A Walk Through Newcastle’s History

I’ve been visiting Newcastle since I was young. It’s the closest city to my hometown of Middlesbrough, and though the place isn’t huge (I quickly realised this when I started spending summers with family in London), it’s fairly cosmopolitan compared to Middlesbrough. In a sort of parallel universe, I even live in Newcastle. I spent the first year of university avoiding further questions about where I’m from by simply saying, ‘a place near Newcastle’, a consequence of which being that everyone I met suddenly thought I was a Geordie.

Due to its convenient location just out of the way of Middlesbrough, but close enough to travel back within an hour, it was popular choice for school acquaintances when it came to deciding on a university. Now, they flaunt the fact that the city is perfect for students—it has all the conveniences of a big city without the hefty prices. However, I’d never experienced this for myself, and after moving to London for university, barely set foot in the northern reaches of England on the banks of the Tyne.

The point being: I have only experienced Newcastle as a child, the city as an interesting day trip, a place with enough things to distract a 10-year-old, and not as a legitimate place to live. I decided it was time enough I went back and found out if the city was actually as interesting as stated.

My first stop wasn’t Newcastle, technically, but Gateshead. I always thought it was fun that the river Tyne provided the border between these two cities, Newcastle to the north and Gateshead to the south. It used to make the place seem more exotic—standing on a bridge over the river made it seem like you were in the middle of two countries, as if you had one foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the southern. In Middlesbrough, the river Tees just seems to separate industrial sites from more industrial sites; in London, the Thames expands the city, making it seem even bigger than it already is. The border-like quality of the Tyne is something I like about Newcastle.

Looking north from Gateshead over the river, there’s an interesting view of the skyline of Newcastle, taking in the tips of the many bridges that cross the Tyne (I count six on a map of Newcastle), and the spires of churches that I didn’t even know were there. From Gateshead, it’s down, down, towards the river, and—a surprise to me—the site of an ancient Roman bridge. Pons Aelius, a little placard told me, would have crossed the river where the quaint, little Swing Bridge now sits, and was built in the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian. It’s a shame that, compared with his infamous wall, parts of which survive in the Northumberland wilderness, none of this bridge still exists. Regardless, it’s a reminder that Newcastle has its ancient history as much the cities in the south of the England, to which I think I’ve been biased.

From this side of the river, something else stands out above all else—Newcastle’s eponymous castle. I have a penchant for castles, seeking them out in the towns and cities I visit, but it didn’t occur to me until a few years ago that Newcastle might have one of its own. The castle keep still visible dates from the reign of King Henry II, who ordered a stone castle replace the timber frame built in the period of William the Conqueror. While other castles around the country still stand prominently in their town centres (I’m thinking of the imposing Yorkshire castles like Richmond and Bolton), Newcastle’s keep is largely lost in the cityscape that built up around it—now the High Level Bridge almost cuts it out of the skyline entirely. From this side of the river, though, it once again takes pride of place in the city, the sun just picking it out of the jumble of stone buildings surrounding it.

Crossing the river on the Swing Bridge—also of historical note as a Grade II listed structure opened in 1876—I headed up into town by way of Side, a unbecoming street now, but one that dates back to medieval times. From here, it’s a straight line (and a steep climb) up to Grey’s Street, a recognisable street in Newcastle for its Victorian buildings, and culminating in Grey’s Monument, a commemoration of Lord Earl Grey, a north-eastern native and later Prime Minister. Today, as with most days I suspect, the monument is crowded with people taking a breather from shopping; students out for lunch; locals out for an hour.

Just opposite Grey’s Monument is the Central Arcade, a pretty Edwardian shopping arcade. I love places like this—they evoke a wealthy past oftentimes hidden by the modern city. Decorated with burnt-orange tiles, it’s an onslaught of colour, an experience akin to stepping back into my nan’s living room, with its psychedelic orange-patterned carpet. It’s also something I’m used to finding in larger cities like London, not in Newcastle.

Central Arcade leads onto Grainger Street, and consequently, Grainger Market, the end point of my walk. I’d been told that you could find some of the best Indian street food in Newcastle inside this aged market, amongst other curiosities. Grainger Market itself is a mish-mash of stalls stretching as far as the eye can see—it’s the kind of place where you’ll find a record store next to an authentic Italian deli, where elderly men can browse vinyl while eating pizza.

The Indian cafe is tucked away in a corner of the market hall, and so small that you’re practically eating in the kitchen. It’s the same with most of these stalls, which gives it a community atmosphere—stall owners will converse with each other, eat lunch together, chat with the locals like they’re old friends. I sat with my lunch (I highly recommend Snackwallah by the way—top Indian food at Tesco meal deal prices) and reflected on why I’d never given Newcastle the time of day. When you have all the conveniences London offers, I think it’s easy to assume that other cities can’t compare. I resolved to return to Newcastle for another wander soon.

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