NE Surfaces – Skinnerburn Pigeons #2

Skinnerburn Pigeon Lofts. Second visit. 

There have been lofts on-site at Skinnerburn since the 40’s. In the beginning there where many huts, cages and people. Over the years, through neglect, fire, theft and a declining interest, they have dwindled in number. Today, only a handful of hardy pigeon keepers maintain the faith and obsession. In 2014 the site suffered a devastating arson fire – see images above (these are not mine). Some of the lofts were re-built, some are currently quietly slipping down the bank, Tyne bound.

The place itself is truly fascinating. The people equally so. The world of pigeon keeping is symbolic of everyday, working life: breeding, feeding, nurturing, parading, sleeping, resting, competition, failure, success, money and pride.

There are many parallels to be made with horse racing. Some birds can sell for tens of thousands of pounds. In other countries such as Belgium and China, the ‘sport’ of racing pigeons is exceptionally lucrative, secretive and slightly ‘underworld’. Over recent years it has also become highly technical. With accurate GPS and timing systems, the competitive element has allowed the sport to take on new dimensions. Here, in the North East it is hard-wired into certain strains of working-class culture, it’s more-or-less lo-fi rather than hi-tec.

The guys here are rarely away from the site. It’s in their blood. Many regard the idea of ‘pigeon fanciers’ as a northern cliche. In some respects this is true, however, there is more going on. There is play, mothering, care and hope. The ramshackle huts provide shelter from the North East elements (every season is bitter in Newcastle), as well as places for brewing-up, spaces for banter, ranting, reading, laughing and obsessing.

Skinnerburn is precariously located on the banks of the Tyne. It lives in the shadow of the Metro Arena, between them are several acres of waste scrubland. Once the home to a thriving lead works, this desolate space is being engineered and flattened by Persimmon Homes. In just a couple of years, the lofts will be in the shadow of start-up homes, flats and affordable city houses. The development of this land comes within metres of the lofts. It is obvious that they are slipping and creeping further down the bank, edging towards the river Tyne.

There may be many cliches surrounding these places, but they are part of a wider cultural and social fabric that many do not comprehend. There are many North East stories, Skinnerburn is just a small scratch on the ‘surface’.