Hot foot it across the Tyne
Can you get the measure of the touristic entity known as NewcastleGateshead in one day? Rhiannon Batten puts on her walking shoes
Saturday 15 April 2006
What makes a destination great? Unique topography? Iconic architecture? The number of Michelin-starred restaurants? Maybe. But there's one criterion that should be on everyone's list; whether you can feasibly walk across the centre in a day and feel that you've got a sense of the place. London definitely qualifies. So too do Venice, Paris and New York. Los Angeles doesn't; nor does Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea where the murder rate is 23 times that of London. The tranquil streets of NewcastleGateshead do, though.
A recent rebranding by the tourism authorities here has seen Newcastle, which sits on the north bank of the River Tyne, and Gateshead, its revitalised south bank sister, re-invented as a single visitor destination. So now is the perfect opportunity to test the "great destination" theory. The only issue is where to start. The regenerated quayside? One of the region's many green spaces? No. For me, the most obvious route was to start in the centre of Newcastle and work my way down to - and across - the river, armed with a walking guide obtained from the tourist office, but branching off from any given trail whenever curiosity dictated a diversion.
The centre of Newcastle is undoubtedly focused around Grey's Monument. This elegant column, which rises up to 147ft and supports a haughty-looking statue of Earl Grey, the former prime minister, stands in the centre of a spool of Georgian streets. The most impressive of these is Grey Street, a boomerang-shaped sweep of graceful stonework voted "the best street in Britain" by Radio 4 listeners. Built in the late 1830s, it marks the eastern edge of historic Grainger Town, the product of a period of wholesale Georgian regeneration drawn up by the 19th-century property developer Richard Grainger. Thanks to Grainger, Newcastle has more listed buildings than anywhere in England outside Bath or London.
Grainger Town is so intrinsic to Newcastle's landscape that my guide's walking routes criss-cross the area. Strike south from Grey's Monument and you find yourself in one of the most elegant shopping destinations in the UK. Having been pressed into service as chi-chi boutiques and upmarket cafés, the old buildings that run roughly between Clayton Street in the west and Grey Street in the east look as fresh now as they must have done 120 years ago. Not least the restored Central Arcade. This runs east off Grainger Street in an architectural whirligig of elaborate tilework and delicately wrought roofing that now plays host to several small shops.
Grainger Market, on the other side of Grainger Street, is also well worth a detour. Beneath its Grade I listed arches sits a lesson in retro retail, with traditional butcher's stalls and pie shops jostling for space among craft stalls, pet food outlets and an original Marks & Spencer's penny shop called the Penny Bazaar (not that you'll find much at that price there today). Walk out north of here onto Nelson Street and it comes as a shock to find yourself surrounded by the 21st century likes of an Aveda salon, a hi-tech furniture store and the sleek Café Royal restaurant and deli.
However, it doesn't take long before you start noticing not just the splendid shops but also less obvious attractions. Head around the back of the car-park-like Eldon Square shopping centre and you come out on Newgate Street, opposite St Andrew's church. The cemetery here is more interesting than the building, with elaborately carved headstones commemorating shipbuilders and schoolmasters. Just south is the city's iconic Art Deco Co-op building, now a kind of low-rent Selfridges (look out for some Alessi-like detailing on the banisters). Further on still, slip through the alley to the side of The Gate cinema and entertainment complex and you come out at the unlikely setting of Blackfriars, a former 13th-century monastery. These days the space where its former cloisters would have been is filled with craft shops, a restaurant and the spice-laden air drifting across from neighbouring Chinatown. Just behind here, at the bottom end of Stowell Street, are some of the best-remaining sections of the old town walls, still standing solid guard over the city's smart new cafés and designer flats.
From here, I loop back through Grainger Town to the 19th-century Theatre Royal and the Laing Art Gallery (with pre-Raphaelite paintings inside, and "blue carpet" paving outside - an art installation you can not just look at but also trample across), stopping off for coffee at the off-beat 1930s café tucked away upstairs at the arthouse Tyneside Cinema and to window shop my way along the quirky boutiques that line narrow High Bridge street.
This brings me out at Bigg Market. Local hedonists may flock here come Saturday night but during the day the biggest attraction is the ruddy-coloured Rutherford Memorial. Newcastle's most ironic monument, it celebrates a Scottish doctor known for his support of temperance. Heeding his beliefs, I pass straight over Bigg Market and cut down along an appealingly named lane, Pudding Chare, for lunch at the Comfort Food Company, a cute bistro where the provenance of its meat is listed alongside the dishes on its menu.
Heading east along Collingwood Street, I turn south at the city's cathedral. From here, it's a short stroll downhill - and a large step back in time - to the battlements of the old Norman "New Castle" and the neighbouring Castle Keep, built on the remains of a Roman fort. Continue down to the quayside via The Side, a steep lane that runs down behind the Castle Keep (it starts just outside the Agora bar). At this point, the history is even more palpable, with half-timbered Jacobean houses so bent that they seem to be craning towards the water, the neat stone Guildhall, now a visitor information centre, and the ancient Crown Posada pub. Compared with this, Grainger Town seems almost futuristic in its modernity. But then, as I carry on across the old swing bridge to the other side of the Tyne, a jetski speeds past below me and heads off towards the gleaming silver carapace of The Sage Gateshead music centre and the elegant Gateshead Millennium Bridge. Seagulls cackle overhead and traffic roars past on the neighbouring bridges but the main sound I pick up at this point is the tell-tale whirr of construction, as the city undergoes its latest reinvention.
From the bridge, a footpath winds up to St Mary's church, Gateshead's visitor information centre and the official gateway to the south side of the Tyne. Pausing for breath on a handily placed bench outside the church, I look back at where I've walked so far, plot my route on up Gateshead's High Street to what is intriguingly described as the Threshold "sound sculpture" and realise for the first time how well the idea of NewcastleGateshead works. Because, while my walk has proven that NewcastleGateshead is ideal territory for exploring on two feet, it's actually from Gateshead that you get the best take on Newcastle, and vice versa.
Rhiannon Batten's route crossed the Grainger Town I, Grainger Town II and Castle & Quays walks from 'The NewcastleGateshead Walking Guide', available free from NewcastleGateshead visitor information centres.
Beamish, The North of England Open Air Museum, County Durham (0191 370 4000; www.beamish.org.uk) opens 10am-5pm daily until 29 October, then 10am-4pm Tues-Thurs and weekends. Entry: £16 for adults, £10 for children.
Hartlepool's Maritime Experience, Maritime Avenue, Hartlepool (01429 860077; www.hartlepoolsmaritimeexperience.com) 10am-5pm daily. Entry: £7 for adults, children £4.25.
The Bowes Museum, Newgate, Barnard Castle (01833 690606; www.bowesmuseum.org. uk) opens 11am-5pm daily. Adults £7, under-16s free.
Bamburgh Castle , Bamburgh (01668 214515; www.bamburghcastle.com) 11am-5pm daily until 31 October. Adults £6, children £2.50.
Alnwick Castle (01665 510777; www.alnwickcastle.com) 10am-6pm daily until 29 October. Adults £8.50, children £3.50.
The Alnwick Garden, Alnwick (01665 511350; www.alnwickgarden.com) 10am-6pm daily, until 7pm June-Sept, until 4pm Nov-Mar. Adults £8, children free.
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