Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Keelman's Way

A year or two ago (when I felt leaner and fitter) I followed The Keelman's Way, a cycle track along the south bank of the river from its mouth to West Gateshead, a distance of about eight miles. I passed one or two interesting pubs along the way, including the exotically-named Elephant on the Tyne, a subject I will write upon in the future.

The keelmen were a bunch of hard-drinking bargees who punted the coal down the shallow river to the waiting ships in centuries gone by and the pubs along the riverside saw many a wild "spree" (as they called a boose up) when the keelmen decided to celebrate. The engraving opposite shows "keelmen gathering for a spree". Keelmen's sprees were invariably accompanied by the music of a fiddle or the pipes, and ferocious stamping by way of participation.

I have read a report in an 1805 copy of The Newcastle Star which records that the publican of the Dunston Tavern was "obliged to call out the Watch for the stamping and ranting of numerous keelmen did threaten the integrity of his premises". Too late, the Watch arrived to find that the tavern had collapsed into the river, drowning two of the keelmen. Perhaps this is the origin of the expression "to bring the house down"!

If you want to know more about the keelmen and their unique way of life, you might do worse than to buy one of my little booklets, as featured in the left-hand column of this blog (oh well, it was worth a try...)

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