A New Take on Newcastle by Jacky Hilary
What does Newcastle mean to you? Firstly, I'm talking about Newcastle-on-Tyne, not the one in the Potteries. Newcastle may conjure up heavy industry in the form of mining and shipbuilding, unemployment, grime – or football. The mining and shipbuilding are long gone, as is the grime. The unemployment is alas still there, but the city is on the up and boasts - amongst other things - a massive state-of-the-art football stadium near its centre.
These days, Newcastle has quite a reputation as a party city and it has a very lively night life, if that's what you're after. But there is a great deal more to the city than that. I spent 3 weeks there recently and – to my surprise – fell and in love with the place and found it hard to leave this beautiful, solid, compact city on the north bank of the mighty Tyne river. Why?
Firstly, Newcastle is full of wonderful, chunky Georgian architecture and one great example will greet you on arrival - Central Station, in all its redbrick splendour. So, what else is there to see in Newcastle? I would strongly recommend any visitor to simply walk – as I did daily – through the centre and towards the universities. In this way, you can take in the atmosphere, the shops and the architecture all in one go. Grey's Monument, Grey Street and the majestic, newly-refurbished Theatre Royal are a must. The original buildings of Newcastle University are worth a look and its quadrangle is a botanical wonder. On the Newcastle University campus, you will also find the Northern Stage Theatre. Very modern and not everyone's cup of tea in terms of aesthetics – but it boasts three stages and a brilliant, good-value tapas café/restaurant.
If shopping is your thing, central Newcastle has it, all including huge branches of M and S and John Lewis. It also has great markets, including the indoor Grainger Market, right in the centre of town.
The Laing Art Gallery is a gem and well worth visiting. Free of charge, it gives you insight into the history of Newcastle. It houses paintings showing sailmakers, shipbuilders, the river and the City as it was in centuries past. It also has wonderful collections of metalwork and glassware. Near the centre, the Laing is opposite a charming old building which started life as a maternity facility for poor women.
The Tyne and its iconic bridges are also a must. The best way to see these is to take a walk or cycle ride along the Quayside, which has undergone a transformation in recent years. The stunning pedestrian/cyclist Millennium Bridge will take you across to Gateshead on the south bank and to the Baltic and Sage buildings. The Baltic, a former flour mill, is now a modern art gallery with a great café on its ground floor and a posh restaurant at the top. In between, there are several galleries showing a changing variety of modern art, a library and a children's play area. Take the lift up to the top for amazing free views of the river and the city. The Sage next door is a fabulous new concert hall, designed by Norman Foster.
Although Newcastle is best enjoyed on foot, it has a metro system which is cheap and cheerful - and mostly above ground.
I had the good fortune to be introduced to two magnificent old pubs - one near the river called the Crown Posada. The other, near the station, is called the Union Rooms. Both boast wonderful interiors, with lots of purple and brass fittings – huge, old-style pubs of the type you rarely see now in the trendy, minimalist south.
If you come by train or car from the south, keep an eye out as you approach Gateshead and you will see Antony Gormley's enormous Angel of the North as you pass - a visitor attraction in its own right. Even from a distance, it folds you in its embrace as you pass.
Tynesiders are tough, adaptable, skillful, able - and funny. These traits are perceptible in its famous sons and daughter who include musicians Sting and Mark Knopfler, Cheryl Cole, actors Denise Welch, Jimmy Nail and Robson Green, comedienne on the rise, Sarah Millican and playwrights Alan Plater and Lee Hall - of 'Billy Eliot' fame.
The climate is not great and winters are cold. But Newcastle and its people emanate such warmth, I shall go back whenever I can. Newcastle-on-Tyne has found, and will retain, a place in my heart.
Jacky Hilary has been writing on and off for most of her life - poetry, plays, theatre reviews etc. An erstwhile linguist, social worker and trainer, Jacky has been working in human resources for most of the last 20 years and currently works for a small charity in SW London. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
© Jacky Hilary