The wheels of change in Newcastle

A trip on the Tyne & Wear Metro reveals a blend of old and new, says Simon Calder
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The Independent Travel

There is nothing to stop you investing £4 - or less, see below - in a DaySaver all-day ticket and spending the time shuttling back and forth between Newcastle and Gateshead. Or step aboard the George Stephenson (every train has a name on the Metro) at South Shields and step off, a couple of dozen stations and an hour later at the Airport. The first bonus is that so much of the system is above ground level; the main stretches beneath the surface are the centres of Newcastle and Gateshead, and out towards Tynemouth. But the greatest strength of Britain's most extensive Metro system outside London is that it transports you to all kinds of impressive, informative and intriguing locations.

The Metro has only just come of age, recently celebrating its 25th birthday. Yet how did Tyne and Wear acquire such an extensive light rail system? Sit at the front, or the back, to see how the trick is done (one aspect of the Metro's user-friendliness is that passengers can get a driver's-eye view of the track ahead, as the train swoops and swerves).

You get a fine view of some very sturdy and Victorian-looking bridges, not to mention beautiful old station buildings such as Whitley Bay - still bearing heroic mosaics showing seaside fun. These structures were designed for a different age. The Metro weaves a venerable tangle of suburban lines with new build, and blends 150-year-old engineering with modern transport needs. It also provides a vast amount of entertainment: when you are whizzing through the countryside at a steady 37mph, and when you call at stations like Hebburn where the platforms themselves are works of art.

Certainly, the Metro is not the same order of magnitude as the London Underground - but neither are the fares. Travelling one stop in the central area of the capital costs £2.20; for 20p less than this you can you can travel to your heart's content around the 58 stations on the Metro after 9am on any Wednesday. On Sundays, £3.20 buys unlimited travel for a group of four. Most tourists, though, will choose the £3.20 DaySaver ticket, valid after 9am on other days. And most of the varied attractions you will find en route are free.

North East Traveline: 0870 608 2 608

Metro information: www.tyneandwearmetro.co.uk

Visitor information: www.visitNewcastleGateshead.com

ON AND OFF THE METRO

Gateshead

Among the imaginative ways to foster leisure use of the Metro is a series of free booklets prescribing walks between stations. One such stroll (Booklet 4, Walk 3) takes you on foot for five miles between Pelaw and Gateshead, with the highlight being the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.

The Baltic is a simply breathtaking piece of industrial archaeology, transformed into a custodian of art - and set off brilliantly by the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.

Today, the Baltic takes centre stage for the British Art Show 6. If you prefer to save your energy for the art, the Baltic is a 10-minute walk from Gateshead station, passing the new Sage Gateshead.

Baltic: 0191 478 1810; www.balticmill.com

Metro Walks booklets available at Metro stations

South Shields

The town's first free attraction is within a couple of trains' lengths of South Shields station: the 1876 Public Library, which has now become the local museum. The current exhibition tells the story of shipwrecks at the mouth of the Tyne from AD182 to 1965, parallelling the permanent collection's chronology from Roman times to the Jarrow Marches of 1936 and 1986.

You need to walk 10 minutes further to reach Rome, or at least an impressive outpost of the Empire. At Arbeia Roman Fort, a square of land hemmed in by modern housing, excavations and reconstructions bring this important settlement to life; Watling Street ended on the south bank of the Tyne. And on your way back to South Shields' Metro terminus, pause for an ice-cream at Minchella's.

South Shields Museum & Art Gallery: 0191 456 8740

Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum: 0191 454 4093

South Shields tourist information: 0191-553 2000

Bede

This Metro station is buried amid an industrial park east of Jarrow, almost a mile from Bede's World. Both are named after the Venerable Bede, who lived, wrote and died in the confines of St Paul's monastery 13 centuries ago. At Bede's World, the life of the writer of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People is placed in the context of the turbulent time in the first half of the eighth century. Adjacent to it, an Anglo-Saxon "demonstration farm" has been created, complete with 21st-century wattle and daub, and a population of venerable geese and pigs. And your Metro ticket saves you £1 on admission.

Bede's World: 0191 489 2106; www.bedesworld.co.uk

Monument

Appropriately, this station is the hub for both the Metro system and the centre of the city. The Monument in question (pictured) stands directly above the station: a 135ft column dedicated to the great reformer, Earl Grey. Close by is the stylishly updated Laing Art Gallery - and, draped out on the plaza in front of it, The Blue Carpet. Even more colourful is the nearby Grainger covered market.

Laing Art Gallery: 0191-232 7794

Haymarket

The Hatton Gallery has established itself as one of the leading venues in Newcastle, exhibiting cutting-edge art with a strong regional focus. An excellent example is the film Broken Time (see page 3).The film is on show until 12 November.

Hatton Gallery: 0191 222 6059; www.ncl.ac.uk/hatton

Whitley Bay

As autumn takes hold, the seafront takes on an air of wistfulness - as though gloom is blowing in from the East. However, Whitley Bay's main attraction is only tenuously connected to the resort. St Mary's Lighthouse, north of the centre, is located on a part-time island and is accessible only when the tide is out.

Whitley Bay tourist information: 0191 200 8535; www.whitleybayonline.com

Airport

Feeling fit? Take the Metro to Newcastle airport, but instead of walking on to a plane, walk off on a five-mile triangular course that slices through the Darras Hall Estate. All the legroom you could need.

Metro Walks Booklet 3, Walk 2

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