Shortly before christmas Heather and I took a trip up north to my home town. For various reasons it actually turned into quite a long stay of an entire week, with music, museums and a park at night.
Having taken time off work we travelled up on a Thursday, the train depositing us in the always impressive Central Station mid-afternoon. As is tradition it was time to begin the holiday with a quick drink in Centurians before making our way to our base for the week. The room, once we’d found it through the maze of corridors (and I’d managed to get through doors), gave a lovely view of both the close by Tyne Bridge and a glimpse of the High Level, as well as the rear of Bessie Surtees House. Just a shame leaving tended to mean having to walk up the hill! We had to leave fairly quickly though, for we had places to be and so just about time to fit in a quick dinner at the Union Rooms before heading for our first gig of the week!
Inspiral Carpets and Shed Seven
We’d timed things pretty well to arrive without too much of a queue in front of us but there was still the chance to watch the very drunk ticket tout staggering around outside the O2 Academy. Once we’d had that bit of entertainment and passed inside there was time for a drink and visit to the merchandise store (finally getting a Cool as Fuck cow t-shirt) before the first band of the evening. Quite why the fantastic Inspiral Carpets were supporting is a puzzle but they didn’t seem to mind. Never mind cool as fuck though, I’ve rarely seen a band look so utterly relaxed as fuck. Not in the sense of being loose or not making an effort, but just so in control of what they were doing and knowing how to do it. Less relaxed was the young man we dubbed the “pot squirrel” who was employed collecting glasses from the dance floor (surely they could just be swept up at the end of the night). Meanwhile the Inspirals took us through a list of their hits, and some lesser known stuff. Glad to see Saturn 5 in there, though I’m not quite sure what the two monolithic men we had to peer between in front us, who barely broke into a movement for the whole night, made of it).
Inspirals leaving the place buzzing (I would guess a number of people, like me, had come along to see them rather than the headliners) we didn’t have to wait long for Shed Seven to take the stage. For me they were something of a disappointment, missing something despite the fact in theory I should have really liked them. They seemed lifted when backed by a brass band, and in their quieter moments, but in all I’d have taken more Inspirals any day (Heather enjoyed them though).
That said, it was a pretty good way to start our trip north.
Friday morning found us hunting for breakfast as normal on our first full day. We made our way up the hill to the Lantern Cafe in St Nicholas Cathedral. The cafe is in an impressive hall of the cathedral and makes for a grand if echoing setting. Walking the cathedral itself is a calming way to start the day before we went a little further along the road to the station. There we took a train the ten minute down the tracks to somewhere I’d been promising to show Heather, the old town of Durham. Anyone familiar with the city will know that the station sits high above its streets and so the strong winds were immediately obvious on disembarking. We made our way down the hill to the city proper, where things were a little less exposed and less in danger of blowing us away.
Winding our way across the bridge with a very pretty view of the river brought us to the market place, busy with pre-Christmas stores. We happily wandered their offerings, examining the various statues around the square as we went. Durham is lucky enough to also still have an indoor market hall which we got lost in. Once we’d found our way back out into the wind we headed back up hill, towards the oldest part of the city and Durham’s beginnings.
Sitting atop the hill, high above the streets below to dominate the views of the city, sits the building which forms the heart of Durham itself. Durham Cathedral was founded to house the shrine of St Cuthbert in the tenth century, growing out of humble beginnings to become the grand building of today, which towers over the city and river below. Our tour of the building began at the western end, with the tomb of the Venerable Bede in the Galilee Chapel. It’s a quietly peaceful area, despite the crowds which were passing through. The main space of the cathedral was as impressive as ever, it’s high vaulting soaring above the visitor. If the aim was to imbue a sense of godly awe then it succeeds in many ways, its towering and echoing spaces leading to a sense of contemplation. It’s an understandable shame that photography is banned (it’s a very holy place, must be protected, etc. As must the postcard selection in the shop). We still sneaked a few until caught however. There is an impressive clock by the entrance to the tower—which we didn’t climb, even if Heather’s ankle had have felt up to it the strong winds were off putting and I seem to recall that the view isn’t so easy to enjoy.
At the end of the cathedral furthest to our entrance, at the east, beyond a slightly disturbing pieta and butting against the chapel of nine alters, sits St Cuthbert’s shrine itself, the holiest point of the cathedral—its purpose. The shrine no longer has the gold covering it once boasted, but is possibly the better for it. Its simplicity speaks, a tomb with a small square space around it. Almost comically there was even the very caricature of a devout woman kneeling in prayer. Back down to the west, off the south side, the monastic cloisters were holding a food fair, buzzing with festive offerings. These also lead the way to the little shop and an in progress build of a remarkably detailed large Lego model of the cathedral. For a small donation Heather and I both got to add a small piece to the model before heading back outside.
Lunch and a Castle
Having explored the cathedral we made our way back down the windy hill to find some lunch in the Market Tavern. We couldn’t hang around the market for too long though as we had an appointment back up the hill and the other building on the rock. Durham Castle is only open to tours, as the students of Durham University make use of it. It was actually one of those scholars who turned out to be our tour guide, a very cold looking but still chirpy student. She led us through the castle inner bailey, pointing out as best she could in the dark the crests of various Prince Bishops. We were shown a couple of chapels (one Norman, one later) and led through the Tunstall Gallery, which amounts to a long, wide corridor connecting two wings of the castle buildings. Part way down that corridor a very impressive and well preserved Norman arch stands, once an exterior door protected by a canopy and now enclosed within later building. At the end of the corridor we passed the imposing black stairs, an impressive feat of workmanship even with the supports added to stop them collapsing after only a few decades. Around the corner the impressive great hall opens out, high roofed and speaking of grand occasions. There our tour ended. It was good to see some of the castle but one can’t help but be disappointed by such things that there isn’t the chance to go discovering and wandering around more of the site.
Pubs and Dinner
As darkness had long fallen we headed for a pub to decide what to do with the evening. The Shakespeare’s Tavern seems to have had something of a refit and now has less old wooden benches and strange tables. It’s still quite nice if a little less characterful. It was certainly crowded so we only stayed for the one before heading further into town as far as the Fighting Cocks (not as nice, and certainly not as characterful). We were tempted back up the hill (again!) though to go to a place we’d passed, Spagettitata. It’s clearly very popular. They only take bookings for larger groups so there is a queuing system for smaller groups but we were lucky and got in straight away, even if our waiter did seem to forget about us for a bit. There was a buzzing atmosphere thanks to the obvious popularity with the students who made a good mix with the more mature diners scattered around. The food was perfectly acceptable too.
All that was left was to get up the hill through the increasing winds, enjoying the view back over the twinkling city and illuminated hill with castle and cathedral. At least the walk back to the hotel at the other end of a quick train hop was more sheltered and downhill!
A Lie In, Dinner and Shops
We were on holiday, so we didn’t get out of bed until noon-ish. Shoot us. We found dinner in a favourite haunt, the busy Charles Grey (no window seat unfortunately). After that we took advantage of Newcastle abundance of shops, mainly looking around (including a quick look at Fenwick’s window (and sneak up to the toys on the third floor). There was also the chance to call into another favourite pub, thankfully given how close it came to vanishing, with Trillians a must.
A little worn out we took a rest in the hotel before the short walk down the hill to beside the Tyne and that night’s venue The Riverside (not, the original, legendary venue of my youth with the same name). The Riverside is a small and intimate venue, which could do with joining its two small bars into one larger one and finding a cloakroom. We found ourselves a corner with a view of the stage where we could stash coats and waited. The support act were fairly forgettable apart from a guitarist who was most certainly getting into things with a comically mental amount of headbanging and other histrionics. They were blown away once Ash took the stage. They had an immediate power and presence that had the little venue properly rocking (apart from the strangely disinterested man nearby us). The only problem with that set was the curfew cutting them off at ten—could happily have had them play another hour.
Sunday morning found us heading to the Discovery Museum. We’d visited last time we were in Newcastle but returned this time to take a look at an exhibition chronicling the history of Fenwick’s window. The window is a christmas tradition in Newcastle (as I mentioned long ago) and the wider north-east—I remember going to visit as a child, and teenager, and adult; as much a part of the festive season as christmas lights and crackers. The exhibition was actually better than I was anticipating. As well as the photographs stretching down one wall detailing the changing window from its beginnings to the present day, and information boards on its history, there were displays of toys through the year. Among the memorable Lego sets and toy cars Heather actually found a doll of her childhood. It was also fun to point to that wall of photos going “I remember that one”.(though I wonder how much of that was retro-fitting memories of seeing retrospectives). There was also the chance to stick our heads through the holes in a Christmas display for silly photos.
It’s a Football City
I couldn’t quite manage to drag Heather to the city’s true cathedral for afternoon worship, but I did get her to the pub to watch the football (and for food). Newcastle is a city which breeths football; its pulse is the rhythm of passing, its adrenaline shot the thumping of a ball into the back of the net. Victory gives a different, happier, feel. I’d forgotten a little what it’s like.
Had A Nice Day
We didn’t have time to fully drink in the atmosphere of Newcastle after a victory however as we had to get ready for the night’s entertainment. After a trip back to the hotel we headed for the Metro Radio Arena. Once inside we discovered another venue sadly lacking cloakrooms (what is it with these places) and with a slightly annoying ticket system (hand it over, get given a random ticket to exit the main arena, hand it back over…) Annoyances were forgotten once the Stereophonics took the stage though. Ash had been wonderful the night before but the ‘Phonics were possibly better, helped by the bigger venue and setup. They also have that trick of having more fantastic songs than you think they do, and playing quite a lot of them. Excellent.
After the excitement of the last few days Monday started in a leisurly fashion, strolling around town. I took Heather for a wander through the nicer parts of my alma mata, surprising myself with some of the layout it’s that long since I’ve been through that way. The quadrangle was peaceful as we walked through towards what I will forever call the Hancock Museum. There we enjoyed a tour around the natural history exhibits (a giraffe poking over a box, a dominating elephant) and lost the exhibitions about Romans (their alleged space taken up by Egyptians…). There’s a planetarium at the museum and as we were the only two booked into the show got to choose which show we actually got (it seemed to be put together from parts of a longer, US, show which was a bit of a shame, but still entertaining and quite up to date).
We’d actually managed to kill most of the day at the museum but after the packed previous days that was fine. As we wandered back through the university campus we were amused to find the student union building suddenly lit up in a festive display. After we enjoyed that we wound our way back through town to the Bodega. From there it was a short hop to china town and dinner in the Red Diner, which filled us very nicely. The food was excellent and the place frequented by the tallest Chinese we’ve seen.
Winding back to the hotel there was time for a stop off in another old favourite The Bridge Hotel before some well earned rest.
Following the recharging day of Monday, Tuesday was a lot more packed. We set off early to catch a train to Darlington and from there to Shildon, where there is a branch of the NRM. That second train was a bit crowded and louder than expected thanks to the mother and toddler group outing going to the same place!
Once we’d found our way back along the track side to the actual museum (though it later transpired we’d completely missed the welcome building and a couple of historic areas) we entered to be confronted by a wall of varied locomotives. The lovely Green Arrow was an obvious, and welcome, sight. Not our favoured steam traction but the huge blue Deltic was also a striking presence.
While I took a few snaps of the lineup Heather managed to find Santa hiding in a coach by the entrance. He was really there to meet the children we’d been on the train with but the jolly fellow is always happy to meet kids of all ages.
One reason for visiting Shildon was to find some of the items that were hiding there these days rather than the main site in York. This included the Gateshead fire engine but especially my grandad’s train.
The locos are actually pretty crowded together through out the shed. One gets the impression that they’ve thrown in everything they don’t have space for in York but haven’t quite worked out how to do it well yet; how to open up the space some more. That’s a shame as at times it feels a bit claustrophobic and, more importantly, makes it difficult to get a sense of the things around you. More welcome was the little talk we walked into aboard the Black 5 looming there, even if the guy giving the talk did seem to keep forgetting where various bits were!
It was also interesting to see the Advanced Passenger Train. This is what money should be spent on rather than unwanted high speed tracks—making trains able to run that fast on the existing infrastructure. It says a lot about the ambition of Britain’s railways back then (and now to some extent) that the technology was sold off abroad and only brought back over in diluted form (there’s no incentive to have any such ambition any more of course, with the privatised franchise system in place).
Other items of interest included a huge snowplow and a fireless loco. To be honest though it didn’t take us as long to look around as we’d anticipated and so by lunch time we were heading back to Newcastle.
A Bit of Art
After a quick spot of lunch in the Mile Castle we half randomly headed for the Laing Art Gallery. Unbeknown to us we found an exhibition on the arts and crafts movement which kept Heather happy although it’s not my cup of tea. More enjoyable were the other art works, including those by local artists Thomas Bewick and Ralph Hedley, though we managed to miss my favourite picture of a cat.
We had a quick drink at the Victoria Comet while considering options for dinner before heading to see the horse at the The Herb Garden. As well as the roller skating horse other unusual aspects including the vacuum cooked duck which I enjoyed and special Christmas cocktails consumed by Heather. It’s good job there were only three of those, so we could still stagger back to bed.
Our last full day in Newcastle saw us begin with a trip to the other cathedral cafe—known to us as the “deaf cafe” due to its apparent popularity with the deaf community on one of our first visits. We had nothing much planned for the day so enjoyed a wander around the streets of Newcastle, eventually hopping on the Metro at Haymarket to go across the river to Gateshead. After a quick bit of lunch in the Tilley Stone we spent most of the afternoon visiting my dad.
An Enchanted Park
Leaving Dad’s we headed back to the centre of Gateshead and, once the special bus had turned up, were whisked away to an enchanted park. I’d actually been last year but this year was a bit bigger and better, and certainly more fun with Heather there too. We were dazzled by the twinkling light displays and had great fun following Alice down this particular rabbit hole. Highlights included the spinning heart, the mysterious tunnel, and special glasses on the bridge over the dean which turned everything into swirling hearts. We got special treats in Saltwell Towers too for a break from the wind.
And so the time to leave arrived, sadly enough. We left the hotel behind, our home for a week, and headed back to Centurians. There we whiled away the rest of the morning with crosswords and a quick drink before the uneventful train whisked us back southward to London. Cases deposited at true home we extended the holiday as much we could with a trip to Taylor’s Chalk before it finally ended.