Sunday 4 December 2016

Newcastle: A totally belter city break on terrific Tyneside

Short breaks in the UK

Gemma Fullam

Published 15/02/2016 | 02:30

Fun on the Tyne: The Tyne has seven bridges in a mile-long stretch. The white bridge to the foreground is the tilting Millennium Bridge; the Tyne bridge, in situ since 1928, is behind it.
Fun on the Tyne: The Tyne has seven bridges in a mile-long stretch. The white bridge to the foreground is the tilting Millennium Bridge; the Tyne bridge, in situ since 1928, is behind it.
Trainspotting: Gemma admiring the view from the parapet of Newcastle Castle
Sage Gateshead
Tyneside Cinema
Baltic

Gemma Fullam travels to Tyneside to see how the preparations are going for the outdoor spectacular, Kynren.

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Starter for 10, trivia fans: which streetscape was voted best in the UK in 2010 by BBC Radio 4 listeners?

The Royal Crescent in Bath, I hear you say? Or possibly The Mall in Westminster? A thoroughfare amid the dreaming spires of Oxford, perhaps?

Nope. Time's up! It was, in fact, Grey Street (named after Earl Grey, of bergamot-scented tea fame) in Newcastle upon Tyne; home of the Geordie, the lovely Cheryl and cheeky chappies Ant and Dec.

They used to say "It's grim up north" but truth be told, it's not. It's gorgeous. Newcastle is an elegant, cultured city, that is, as I discovered, full of surprises, the peerless Grey Street being just one of them.

But more of that anon. I was in the area as I'd been invited to Bishop Auckland, a small town some miles south of Newcastle, to see, first-hand, preparations for Kynren, an outdoor spectacle on a massive scale, which is due to premiere on July 2. The historical epic, which will be set on a seven-and-a-half-acre open-air stage, has a cast of 1,000 volunteers, features 34 world-class horses of various breeds, including Lusitanos, Kladrubers and Percherons, an original score and choreography, and tells the history of Britain from Roman times to the present day.

Baltic
Baltic

Kynren - the title comes from the Anglo-Saxon word cynren, meaning 'generation, kindred, family' - has been inspired by Puy du Fou, a theme park in the Vendee region of France, founded almost 40 years ago, which has similarly spectacular night-time shows.

The backstory to the genesis of Kynren is an extraordinary one of accident and fate, good deeds and generosity, history and community. It begins in Bishop Auckland, specifically Auckland Castle, over 250 years ago, when Richard Trevor, the then prince-bishop of the region, purchased 12 paintings by 'the Spanish Caravaggio', Francisco de Zurbaran.

The artworks depict Jacob and his sons and Bishop Trevor hung them in the castle's Long Dining Room. (Jacob, you might recall, had 12 sons and there are 13 paintings in all; however, Bishop Trevor was outbid for Benjamin at the auction, so he commissioned Arthur Pond to paint a copy.)

This was a profoundly symbolic gesture by the bishop in support of the British Jewish community, as the Jewish Naturalisation Act had passed through Parliament in 1753, only to be repealed the following year. The paintings, which have hung in the same spot since the 18th Century, were due to be sold off by the church commissioners to pay for the ongoing upkeep of Auckland Castle, when Jonathan Ruffer, a City of London investor and art collector, who was born 30 miles from Bishop Auckland, recently bought the paintings, the castle and its 800-acre estate.

He has put the lot in a charitable trust for the people of the northeast, as he wants to give something back to the region, which has suffered decades of unemployment and deprivation.

The masterplan is to open, at Auckland Castle, an Institute of Spanish Art and Culture, which will house world-class Spanish art; also Faith, a museum exploring faith throughout history; to restore the 17th-century walled garden; build a new hotel in Bishop Auckland; and, not least, stage Kynren in the natural amphitheatre in Auckland Castle's grounds. Ruffer felt that three 'wows' were needed to draw people to the region; the castle and the Zurbarans are two; Kynren is the third.

And what a wow it is set to be. It is a night-time historical extravaganza, which will play to 8,000 spectators a night. Currently, the citizens of Bishop Auckland and beyond are busily preparing for the opening night. Members of Puy Du Fou are helping to get the project off the ground, but the vast majority of participants are volunteers.

The project's scale is mind-boggling. There is a stage to build; a lake to dig, complete with underwater catwalks; routines to be learned by horses and riders, including the very particular skill of riding postillion (riding one coach horse while guiding its mate); dance choreography to be mastered; combat skills to be learned; lighting and sound equipment to be operated; stables to be built and run; horses to be minded, as well as pigs, ducks and sheep.

A thousand locals - men, women and children - are willing to dedicate their time, energy and enthusiasm to putting a world-class show together.

As I walked from one rehearsal space to another, everyone was positive, enthusiastic and giving it their all; it was inspiring to experience. One of Kynren's tag lines is "The Story Of Us", as the show details 2,000 years of British history. But it is also the story of the region, which abounds with Roman sites (Kynren's production company, Eleven Arches, takes its name from the Roman viaduct that overlooks the stage site); was part of the industrial revolution; had countless men killed and wounded in both world wars; and has a long association with mining, which brought prosperity and, with the closure of the mines, deprivation. It's an epic project and set to be a mind-blowing show on the grandest of scales.

The people of Bishop Auckland are doing it for themselves and it's truly inspiring to witness such community spirit in action. Tickets are on sale now, see elevenarches.org.

After an overnight in the Jacobean splendour of Redworth Hall (thehotelcollection.co.uk), it was southward to Newcastle, where I met up with my other half. Our base was the handily located, tres chic Hotel Indigo (hotelindigonewcastle.com), which is a stone's throw from the main train station, city-centre sights and shopping, not to mention a section of Hadrian's Wall (a wall plaque marks the spot where it was built in 122AD), which once stretched for 80 Roman miles to Wallsend.

With our bags in our room, it was G&T time. Newcastle isn't short on stylish watering holes, but Pleased To Meet You (ptmy-newcastle.co.uk), a bar/restaurant with an industrial-style aesthetic, fitted the bill, as it boasted more gins than you could shake a stick at, ranging from bog-standard mother's ruin to Naval Gins, 'Old Tom' gins (19th Century recipes); genevers (Belgian gins) and lots in between.

After an aptly named Glorious Gin for me and a fizzy water for the teetotaller, it was time to head to the oldest dining room in the UK for a spot of dinner. Blackfriars, as the name suggests, was home to the Dominicans or Black Friars (so called because they wore black cloaks) who came to Newcastle in 1239. (Coincidentally, Kilkenny, where I'm from, is home to a Black Abbey, where the Dominicans, who are still in situ, set up shop in 1225.)

Blackfriars has a quaint, atmospheric, ye-olde-England interior and an eclectic menu that is big on locally sourced ingredients. After a delicious repast of Northumbrian ham terrine, North Sea fish and chips and spiced plum pie, we meandered through the cobbled streets of Old Newcastle (well, I waddled) back to our hotel for a blissful night's sleep.

Next morning, we were up early for a breakfast of boiled eggs and soldiers, washed down with several mugs of English tea, before meeting Les Heslop, a Blue Badge guide, for a tour of the city. Our walk brought us back around by Blackfriars and Chinatown, and past St James's Park, home to the city's football team, Newcastle United, aka The Magpies, so called because of their black-and-white livery. A stroll down the road and we were into the heart of the city.

I had to restrain myself at this point, as we passed designer-label heaven, aka Fenwick, one of the first department stores in Britain and still one of the finest. The Georgian Quarter of Grainger Town and the aforementioned Grey Street are also here; they slap you in the face with their gorgeousness when you round the corner and the stunning sandstone streetscape comes into view, with Earl Grey, a former prime minister, overlooking it all from his lofty pedestal on the Grey Monument.

The grade-one-listed Theatre Royal is also on Grey Street and has the finest theatre facade in Britain. It has played host to many famous thespians over the years, including Orson Welles, Jack Lemmon and Judi Dench and Les told us that Ben Hur star Charlton Heston, who was a grandson of a Tyneside miner, hid a time capsule in the theatre and it has never been found.

Our next pit-stop, as we wandered through the Victorian-tiled Grainger Market, the largest covered market in Europe, was the oldest pub in Newcastle, the 16th-century Old George Inn, which was, for a time, the local of King Charles when he was in an open prison nearby. (According to Les, Charles used to drop in after playing a game of golf.) His chair remains; if a man sits in it, it's said that something bad will happen to him, while the legend has it that any female plonking her posterior on its polished seat is likely to get pregnant.

Reader, I didn't risk it.

It was a short walk to Newcastle Castle, from which the city gets its name and time to say farewell to Les, who, before departing, pointed out Gateshead, across the river - once home to Daniel Defoe, who famously dubbed it a "dirty back lane leading to Newcastle". Much has changed, as Gateshead is now culture-central and home to the swanky Sage Gateshead and the imposing Tate Modern-esque Baltic contemporary art gallery.

Tummies were rumbling, but the promise of an unrivalled panorama of the city drew us up the steps of the Norman Newcastle Castle. Both beside and beneath the castle there is evidence of the Roman settlement, Pons Aelius, the first bridge to span the Tyne, which dates back to 122AD.

From the castle's parapet, we could see all seven of the Tyne's iconic bridges, which are in the space of a mile - Redheugh Bridge; King Edward VII Bridge; Queen Elizabeth II Metro Bridge; High Level Bridge; Swing Bridge; Tyne Bridge and the Millennium Bridge, which is the world's only tilting bridge. The top of the castle is also trainspotting heaven, should you be so inclined, as there is a perfect bird's-eye view of the comings and goings from nearby Central Station, one of the busiest in the UK.

After all that history, lunch was long overdue and we were in the mood for pizza. I'd never had a vegan pizza before - there's no cheese, in case you're wondering - but it was surprisingly delicious and considerably easier on the digestion than the regular sort. The Herb Garden, an Italian pizzeria, is a new addition to Tyneside's dining scene, and while the quirky interior (think spaceship) may not be to everyone's taste, the food is delish.

We headed back to the hotel by way of the Life Science Centre (it's a magical place for kids to have fun while learning all about science, but big kids are allowed, too), taking in the very cool Robot exhibition and the 25 Years of Hubble show in the impressive planetarium. Epic stuff. See life.org.uk.

Our final pitstop was the Lit & Phil, a massive library in yet another listed building. I'd been told it was a hidden gem of the city and that it is. It's hugely atmospheric, with thousands of books, LPs and CDs to browse (lots of jazz) and, best of all, entry is free. It's a book-lover's dream - with good coffee! - and we had to reluctantly drag ourselves away in the end, as we had a flight to catch.

Newcastle - it's my kinda toon, as the Geordies might say. Purely belter, man.

Getting there

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Trainspotting: Gemma admiring the view from the parapet of Newcastle Castle

KYNREN — an epic tale of England. Eleven Arches’ eagerly awaited £31m (€40m) open-air live-action night show opens on July 2.

Bringing to life 2,000 years of Britain’s history through the eyes of the northeast, from the Roman times to post-World War Two, Kynren will entertain up to 8,000 visitors per 90-minute show across a seven-acre stage.

Every aspect of this visually stunning show — performance, technical, stage management, costume, visitor welcome, landscaping and maintenance — will be delivered by over 1,000 professionally trained volunteers from the local community and wider region.

Taking inspiration from its artistic partner Puy du Fou, Eleven Arches is modelled on this night show in France, which has been seen by an international audience of 10 million in 37 years. Eleven Arches, a registered charity, is committed to creating tangible benefits at regional, community and individual level through its educational and social-development objectives.

Tickets are priced from £25-£55 (€32-€70) for adults and from £19-£41 for children. For ticket bookings and to view the trailer, see kynren.co.uk.

Stay at the nearby Redworth Hall Hotel - a 17th-Century manor house starting from £70/night/room. See thehotelcollection.co.uk;  tel: (0044) 01388 770-600.

Stay at Hotel Indigo Newcastle (hotelindigonewcastle.co.uk) and dine at Blackfriars Restaurant (blackfriarsrestaurant.co.uk). To plan your city break, visit newcastlegateshead.com    

To contact Les Heslop, Blue Badge Guide, tel: (0044) (0)7969 576-339, or through newcastlegateshead.com

Take three...

Sage Gateshead

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Sage Gateshead, just across the Tyne, is an auditorium, live music venue and one of Tyneside's newest landmarks. The steel and glass structure - the design of which has echoes of Sydney's famous Opera House - is a must-visit for architecture buffs, while its acoustically perfect venues will delight music lovers. There's also the Sir Michael Straker Cafe, which has fabulous river views. See sagegateshead.com

Tyneside Cinema

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An art-deco gem, the Tyneside Cinema was the pet project of Dixon Scott, grand-uncle of Ridley Scott. Designed by him and built in 1937, it's the last UK newsreel theatre in full-time operation. It has a beautiful mosaic floor, gorgeous stained glass and plasterwork. Upstairs, you can see old newsreel paraphernalia and there are daily free screenings of newsreel archive footage. You can also see the latest releases. See tynesidecinema.co.uk

Baltic

If you're an art fan, the Baltic centre, which is located in a former flour mill near the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, is a wonderful way to while away an afternoon. It has four gallery spaces and the shows are diverse - I loved 'B Wurtz: Selected Works 1970-2015'; the artist uses found and common objects in his sculptures and installations. Captivating. It runs until February 28. See balticmill.com

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