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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)

On the other side of the river

Gateshead

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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.

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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!

Sage Gateshead

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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!

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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:

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Sage details

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The Sage and Tyne Bridge

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.

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Reflected in the Tyne

Central Gateshead

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.

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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.

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'Get Carter' carpark
in an old photo taken
from the Bridge Hotel

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!

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The Tilley Stone

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

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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!

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Visitors at the Angel of the North

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The feet

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.

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The head

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From the car-park

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!

The Metrocentre

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!

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Christmas at the
Metrocentre

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.

Posted by ToonSarah 08:11 Archived in England Tagged art architecture culture shopping restaurants music christmas angel gateshead Comments (8)

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