Sauntering down the elegant facades of Grey Street, and the charming streets that drop down past the cathedral to the river, my wife and I remember the weekend breaks we’d spent in Newcastle. But today, as we squeeze our way past rowdy hen and stag parties as they stumble out of pubs, it’s hardly a place for a family day out. So what to do with the troops (Hannah, 12, Thomas, 10, and Oscar, 9)?
We make a beeline for the Great North Museum: Hancock, with its interesting exhibition on Hadrian’s Wall, Roman artefacts and fascinating collection on world cultures. From there, we hop onto the Metro and explore Jesmond Dene, somewhere my wife and I had overlooked before. Happily, it turns out to be one of Britain’s loveliest urban parks, hidden within it the beautiful Jesmond Dene House hotel. Although fetching to look at with its wooded walks and cascades, most of the dene is far from natural — it was shaped by Lord Armstrong, who’s probably best known as the inventor of modern artillery. A self-taught engineer, Armstrong used his ordnance skills to shape waterfalls, grottos and arched bridges into a landscaped private garden. Looking closer, the children see the joins in what at first glance seem ‘natural’ rocks that were blown apart as part of Armstrong’s handiwork.
The children are in their element here; there’s space to run around, to explore and to do what they do best — have fun. For one heart-stopping moment, we lose sight of them before their cries of glee alert us to their location — they’re perched in the mighty branches of a huge yew tree. It’s a warm day and families have colonised the waterfalls and floodplain meadows for picnics. As the dene opens out, we come to a visitor centre, cafe and Pets Corner, where the cute chipmunks are a hit with the younger children.
The dene is so rural, so sunken, that it’s easy to forget you’re in the heart of the city. We pass under a stone arch bridge and reach the bottom of the dene. We’d planned to hop on a bus back to the city centre from here but are confronted by a flyover, a dual carriageway and a tunnel. We ask a passer-by where to go and are told to keep walking along the dene all the way to the Tyne.
It proves an inspired move. We follow paths that track the Ouseburn, a small river that cut its way south to the Tyne, through what’s now Armstrong Park and Heaton Park. A riverside path leads us to Ouseburn Farm, a city farm where we take a break to coo over chinchillas, ferrets and a large Saddleback pig. A cafe helps us pre-empt any grumpiness at the unscheduled distance of our walk.
Soon afterwards we emerge by the Tyne and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, also known as the ‘winking eye’ bridge (although Oscar asserts that it “looks like a Venus flytrap”). The landmark Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art looms on the south side of the river. Rather like the city centre, the Baltic is superb for adults, but a bit confusing and abstract for the kids — and the curators, with their incessant ‘don’t touch’ mantra, soon become wearisome. Afterwards, we take the glass elevator to the viewing gantry where we find ourselves eye to eye with dozens of nesting seabirds.
As the day draws to a close, we reflect on a successful family outing that took us through woodland, from the north of the city pretty much right through to the Tyne. After the initial mistake of Grey Street — the classic adult error of seeing a destination through your own eyes rather than considering it from the children’s perspective — Newcastle’s museums and parks came to the rescue.
“Is Newcastle the greenest city in Britain?” asks Thomas. I hadn’t expected to hear that.