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Window on Geordie country


'The Toon' has some new and exciting draw cards

'The Toon'– that is Newcastle upon Tyne's nickname, the Geordie way.

Geordie? It could refer to a local from the area around Newcastle, or it may be the dialect spoken here in the far north-east of England. If there are overtones of a Scottish accent, then probably that's to be expected, too, as the border between England and Scotland is only about 70 kilometres to the north.

And this city is old. Last year, 2016, marked 800 years since King John granted Newcastle its own mayor and also allowed the formation of guilds (known then as Mysteries).

We were visiting to unravel some modern mysteries. Such as why do people from other parts of the country smirk when someone mentions the north-east?

Read on, to discover my theory on why this happens.

However, the city's timeline is much longer than a mere eight centuries. Its recorded history goes back another 1100 years to when the Romans in 120AD built the first bridge crossing the River Tyne.

Any visitor to Newcastle is mesmerised by today's series of bridges. Technically thr river occupies the Tyne Gorge, separating Newcastle on the north bank, and Gateshead – a separate town and borough (seen above, on the left) – on the south bank. Linking them is the Tyne Bridge of 1928 which was built by the same local company (Dorman Long of Middlesborough) that was responsible for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which opened four years later. See the resemblance?

Next came Robert Stephenson's High Level Bridge in 1849, the first road and rail bridge in the world, and then the Swing Bridge in 1876. Look carefully and you can see them all.

The most amazing piece of engineering is the The Gateshead Millennium Bridgeopened for public use in 2001. A pedestrian and cyclist tilt-bridgeit links Gateshead's waterfront arts quarter and Quayside on the north bank.

The converted Baltic Flour Mill (above) is now a huge contemporary art space available for temporary showings. There's a bar and restaurant as well, overlooking the river and its activities.

The Millennium Bridge (above) is a triumph of engineering. The arch folds back to allow higher vessels to pass along the river and you can find out when it will next tilt.

Watch it in action on the video, below, and see why it has been nicknamed the Blinking Eye Bridge.

But, you mustn't think that Newcastle is lost in its own history. While the Geordies often are unnecessarily joked about by other parts of England, the reality is that they are proud of their long and rich heritage. It was a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution.

Granted city status in 1882, Newcastle's 19th-century prominence has been based on industries such as printing, glass, pottery, and of course shipbuilding and heavy engineering enabled by local coal mining. Newcastle was one of the first cities in the world to be utilise electric lighting.

There were hard times adjusting when the world's needs changed and some trades became redundant. The past forty years or so has seen the city regrouping, refocusing and repurposing many parts of the city. That old flour mill is just one example. We were about to discover many more......

Day One in Newcastle we craved a coffee. A good one. 

But, as in any new place we needed help, so we asked someone who we hoped would know - a young person working in a jeans shop. Success! He pointed us across the plaza to a narrow laneway we would not have noticed.

Located next door to the vintage Tyneside CinemaVicolo had a good feel, good coffee...

...and a good address.

At this point I need to make a disclosure. My great-great-grandparents and their family lived in Newcastle before they emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, in 1850. More importantly those bricks behind the sign, above, are part of the back wall of what was their home. They would have looked down on this lane.

Stay tuned for a couple more (not too many, promise!) indulgent mentions of family spots, as of course, part of my visit here was to try to learn more about what their lives would have been like over 150 years ago.

One of the major changes in today's Newcastle concerns dining. As people travel and read the internet, watch TV, and generally become more adventurous with their dining, so changes occur in cities worldwide. Eldon Square is a very large shopping mall in the central part of Newcastle. On the edge of this, well-positioned is Olive & Bean, a large and very busy diner. 

Handmade cakes - and so many of them - the details written French bistro-style on the glass showcase.

I ordered this sandwich of brie, grapes, greens and sweet chilli sauce. The memory of that crusty wholemeal baguette and the coleslaw side, still makes my mouth water.

Nearby Grainger Market has met the shopping needs of locals since it opened in the 1830s when it was the largest in Europe. Opening daily every day except Sunday, it has moved with the times, appealing to this generation with deli-foods, tropical fruits and takeaway, up-to-date accessories, souvenirs still under the original 19th-century wrought iron arches.

Nearby Central Arcade is opulent and classy with its Edwardian tile flooring and stunning faïence tiles.

For dinner one night, we followed the advice of another local and headed to something even older. 

While the RedHouse restaurant dates from 2012, the building, a Grade II-listed traditional pub, adjacent to other strategically-placed 16th- and 17th-century merchant houses which would have also looked out directly over the waterfront.

Inside is a labyrynth of hallways and dining rooms under low ceilings, but there is nothing old-fashioned about the menu which is pulling in crowds every night. There is a relaxed feeling to the place. No one hurries you, which is a good thing as choosing your ideal combo can take some time, but once our order was placed, it was in front of us in seven minutes!

(Pic: Gordon Hammond)

Once done, you can sit back and enjoy watching the bar staff and customers.

Interestingly, as this sign states, the style is London Pie House, but the owners are proud to say that the meat used on the menu is locally butchered and sold, and the pies are proudly announced as 'homemade'.



Let's go to the beach!

This is probably not what you would have expected when visiting a North Sea beach – and this would certainly surprise many English holiday-makers who routinely settle down on shingly stretches of beach for their day at the seaside at many places further south.

Tynemouth is Newcastle's nearest beach, beloved by locals and, even later in the season (OK, September, when we visited), still very popular, even though the sea was as flat as an indigo pancake that day.

Checkout those surf boards! You can see down on the beach the spot where the surfing instruction is taking place in baby waves right on the shore. Obviously it's for the beginners, but you have to start somewhere!

And this is the gear for those who will be beginner-surfers in ten years' time. Elsewhere we found other beach essentials such as a bouncy castle, cold drinks and, of course, ice cream vans.

In the interest of accurate reporting, we tried one of these and it was perhaps the creamiest soft-serve I have had in years!

No seaside town would be complete without several chippies - and Tyneside ticks that box too. Don't you love the queues purposefully marching in?

Of course man's best friend is always welcome in Britain - especially on holidays or days at the seaside.

It was coffee time for us eventually, and someone pointed us to this little place at the far end of the main street. I never did find out who Dil was, or who was The Bear either, but it was a friendly sunny spot.

A carrot cake muffin caught my eye as a companion to our coffees. I was even more pleased when it appeared with this beautiful adornment. Do you know what it is? When I was a child we had a bush of it growing in our garden, but it is almost never seen in shops in Australia now.

It turns up more often on restaurant dishes, possibly because of its decorative appearance, but I love the taste. Called a physalis or cape gooseberry, the fruit is round and orange and a little tart in flavour, with many small seeds like a gooseberry. I love it! And the muffin was superb too.

While the mums with prams enjoy sitting outside, there is a shady inside area too - and with wonderful views of the cakes. Mouthwatering stuff!

Just a little further along the street is this delectable place...

...while across the street in this former church, the 'worshippers' now come with shopping bags, they seem happy with the transition.

Inside the shopping arcade, there are sweets and fashion, a pet shop and various flavours of 'rock', a peculiarly English confectionery which pops up in most holiday towns around the country.

The main street is tourist-friendly with cafes, restaurants, gift shops filled with postcards and souvenirs to take home to those not lucky enough to come here, as well as pubs, guesthouses (many of them ranged along road facing the waterfront) and ice cream shops. It's a holiday and day-trip town.

Standing proudly overlooking the sea, located on what is called Gibraltar Rock, we find Tynemouth Priory and Castle, the monastery dating from before the seventh century. The history of places in Britain - especially the surviving history as we see here - never fails to impress me.

Here you can see the former moat which surrounded the monastery, which would have at the time afforded protection for those within.

As we turn and look back down the main street, the town is holiday 'twee' with welcoming bunting and hanging flower baskets at every turn, emphasising the good news that it is summer. 

With too little time to explore the castle, we settle for tasting some local tipples in the gift shop, taking some pictures and moving on.

Looking north, it is easy to see how important these ancient landmarks once were, both as landmarks and places to shelter and stay if needed.

There is a low-tide only causeway to St Mary's Lighthouse at Whitley Bay, and it has become a popular spot for walking on the rocks and exploring sealife in the tiny rock pools. Although it was only built in 1898, this point served the function of a warning beacon long ago. It is believed that the lighthouse was  built on the site of an 11th-century monastic chapel, whose monks maintained a lantern on the tower to warn passing ships of the dangerous rocks.

After such a busy day by the sea, there was just one more thing to do: cross the Tyne River mouth from North to South Shields.

People have been doing this for seven centuries. Ours was a simple ferry ride which we took there and back for £2.70 each, basking in the warm sunshine.....

.... happy to be able to say we had done it. 



Back in the city

The City of Newcastle is justly proud of its newer buildings such as the quayside Sage Gateshead dedicated to music and musical discovery, with concert halls and a range of places for learning and creating music.


There is a fun and funky edge to Newcastle and Gateshead, too. Today's younger residents have never known the harsh conditions which their forebears endured during the city's industrial days. Waterside relaxation seems to be the norm now, such as this cute fish shack right on the waterfront walkway, doubling as a wine bar and sociable hangout after work.

Along the riverside there are many places to relax outdoors with a water view and eat or drink.

On a previous trip we stayed at the well-located Malmaison, a smart hotel with eclectic and arty decor.

Yet even the older buildings towards the city centre, here on Grey Street, are being put to a contemporary use with branches of world-famous restaurants looking right at home.

No prizes for guessing that the shop at street level under this glorious gilded clock and sculpture is a goldsmith. What interested me more, though, was that the top storeys was where my 19th-century forebears lived, overlooking that laneway I mentioned earlier. They would have passed this corner on numerous occasions.

In pride of place in the Newcastle City Library is this carving of the River Tyne god. He has a coal bucket on his head and fish below it, representing the local industries.

My great-great-grandfather commissioned this, a copy of one of the stone carvings on Somerset House in London and, until he left Newcastle it hung outside his publishing house. It was loaned to the library by the current owner, a printing company in Newcastle. Read more about this....

Perhaps Newcastle's most prominent and well-known landmark, Grey's Monument, is nearby, in Monument Mall, surrounded by Newcastle's fine old neo-classical architecture dating from the city's hey-day.

Local aristocrat Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, is honoured here on a towering forty-metre pedestal. He is indeed the same man whom most of us thinking of in connection with a good cup of Earl Grey tea, but he was remembered for much more than this. British Prime Minister for a term from 1830-1834, Grey was quite a social activist, abolishing slavery in the British Empire during his time in office.



The Angel of the North

With time running out for our Northumberland stay, we leave the city, crossing again into Gateshead because we have a very special appointment with a huge steel hilltop angel. You have to see The Angel of the North in its context. Unless it is juxtaposed with people, it is impossible to really grasp its size, which is immense.  

At a height of 20 metres, and a wingspan of 54 metres, it looms on the horizon and may be seen from many places in the area.

This sign at the site gives you some idea, but summarised here are the main facts.....



Hadrian's Wall country

It is impossible to visit Northumbria without at some point seeing Hadrian's Wall or coming across hikers completing a walk along a section of the wall, or cycling along between parts of it. The scale of it is hard to grasp. Built by the Romans almost 2000 years ago, a labour force of 15,000 men was employed, completing the 130-kilometre wall in under six years.

Scattered along the country road in the wall's vicinity are places like this, making an ideal place to rest and regroup. We stopped for lunch at Robin Hood Bar & Restaurant.

Inside it is the sort of pub often found in Britain: friendly staff, beers on tap, small tables and good simple food. This hotel also had a special room for groups, but we were happy seated by a window near the bar.

I had been craving vegetables. Many places that I had visited in the past days had served good meals, plenty of potato, but somehow I had missed out on good greens and carrots. With scurvy a possibility, I asked the chef here if he would give me vegetables ...please!  This is what I received, beautifully cooked, napped with a little butter and partnered with a hearty roast beef sandwich as well. Don't you love a chef that cares?

Outside, I found this box on the wall, for the use of walkers  hiking Hadrian's Wall to get directions or record the fact they had made it here. Much still remains of the wall, and there have been extensive excavations done at some points where there had been a sizable camps.

One last family indulgence, please. This is where it all began for this part of my ancestry. As far as I can tell, this old cottage near Simonburn is where my three-times great-grandfather was born in the mid 1700s. It is still a farmstead; still owned by the same wealthy landed gentry from the big house across the valley, as it has been for centuries.

Read more here....

Within a mile of the cottage we meet some hikers energetically striding off along a vestige of the wall. Suddenly, when you see something like this, that is two millennia old, my 300-year-old local pedigree seems very short.

And so to Haltwhistle with a population of under 4000, close to the Northumberland border with Cumbria. It is said to be geographically the 'centre of Britain' and certainly worthy of a stop and some photographs.

Now, reading this plaque in the tiny town's centre, suddenly even Hadrian's Wall seems quite new, as here we have remnants of the Bronze Age, another thousand years earlier. Britain is like that, with layer upon layer of history, each one fascinating and worthy of exploration.

With the day coming to a close, we have to head on from the Centre of Britain.....

.....but with us we take rich memories of Northumberland, a county that has never given up, no matter how harsh the climate or bitter the conflicts.

We have discovered The Toon that is fast morphing into a 'modern toon' with good coffee, great food, and renewed vigour for the future.

Before we leave Northumbria, I revisit the 'mystery' I've been trying to unravel over the past days: why do people from other parts of the country smirk when someone mentions the north-east of England?

My guess is because they have never been here; never experienced Geordie hospitality (legendary); never been captivated by the Tyne and its many bridges; never fallen captive to the charms of this region that really doesn't have to prove anything to the rest of England, anyway!

Glad that we had come, I leave feeling hugely proud of my own very little bit of Geordie blood.


More about Newcastle Gateshead....

More about Northumberland....


Sally & Gordon Hammond travelled to Northumberland independently, and were accommodated at Jurys Inn Newcastle Gateshead Quays.


Text and photos: ©Sally Hammond, 2017

Video: ©Gordon Hammond, 2017 


Please share your thoughts on Newcastle, Northumberland, or the Geordies.....


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