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If some poor bloke ever did carry coals to Newcastle, like most visitors he undoubtedly would feel compelled to haul himself right back out of that grim industrial outpost on England's northeastern frontier. One quick way is to ask directions to the smaller city of Gateshead across the River Tyne. The traditional reply, rendered in the native burr that is as thick as the murk that rolls in off the North Sea, is, "Gan ower the Tyne bridge until ye come to the end. Then ye'll look roond and ye'll say to yersel', 'This canna be Gateshead.' But ye'll be wrang. It is!"
Or at least it was. Long defamed as "the dirty lane leading to Newcastle," which is itself as grimy a pot as ever called a kettle black, Gateshead is experiencing a rather remarkable swelling of pride that goes beyond its slum-clearance program. Indeed, late of an evening at the Old Fold Pub near Gateshead Stadium, some of the factory hands lingering over their pints of broon (dark ale) are moved to declare that the surge in civic morale is nothing short of a "flamin' miracle."
Bill Collins, a toolmaker who leads the Gateshead City Council, which governs a population of 100,000, explains, "I believe it was Dr. Johnson who first referred to the town as a dirty lane and then others took it up. As a boy I remember reading J.B. Priestley's English Journey and his description of Gateshead as 'nothing better than a huge dingy dormitory.' And the trouble is, he was right. We've gone a long way toward cleaning up the muck and filth since then. But, aye, it's true, the people of Gateshead have never had much to cheer about. Until now, that is, until Brendan Foster."
Foster, a Gateshead resident for all of his 28 years, is a middle-distance runner who holds the promise of bringing home an Olympic gold medal to a town that for centuries buried its brightest aspirations in the coal pits. Once a curiosity and even an object of derision as he ran along the gray-stained streets and country byways of Gateshead, the sight of Foster in his warmup suit now elicits cries of "Howay, Big Bren! Ye're doin' us prood, lad!"
Every day, often in a drizzly haze that seems as much a part of the landscape as the tiers of huffing chimneys, Foster runs 15 miles or more to and from his job as the city's manager of sports and recreation. Hardly an inviting tour, he primes for it each morning with a bracing pot of hot tea shared with his wife Susan at their home, one of a cluster of identical two-family brick houses built on the side of a hill overlooking a vast industrial sprawl called Team Valley Trading Estate.
Jogging out his front door and down an embankment, Foster plunges headlong into "The Gut," the popular name for the once-swampy valley that has 100 factories spread across a landfill of two million tons of colliery waste. Though Gateshead's coal resources are largely exhausted, the miles of abandoned drift mines that wind beneath the city like an ant farm still occasionally give way, claiming a chunk of roadway here or a house or two there.
But Foster pays no heed to the roadside signs warning AREA LIABLE TO SUBSIDENCE. Once in the valley he runs across a bridge spanning a busy stretch of railroad tracks and then pads alongside a four-lane highway roaring with early morning traffic.
Midway on the Coach Road, Foster swings through a massive stone gateway that is posted TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. Trotting up a horse trail, he skirts the ruins of Ravensworth Castle. It was here a few years ago that the Ravensworth gamekeeper, shotgun at the ready, threatened to shoot Foster as a suspected poacher. Now he just waves.
When Foster emerges into the clamor of the Lobley Hill thoroughfare, shopkeepers nod their greetings and motorists toot their hooters. As he dips back down into the valley, he hastens by the Norwood Coking Works with its pyramids of coal and huge black stacks spewing noxious orange smoke. Then, dodging double-deck buses at the intersections, he grinds up a steep grade, winding past a ramshackle row of racing-pigeon crees, past the Motorway Tyre Centre, the Gateshead Crematorium and the Bensham Bingo Club.
Just before the Boilermakers Social Club Ltd., Foster veers right and goes by a deserted "pit village," one of the infamous piles of brick flats that once passed as miners' housing. Then, finally, after pushing himself by the new Gateshead indoor bowling green, he skitters up the front steps of the 19th-century Shipcote Baths, where his office is just a few more weary strides beyond the swimming pool.