Once synonymous with ship building, coal mining, flat caps and whippet dogs, the North-East of England’s main city of Newcastle has managed to migrate into a modern metropolis whilst still retaining its character. It hasn’t shed its party town image, nor its reputation for producing great musicians, comedians, and sports players. We jumped at the chance to experience some of the new cultural highlights and also the traditional passions of this full of character city.
A short train ride away aboard the local Metro service is the beautiful coastal town of Tynemouth. We headed straight down to King Edward’s Bay, a small little beach encompassed by a cloak of precipitous cliffs. Luckily, it was bright sunny day and the general public was enjoying the sea and sand, with plenty of dogs being walked, children playing with footballs and surfing. Yes, there was one brave individual riding the chilly North Sea!
We joined the inevitable queue at Riley’s Fish Shack, a place that I’d heard rave reviews about and was dying to check out. The deal was this, there’s a blackboard listing the menu which changes daily and is based on the local fishermen’s catch. Once it’s gone it’s gone, with popular items selling out fast. We managed to pass the time by consuming some of the craft beers available and ordered a selection of oysters, pan-fried hake, and chargrilled squid stix. Riley’s provide deck chairs and we nestled into wait for our yummy delicacies.
Our starters of a trio of oysters were delicious, but the main meals were absolutely outstanding. The hake was a soft, melt-in-your-mouth joy and the squid, well I almost cried. It was as if the squid was made personally for me, smoky, satiny, and a lovely kick of chili to round it off. Add to that awesomeness a tastetastic salad, packed with a crisp flavour, a scrummy warm ball of sourdough and the most moreish garlic rosemary roast baby potatoes you could dream of. Food that knocked my socks off, it was simply soooo good.
One of the best aspects of bigger British towns and cities is the thriving theatre scene. There’s a huge variety of productions, from marvelous musicals to gripping dramas via bonny ballet performances and interactive children’s stories. We chose to check out a political comedy at the Northern Stage Company. It was bang up to date, a little wacky and very very funny! The audience participation in some of the games had us in stitches and it was a refreshing way to spend the evening. I loved the feeling of true immersive entertainment that is real live theatre. The captivating emotions were an exciting escape from everyday normality, my brain certainly felt revitalised afterward, there was something quite special about it!
There’s nothing more quintessential than starting the day with a good fried English breakfast, a pot of tea and a game of Scrabble. Luckily, the Quilliam Brothers allow all of that to happen fabulously. It’s a super relaxed venue, with regular seating upstairs and loungey bean bags downstairs. There are over 60 different types of loose leaf tea on offer, with helpful explanations in the menu. For me, as I am caffeine intolerant, I chose my ultimate fave tea, rooibos. For my friend, there was only one choice: Earl Grey of course! Named after the British Prime Minister, who hailed from nearby Howick Hall in Northumberland, helped to abolish slavery and had numerous affairs as well as fifteen children with his wife. His namesake tea turned out to be as popular; my friend described it as ‘stunning’ and promptly ordered a second pot.
The breakfast came really fast and was just as promptly polished off. The sausages, bacon and double eggs were darn good, accompanied by a traditional Newcastle bread, known as a stottie, as toast. There was a gluten free option for my friend, who unfortunately lost the Scrabble match. The charming teahouse is open until midnight for late evening chai tastings and also hosts regular cultural events, including art house movie screenings in their mini cinema space and writing groups. I’ll have to pop in again one afternoon for a taste of one of their giant scones. They looked truly scrumptious.
With some time spa, we headed over to The Biscuit Factory, which isn’t actually what it says on the tin, not anymore. It’s now a contemporary gallery, the largest independent art, craft and design space in the UK. Filled with lovely pieces, from minimalist prints to modern kitsch wall ceramics via spectacular metallic lion fish sculptures, there were inspiring displays of creative furtiveness. It was a very pleasant space to appreciate the artistic talents and I was tempted by some of the unique jewellery. Next time, hopefully.
It was time for the main event. Newcastle United is a football team that has the most loyal fans, even when relegated from the Premiership to the Championship league, with over 51,000 of them attending the match against Wigan Athletic. We joined the throng, mostly dressed in the team strip of black and white stripes, a herd of zebras all heading for the hallowed ground of St James’ Park. Sitting slap bang in the centre of town, the stadium is really conveniently placed. We squeeze through the turnstiles and after climbing seven flights of stairs we finally find our seats high up in the gods. With great views, we were in for a sporting treat.
Right from kick-off, the fans, otherwise known as the ‘Barmy Army’ kept the atmosphere upbeat, singing songs, chanting and celebrating the goals scored by their beloved home team. I was sat next to a couple of older gentlemen, who seemed to have been coming for many many years, and they kindly offered me some of their chocolate. That was very sweet of them! True to form, Newcastle managed to give us a game full of unnecessary drama, eventually scraping a 2-1 win over poor Wigan. After snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, we needed some liquid refreshments to celebrate.
Newcastle has a bit of a reputation for its nightlife, from being one of the top ten places in the world for late night revelry, along with partygoers wearing very little clothing and no coats in freezing weather conditions. The traditional busy area for door-to-door drinking is the Bigg Market. It’s going through a bit of a face lift and we started the evening at a more decadently decorated establishment, Passing Clouds. It’s a great place for a catch up with a friend and looking a little like a mansion’s library room it has a relaxing, calm atmosphere, which the name would suggest. After refreshing our throats we decided that it would be a good idea to move onto somewhere a little livelier.
Cosy Joe’s is just on the opposite side of the road further down the street from Passing Clouds. It’s a welcoming joint with two bars, one downstairs with a DJ and dance area and one upstairs with a karaoke stage and private karaoke rooms. We chose to show off our vocal talents to the public and entertained the crowd with some classic warblings. We had so much fun. I wanted to continue to boogie on down and throw some shapes so we popped over the road to Popworld. I loved all the cheesy tunes from the 90’s! There was quite a mixture of ages and a few hen and stag do’s grooving away. My dancing shoes were quickly totally worn out so we picked up a kebab and cheesy chili chips and took a taxi home.
The next morning our heads were unsurprisingly a little bit sore. It’s a good job that there was a market along the Quayside to help banish the nasty hangover. There are stalls serving yummy takeaway foods from all over the world, from Armenia to Vietnam via Venezuela and Greece. There was a lot of local fare on offer too, including sausages, pies, fudge, and cheese! It was so nice to be outside in the sunshine, walking along by the river, devouring a tasty gyro, pausing to look at the goodies for sale. Bright, breezy and bracing, a perfect way to blow the cobwebs away.
At the end of the market and over the marvelously tilting Gateshead Millennium Bridge is the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Housed in a former flour mill there are several floors featuring interesting installations, on the ground floor there is a cafe and shop whilst the top floor contains a well regarded restaurant. It’s worth popping in to see what thought provoking and conversation starting works are on display. It’s so quiet, to the point where the art becomes all absorbing. I do enjoy a slice of creative craziness to cut through a fuzzy head!
On our way back to the train station we pass by a little bit of history. Newcastle gets its name from the wooden castle that was erected beside the river bridge by William the Conqueror’s son in 1080. This was replaced by a stone castle seven years later, which was then rebuilt in 1172, adding on the Castle Keep, which my friend is modelling. So, really this place should be called Newnewcastle? There’s a little museum explaining the story of the buildings over time, including the alleged ghostly activities. A nice way to round off our trip!
What a great weekend, living up to its reputation as a party town, Newcastle delivered. But it also gave so much more. I felt the undying passion for the local football team, devoured the delicious scran from Riley’s Fish Shack and enjoyed exploring the arts, crafts and thespian entertainments. Newcastle has still got plenty of disco balls and stripey soccer supporters but can equally entertain culture vultures if required. Just don’t be surprised if you are the only one wearing a coat!
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