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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.”

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