Tyneside's cultural revolution

Cathy Packe enjoys the restorative powers of the stylish galleries, concert halls, hotels, bars and restaurants that have enlivened the North-east

On 1 May, Pet Shop Boys will be performing their newly composed soundtrack to accompany an open-air screening of Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film, The Battleship Potemkin, the story of a Russian naval revolt. The event will be remarkable not just because all 14,000 tickets for the occasion were gone within 48 hours, but for the choice of venue: the Swan Hunter shipyard at Wallsend, on the north bank of the Tyne. A battleship under construction will provide a backdrop to the performance.

That there are any ships at all being built on the Tyne may come as a surprise to at least some of the people attending the screening. Those who live outside "NewcastleGateshead", as the region has rebranded itself, often presume that the twin Tyneside municipalities are remnants of a once-thriving industrial region that has suffered at the hands of national political regime-change and economic realignment. But the May Day performance at the Swan Hunter yard marks the latest phase in the regeneration of an area that has provided its inhabitants with a cultural renaissance, and visitors to the area with an opportunity to recharge their batteries.

For centuries, the River Tyne was the lifeblood of the city. From medieval times, the quayside districts of Newcastle and Gateshead were the focus of the area, an industrial workshop which fuelled the prosperity of both. Along with shipbuilding, there were other important industries: coal mining, engineering and dyeing; and Newcastle became an important junction on the new east coast railway, which brought further wealth to the city. But the good times eventually came to an end. A severe explosion in the mid-19th century destroyed many of the buildings on both quaysides, and the focus of growth and development in Newcastle and Gateshead moved inland. During the 20th century, some industries, like shipbuilding, fell into decline, while others, like the mining industry, disappeared from the region completely.

But eight years ago, a guardian angel arrived on Tyneside: in February 1998, Antony Gormley's massive sculpture, Angel of the North, was erected on a hillside between the A1 road and the main railway line. Twenty metres tall, and constructed in steel, a reminder of Tyneside's industrial past, it began to attract curious visitors to the area, and served as an impetus for regeneration. The Angel was the latest in a series of pieces of public art in the North-east, and art was chosen initially as the focus of future development.

It was the opening in July 2002 of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (0191 478 1810; www.balticmill.com) that kick-started the redevelopment of the quayside, but by locating it in an old building, a riverside warehouse that remained from Gateshead's industrial past, the process became one of regeneration rather than reconstruction. So the old Baltic flour mill was converted into one of the most stunning exhibition spaces in the country: six floors and three mezzanine spaces that house galleries, studios, study areas and a performance space. Across the river, the Co-op warehouse was turned into a Malmaison, a contemporary hotel with an art nouveau-style interior that would accommodate visitors to this newly fashionable destination. These buildings are animated through a yearly programme of festivals and events, of which The Battleship Potemkin is one.

Throughout NewcastleGateshead, plenty of old buildings have been smartened up and put back into service, although most have been adapted for a contemporary purpose. A former bank on Grey Street has been modernised and turned into the city's first boutique hotel, Grey Street Hotel (0870 412 5100; www.nichehotels.com), with 49 elegant bedrooms fitted out in wood and suede.

A Victorian biscuit factory on Stoddart Street has been transformed into The Biscuit Factory - the biggest commercial art space in Europe, a flourishing warehouse selling paintings, sculpture, ceramics, photographs and jewellery (0191 261 1103; www.thebiscuitfactory.com).

A Gateshead church, St Mary's on Oakwellgate, has been gutted and turned into the Gateshead Visitor Centre (0191 478 4222). And perhaps one of the most innovative conversions is a former granary, a Victorian building in Newcastle's Ouseburn district which was gutted and now houses Seven Stories, the Centre for Children's Books (30 Lime Street; 0845 271 0777; www.sevenstories.org.uk). Seven Stories has been set up to introduce children to books, through a series of changing displays and permanent exhibits that include a hand-written page from JK Rowling's first Harry Potter book.

Inevitably, the gradual revival of NewcastleGateshead has required a certain amount of new building, as well as the remodelling of the old. The Baltic on Gateshead Quays was made easily accessible by the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, a stunning piece of architecture inspired by the blink of a human eye. Its two elegant arches tilt gracefully to allow ships to sail up the Tyne; and when it is lowered, there are walkways for pedestrians and cyclists. One of seven crossing points on the Tyne, the bridge has become a main thoroughfare between Newcastle and Gateshead.

The bridge and the gallery combined to focus attention back on to the river. Much of the area on the Gateshead side was derelict, the centre of town having moved south over the brow of the hill during the late 19th century. To fill the space - and coincidentally provide the town with a structure that truly deserves to be called iconic - Sir Norman Foster was commissioned to build a concert hall, The Sage Gateshead. This opened at the beginning of 2005, a dramatic, silver edifice whose bulbous shape houses two concert halls with state-of-the-art acoustics, and ceilings and walls that can be adjusted to suit the type of music being played.

Now that The Sage Gateshead has focused attention firmly back on the river, this area has once again become the heart of NewcastleGateshead, as bars and restaurants open up along both the Newcastle Quayside and Gateshead Quays. Visitors are attracted by the promenades along both sides of the water, past the imposing set of bridges and the pieces of art that are displayed along the embankments; and locals use the paths as running tracks or places to walk their dogs.

Regeneration won't be stopping here, though. Further north in Newcastle's centre, around the two universities, a cultural quarter is being developed, incorporating three existing museums and a gallery, as well as the Northern Stage theatre, and enabling the universities to play a more prominent role in the cultural life of the city. The next stage of redevelopment on Gateshead Quays has also started.

NewcastleGateshead may no longer be the industrial powerhouse of the nation that it once was. But as the area continues its process of regeneration and nurtures its reputation as a favourite city-break destination, it has more and more to offer visitors in the hope that they, too, might find a sense of refreshment and regeneration.

For further information on NewcastleGateshead, visit www.NewcastleGateshead.com, or call 08702 250935 for a free visitor guide.

NURTURING NATURE: GARDENS IN THE CITY

Regeneration in Newcastle-Gateshead is not just restricted to buildings; open spaces are being given a new lease of life, too. The newly restored Saltwell Park (0191 478 4222; www.gateshead.gov.uk) covers 55 acres off Saltwell Road on the Gateshead side of the Tyne. It was first opened to the public in 1876, when it was known as the People's Park. It won the Briggs and Stratton "Britain's Best Park" award in 2005. Designed to create the impression that the park stretched as far as the eye can see, it appears to link Gateshead to the countryside beyond. Several Victorian pavilions are being renovated, and in the centre of the park is Saltwell Towers, a carefully restored 19th-century mansion, built among landscaped gardens as the home of the stained-glass window designer William Wailes; it now houses a café and interactive displays.

Leazes Park, the oldest green space on the Newcastle side of the Tyne, predates Saltwell by three years, although it took nearly 20 years for the design of the park to be completed. It sits in the heart of the city, tucked behind St James' Park football stadium, at the side of Newcastle University. Over the course of a century it fell into disrepair, and there was a move to develop this valuable inner city site for a more urban purpose. But the pressure for change was resisted, and instead the park has gradually been restored to its former glory. The lake has been de-silted and refilled, the 19th-century terrace restored and a replica of the original bandstand forms a centrepiece of the park.

The countryside appears to come right into the city centre in Jesmond Dene, (pictured) the most rural of all the city's parks. Only a mile from the centre of Newcastle, the sense of peace and tranquillity that pervade this wooded valley makes any visitor feel that they are out in the depths of the country. The area was given to the city in 1883, since which time it has been a popular place for anyone wanting to stroll by the river, enjoy the well-kept gardens or visit the children's play area or pets' corner. On Sundays, a popular attraction is the craft market on the Armstrong Bridge.
Cathy Packe

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Reaching Tyneside gets easier almost by the day. By rail, NewcastleGateshead is a key location for GNER on the line of the Flying Scotsman from London (less than three hours away), Peterborough, Doncaster, York to eastern Scotland and Glasgow; and for Virgin Trains, offering direct services from south-west England, the Midlands, Leeds, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Northern Trains runs trains from Carlisle, Whitby and other nearby locations, while ScotRail has links from Glasgow and the Borders. For schedules and fares, call 08457 48 49 50 or visit www.nationalrail.com.

National Express (08705 80 80 80; www.nationalexpress.com) and Megabus ( www.megabus.com) provide cheap links by bus from a range of British towns and cities.

By air, you can fly to Newcastle International Airport from all corners of the kingdom, including Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton,Cardiff, Exeter and Plymouth - plus four London airports.

GETTING AROUND

Newcastle's airport marks the north-west extent of the Tyne and Wear Metro system, the UK's first light rapid transit system. This splendid network provides fast and frequent low-cost travel around Tyne and Wear. The Green Line runs from the airport via the city centre to Gateshead, Sunderland and beyond; the Yellow Line starts in South Shields and loops through Gateshead, Newcastle city centre and then to Tynemouth and Whitley Bay on the coast.

The hub of the network is Monument, in the very centre of Newcastle. Fares range from £1.30 to £2.60 for a single journey; DaySaver tickets, costing £3.40 (or £4.20 if you begin your journey before 9am on weekdays) allow unlimited Metro travel. The ticket is also valid on the illustrious Shields Ferry, across the mouth of the Tyne - in fine weather, a superb journey.

The QuayLink electric buses are the best way to get around central NewcastleGateshead and to the Quayside.

MY LIFE IN TYNESIDE: JONATHAN EDWARDS

Jonathan Edwards, 39, is the former world-record holding triple jumper, who won silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Born in London and brought up in Devon, he came to Gateshead in 1987 to train with the Gateshead Harriers while studying physics at Durham University. He now lives in Jesmond Dene.

How has the region changed since you first arrived?

Culturally, it's changed out of all proportion. The Angel of the North was a great catalyst: before that I don't think many people saw the area as a cultural centre. As a symbol it's incredibly powerful.

What's your best memory?

Being made an honorary freeman of Gateshead Borough Council.

Best area of Newcastle?

I love the quayside. I also love mountain biking in Jesmond Dene. Our house backs onto a big moor with hundreds of acres and cows grazing; yet you can bike into the centre of town in five minutes.

Best area in Gateshead?

The Sage Gateshead and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art are terrific. Curtis Stigers is playing The Sage soon; I'll go to that.

Favourite view?

The view of the Tyne from the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. One of the most memorable moments was seeing the bridge being brought up the Tyne on a floating crane. The whole place stopped for about an hour. There's also a great view of town on the train coming back from London - when I see that, I know I'm home.

Favourite restaurant?

Barn Under a Wandering Star, in Jesmond. It does contemporary cuisine with an Asian twist. Café 21, on the quayside, is great too: the food there is excellent.

Greatest Geordie legend?

Jackie Milburn, the great Newcastle United centre forward. Although Alan Shearer now deserves a mention for surpassing his goal-scoring record!

James Palmer

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