Newcastle-upon-Tyne seemed unspeakably busy after our few days in the relative wilderness of Northumberland.
We parked the car in the middle of the city centre, buying a four hour ticket for what we would have paid for four minutes in Cambridge, and wandered off to discover the City. The area we were in was dominated by the sort of shopping mall that could place one in the heart of any city in the country: the same shops, the same decor, the same music piped in to make our retail experience more pleasant. Mrs P’s eyes lit up, of course, and she scurried off in search of bargains. I, on the other hand, attempted an escape. It isn’t always easy to locate the exit in a shopping mall, but, as soon as I was free, I discovered quite a nice Georgian town. Stately buildings stood aloof over broad thoroughfares and office workers sat in sunny corners enjoying a brief lunchtime repast. There are many influences on the buildings: here and there a Victorian edifice; a piece of medieval wall; a modern office block. The stately façades of Georgian houses, built with the proceeds of commerce rub shoulders with the products of Victorian industry, within the original medieval town, complete with castle, next to modern shops and offices. It all feels closely packed together – pushed into the valley of the Tyne. It is easy to tell that this has been a very rich city in the past.
I headed West, towards the ancient part of the city. Here, in a little strip of parkland, you can see what remains of the medieval wall. It runs behind a street of Asian restaurants and I followed its course past open doors through which I could see kitchens recovering from the lunchtime onslaught; chefs sat in the street outside, enjoying end-of-shift smokes and gazing at mobile ‘phone screens. Halfway along this back street stands the Mordern Tower. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s there was a very famous poetry club here. Apparently, the circular room inside the building has the perfect acoustics for poetry and many of the world’s greatest writers have read here: Allen Ginsberg, Nell Dunn, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Adrian Henry, Roger McGough, Adrian Mitchell, Hugh MacDiarmid, Stevie Smith, Fleur Adcock, Simon Armitage, Angela Carter, Jackie Kay, Carol Anne Duffy, Carol Rumens, Lemn Sissay and John Hegley have all performed here and this is a tiny, tiny proportion of the huge variety of voices that have been heard in the tower. Today, it was locked up and deserted. It looked as if it had been abandoned for years although, apparently, there are still occasional readings here.
A short walk from here, I stopped at the Literary and Philosophical society: The society was founded in 1793 as a library and debating society. It remains the largest independent library in the country outside London and has 160,000 titles along with a CD and record library. It remains a private subscription library and also holds public events and exhibitions. It is particularly geared towards children, with activities to keep them occupied during the summer.
I was admiring the building from the street, when I became aware of a young woman smiling and waving at me from the doorway. I have reached an age when it has become rare for a young woman to beckon me from the street and so I willingly followed her into the building. She told me a little bit about the society and the building it occupies, as well as their summer exhibition: The Imaginary Museum of the North, in which exhibits from museums in the region are shown throughout the library, along with items created by local schoolchildren. I was shown a replica of Joseph Swan’s light bulb, the original of which was first demonstrated at the society, as was George Stephenson’s miners’ lamp.
The great thing about this place is that it welcomes young readers in to explore. Being a big kid, I had a good look around, climbing up to the galleries and discovering hidden reading rooms, all of which had exhibits to entertain curious young people. They have a variety of exhibits and trails for kids to follow while discovering the place. I am pleased to say that all the children who were looking around the library did so calmly and quietly, respecting the many readers who were poring over books and newspapers. This is more than I can say for the adult visitors, who spoke at full volume and clanked up and down the iron staircases seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. It took me a while to navigate around the collection as I tried to find familiar or interesting titles. I wished I had more time to spend wandering about but I had a whole city to explore
I walked across the High Level Bridge to Gateshead. Daniel Defoe had once lived on the south side of the river, a plaque marks the approximate location of his dwelling, which I found now with a little help from the very friendly people at St. Mary’s Heritage centre. Defoe was one of the first proponents of the novel form. He wrote a huge amount, mainly political pamphlets. He also wrote the Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain which, compiled between 1724 and 1727, gives an account of the country before industrialisation changed the landscape forever. Defoe lodged in Gateshead and began work on what was to be his best remembered novel, Robinson Crusoe. He was probably hiding out here from his creditors (he spent a lot of time hiding from his creditors). He died, in debt, in 1731.
I walked down to the river, past the magnificent Baltic Art Gallery and back to the north side via the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. From here I admired the view upriver of bridges upon bridges. I think I counted seven in all but I’m not completely sure. It’s rather difficult to distinguish the bridges as they all tumble over each other before the ones in the distance become lost in the mist. The ‘winking eye’ is a rather lovely bridge: two metal walkways and a cycleway, with seating all the way along from which to admire the views and the whole thing lifts up to allow river traffic to pass.
From here I travelled east, towards the Ouseburn, a tributary of the Tyne that separates the city from the residential areas of Heaton and Byker. The landscape here tells of a more recent industrial past, with warehouses and railway viaducts, yards and industrial buildings. Much of it graffiti clad and overgrown as nature begins to reclaim what was taken from her. There was a distinct sense of regrowth, however: a distinct smell of sawdust in the air and trucks ferrying scaffolding and timber. The area is being reborn as a cultural quarter and is home to creative industries, galleries, pubs being reopened as music venues. There is a growing student population in the area who are helping to support these businesses. It is easy to forget, when walking through the metal and glass heart of the city centre, that traditional industry was run down here throughout the 20th Century, culminating with the destruction of mining and shipbuilding in the 1980s. What was once known as a city of unemployment and decay has been undergoing a process of regeneration. One can only hope that this regrowth continues through our close and uncertain future.
Seven Stories is a museum dedicated to children’s literature and I had planned to find out more about it. I had no intention of looking around as it is particularly geared towards children but the immensely friendly and welcoming staff in reception ushered be in and invited me to look around. Inside, were seven floors, each one focussing on a different aspect of stories and storytelling. There are some exhibits, such as manuscripts, notebooks and original drawings by children’s authors but most of the space is dedicated to activities: there are story tellings, craft workshops and hundreds of events to occupy the children. They all seemed happy and their parents relieved. They also have an archive in Gateshead to visit if you are serious about studying the art of childrens writing. Ventures such as this are so important in introducing children to the many pleasures they can gain from books and stories. I was happy to see that the exhibits featured some of the stories I read to my own children (Go to Sleep, Little Bear and the Mog stories). It was such a pleasure to revisit some of their favourite stories and illustrations.
I wished I could’ve stayed longer but I had a long journey home and Mrs. P would be waiting. It took me about half an hour to walk back to the city centre. On my way, I stopped at the Nelson Street Music Hall. There is, of course, no music hall here today. The place where Dickens entertained eager audiences is now a trendy wine bar and I stopped in for a drink. Mrs. P said of Newcastle that it feels as if people look out for each other: there’s a sense of community which is often lacking in other towns. The cities of the north east are vibrant and diverse and the people friendly and welcoming. Parts of them are grimy, of course, but parts of all cities are grimy. I met Mrs. P by the Grey’s Monument: a 130 foot column dedicated to the man who gave his name to Earl Grey tea. He was also a reformer and advocate of abolition. I should have raised a cup in his honour but, alas, it was take-away sausage rolls in the car for us. We had a long journey home.