5.28.04 Hadrian’s Wall Walk: Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Location: Northeast England, on the Tyne River (naturally)
Other Names for Area: Tyneside, Tyne-and-Wear
Names For Locals: Geordies
Famous Local Musicians: Sting, Andy Taylor, Martin Stephenson
I’d resisted visiting Newcastle: Reports from down South (read: London) made me think it’d be all coated with coal dust and economically depressed and possibly full of football hooligans. Turns out it’s now No. 2 on my proper English city lists. (London has to win that competition, just has to.)
Got in around 1 after flying overnight from JFK to Heathrow and making a nail-biter of a connection (who knew you could get through immigration and into another terminal without missing a connection two hours after landing?) to Newcastle. There is an advantage to being in a small-ish city after being accustomed to the New Yorks and Londons of the world: Everything is so much easier to find and maneuver around. Then, Newcastle really does help – the Metro connected directly to the airport through a sloping tunnel; they trust you to pay for the distance you’re really going (no ticket-takers, though there’s a list of “Losers” who were nabbed without tickets, and a news story I saw later highlighted people getting nabbed), and even more shocking – the station names are perfect! I needed to go to the Royal Station Hotel, next to the Central Station rail line, and boom – there was a line called “Central Station”! Easy even for someone running on 3 hours of sleep. Or less.
General Atmosphere: Friendly
Ease of Metro System: Thumbs up! (Get daypass. Skip the fare and risk having your name put up on a board of shame.)
Wall Seen: None
Fishermen Seen: 2
No. of times asked if Canadian: 1
Since I couldn’t officially check in until 2, I parked the luggage and went wandering. (Part of my affection for Newcastle’s ease in maneuvering may have to do with that I’m also a lot looser about just walking around strange places than I used to be.) Newcastle is particularly easy; I struck out to the prior subway stop (“Monument”) and ended up in a busy plaza of shops and lunchers (the clouds had given way to spotty sun). Great old buildings in what I think is Georgian style architecture (the modern stuff is awful and bleak but not so evident) and easy-to-follow metal signs. I didn’t even know what Leazes Park was, but it sounded a nice place to plant my butt and sip soda and hang.
What started out as a narrow tarmac walk branching around tennis courts rose up a set of steps to a pond around which two fishermen (not sitting together) were quite serious about plonking their lines (the first one I passed had at least ten different styles of bait). The second had a box of squirming grubs, so I stopped and asked if he could really catch anything with that. “Carp,” he said, and we had a nice conversation that went from how the pond had been drained and restocked recently to politics (he checked to see if I was Canadian). He fished all the while, usually getting a small perch which had to be unhooked and tossed back into the greenish water. Interesting fella; probably in his late 40s, told me he was with the territorial British Army for the past 22 years and was getting ready to retire – he’s part of a squad that locates bombs in Northern Ireland. (So you see how politics comes along quickly.) I told him I’d been to Belfast and Derry, then realized my slip when he flinched a little (call it “Londonderry” or you’re risking being seen as some radical). He’s thinking of after retiring going to Iraq to do some of the same work. Yikes!
After that I wandered back towards the hotel and checked in. I must say, nice hotel, really: Opened in 1858 it still has a lot of the original architecture, a big sweeping square staircase and a lot of nice, antique touches that make it feel authentic, instead of sterile and somehow Kubrickian, like most hotels. The woman checking me in had a sign on her back that announced she was 21 that day. (And yes, she knew it was there.) A wedding party was checking in, the guys rowdy and getting ready for a last night on the town type evening (which kind of made seeing two of them descend the staircase to breakfast the next morning while wearing dresses and heels, make sense). My room was pretty utilitarian (single bed, something hotels in the U.S. don’t seem to do, amazingly, and this made it real cheap), TV, desk, window (which actually opened and looked out on to the rail yard), so I took a nap.
Going out solo for dinner is a little more intimidating in a strange city than just wandering in it; I went down to the Quayside area (everyone touts it as being very hip now; it reminded me of Brooklyn’s DUMBO area) and ended up in a cheesy seafood restaurant called Big Mussel. Rude help. Bland pasta dish (the seafood choices seemed really pathetic). Charged for “mineral” water when I asked for tap. No dessert. And – I’d almost forgotten – smokers! Yes, you can still smoke in English restaurants. Funky how you really don’t miss that odor. Felt better after slipping into a v.v. trendy bar called Apartment. The bartender was cute and made me a decent vanilla vodka and coke, but the locals did not see how wonderful it was to have a foreigner in the room and continued talking to themselves, so I read a little and drank and talked to the D.J. and then headed back to the hotel.
Next morning I got up early (no surprise) and had a few hours before the ride was coming to pick me up and take me to Bowness-on-Solway (the other side of the country, a 2 hour ride from Newcastle), so I went out walking again, mainly to find breakfast (eating in the hotel seemed so dreary). I wandered around town but found scant places to eat breakfast on a Sunday (!) and passed through a lethargic (but fascinating) farmers’ market. Even by American farmer market standards, it was rough, which was totally cool — bones left out in the open; slabs of meat hanging. And my favorite place in the whole city thus far: The Weigh Room. In it: A woman. A desk. And a big honkin’ green scale. While I lingered, several individuals came in, paid a few pence, stood on the scale, got their weight recorded on a small red ticket, got the ticket from the woman, and left. Some even discussed it with her: “Eh, lost a few stone since last time.” I asked her, “Don’t these people have scales at home?” Yep, they do, she said, but this way they can compare. But in public! I flinch. The woman behind the desk (I was really bad about getting names) said she sees some of the same people in and out every week. And she’d been there for 21 years! Almost as long as the bomb-hunting fisherman! There are plenty of things you can say “only in America” about — but this, “only in England.”
Still hungry (and unweighed, thank you very much), I went down Quayside again and made muttering noises at Big Mussel as I passed. Ended up at a nearby diner for a hearty veggie breakfast, then wandered to the river and found the Gateshead Millennium Bridge (or, as locals call it, “the eyelash”). Though modern, it’s also elegant. The bridge part of it bends out over the river, as opposed to up and over it, so you walk in a big east arc to the other side (where stands the Baltic Arts Center, in an old flour factory). The rest of the bridge – the long “lashy” part angles out to the west; when it needs to “open” for a passing ship the whole thing tilts so that it makes a “V” over the river and allows passage. I didn’t get to see it do that; no openings on Saturday, alas. A brief turn in the (free!) Baltic Arts center, where they had some kind of pretentious video artist displays (hey, again, free, I don’t complain) and then back to the hotel.
Car ride: on time. Driver: Paul. Very nice guy. Pointed out interesting bits on the route. Time: two hours, about. Destination: Bowness-on-Solway. Almost there!
Yorkies Consumed: 2
Fat in a Yorkie: 21g
This Discovered: June 12