“Are you carrying coal to Newcastle?” I was asked good-naturedly when I first informed my friends about my plan to visit this beautiful city in north England. Indeed, coal is what you first recall in connection with Newcastle. That is because coal and its ancillary industries were what brought this town into international prominence many years ago. That is all in the past now; and though that glory has faded with time, Newcastle is worth a visit for a number of other, more favourable, reasons. So, as our train from London chugged into the station, coal mines were farthest from my mind. There were other, far more interesting scenes jostling for space in my brain. In fact, the journey too was a very pleasant one. British train services are wonderful and usually on time. My compartment was a ‘silence zone’, so no one spoke loudly on their mobile phones and no groups chatted loudly. My neighbour snored gently, but that was certainly not a big problem. The gently rolling countryside outside, in fact, lulled me to sleep after a while.
Onto a dreamscape
Newcastle is like a fairytale land come true. The cobbled roads seem to gently slope up and down, with seemingly narrow alleys leading into the residential areas of the city. All this registered somewhere in the peripheral regions of my brain as the taxi sped towards my hotel. It was late at night, and Newcastle seemed to be asleep. How wrong that impression was to be proved later! The hotel was located on the river Tyne; my room overlooked the churning grey water and a train —with its compartments eerily lit — chugged along its tracks on a bridge over the river. When morning came, the waters still looked grey but there were many joggers on the promenade and the city seemed to be buzzing with energy and activity.
Bridged to perfection
Newcastle, located on the northern bank of the river Tyne, is connected by seven bridges to Gateshead, which is on the southern bank of the Tyne. It is abuzz with a number of art galleries, museums and a hip and happening nightlife. I heard that many Londoners come to Newcastle for a weekend of partying and clubbing. So much for my first impression of it being a sleepy hollow. There are several pubs and clubs to choose from; your hotel concierge should be able to guide you in selecting one according to your budget and preference. There’s live music in some of these places, if that interests you. The food is varied and there’s something to suit all sorts of palates here, yes, even vegetarians. However, there is something about the area that you need to be aware of before you plan a trip there. Many of the locals speak in an accent that is quite difficult to follow, especially for the uninitiated. The town has a Geordie heritage, which can be best described as a sort of continuation/adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon dialect. That vernacular is not easy to follow. But at all the tourist hotspots people speak the English we are used to, so I did not face any problem. But I did catch snatches of conversation of some locals at a few watering holes, and yes, the diction did sound strange to my untutored ears. The architecture of the town is steeped in Georgian flavour; it is rich, intricate and beautifully preserved. Just walking around the lanes and bylanes is an activity you should not miss out on. The Newcastle quayside is also great for a stroll; I came upon the swinging and swaying Gateshead Millennium Bridge, a marvel of modern day construction. This bridge, meant for pedestrians and cyclists, connects the Newcastle and Gateshead quaysides across the breadth of the Tyne river. It tilts and turns at an angle which is unique and is therefore a must-visit spot when you are in Newcastle.
After soaking in the atmosphere at the quayside for almost half a day, I ventured into the historic part of Newcastle — the Grainger Town area. Named after a builder of the mid 19th century, this area boasts of some of the most beautiful buildings and streets of the town. Some buildings had turrets, pointed domes and intricate carvings on the door and window frames. I especially enjoyed walking along Grey Street, which is named after a former prime minister, Earl Grey. There is also a pillar, the Grey’s Monument, which forms a sort of pivotal point of the walk.
Well, you won’t be carrying back sacks full of coal from Newcastle any longer, like the folks of yesteryears, but there is a beautiful shopping centre, which you can visit at leisure. Called the Eldon Square Shopping Centre, this boasts of all the major British brands where you can buy everything, from clothes to shoes, books, cosmetics and even electronics. There is a central courtyard here, where people just mill around, sipping their takeaway coffees and catching up on gossip too. If you hop over to Gateshead, you can check out MetroCentre, the largest indoor shopping centre in Europe. You can spend almost one full day here; there are about 50 restaurants and dining options here, as well as certain themed areas where you can buy souvenirs and other knick-knacks for friends and relatives back home. It also houses all the major British retail departmental stores like Debemhams, Marks & Spencers and House of Fraser. It is easy to reach MetroCentre from Newcastle City Centre. There are trains running to the location. I opted for the bus service; there are buses from many parts of Newcastle to the shopping destination.
The Great North Museum: Hancock is located on Barras Bridge. I was amazed at the replica of the Hadrian’s Wall that is kept here. If you are unable to make it to the original ramparts, you could check it out here at the museum. There are a number of displays of flora and fauna. A life-size T-Rex dinosaur stands guard at one of the rooms: it is so well-crafted that both children and adults alike will enjoy checking it out. There are many other animal exhibits too and several sea creatures also find pride of place here. Most of the museums in town are open from 10 am to 5 pm; but you should check out the exact timings when you visit the city, in case there are seasonal changes.
The other museum worth visiting is the Life Science Centre. You can easily spend more than half a day here, if time permits. There are many areas within the museum, and at most of these places, you are encouraged to get a feel of science and its practical applications. It is also a great place to visit, if you are traveling with children. The Young Explorers’ Zone, located on the upper floor of the Centre, is designated for preschoolers and their families. They can explore a beautiful garden, try and grow their own vegetables and even learn how to separate wet and dry trash. Invaluable lessons indeed when growing up.
The Curiosity Zone, which is best for older school children and their families (many local schools bring students here on day trips), is a place where you try out different gadgets, find out how machines work and even see magnetic reactions at close quarters. It is a wonderful experience even for adults, so you must try and make it a point to visit this museum on your visit to Newcastle. A family ticket (two adults and two children) would cost around 25 pounds. But check prices before booking. All in all, Newcastle upon Tyne is one of those places where there’s something for everybody. So, whether you are travelling in a group, with family or friends, or just taking in a ‘singles’ holiday for a quick getaway from London, forget the coal and just haul yourself into Newcastle.
A trip to Newcastle is incomplete without a visit to Hadrian’s Wall, which was built during Roman Britain times. A significant part of the original wall remains, and stretches into Northumberland. It is a world heritage site and has been well-preserved. There are some trekking enthusiasts who undertake walking trips along the wall (3-5 days for this, at a rough estimate). But you could just visit the Newcastle end of it