photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Venice Four ChimneysUploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

So quite a lot then. But why were Venice’s chimney pots built in such a distinctive manner? It’s all to do with the thatched roofs that many Venetian buildings used to be finished with. Ironically, for a city built with canals instead of streets in a basic failure to understand the requirements of highway planning, Venice was at one point perpetually at risk of burning to the ground. Embers from wood-burning fires would drift from chimneys with potentially disastrous results. The wide, inverted cone shape of Venice’s chimney pots was developed to trap the embers and let out only the much smaller smoke particles. This book speculates that the design also kept out the rain and improved the draught of the fires below. Wood burns a lot cooler than coal (although it’s relative, I know) so a good draught is very helpful, as trendy types with show-off wood-burning stoves know all too well.

As the book also notes, exactly the same chimney shape occurs in another transport context, that of wood burning steam locomotives. At one point found all over the world, they are particularly associated with early American railroads. The plentiful supply of trees made wood an ideal choice of locomotive fuel for American railroads as they pushed westward. But again, there was the problem of burning embers being released, setting fire to trackside vegetation, or the locomotive’s own tender full of wood, or even more unfortunately, the hauled wooden passenger carriages of the train itself.

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Replica of the Central Pacific Railroad’s Jupiter locomotive, a wood burner that achieved fame through its participation at the completion of the first cross-America railroad. Unfortunately, its significance wasn’t recognised quickly enough to prevent the original being scrapped. The original uploader was Mr Snrub at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wood burning locomotives fell out of fashion as American railroads made the switch to coal (it burns hotter, so it has a better power to weight ratio) or indeed electricity in the biggest American cities at the start of the 20th Century, a lesson we’re still trying to learn here in the country that gave the world its railways in the first place, more than a hundred years later.

So that’s how you go from the Tyne Tunnels to American railroads, via Venice. Meanwhile, I’m off to feed my wood-burner.

5 thoughts on “Shaft! 8 – Shaft on the Tyne is All Mine (Tyne Tunnel ventilation shaft buildings)

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