A Tribute to Newcastle’s People and History
Is Gateshead’s Angel of the North statue a lump of scrap metal by the side of the road or a towering guardian of our hopes and wishes? In just over 20 years, Britain’s largest sculpture has become the most loved piece of public art in the country.
One of the most astounding things that humans make is a sculpture. This monumental metal angel is about the physical toil underground in the mines and the feats of engineering (building ships and bridges) by the people of the Gateshead area throughout 300 years of the Industrial Revolution. What these northerners achieved is pretty colossal, and so is their statue!
The massive sculpture was on my bucket list for a long time. It’s creator, Antony Gormley, originally said he didn’t want to make a sculpture, thinking that it might just be a piece of kitsch motorway art. But when the Gateshead Council showed him the site, he changed his mind. He describes the Angel of the North as
” a focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the North East, abandoned in the gap between the industrial and the information ages.”
I really wanted to see this sculpture and see for myself what this Angel of the North controversy was all about. Why has it become so beloved by the people of northern England? I wasn’t disappointed and you won’t be either!
What It Is
You really don’t have to search hard to find this imposing angel wings statue! Resting atop a hill at Low Eighton beside the M1 Motorway, the Antony Gormley Angel of the North sculpture gazes over a huge valley 2.5 kilometers wide. It has become the symbol of the North, and can be seen at Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, from miles away. 90,000 people see it as they pass on the A1 road every day on daily commutes and UK road trips.
The sculpture of the angel is a massive piece of public art. It is 20 meters tall and has a wingspan of 54 metres. That means its wingspan is almost as wide as a jumbo jet, and the Angel of the North is as tall as four double decker buses! Erected in February 1998, it is not surprising that it is the largest sculpture in Britain and the world’s largest Angel sculpture.
One of the most common questions visitors to the north east of England ask is “what is the Angel of the North made of?” It is made of steel and is surrounded by pretty much nothing at all – no spotlights or human structures and it sits directly upon the ground (this means there’s no point visiting the Angel of the North at night and, it also means you don’t have to edit anything out of your photos!)
The famous sculpture looks down upon a small angel garden made by humans that is touching and sad but also sweet.
The Angel’s Meaning
The Industrial Revolution was a time when the hills and valleys of the north of England were mined for the materials that allowed the English Empire to flourish.
The gritty and grim city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne was a mega-shipbuilding site and port. The end of the Industrial Revolution led to a gradual decline not just in British world power but in the relevance of the north of England for the existence of Empire. Power shifted to the south and to London in particular.
The artist, Sir Antony Gormley, won the Turner Prize in 1994 for his Field Projects and received an OBE in 1997 for his contributions to British contemporary sculpture. For Antony Gormley, his massive sculpture of the Angel of the North is intended to do three things:
- To bring attention to, and to memorialize, the many thousands of coal miners who worked underneath this area for 300 years,
- To allow us to truly understand the transition that this part of the world is undergoing from one economic era to another, and
- To provide, in a solid and reassuring way, the hope that we as humans can have during times of change, doubt, and uncertainty.
Angel of the North Facts: A Lot of Steel and Concrete
Angel of the north visitor numbers: 150,000 per year!
What it’s made from: Large sculptures commonly use bronze. Gormely decided to use steel for the sculpture because of Newcastle’s shipbuilding heritage. But also because of the other great Tyneside steel structure, the Tyne Bridge (over the River Tyne) built in August 1925 and opened by King George V in 1928.
The Angel of the North was built at Hartlepool Steel Fabrications in three separate parts.
Who paid for it: This steel sculpture of an angel was funded, like many of the most recognizable pieces of public art in England, mainly by National Lottery funding.
It is hard to comprehend the feat of making the sculpture until you see it. 200 tonnes of steel went into making the Angel and it is anchored into solid rock by 500 tonnes of massive concrete piles within the hill. These concrete foundations had to go down 70 feet! The use of such strong and permanent materials was also to withstand the fierce winds and generally lousy winter weather in the north of England.
It is an impressive engineering feat and Gormley wanted it to be similar to other great engineering feats in Newcastle such as the miles of mining tunnels underground and the building of ships.
Angel of the North Maquette at Australian National Gallery, Canberra
Gormley used his own body as the initial image to make the molds to test the structure. He created three draft sculptures or maquettes. These have been sold for millions of dollars each.
For me, one of the most interesting facts about the Angel of the North is that I can walk past a life-size maquette each morning, in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Australia. It’s in Canberra, on the other side of the world to the Angel of the North on its hill at Gateshead.
The Angel’s Garden
Perhaps the most humanizing and touching aspect of the sculpture is not the giant sculpture itself, but the meaning that humans give to angels and that locals have given to their Angel.
The Angel’s wings are deliberately not straight. They are tilted at an angle of 3.5 degrees to provide a welcoming and sense of embrace of the city and the valley.
Northerners have wanted their loved ones to rest in the shelter of the angel wings. Below and to the side of the hill is a small copse of low trees. On the branches of these trees, people have hung little angels of the north images and left notes and pictures about the death of their loved ones, and of children in particular.
When you read these touching memorials to their lost children and look up the hill at this monumental guardian angel, you realize how much humans want and sometimes need to believe in the benevolence and compassion of the universe.
And that’s why this sculpture has become beloved by so many and where the power of sculpture lies. Perhaps that’s why sculpture has been described by the British sculptor Phyllida Barlow as “the most anthropological of the artforms.”
Angel of the North Shearer Shirt
It’s been suggested that the Geordie’s of Gateshead and neighboring Newcastle finally fell in love with the Angel of the North when Newcastle United fans made and clothed the Angel statue in is own Alan Shearer ‘Angel of the North Shearer shirt.’ You can buy a retro No. 9 Alan Shearer shirt from Amazon here (and a Newcastle United one like in the video below – and other Angel of the North clothing items – below) and you can watch them put the shirt on the Angel in this video:
Of course, not everyone is a fan. Some people complain that there should be food, toilets and other attractions at the hilltop site. And some just don’t get it or like it. One comment on the official Facebook site about the steel sculpture is:
Nothing special just a rusty statue in the ground,
Nothing else around it to make it worthwhile going apart from a butty van in the lay-by
Would you visit this Newcastle statue?
Where is Newcastle Gateshead? How to Get to the Sculpture
- Private chauffeur-driven transfers from Newcastle International Airport to your hotel or to Angel of the North Gateshead statue is a great deal. Cancellation free up to 24 hours before, instant mobile voucher. Check out prices, reviews, and availability here.
- By Bus: The Angel (number 21) departs from Newcastle Eldon Square Bus Station and Gateshead Interchange every 8 minutes. The bus takes around 20 minutes from Newcastle and 10 minutes from Gateshead to get to the Angle of the North stop. The return fare from Newcastle is £3.90. You can view the No. 21 bus timetable and route map here.
- Take the A1 Motorway and exit onto the A167 (Gateshead South). The Angel of the North free car park is about 300 yards further on your left and its a very short walk from this small car park to the Angel sculpture.
- Train: You are also not far from the East coast main line rail route here (London to Edinburgh) and so a train trip is also an easy way to visit the work of art.
Where to Stay to See the Angel of the North
The following carefully curated list of hotels is divided into 3 categories:
- Best hotels in Newcastle City
- Best 4 stars accommodation within 5 km of the Angel of the North
- Best 3 stars accommodation within 5 km of the Angel of the North
Best hotels in Newcastle City
Crown Plaza Newcastle – Stephenson Quarter, – 9.1/10, close to Newcastle Railways Station, great pool and bar, popular with couples and groups
Jesmond Dene House, Newcastle, Tyne and Wear – 9.1/10, stately mansion and close to two metro stations, popular with couples.
Hotel Du Vin, Newcastle – 8.9/10 – delightful loft room with free-standing baths, in nightclub district.
Best 4 stars accommodation within 5 km of the Angel of the North
Park Farm Hotel – 9.6/10, bed & breakfast with a rustic on-site restaurant, great location, beds, and staff. Angel of the North: 5 min drive (2.5 miles) or 1 hr, 2 min walk (3 miles)
Bowes Incline Hotel – 8.9/10, Clean, spacious rooms, a great bar, and 25 minutes from Newcastle International airport. Angel of the North: 7 min drive (3 miles) or 26 min walk (1.3 miles)
Best 3 stars accommodation within 5 km of the Angel of the North
Eslington Villa – 9.1/10, an award-winner hotel and restaurant. Couples, families, and groups love the terrace and garden, great dining, and large bathrooms. Angel of the North: 4 min drive (1.9 miles) or 40 min walk (2 miles)
Premier Inn Newcastle Team Valley – 9/10 – 115 rooms, several dining options, large rooms, popular with families and couples. Angel of the North: 7 min drive (3 miles) or 1-hour walk (3 miles)
Best Angel of the North Gifts
Links and Further Information
- Angel of the North |Durham Rod, Low Eighton, Gateshead NE9 7TY | Phone: +44 191 433 3000 | www.gateshead.gov.uk
- Downloadable map for Angel of the North here
- Planning a trip to Northern England? Walking Hadrian’s Wall is a must. Read my comprehensive post: Best Hadrian’s Wall Walks, Tours, and Accommodation
- Here’s a link to all of my England posts to help you plan a fantastic trip to England. See my posts here. And don’t forget to check out my posts on all the best things to do in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
- Listen to an iTunes podcast which features the Angel of the North in Historic England top ten for Arts, Architecture, and Sculpture here
- The “Angel of the South” was meant to be a similar project in Kent, but financial problems meant it ended up at only one-third its original budget. You can learn more about the Angel of the South here.
- More detailed information on how to book transport, airfares, accommodation, and travel insurance is available on my Travel Resources page.
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