NEW CAS­TLE RIS­ING

Jill Hock­ing joins the party in Eng­land’s rein­vented city of cul­ture in the in­dus­trial north

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - ONE PERFECT DAY -

IN Alan Ben­nett’s play The His­tory Boys, in­spi­ra­tional teacher Hec­tor presents his sixth-form stu­dents with a stark choice: they can as­pire to a life of Oxbridge schol­ar­ship, or they can lower their aca­demic sights and pitch up at New­cas­tle upon Tyne, party cap­i­tal of north­east Eng­land.

New­cas­tle’s rep­u­ta­tion as the cen­tre of hard-core rev­elry is matched by the per­cep­tion that all this par­ty­ing takes place in a rust belt of min­ing scars and silent ship­yards. But to dis­miss New­cas­tle as just one long kneesup in a grimy in­dus­trial set­ting is to un­der­value its many charms.

The Ty­ne­side cities of New­cas­tle and Gateshead joined in a bid to be­come the Euro­pean City of Cul­ture in 2008. Al­though pipped by Liver­pool, a decade of river­side re­gen­er­a­tion, new ar­chi­tec­tural projects, mu­se­ums, gal­leries, restau­rants and bars has re­sulted in New­castleGateshead — the new brand name for the twin cities north and south of the River Tyne — re­cast­ing it­self as a cul­tural hub. The new city hums with an ex­hil­a­rat­ing edgi­ness.

Best wel­come: This year marks the 10th an­niver­sary of the An­gel of the North, the gi­ant sculp­ture that has come to sym­bol­ise the resur­gent spirit of Eng­land’s north­east. The An­gel hov­ers above the A1 and the east coast rail­way line on the approach to Gateshead.

We park in the lay-by next to the An­gel, wan­der around the for­mer col­liery site and stand, antlike, be­neath an an­gel’s wing with a span as wide as a jumbo jet. In­stal­la­tion artist Antony Gorm­ley fash­ioned 200 tonnes of steel and cop­per into the shapely sculp­ture, the cop­per bur­nish­ing it with a warm glow.

Best mu­sic hall: It’s im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the Sage Gateshead, the fu­tur­is­tic shell of bil­low­ing glass and steel on the south side of the Tyne. De­signed by Norman Fos­ter, who was re­spon­si­ble for the Swiss Re of­fice tower known as the Gherkin in Lon­don, the Sage has an acous­ti­cally fab­u­lous 1700-seat con­cert hall and is the home of the North­ern Sin­fo­nia.

The build­ing shim­mers like a gi­ant sil­ver cater­pil­lar as we approach along the quay­side. Inside, we sip cof­fee in the cafe and gaze out at New­cas­tle’s sky­line through the rolling walls of glass. www.the­sage­gateshead.org.

Best city links: New­castleGateshead is a city of bridges. The 1928 Tyne Bridge re­sem­bles a scaled-down Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge. Traf­fic roars across it day and night; its 1849 high-level span, now be­ing re­stored, was the world’s first road-rail bridge. There’s the 1876 Swing Bridge, which stands on the site of an an­cient Ro­man over­pass. And the Mil­len­nium Bridge, which links the Gateshead Quays to the buzz of New­cas­tle. This bridge was lifted into place by a float­ing crane in Novem­ber 2000, cheered on by sight­seers throng­ing the river­side. The cur­va­ceous walk­way is the first bridge in the world that tilts to al­low ships through.

Best clas­sics: There are more listed Ge­or­gian build­ings here than in any other pro­vin­cial English town ex­cept Bath. The Ge­or­gian precinct, Grainger Town, is the work of pro­gres­sive 19th-cen­tury de­vel­oper Richard Grainger. Ar­chi­tect John Dob­son de­signed many of its finest build­ings. We start at Earl Grey’s mon­u­ment (the for­mer PM with tea con­nec­tions) and wan­der the streets; colon­naded Grey Street and the Theatre Royal are the epit­ome of classical el­e­gance. The Cen­tral Ar­cade is rich with mo­saic artistry, its floor pat­terned in hues of yel­low and brown and its up­per storey sump­tu­ously tiled in bas-re­lief.

Grainger would turn in his grave to see the Star­bucks that has taken root in his ar­cade, but it would take more than a hum­drum cof­fee out­let to eclipse this gem.

Best ware­house trans­for­ma­tion: Ten years ago a ne­glected Rank Ho­vis flour mill lan­guished on the south bank of the Tyne. Now the 1950s in­dus­trial build­ing has mor­phed into the Baltic Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art. There are no per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tions here, but four huge open spa­ces house tem­po­rary shows. We take the ver­tig­i­nous lift to the top and gaze up­river, each of the city’s bridges glimpsed inside the span of an­other. www.balticmill.com.

Best al­ter­na­tive art: Ship­ping con­tain­ers in Grainger Town house a tem­po­rary out­door ex­hi­bi­tion with sus­tain­able de­sign as its theme: chairs from re­cy­cled waste plas­tic are the work of de­sign­ers who don’t want to make land­fill’’. www.re­design­de­sign.org.

And at the Laing Art Gallery we are much taken with the 1904 Arts and Crafts stained glass and the Henry Moore sculp­tures. www.twmu­se­ums.org.uk/laing.

Best en­dan­gered white ele­phant: It is per­haps not the usual vis­i­tors’ at­trac­tion, but we make our way south of New­cas­tle to a seven-storey car park in Gateshead that fea­tured in the 1971 gang­ster film Get Carter, star­ring Michael Caine. The raw con­crete Trin­ity Cen­tre car park was built in the early 1960s in the bru­tal­ist ar­chi­tec­tural style. A boxy cafe that has never opened perches on the roof of Trin­ity Cen­tre, which is soon to fall to the wrecker’s ball.

Best shop­ping: Ty­ne­side is pas­sion­ate about its shop­ping. South of the river, Gateshead’s MetroCen­tre is Europe’s largest in­door re­tail hub. But in the heart of New­cas­tle I find High Bridge, a nar­row cob­bled street fea­tur­ing quirky spe­cial­ist shops. There are mid-20th-cen­tury prints and glass­ware at At­tica, vin­tage fash­ion at the Pe­riod Cloth­ing Ware­house and black vinyl ga­lore at Spin. The precinct around Grey’s mon­u­ment in Grainger Town is the place for de­signer bou­tiques.

The Bis­cuit Fac­tory, an in­dus­trial re­fit, has paint­ings, ce­ram­ics, sculp­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy and prints. James Ed­wards’s com­i­cal, cu­bist cityscapes are en­chant­ing. And the Sun­day craft mar­ket at Arm­strong Bridge in Jes­mond Dene (dene means val­ley in Northum­brian), north of the city cen­tre, sells a variety of work by lo­cal artists. www.the­bis­cuit­fac­tory.com; www.jes­mond­dene.org.uk.

Best Ro­man re­mains: Hadrian’s Wall, built in AD122 to de­fend the Ro­man Em­pire from the wild Scots, stretches 135km from the Tyne to the Sol­way near Carlisle in north­west Eng­land. At Wallsend, 7km to the east of New­cas­tle, there’s a re­con­structed Ro­man bath­house and a sec­tion of the wall. The Mu­seum of An­tiq­ui­ties ex­hibits wall arte­facts and a re­pro­duc­tion of the 3rd cen­tury Tem­ple of Mithras. www.ncl.ac.uk/an­tiq­ui­ties.

Best an­cient place of wor­ship: The Cathe­dral Church of St Ni­cholas, crowned by a 15th-cen­tury lantern, is Eng­land’s most northerly cathe­dral. A church ded­i­cated to St Ni­cholas was on this site from the early 12th cen­tury. We take a pew and ad­mire the lime­stone font topped with an in­tri­cately carved me­dieval canopy. In the oak-pan­elled re­fec­tory, cheery vol­un­teers serve us tea and but­tery scones. www.new­cas­tle-ang-cathe­dral stni­cholas.org.uk.

Best time travel: There’s a pal­pa­ble sense of the ro­mance of Vic­to­rian rail at New­cas­tle’s glass-por­ti­coed Cen­tral Sta­tion. Trains roll in from Lon­don, In­ver­ness and places in be­tween, com­plet­ing their jour­ney along 3km of sin­u­ously curv­ing plat­form. Queen Vic­to­ria opened the sta­tion in 1850 and it is still a vi­brant hub. We knock back a swift half pint of New­cas­tle Brown in the tiled splen­dour of the Cen­tu­rion Bar, once the sta­tion’s first class re­fresh­ment room.

Best park: Leazes Park, north­west of the city cen­tre, is vin­tage Vic­to­ri­ana; there are wind­ing gravel paths edged by ven­er­a­ble oaks and elms, a band­stand, bowl­ing green, and a lake where ducks and swans tus­sle for crumbs. Tod­dlers scuff through a car­pet of au­tumn leaves; a gag­gle of black-garbed goths hangs out in the chil­dren’s play­ground and women in hi­jab chat in the mild sun­shine.

Best ferry ride: Ghosts of the in­dus­trial past stir on the wind as a lit­tle ferry, Pride of the Tyne, plies the choppy wa­ters of the Tyne be­tween North and South Shields, 13km east of New­cas­tle. Out­lines of gi­ant cranes punc­tu­ate the sky­line but the col­lieries, dye works and ship­build­ing yards are gone. It’s breezy on deck but the stink of heavy in­dus­try has turned to a brac­ing sea tang.

Best prenup­tials: New­cas­tle is the hens’ and stags’ cap­i­tal of the coun­try (if not the world), so, on week­ends, ex­pect to see charged-up pun­ters troop­ing in and out of bars (tu­tus op­tional for ei­ther sex); the quay­side and Bigg Mar­ket, in the old town cen­tre, are the hot spots.

Best sea­side jaunt: The feel of a gra­cious Vic­to­rian re­sort lives on at Tynemouth, 15km east of the city. In the 1880s le­gions of daytrip­pers alighted at Tynemouth Sta­tion to take in the ozone, saunter along the prom­e­nade and visit Tynemouth Cas­tle and Pri­ory.

We’re on the lookout for lunch. Fish and chips at Fry­ery by the Pri­ory tempt but we take a pic­nic to the head­land over­look­ing Longsands surf beach. The cliff-top Bene­dic­tine pri­ory has the North Sea on three sides. It was largely de­stroyed by Henry VIII but the east­ern end re­mains as a marker for ship­ping. An exquisitely in­tact chapel fea­tures or­nate ceil­ing bosses and a 15th-cen­tury rose win­dow. www.english-her­itage.org.uk.

Best ca­sual eats: At the Com­fort Food Com­pany (in a cob­bled laneway aptly named Pud­ding Chare), the free-range chicken is ten­der, full of flavour, and lo­cally sourced. The foods’ prove­nance, down to the con­tact de­tails of in­di­vid­ual sup­pli­ers, is listed on the menu. And nestling un­der a rail­way viaduct in the shadow of Tyne Bridge, Side Cafe is part of a gallery, film and cin­ema col­lec­tive. We take a win­dow seat here, down pump­kin risotto with ap­ple and wal­nuts, and peo­ple watch: women in se­quined num­bers line up at au­to­matic tell­ers, then tot­ter over the cob­bles on their stilet­tos en route to a night on the town. www.the­com­fort­foodco.com; www.am­ber-on­line.com/sec­tions/side-cafe.

Best classy din­ing: Mal­mai­son New­cas­tle has a quay­side view of all the Ty­ne­side icons: the Baltic, the Sage and the bridges. This for­mer co-op ware­house is now an art-deco lux­ury ho­tel, bar and brasserie of­fer­ing home­grown and lo­cal fare such as whole baked rain­bow trout or rack of Herd­wick lamb fol­lowed by steamed blue­berry sponge or bit­ter-sweet rhubarb and lemon crum­ble. www.mal­mai­son-new­cas­tle.com.

Best gar­den restau­rant: Jes­mond Dene House (see Best Beds) is an arts and crafts-era man­sion where the views from the gar­den room are to the woods, not the wa­ter. The cui­sine is fresh and sea­sonal. For Sun­day lunch there’s roast lo­cal pork served with po­lenta and wild rocket; dessert op­tions in­clude plum can­nel­loni, yo­ghurt panna cotta and honey jelly. www.jes­mond­dene­house.co.uk.

www.vis­it­new­castle­gateshead.co.uk

City of con­trasts: Sage Gateshead con­cert hall on the south side of the Tyne, main pic­ture; left, from top, lively streets packed with bars and restau­rants, Tyne Bridge; right, from top, An­gel of the North, Cen­tral Ar­cade

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