The many sides of Newcastle

by Judy.Darley

Spend a weekend city break in Newcastle Gateshead, and you can discover cupcakes, culture and a city that never sits still

When my friends and I told people we were going to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for a weekend away, the resounding response was “Why?” It’s a city with a reputation for offering a great nightlife and little else but, as we quickly discovered, it has far more to offer.
I’d visited a year earlier with my husband and got to know the romantic side of the city, staying in the luxurious boutique hotel Jesmond Dene House, a renovated Georgian building overlooking the winding paths of Jesmond Dene Park. Taking the more affordable option this time, my friends and I chose the Express By Holiday Inn. Located within easy walking distance of many of the attractions, it suited us perfectly.
We arrived on a Friday morning, taking the Metro train from the airport to the centre and trekking over to the hotel to drop off our bags before walking down to Grey Street, one of the city’s many hubs. This area is overlooked by an imposing statue of Earl Charles Grey, whose plaque reminded us that as well as having a famous taste in tea, he also enjoyed a stint as a 19th-century UK Prime Minister.
Outside the Theatre Royal we met up with Jan Williams, an award-winning Blue Badge guide who takes hordes of tourists on walking tours of the city. Jan led us past the Laing Art Gallery and the Discovery Museum, pausing to admire fragments of the ancient city walls. One of the most complete stretches of walls stands in the area known as Grainger Town, not far from our hotel. Standing in front of the historic stones is a modern sculpture by Eilis O’Connell, a stainless steel upended cone entitled 'Ever Changing', demonstrating the city’s continual evolution. By the end of the tour we’d covered every part of the city and were exhausted but buzzing with ideas of what we would be visiting over the remainder of our stay.
Returning to the Laing Art Gallery, we learned that it had been founded in 1901. It now stands on a dramatic work of art called the 'Blue Carpet', made from thousands of crushed bottles. Created by Thomas Heatherwick, the glass curls at the corners as though woven rather than set in concrete.
We were just as impressed with the interior, where a flock of plaster seagulls by Tracey Emin hovers in the atrium. There’s a playful side to the gallery, which hosts regular Family ARTventures. As we strolled through the colourful Under Fives’ Area, I think we all wished we were young enough to roll around on the bright beanbags and get to work with the felt-tips and crayons.
We headed back to Grey Street for dinner, choosing Starters & Puds (2-6 Shakespeare Street), a restaurant where you can get stuck into a huge array of starters and desserts, with mini-dishes ranging from black pudding served with a poached egg to pan fried sea bass with pesto and rocket. Among the puddings was a spectacular dish called A Bit Of What You Fancy, featuring four choice morsels including a wedge of banoffee pie cheesecake.
Despite so much indulgence, we still had room for cocktails, so we crossed the street to The Vineyard (1 Grey Street), where rose-tinted lamps lit up a kitsch Moroccan-themed decor that was fabulously at odds with the rock-chick clientele.
The following morning, after a somewhat fragile start, we meandered around Grainger Market, spotting the Marks and Spencers’ Penny Bazaar, selling cut-price knickers and nighties from the high street store. Just outside the market we discovered the Café Royal (8 Nelson Street). Being a Saturday, the café was crowded, but it was worth the wait for a table, as the cute carrot cupcakes and raspberry chocolate brownies tasted as delicious as they looked.
Eventually, unable to stand the envious looks from those still queuing, we dragged ourselves out into the sunshine and down to the waterfront. The area around the River Tyne has been completely revitalised in recent years and there are countless bars and restaurants where you can sit and enjoy views across to the gleaming limpet shell of the Sage Gateshead concert hall and the redbrick edifice of the renovated flour mill that’s now the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.
We walked across the Gateshead Millennium bridge, one of seven crossing the river that divides the two towns. Stepping into the Baltic is like entering a London Underground station, with an industrial air reminiscent of the region’s past. A lift shot us upwards to explore galleries that house images and sculptures designed to make you stop in your tracks: photographs of staged hospital waiting rooms, exquisitely decorated human skulls and stark exhibitions of body bags.
One of the highlights, however, is the platform hanging from one of the upper floors, providing vertigo-inducing views over the glittering river. As we gazed out over the two towns now condensed into one city, we realised we were looking at the quintessential Newcastle Gateshead: a city of multiple personalities where the contemporary and the traditional sit side by side, providing plenty of attractions whatever your tastes.