Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the north-east of England, has long been regarded one of Europe’s leading party destinations. Parties aside, the city has much to offer visitors and between 22 June and 9 September 2018 will host the Great Exhibition of the North, which is being billed as a celebration of northern England’s pioneering spirit.
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Visiting the castle in Newcastle
For heritage and history lovers, there’s also lots to see and do in Newcastle. The ‘new castle’ which lends its name to the city is centuries old: it dates from the reign of King Henry II, 840 years ago. You can climb its steep, honey-coloured stone steps to visit the great hall before watching a video that explains the role of the fortress through the ages: for centuries it stood as a bulwark of royal authority against Scottish invasion into England.
The rooftop of the recently restored keep offers panoramas over the city and across the River Tyne to the neighbouring town of Gateshead. From the battlements — which were added during Victorian times to make the castle look more medieval — you can watch trains rumbling along Britain’s East Coast mainline, between Edinburgh and London: you might be surprised to learn that the castle came close to being demolished when the tracks were being laid out. The old castle, in case you’re wondering, was a wooden fortress — built on the orders of conquering Normans, in the late-11th century — to impose their authority on the northern reaches of the kingdom.
A look inside Bessie Surtees House
If you meander downhill towards the Quayside, past the old city walls, you’ll pass the free-to-visit Jacobean merchant’s home that’s known as Bessie Surtees House. With a half-timbered façade and wood-panelled rooms, the well-preserved building stands as a reminder of the riverfront dwellings of merchants who made their wealth from freight transported on ships that once docked on the Quayside. The historic property is named after a young woman, the daughter of the city’s mayor, who eloped with John Scott on the night of 18 November 1772 and married.
Bessie’s father may have disapproved of her choice, but Scott became a Member of Parliament, in 1801, the country’s Lord Chancellor and, in time, the first Earl of Eldon. That’s a name you’ll hear if you plan on going shopping in the city: Eldon Square is an indoor shopping centre with branches of high street stores plus a sizable food court.
Bessie Surtees House lies roughly equidistant from the Tyne Bridge and Newcastle’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, House of Tides, which opened in 2014. Chef Kenny Atkinson and his team serve seasonal tasting menus in another of the city’s historic merchants’ houses.
The arched bridge, meanwhile bears a striking resemblance to the one that spans Sydney Harbour. Both were designed and built by the Middlesbrough-based Dorman Long Company: though construction of the bridge in New South Wales started first, the Tyne Bridge was the first to open, in 1928. For decades the structure was the chief icon of the city, but now — at least to some extent — it is upstaged by the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. Designed for use by pedestrians and cyclists, the newer bridge tilts to let ships pass below, an act that is termed ‘winking’.
A show at the Sage Gateshead
If you stroll along the Quayside — which on Sundays hosts a market at which food, craft items and vintage goods are sold — you’ll see a shining building with bulbous curves up on the hill on the opposite bank of the river. That’s the Sage Gateshead, a performing arts venue that was designed by Foster + Partners. From to 6 to 8 April hosted the Gateshead International Jazz Festival, drawing the likes of Jay Rayner, with his quartet, and the Sun Ra Arkestra.
The riverfront will be a location for the opening festival of the 80-day Great Exhibition of the North, which runs from 22 June to 9 September. Meanwhile, it’s home to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, located at the far side of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. In 2011 the free-to-visit gallery was the venue for the prestigious Turner Prize art exhibition, named in honour of the painter J.M.W. Turner. Sited in a former flour mill, the space is used to host regularly changing exhibitions.
If you prefer photography stop by the city’s Side Gallery, just off the Quayside. Run by the Amber film and photography collective, which this year celebrates half-a-century since foundation, Side exhibits documentary images. It’s collection of photographs by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen records life on and around Tyneside, and has been inscribed into the UNESCO Memory of the World for its outstanding value.
A walk in Grainger Town
Heading along Side then up Dean Street will lead you into the part of Newcastle known as Grainger Town, after the architect Richard Grainger. Typified by elegant, classical facades, the 450 buildings of Grainger Town were erected from the 1820s to 1840s. The Theatre Royal and Grey’s Monument are two of the best-known landmarks in the city centre. The latter is a column, reminiscent of Nelson’s Column in London, commemorating the role of Charles Grey in the passing electoral reform bills of the early 1830s, while prime minister. Earl Grey tea was blended to suit the water on his estate in Northumberland. Tours head to the top of Grey’s Monument on the first Saturday of each month, requiring visitors to climb a spiral staircase with 164 steps.
Afterwards you could treat yourself to a refreshing cup of tea in one of the many cafés and in the heart of the city. You can then choose between an afternoon browsing the shops, a stroll around the Laing Art Gallery or learn more about Newcastle’s heritage in the Discovery Museum.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, can be commissioned to write food and travel features about the north-east of England and beyond.
Illustrating photos are by Why Eye Photography. Why Eye Photography is based in the north-east of England and available for food, travel and portrait photography commissions.
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Books about Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Newcastle Then and Now (£) by Rob Kirkup (£):
Newcastle History Tour (£) by Ken Hutchinson (£):