The joys of Tyne travel

With Newcastle in a state of invested development, now's the time to visit, says Cathy Packe
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The Independent Travel

ANCIENT AND MODERN

ANCIENT AND MODERN

The origins of Newcastle are in the Roman settlement of Pons Aelius, a minor fort on Hadrian's Wall, which began a few miles away at Wallsend. It ran through what is now the city centre, along Westgate and Fenkle Street. It seems certain that stones from the wall would have been used in the construction of the Norman church of St John the Baptist, on the corner of Westgate and Grainger Streets.

The Normans also established the Castle that gave the city its modern name. Originally built of wood, it was replaced with a stone structure in 1172, but little now remains except for the well-preserved keep and the Black Gate. Further remains of the city's medieval heritage are at Blackfriars, home to an order of Dominican monks from the middle of the 13th century until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries 300 years later. Stones mark the site of the church; some of the other monastic buildings have been restored, and are used as a restaurant, heritage centre and concert venue.

In more modern times Newcastle became a prosperous industrial city, followed by several decades of decline as a result of the closing of the local coal mines. Now, though, a renaissance is underway. There is extensive development along the river, with the new Millennium Bridge and Norman Foster's dramatic new Sage Gateshead building all contributing towards turning Newcastle, and its neighbour Gateshead, into the coolest city centre in Britain.

OLD-SCHOOL COMFORT OR URBAN COOL?

For a taste of old-style Geordie hospitality, book into the Vermont Hotel at Castle Garth (0191 233 1010; www.vermont-hotel.com). It has two restaurants and a lounge which overlooks the Tyne - an excellent place in which to relax over a drink. Double rooms start at £185, singles at £120; breakfast is £14.50.

A night in the cool surroundings of the Malmaison at Quayside (0191 245 5000; www.malmaison.com/newcastle) is a completely different experience. Once owned by the Co-operative Society, the original building has been refurbished to reflect the latest design trends, combining modern facilities with comfort. Rooms start at £129 Monday-Thursday, from £99 Friday-Sunday. Breakfast is an extra £9.75.

PATHWAY TO THE PAST

Newcastle's 18th- and 19th-century prosperity prompted extensive city development, with elegant homes constructed for wealthy merchants. Among these is Bessie Surtee's House at 41-44 Sandhill (0191 261 1585), part of which opens 10am-4pm Monday to Friday; entrance is free.

Gradually the city centre was redesigned and spread to the higher ground north of the Tyne. Walk up The Side and Dean Street, into Grey Street, whose elegant sandstone façades and colonnaded buildings have been beautifully preserved. This central district is still known as Grainger Town, after Richard Grainger, who supervised its redevelopment. After exploring Grainger Town, head back downhill to the river and the walkway that links the city's seven bridges. Newest of these is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge which opens, like a gently blinking eye, to allow ships up the river. It connects the northern bank of the Tyne with Baltic, the old flour mill turned Centre for Contemporary Art (0191 478 1810; www.balticmill.com) on the other side.

MUSEUM PIECES

The recently refurbished Discovery Museum at Blandford Square (0191 232 6789; www.twmuseums.org.uk/discovery) is a lively way to get to grips with the city and its past. The museum opens 10am-5pm Monday to Saturday, and 2pm-5pm on Sunday. Entrance is free. If you don't have time to get out of the city to explore the Roman fortress of Segedunum (0191 236 9347; www.twmuseums.org.uk), the Museum of Antiquities at 6 Kensington Terrace, University of Newcastle (0191 222 7849; museums.ncl.ac.uk) can fill in some of the archaeological background. Open 10am-5pm daily except Sundays. Entrance is free.

LOCAL FLAVOUR

Legend has it that Newcastle was the first city in England to brew beer - and although this may be wishful thinking on the part of the local population, they have been brewing Newcastle Brown Ale since 1927. To enjoy a traditional pint in traditional surroundings, go to the 200-year old Crown Posada at 31-33 The Side (0191 232 1269), a long, thin pub that is packed every night with drinkers young and old, despite its lack of music or wide-screen TV; the attraction here is the beer.

Among the excellent restaurants in the city are the award-winning Café 21 at 19-21 Queen Street (0191 222 0755), particularly noted for its fish. Fisherman's Lodge in Jesmond Dene (0191 281 3281; www.fishermanslodge.co.uk) is a long-established local favourite which, despite its name, also serves excellent Northumbrian beef and lamb.

FUTURE PERFECT

For Newcastle tourist information, call 0191 277 8000 or go to www.visitnewcastlegateshead.com. The city is celebrating a decade of cultural events, Culture 10, with performances and exhibitions of all kinds taking place throughout the city. These include a four-week season by the Royal Shakespeare Company during November, with performances at the Theatre Royal (0870 905 5060; www.theatreroyal.co.uk) and two other venues.

This spring, the Laing Art Gallery on New Bridge Street (0191 232 7734; www.twmuseums.org.uk/laing) finished an extensive refurbishment that marks its centenary, and allows more of its permanent watercolour collection to be displayed, alongside a series of temporary exhibitions. The gallery opens 10am-5pm Monday to Saturday, 2pm-5pm Sunday; entrance is free.

Newcastle is preparing for a trio of big events in the coming year, including the opening of the Centre for the Children's Book (0191 276 4289; www.childrensbook.org.uk) and the Tall Ships race (0191 277 8000; www.tallships2005.com) from 25-28 July 2005. But first will be the opening, probably around Christmas, of the Sage Gateshead (0191 443 4666; www.thesagegateshead.com), which will house a regional music centre providing performance space for music of all kinds, not just the Northern Sinfonia, whose base it will become, but folk performers, too, in three performance halls.

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