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Newcastle: Out on the toon

Newcastle is the ‘hipster capital of the North’ and the UK’s best short break destination, says the latest travel poll. Can this post-industrial port town really deliver a top-notch long weekend of culture, arts and outdoor activities?

Newcastle: Out on the toon

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■ The weekend: A UK break

■ Requirements: Culture, architecture, history and out-of-town activities

■ Fits the bill: The buzzing, regenerated Newcastle Gateshead

■ Budget: Under £200

 

Elegant is not a word many people associate with Newcastle. Urban? Yes. Dynamic? Possibly. But elegant? Hmm. Yet this word keeps springing to mind as I walk from the quayside into the central district of Grainger Town. Regeneration has been the name of the game in Newcastle for the past decade, largely led by the artsy, architectural vision of Gateshead — the town south of the Tyne responsible for such brave initiatives as the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, the Foster-designed The Sage Gateshead concert hall and the ‘winking eye’ Gateshead Millennium Bridge. So culturally enterprising has the town been, its name has — since its joint bid with Newcastle to be Capital of Culture in 2008 — largely usurped the ‘Upon Tyne’ bit of Newcastle’s full name.

While much of the attention garnered by NewcastleGateshead has been fuelled by shiny new structures south of the river, the 19th-century heart of the central city has also had a serious facelift. The honey-coloured, Georgian and Victorian sandstone buildings and wide cobbled streets of Grainger Town underwent a £200m regeneration in the early noughties that rescued this near-derelict neighbourhood. Many of these classical edifices, 40% of which are listed, were the work of one man: Richard Grainger, a small-time builder with a big vision.

Grainger changed the face of Newcastle in just over 10 years in the mid-1800s — from a rubble-and-wood hamlet built around the Norman castle and crumbling Roman walls to a city of broad boulevards, public squares and stately structures like the Theatre Royal. Today, outside the Corinthian porticoes of this beautiful building, I can see orderly ranks of deckchairs arranged underneath the statue of Newcastle native, 19th-century prime minister Charles Grey (the second Earl Grey); he of the eponymous tea. All eyes are turned to a giant screen showing Wimbledon action. As footy-fanatical as Newcastle is — a bronze monument of former Newcastle United manager Bobby Robson was recently unveiled outside the city’s ‘fourth cathedral’, St James’ Park stadium (rechristened the Sports Direct Arena in 2011) — there’s a sizeable turnout for the tennis; a number of these people cheerfully picnicking in rain-spittled groups.

Standing here amid all this gentle civility it’s easy to see why Newcastle keeps topping travel polls as a favoured short-break destination. It’s harder to imagine the place as the grim, gritty, industrial dock city it once was. A 10-minute walk along the north bank of the Tyne to the Ouseburn Valley, however, brings me within reach of Newcastle’s grimy, ship-building, coal-exporting industrial past. “You couldn’t see down here for black,” says my guide, Gwen Keating. “I used to take Byker Bridge across the valley into the city as a kid, and looking down I couldn’t imagine how people lived among all the heavy industry.”

Cholera, suicide and squalor defined this area up until the WWII, and while these ills are long gone, the characters that thrived in, and survived, Newcastle’s industrial boom still loom large.

There’s talk of Cuckoo Jack, a bargeman who allegedly made more money from his sideline: retrieving the bodies of those who’d drowned in the canals; and Coffee Johnny, the bare-knuckle boxer immortalised in Blaydon Races — a Geordie folk song written 150 years ago this year, Gwen tells me. “I did tours based around the song, and Coffee Johnny’s descendents came from Portsmouth for it,” she says. “They’d been down south since they’d walked there, penniless, a century ago.”

The glassworks, distilleries and foundries that powered the Tyne’s industrial revolution still stand, but black has given way to green as the main colour. Under Byker Bridge, along the leafy folds of the valley, there’s a riding school; on the banks of Ouseburn river, a city farm. “These were the first businesses to set up here in the ’80s, when it was still a derelict backwater,” Gwen explains.

But much has changed. Ouseburn is currently experiencing the sort of cultural renaissance Gateshead had 10 years ago. The area has been dubbed the ‘hipster capital of the north’ on numerous occasions and there’s no question this deceptively tranquil river gorge is the most happening place in the city right now. Creative start-ups — everything from graphic design companies to photo galleries, plus filmmakers, architects, an indie cinema, a coffee roastery and a reclaimed wood furniture maker — are springing up along its riverbanks. Many, like The Biscuit Factory — one of the UK’s largest commercial contemporary art galleries — are making use of former warehouses, and tapping into regional craft traditions such as glass-making and ceramics.

It’s a quietly cool place. I pop in for a coffee at The Cluny, a bar/music venue set in a former whisky distillery that promotes unsigned bands. A group of musicians are sitting with their instruments, talking set lists, while an alternative-country soundtrack tootles from the speakers. While relatively small and unassuming, The Cluny and neighbouring venues such as hilltop pub The Cumberland Arms are attracting big indie acts — Editors, Nick Cave and Arctic Monkeys among them. But the Ouseburn is no exclusive, twenty-something, angular-haircut enclave.

As well as being home to a branch of Hotel du Vin (something of a barometer for desirable neighbourhood status), Seven Stories — a national children’s literature archive and gallery — is based here, in a seven-storey former Victorian flour warehouse. I leave The Cluny to follow a trickle of school kids up to the attic, where costumed narrators host regular story times, seated in an oversized wooden throne made by Northumberland designer, Trunk Reclaimed. It’s an enchanting scene. There’s a wardrobe of fairytale dressing-up clothes for mini patrons to try on, and a vast canopy of books hangs from the ceiling on bits of near-invisible string — an installation by artist, illustrator and writer Oliver Jeffers, a recent Seven Stories guest storyteller.

The area’s former leadworks, glass factories and potteries have plenty of stories to tell, many of which can now be discovered on foot, along the newly opened Ouseburn Trail. I follow part of this seven-mile greenway through Jesmond Dene. Despite sounding like a Jamaican music hall star, this is parkland once owned by Northumbria native Lord Armstrong. The engineer, ship builder and philanthropist spent years landscaping his fiefdom with grottos, waterfalls and exotic plants, then donated the lot to the people of Newcastle. Today, it remains the city’s most loved public park, and a starting point for the Ouseburn Trail. Some £10m has been pumped into greening the route and adding bridges, waymarked paths and historical pointers. The trail runs through Ouseburn to the Tyne and, to the north, loops onto Hadrian’s Way and the Coast to Coast long-distance footpaths.

Later, down near the docks, I have a feast worthy of a long-distance walker. I’ve barely earned it but the menu at The Broad Chare is too intriguing to resist. Dishes like pigs’ ears, scrumpets (bites of breaded, shredded lamb), and deep-fried monkfish cheeks prove far tastier than they sound, and when added to a couple of oysters and some potted shrimps, send me staggering back along the Tyne, pausing to stare up at one of the largest inland breeding colonies of kittiwakes, roosting under the Tyne Bridge. I manage to clear its poop-splattered arches unscathed.

Next morning, I find myself gazing up at another hulking piece of metal. I’m biking from the Angel of the North to Tynemouth, 15 miles along the coast, with Andrew Straw, co-founder of cycle holidays outfit Saddle Skeddadle. He’s just set up cafe/cycle hire shop The Cycle Hub in the Ouseburn, offering local tours. Leaving the Angel’s protective arm span, we bike past the back-to-back houses and kosher delis of Bensham, into Gateshead. Freewheeling past the leafy banks of the Sage, over the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, we follow car-free paths along the north bank of the Tyne, past bikers, triumphant after cycling Hadrian’s Way.

We ride part of this hallowed path, passing an end of Hadrian’s Wall: an underwhelming chunk of masonry overlooked by what seems to be an airport control tower (actually a visitor gallery). The route skirts the town of Wallsend, home to Segedunum — the UK’s most excavated Roman fort — and, more recently, Geordie superstar Cheryl Cole. Turning onto the tail end of the Coast to Coast path, a short, sharp uphill brings us to the clifftop ruins of Tynemouth Castle and Priory. The wind takes what little breath I have left, leaving me nothing to gasp with at the sight of crescents of sand stretching as far as the eye can see.

After a fish and chip lunch at Hugos at the Coast, a pretty bar/cafe on Tynemouth’s Victorian parade, I head down to the sand, intent on a surf, but sadly the waves aren’t big enough. Stephen Hudson, of Tynemouth Surf Co, agrees but is happy to take me out anyway.

Stephen has spent most his life seeking the world’s greatest swells, and teaches everyone from local school kids to tourists how to ride big surf — something the North Sea usually gets a decent amount of. “I’ve surfed everywhere  but I love this coast,” he says. “It’s so empty and barren. I get out there and often it’s just me and the seals.”

It starts to tip it down, though. We scoot inside the surf shop to watch YouTube footage of his surf buddy, Harvey the golden labrador (yes, really), and appraise the latest delivery of surf T-shirts — custom designed by illustrator Al Murphy and Northumberland-born Turner Prize nominee Paul Noble, no less.

The arts, it seems, are found at every turn in this city, whether biking, hiking or (almost) surfing. And this is before I’ve hit the city’s stellar cultural sight. My final morning is dedicated to the Baltic, which, to mark its 10th birthday, has a packed year of exhibitions and events, plus new satellite gallery Baltic 39, set in a Grade II-listed former print warehouse in Grainger Town. In the main venue, I’m wowed by Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, a music installation commissioned for Baltic’s opening.

More way-out is a piece by Owl Project and Ed Carter that uses the Tyne’s flow to power a water mill filled with sonic test tubes and gadgets, which send random honks and bleeps to a huge wooden trumpet on a terrace. The mill, anchored on the opposite side of the Tyne, is a wooden shack that’s part Swedish sauna, part hobbit hut. As I come up the gangplank, a passing group of local teens spots the structure. “Is tha’ a boathouse?” says one. “Tha’s class like!” When it comes to this city, I have to agree.

 

Must-do: Crisscross the Tyne over its seven bridges; the first, High Level Bridge, dates from 1849 and is a great spot for photos. Head under its arches to explore the imposing Norman Castle Keep, which gave the city its name, then climb to the top for cracking quayside views.

 

The perfect day
■ 9am: To the Baltic for cutting-edge visual arts, then across Gateshead Millennium Bridge for a walk into the Ouseburn Valley to see, and possibly buy, local arts and crafts at cool, contemporary gallery The Biscuit Factory.
■ 12pm: Walk the Ouseburn Trail to leafy Jesmond Dene. Lunch at Jesmond Dene House or in nearby Jesmond village, at one of the laid-back cafes around Acorn Road.
■ 2pm: Take the Metro 20 minutes out to Tynemouth for a walk on the beach, a surf lesson or a stroll around the pretty Victorian high street.
■ 5pm: Catch the Metro into town, then out for dinner at The Broad Chare before seeing a show at the Sage.
■ 10pm: A gig at The Cluny or The Cumberland Arms, then drinks at the bars in grand Victorian buildings in and around the railway station.

ESSENTIALS

Newcastle Gateshead

Getting there
Newcastle is on the main East Coast rail line between London’s King’s Cross and Edinburgh Waverley. www.eastcoast.co.uk
Average journey time: 3h.
Newcastle International Airport, which serves numerous regional destinations across the UK, is located around eight miles northeast of the city. A taxi to town costs around £20-25; Newcastle’s Metro rail network goes direct to the Central Station from £3.10, approximately every three minutes, with a journey time of 30 minutes. www.nexus.org.uk

 

Getting there
Newcastle is a compact, walkable city, with footbridges connecting the central city with Gateshead.
Outlying areas like Jesmond and Tynemouth are 20 minutes’ Metro  ride away.

 

When to go
Winters are cold, so wrap up and waterproof well, and like much of the UK, Newcastle is a year-round destination.

 

Places mentioned
Ouseburn.  www.ouseburnnewcastle.org
The Broad Chare.  www.thebroadchare.co.uk
The Cycle Hub. www.thecyclehub.org
Tynemouth Surf Co.  www.tynemouthsurf.co.uk
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. www.balticmill.com
The Sage Gateshead.  www.thesagegateshead.org

 

Where to stay
Hotel Indigo. Newly opened with a Marco Pierre White Steakhouse, Bar & Grill. www.hotelindigonewcastle.co.uk
In Ouseburn: Hotel du Vin.  www.hotelduvin.com
Jesmond Dene House.  www.jesmonddenehouse.co.uk

 

More info
City walking tours.  www.tomkeating.net
www.newcastlegateshead.com

 

Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)