Cities of the North: Newcastle

Thomas Rees

written by
Thomas Rees

updated 18.09.2018

If you want to understand Newcastle you first need to understand its place in the world – that is, a long way from anywhere. The next major city is Leeds, two hours drive to the south. To the north, beyond Hadrian's Wall, lie the Scottish borders. To the west, the windswept Northumberland moors. Head east and you're wading into the frigid waters of the North Sea. London feels very far away indeed.

You feel that isolation in the city's hard beauty. Wander along the Quayside, next to the River Tyne, listening to the mew of the oystercatchers stepping gingerly across the mudflats, and you'll see Newcastle gathered above you on the hillside, around its 12th-century castle keep. There are iron bridges ruled against the sky – mementos of the city's industrial heyday. Across the Millennium Bridge, on the Gateshead side of the river, is the towering Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (a restored flour mill) and the silver ripple of the Sage Gateshead music centre, built during the spectacular regeneration of the Quayside in the 1990s and 2000s.

High Level Bridge Newcastle

Tyne bridges © Thomas Rees

Isolation informs Geordie culture too. It breeds self-reliance, a strong sense of community and a deep pride in 'the Toon' (there's only one), which has helped the city celebrate the good times and endure the bad: the decline of the coal mining and shipbuilding industries that made the city's fortune in the 19th century and, in the last few years, swingeing cuts to funding for the arts. It also manifests itself in a weatherproof warmth. If there's one Geordie stereotype that rings true, it's disarming friendliness: 'Newcastle Hospitality' is 19th-century shorthand for, "excessive, almost overbearing, kindness – especially when it comes to buying someone a drink."

Yet Newcastle's isolation also makes it easy to ignore. When it comes to culture, its many riches have often been overlooked. This year the Great Exhibition Of The North changed that, but as it draws to a close it would be all too easy for Newcastle to disappear off the map once again. So, with that in mind, here is a round-up of the best the city has to offer – from historic monuments and arts initiatives of global significance, to top food spots and welcoming pubs – with an emphasis on the traditional and the undersung. This is your guide to Geordie culture and where to find it.

History: Ouseburn and the Victoria Tunnel

Newcastle was one of the engine rooms of the industrial revolution, once home to world-leading inventors and engineers. For an insight into the city's industrial past, walk along the north bank of the Tyne out to Ouseburn. Wander among the old warehouses and factory buildings – now home to artists' studios and some of the city's most interesting music venues, such as The Cluny (a former whisky bottling plant) – and thank your stars you weren't here in the 1900s, when it was all tenement housing, scummy public bathhouses and five families to a netty (outdoor toilet). The End House on Lime Street is the last tenement house still standing following the slum clearances of the mid-20th century.

Dig deeper by taking a tour of the Victoria Tunnel, a 19th-century wagon way that runs for 2.5 miles beneath the city. It was built to transport coal from a mine by the Town Moor to ships waiting on the Tyne. During the Second World War it was reopened as an air raid shelter, so you weave through sets of blast walls and skirt patches of canary yellow gas detection paint as you head underground. There are fascinating glimpses of the people who built the tunnel and took shelter here. At one point you can see the stump of a Victorian clay pipe jammed into the wall. At another, the bricks are smudged with the fingerprints of the women and children who made them, for a wartime repair. One stretch of the tunnel even grazes a sacred spring that belonged to a nearby Roman temple – an echo of Newcastle's ancient past and the time of Hadrian's Wall.

Victoria Tunnel Newcastle

Victoria Tunnel © Ouseburn Trust

Arts: Poetry at countercultural hub Morden Tower

For a small city Newcastle has an incredibly rich arts scene, with lots of grassroots initiatives alongside major institutions such as the Sage Gateshead and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Ouseburn pub The Cumberland Arms is one of the best places to see regional folk music (as explored in a recent episode of The Rough Guide To Everywhere podcast). The Side Gallery has a superb photography collection, with work by local artists and visitors to the region – including several moody, industrial landscapes by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Newcastle also has a fascinating and little known countercultural history centered around the Morden Tower, part of the medieval city wall. In the 1960s, the tower was taken over by local poets Tom and Connie Pickard who ran it as an alternative bookshop and then a venue for poetry readings that embraced misfits and challenged the literary establishment of the day. Legendary Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg made several appearances at the tower, as did Seamus Heaney and local poet Basil Bunting, whose modernist classic Briggflatts was premiered there by candlelight in 1985.

After years of sporadic use, the tower has been taken over by a group of local writers and is due to reopen for poetry readings in early 2019. "I won't say, 'in all its glory' because it never had electricity…" says poetry student Amy McCadden, one of the organisers. "People here don't have much money or resources so they rely on the one thing they have, which is each other. They're resilient and the culture has that spirit about it," says McCadden. The Morden Tower encapsulates that perfectly.

Sage Gateshead Newcastle

Sage Gateshead © Thomas Rees

Eat: Grainger Market and a proper stottie

In the 1990s and early 2000s there were only a handful of good places to eat in Newcastle. There was Pani's – a wonderful, family-run Sardinian restaurant just off Grey Street – that remains a favourite today, for pasta with punchy Italian sausage or fregula with clams. And there was the ever-reliable Café 21, for special occasions. Now though, Geordies are spoilt for choice. Thanks to the excellent House Of Tides we even have a Michelin star to call our own.

The Grainger Market is Newcastle's food scene in miniature. Opened in 1835 and once down at heel, it's had a new lease of life in recent years and now buzzes with students, families and old folks, trundling dogged gingham shoppers. Beneath the wrought iron arches and beautiful wooden signs, tracked with gilt, you'll find fishmongers selling local shellfish and famous Craster kippers, old-fashioned greengrocers, and pink-cheeked butchers in smart white coats. "Wha' can a get ya, sweet'art? Champion. Best English lamb. Beautiful that."

There are trendy new arrivals, such as burger joint Meat: Stack, and reassuringly unfashionable cafs, where you can get a brew and a teacake or a simple white roll with ham and the comforting blandness of pease pudding. If you want to try a true classic of Geordie cuisine, seek out a round, white loaf called a stottie (stot means 'to bounce'). The nearby Pink Lane Bakery sells some of the best in the city. They do filled ones on weekdays, including a quietly-spectacular cheese savoury, and they also supply the brilliant Quilliam Brothers Tea House over by the university – much-loved by locals and the city's students.

Grainger Market Newcastle

Grainger Market © Thomas Rees

Drink: Classic pubs and cutting-edge microbreweries

I know what you're thinking – Friday night 'Party Capital' Newcastle – armies of bellowing stags and flocks of hens staggering round the Bigg Market, daubed in neon body paint, acting out scenes from Geordie Shore. Forget all that. There's another side to the city's nightlife. It isn't all about DRINKING. Let's talk about beautiful old boozers like the Crown Posada, down on the Quayside and The Central, just across the High Level Bridge in Gateshead. If you're in town on a match day, you must stop by The Strawberry, just across the road from the city's other cathedral: St James' Park football stadium. Soak up the atmosphere and savour a pint of 'Broon' (Newcastle Brown Ale) on draught.

In the last few years, Newcastle has also developed one of the most exciting craft beer and microbrewery scenes in the UK. "It's an amazing place for beer drinkers," says Alastair Gilmour, editor of Cheers magazine and an expert on Geordie pubs. "We haven't shouted about it enough." Standout spots include Wylam Brewery in Exhibition Park, Arch 2 in Ouseburn and new venture By The River Brew Co., housed in a rusted shipping container (colour-matched to the Angel Of The North) beneath the Tyne Bridge. Before you roll your eyes and mutter something disparaging about hipsters, try their coffee porter. Flavour bomb is putting it mildly.

The Free Trade Inn is the perfect mix of old and new – comfortably shabby, no-nonsense, with a wide range of local ales on tap. Its beer garden also has one of the best views in the city – back down the Tyne to the Quayside. Go for late evening and watch the sun set over the Baltic, the Sage and the city's bridges, ruled against the sky. That's true Geordie culture right there.

Strawberry, Newcastle and statue of footballer Jackie Milburn

Strawberry pub, Newcastle and statue of footballer Jackie Milburn © Alastair Gilmour

Top image: © Michael Conrad / Shutterstock

Thomas Rees

written by
Thomas Rees

updated 18.09.2018

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