Gateshead (pop 120,000) sprawls across the south bank of the River Tyne immediately opposite Newcastle (pop 290,000) on the north. The logic of two separate conurbations with centres less than a mile apart seems somewhat odd today, especially with so many bridges to link them, but these easy connections weren't originally present. Instead the Tyne marked a firm historical delineation between Northumberland (to the north) and Durham (to the south), so each city grew up administratively separate. A spirit of cooperation rather than antagonism now exists between the two... although if Newcastle has the best of the old stuff, then Gateshead probably has the best of the new.
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
Almost the only old building to survive on the Gateshead bank of the river is the BALTIC, a former flour mill built by Rank Hovis in the 1930s, now poshed up and refitted as an art gallery. Lifts and a metal spiral staircase have been fitted at one end, the latter with a mirror top and bottom to induce infinite dizziness, plus a glass box viewing platform on the fifth floor and a restaurant on the sixth. One of the exhibitions is being changed over at the moment so I had to make do with the other two, each in a single room on a single floor, and each of which made me think "hang on, is that it?". As a Londoner it's easy to be spoilt for art, and easy to forget that most landmark provincial galleries get to thrive on quality rather than quantity. Whatever, after barely five minutes I was in the lift and off up to enjoy the view instead.
It is a great view, mainly of the the river and the Millennium Bridge, full-on, and Newcastle rising behind. On the Gateshead side less so, bar the amazing silver confection bubbling on the grassy plateau above the car park. Indeed it was the enormous car park that most surprised me, again from a Londoner's point of view wondering how so large an area of prime real estate could be left undeveloped. The council have tried - here's a glossy website seeking a funded partner for this "ready to go landmark site with a million possibilities" - but that was two years ago and still the only possibility is parking your car.
The amazing silverconfection is Sage Gateshead, in part a concert venue, in part a music school. Essentially it's three separate performance spaces - one huge, one middling and one for rehearsals - enclosed in a jellybaby-like glass and steel shell. Foster and Partners did the architecture, local software group Sage stumped up a lot of cash to be the chief patron, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia call it home.
Getting inside is a bit of an issue at the moment, with the doors at one end exit only because there isn't the money to fund staff to operate a bag search at both. The interior is a public space which doubles up as cafe, 'place to get your laptop out and work' and viewing platform. There's also a really good shop stocked with classy cultural Tyneside artefacts, even a rack of ukuleles and all the sheet music needed to become an expert. You can't always climb the staircases during the day, but signs hint at beginners' recorder lessons and folk workshops taking place somewhere within.
Gateshead Town Centre
Uphill, behind a shield of railway and dual carriageway, central Gateshead is, dare I say, nothing special. The Old Town Hall looks splendid but is empty, and is the subject of another major council regeneration tender (get your bids in by one o'clock on Monday). Above that, until a few years ago, was the iconic brutalist multi-storey car park heavily featured in the Michael Caine film Get Carter. This concrete prominence has alas been demolished to create something more useful if not as memorable - the Trinity Square development. At its base is one of the country's largest Tesco's, on top is a loaf-like layer of student accommodation, and a metal ring has been plonked in the central piazza masquerading as art. I bought some crisps and a bottle of milk, but I'd rather have climbed the car park.
One reason central Gateshead's shopping offer is somewhat downbeat is the presence of Europe's largest shopping centre three miles upriver. Ten years ago they replaced the indoor funfair with a Pizza Express. I chose not to go.
Angel of the North
Likewise I didn't make it to the foot of Gateshead's iron-winged angel, although the number 21 bus does stop regularly close by, and at least I saw it from the train.