Wor Seahorse Spectacle: “what have seahorses got to do with Newcastle?”
Our Heritage Lead on Wor Seahorse Spectacle David Silk reflects on the project and delves into the age old question: “what have seahorses got to do with Newcastle?”
Over the first few months of the year, while the rain and drizzle and dark nights seemed interminable, I had the massive pleasure and privilege of being involved with the Wor Seahorse Spectacle project and parade that launched the Newcastle Puppetry Festival 2023. Hopefully, the public were suitably mystified and impressed by the sight of giant Seahorses, River Gods, fishies, eels and of course the Bangshees drummers marching down Northumberland Street celebrating what’s great about Newcastle. It was the culmination of months of hard work by the Moving Parts Arts team and the 170 enthusiastic volunteers from the local community who got involved with the weekly sessions to get all the weird and wonderful marine life ready in time.
At each puppet making workshop we spent an hour or so at the beginning doing some workshops or activities around the heritage of Newcastle, which has informed this project from the start – the most important question being “but, why seahorses?”
After all, one of the first things I found out while researching for this project is that no matter how hard you look you are incredibly unlikely to ever find an actual seahorse floating off the coast in the North Sea. Also, Newcastle isn’t even next to the sea – it’s about 10 miles away! And yet, when you walk around the town, if you start to look for them, you will start to spot the seahorses. They peer down from the roof of the Civic Centre, whose crown is made up of twelve bigger and eight smaller seahorse heads. Despite appearances to the contrary, they are not bronze but fibreglass – a nice modern material for a modern building when they were sculpted in 1968 by John McCheyne. They’re on the badge of Newcastle United as well, proudly holding up the black and white shield in between them. Stone and wooden carvings of them can be seen in all kinds of places – some of the benches in Newcastle Cathedral choir are decorated with these animals as well. In fact, pretty much every participant was able to recall somewhere around Newcastle where they’d seen one, even if they didn’t realise what their significance was.
So just what is it with the seahorses? Well, for the answer to that we had to do a deep dive into the history of Newcastle – which is just what we did! Each week we looked at a different aspect of Newcastle’s long and rich heritage and how that linked back (often in a very roundabout way) to wor Seahorses.
Now, the easiest way to answer the question “what have seahorses got to do with Newcastle?” is to point to the city’s “arms” or coat of arms. A red shield with three white castle towers is surmounted by a helmet crested with another tower with a little lion popping out of the top with a St George’s flag, and the whole design is flanked by two seahorses with gold manes rearing on either side of the shield. It’s important to note too, that these are not “real” seahorses. Rather than being tiny little armoured and segmented fish, they are mythic beasts, half horse and half fish. The coat of arms of Newcastle is something else you may well start to notice as you head round town, with stylised versions of the three castles design being found all over the place, and the more formal full coat of arms often appearing over old Victorian and Georgian civic buildings as well as in churches (the earliest depiction of Newcastle’s shield is in St John the Baptist’s church). Incidentally, the whole coat of arms thing does also raise the vexed issue that Newcastle’s first “official” set of colours would technically be red and white…
Coats of arms were originally simple symbols painted onto the shields or stitched to the coats worn over the armour of medieval knights, to help them to identify themselves on a confusing medieval battlefield, and to more easily identify friend and foe when the visors of helmets are down and battle is raging. But as each symbol is linked to an individual knight, they become among the first recognisable individual symbols and means of expression. Knights arms decorated their homes, horses, clothes and personal gear as well as their shields and armour. They became something to take pride in, and something which made a statement about you to the wider world.
That also meant that they became highly desirable things to have, and you had (and still have) to have a licence to ‘own’ and display your own coat of arms. By the 1400s, it wasn’t just knights that wanted their own coats of arms. Some of the families of wealthy merchants and lawyers who helped build the churches of Newcastle, like Robert Rhodes who built the Lantern Tower of St Nicholas’ Church, had their own coats of arms too. They also started to be used not just to express individual identity and pride, but the identity of the community. It can certainly be argued that when Newcastle began using its own coat of arms to represent the town and its community in around 1400, it became the first recognisable symbol for Newcastle, and expressed the pride and hopes of the people of the town.
The castles on the coat of arms are self-explanatory enough – Newcastle was a walled town, named after its defensive castle, and had been on the forefront of the wars between England and Scotland and was often besieged. But, why seahorses? Well, Newcastle originally rose to prominence as a port, despite being 10 miles from the sea, hence having such a prominent quayside. The tide carried ships as far up the river as the old Tyne Bridge, which was roughly on the site of the Swing Bridge, like the Roman Bridge before it.
Our workshop participants made their own coats of arms, discussing what symbols spoke to them and what they felt they were saying about their own identities, but they were particularly taken with the idea of the mottos or “slogans” often displayed with coats of arms. “Slogan”, despite sounding a bit like advertising speak, is in fact derived from the Gaelic word for “battle cry”, and it was decided that the slogans chosen by the various participants in the workshops would be written on strips of silk to form the manes of the huge seahorse puppets that were the centrepiece of the parade.
The story of the seahorses didn’t start with a coat of arms though! In our pre-puppet making sessions we ended up going back – way back – to the beginning of Newcastle’s recorded history. When the Swing Bridge was being built in the 1860s, the river bed was dredged and the workers discovered the remains of a Roman altar. Another was found some years later. The two altars are thought to have stood on either side of the original Roman Bridge that spanned the Tyne, built as long ago as 122CE! They are dedicated to two Roman gods once worshipped in Newcastle – travellers perhaps offered sacrifices at these altars as they crossed the bridge, and they were perhaps originally set up by some of the Roman soldiers who built Hadrian’s Wall to give thanks for a safe crossing of the perilous oceans to Britain – the island at the edge of the world, as far as the Romans were concerned.
The gods in question were Neptune and Oceanus, and our participants explored the myths and symbols of these gods – Oceanus was the god of the salt water and the wide oceans, whereas Neptune (although often associated with the sea, even by the Romans) was more properly the god of rivers and fresh water – so Newcastle, we found, was the place where the salt sea flowed into the freshwater of the river, a special place on the boundary where ships carried goods and people in and out from the wider world. Participants crafted their own basic mosaics incorporating designs and symbols associated with Roman sea gods. Of course, one of the most prominent symbols associated with Neptune was the seahorse, a mythical animal seen as drawing the chariot of the god through the waters. Roman fishermen seemed to have believed that the ‘real’ seahorses that sometimes turned up in their nets were the babies of these huge mythical monsters, and that one day these curious little fish would grow into animals fit to pull the chariot of the god of the waters.
The Romans also worshipped the River itself as a god, and we saw how the powerful symbol of the “River God Tyne” has come down the centuries to adorn sculptures and buildings across Newcastle and even as far as London, and looked at how the native Britons saw their own river deities. We found out about Coventina’s Well a few miles west of Newcastle, and how the Britons and later the Romans cast sacrifices into the dark water of the well for the goddess of the river.
In other sessions, we looked at the lives of medieval merchants and travellers in Newcastle, myths and legends of the sea and the strange creatures that people once believed lived in it, like Selkies and Sea Serpents. We researched the early maps of the Tyne and the growth of the town of Newcastle and how it became a powerhouse of trade – by the 1300s, Newcastle was actually the fourth richest town in England, behind London, York and Bristol. Participants had a chance to look at some real and replica artefacts that would have been found in a medieval merchant’s house, including a delightful pottery piss-pot – lovely! One participant was fascinated to finally find out what a tinderbox looked like and have a play around trying to get a spark from flint and steel.
Trinity House, the Guild of Master Mariners of Newcastle became responsible for all shipping between Whitby and Berwick, including maintaining the buoys and lighthouses and training the pilots who guided ships into the Tyne past the deadly Black Middens – rocks off the coast at Tynemouth that legend has it were put there by the Devil himself to sink ships trying to get to Newcastle! Amazingly, Trinity House is one of the few medieval buildings still standing in Newcastle, and still trains deep sea pilots to this day. Their coat of arms can be seen above the door of their Guild House and displays another mythical sea-creature – the mermaid, or to give it a name that seemed popular with our participants, a “merson”…
This rich maritime heritage in Newcastle has been deeply influential on the city. In another workshop, participants were taught some pieces of Newcastle’s “intangible heritage” – the songs and stories that have been passed down through the years. We were lucky enough to have Northumberland lass Lindsay Hannon come and teach us the Keel Row among other songs, and learned the weird, wonderful (and possibly even true) stories of characters like Cuckoo Jack, King of the Coaly Tyne. He lived in the middle of the 1800s and was employed by the town to fish bodies from the river and was said to be so intimately familiar with the ebb and flow of the tides that he could predict precisely where something could be found if he knew where it had entered the river. This almost mystical ability was accompanied by a more distinctly practical side – when he was called to rescue someone from drowning in the river, he is said to have finished his pint, saying “let them droon, I only get paid if they’re deid.”
Through all of this 1900-year history of Newcastle’s existence as a port, a place where the saltwater meets the fresh, the Seahorse has been there as a symbol of the power of the sea and the benefits that it has brought to Newcastle – not the least of which are the people who have come in with the tide and made the place their home.
A huge thank you to our funders for making Wor Seahorse Spectacle possible!
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