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Published: September 6th 2020
Tyne Bridge, Newcastle
Greetings from England! I am currently back at home in London and back to school, having returned just over a week ago from a wonderful two-week trip around this land I call home – England. I plan to write about my journey in four blog entries in total, beginning with this one, and have come to call it “North-East England”, or “From Newcastle to Hull”.
Quite unusual travel destinations if we’re being honest, and there were certainly not many other tourists in either of these cities while I was there, but this to me was the magic and beauty of the trip. When travelling in foreign lands, I always like to get off-the-beaten track, and see life in a country for the local, not the tourist. This was certainly the case on this trip, though as with other travels, I also fitted in a tourist site or two.
As with many travellers, I had to cancel my summer travel plans this year. This summer I had planned a trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg, overland, and taking in also the two small countries of Lesotho and Swaziland. I was very excited about another epic adventure, and
Angel of the North, Gateshead
in particular by the end of the summer, had this trip gone ahead, I would have reached 100 countries, according to the Travellers’ Century Club, of which I’m a provisional member. Provisional membership can be had after visiting 75 countries on their list. I am currently on 98, and this trip would have taken me up to 100. Rather frustrating, but certainly not one of the greatest of concerns during these tricky times. I am still not sure when I will be able to hit the 100, as I plan to take this travel year as it comes, without making too many plans which may be scuppered by last-minute decisions or u-turns from our government.
So alas, I am yet to become a fully-fledged member of the Travellers’ Century Club, but my thirst for travel was satiated to some extent by my two weeks in the north-east. I enjoyed it very much, and treated it as I would any other journey – with excitement and wonder at exploring the wonderful world out there.
So on a mid-august morning, backpack packed and ready, I took a taxi to East Croydon station, and a Thameslink service through London to King’s
Cross, to begin my summer travels 2020.
It actually began with something I’ve wanted to do for a few years now, but since there has always been a queue, I hadn’t been able to do it. London’s King’s Cross station is famous for many things, but more recently it is the location of Platform 9¾ from the Harry Potter series. There is actually no Platform 9¾, which I’m sure is rather obvious, but there is a very cool tourist picture spot with the platform sign and half a Hogwarts-loaded station trolley passing through the wall next to it. Every time I had passed through the station, usually on my way up north to Sheffield, there were hordes of tourists there, queuing up to take their picture. On this occasion there was nobody!! I guess the current times are good to some extent, as we really don’t have many international tourists at all in this country and thus popular places like these are a joy to visit, and so I posed for a photo while a passer-by took it for me. A great start to my journey 😊
From a whole-number platform I boarded my LNER (London North-East Railway)
From Observatory Hill
train heading northwards to Newcastle, and actually on to Edinburgh, Scotland. This journey I was staying firmly within the English borders though, taking no risks of being anywhere outside my country when borders could be closed at any moment (there was indeed a time during lockdown when we couldn’t even visit other nations of the United Kingdom…). I had actually been planning such a journey, along with a similar-length journey to Cornwall and Devon, for quite some time now. Given that most British people chose a staycation this summer, I imagined the latter would be heaving, so what better antidote to urban density and tourist mayhem than to head to the far north-east of England. It was wonderful.
I first spent five nights in Newcastle, giving me four full days of exploration there in total. I plan to write about my first two day trips in this entry, continuing in my next one with the second two. Newcastle-upon-Tyne itself is actually quite a small city of only 280,000 inhabitants, but combined with its neighbouring towns and cities, the metropolitan area itself, often called Tyne and Wear, actually has a population of just over one million. Despite its size, and
importance, I had never been there, and was very excited to explore somewhere new.
I stepped off the train, and immediately transferred to the city’s cute little Metro system underground. Yes, Newcastle, like London, actually has its own metro system, and is one of four UK cities in total to have one – the others are of course London, but also Glasgow and Liverpool. Unlike London’s massive 11-line and 270-station tube system, Newcastle’s Metro has only two lines and 60 stations. It felt so cute getting on it, and I very much enjoyed my three-mile journey northwards from Central Station to Regent Centre. From there it was a hop on a bus three miles further north to a place called Wideopen (pronounced “Wide Open”, as one would imagine), where I had booked myself in for five nights in a lovely BnB. Actually, it was more like the spare bedroom in the house of a lovely Newcastle lady called Maria, with self-service cereal and toast in the morning, but it hit the spot – a lovely, quiet place deep in the heart of suburban Newcastle.
For my first day, I just wanted to get a feel for the local
Platform 9¾, King's Cross Station, London
area, and a quick scan on Google Maps showed me that the Weetslade Country Park was a short walk away – lovely! I unpacked, packed my day bag, and set off to explore.
The path to Weetslade actually followed the line of a former railway. I later discovered that pretty much the whole of Tyne and Wear is criss-crossed by such former railway lines, called Waggonways, which were traversed not by steam engines in the 19th
century, but rather horse-pulled carriages. These would take the mined coal, of which the region was famous for, from its source to the Tyne River, whence it would be shipped all over the world. Nowadays the Waggonways have been converted to walking and cycling paths, and seemed very popular ways of exercising and getting around for the locals. Along this particular Waggonway, the Seaton Burn Waggonway, were dotted information signs from which I learned about the former coal-mining days of the region. Life seemed tough, and of particular note were skirmishes that the local coal miners had had with “immigrants” – I later learned that “immigrants” referred to workers which had arrived there from Yorkshire and Wales. Gosh, times were certainly different in
Train to Newcastle
King's Cross Station, London
those days. The walk took me straight to the Weetslade Country Park, a local wildlife reserve created on a former colliery, coal-mining, site, home to a great variety of birdlife including swifts, swallows and skylarks. Along with a number of birds, I’m not sure which if I’m honest, I glimpsed a rabbit or two here and there. My walk took me to the top of a hill in the middle of the Park, topped by three sculptures representing drill heads which were used in the area’s coalmining days, enigmatically scripted with words relating to the past, present and future. There were also lovely little reedbeds and ponds, and a dramatically purple area in the distance which I thought was a lavender field, but upon arrival saw that it was a completely different flower, also not sure which. Perhaps I should study up on my English nature spotting!
It was a lovely walk which took me into the evening, and a great introduction to the north-east, as I felt the coal-mining spirit of the past, interspersed with the beauty of English nature. Images of numerous Catherine Cookson television series flickered through my mind, as I imagined what life must have
been like for the coalminers of the day, and I loved listening to the local Geordie accent from any passer-by who was using it. The walk gave me that wonderful feeling that I get when I travel, of exploring new lands, immersing myself in new geographies, and learning about varied histories. Although rather different this year, I was once more on the road again! 😊
After a lovely microwave meal, courtesy of the local Co-Op not far from Maria’s place, I settled in for my first, and very good, night’s sleep of my journey.
The next morning, after a breakfast of cereal and toast, I was excited to explore the cityscapes of Tyne and Wear itself. I had initially planned a journey to simply take in three sites of interest, but in the end I ended up doing a whole whistle-stop tour of Geordie-land instead! It was great!
I first caught two buses – one to Newcastle’s centre, and then another which headed over the Tyne River marking the city’s southern border, and into its sister-city on the south side of the river, Gateshead. Gateshead is famous for its “MetroCentre”, the UK’s second largest shopping centre after
London’s Westfield in Shepherds Bush. I was not heading there, but on to the city’s other famous attraction, the really quite iconic “Angel of the North” statue.
The Angel of the North stands on a hilltop, again a former colliery site, and was built in 1998 to both bear testament to the region’s coalmining history, but also to put the area, and more widely the north of England, firmly on the map. Whilst I remember criticism of the unusual sculpture when it was first built, it is really now quite famous in England, and despite the lack of tourists in Newcastle itself, was actually really popular during my time there with visitors. I imagine many had made a stop-off there on their journey between England and Scotland, and vice versa, as the place is just off the A1 road which connects the two, and everyone seemed to be spending a few minutes there after getting out of their cars in a nearby car park. As far as I could see, I was the only bus traveller arriving there.
The visitors were excited, as was I. It felt really quite special to be in such a famous place in
the country, and although I myself am from Yorkshire, not this particular part of the north, I felt a great sense of pride being a northerner there. There is the common catchphrase in this country “it’s grim up north”, but I completely disagree, and every time I go back to the north of England, I am reminded of how wonderful the people there are, and how stunning the landscape is.
For me the Angel of the North instilled a sense of pride of being northern, and was also just a beautiful, simple, rugged statue to contemplate. It is apparently Britain’s largest sculpture, at 54 metres high and 20 metres wide, and also the largest angel sculpture in the world.
Suitably filled with tourist excitement, I continued my tour of Tyne and Wear.
Next up was a bus trip further south to the rather non-descript town of Chester-le-Street (not pronounced with any kind of French accent, but rather “Chesterley Street”), for a change of bus onto my next destination of Sunderland. On the bus to Chester-le-Street, I got rather excited reading about the town’s Roman origins, when it was first built as a fort called Concangis in the
first century AD. Having arrived though, I was rather disappointed with the small collection of bricks called the Roman Fort’s Officers’ Quarters, decorated gracefully with empty beer cans and a dead pigeon, and the fact that the local St Mary and St Cuthbert’s Church, which once housed the remains of St Cuthbert himself, of Holy Island fame (more on that in my next blog), on its way to Durham Cathedral, was closed. Added to this, which actually became a perpetual problem on this journey, the town’s public toilets were closed due to the current situation. Fortunately I found a Morrison’s supermarket with a toilet, before my next bus took me eastwards to my next destination, Sunderland!
Sunderland! Being so close on this trip, I just had to go there. My only interest of note in visiting the city was to put a place to a name from my Panini football-sticker collecting days way back in the eighties. Sunderland was to me more of a football team than a city, as I also came to learn when I Googled it to find places of interest – you have to scroll down quite a bit to find anything to do with
Towards Regent Centre
the city rather than the football club. This kind of tells you what to expect when you arrive there, which is pretty much a huge football stadium, but there was another site of interest which really stood out for me, a rather undiscovered hidden gem I thought.
Whilst Newcastle is nationally famous for its stunning Tyne Bridge, Sunderland has to my mind an equally stunning Wearmouth Bridge. I learnt during my visit, despite it being rather obvious now, that the English county of Tyne and Wear, took its name from the two main rivers running from west to east through the region: the Tyne and the Wear (!) That is, the northerly River Tyne, passing between Newcastle and Gateshead, and the pretty much parallel southerly River Wear, passing through Sunderland. While the Tyne Bridge and Newcastle seem to get all the glory, little brother Sunderland, actually the ninth biggest city in England after Newcastle, and its related Wearmouth Bridge, seem to be undeservedly forgotten. I found the bridge stunning, beautiful, and a really great spot from which to look down on the River Wear below, as it approaches the end of its journey towards the North Sea, through the
urban grit and decay of Sunderland. On the other side of the bridge from the city centre, in quite a domineering position, stands the Stadium of Light, home to the afore-mentioned Sunderland Football Club.
After pausing for a few photos, I boarded my next bus, heading further north and back to the banks of the River Tyne again, this time as it empties itself out also into the North Sea, to the popular Geordie seaside resort of South Shields.
I really can’t remember why I know or have heard of South Shields, but I have, and I was excited also about visiting this place. Whilst the day was cloudy and fairly cool, with intermittent showers of rain, the seaside resort was still really popular with local tourists, and I imagine in its heyday was really quite the place to be for the well-to-do, and perhaps also the not-so-well-to-do, Geordie. I walked through its pleasure park, dying to go on the rides, but unfortunately the feeling of being a bit of a wally going on a ride all on my own detracted me from buying any tickets this time (although it hasn’t always done so in the past). I
walked along the southern bank of the River Tyne, and the North Sea coast, past fishermen and paddling locals, towards my next mode of transport. This was really turning out to be a busy day!
Next up was a local ferry service, taking travellers from South Shields to North Shields, across the mouth of the River Tyne. It was a lovely little boat ride, although North Shields wasn’t quite so attractive as South Shields. It felt dodgy, with a number of dodgy-looking locals and an atmosphere of drug abuse, as I headed from the North Shields ferry pier to the Metro station in town. The Metro was to take me on to my last port-of-call for the day, Newcastle itself – yay!
On the way to Newcastle from North Shields, the Metro goes through a station called “Byker”, and I just had to take a photo of it. Anybody who grew up in England during the eighties and nineties would most likely know why I took this photo. Anyone who’s heard of “Ant and Dec”, may also know this. For the popular children’s TV programme from my childhood, “Byker Grove” (pronounced without saying the “k”, so something like
“Bai-er Grorve” in the local Geordie accent), was set here! It was wonderful to be there!! Ant and Dec are a current, British TV presenter-duo, famous for presenting “Britain’s Got Talent” and “I’m a Celebrity Get me out of Here”, but actually found their fame in 1989 as “PJ and Duncan”, in the series. Flooded with childhood memories, I felt glee as we travelled through Byker, I’m sure I’m not the only person who has thought that there.
I got off at the next stop after Byker, called “Manors”, and ended up walking for ages in circles, up stairs, across bridges, as the route to the River Tyne back in Newcastle really wasn’t clear in this concrete jungle of an area. Eventually, after passing by an abandoned army hospital, a collapsing pub and empty student halls of residence, I ended up on the famous shores of the River Tyne. What a wonderful way to end my day around Tyne and Wear.
I took in the famous Tyne Bridge, the structure which Newcastle is most famous for, built in 1928, and the more recently famous Millennium Bridge, built in 2001. Crossing the latter for awesome views of the former,
Drill Head Sculpture
Weetslade Country Park, Newcastle
I visited the city’s famous Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, founded in 2002 on the south bank of the River Tyne, and housed in a vast converted flour mill. I joyfully found it to be one of the very few places on my north-east England journey that you could visit without pre-booking, due to the current situation, and enjoyed very much its current exhibition on the Colombian Amazon, reminiscing back to my travels the year before in the Peruvian Amazon. From here, I headed back across the Tyne, this time across the Tyne Bridge, for a quick walk around Newcastle’s old city centre, home to the thing which gives the city its name, its castle, aptly called “Newcastle Castle”! (I found this quite funny, along with visiting Glaisdale Dale and Scarborough Borough later in my journey).
By this time, dusk was approaching, and being a Saturday evening, the level of people noise in the centre of Newcastle was growing. Newcastle, along with most other English cities, notoriously becomes in the evening a city of drunken louts and hen parties, with people wearing only t-shirts and mini-skirts even in the middle of winter. I was happy to be boarding my
Drill Head Sculpture
Weetslade Country Park, Newcastle
final bus for the day, the six mile journey northwards to the calm suburb of Wideopen, looking forward to another microwave meal and a cosy bed again for the night, after a really wonderful first day of exploring Tyne and Wear.
On my second day, I decided to explore the nearby city of Durham. This involved another bus ride to Newcastle centre, and a bus ride out again, through Gateshead to the south and past the Angel of the North once more, and into nearby County Durham.
Durham is quite a famous university town in England, similar to Oxford and Cambridge, although not quite so well-known. It was founded in 1832, and was actually the first university to open in England for more than 600 years, after Oxford and Cambridge. Despite its comparative newness to the two old boys, it is actually England’s third-oldest university, and has the same collegiate structure as its two predecessors. Along with Newcastle, I had also never been to Durham before, and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. It is a delightful little city, perched spectacularly on the inner bank of a large meander of the River Wear, which circles around three-quarters of the
city centre. The river bend here is lined by delightful woodland walks on both banks, while the city centre topped off by its imposing cathedral rises high above the waterway.
After disembarking my bus from Newcastle, having passed through the wonderfully-named village of "Pity Me", I walked over the nearby 15th
century Framwellgate Bridge, crossing high above the River Wear. I had no real idea of what Durham was like before my visit, but a walk across the bridge really took my breath away as the view southwards stretched along the river, flowing through delightful woodland, with the spectacular Durham Cathedral rising majestically above the left bank. From here, my walk took me through the cute little streets of the city centre, lined with quaint and quirky little shops, and up high to an expansive grassy square surrounded by university buildings, Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral. Unfortunately the Norman Durham Castle, belonging to the university, was closed at the time, but the Romanesque Durham Cathedral was set to open any minute. I joined the queue, and enjoyed a lovely walk around the interior of this really quite beautiful building.
Durham Cathedral was built in the 11th
the home to the tomb holding the remains of St Cuthbert, of Holy Island fame, which I plan to write about in my next entry, and has been called by Bill Bryson, one of my favourite authors and actually recent chancellor of the university, the most beautiful cathedral in England. In his book, “Notes from a Small Island”, Bryson states “So let me say it now: if you have never been to Durham, go at once. Take my car. It’s wonderful”. It was indeed wonderful, and the cathedral was beautiful. I admired in particular its dark stones, compared with the light stone colour with which many English cathedrals are built. I thought it gave the building a feeling of starkness and sincerity, a perfect place to feel welcome yet also in awe of the splendour of God. Unfortunately, due to the current situation, the tomb of St Cuthbert was off-limits, but I was able to visit the tomb of a similarly famous English saint, St Bede the Venerable, acclaimed for being “The Father of English History” for having written his famous “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”.
After my visit, I walked southwards and crossed the River Wear once
more, this time along the 18th
century Prebends Bridge, and up to a viewpoint on top of nearby Observatory Hill, for spectacular views back down towards Durham city centre and its cathedral, and the lovely countryside around. I then walked back into town again, through nearby St Mary’s College of Durham University, completely empty like a ghost town, due to English universities at the time being closed due to the situation. I finally planned a lovely walk along the delightful wooded river banks of the Wear, firstly around the outer, right bank, and then back again along the inner, left bank. This topped off my time in this wonderful little city of Durham, spectacular and unsung, and I would completely agree with Bryson that if you haven’t been there, you must – I’m afraid you can’t take my car though, as I don’t have one…!
After a return bus ride back to Newcastle, I felt there were still a few things I wanted to see and do there. Firstly, I walked through the city’s small Chinatown area and onto the mighty St James’ Park football stadium, commanding really quite a dominating position across the city centre. Along with Sunderland,
Newcastle is also famous for its football team, Newcastle United, and this stadium is home to the “Magpies”, as they are nicknamed due to their black and white striped kit. Then, since I really quite liked the city’s cute little Metro system, I thought I’d return back to my BnB in Wideopen via an unconventional route. This would take me all around the Metro circular part of the system, eastwards to the coast around Whitley Bay, and then back westwards to South Gosforth. Finally, after having noticed an ubiquitous amount of the fantastic Greggs bakery throughout the city and around, and learning that Greggs is actually a Newcastle company, with its first shop founded in 1951 in the northern Newcastle suburb of Gosforth, I thought a quick visit to and photo of its current Greggs shop there might help me to further appreciate the fantastic delights of this wonderful British bakery institution. Shortly after my visit to perhaps the country’s first Greggs branch in Gosforth, I caught my final bus again northwards to Wideopen, my lovely BnB, another microwave meal, and my cosy bed for the night.
My trip had begun really well I felt. Although not quite so
exotic as previous journeys, I was once more exploring new places, that despite their proximity to where I live, I still hadn’t been to. Newcastle, Tyne and Wear and Durham had made superb first impressions on me at the beginning of my summer journey 2020, and I was very much looking forward to what the following days had in store.
More on that in my next one 😊
So, thank you for reading, and all the best for now 😊
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