Travel: England - 48 hours in South Tyneside

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The Independent Online
The `Angel of the North' sculpture has thrust attention on Gateshead and its surroundings. Simon Calder checks out the prospects for a weekend break south of the Tyne

Why go now?

Because the vast span of the new Angel is already a tourist attraction. Because no one that I know has been for a weekend break in South Tyneside. And because if and when you need some big city life, Newcastle is just a bridge away.

Beam down

Virgin Trains and GNER bring you from most parts of the kingdom direct to Newcastle. I paid pounds 29 return for the three-hour run from London on GNER, booked in advance on 0345 225225. For other fares and timings, call National Rail Enquiries on 0345 484950. From Newcastle Central station you can walk across to Gateshead or take the highly efficient Metro railway.

Get your bearings

A series of settlements is strung out along the south bank of the Tyne. The most important and sprawling is Gateshead, directly south of Newcastle. Going east from here, you pass though Felling, Hebburn and Jarrow. The Metro runs between Gateshead and these communities every eight minutes during the day.

Gateshead must be expecting a flood of visitors, because it has two tourist information bureaux: in the Central Library on Prince Consort Road (0191- 477 3478) and in the MetroCentre (0191-460 6345).

Check in

Finding a place to sleep is more of a problem in South Tyneside than in other weekend break destinations. The MetroCentre Marriott (0191- 493 2233) feels like an airport hotel in search of an airport, but has a weekend special on Friday, Saturday or Sunday night of pounds 57 single/pounds 64 double. The Riverside Lodge, on the south bank of the Tyne at Felling (0191-495 0282), is difficult to reach without a car, but has a good weekend rate of pounds 33.50 single/pounds 43.50 double.

Take a ride

Window shopping

The MetroCentre resembles a cross between Center Parcs and a high street. This one-stop shopping experience includes touches such as a "Mediterranean village" and team shops for both of the local soccer rivals, Newcastle and Sunderland. No wonder so many of the shops elsewhere on South Tyneside are boarded up.

Take a hike

Clutching your new Sunderland away kit (and possibly your jaw; the MetroCentre also has an on-site dentist), you can quickly escape to one of the most beautiful corners of the North-east. Walk through the village of Swalwell to the start of Derwent Walk country park.

An old railway line leads you gently upwards through an increasingly dramatic valley, carved out by the river Derwent. The first part is prettily wooded. Then a viaduct ushers you across the river and into spectacular open country. You can't see the Angel from here but to compensate, one proprietor of Gibside Hall has built a column on the scale of Nelson's in Trafalgar Square. After three bracing miles you reach the village of Rowland's Gill. Either take a bus back from here, or bear left along the road to the village of Sheep Hill, taking you up a steep and shady valley.

Lunch on the run

Back in Gateshead town centre, the options are limited. M&M's fish & chip shop, on the corner of High Street and Park Lane, promises: "We're not famous, but we are the best." After a scrumptious and satisfying cod and chips (pounds 2.40), I agree.

Cultural afternoon

My ancient guidebook notes that South Tyneside has "extensive populated and industrial areas, with some collieries". When Gateshead was rich and famous, the town created suitably grand municipal buildings. The exterior of the Shipley Art Gallery (on Prince Consort Road; 0191-477 1495) maintains an air of prosperity. Inside, the story of the town is revealed in a striking exhibition called Made in Gateshead, which painfully traces the decline of heavy industry and consequent social vacuum that afflicts much of South Tyneside.

An aperitif

Jarrow has a similarly imposing collection of civic architecture, notably the fiercely redbrick town hall. A plaque on the wall commemorates a defining moment in 20th century British history: "the Jarrow Crusade of October 5th, 1936". At the height of the Depression, thousands of unemployed men set out to march to London to demand work and dignity. Drink to the human spirit at the Jarrow Crusaders, a Vaux pub behind the town hall.

Demure dinner

Go to Newcastle.

Angel of the morning

Judging by the crowds around Antony Gormley's sculpture on Wednesday afternoon, the Angel of the North will be a huge success in drawing tourists to South Tyneside. From a distance, the sculpture resembles an upturned Spitfire. The closer you get, the more you appreciate the warm (if a little rusty) welcome from open arms 175ft across.

Unless you are travelling by road along the A1, finding the figure can be difficult. It is perched beside the Durham Road four miles south of Gateshead town centre, reached by bus 1, 21, 25, 26 among others.

Sunday afternoon: go to church

Bede's World sounds alarmingly like an ecclesiastical version of the MetroCentre. It is irritatingly difficult to find: the Metro station that bears the historian's name is buried amidst an industrial park east of Jarrow, almost a mile from Bede's World. On Sundays, it keeps maddeningly short opening times (2.30-5.30pm). Yet once you reach it, grumpiness evaporates.

The Venerable Bede lived, wrote and died in the confines of St Paul's monastery. The present-day church embraces its foundations and even some Roman masonry - Watling Street ended on the south bank of the Tyne. Uphill from the church, you enter fine old Jarrow Hall, where the life of the writer of Historia Ecclesiastical Gentis Anglorum is placed in the context of a turbulent time around AD700. (You also learn that Bede was largely responsible for counting years from the birth of Christ; he deserves a mention in the Millennium Dome.)

Adjacent, in a most unlikely location, between giant chemical storage tanks and a parade of pylons, an Anglo-Saxon village has been created, complete with 20th-century wattle and daub, and a couple of venerable pigs - the Tyneside Two?

The visitor is bound to note the contrast between the vitality of this made-up village and the dereliction that abounds outside. But if the Angel of the North can draw people to South Tyneside, tourism may mark the beginning of a new and cheerier chapter for the area.