Newcastle: the pretty and the (not so) gritty

Michelle Zellers takes us on a tour of Newcastle, sharing the city’s radical history, its green spaces and where to head for a night out on the Tyne

August 6, 2014 · 8 min read


If you’ve always thought of Newcastle as ‘postindustrial’, then its pretty streets may surprise you. Your visit might begin at the railway station, a building whose tall sandstone arches can give you a feel for the city centre’s classical architecture. Social historian Bill Lancaster reminds us that the greater River Tyne area was a hub of mining and shipping, while the city itself ‘became fat on the back of the region’s muck and toil’. Throughout the 19th century, grandiose structures sprung up to meet the social needs of the elite, and to demonstrate that people of status didn’t only live in London. Architectural historian Thomas Faulkner notes that the rich hired designers such as John Dobson not just for the central station, but also to plan their opulent country homes.

Yet the character of Newcastle’s streets would become a marker of pride for working people, who came to the city centre for food and household goods, using thriving co-operative societies to ensure fair prices. Today, many historic buildings remain intact; others, such as the Co-operative Building, were demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Eldon Square shopping mall; and still others have become vibrant spaces for arts, culture and radical politics, hosting events nearly every night of the week. At Pink Lane Coffee across from the station, pick up a fair trade drink and a copy of a local arts magazine, The Crack: it’s free, and the best way to find out what’s on.

Head up Grainger Street, where you’ll find several entrances to Grainger Market, a covered centre for vegetable and meat sellers that was the largest in the world when it opened in 1835. Bill Lancaster notes that central food distribution ‘built sociability’ into the city, providing a Saturday convergence point for people from everywhere around. Continue on to the intersection of Grainger and Grey Streets, where you’ll find the heart of the city centre and the setting for most of today’s marches and demos.

Newcastle and the Tyneside region have also served as a departure point for gruelling marches to the capital. In the summer of 1913, feminists set out from the city on a six-week Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage, which swelled to include some 50,000 activists by the time it reached London. And of course in 1936, 200 men and the charismatic MP Ellen Wilkinson embarked on the Jarrow March, walking from the Tyneside town of Jarrow to Westminster, where they had hoped to call the government’s attention to staggering rates of unemployment and poverty in the North East.

Northern Spirit

For vivid glimpses into the region’s history, head east on Blackett Street, continue to the Laing Gallery and enjoy free entry to the Northern Spirit exhibit. Although it shamefully under‑represents women and artists of colour, Northern Spirit shows regional pieces worth viewing, including works by the renowned Ralph Hedley. Oil paintings depict job seekers scouring newspaper ads; whole communities dragging lifeboats onto shores; and miners and ‘fishwives’ trudging home after work (through so many dark skies you might wonder if there was sunlight in the area before 1950). Don’t miss the River Tyne landscapes capturing Newcastle at earlier moments in time.

Keep these images fresh in your mind for a walk along Quayside, on the banks of the river. From the middle of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, pedestrians can watch cars and trains cross other unique bridges upstream, built between 1849 and 1980. Or, continue to the prominent Baltic Flour Mills, now the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, which is free to enter and offers scenic views overlooking the Tyne from its fourth and fifth levels.

From your vantage point on the south bank, notice a red pitched roof and a black and white clock tower across the river, north of the Millennium Bridge. Tyneside labour history is rich with examples of mutual aid; this is the Keelmen’s Hospital, which coal transport workers established in 1701 to help out other workers. Near the green arch of the Tyne Bridge, you’ll see old sandstone buildings – largely historic warehouses and shipping offices – which mingle with new housing developments on today’s cityscape.

Along the Tyne, east and west of the city centre, lie the grid-patterned neighbourhoods that many working class and migrant people have called home for hundreds of years. In the face of decades of corporate-backed ‘regeneration’ schemes, residents have acted creatively to shape their own communities. Archive For Change documents stories like those of women who organised creches, credit unions and housing campaigns to defend their estates from poverty and unemployment in the west end neighbourhoods., by the Newcastle Roots and Wings Collective, follows east end Byker residents from a cholera epidemic in 1853 to the creation of urban farms, theatre and art spaces in the 1970s.

A green commons

The tour so far may leave you wondering if grass and trees exist in Newcastle. A green commons area known as the Town Moor covers 4,000 hectares north west of the city centre, outsizing London’s Hyde Park. Social geographer Alastair Bonnett explains how in the 1770s, a fight against planned enclosure of the Town Moor radicalised Thomas Spence. He went on to espouse the collective ownership of land through pamphlets, chalking graffiti and issuing coins imprinted with pigs ‘trampling the symbols of monarchy’. In 1839, more than 25,000 striking Chartist coal miners converged on the Town Moor.

Extending from the Town Moor to the Tyne is the Victoria Tunnel, a wagon way used to transport coal underground between 1842 and 1860. It let out in the Ouseburn neighbourhood, not far downstream from the BALTIC and the Millennium Bridge. During the second world war the tunnel was an air raid shelter. Today, partially open for guided tours, it contains a light installation by the artist Adinda van’t Klooster that comments on nuclear war.

Tyneside art

Be sure to experience the city’s art scene. Its three independent cinemas are hubs of activity. The Star and Shadow cinema – run by a volunteer collective that anyone can join – features a screening room, music venue, radical library and activist meeting space. Near Quayside, find the Side gallery and cinema. Opened in 1977, it exhibits photography focused on ‘working class and marginalised communities’ and screens documentaries and dramas in a 51-seat theatre. Tyneside Cinema plays independent films and offers a free showing of a newsreel each morning, harking back to its history as a ‘news theatre’ in the 1930s.

If you’re looking for art space that’s child-friendly, consider attending a workshop at the House of Objects, where both children and adults can create from an impressive storeroom of recycled materials. The Newcastle Community Green Festival, holding its 19th annual free event in Leazes Park on the first weekend in June, invites children to learn about environmental justice through art and celebration.

Zine readers will want to check out the New Bridge Project. Occupying an old office building, it hosts a bookshop with works from local and international creators; more than 80 artists’ studios upstairs; and an exhibition space next door.

You may have heard something of Newcastle’s nightlife. Rebranded as a ‘party city’ in the 1980s, it’s known for flashy nightclubs, cheap shots and party tourist groups that flock in from all directions – often wearing custom-made t-shirts, so that there’s no mistaking their intentions. But it’s not all hen and stag parties. For alternatives, try the colourful Bar Loco, which contains its own art gallery and puts on events ranging from burlesque to Latin music festivals. Or head down to the Cumberland Arms in Ouseburn Valley for live folk music.

Finally, see what’s on at the Live theatre, based in converted warehouses and almshouses at Quayside. Founded as a radical theatre to depict regional working class life, it has celebrated the Geordie dialect and staged new plays by North East writers since 1973.

No matter the status of industry, ‘investment’ or ‘development’, Newcastle and the surrounding region are rich at the grassroots. They can boast a distinctive identity, lively arts culture and radical story that’s far from finished.

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