Friday, April 20, 2007

Newcastle

I returned yesterday from a 3-day break to Newcastle, my first visit to the North East of England and an enjoyable one too. I'd planned this break back in February feeling that I needed some time away to myself, as well as the holiday with the Groovy Gang in May. Newcastle wasn't my first choice; I was thinking of Bournemouth or somewhere down in the South West but as it happened the Newcastle thing came together. I've had an interest in visiting the city for a while and managed to get cheap train tickets and a bargain stay at the Travelodge - the whole thing - travel and accommodation - for under £100 for 3 nights. In my experience, that is cheap for a stay in the UK! Okay, so the Travelodge is not exactly your 4/5-star luxury experience but it suffices as I used it - simply as a place to sleep and treat as a base. It was comfortable, clean and modern, centrally located and with easy access of the city centre. Not bad at all.

Newcastle itself impressed me. Or should I say NewcastleGateshead as the marketing constantly reminded me! I am a little ashamed to admit that I didn't realise just how close the two centres are - Gateshead is just the other side of the Tyne. When I arrived at Newcastle Central I was in my element. I love old stations and the one at Newcastle, over 150 years old, is a magnificent sight. The scale of the place, like the rest of Newcastle's building, is impressive and it retains a grand station hotel, which was such a common feature of the main termini and important stations of the steam age. Clearly, the station has been modernised but sympathetically such that it is still possible to take in the grandeur of this Grade 1 listed building.

I decided to walk to the Travelodge, having ascertained from the map I had it wouldn't take more than about 15 minutes. So, off I trudged, bag in hand confidently marching in the general direction of the quay. I was struck by how tall the buildings are, and nearer the quay the approaches to the Tyne Bridge, carry the road many stories up in the air across buildings, which themselves, loom ominously to 4 or 5 stories. Everything about Newcastle seems to be on a giant scale. Needless to say I got a little lost, although once I got to the quay I got my bearings and the Travelodge, although not its entrance, was fairly easy to find, tucked away behind the Law Courts.
That afternoon, once I settled in, was spent mostly getting to know the area a little better. I took a walk down along the quay taking pictures of the bridges, particularly the Tyne Bridge, which reminds me of the pictures I've seen of the one in Sydney, Australia. Not quite the same climate in Newcastle unfortunately although each day I was blessed with nearly dawn to dusk sunshine and it was pleasantly warm most of the time. After making my way back to Central Station, I realised that there was a regular bus service that would achieve the same and avoid the tiring and steep walk back up the hill to the city centre. I made much use of the same many times over my short stay.
Later I went to the Gateshead Metro Centre, a sprawling 1980s consumer metropolis of shops, bars, restaurants and leisure facilities. Really, Milton Keynes but on a larger scale. The Metro Centre claims to be the largest shopping and leisure facility in Europe. That seems a little doubtful to me but each of these out of town shopping meccas claims to be the largest and I've done a few of them - Trafford Centre, Meadowhall, Bluewater. On site is an Odeon multiplex, where I saw Mr Bean's Holiday. I laughed like a drain and embarrassingly was laughing at the bits which obviously weren't funny, either that or I was the only one who got the joke! I am sure it wouldn't be so funny on a second viewing and no I am going to justify my choice of film any further.

Tuesday was my favourite day and I had been planning this, at least mentally, for some weeks. I arrived early at the station expecting it to be busy and certain that I would have difficulties getting the ticket I wanted. On both counts I was proved wrong and I set off with my Round Robin ticket via the Settle-Carlisle line for an enjoyable day out.

I decided to do the journey the 'wrong' way round as trains to Newcastle from York are more frequent than they are from Carlisle. My first journey was from Newcastle to Carlisle, a pleasant journey across the top of England, flirting with the borders of Scotland. The train stops at Hexham, from where it is possible to get a bus to Hadrian's Wall, for a reasonable add-on fare. Maybe another time I'll do this. About 90 minutes after leaving Newcastle, the train arrived in Carlisle, the second time I have been to this city in just 6 months. I had a brief stop of around an hour before my next train and the highlight of the day, so I took the opportunity to have a leg-stretch and comfort break. Carlisle is an attractive city and on my previous visit I'd done the Castle and Cathedral. Again, its a handy jumping off point for trips to Hadrian's Wall.

Next train from Carlisle was the service to Leeds, a journey of around 3 hours through some of the most beautiful and wonderful countryside. The route via Settle passes through the Eden and Aire valleys and the line features 17 viaducts and 14 tunnels; Blea Moor Tunnel is reputedly haunted! The most impressive of the viaducts is Ribblehead Viaduct, 24 arches carrying the railway 104 feet above the valley below. It is an iconic location for railway photography, with a beautiful backdrop of rolling hills and the valley it crosses.

If I was doing the journey in the opposite direction, I would be on the descent to Carlisle from the infamous 'long drag' from Settle to Ais Gil Summit. Over the course of about 40 miles the line rises from just under 100 feet above sea level at Settle to 1169 feet above sea level at Ais Gil. The Settle-Carlisle line also features the highest mainline station in England at Dent, which sits an impressive 1150 feet above sea level and must be one of the most isolated and bleak stations on the network (its over 4 miles from the village it serves), appearing to sit precariously on the edge of a deep valley.

I alighted from the train at Settle, for a break of two hours until the next train south. There are about six return passenger journeys on the line each day, about three on Sundays. It seems remarkable to me that in the early 1980s the while line was faced with closure. Most of the intermediate stations had been closed and freight was non-existent. Now, the line is going through something of a renaissance with the passenger services doing well and freight - principally coal and gypsum - a regular feature of the line. The line is also an important Anglo-Scottish diversionary route for passenger trains avoiding the West Coast Main Line; most recently it was used for this purpose following the Virgin Trains derailment at Lambrigg.

Settle is in a lovely bucolic setting and has all the charm of a quintessentially English market town. Only the constant thunder of lorries through this otherwise tranquil setting spoils the notion. Tuesdays is Market Day, which seemed to be doing a brisk trade and I was surprised to note that the town still observes early closing on Wednesdays, something that was once common across many English towns and cities.


After leaving Settle I rejoined the train for the run down to Leeds. The scenery is less attractive in this stretch and it passes through stations of faded splendour, notably Hellifield. Once an important junction, it's usefulness is now far diminished and although efforts have been made at restoration, it has the look of decay and disuse. There are some good views of the Leeds & Liverpool canal and some fascinating glimpses of the Five and Three Rise Locks.

Leeds was just a place to change trains; I've been here before and didn't like it much so decided not too linger. As it was rush-hour, Leeds station was buzzing and I got the first train from there to York.

York, as I am sure I've probably mentioned before, is one of my favourite cities. An ideal place to stop for a few hours, get something to eat and go on a walk up through the Shambles to York Minster, where the intrepid tourists were gathering for the nightly Ghost Walk. I did this once when I stayed in York back in '98 or '99 and it is well worth doing, a lot of fun. Then it was back along part of the city walls to the station to catch my train back to Newcastle.
Wednesday was a little less adventurous. Started off early and got the train to Durham, if I'd been coming the other way about an hour earlier I would have been travelling on the most overcrowded train in the UK! Durham station is situated at the top of a hill, meaning a long walk down and more importantly back up! I stopped here for breakfast before making my way to the Cathedral, which seemed to be up another hill over the other side of the city. The Cathedral was not one of the most impressive I've visited and I object to the fact that there seemed to be entry fees for many things such as going up the tower. I know these grand buildings cost a lot of money to keep going but charging fees, which it seems are mainly designed to catch out foreign tourists, just seems wrong.

After returning to Newcastle, I got an all day ticket for the Metro, bus and ferry and got the Metro to Whitley Bay. This was an invigorating stop, as might be seen from the photo! I love being by the sea and this was my fix for the day!
From Whitley Bay it was back on the Metro for the short trip round to North Shields. I got somewhat lost by rather errant road signs trying to find my way to the ferry. Eventually I found the terminal and took the ferry for the short crossing across the Tyne to South Shields. I imagine that the Tyne was much busier than it is now. There was very little in the way of shipping activity although a DFDS cross-channel ferry was moored up perhaps in between sailings to Scandinavia or Holland. South Shields seemed a little more alive than its neighbour across the Tyne although this clearly is an area of social and economic problems. At South Shields I rejoined the Metro back to Gateshead and managed to get the front seat a few stops into the journey. The Metro is a curious amalgam of heavy and light rail. The stations and routes were clearly once served by conventional rail services before giving way to the Metro. As on the DLR, passengers can sit a the front of the train and thus, in my case at least, have a little flight of fantasy at being the driver! Unlike the DLR, the Metro is driven by a driver, who is locked away in a cab to the left-hand side.

At Gateshead, another change of transport, this time onto a bus for the short journey to the Baltic. This was the only disappointment of my time in Newcastle. The Baltic is a converted flour mill on the banks of the Tyne, which is now home to a modern art gallery. Unfortunately it seems that I chose a bad time to visit - three of its five floors were closed for exhibition change-overs and of the other two, one was partially closed for a refurbishment or something. The highlight as it happened was the stunning views from the fifth floor across the Tyne.

I walked back across the Tyne into Newcastle over the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and then another bus to the city centre. After getting something to eat decided that I should see what was on at the cinema. Saw Sunshine, which I thought was a lot like 2001 and certainly owed something to Alien and Event Horizon.
Yesterday was my return to Milton Keynes but before I left Newcastle, I had to do the one bridge that I hadn't done - the Tyne Bridge. From here there are some great views of Newcastle and Gateshead notably the Baltic and the Sage, plus the other bridges. The Tyne Bridge itself is an impressive structure and it felt even bigger and more impressive walking across it than it did seeing it from underneath.


All in all it was a great few days way. There is a lot that I didn't get the chance to see or do and I would love to go back to Newcastle again. The people were friendly, the city is compact and easy to get about, there is much to do and some wonderful countryside and the coast within easy reach. Maybe next year...

2 comments:

jamie said...

bloody hell,after reading through that account,i feel like i've been on the trip myself...i'm exhausted!
it sounds like you had a lovely time,and we'd be very interested in joining you should you wish to return there next year.

jamie said...

yes,yes...very interesting,reading about your trips...but where's the next entry???
come on,entertain us,man!