A former teacher and charity worker from the North East of England, I love people and places and like to try out new experiences wherever possible. Capturing that 'perfect pic' is all part of the pleasure. Access issues are a particular interest.
Published August 13th 2013
City Sights in a Northern Capital
Newcastle is a vibrant city, by night and by day. When I was young it was a day trip with my parents and siblings to buy new clothes then, as a sixteen-year-old, I left school and started work in a office there. That was the early 1970s and I earned about £8 per week.
It was when I worked there that Eldon Square, the biggest shopping mall in Europe at the time, sprang into being and the Tyne & Wear Metro system was built to provide rapid transport around the region, both are still at the heart of making Newcastle a buzzing cosmopolitan 21st century city while its broad Victorian avenues were built to impress and add a sense of grandeur to a city designed as a northern capital and county town of Northumberland.
Images of a dirty old Northern town, scarred by heavy industry with it's inhabitants barely speaking English and wearing flat caps and racing whippets are only in the minds of a few these days as Newcastle is much more sophisticated than some would have us believe.
Some serious marketing by the erstwhile 'One North East' and the present day 'Newcastle/Gateshead Initiative' (a concept that was alien to most local people as the two towns have always been separate entities, in separate counties, divided by the River Tyne), plus a few decades of urban regeneration provided by European Union funding, set Newcastle on a quest to become the European City of Culture a few years ago; we lost out to Liverpool but the legacy of a bright, modern city is there for all to see.
Grey's Monument from Old Eldon Square on Blackett Street
Grey's Monument is a good place to start as it is at the hub of transport links and has a main entrance into Eldon Square (which has recently been revitalised and is now called intu Eldon Square for some reason). Monument Metro Station is perhaps the busiest station on the line. Once outside you'll see buskers and public meetings adding flavour to every day life. You can get there from just about anywhere on the system with the minimum of fuss.
Earl Grey himself (yes, it is he of the tea) was a 19th century British Prime Minister from the region and it was his Premiership that ushered in the Reform Act of 1832 (which broadened the electoral franchise, got rid of the unrepresentative so called 'rotten boroughs' and led the way to universal suffrage over time). One of the grand avenues that leads down from the monument is named after him too.
On Grey Street you will find The Theatre Royal, with its majestic classical columns at the entrance fitting in nicely with imposing granite buildings that sweep down towards the River Tyne. Originally built in 1837 the theatre was rebuilt in 1909 following a devastating fire and is now a Grade 1 Listed Landmark.
The Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Ballet are just two of many esteemed regular visitors to grace the stage here, but it remains a theatre for the people and with around 350,000 visitors last year alone, there's no denying its appeal.
Grainger Street, named after the chief architect of the city, also commences at Grey's Monument and fans out as it leads to another grand design that is Central Station while older parts of the town such as The Bigg Market and St. Nicholas' Cathedral lie in between the two.
If you're in the mood for some local heritage, the 12th century Castle Keep, built in the reign of Henry II on the site of previous Roman and Anglo-Saxon strongholds is well worth a visit and is open 361 days a year. For information on Heritage Walks and more see here.
Newcastle has always been a colourful city with colourful characters to match. It was just off the Bigg Market at Balmbra's Music Hall, that the Geordie anthem, 'The Blaydon Races' was written and performed by Geordie Ridley in 1862, immortalising the pub in the process. If you're not local, here's the lyrics.
And today the area is mostly known for its vibrant nightlife, it has featured on the networked programme 'Geordie Shore', which many locals feel is 'cringe-worthy' and shows the area in a bad light.
Nevertheless, its reputation is a magnet for international students and visitors alike as well as thousands of locals who descend upon 'The Toon' every weekend bringing their spending power with them.
During the day time a walk down to the Quayside is a very pleasant experience. The impressive Tyne Bridge shares its design with The Sydney Harbour Bridge and was built by the same engineering company. It never fails to amaze me.
My friend and I had lunch at 'The Slug and Lettuce', a very nice pub chain that serves tasty meals and has lunchtime specials such as half-price curry days. The view of the Tyne Bridge from the Quayside is wonderful while just a short walk away is the footbridge to Gateshead; with its Sage building, a prestigious music venue, and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.
We decided to wander over to the building that was once a flour mill but can now claim to have held the Turner Prize exhibition.
The view along the river is second to none, but if you buy a cup of coffee, it's the view you're paying for, like Venice Paris or Rome you pay for the privilege of just being there.
It was a beautiful day but we decided the climb back up to the town centre was a bit steep so we took the Quaylink bus back up to the top. There are two Quaylink buses, the Q1 and Q2 which run a loop in opposite directions between Newcastle Central Station and Gateshead Metro Interchange and takes in The Sage, the Swing Bridge, Newcastle Quayside, Grey Street and Grainger Street with stops at all the major city attractions.
We alighted near the Theatre Royal. From there it's a short walk past the monument and along Blackett Street to Northumberland Street, the key shopping street which is lined with high street stores and boasts one of the few grand department stores still around - Fenwick's of Newcastle.
Newcastle is quite a compact city and it is easy to walk around and see the main sights in a very short time, from the old city walls and what was once the 'new' castle, to art galleries, museums and of course St James' football ground – home of Newcastle United football club.
With two fine universities, Newcastle University and Northumbria University, The Centre for Life, The Gate complex, Chinatown and the Metro Radio Arena, a well established venue for top performers, we won't be able to keep the secret for too much longer. Cloth cap and whippets, you decide.
As a final stop-off before heading home, my friend and I took the weight off our feet in Old Eldon Square for a few moments until my bus was due. The war memorial is central to the square, with floral borders and benches offering a pleasant place to sit and reflect upon an old city, buzzing with modern life.
Futuristic Haymarket Metro Station on Northumberland Street