The problem with having too much fun in the summer is that it takes ages to catch up here. So it is that I’m only now writing about things that took place back in , in what could be a different world now the colder weather is beginning to set in. Anyway, in those heady days of (at least potential) warmth there was a Great Exhibition of the North centred on Newcastle; so we went to see it.
When I say “we” I mean a great deal more than just Heather and I, for with us went Gemma, plus our friend Emma with Josh and Henry. The latter three for some reason headed up on a later train so it was just the three of us who arrived uneventfully (though with my maths being tested to the limit by Gemma) to the welcome sight of Newcastle. We headed for the predictable stop to show of the glory off Centurions to Gemma. After a drink we had time to wander down the hill to find our hotel before heading back up the hill (there would be a lot of up and down hills to come!) to meet the rest of the party off the train and find their hotel.
After all that running around up and down hills and settling into hotels food was needed. We found TGI Fridays, which was at least a more unusual choice. They filled us well enough and with the rest of the evening ahead of us I left everyone in my home town to fend for themselves, for I had elsewhere to be!
I went across to see Ralph, finally collecting the last few items which had been stored for far too many years in a cupboard which had gotten even smaller with his recent move. There was time for a couple in the club before heading back across the river (with a large bag full of stuff) to reunite with Heather and bed.
There was a lunchtime Newcastle kick-off on the next day, though sadly playing away which meant there wasn’t the opportunity to visit the cathedral on the hill. Still, the early start meant television coverage, so while Heather and Gemma took themselves off to look at some Roman the rest of us looked for a pub. The Goose turned out to be far too packed to even find a single spare seat but we did manage to squeeze into The Junction, even if they did have a large area reserved off for people who didn’t turn up for an age. The game finished in a draw, with a missed last minute penalty which should have seen a win. So with mixed feelings we headed to find the others—at the seaside!
To get to the coast we took a Metro to South Shields, where Heather and Gem had been looking at Arbeia. The bit of coast we were actually aiming for though was across the river so we met them at the ferry, another rather novel experience as I hadn’t been on it for many years. That took us across to North Shields where those years had dulled my memory of just how steep the walk from ferry terminal up to Metro station is! We got there eventually though, to hop along to our final destination of Tynemouth.
All that getting the gang back together and finding various transport had left us hungry, so we found some food at the rather trendy Coast, which fed Heather and I quite a nice fish platter to share (and other things to other people). By the time we’d filled ourselves the afternoon was drifting into evening, so that when we walked down the road there was time to circle around the Castle and Priory but we were too late to go in it.
Coming around the side of the castle led us down the hill towards the pier which stretches out to guard the north side of the entrance to the Tyne. Perhaps foolishly we decided to stroll along its length, heading for the little lighthouse at the end. That was a longer walk than it first appeared, at times the journey feeling like some form of purgatory as land and pier end never seemed to recede or approach. We did finally reach the end, standing on the brisk edge of the North Sea, and somehow the walk back to land seemed quicker, with an unusual view of the castle headland in front of us.
We left the cooling seaside behind and headed back to the Metro, catching a train through back to the centre of Newcastle. We ended up sat back in the lobby of Emma’s hotel (housed within the old Coop building), with a fine view of Newcastle evening through the windows. So it was we could see a minor fight developing, which I vanished outside to help break-up I might not have bothered, but truthfully sitting in the lobby had gotten a bit boring.
Following that bit of excitement we left people in their own hotel and headed down the hill to ours. Gemma got deposited back in her room but the evening was still young so Heather and I sneaked out like some teenage rebels to head across the swing bridge to investigate one of the newest establishments by the river. By The River is a “container community”; basically shipping containers re-purposed to be small eateries and bars. The whole place has a relaxed, friendly atmosphere and it was nice to chill sitting by the river with a drink. A welcome addition to Newcastle/Gateshead’s offerings.
We all met up late the next morning down by the quayside, heading along to a great coffee shop there to help us wake up. We emerged in to wander around the Sunday market (which has improved since last time I visited) with time to watch the Millennium Bridge tilt. There was also the first indication of the Great Exhibition with a fountain sitting on the river beneath the Sage. Sadly it wasn’t that impressive in the cloudy daylight, the bridge holding most of our attention.
Having walked through the rest of the market (and bought a rock concert!) we debated the easiest route back up the bank. Deciding that stairs were easier than hills we climbed up the impressive approach to the Keep, passing through the postern gate into the Garth. We carried on round, passing the station and picking up something of an impromptu tour of the old town walls route up Pink Lane and round the back of Stowell Street. That led us to beside St James’s Park and the famous Strawberry. There we had some lunch, which was fine apart from the very strange tasting tomato Gemma had on her salad.
Fed, if disturbed, we made our way across the road to the stadium. We’d booked a tour of the ground, which was actually quite strange (and turned out to be more a tour of the Milburn Stand, but there you go). An empty St James’s Park seen from Level 7 is a peculiar sight, though the views out over the city are no less stunning for the lack of crowds. We looked at the directors boxes and press positions, all very nice but to be honest it’s a little boring when there isn’t football to entertain. We made it down to tour the dingy away dressing room, and luxurious home equivalent (there’s a tactics board on the wall where it seems one of the teams only has ten players—maybe the source of some of our problems!), before heading through the tunnel to pitchside. The early season pitch looked immaculate but the keep off the grass signs were frustrating! Did get to sit in the dugout though before the tour ended and we went for a mooch around the club shop and a drink in the stadium’s bar.
There was a bit of time left before dinner so we headed back into the town centre and found some entertainment in the form of space themed crazy golf. We played two of the three nine-hole courses that stretch out from the central bar. One wonders if they’d have been better with two courses as it feels a bit cramped at times, though the second course felt more spacious and thought out. Still good fun though.
After I’d won that we went off to a favourite restaurant, complete with roller skating horse: The Herb Garden of course. The food and atmosphere were as good as always but did make some of the party tired. So while I directed those three back to the hotel Heather and Gemma wandered their way down to the Head of Steam by the quayside. I was soon joining them for a drink though, before allegedly bed. However, Heather and I couldn’t resist the nightlife again, with a wander along the Newcastle side of the river this time to the Quayside with another relaxing sit by the river (until it rained) for the real nightcap.
We got up the next morning for the three of us to go for breakfast in the little cafe at the catholic cathedral. It’s a nice, quiet, place to start the day. Afterwards it would have been rude to not have a look around the Pugin designed interior of the cathedral, which includes some lovely old tiling and a neat modern stained window. The plan to start the day was to visit the castle, so as it was on the way we headed to look around the other cathedral as well (there we found a crypt I’d somehow managed to miss until now).
Still waiting for the rest of the gang to arrive we would have sat in the Bridge, except it wasn’t open yet. So we sat around the steps of the keep waiting for it to open! We did get a drink in the end, and were joined by the other three intrepid tourists, ready to explore the medieval heart of the town.
To gain entry to the extant castle buildings these days one has to start at the Black Gate, the much altered former barbican of the castle. On the short walk up the road we were pleased to come across a little archaeological dig just outside; apparently they’d turned up the remains of some of the housing which used to abut the gate. The Black Gate itself holds a variety of displays relating not just to the history of the castle but the wider town. It also keeps playing traditional songs that I only then realise I half remember.
The star of the show is back outside though, past the depressing Heron pit oubliette, beneath the railway line which bisects the bailey to leave the form of the castle confused, and into the solid stone tower which still rises tall over the river below the precipitous outcrop on which it stands. We basically explored from bottom upwards, starting in the Garrison Room at the base (originally probably a storage area). There are essentially two staircases rise up in opposite corners so one finds oneself winding from side to side across each floor, taking in the human scale chapel in the forebuilding for instance, which contrasts with the great hall which takes up a good proportion of the keep’s footprint. Reaching the very top of the stair towers leads through a metal grilled door out onto what is now a flat roof, with many fine views across the city to one side, and over the Tyne to neighbouring Gateshead on the other (the Swing Bridge sits below at the medieval crossing point, giving a sense of how the castle once protected the city and river).
Thankfully the sun had appeared and we could rest after the climbing, enjoying the scenery and taking the obligatory photographs. It’s also always easier getting back down a castle than up it! So we wound our way back down, finally emerging into the sunshine and back into the Bridge! This time we took advantage of the little beer terrace out the back though—not many pubs have medieval castle walls forming some of the borders to their beer garden.
It was by now seriously lunch time. While some settled for the delights of Subway, Heather, Gemma and I found our way to possibly Newcastle’s oldest pub, The Old George. It’s a maze of an old coaching inn, still sitting within the remnants of the traditional yard set back from the main streets. It also filled us with food before we all met up again to have a quick mooch around the Glamorous Owl before heading off to another bit of Great Exhibition in the Mining Institute.
The most interesting thing in the Mining Institute, and why we went, was a Lego exhibition, showcasing models representing northern engineering and innovation. It was a strangely amateur set up, a crowded display table shoved into a room alongside some glass cases with little in the way of pizazz. Considering they were put together by the same person the models were surprisingly varying in quality, though did have some highlights. A model of Rocket and Turbinia, the Red Arrows flying over the Tyne Bridge, and an actually moving Millennium Bridge. Others though seemed a bit more generic with little connection to the supposed theme. There were a handful of hit and miss models submitted by the public shoved into one corner too.
Elsewhere there were bits and pieces of disjointed exhibition, much of which went unexplained and made little sense. At least the building is a wonderful thing in itself, and there was some Lego to play with. Next door in the Lit and Phil was even more peculiar though; a strange collection of objects scattered around the (logically) silent and reverent library.
Taking refuge from the strangeness we headed up to the Charles Grey to reflect and plan while watching the people below. Planning brought the cool kids (Heather, Gemma and I) off to Chinatown for some dinner in Red Diner (not the best and not the worst), after which we headed back through the night to the hotel, and for once didn’t sneak off to a bar but settled for bed.
The plan for Tuesday had always been to spend the afternoon at the Discovery Museum but some of the party decided it was much more interesting to stand around a carpark in the hope of seeing some overpaid prima donnas. Each to their own and good luck to them I suppose but the city offers many more interesting things if a little effort is put in so the remainer of Heather, Gemma and I went for a wander around it.
We worked our way up from the quayside, taking in the sweep of Grey Street before the Edwardian Central Arcade, with its glorious tiling and airy feel. Close by stands the Grainger Market, which opened in 1835 as a replacement for the markets displaced by the eponymous Grainger’s redevelopment of central Newcastle. Originally a meat (on one, aisled side) and fruit & veg (on the other, open plan side) market these days it houses a wide variety of stores, including the smallest branch of Marks and Spencer in the country. Somewhat more modern (though just undergoing an update to keep pace with the times forty-odd years since it was opened) is Eldon Square, which squats like a huge intrusion in the centre of the earlier streets, straddling the original course of the town walls.
Having window shopped enough we had a date with some cats, taking lunch at the wonderful Mog On The Tyne. The food range there has improved since our first visit and the cats are as wonderful as always (they had two new cats, Ballet and Wobble, which have mental issues which make them very unsteady). We had so much fun with the cats we actually ran out of time for cake!
We had to leave anyway though as we headed up to Discovery. We were there because as part of the Great Exhibition Rocket had returned to the city of its birth. The museum had rearranged the entire entrance to accommodate the visiting loco, which stood in a special exhibition area immediately adjacent another Newcastle produced icon of steam, Turbinia. We were a bit early for our timed tickets (not that I think it would have mattered much) so instead of rushing straight off to see the locomotive we had a bit of a wander around the back corridors of the museum, which included a train driving simulator. Wonderfully there was also a Snowdog (Rocket of course) which had been absent during our snowdog wanderings, so got collected now.
Rocket was always going to be the main attraction though, so soon we were getting a close up view of the old girl (of course, I’d seen her pretty much as close in the London Science Museum but that wasn’t the point). There were also some unusual views to be had from the gallery over looking the engine (though some better signs to guide the way would have been helpful). She looks almost like a steam engine which might pull us on a heritage line, each little innovation leading to an overall familiar look, if one discounts the tall chimney and not quite horizontal yet cylinders. The strange thing about Rocket is her almost zero time at the forefront of working a railway. Having won Rainhill she was quickly obsoleted so that by the time the Manchester/Liverpool line actually opened she was used but outclassed. Still, as “modern” steam locos go she was first, and as proved at Rainhill, a step forward to the future.
We had a bit more of a wander around the museum, taking in some more of the industrial heritage on display and including a rest in the top floor cafe. The shop on the way out was something of a disappointment; there didn’t seem to be much at all relating to Rocket‘s visit, or even the Great Exhibition in general. Slightly saddened by that we made for a nearby pub for a sit down and a drink.
Slightly surprisingly given it was a strange city to them people actually managed to meet us there. So, reunited we walked back over to the familiar surrounds of the Charles Grey before looking for food. That took us to another shipping container setup, the less chilled but more central Stack, It at least had the advantage of a wide range of food on offer, even if the bar arrangements are a little strange no drinking upstairs without food, which means the main bar there operates a token system, tokens being issued by the food outlets who sell alcohol themselves anyway
That seemed to be the end of the evening for most people but Heather and I always seemed to have more stamina and so ended back in the quayside Head of Steam. That at least gave us a chance to go out and see the fountain at night, which proved to be a much more impressive sight, coloured jets leaping into the night sky with the impressive Sage behind. Just a shame I couldn’t quite manage syncing the special soundtrack in time!
This was to be our trio’s last day up in Newcastle (the other three were, for some reason, staying an extra day). So it was we checked out and left our luggage in the care of the hotel before heading for breakfast. The plan was to go to the cafe at Tyneside Cinema but we arrived to find it not yet open. In a sort of dazed loss we wandered around wondering where else to go until we’d actually dawdled for so long that the cafe had opened! So we got breakfast there in the end to set us up for the day.
We met everyone else over by the Laing Art Gallery. Heather and Emma got the chance to look around an exhibition which had caught their eye, while the rest of us explored the general galleries. They included some interesting and disturbing pieces from Glenn Brown and of course my favourite Ralph Hedley’s Blinking In The Sun.
I’m more familiar with the contents of Laing than the others so left them there to sneak off for a quick visit to the slightly hidden old favourite Trillians. We regathered outside the gallery before calling into the library to look at the large model of the city which normally lives in the civic centre somewhere.
After that there was just time for more food in Stack before we had to vacate, collecting bags and taking a taxi the short but tiring trip up the hill to the station. At least there was time to have a final drink in Centurions before the train took us home.
Thoughts On The Exhibition
Having went north at that point in time specifically for the Great Exhibition I have to say I was disappointed. The decision to not have a single venue, but spread things around (admittedly iconic for the city) buildings made the whole thing disjointed (and of course the title immediately brings thoughts of such things as the Crystal Palace, or Newcastle’s own Exhibition Park). That feeling wasn’t helped by the lack of much advertising through the city. One might expect banners, hanging from lampposts and the like, and large signs outside the venues. There didn’t seem to be any of that (one wonders if the loss of the central Tourist Information office a while ago didn’t hinder things too). Indeed, in looking for a photograph to accompany this section I tried to find one with some Exhibition branding on it, and failed. The shop on the way out of Discovery probably gives a good indication; the sense that things just happen to be there but not much care for them. The amateur feel of the Lego exhibition speaks to a lack of professionalism, and possibly lack of experience with venues asked to handle things without a central repository of design and leadership. It’s a shame, because Newcastle (and the north in general) have changed so much over the last couple of decades—it should have been showcased for the vibrant, modern place with a proud history that it is. That fell flat, with an exhibition that at times didn’t seem to be happening. A pity.
Many more photos were taken, of course