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’.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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!
Children in the parade
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.