What’s it like to return to a place after years away? We sent a native back to North East England after a long absence. In Newcastle he finds thriving art and social scenes, while the region’s rugged coastline reminds him what he misses most about home
The clock hanging high above the market strikes nine. Traders below set out their stalls. Breath fogs and voices echo. The first customers of the morning come snooping into the hall, into its odours; an earthy scent on one side, the smell of the seaside on the other.
The fishmonger rolls up his sleeves, one, then the other, revealing beneath them two more sleeves made entirely of tattoos. Artfully, the man arranges halibut, mackerel and red mullet on a mound of ice, the fish framed by a 60lb conga eel. A woman walks past, slowly pushing a check-print shopping trolley. The butcher takes off his glasses and holds them up to the light. With a small cloth he cleans the lenses, perches the specs back on the bridge of his nose and continues placing handwritten price tags into fat cuts of red meat. The greengrocer stacks carrots, raps something about the price of parsnip and beetroot. The woman parks her trolley beneath a sign that reads ‘Independent Artisan Bakery.’ With great care, after squeezing every other loaf, she picks out bread from a countertop labelled: ‘Yesterday’s shelf – still fresh!’
To take the pulse of a place, go to the market. It’s something I always do when travelling. You meet the locals, taste the food and get a good sense of the area’s identity. This particular market, however, stands just a half-hour drive from where I was born.
Over the years, I must’ve walked past Newcastle’s 180-year-old Grainger Market a hundred times without giving it a second glance. Today, first thing on a cold winter morning, this old place appears completely new to me. I’m sitting on a stool at the bar of a stall called Pumphrey’s Brewing Emporium. Notebook open, espresso steaming, I write and then underline: ‘A lovely little portrait of modern Newcastle.’
Many of the traders have been here for generations. Joining the ‘Independent Artisan Bakery,’ more recent arrivals include a Turkish deli, a French crêperie and a Chinese dumpling and tea bar. It’s been a while since I last visited the North East and longer still since I lived here. Over the years, I’ve moved farther and farther away and returned less and less frequently. Now I’m back – a bit older and a little less resilient to the bitterly cold winters – interested to see how the region has changed.
Outside of the Grainger Market, Grey’s Monument stands tall above Newcastle’s busiest shopping streets. Beneath the statue of old Earl Grey – the prime minister who helped abolish slavery, straighten out bent politicians and secure better representation for the North of England – buskers sing, religious speakers rant and protesters chase petition signatures. From here, Grey Street slopes south and curves east until it becomes Dean Street. On the left, the grand Theatre Royal. On the right, a lively coffee house called Blake’s. All the way down the road, some of the city’s best small art galleries. The Georgian architecture – neat, symmetrical, sand-coloured stone – takes the name ‘Tyneside Classical’. You won’t find a better-looking street in London, New York or Paris.
The Georgian architecture neat, symmetrical, sand-coloured stone You won’t find a better-looking street in London, New York or Paris
It’s early afternoon and people are already out for the night. Batman, Spider-Man and several Supermen heckle a group of 30-something schoolgirls. The superheroes walk away defeated, after the schoolgirls shout some unkind words about their respective physiques. Stag and hen parties regularly walk this way down to the Quayside and the many bars and restaurants that line the River Tyne.
Over the titling Millennium Bridge, on the Gateshead side of the river, stand two of the North East’s most famous buildings; symbols of Newcastle’s past and present.
The free-admission Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art takes up all six floors of a magnificent converted flour mill. Next door is the Sage music centre, with its rippling, shrink-wrapped roof. Depending on which way the wind blows, the building can look bold and beautiful, or like a huge photograph of the Hindenburg disaster.
The hens and stags, locals and tourists alike, mostly walk straight past one of the city’s real hidden gems: a small Victorian pub, somehow both unassuming and achingly beautiful, called the Crown Posada.
The door swings open and in walks a man, face bitten red by the cold, bringing with him a blast of icy wind. He strides past the fruit machine, peeps into a little partitioned room known as the snug, and continues on through the tall, narrow pub. The man stops short of the seating area – dark wood and green leather – and takes up a position at the end of the bar. “All-reet, Andy?” he offers to the barman, who tilts his chin in response.
Thin sunlight filters in through stained glass windows. Dog-eared books line the windowsill. At the end of the bar sits a record player built in 1941. Beneath the pub sounds, the chatter and cackles, the rustle of a newspaper, Bille Holliday sings the blues.
Newcastle is a great city, the north east a great region. I see that in a way I couldn’t when I was younger
The man continues to walk around, saying hello to several people as he unwraps his scarf and takes off his hat. Some stop to talk about football or ask after his family. The barman starts pulling his pint. “Any sandwiches left, Andy?” he enquires.
The man takes a slug of his pint, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, peels the cling film off his sandwich and bites into the white bread. Mouth full, he points to one of the fridges behind the bar, “What’s that you’ve got in there now?” he says. Andy hands the man a bottle of beer dressed in a brightly coloured label. The man asks its price.
The Crown Posada, the oldest proper pub in Newcastle, has stood on this spot for more than two centuries. The city – the whole region – has changed dramatically in that time. Those changes have been most dramatic during the lifetime of the man stood at the end of bar.
“A fiver?” replies the man indignantly, upon hearing the price of beer with the brightly coloured label. The man looks at the bottle and looks back at the barman, “A fiver? For that?” Andy tries to explain something about the brewing process, but the man cuts him off mid-stream. “For one bottle… you want a fiver?”
Ouseburn is a mile or so up the road. Boats once carried coal down its river to meet with bigger barges waiting on the Tyne. The North East doesn’t mine coal anymore, or build ships, or manufacturer half as many things as it did in its industrial heyday. Until recently, its mills, factories and warehouses stood empty, but the area is now the city’s cultural and creative quarter. Art studios, galleries, places to eat, drink and watch live music have given new purpose to once dilapidated buildings.
There’s the Biscuit Factory, Britain’s biggest commercial art gallery, Seven Stories, the first museum in the UK dedicated to the art of British children’s books, and the Cluny, a former whisky bottling plant turned music venue, a good place to eat and the best place in town to see bands. Here, in the Free Trade Inn and in the Cumberland Arms, ale aficionados think nothing of paying five pounds for a micro-brewed bottle.
Andy asks the man if he has time for one more. The man checks his watch and says, “Aye, why not, eh? The usual.” He then holds the still unopened bottle aloft and shouts to some unseen person at the far end of the pub: “Ere. Guess how much he wants for that?”
Much has been made of North East’s socioeconomic problems, both past and present. What you don’t hear enough about are the solutions to those problems. We’re regularly reminded that the heavy industries have gone – though offshore, automotive and speciality engineering are going strong – but we’re rarely told about new industries growing in their place. The IT, digital, creative, software and education sectors, to name just a handful, are all doing very well. And there’s a real sense of that, optimism in the face of adversity. The things we make and do in the North East may change, but in the North East we will always make and do things.
I left the region because it was the done thing if you wanted a job in a certain field. You went to London or Leeds, Manchester or Liverpool. Now there are few better places in England, perhaps even in Europe, to build a career in the arts or the creative industries. A relatively low cost of living means artists can starve longer, and can do so in the company of famously affable, straight-talking locals.
Local writer Harry Pearson tells a great story that he feels sums the people of the North East. Eating in a silver-service restaurant in Newcastle one lunchtime, he overheard a well-dressed, well-spoken lady say to her waitress: “You look weary, my dear.” The waitress, who Pearson remembers for her “peroxide-blonde hair and build of a tugboat”, placed a hand on her cocked hip and said: “Aye, well y’know how it is, pet: our lad’s on the [oil] rigs and my bairns are on holiday screaming blue murder.”
For Pearson, Newcastle is a city of “unpretentious and encompassing egalitarianism… a place of almost pathological good humour and friendliness”.
I should probably point out that I’m not from Newcastle. I’m from Sunderland, a place roughly 25km away. I’m not a Geordie but a Mackem. Without being bolstered by race or religion, I know of no greater rivalry between two cities. Once political, now fuelled entirely by football, it is an all-pervading competitiveness. You may work or study or even date someone from the other side, but you will, you must, always ridicule them for being born into the wrong coloured stripes. So my praise for Newcastle is not because I’m biased towards it. Quite the opposite. Something old and inborn aches deep inside of me as I write so many nice things about the city. It’s with gritted teeth I say: Newcastle is a great city. The North East, for that matter, is a great region. I see that now in a way I never could when I was younger.
A short walk from the Crown Posada is Newcastle’s Central Station, the most handsome railway station in England. Travelling by train, the world outside the window changes quickly and often: patchwork countryside and farmland, industrial estates and retail parks, familiar towns whose names now sound strange, Felling, Fellgate and Brockley Whins, passing commuter towns, desirable suburbs and council estates.
The train stops and more people board. A twenty-something with a full beard gives up his seat up to an older man. In the lapel of the older man’s big winter coat is a small badge, a picture of a miner wearing a helmet and lamp. The badge reads: ‘Miners Strike – 20th Anniversary. Durham Miners – A County Built On Coal.’ The strike it commemorates took place in the mid-1980s, meaning the badge itself is more than a decade old.
Local trains, known as the Metro, cover large parts of the North East. I ride it south to Sunderland, get off at Seaburn and walk to my favourite stretch of coastline. Bamburgh, Seahouses and Longsands beaches, their rocky cliffs, ruined castles and craggy headlands have, in recent years, received national and international praise. But for me the best stretch of coast in the region runs from South Shields, past the cliffs and caves at Marsden, the red-and-white striped Souter Lighthouse, the old amusement arcades and fish and chip shops, and finally down onto the sand that leads all the way to Roker pier.
Take a trip out to any part of the North East rugged’s coast, the real coast, our coast, and you’ll see some of the best beaches in the country, where wind sweeps the sand year-round and where the North Sea even at its calmest looks completely wild. It’s not for everyone, admittedly. But to me there are few finer sights in the whole world than a North East beach in winter.
Before returning home, I had made a list of the places I’d like to visit – some old, some new, many I simply took for granted when I lived here. This list is now longer, much longer, than the one I arrived with.
My next visit home, whenever it may be, will certainly be my last. I’ll go home for good; but I will not pay a fiver for a bottle.
Words: Gary Evans
Images: Carolyn Stritch