MARION NAUGHTON Byker resident Marion Naughton Catherine Walsh
IT’S been named the UK and Ireland’s best neighbourhood – it’s got top schools, friendly neighbours and community art classes – alongside high levels of poverty.
This week, it was announced that the Grade II*-listed Byker Wall estate had won the Great Neighbourhood Award from the Academy of Urbanism, beating off competition from parts of Dublin and London.
But what is life really like in and around the famous Byker Wall?
Marion Naughton was born in Byker, and at the age of 78, still calls it home today.
The great-grandmother said: “I just love it. The neighbours are so friendly, people always speak if you’re passing.
“You’re close to Shields Road for the shops, I go to the tenants meetings to find out what’s going on, there are the churches, the schools for the kids, there are areas where kids can play.
“I’ve just come back from having lunch with some girls I went to school with, the community is very close.”
Marion remembers the Byker of her childhood: narrow streets of brick-built houses which backed on to each other, where every neighbour was ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’, regardless of whether or not you were related.
She moved away from the area with her daughters shortly after the construction of the new estate began, when she says some of the residents were scared the community feel of the area might suffer.
But after losing her husband and son, 25 years ago, Marion came back to Byker, and says it “felt like home”.
She said: “I felt as if I was back home, for all I had been away a long while everybody that I knew from old Byker would stop to speak to me, everybody was really kind.
“I was on my own, but I was quite content, because being back here I was back among friends.”
While some people online expressed surprise at Byker’s accolade, Marion says some of the stereotypes about the area and the community are far from accurate.
“A lot of people might hear Byker and think ‘it’s a right dump’, but it’s not like that at all, it is what you make of it,” she said.
“We’re not all the way people might think - it’s a good place to live.”
That’s a view echoed by a number of people around the wall estate – the area might have its issues, but those who live there say it shouldn’t be judged by those who haven’t visited.
Phil Medley has been the vicar at St Michael’s Church, in the estate, for four years, and he says he loves it.
He said: “It’s a really fantastic area, a really unique area, I love showing people around the estate, seeing the colourful houses, talking about the unique way it was built.
“The people are what makes Byker what it is. It’s a really multi-cultural area, we’ve got a lot of African communities, Eastern European communities who come to our church.
“It’s quite an amazingly multi-cultural place, and although there can be challenges getting those communities to mingle it does happen, and people are very friendly.” Phil agreed that the estate might have a less positive reputation among some people – but he says that while the community does face challenges, it remains tight-knit and friendly.
He said: “It does have its problems: child poverty, some anti-social behaviour, the impact of universal credit, benefits cuts, the bedroom tax – but people here are incredibly resilient, and support each other through difficult times.
“Sometimes I tell people I work in Byker and they say ‘that must be tough’ and I think well, people in the area do face challenges, like a lot of areas in Newcastle, but it is a great place. There is still a long way to go, but I do hope this award will give the area a bit of a boost as well.”
Within the estate are two primary schools, on of which, Byker Primary School, recently attained the rare distinction of being judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, on every single count which inspectors measure.
Phil, who sits on the school’s board as a governor, said: “We want young people to know they are loved and supported. ”
In the estate’s community centre, neighbours can gather to get a meal, or help with benefit claims – but they can also access art classes, after school clubs for the children, and other cultural experiences.
Byker resident Catherine Walsh, 43, says the community centre was one of the things she first came to love about the estate, when she moved there from Scotswood three years ago.
She said: “The centre is very special: we never turn anyone away, everybody needs somewhere they can feel loved and comforted, to get something to eat without any judgement, and we have that here. We want this to be a safe place for the community, and also somewhere people can learn things and express themselves.
“Since I’ve been coming here, I’ve become an artist in my own right. I have mental health issues, and finding art has helped me get my feelings out, understand some of how I feel.”
Catherine says that over recent years, the centre has had to help more and more residents out with food parcels and other support, as the impact of harsher benefit regimes start to bite.
But she says the support the centre provides in the face of this hardship highlights the strength of the community in the estate.
The estate’s very own artist in residence, Mick Smith, 55, added: “A lot of the good things about Byker come about through hardship, people looking after each other, they are looking out for each other here.”