Newcastle and Gateshead: an uneasy relationship
Gateshead lies on the south bank of the River Tyne, facing its better-known neighbour, Newcastle. Like many neighbours, they have a somewhat awkward relationship, with Gateshead often feeling overshadowed and left out of some of the benefits that have come Newcastle’s way in terms of investment, regeneration and much improved image.
But in recent years they have established a stronger bond, triggered in part at least by their collective (and sadly unsuccessful) efforts to bring the City of Culture to a place they dubbed NewcastleGateshead. While the City of Culture bid may have failed, the concept of NewcastleGateshead lives on in tourism promotions and shared activity to drive further improvements in the region. And that activity, coupled with a drive to emulate Newcastle’s success in reinventing itself in our post-industrial age, has resulted in major change in Gateshead. Many buildings in the town centre have been flattened (at least one controversially) and new ones have taken their place. Despite these however, and despite some iconic cultural attractions, Gateshead retains a down to earth character.
Gateshead on the left, Newcastle on the right
The sights and attractions of Gateshead are far fewer in number than those of its better-known neighbour, but what they lack in number they make up for in impact – so much so that they are often wrongly included in a list of Newcastle attractions (much to the aggravation of Gateshead!) I have fallen into the same trap a little, as I have already described the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in a previous entry, but I justify myself partly because it is so easily visited while on the Newcastle Quayside and partly because it serves as a draw to lure visitors across the Tyne.
Incidentally, the signs in my photo at the top of this page, which I photographed in a Newcastle bistro, are available for sale in the Baltic shop!
The Sage from Newcastle
While you are on the Gateshead side of the river it’s worth checking out the Sage. You can hardly miss seeing it, whichever side you are on, as it’s a very striking building, situated in the shadow of the Tyne Bridge on the Gatehead Quays. It is a concert venue with two main auditoria, a rehearsal space, a music education centre and a leisure destination with several bars and eating places. It is also a must-see, and must photograph, building!
The Sage, early evening
It was designed by renowned architect Lord Foster (Norman Foster) and was his first for the performing arts. It played a major role in the cultural revival of Gateshead and the Quayside in particular, along with the Baltic Gallery, driven by a council eager at the time (late 1990s/early 2000s) to compete with its larger neighbour across the water. It opened in 2004 and immediately became an unmistakeable sight on the river front, with its huge curved roof of stainless steel and glass. That roof, if laid flat, would be large enough to cover two football pitches, while the concrete used in its construction could, according to the Sage website, ‘fill 23 competition-size swimming pools, make almost 5 million foot-square paving slabs – enough concrete flags to build a path 800 miles long from St James’ Park, Newcastle, to the San Siro Stadium in Milan – and still have enough left to pave over the pitch six times!’
I find the building very photogenic, especially in black and white:
Check out the website to see if there are any concerts happening around the time of your visit. They are many and varied, from world famous acts to the regional professional symphony orchestra based here (the Royal Northern Sinfonia) to local music groups and school children (our cousin’s daughter danced there a while back, watch by a very proud mother and grandmother!) And if nothing appeals visit anyway – to enjoy a drink or a bite to eat, admire (or not – it’s not to everyone’s taste) the architecture, or join a tour of the building to find out more about it.
Reflected in the Tyne
There is probably relatively little to detain the visitor in the centre of Gateshead. Years ago this was a traditional northern England shopping street, and we used to visit a lot as my father-in-law ran an Army and Navy Surplus store on the High Street. Today much of it has been demolished, including his former shop, and a new shopping centre built in its place, Trinity Square.
The largest shop here by some way is a huge Tesco Extra supermarket, where you can buy not only food and drink but also clothing (from their Florence and Fred budget range), household goods and electronics. Other shops in the complex include Boots the Chemist, Greggs (a north east bakery chain now found across the country), Sports Direct (owned by the unpopular owner of Newcastle United), Select (budget fashion chain) and Poundland. There is a multiscreen cinema (Vue) and several chain eating places – Nando’s, Frankie and Benny’s (US style Italian) and a Costa coffee shop. A new independent coffee shop with its frontage on the High Street, Altin, looks appealing but we haven’t tried it yet.
This development is on the site of the former 1960 shopping mall of the same name, unremarkable save for the multi-storey car park that rose above it. Built in the Brutalist style, it came to fame through the film Get Carter, starring Michael Caine, and there was a lot of outcry when its demolition was first proposed in the early years of this century. Those who wanted to preserve it argued for its value both architecturally and culturally, while those who favoured its demolition couldn’t see why on earth anyone would want to preserve such an ugly piece of architecture! They got their way, although ironically the new development was nominated for the 2014 Carbuncle Cup for the ugliest building of the previous 12 months!
There are other shops in the surrounding streets, including Jackson Street which leads up to the Metro and bus stations. The Weatherspoon’s pub here, The Tilley Stone, is a fairly regular haunt of ours as it’s a convenient place in which to meet up with Chris’s family, most of whom live in the wider Gateshead area. The pub is bright and spacious, with plenty of room even though popular and busy at all times of day. It was named after two former local coal seams, and the décor includes examples of local artists' work with a mining theme. The prices, as always in a Weatherspoon’s pub, are low, and the staff very friendly – they never mind when we rearrange the furniture to accommodate our large group (15 people across four generations on a recent visit!) There’s a good selection of beers and other drinks, and while the food isn’t especially exciting, we’ve never had a bad meal here.
Two further, very different, attractions may tempt you to the outskirts of Gateshead.
The Angel of the North
The Angel of the North
Whether you arrive in Newcastle or Gateshead by road or by rail, you'll be greeted as you approach the city by this amazing figure of an angel with outstretched arms, who appears to be watching over travellers. He welcomes visitors and home-coming Geordies – when we see the Angel on our regular trips to Newcastle we know we're nearly there.
The Angel of the North was the work of Anthony Gormley – indeed, is perhaps his best-known work. It is said to be the largest angel sculpture in the world and also one of the most viewed pieces of art in the world as its location so close to the busy A1, and on the London-Edinburgh mainline train route, means that it is seen by more than one person a second, 90,000 a day or 33 million every year!
Visitors at the Angel of the North
The Angel is on a grand scale. At 20 metres tall (65 feet) it is more than the height of four double decker buses, while its wings are 54 metres wide (175 feet) - almost as long as the wings of a Jumbo jet. It is made of a special weather resistant steel which contains copper. The surface oxidises to form a patina, which mellows with age to a rich red brown colour. There is enough steel in it to make 16 double-decker buses or four Chieftain tanks.
The site is that of a former colliery and Gormley has talked about the links between the sculpture and the industrial heritage of the region:
‘The hilltop site is important and has the feeling of being a megalithic mound. When you think of the mining that was done underneath the site, there is a poetic resonance. Men worked beneath the surface in the dark. Now in the light, there is a celebration of this industry.’
He also explained his choice of an angel as subject matter:
‘People are always asking, why an angel? The only response I can give is that no-one has ever seen one and we need to keep imagining them. The angel has three functions - firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future, expressing our transition from the industrial to the information age, and lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears - a sculpture is an evolving thing.’
(quotes taken from Gateshead Council’s website)
Several maquettes (scale models) were produced during the development of the Angel. According to wikipedia, one of these is owned by the local council and one by an anonymous individual (who paid £3.4M for it at auction). A third was donated to the National Gallery of Australia in 2009 and stands in the Sculpture Garden in Canberra - my friend Albert includes a nice photo of it in his review of the garden.
Although so many people pass the Angel every day, relatively few visit – but it is well worth doing so. You have to leave the main road (take the A167, signposted Gateshead South) and park in the small lay-by provided, or you can catch a bus from Gateshead Interchange or Newcastle’s Eldon Square. A gently sloping path, wheelchair accessible, leads to the Angel’s feet, and it is only here that you can really appreciate the huge scale on which he is constructed.
To get the best photos you’ll need to go a short distance down the hillside in front, but you can also get effective ‘wingless’ shots from the car park itself. There is no charge to visit, and no facilities here, although enterprising snack-bar holders and ice cream sellers often set up in the car park.
There are those that don’t like the Angel (one of my husband’s aunts among them, who considers it an ugly monstrosity) but it has become part of the fabric of the region and I for one am among the many who really love it!
While much of the revival of Gateshead in recent years has focused on culture (led at the time by an ambitious local council), its most visited attraction must certainly be this temple to retail! When it was built the Metrocentre was the biggest shopping mall in Europe. I think it was briefly overtaken by Lakeland, and possibly others, but it’s recently expanded and is now making the same claim. Whatever – it’s pretty huge, and you’ll need plenty of stamina and a real enthusiasm for shopping to do it justice!
Christmas at the
There are apparently nearly 330 shops (no I haven’t counted them for myself!) and these include most of the major high street names plus quite a few smaller and more individual shops. The major department stores include Debenhams, House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer; my favourite UK fashion chain Monsoon has a large branch; there’s Gap, Next, Wallis and so on …… There are also a small number of independent retailers.
To help you navigate, the mall is divided into four colour zones, each on two floors. You can approach this place in several ways. We try to be systematic if we’re there for a serious shopping trip, e.g. during the sales, so take each zone in turn, one floor at a time. But if you’re looking for a particular shop or type of shop there are plenty of maps (located at each junction). Or you could just start walking and see what you stumble across!
In addition to the shops there are plenty of places to eat (over 50, according to the website), from fast food outlets to quite decent family style restaurants, many in the fairly new Metro Qube area near the Odeon cinema. Talking of the cinema, it has an IMAX screen and 11 others. It shows all the major releases and is modern and well fitted-out. The Funscape area in the same part of the mall has tenpin bowling, arcade games and a soft play area for children. At certain times of year entertainment is also laid on for children in the shopping malls, e.g. a panto show at Christmas.
Parking at the Metrocentre is free and there’s plenty of it, though you may have to hunt for a space if you don’t come early when the sales are on. The lots are colour-coded in the same way as the malls, so make sure you remember whether you’re in the blue, yellow, green or red car-park and use the exit from the corresponding mall when you want to go home – or you could be wandering outside for a long while! Alternatively take the bus – there’s a regular shuttle from Newcastle city centre (Monument and Central Station) or from Gateshead Metro station.