Twitchhiker | Paul Smith's travel tales from here and there

The Tyne of your life
03/08/2009, 09:13
Filed under: travel | Tags: , ,

Twitchhiker - Popolo

My first double page spread for the Guardian – this guide to my adopted home city of Newcastle was published in a travel supplement for the paper on Saturday June 27th, and is lovingly re-created for you here:

The story goes that several years ago Newcastle was declared eighth-best party city on the planet. Not unexpectedly, the good folk proceeded to celebrate.

For too long that image of the people threatened to overshadow the gradual transformation of both Newcastle and Gateshead beyond their monochromatic ship-building roots. Fortunately, in the years that followed, the city matured into one of the most compelling and effervescent places in the country. There are few cities offering such a wealth of diverse experiences. And we know it, too; recent footballing under-achievements aside, everyone here is fiercely proud of what we have, far away from the clutter and splutter of London.


A leisurely stroll along the River Tyne is the best introduction to the history and regeneration of the city, as well as the majesty of the seven bridges that crisscross it. Gateshead Quays is dominated by the orange-brick might of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, its impressive girth hosting internationally acclaimed galleries and installations. The metamorphosis of this former flour mill was a significant marker in Newcastle and Gateshead’s charge to become one of the country’s cultural focal points. Alongside is the Sage Gateshead, a rolling hillside of glass and steel which plays host to world-famous musicians and global conferences.

Newcastle’s Quayside is the oldest neighbourhood in the city, with graceful Tudor merchant houses nestling among the imperious Victorian properties. It’s here you’ll find the bars that made Newcastle famous a decade ago, but in recent years it’s become a mecca for foodies: walk south from the city centre down Dean Street, and your palette will tingle with delight at the menus on offer. Hei Hei is one of the top locally owned restaurants, a punchy, urban space that reworks traditional Chinese dishes, while the rather grand Indian restaurant Vujon sprawls across the ground floor of a Victorian town house and serves a boro chinghri bhoona (king prawns with garlic, ginger and onion) for which I’d wrestle a man with 10 arms.


Walk further east along the Quayside and, as the River Tyne hooks south, you’ll reach the Free Trade Inn. Fire up the free jukebox, make a friend or two with the locals and relax in the cosy beer garden.

The Inn stands at the mouth of the Ouseburn river, which washes through the lavish open spaces of Jesmond Dene down to the Tyne. Ouseburn Valley was the site of Newcastle’s earliest modern industry; by the 19th century its length was littered with potteries, mills, coal barges and glasshouses. Today the lower valley explodes with independent arts, music and crafts. The Cluny is the first choice for live music in Newcastle, its monthly listings packed to the brim with national acts and local sounds, raising the roof of this old whisky-bottling plant, while the Cluny and the Art Works galleries showcase local talent.


That the city has such a passion for film might surprise some, but then Newcastle is blessed with perhaps the finest independent cinema in the country. The art deco mouldings of Tyneside Cinema were conceived, designed and built more than 70 years ago by Dixon Scott, great-uncle of Ridley and Tony Scott. Cherished by patrons for a programme that mixes blockbusters with independent film, the Tyneside proves that the cinematic experience can stretch far beyond the soda-pop mediocrity of the multiplex. Students of foreign and underground productions will also adore the cosier Side Cinema on Newcastle’s Quayside.


By night, Newcastle is as lively and ridiculously underdressed as it ever was, though the crowds have migrated from the Quayside towards Newcastle’s Diamond Strip, a colourful dash of splashy venues around Collingwood Street. Right now, though, it’s all about the cocktails – and Popolo is the place to enjoy the freshest mojitos in town. Sodium bulbs fizzle above the horseshoe bar and the clatter of spirits bottles, while washed-out 70s movies flicker silently for a convivial crowd. Sunday evenings are trade night for the city’s bar staff, but everyone’s invited to sip the cut-price drinks.

For quaffers of real ale, try a pint of whatever they’re drinking in the Crown Posada, one of the oldest pubs in Newcastle. Snuggled into the imperial buildings of the Quayside, it’s a thin, tapered wedge of a thing with stained-glass windows, an ornate ceiling and an elderly gramophone that quietly crackles. The patrons are a slosh of regulars, clocked-out office kids and tourists. If you want to dine along with your drinking, then it’s away to Grey Street for oysters and champagne at the decadent Barluga, or across the road to the Living Room for moreish beer-battered prawns with wasabi.

Hidden gems

Prominent on Pink Lane, the Jazz Cafe has the appearance of being permanently shut. Indeed, every few months there are whispers that it has closed for good, yet it’s still luring passersby into its dimly lit cavern for accomplished live jazz and a complimentary chicken sandwich. Further afield, in Heaton, seek out Belle and Herbs cafe. It’s a long walk from the city centre, among the rented terraces of Newcastle’s student fraternity, but its hotchpotch of mismatched furniture makes for a cosy Sunday afternoon with a fish-finger sandwich.

Local lowdown

Best 10-minute treat
Kelly Scott, presenter Real Radio

I have a weakness for bagels of any sort. When I’m in Newcastle, a trip into Bagel of the North, near Grey’s Monument, is a must. I’ll order a cream cheese, pesto and tomato bagel, whether I’m hungry or not – it’s always a surprise to get home and find I’ve stuffed a fresh bagel in my bag! They’ve started selling cupcakes too, so it’s getting more difficult to pass by without popping in.

Best thing to do in a lunchtime
Caroline O’Doherty, operations director, The Children’s Foundation

There’s something special about taking a spot on one of the benches by the lake at Leazes Park. Being a country girl, I often knock living in the city because I don’t get to appreciate the changing of the seasons as much. But Leazes Park is glorious frozen lakes in winter, signets and ducklings in the spring, and during the football season you can hear match-day commentary courtesy of 50,000 fans cheering at St James’s Park next door.

Best day trip out of town
Malcolm MacDonald, former Newcastle United and England footballer

Seaton Sluice is a wonderful village on the north-east coast. It has, without a doubt, the finest beach south of Bamburgh, and a very picturesque harbour which has satisfied a whole host of trades and industries over the centuries. If the weather’s fine, you can walk along the clifftops to St Mary’s lighthouse. Seaton Sluice has a remarkable reputation for food, with five pubs serving cracking meals, as well as the legendary Gill’s fish and chip shop, which people will travel to from miles away. Seaton Delaval Hall is one of the most beautiful houses I’ve seen – it’s not hidden away, but there by the roadside for everyone to enjoy. The National Trust is currently trying to raise funds to rescue and open it to the public.


1 Comment so far
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As a resident of Seaton Sluice I wholeheartedly endorse Malcolm’s comments. It is also an ideal place for pets as a walk is not a proper walk without the dog!

Comment by Stan Knowles

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