A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about football

A city and its river

Newcastle intro

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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 (7)

What football means to Newcastle

Fans in the Gallowgate Stand, St James' Park

If you want to support a club with guarantees of success and a trophy cabinet packed with silverware, look elsewhere. Supporting Newcastle United is about passion and about solidarity - solidarity with your team, your fellow fans and your city.

I don't believe you can really understand Newcastle and its people unless you've been to a match at St James' Park. Unlike many cities, in Newcastle the football stadium is in the city centre, not on its outskirts, and it dominates life in the city. One of my earliest memories of going to a match is walking back through the city afterwards and being stopped by all sorts of people (young children, old ladies) to ask what the score was.

Pre-match drinks in the
Crow's Nest, Percy St

Everyone takes an interest in what's happening at the football club:
• are there new players joining?
• who will be in the team on Saturday?
• will we have a chance in the cup this year? and so on!

Even if you're not a big sports fan I think you'd enjoy the experience of a match here, and it really is the best way to meet some locals and get to know them. Tickets are hard to come by for the really big games, but for most matches you should be able to get them - try the club's official website for ticket news and box office details.

Plan to have a drink beforehand in one of the pubs in Percy Street or maybe in the Strawberry near the ground, and do the same afterwards too if you can. Get talking to a few fans about the game, buy a round, and you'll have a great time - I guarantee it! People here love their football, and even more they love the chance to talk about it.

St James’ Park

The stadium at the heart of the city

The football stadium has been much modernised in recent years but still occupies a site right in the city centre. Football has been played here since 1880, twelve years even before Newcastle United Football Club was formed in a merger of two teams, Newcastle East End and West End FC. It takes its name from the hospital and chapel of St James which once stood just to the north of here (where the Hancock Museum is today). The chapel leased land to the south for development and a number of streets were built on the land, including St. James Street, St. James Terrace and Leazes Terrace. The latter lies just to the north and east of the stadium and its north stand is still referred to by fans as the Leazes End or simply the Leazes, despite efforts to rename it over the years.

Waiting for the match to start -
view from the Leazes End

The south stand opposite is known as Gallowgate after the street that runs a little behind it. This was the route taken by convicted criminals from the town to the gallows which stood on the Town Moor. There were regular hangings; in 1650, 22 people, including 15 witches, were hanged in a single day. The last execution took place in 1844 (only three decades before the first ball was kicked at the site), although some Newcastle fans will assure you they have watched the team get executed from time to time since then! You will sometimes hear the ground itself referred to as Gallowgate, especially by older fans.

The Gallowgate Stand

Of course the ground has been extensively developed over the ensuing years. Contrast this old postcard from 1908 (downloaded from the club’s website – I assume copyright has long since expired!) with my more recent photos – my photo from the Leazes, above, was taken from a spot somewhere among the trees to the right-hand side of the postcard’s viewpoint.

St James’ Park in 1908

You can read in more detail about all the phases of development on the club website: History of our Home. This has at times been somewhat constricted by the city centre location, and in particular by the houses of Leazes Terrace which press close to the East Stand.

When I first started to go to matches in the early 1980s the stands on the east and west sides were covered and had seating, while Gallowgate and Leazes were still traditional open, all-standing, stands - much as in the slightly later photo below:

St James' Park in the late 1980s -
the old Gallowgate Stand in the foreground

At one point in the 1990s there was talk of a move to Leazes Park just to the north, or even across the river to Gateshead – much to the consternation of fans. Fortunately these came to nothing, and instead the three other sides were extended, creating the stadium we have today – and an impressive sight it is!

St James’ Park from the Metro station

For anyone interested in football, a tour of St James’ Park is a great opportunity to go behind the scenes. We did this some years ago and got a real thrill from sitting on the bench, visiting the changing rooms and imagining all the great Geordie heroes who’d prepared for matches there over the years, and seeing the stadium from pitch level as the players do.

Wear the strip with pride!

Shoppers on
Northumberland St

In Newcastle the wearing of the football team's black and white striped shirt isn't something restricted to matchday. The Toon Army wear their colours as a badge of honour and not only when going to the match, but also shopping on a Saturday morning, going to the pub on a Friday night, to church on a Sunday morning (yes, really!) and so on.

If you'd like to blend in, or just want a sporting-related souvenir of your visit here, head for one of the official Newcastle United club shops to be found in several places in the town. The obvious purchase is a black and white top, but for something cheaper you could look for a scarf or woolly hat, pictures of the players, a mug or beer glass, pen or key chain ...Or if you really want to proclaim yourself a fan, it's possible to decorate a whole room in black and white stripes!

Dressed for the match

Local hero: Sir Bobby Robson

Sir Bobby Robson statue at St James' Park

Most football fans, and not only those from England, will know the name of Sir Bobby Robson. First as a player (with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, and briefly with England) and later as manager of a series of clubs including Fulham, Ipswich Town (where he is fondly remembered), the English national side, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Porto (where a young Jose Mourinho learnt his trade under him), Barcelona, and in his final managerial role, here in Newcastle.

He was manager of Newcastle United for five years (September 1999 to August 2004) and remains one of the best-loved managers the club has had. He was a passionate Geordie who supported Newcastle as a boy and once said he had “black and white blood” in his veins. He died from cancer in 2009, and was mourned by football fans from all over the country.

He received many awards during his life time, including the Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year show in 2007, in recognition of "his contribution as both player and manager in a career spanning more than half a century, and posthumously in December 2009 the FIFA Fair Play Award, for the "gentlemanly qualities he showed throughout his career as a player and coach". I still remember the lengthy standing ovation he was given on the BBC show, when the great and the good of the sporting world stood and applauded for what seemed to be ages.

Memorial to Sir Bobby

Now an appropriate memorial to the great man has been established in the shadow of the stadium where the team he loved most plays – St James’ Park. It consists of five stone slabs carved with appropriate words and images. From the left they show:

Slab 1:
Some images of his youth in the mining village of Langley Park in County Durham:
pit wheel, miner’s lamp, football and boots

Slab 2:
The names of the various clubs with which he was associated over the years,
either as player or manager

Slab 3:
A portrait of the man himself

Slab 4:
The three lions of England and account of his England career,
as player and manager

Slab 5:
A design intended, I think, to represent the nearby St James’ Park Stadium
and commemorating Sir Bobby's legacy, the charity he founded to support people fighting cancer

On the top of the slabs are the names of players associated with Sir Bobby – some of the best of the many players he managed. These include Newcastle stars such as Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne and Gary Speed, but also those from other clubs, such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, and from his time managing England.

The memorial is relatively new and the birch trees that grow between the slabs a bit young and spindly, but already you can see how this will become a lovely corner of the city where fitting tribute is paid to one of its greats.

Up at the stadium itself there is a bronze statue of Sir Bobby (above), the work of Morpeth artist Tom Maley and placed here in 2012.

Local hero: wor Jackie

Statue of Jackie Milburn

Although present-day fans may not know the name as well, Jackie Milburn was as big a hero at St James’ Park in his day as Alan Shearer in his, and today he is commemorated with this statue near the ground and also in the name of one of its stands.

He was born in 1924 in Ashington, Northumberland – a mining town that was also later home to Jack and Bobby Charlton (the sons of one of Milburn’s nieces). In those days of course, football was not the major industry it has become, as various anecdotes about Milburn make clear. He famously arrived for his trial at Newcastle with a pair of borrowed football boots wrapped in brown paper, and his lunch – a pie and a bottle of pop. And many older Newcastle fans will describe how they used to meet him on the bus from Ashington to Newcastle on match day, on his way to the match. During the period of the Second World War he combined playing for the “Toon” with his work as a fitter (repairing heavy machinery) down the mines. He played 353 matches for Newcastle during the period 1943-1957, wearing the famous number 9 shirt, and he remains the club’s second highest scorer with 200 goals (Alan Shearer is top, with 206).

This 1991 statue of the great striker (by Susanna Robinson) is an early example of the growing fashion for monuments to great footballers. It has had several locations in the city, but currently stands in Strawberry Place, in the shadow of the South-East corner of St. James' Park.

Local hero: Joe Harvey

Memorial plaque to Joe Harvey

Also commemorated with a memorial at St James’ Park is Joe Harvey, who played for Newcastle from 1945-1953 and returned to manage the club from 1962-1975 – those were the days when most managers stayed at a single club for years, being given time to build a successful team.

Harvey is associated with most of the greatest achievements of the club in (relatively) recent years. He captained the team to two successive FA Cup victories in 1951 and 1952, helped to coach the side that won the FA Cup again in 1955, and then as manager, in 1969, led Newcastle to victory in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (the predecessor to the UEFA Cup), their last major trophy to date. The memorial plaque also mentions victories in the Anglo-Italian and Texaco Cups, but neither of these would be considered major. For Newcastle United, the long wait goes on …

Local hero: Alan Shearer

St James' Park decorated for Shearer's testimonial match, 2006

One local hero whom you won’t see commemorated at St James’ Park is Alan Shearer. Or at least, not at present. When he retired from playing in 2006 he was rightly awarded a testimonial match (against Celtic) and the club took all the appropriate steps to ensure it was a night to remember, with free scarves as mementoes for fans who attended, a team of past stars and worthy opposition. I was there! Soon after that, the newly-opened bar in the Gallowgate Stand was named in honour of the most successful striker in the club’s history – Shearer’s. But soon after this a new owner, Mike Ashley, bought the club. Despite appointing Shearer briefly as interim manager at the end of the 2009 season (in a failed attempt to stave off inevitable relegation), the two have never seemed to get on well. At the end of that season there was a falling out between them, as Ashley failed to communicate with Shearer and proceeded to appoint another manager without even telling him that he was to be replaced.

Since then Shearer’s has been renamed the Nine Bar, much to most fans’ disappointment. With the current (autumn 2017) rumours that Mike Ashley plans to sell the club, I wonder if the time is ripe for a fitting memorial to be created for our record striker?

Some more local heroes

Although you can easily walk to St James' Park from anywhere in the town, there is a Metro station right by the stadium and it's worth a look inside the ticket hall even if you aren't travelling by train, as the football theme is extensive and there are a number of interesting photos and other mementos to be seen. One area of the floor has been tiled in green to look like a football pitch, and several former players have literally left their mark here - boot prints for outfield players, gloves for goalkeepers. Meanwhile black and white photos around the walls show players from all eras as well as fans.

St James' Park Metro Station

Local heroes all

The Strawberry

While most of the pubs in the city are packed with Toon fans on a match day, the Strawberry has a particular association with the football club, located as it is in the shadow of St James’s Park. Outside a giant black and white shirt adorned with a strawberry forms the pub sign, while inside its walls are lined with Newcastle United memorabilia and old photos. This is a genuine collection too, not some sort of opportunistic theming to take advantage of the location.

The Strawberry pub, outside and in

A sign on the pub’s outer wall explains the history of the name, which is taken from the streets on whose corner it stands, Strawberry Place and Strawberry Lane, and is derived from the nuns of near-by St Bartholomew’s who grew strawberries in fields here and made strawberry wine to sell to support their convent.

Unless you’re a committed fan you may find it too crowded on match day, or even impossible to get into. But visit at another time to see all the memorabilia and enjoy a drink in this historic local pub. There’s also a roof terrace with excellent views of the ground, which like the pub itself is especially popular before and after a match.

The Back Page

The Back Page

This is a must-visit shop for any sports fan. It has an extensive range of books, all with a sporting theme, and many other sports-related items too.

The focus is firstly on Newcastle United (inevitably!), secondly on football in general and thirdly on other sports. There is a large selection of old football programmes featuring most of the league teams in England and Scotland, and a similar range of fanzines. There are usually also some fascinating football memorabilia on sale, again with a particular emphasis on Newcastle United – on one visit I spotted a framed Newcastle shirt signed by Alan Shearer (for £230) and another, unframed, signed by several players for £200. Other items include postcards of Newcastle and of football stadia around the country, black and white Newcastle United flags, mugs and key rings and much more.

In the Back Page

Prices vary from 50p for a postcard to several hundred pounds for signed shirts, as described above. Many of the books are signed too, and these usually cost no more than an unsigned copy from elsewhere.

The shop also runs a travel club for Newcastle fans wishing to go to away matches, with very reasonable fares on their coaches. And if you don’t have a chance to visit they do a very good and comprehensive mail order service from their website. I know I sound as if I’m on commission but I’m not – it’s just a very good shop run by people who know, and have a passion for, their subject.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:44 Archived in England Tagged football monument shopping pubs Comments (7)

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