NEW CASTLE RISING
Jill Hocking joins the party in England’s reinvented city of culture in the industrial north
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.
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