When I first told my friends that I was moving away from the town I grew up in, just North of London, to live in Newcastle Upon Tyne in North East England, the looks of horror and comments along the lines of “Do they even have electricity there?” and “Going to work in the coal mines?” were common. A move to a city 250 miles north is a big step, although I have been visiting here since childhood. Stereotypes of the North East of England are many and varied, some true, mostly they are not. One of the most common questions was, “But what will you do apart from eat, work and sleep?” Many things. Many many things.
The North East of England has a long and rich history, from the Romans 2000 years ago, the Vikings, the old kings of Northumbria, Tudor Kings through to Victorian inventors and the re-invention in the 1990s to be a top class European regional capital. Here are my ten things to do when spending time in Newcastle and the surrounding towns and countryside.
Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art
This is one of my favourites and visit often. This modern art gallery is built in a former flour mill on the banks of the southern side of the River Tyne in Gateshead. The tall imposing building houses a variety of exhibits throughout the year ranging from paintings to sculpture and interactive exhibits. It was also home to the most successful Turner Prize exhibit when it was held outside of London in 2011.
Viewing platforms at the top of the building allow stunning views along the Tyne of the seven bridges and Quayside. A cafe and shop on the ground floor and a modern restaurant on the top floor are also available. Along with other galleries and museums in Britain, there is no entrance charge to the majority of the exhibits, but a donation box is available for those wishing to do so.
Kielder Water and Forest Park
Kielder is situated approximately 50 miles north of Newcastle in beautiful Northumberland. The park is home to the largest working forest in England at over 250 square miles and Kielder Water is the largest man-made lake in Northern Europe. Stunning lakeside walks, mountain biking, off road driving, fishing and horse riding, the park caters for many levels of fitness and activities.
The park has also recently been awarded the Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status by the International Dark Skies Association. This status allows the park to join the same league as Death Valley. An observatory in the park hosts night time events to view the stars and the Milky Way. This is one of the only places in England where you can view the Milky Way in its full natural glory. Take a flask of hot tea or coffee and enjoy Mother Nature at her best. This is the place that sparked my interest in astronomy and try to visit at least once a year. Self-catering holiday cottages are also dotted throughout the park.
Pronounced “An-ick”, the town is the ancestral home of the Percy family for several centuries and the castle is home to the current 12th Duke of Northumberland. Alnwick is situated in the heart of Northumberland and is surrounded by stunning countryside. The town itself is a bustling market town hosting farmer’s markets, music festivals and craft fairs. You may also know the name Alnwick from the Harry Potter movies. Harry and friends took their first broomstick flying lessons here and played Quidditch. Broomstick flying lessons in the Castle grounds are available during the summer months for those fans of the books and films.
Admission to the Castle and Gardens are paid for separately. Adults admission to the castle is £13.50 and children 5-16 is £6.75. Children under 5 go free. Prices for admission to the gardens are the same price, but buy them together and you will save yourself about £2.00 on each ticket price. Tickets to the castle are valid for a year, but for the garden only on the first day of the ticket. Buying at the gate will also cost more, so plan ahead and buy online. http://www.alnwickcastle.com/default.aspx
The town is also home to the bookshop, Barter Books, where the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was discovered.
A slight detour to the nearby coast and the amazing golden beaches – over 20 miles of them. The coast here is unspoilt and you can imagine the Vikings landing here in the 10th century to plunder the ancient Britons. Castles stand on the coastline, offering views along this spectacular part of England. I spent many a childhood summer holiday on these beaches, and yes, the sea is warm enough to swim in.
One for the children, Seven Stories is in the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle City Centre and is the National Centre for Children’s Books. Housed in a Victorian Mill, seven floors of books, crafts, storytelling and visits from children’s authors are all regular events. I took my nephew here during 2013 and took me back to my childhood of reading Enid Blyton stories and comics. Exhibits are interactive allowing a child’s imagination to run free and be creative. Older children and adults are also catered for with exhibits on how stories are taken from the page to the screen. Admission for children under 4 is free, and single visit and annual tickets are available. Prices for adults start at £7.00 and children aged 4-16 is £6.00
During the summer months, river cruises run from the heart of the city centre by the Millenium Bridge to the mouth of the Tyne, eight miles or so downriver at South Shields. Travel past the former dockyards of Wallsend where RMS Mauretania was built, holder of the Blue Ribband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic for over 20 years. The cruises run from June to October and all have a different theme, from music, children’s activities (Pirates anyone?) and Fish and Chips meals – I thoroughly recommend this one! Prices start at £12.00 for adults ad £9.00 for children 14 and under.
The Discovery Museum
Celebrating 80 years this year, the museum is the home to scientific and local history artifacts. On the western edge of Newcastle city centre, it houses some of the jewels of Victorian inventions of the North East. Turbina is the pride of the museum, the world’s first steam turbine powered boat, built in Wallsend. Also here is a replica of the first light bulb, invented by Joseph Swan – more on those in another post. Admission is free, with a small £1.00 charge for children 2 to 7 to enter the Tyne Water Play exhibit
The Centre for Life
Situated just around the corner from The Discovery Museum, The Centre for Life is both a science museum, bio-medical research centre, university and a lively nightspot with bars and clubs. Plenty for the children to do with interactive displays and activities, also with a 4D Motion Ride and Planetarium. Currently showing is the Body Worlds exhibit. Featuring real preserved human bodies, this is not one for the squeamish! Prices start at £12.00 for adults and £7.50 for children 2 – 17. Concessionary and family tickets also available
Eat, Drink and party like the Geordies!
Newcastle has a reputation as a party city. Often voted as one of the best places in the world for a night out, the Geordies, the name for those who live in Newcastle, certainly know how to party. The stereotype of going out in the winter months without a coat and the ladies wearing the smallest of outfits is true! Living here now for five years, I have only just started to get used to the habit of not wearing a coat when having a night out on the Toon – the name Geordies have for the city centre and Newcastle United Football Club.
With many bars, pubs and clubs, all tastes are catered for. Locally known as “The Diamond Strip”, the bars on Collingwood Street and The Gate complex are two of the busiest. Real ale and craft beer drinkers can find many pubs with a wide variety of beers, some brewed in-house. Also new on the scene are stylish cocktail bars and bars specializing in the many varieties of Gin and Vodka.
Food lovers will enjoy the many new restaurants and one of the oldest! Blackfriars in the city centre has been a dining room since 1239 and accommodated King Henry III when visiting. Visit for their Sunday Roast, one of the best I have found. Modern food tastes and traditional North East foods can also be found on many menus. A bowl of Panhaggerty anyone?
An annual Restaurant Week, at the end of January, offers meal deals of £10 or £15 at venues that may be out of your normal price bracket.
Ride the Metro
Newcastle and the region has one of the largest metro systems in Britain and is an easy way to see the best of what Newcastle, Gateshead and North and South Tyneside have to offer. Part of the line is formed from the oldest commuter line in the world, celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. Buy an all zone day ticket for £4.50 and jump on the Yellow Line from St James station situated under the home of Newcastle United Football Club. The yellow line runs in a loop through the city centre, out towards Wallsend, towards the coast and the village of Tynemouth where the kings of Northumbria are buried at the Priory. Onto the seaside town of Whitley Bay, home to Spanish City, mentioned in Dire Strait’s hit single “Tunnel of Love”, through the countryside, to Jesmond, back through the city centre, across the Tyne to Gateshead, Jarrow to end in South Shields with its beaches and fun fair.
So I leave the best until last. The UNESCO World Heritage Site runs across the breadth of England from the Solway Firth on the west coast to Wallsend in Newcastle. Building started in AD122 under the rule of the emperor Hadrian, a significant part of the wall still exists and the whole route can be walked, about 80 miles with many visitor centres and forts along the route.
For those not in the mood for a walk of several days, parts of the wall were used in the construction of the city walls of Newcastle and still exist today. Jump on the metro from the city centre to Wallsend (where the station signs are in Latin!) and visit the excavated fort that formed the eastern end of the wall. Also known as Segedunum, the site also has a reconstructed Roman Military Bathhouse.
The list goes on. The Sage, St Mary’s Lighthouse, Castle Keep, The Great North Run, the Sunderland Air Show, Beamish Industrial Museum, Jesmond Dene, The Angel of the North, the music and comedy festivals, The Hoppings (Europe’s largest travelling fair), football, horse racing, more Romans, the city of Durham, Cragside House, Holy Island, beer and food festivals, shopping.
So many reasons why the North East of England has captured my heart and many other visitors. And of course, the Geordies themselves.
About the Author: Graham Cox is a born and bred Southern Englander, but with Geordie roots, from just North of London, now living in the North East of England. Passionate about Northumberland, Newcastle and the surrounding towns and area, he can often be found buried in a spreadsheet. Or with a pint of real ale and a plate of amazing locally sourced food.