While on holiday in Yorkshire last month, my friends and I decided to go up to Newcastle for the day. I didn’t know much about the city, except that it was at the heart of the industrial revolution in Britain and that it’s where Dire Straits singer Mark Knopfler is from. In fact, while making my way to Yorkshire from Wales – where I started out, visiting friends – I found myself on a whistle-stop tour through the north of England, passing through Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds before ending up in York. My impression of these cities was all too brief: driving through Birmingham, which was heavily bombed during the war, left me with the impression of a hodgepodge of soot-stained red brick buildings with garish postwar structures planted here and there. Newcastle, however, surprised me: I had expected more of the same. But the moment we passed that magnificent sculpture on the motorway, the Angel of the North, which personifies better than anything the north’s industrial charm, and drove into the city with a view of Newcastle’s seven bridges curving over the river Tyne, I knew we were in for something different.
The contrast with York, where we had stayed before, couldn’t have been bigger. Where York was boldly, almost brashly proud of its heritage, presenting its medieval city walls, Roman remains, ghostly residents and awe-inspiring Minster with suitable swagger, Newcastle seemed a lot more down-to-earth. Here we saw fewer tourists and a much more diverse and colourful population pounding the pavements. I was especially surprised at how much high rise there was in the city; as it runs down the hill towards the river Tyne, you find yourself surrounded by tall Georgian buildings, and the closer you get to the river, enormous metal structures of the bridges rise up between the elegantly carved window-decorations and sober brown stone buildings. It’s as if a nineteenth-century illustrator thought of a futuristic city full of towering structures where the main traffic takes place above the ground; the classic view of the future in movies (The Fifth Element comes to mind). Indeed, looking down from those bridges the people in the streets must look like ants, and from the ground level, it’s difficult to see what is happening up there. Pigeons and seabirds constitute the heaviest traffic; gulls, making no distinction between rocky cliffs and the smooth concrete of this urban jungle, circle about close to the river, triumphantly leaving white graffiti behind.
The incongruity of the modern and the industrial – heavy steel, bolts, beams – and the lovely, even elegant architecture in Newcaste’s city centre make for a beautiful dynamic, and indeed has inspired many an artist. We visited the Laing gallery, which had a wonderful exhibition on the work of Quentin Blake, as well as a permanent collection featuring paintings of Newcastle, its rise as an industrial hub, and its inhabitants through the ages. After taking out time strolling through the museum, we sat down for a savoury pie and a high tea before going for a stroll along the quayside to see the bridges. I’m already looking forward to returning to Newcastle and revisiting the north of England in general – walking the path along Hadrian’s Wall (which runs through Newcastle) is high on my bucket list!