diamond geezer

 Wednesday, June 21, 2017

TYNESIDE - Postcards from Newcastle

✉ Grey Street

Back in 2002, listeners to Radio 4's Today programme voted Grey Street the finest street in Britain. Newcastle's marketing department has been living off that claim ever since. Pevsner and Betjeman rated it extremely highly too, so there's clearly something to the claim, as is clear when you first glimpse the "descending subtle curve" of four-storey Georgian buildings. At the top of the road is Grey's Monument, erected to commemorate the Reform Act of 1832 which reached the statute books during the premiership of Earl Grey, local tea guru extraordinaire. Around his feet swirl shoppers and students, plus those emerging from the Metro interchange located underneath, while further down the street are the domed Central Exchange and the pedimented Theatre Royal. The broad sweep and gentle slope are no accident - a stream once ran this way, continuing down the line of Dean Street to...

✉ Side

What a great name for a street. Known locally since medieval times as 'the Side' (because it ran down the side of the hill beneath the castle), the street signs nevertheless call it simply 'Side'. My favourite sign has a '1' added in the corner to denote the postal district, the resulting image surely perfect for the label on an old long player. Side's former inns and shops are now more generally pubs and restaurants, part of the entertainment zone spilling along the historic Quayside, and lie in the shadow of a railway viaduct arching high overhead. And yes, Side is indeed thought to be the shortest street name in the country (tied with Hide in Beckton and Ross in County Durham), unless of course you know different.

✉ Newcastle Civic Centre

"Don't say you actually like that building," said BestMate, as I diverted across the gardens to try to get a better shot. Newcastle city council's HQ is very '60s, from the copper-roofed drum to the line of nine jagged flambeaux out front and the monolithic blocks arrayed behind. I almost persuaded him that the ring of heraldic sea horses round the bell tower was endearing, but as for the idea that this might be one of the finest modernist buildings of the 20th century, we agreed to differ.

✉ The Vampire Rabbit

Round the back of St Nicholas', not on the cathedral itself but on a facing building, is an ornate doorway topped by a vampire rabbit. That at least is its local nickname, nobody's completely sure why the crazed beast was carved here, despite much historical research. It might be to scare off graverobbers, it might be masonic, it might be 'a hare that went wrong', or it might only look demonic since someone painted it black, but it's pretty marvellous all the same.

✉ The Hoppings

Once a year, for reasons entirely disconnected to rabbits, The Hoppings comes to town. That's Europe's biggest funfair, a 135-year-old tradition, which turns up on Newcastle Town Moor for a week in June and wows the local population. The Hoppings stretches half a mile along the edge of the common, packed out with rides and stalls and tents and innumerable whirling seats. At the southern end is a village of gypsy caravans, most of which purport to belong to relatives of the original Gipsy Rosa Lee, while at the northern end the army set up a Military Show in an attempt to entice rudderless athletic souls into joining up. The central track is packed with plodding parents, thrill-seekers, kids downing brightly coloured sweets, teens and pre-teens running amok, and more than the usual number of neck tattoos. I risked a ride on the Wild Mouse, then partway round wished I hadn't, and stumbling off cheered that I had. Runs until Saturday, if you're in the area.

✉ Ouseburn Valley

Along the eastern edge of the city a small river has carved a deep valley, and it's here that Newcastle's earliest industries kicked off. The tidal creek still has a somewhat downbeat vibe, although several derelict buildings along the banks have been requisitioned and renovated to create new creative spaces, including the Biscuit Factory, the Toffee Factory and the Mushroom Works. Britain's National Centre for Children's Books is located here, with a magical steamboat moored out back, plus a city farm crammed into the next meander upstream. Three lofty viaducts carry road, rail and Metro high above this most unusual scene, which both bafflingly and brilliantly survives.

✉ Sniffer Dog

Where the Ouseburn enters the Tyne is a bike-hire-repair-shop-cafe called The Cycle Hub where we decided to stop for lunch. On the way in we spotted several police officers and their vehicles, plus a dog walking back and fro beside a car in the car park, and presumed they'd decided to stop for lunch too. Sat outside with our toasted sandwiches we could see the dog still walking back and fro beside the car... and then a policeman sealing off the exit to the car park with tape. Eventually he wandered over and asked us to take our food inside, calmly and quietly please, and not to leave the cafe! This proved an excellent excuse to order another chunk of the finest, thickest caramel slice either of us had ever tasted, as bike hub business carried on as normal, until we were finally able to escape round the backway through the boatyard. Obviously nothing whatsoever was really amiss, but 'you can't be too careful', and the car's owner returned two hours later unaware of all the commotion her odorous vehicle had caused.

✉ Byker

To Britons of a certain age, the Newcastle suburb of Byker will always be synonymous with a certain children's TV programme. The reality, however, is somewhat different... and not just because 'The Grove' was actually in Benwell, five miles to the west. The Byker Estate is architecturally renowned, built between 1969 and 1982 to house around ten thousand people in peculiarly geometric boxes. The most famous of these is the Byker Wall, an unbroken block of 620 maisonettes designed to shield noise from a motorway that was never built. But behind its multi-coloured facade is a warren of lower-rise homes, again peculiarly branded with bright-hued panelling, intermingled with large public gardens and car-free byways. The local kids are just as vivacious as on the TV, I can confirm, in this startlingly unusual place to live.

✉ Saturday night on the Toon

Friday nights in Newcastle are quite busy, but Saturday is the true Geordie Saturnalia. Groups of revellers replace the daytime drinkers, generally single sex, be they hen parties processing along the pavement in chunky heels or bunches of lads dropped off by a parent and spilling expectantly onto the street. An entire quarter of town appears devoted to insobriety, with a brigade of bouncers at every door to mitigate whatever might kick off later. Parties jockey, jostle and coalesce as the night draws on, mothers of the bride take to the dancefloor with handbags raised, and tanked-up students sing along to 80s anthems released long before they were born. By 2am the overwhelmed slump shattered in doorways, relationships have been made, or broken, and lines of taxis are mopping up the afflicted. Up on the Tyne Bridge the pavements are empty, dawn is already breaking as a glow in the northern sky, and I had a great night, thanks.

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