A Travellerspoint blog

England

A city and its river

Newcastle intro

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River Tyne view

Rarely is a city defined so clearly by one single feature in the way that Newcastle is defined by its river. The city’s history has been shaped by the river, especially by ship-building, and now that the ship-yards are largely lost to history, the life of the city, especially its cultural and social life, continues to flow from the banks of the Tyne.

But the city has another heart, its football club, and that is where my love affair with Newcastle began. Well that, and with my husband and his welcoming Geordie family. I have been visiting the city now regularly for almost forty years and have gradually come to feel as at home there as I do in London, the city I have lived in almost all my life.

This will not be a usual blog, documenting the days and events of a visit, but rather an amalgam of all my visits, bringing together in one place all the sights of the city, my favourite areas and trying to capture for you the essence of this very special place.

A bit of history

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The castle keep

Newcastle started life as Pons Aelius, founded by the Romans at a strategic crossing point on the River Tyne. It sat near the eastern end of the defensive Hadrian’s Wall (a Newcastle suburb bears the name of Wallsend to this day). Later, William the Conqueror’s son Robert Curthose built a castle here, in 1080, giving the city the name it still bears today. Thanks to the river it became an important centre for the wool trade in medieval times, and later for ship-building – the traditional boat known as the keel comes from here.

Like many northern English cities, it reached its heyday with industrialisation, which brought great prosperity to the region. Coal from the surrounding coal fields was exported from Tyneside and its shipyards built some of the finest ships in the world.

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Plaque to Richard Grainger

The city expanded from the river bank up the hills to the north, with elegant streets designed by some of the best architects of the day.

The Depression of the 1930s hit Newcastle badly, and the Jarrow March of 1936 became one of the country’s defining events of that period (Jarrow is another Newcastle suburb). But industry continued to dominate the city’s economy until the late 20th century saw the closure of the shipyards on which its economy rested. In the late 1970s, when I first began to visit, it was clear that the city had seen better days – unemployment was high, the Quayside area largely derelict and many of the most attractive buildings were covered in the dark deposits laid down by centuries of coal smoke.

Efforts to modernise the city in the 1960s had had a mixed success – the dark often slum-like terraced houses that had been demolished were replaced (as in so many places) by tower blocks that divided communities, while the city itself was literally divided by the building of the Central Motorway that slices through its eastern side.

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Newcastle from the air

But the city bounced back. Geordies, as the locals are called, are a resilient bunch. Government and European investment attracted new industries to take the place of the old, the quayside was redeveloped as a cultural and leisure destination (in partnership with Gateshead on the other side of the river) and the old buildings cleaned so that their beauty shone through. The city’s traditional friendliness, coupled with lower prices than many other parts of the UK, saw it become a magnet for young people looking for a good night out and it was dubbed the ‘party capital of Europe’. It also became a mecca for shoppers, with excellent city-centre shopping and in Gateshead, the then-largest shopping mall in Europe, the Metro Centre.

Today’s Newcastle is a modern, lively city with a strong sense of identity and of its own history, while looking firmly to the future. Its two universities attract students from all over the world, giving it a youthful and cosmopolitan air in parts, while other areas remain perhaps more traditionally British. Its nightlife offers something for everyone, not just the somewhat infamous ‘stags and hens’ who flock there, and there are restaurants for every taste, from the all-you-can-eat buffets of Chinatown through great inexpensive Italians to gastro-pubs and a Michelin-starred restaurant on the quayside. There are excellent cinemas, art galleries, museums and theatres. And if you tire of the city you're only a short ride by Metro from the coast, or an easy drive or bus ride from some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain.

In the following entries I will focus in more detail on some of the most interesting areas of the city, my own personal favourite spots, and say something more about the culture of this fascinating corner of England.

Getting to Newcastle

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Train arriving in Newcastle

Although it is one of England’s most northerly cities, high speed trains mean that you can get to Newcastle in less than three hours from central London. Trains leave from Kings Cross (two an hour for most of the day) and follow a mostly scenic route, the highlight (for me at least) is the stunning view of Durham Cathedral just 15 minutes before arriving at Newcastle’s Central Station. From that station you are just a short walk from many of the city’s main attractions (including St James’ Park), or you can jump straight on the Metro to travel to more outlying areas.

Alternatives to the train include driving (it’s about 300 miles on good fast motorways); coach (the most economical and slowest option – check out National Express for details and prices); or air (Newcastle has a good international airport, with access by Metro to the city centre in about 30 minutes).

The Centurion

But if you do arrive by train, or find yourself at the Central Station at any point in your visit, do take a look at, and maybe have a drink in, what claims to be the most beautiful station bar in the country, and was voted 'Newcastle's most impressive watering hole' by the Observer newspaper. I haven't been able to check all the country’s station bars (!) but the Centurion would certainly be hard to beat. It started life in 1839 when it was commissioned by George Hudson (the Victorian "Railway King") to be the best first class lounge of any station in the world. The interior was designed by local architect John Dobson and is decorated with tiles made in Leeds and valued today at over £38 million! The lounge was in use until the 1960s when it closed, and the for a while the space was used by British Transport Police as holding cells. Despite its Grade 1 listed status, British Rail destroyed parts and painted over the tiles in a lurid red.

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Centurion bar

It was rescued in 2000 and restored for use as a pub, and is today one of the most popular places in the city for a drink, and an almost obligatory stop for a farewell pint for any departing Geordie. It serves a full range of the usual drinks and pub foods, and has screens showing live football and other sports, as well as occasional live music. The pub also has a deli / café attached, on the station side, selling decent sandwiches and salads etc. to eat on the premises or takeaway – useful to take on the train as they are rather superior to on board catering!

Getting around

The easiest way for a visitor (or anyone else) to get around Newcastle and the Tyneside area is to take the Metro. The system is easy to use, clean, reliable and generally efficient. There are just two lines – the green one runs between the Airport to the north west of the city and South Hylton on Wearside, while the yellow runs in a “loop with a tail” to connect the coast with the city centre.

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Metro train

The main stations in the city centre are
Haymarket – for the Civic Centre, some good pubs (including our favourite, the Crows Nest) and the top end of Northumberland Street (start of the shopping district)
Monument – for the shops of Eldon Square and many others, the Theatre Royal and shuttle buses to the Quayside and Metro Centre
Central Station – as the name suggests, for the Central Station and mainline connections, also a fairly easy walk to the Quayside
St James – for the football stadium and also Chinatown

For a bit of extra fun, especially if travelling with small children, try to get the seat at the front of the train – you’ll get a great view ahead down the tracks and the kids can pretend to drive the train!

The only downsides to the Metro that I can see is that it doesn’t run on Bank Holidays and also that it stops running rather early at night – the last train from the city centre is before midnight even on a Saturday, and this is in the so-called “party capital” of Europe!

Hop on, hop off bus

Like most cities these days, Newcastle has a “Hop on, hop off” sightseeing bus tour available. Before deciding to take this tour however, bear in mind that Newcastle is a compact city so you might find it just as easy to explore on your own; but for anyone with mobility problems and/or very limited time, this could be a useful option.

The tour starts at the Central Station and to do the complete loop takes one hour (if you don’t hop off at all, that is!) There’s a pre-recorded English-only commentary. Stops include St James’ Park Football Stadium, Haymarket, the Quayside (including Baltic and the Sage music centre) and the Tyne Bridge.

In the entries that follow I will try to capture the essence of the city – its sights, its pubs (an integral part of the culture), its passions.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:56 Archived in England Tagged trains football castles history river pubs city Comments (4)

Old walls and a “new” castle

Town Walls

The North East’s most famous wall is of course that built by and named after the Roman Emperor Hadrian, which starts (or finishes!) here in Newcastle, at Wallsend.

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Hadrian's Wall - not in Newcastle!

But Newcastle has its own wall too, which once circled the city – the medieval town wall. This was built during the 13th and 14th centuries, to protect the town in particular during times of conflict between the Scots and the English. When these conflicts became less, the wall was allowed to fall into disrepair.

The town wall was approximately 3 kilometres (2 miles) long. It had seventeen towers, as well as several smaller turrets and postern gates, and was intersected by six main gates: Close Gate, West Gate, New Gate, Pilgrim Gate, Pandon Gate and Sand Gate. The names of some of these remain in the city’s streets and buildings – Westgate Road, Pilgrim Street, Pandon Quays.

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Corner Tower

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Look for the plaques

As well as these place names, parts of the wall itself remain, and you could spend an enjoyable time searching it out during your walks around the city. The tower in my photos above is the Corner Tower, at the junction of City Road and Melbourne Street just along from the Sandgate area of the Quayside.

There are more substantial remains near Stowell Street in the heart of Newcastle’s small Chinatown, and along nearby Bath Lane, as well as some smaller fragments in St Andrew’s Church.

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West walls of the city, near Chinatown

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West walls of the city, Bath Lane

The Castle

There are two remaining parts of the “new” castle that gave the city its name, the Black Gate and the Keep.

The Castle was founded by Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror in 1080 and was like many Norman castles of the motte and bailey type. The original would have been made of wood, and it was rebuilt in stone during the reign of Henry II, between 1168 and 1178, with the addition of a keep. The keep would have acted as both the principal fortification of the castle and the dwelling of the commander of the garrison. It housed, on the ground floor, a great vaulted storeroom and a fine late Norman chapel, and on the first and second floors two suites of accommodation. Each had a hall, or public room, a solar or private room and latrines. Access between floors was by the great spiral stairs in the eastern angles, and from outside by an external stair to the second floor. On the same floor was a well nearly 100 feet deep.

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The Keep

During the reign of Henry III between 1247 and 1250 the Black Gate was added. When the town wall was completed in the mid 14th century the castle became isolated within the new defences, and lost its importance. As early as 1589 it was already being described as old and ruinous. People began to build houses and shops in the ‘Castle Garth’, the area within its old walls.

By the 1800s the Castle Garth was a bustling community full of slum housing, shops, taverns and a meeting hall. Most of this however was demolished when the railways were built in the 1840s, cutting right through the castle, as they still do today.

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The Keep is surrounded by the railway tracks!

On one side is the Black Gate, roughly oval in shape, and on the other the Castle Keep. The latter was significantly restored and altered in the early 19th century, with battlements and corner turrets added to create a more Romantic notion of what a castle should look like.

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The Black Gate

Both Keep and Black Gate were extensively renovated between 2012 and 2015, and both are now open to the public, though we haven’t been inside for years! But we pass this way often and I always stop to admire the castle’s unusual setting between the railway arches – one of Newcastle’s most distinctive views.

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The Black Gate, with Amen Corner and St Nicholas Cathedral beyond

Posted by ToonSarah 04:10 Archived in England Tagged buildings castles architecture history city Comments (6)

Grainger Town

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Memorial to Richard Grainger
- water trough

What is now known as Grainger Town is the result of recent efforts to smarten up this part of the city. It encompasses the old Georgian streets built by Richard Grainger in the 1830s and 1840s (such as Grey Street, Grainger Street and Clayton Street), when the city really started to expand from its original Quayside location.

Most of the work was carried out by the North Shields born architect John Dobson (1787-1865). His work, so typical of the Classical style of his period, is at its best in beautiful Grey Street, but it can be seen throughout this part of the city and gives it a strong sense of coherence. In fact, Richard Grainger was said to ‘have found Newcastle of bricks and timber and left it in stone’.

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Plaque to Richard Grainger
on water trough

But in the 1980s and early 1990s, this once prosperous area of the city was left behind as new centres of retail and commercial activity emerged in other areas – the opening of the Eldon Square shopping centre, the revival of the Quayside area, and so on. Buildings here were left to fall into disrepair, unoccupied as both the working and residential populations fell. The City Council decided that they wanted to reverse the decline and see this part of the city thrive again, so in the late 1990s they established the Grainger Town Project. It was a good time to do this, as the relatively small amount of public funding was more than matched by private investors who saw the opportunity to develop housing and commercial property here.

Today the area has been smartened up, with old buildings cleaned and renovated, new street signs and lighting etc installed, and with a large amount of new building (mainly apartments offering modern city living). A walk around here will reveal historic architecture and new, side by side. There are cafés and bars, some interesting independent shops, and a couple of squares where you can take a break.

Grey Street

This is considered by most people to be Newcastle’s finest street. The poet Sir John Betjeman said of it, ‘as for the curve of Grey Street, I shall never forget seeing it to perfection, traffic-less on a misty Sunday morning. Not even Regent Street, even old Regent Street London can compare with that descending subtle curve.’

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The Theatre Royal

Near the top of the street is the Theatre Royal, which unlike the rest of the street was designed not by John Dobson but by brothers John and Benjamin Green. It replaced an earlier Theatre Royal of 1788 that stood in Mosley Street near Drury Lane, and opened on 20 February 1837 with a performance of The Merchant of Venice. It has a regular programme of productions, including ballet, contemporary dance, drama, musicals, comedy and opera, as well as a very popular Christmas pantomime.

And just around the corner from here is one of our favourite pubs, the Lady Grey. It seems that at any given time we will have a favourite Newcastle pub or two, but those favourites change every few years, as places decline or are done up, or the beer or food served changes, or simply because of new discoveries. The Lady Grey in Shakespeare Street falls into the first category. This used to be the Adelphi, a traditional pub popular with actors (the Theatre Royal’s stage door is just across the street) and football fans. We used to come here from time to time but wouldn’t have rated it as a favourite. But in 2011 it underwent a transformation and became the rather elegant Lady Grey, and we have been visiting regularly ever since.

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In the Lady Grey

We have been here at different times of day and for different reasons. We’ve had lunch a couple of times (they do great sandwiches, and the more substantial choices are good too). We’ve been mid afternoon on New Year’s Eve, when the atmosphere was lively but not as raucous as in some parts of the city. And we’ve been for a night-cap after dinner elsewhere. On all these occasions we found the pub just to our liking – not too quiet or too busy, with friendly service and staff who are knowledgeable about the beers they serve.

And talking of beers, they have a great range and really take things seriously. We’ve had several good ones here on the various visits, but a couple that stand out are local ones – the Ouseburn Porter, and a wonderful Cherry Stout from the Tynebank Brewery. But if beer’s not your thing, or not what you fancy right now, they also have an excellent selection of wines and all the regular drinks you might expect. There’s also a proper espresso machine if you would like a coffee.

Grey’s Monument

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Grey's Monument
(the black and white decorations were to mark the retirement of local hero, Alan Shearer)

Almost always referred to just as ‘The Monument’ by locals, this impressive column forms one of the focal points of life in Newcastle, and one of the city’s best known landmarks. Situated at the top of Grey Street, it was built in 1838 to commemorate the passing of Prime Minister Earl Grey's Great Reform Bill of 1832, which paved the way for universal suffrage. Anyone who’s been to London will be tempted to compare it to Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, and in fact the two great men were both sculpted by the same artist.

At certain times (currently the first Saturday of the month, April to September) you can climb the 164 steps to the top of the Monument for great views over Grey Street and Grainger Town.

The Monument is a popular meeting and gathering place. If getting together with friends ‘doon the Toon’, Geordies will often suggest its wide stone steps as the place to meet. It’s also popular with campaigners for, among other issues, animal rights, who set up stalls on a Saturday and leaflet passers-by; and with buskers, often Peruvian, who keep the crowds entertained. On the first Friday of every month there is a local food producers’ market around the Monument – all products on the market must be raised, grown or produced within a 50 mile radius of the site of the market. And in December it is the location for a small Christmas market, with a mix of local and European stall-holders.

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Musicians at Grey's Monument

On New Year’s Eve it is the focus for an early evening parade. From mid afternoon the various components of the parade start to congregate in the streets around the Monument. There are usually some very strange sights – one year we saw people at least ten feet high and with musical instruments instead of heads! More recently the parade has taken on a sort of Nordic theme, with a fire-breathing dragon, a huge white wolf with glowing eyes, a sea-monster and (my favourite) a towering witch-like figure with fiery limbs. These contraptions are usually accompanied by groups of local children dressed as snow-flakes, frost and other wintery motifs.

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Taken at several different New Year's Eve Parades

This is a great event for families especially, and takes place sufficiently early for young children to be back home before the city becomes the focus for even more exuberant partying than is the norm!

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Children in the parade

Central Arcade

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The Central Arcade

This lovely Edwardian shopping arcade in the centre of the city makes a great contrast to the more modern shopping experience of the Eldon Square complex. It is located in the Central Exchange Building, which fills the triangle made by Grainger Street, Grey Street and Market Street. This building dates from 1906, when they were rebuilt following a fire. The arcade opens on to all three of the surrounding streets, with ornate frontages dating from 1840.

Nowadays the shops here are modern ones. One of the most noteworthy is Windows, a Newcastle institution, which stocks a comprehensive range of sheet music and musical instruments as well as CDs. It’s a good place to find recordings by local musicians, singers and comics.

Other shops in the arcade at present include Neal’s Yard Remedies, Office (one of my favourite shoe shop chains) and Space NK, as well as the tourist information office. But even if you’re not in the mood for shopping it’s worth a visit to see this beautiful relic of Edwardian Newcastle.

Eldon Square

Mention Eldon Square to most Geordies and their first thought is likely to be of shopping, as this is the name of the city centre’s main shopping mall. But there has been an Eldon Square in Newcastle for far longer than the shopping centre has existed, even if, sadly, some of the original was demolished to make way for the new.

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Old Eldon Square

Eldon Square was built as part of the 1825-40 reconstruction of Newcastle city centre, and was designed by John Dobson. The design consisted of terraces on three sides of a central square, with Blackett Street forming the fourth, southern, side. The terrace on the east side remains to this day but the other two were lost as a result of 1960s and 70s planning decisions when plans for the then new shopping centre were being drawn up. It’s hard to imagine such a decision being made today – indeed a more recent extension to the shopping centre has a much more sympathetic design, with facades featuring natural stone in keeping with surrounding historic buildings.

Old Eldon Square was recently refurbished as part of the same programme of city centre improvements. The grass has been re-laid, new paths built, the war memorial cleaned up and new restaurants opened on the western side. Even this was considered controversial by some, as local Goths who have in recent years used the square as a gathering place saw themselves being driven out by the shoppers using the new paths and amenities.

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Eldon Shopping Centre -
entrance on Northumberland Street

At the centre of the square is a bronze statue of St. George and the dragon, a duplicate of one designed to commemorate the men of Marylebone killed in the Great War which is to be found close to Lords Cricket Ground. Here in Newcastle the statue forms the city’s main War Memorial and is the focal point for Remembrance Day commemorations.

Meanwhile the shopping centre, while smaller than the Metro Centre in Gateshead (the region’s prime shopping destination), is nevertheless a busy and popular place to shop, with many of the usual high street names (though some prefer a location outside on Northumberland Street). The biggest attractions are probably the two big department stores, Fenwick and House of Fraser, which are both very good and worth a visit. On the whole I find the Eldon Square centre a bit over-crowded, especially on a Saturday – both walking the concourses and attempting to get into the changing rooms in the most popular shops to try clothes on. But come on a weekday morning and it’s quiet enough.

Returning to the Monument from Eldon Square, we can follow Grainger Street along to the covered-in market.

Grainger Market

Although it has been recently refurbished, this market in the centre of town retains much the same character and range of stalls that it has held for years. It was built in 1835 by Richard Grainger, with the architect being John Dobson. At the time of opening the local paper described it as being the most beautiful in the world. This is a good place to come for fresh fruit and vegetables, and there are several butchers selling locally produced meat from the farms of Northumberland. But in addition to these there are a number of idiosyncratic Newcastle establishments. These include the Weigh House, where you can be weighed for a charge of 10p – many locals go regularly to check up on their weight.

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The Weigh House in the Grainger Market

There is also a very early branch of Marks & Spencer, dating back to 1895 when it was a Penny Bazaar – this is the world's smallest Marks and Spencer store. These days the items on sale cost rather more than a penny but there are still end of range bargains to be had.

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Grainger Market - Marks & Spencer's Penny Bazaar

Another long-standing institution is Robinsons, a second-hand book stall, while the Northern Optical Company has been here since 1894. You’ll also find a couple of good haberdashery stalls (fabrics and sewing materials), a Chinese foodstuffs shop (a recent addition) and tobacconists, as well as several fairly down-to-earth cafés.

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In the Grainger Market

By the way, you may also find locals referring to this as the "covered-in market", for obvious reasons, but the signs all say Grainger Market so don't be misled.

Bigg Market

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In the Bigg Market

From here it’s a short walk down to the Bigg Market. This spot is somewhat notorious as a focus for night-time drinking in the city – surrounded by clubs and bars, from whose doors young people, almost always more than a little inebriated, spill out at regular intervals, these days (it seems) to be captured for TV audiences as a sign of the declining values of modern Britain. Always in the flimsiest of garments, even in the depths of winter, and always travelling in packs, they are continually in search of the next cool place, the next meeting with a new best friend or potential romance. They may have given Newcastle something of a tarnished image in some eyes, but they are for the most part far more interested in enjoying themselves than in causing harm or distress to others, so don’t let them put you off visiting.

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Bigg Market -
public toilet and bike park!

By day the Bigg Market is altogether tamer, though never what you might call quiet. Its bars are closed, but there are enough pubs and restaurants to attract the lunch crowd, and its location makes it a thoroughfare for those walking from shopping areas to the Central Station or to the offices in nearby Cathedral Square.

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Fortune-teller

The name 'Bigg Market' has nothing to do with size, but comes instead from bigg, a type of barley formerly sold here. At its eastern end it splits into two smaller streets, also both former markets – Cloth Market and Groat Market (groat = oats without husks) Today these are separated by a modern insurance office built in the 1970s on the site of the Victorian Town Hall. The Cloth Market (to the left as you walk towards them from the Bigg Market) was once home to Balmbra's Music Hall, immortalised in the song, 'Blaydon Races'.

Back in the Bigg Market, at its western end, you will probably see the colourful caravan belonging to the resident fortune-teller, who claims to be a descendent of Gipsy Rose Lee. I have never seen anyone take up the suggestion of 'crossing her palm with silver' but I suspect plenty must, as she has been stationed here for many years.

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Fortune-teller's caravan

Nearby is a rather ornate fountain, the Rutherford Memorial Fountain, dated 1894. The sign at its base says that it was moved here from St Nicholas Square in 1901, and I can’t help wondering if the decision to move it was made by someone with a strong sense of irony, as it commemorates John Hunter Rutherford, a Scottish doctor and educational reformer of the mid 1800s, and a strong advocate of temperance. Those who today drink in the Bigg Market’s pubs and bars are unlikely to agree with his sentiment, inscribed on the fountain, that ‘water is best’.

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Fountain in the Bigg Market

You may also find a few stalls selling an odd assortment of household goods, cheap toys and sweets, but not, despite the name, a proper market.

From the Bigg Market you can turn down Pudding Chare towards the Central Station – the name of this unprepossessing street is thought to be a reference to black pudding which was sold in the nearby Flesh Market, which became the Cloth Market. It could also be a reference to a hidden stream, the Pow Dene. Chare is a medieval north-east word meaning a narrow street or alley. At one time there were around twenty in the city, of which quite a few remain to this day, many of them along the Quayside.

Alternatively you can explore High Bridge, which links the Bigg Market with Grey Street and Pilgrim Street. This is a great place to find some more eclectic shops, selling items such as vintage clothing and old vinyl records, and there are also a few interesting pubs, including the Beehive Hotel, a very traditional pub on the corner of High Bridge and the Bigg Market. This street owes its name to a bridge over the long-buried Lort Burn, which connected the Bigg Market with Pilgrim Street.

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High Bridge and the Beehive Pub

From here you can ascend Grey Street again to the Monument, where we started this meander around Grainger Town.

Posted by ToonSarah 08:54 Archived in England Tagged buildings streets architecture monument history market shopping pubs city festival customs Comments (6)

Around Northumberland Street

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Northumberland Street

This is Newcastle’s main shopping street. It developed north of the city walls as the main route to Northumberland, hence the name, and was at one time primarily a residential suburb. When the Tyne Bridge opened in 1928 it lined up with Pilgrim Street, the southern extension of Northumberland Street, with the result that this became Newcastle's principal commercial street, a role originally intended for Grey Street. It was also, until the opening of the Central Motorway in the 1970s (which serves as a bypass), the main thoroughfare for traffic through the city. It has since been pedestrianised and given over entirely to the pursuit of shopping.

Tyneside Cinema

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The Tyneside Cinema

If you love film you’ll want to visit the Tyneside Cinema on Pilgrim Street, the continuation of Northumberland Street. The building that houses it dates back to 1937 and its design reflects the spirit of those times, when a ‘picture palace’ was expected to transport audiences out of their humdrum lives into an exotic world where anything was possible. Nowadays its modern cinema, with four auditoria, focuses mainly on art films and world cinema, although mainstream releases are also shown. But this is more than just a cinema. There is a wide programme of events for film buffs, such as talks, quiz evenings and special screenings, and other cultural events including exhibitions, poetry evenings, live music and much more.

The Tyneside Cinema was originally built as Newcastle’s News Theatre in 1937 and today is the finest surviving news reel cinema in Britain. These news theatres were very popular in their day and did an important job at a time when there was no television news, bringing images from all over the world to ordinary people back home. My mother-in-law once told me that when she and my father-in-law were ‘courting’ in the 1950s, a visit to the news theatre here was a cheap and popular evening out. For a few pennies they could watch not only the news-reels but also some cartoons and a travelogue or two.

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The Classic auditorium

If you are interested in the history of the building you can take a free guided tour behind the scenes. We haven’t yet done this, but it’s on my “things I must do some time soon” list! This is also a good place to come for a meal, and the traditional ‘Tyneside Coffee Rooms’ on the second floor has been a popular spot with film-goers and others for 70 years. The four auditoria are licensed too, so you can easily enjoy a drink and a film at the same time. Attached to the cinema on the ground floor are two further eating/drinking options. Little Vicolo is a cosy spot, popular for day-time drinking, with excellent coffee, a good selection of beers and wines, cocktails, and also light meals. The newer Tyneside Bar & Café has become one of our favourite spots at any time of day – breakfast coffee and croissants, a mid-morning espresso, lunch or later. They have a programme of film-themed evening events including free screenings of old classics and a film quiz.

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Restored mosaic floor, and stairwell

Laing Art Gallery

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J Edgar Mitchell window, Laing Art Gallery

Several interesting sights lie just to the east of Northumberland Street, off New Bridge Street. The Laing Art Gallery is Newcastle’s city centre art gallery. It contains a mix of permanent exhibits, focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries, and temporary exhibitions. Although not large the gallery is worth a visit as the pictures are well displayed and there are several items of note in the permanent collections. These include a number of paintings by John Martin, a north east artist from the early to mid 19th century. His work was incredibly popular at the time and I have a soft spot for his dramatic and Romantic style. The Laing’s collection of his work is considered one of the most comprehensive in the world.

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Laing Art Gallery

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One of the paintings by John Martin in the permanent collection

Other star attractions include a bronze figure by Henry Moore, works by Pre-Raphaelite artists Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt, a Gauguin landscape and some striking stained glass, such as the Arts and Crafts window in my photo above, by J Edgar Mitchell. One gallery focuses on Art on Tyneside and includes an extensive collection of wood-engravings by local 18th century artist Thomas Bewick.

The temporary exhibits change regularly and are very varied – we’ve seen a great Biba exhibition in the past and I also recall an interesting installation reflecting on the slave trade by Benin artist Romuald Hazoumé. Most recently (winter 2017/18) the Laing has hosted an excellent exhibition of the work of British artist Paul Nash.

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Battle of Germany, by Paul Nash

There are regular events for children, a small area aimed at under-fives (where they are encouraged to learn about art through play), a café and a shop with some high-quality items such as jewellery, ceramics and prints.

The Lying-in Hospital

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The Lying-in Hospital

I have often passed this attractive stone building when visiting the Laing Art Gallery, which it faces across a pedestrianised stretch of New Bridge Street. But I have only recently got around to investigating its history. It was built in 1826 (in sandstone ashlar with a slate roof) as an asylum for poor pregnant women, designed (free of charge) by eminent local architect John Dobson (after whom the street that crosses New Bridge Street near here was named). It was paid for by charitable donations on land made available for the purpose by the Corporation of Newcastle, hence Dobson giving his time for free. But if the mention of charity suggests that this was a refuge for the most desperate, that was far from being the case, as those thought of as morally beyond help (the so-called ‘fallen women’ who could not show a marriage certificate) were turned away, as were the homeless and those suffering from infectious diseases. Women had to bring a dress for the child and show proof that they had a permanent address (unless their husband was a serving soldier or sailor). Only the ‘respectable poor’ were welcome here, it seems. But the building was in use for this purpose until 1923, so clearly many women did find shelter here.

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Plaque on the wall

I found the following description of the building’s layout in an 1827 history of the city, published on British History Online:
‘On the right hand side of the entrance is a waiting hall, 16 feet by 12½ feet. This communicates by a door with the committee-room, which is 25 feet in length, and 16 feet in breadth. The next apartment is the surgeon's room. On the opposite side are the matron's sitting-room, a store-room, two kitchens, and a wash-house, which is annexed to the main building. In the upper floor are two large, light, airy wards, which hold four beds each; and two smaller wards, adapted for two beds each; with the matron's bed-room, store-rooms, water-closet, and other conveniences.’

The same website goes on to point out that despite efforts to ‘discourage the breeding of the industrious classes, the old English feeling of kindness and benevolence to the poor has been pleasingly evinced in Newcastle’, which gives some indication of the sentiments of the day!

From 1925 to 1988 this was Newcastle’s Broadcasting House, until the BBC moved its regional operations to a building on Barrack Road that is known locally as ‘The Pink Palace’. It is now owned by the Newcastle Building Society who use it for offices.

The City Library

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In the City Library

Although I am a librarian by profession I don’t very often find myself recommending a visit to the library in my travel writing! But the new City Library in Newcastle is a stunner, and well worth a little of your time.

The library opened in summer 2009 and has been a great success. Officially named the Charles Avison Building after the 18th century Newcastle composer, most refer to it as just the central or city library. It is housed in a six storey block full of light and air, which replaced the old concrete 1970s building. There are entrances on New Bridge Street and Princess Square – the latter is perhaps more convenient if coming from the city centre, but the former will give you the more striking first view of this impressive building. Look up through the atrium to its many levels; watch how people move and feel at home in its spaces; sense the buzz of enthusiasm and activity too rarely associated with library use (though it should be!)

Then take some time to explore. There are naturally all the usual library offerings: books to borrow (probably of limited interest to short-term visitors); newspapers and magazines (could be a good way to pass some time on a rainy day) and free computers and free wifi. But there are also some real draws for visitors. Check out the small area on the sixth floor, where several beautiful historic illustrated books are on display, as well as tools and a desk used by famed local wood engraver, Thomas Bewick.

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Views from the upper floors

Enjoy a coffee and home-made cake in the café on the second floor, in a pleasant area overlooking Princess Square (and with tables outside too for a sunny day). And have a look to see if there are any interesting events or activities planned: there are regular author talks, book signings, exhibitions and activities for children. If you want to find out in advance what’s going on at the time of your visit, have a look at the calendar on the Newcastle Libraries website, but bear in mind that it covers all the libraries in Newcastle, so you’ll need to check what’s on where.

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Books with local interest on display

By the way, two friends of ours, Pete Cain and Barry Robertson, wrote Toon Odyssey, featured in the display in the photo above, and I was proud to supply some of the photos. It describes our adventures following Newcastle United in Europe ... but we will get on to the matter of the football team in a later entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 07:47 Archived in England Tagged art streets architecture culture history shopping city cinema Comments (5)

Of monks and newer communities

The west side of the city

Blackfriars

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Blackfriars

Tucked away behind the popular Gate entertainment complex is this lovely peaceful haven amid the bustle of the city. A grassy square dotted with traces of ruined buildings is surrounded on three sides by the remains of the Black Friars Monastery that gives it its name, and on the remaining side (where once the church stood) by more modern buildings that have been sensitively designed to blend in with the surroundings.

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Blackfriars

The monastery was originally founded in 1239 by a small group of Dominican friars from Spain. They wore black tunics, hence the name “Black Friars”. The city granted them land on which to build a church, the monastery buildings and to grow crops. Their peaceful lives here were disturbed briefly in 1265, when the threat of raids from Scotland led the city council to build a wall around the city – and right through the Dominicans’ garden!

As the monastery grew, so did its importance, and over the years several kings stayed here, including Edwards the 2nd and 3rd. But in 1539 another king, Henry 8th, famously broke with the Catholic Church and closed down all the religious orders in the country. The church here was destroyed but the remaining monastery buildings remained.

They were subsequently bought by the city council and leased to local craft companies: bakers, brewers, butchers, saddlers, tailors and others each took space here. They held their meetings, housed their poor and grew vegetables in the cloister garden.

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Old doorway, Blackfriars

But in the 20th century the guilds moved out and the buildings fell into decline. In the 1960s much of the city centre was redeveloped following the rather brash pattern of that decade, paying little heed to history or tradition. Blackfriars was scheduled to go the way of many other old buildings, but escaped the bulldozers. In the 1970s the council had a change of heart, and with the help of various interested bodies saved and restored the complex. It was reopened by the Queen in 1981. And the Freemen of the crafts companies continue to meet here, as they have for over 400 years.

Today the old monastery buildings house a restaurant and a small number of interesting shops, including an artisan bakery, glass studio and knitting shop. The modern additions include apartments and space for small, mostly arts/media orientated, businesses.

The restaurant claims to be ‘the oldest dining room in the UK’ and is one of our favourites. It occupies the friary’s former refectory which maybe justifies that claim. We have developed a tradition in recent years of coming here for our New Year’s Eve dinner as unlike many of Newcastle’s better restaurants there is no rip-off hike in prices that evening, and no unwanted ‘entertainment’. What is more, the menu is always delicious, with a strong emphasis on locally sourced food. On a chilly New Year’s Eve it is always very cosy and welcoming, and the service equally so, despite this being the liveliest evening in Tyneside’s calendar.

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Good food at Blackfriars restaurant

The Gate

For one of the most striking examples of how Newcastle offers ‘something for everyone’ you have only to exit the tranquil courtyard of the Blackfriars complex by its north-east corner, along Dispensary Lane and Low Friar Street, which opens on to Newgate Street by the Gate. This claims to be ‘Newcastle’s premier leisure and entertainment centre’ and certainly tries its best to live up to that hype. Under its one roof you will find bars, restaurants, a 12 screen cinema and even a casino. During the day its restaurants and cafés are a good place to meet friends – indeed the Gate’s advertising slogan when it first opened was ‘Meet at the Gate’.

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The Gate by day and by night

Be warned – if you come here at night, especially Friday or Saturday, you’ll find yourself in ‘party central’. Newcastle didn’t get its reputation as the party capital of Europe for nothing, and while the traditional venues around the Bigg Market, and the more recent ones on the Quayside, still attract the majority of revellers, there are plenty left to fill the bars of the Gate and to spill onto the streets outside. If you aren’t prepared to run the gauntlet of Stags and Hens sporting strange attire and reeling under the influence of too much alcohol, perhaps you should stay away. But the crowds are largely (in our experience) harmless, and police look on in mild amusement most of the time, so this shouldn’t put you off unless you are of a very nervous disposition – although those of you who are, like us, of a ‘certain age’ may feel yourselves very out of place in any of the bars after about 8.00 PM!

Chinatown

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Gate to Chinatown

Newcastle’s small Chinatown centres on Stowell Street to the west of the city centre and just south of St James’ Park. It is home to many Chinese restaurants and a few supermarkets. While small compared to those in other cities it is worth a visit to get a feel for a different aspect to the city, to see the impressive Chinese gate, and of course to eat.

While there have been Chinese inhabitants in Newcastle for decades (it is after all a port city), and Chinese restaurants since the middle of the twentieth century, it was only in the late 1970s that Stowell Street acquired its first Chinese supermarket, swiftly followed by a number of restaurants. And it is relatively recently that the street and the immediate area around it have taken on the by-now expected trappings of a “Chinatown” – signs in Chinese, street lamps designed to look like lanterns, and of course an impressive entrance gate – in this case at the north end of Stowell Street, opposite St James’ Park. This was built in 2004 by craftsmen in Shanghai. It is 11 metres tall and is flanked by two Chinese guardian lions.

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View of the gate from the neighbouring Irish Centre

Other streets that form part of Chinatown and are worth exploring include Charlotte Square, Low Friar Street and others in the area around and to the south of Blackfriars.

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Chinatown details

At the top of Stowell Street near the Chinese Gate and just opposite St James' Park football stadium, another group of immigrants to Newcastle have their unofficial home. This is the Irish Centre, where members and their guests enjoy reasonably priced drinks in its two bars, live football and other sporting events on the big screen (matches involving Glasgow's Celtic are as popular here as those played by Newcastle United, I gather) and frequent musical entertainment. We have visited with friends on a number of occasions - usually for a concert but once for a party hosted here by a friend. As a visitor you usually need to be signed in by a member, but if there's something on that especially appeals it would be worth asking the friendly staff if there's a possibility of admission as they seem pretty casual about the whole membership thing, in our experience!

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Local (excellent) band The Happy Cats, performing at the Irish Centre

Just south of Stowell Street you can follow one of the more extensive stretches of the old town wall to the Westgate Road, where a few other sights might catch your eye.

Stoll Picture Theatre

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The Stoll Theatre

This is a very distinctive and historic building. It was built in 1867 as the Tyne Theatre and Opera House in an Italianate style. As well as plays, it hosted Sunday lectures with speakers as diverse as Oscar Wilde and William Gladstone (at the end of his career, aged 82), while Sarah Bernhardt performed here on three occasions. Other famous actors to have appeared here include Sir Henry Irving, Dame Ellen Terry, Mrs Patrick Campbell and Herbert Tree.

After the First World War cinema became much more popular than live theatre, and in 1919 the Tyne Theatre and Opera House was taken over by the Stoll cinema company. Their name still appears on the front and is the one often used by locals when talking about the theatre. This was the first cinema in Newcastle to show 'talkies', opening with 'Tarzan of the Apes', while the last film to be shown here, 'Danish Bed and Board' in March 1974, perfectly demonstrates how interest in going to the cinema declined in the UK during the Sixties and Seventies – the Stoll had attempted to save itself by catering to the emerging market for X-rated 'blue' movies. But it didn’t work, and the cinema closed its doors. It remained closed for three years, during which time it was leased by the Tyne Theatre Trust and restored to its former function as a live theatre – indeed, during the restoration process, when the cinema screen was removed, the original stage and stage machinery were discovered hidden behind it, complete with the set of the last play to have been performed here.

The theatre reopened in 1977 and among the famous names to have appeared here during the following years, the highlight was probably Placido Domingo in a performance of Tosca. In 1985 a fire caused significant damage, exacerbated by a storm in January 1986 during repair work. But again the theatre was reopened and has continued to operate, despite some challenges, under a succession of different owners.

Today it is properly known as the Tyne Theatre (although as I said, locals usually refer to it as the Stoll), and hosts variety performances, children’s shows, comedy, ballet, musicals, concerts and live performances. We have never been to a show here but after researching for this review I would love to do so if only to see the interior, which still retains many of its original features.

Newcastle Arts Centre

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Gallery shop display

I imagine that relatively few visitors to the city ever stumble across this place, which is a shame. Part shop, part gallery, part events space, and with a café too – lots to enjoy here.

To deal with the various elements in turn, the shop is in two parts. Firstly, it is a treasure trove of materials for artists and crafts enthusiasts, selling paints, brushes, papers, craft materials and kits etc. Secondly, in a separate section, it showcases and sells the work of local crafts people and those from further afield in the UK – paintings, jewellery, pottery and more.

The gallery has changing exhibitions (although the website is sadly out of date in listing these) and hosts events such as talks by exhibiting artists, and also workshops and art courses.

Attached to the gallery is a café, selling hot and cold light meals, beer and wine, soft drinks and hot ones. It has some outside seating in the courtyard for when the weather is fine, and more inside for when it is not!

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The Iron Man

The courtyard itself, known as Black Swan Court, is also interesting in its own right for the large sculpture of the Iron Man (a character in a children’s book by Ted Hughes) made from junk. Opening off this is the Black Swan arts venue which hosts music events and can be hired for parties etc. There really is a surprising amount of space and variety of interesting activities here, almost hidden away off Westgate Road!

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In Black Swan Court

Posted by ToonSarah 05:55 Archived in England Tagged art buildings streets architecture history restaurants city music Comments (5)

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