Monday, 7 August 2017

A day trip to Newcastle 1

On the whole, I tend to avoid big cities. I prefer smaller places that I can wander around without getting tired out, or feeling overwhelmed by their sheer size. Thus in recent years I've stayed away from London, the biggest UK city of them all, even though it's just an hour away by train. Similarly for Birmingham and Manchester. In fact I've never even been to Manchester.

Some other cities, not so vast, have more appeal. They generally have some historic or cultural draw, such as an ancient heart, still well-preserved, or a famous museum, or a cathedral. This is obviously true of York and Lincoln, Oxford and Cambridge, Shrewsbury and Worcester, and many other places.

If a city is by the sea or close to it, or on a great river, that in itself tends to make me want to go and see it. I am not often disappointed. So, for instance, I liked Liverpool very much, went there in 2014, and would go again. And I wouldn't rule out having further days out in Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea. I wasn't so impressed by what I saw of Hull, as I drove along its waterfront on the way to Spurn Head, but I probably will go back and take a proper look at it. For much the same reason I wasn't terribly impressed by Middlesbrough, but would still give it some more time.

One big city however has always called to me, though never yet visited, except to shoot past on the A1: Newcastle.

But this year I finally went to see it. I was staying thirty-odd miles to the north, and discovered that Alnmouth station had a good train service. The off-peak return fare to Newcastle from Alnmouth was only £7.20. As much as I love driving, it seemed sensible at that price to go by train and avoid all hassles with parking in the city centre. It would also give me a great excuse to trip around on the Tyneside Metro. I could use that to reach Whitley Bay, Cullercoats and Tynemouth, three of Tyneside's beach resorts. I am relentlessly curious to visit places that look interesting on the map. I am very, very good at interpreting maps - always have been - but there is no substitute for walking around in person. My day on Tyneside was going to involve a lot of footwork! But, given the right shoes, the exercise would do me good. And I'd come away with it all recorded by Tigerlily's camera.

I took a lot of pictures on 15th June, the day of my trip. Over four hundred. It meant several very late nights in the caravan, to process them all.

I first made sure that I had a cooked breakfast. This was it:

Thus fortified, and with some fruit in my bag to resort to during the hours ahead, I drove to Alnmouth station. It had a curiously south-of-England feel. It's clearly used by a lot of commuters. In fact, were it not for the overhead electric cables (it's a third-rail system in my part of the world) I might be standing in a Sussex station. I'd taken these shots the evening before, when checking out the parking facilities. They show the station and, incidentally, capture that extremely rare beast, the evening train to Chathill, one of only two stopping trains that station gets each day. You're stuffed - or in Sir Vince Cable's words, shafted - if you miss either.

It was sunny on the morning of my trip. I arrived in good time, and presented myself at the ticket window, Senior Railcard and credit card ready in my hands. But this wasn't of course the south of England, and I was thrown by the ticket man's unfamiliar local accent. And my own accent threw him. And in any case, I muddied the waters by asking whether it was possible to buy a ticket that included travel on the Metro, rather like a Travelcard in London. This only created confusion, and he ended up giving me not only the wrong tickets, but very expensive ones. Unravelling that took more than a minute or two, and I was conscious that a queue was quickly building up behind me. It got to be acutely embarrassing. He must have thought I was a particularly demented senior citizen. A nuisance he could do without. He got a trifle impatient. And my apologies for not speaking clearly, and not knowing what to expect at Newcastle, didn't make much difference. The man still looked grumpy when dealing with the passengers behind me:

This wasn't a good start to my day, but I wasn't going to let it spoil my trip. I joined the throng on the southbound platform. The train, a Virgin Trains East Coast express, glided in and we all got on board.

As ever, I was impressed by the comfort and modernity of trains like this. It was like being in an aircraft, but an aircraft with big windows and great views out. I settled back to relish the experience, and I think you can see that my excitement was starting to overlay the acutely embarrassing memory of the Alnmouth ticket office: 

I very much enjoyed watching the countryside unfold as we travelled southwards. I was able to compare what I could see with the Ordnance Survey map I summoned up on Tigerlily, which sustained my keen interest. Gradually the signs of a big and important city began to appear. And then, the River Tyne, and the approach to Newcastle station itself, which actually passed a castle.

The train smoothly drew to a halt. I'd had a very good ride. The next objective was to photograph Newcastle station in depth. I have a theory that major railway stations say something important about a city. They are one of its public faces. They also have a life of their own. It's worth giving them time. I had lots of it.

I already knew that Newcastle station was a fine thing architecturally. I wasn't disappointed. But I also wanted to capture some of the daily life under its fine roof, and, of course, the trains if they looked striking. Here's a short selection of the pictures I took:

Isn't it a big station? It was late morning, and the commuter crowds had gone. (I'd see them later on) For now, you could appreciate the shape and layout of the station. 

A Virgin staff meeting. No idea what it was about.

My plan was to walk from the station down to the riverside, then along the river bank, and then return to the station via the city centre and catch a Metro train out to Whitley Bay. Then walk, or Metro-hop to Cullercoats and Tynemouth, and finally travel back to Newcastle station for a train to Alnmouth. I simply had to watch the time, so that I could drive from Alnmouth to Alnwick by 7.00pm, when the evening's Slimming World meeting was due to begin. Not a very complicated day. And it wasn't even noon yet.  

The station had a grand entrance, and a noble exterior. Resisting (for now) the temptation to linger in the centre, I turned left and found the road down to the river, passing this NHS medical school on the way:

Ah, the Tyne. The whole point of Newcastle's existence. I'd studied it on the map, seen lots of pictures of it, seen it many times on TV. But there's nothing quite like walking there in person. Especially on a (mostly) sunny day. I regretted only that I couldn't on this occasion stay to see it all lit up at night. It's all high-level bridges that link steeply-rising ground on both sides of the river. Famous sights. And now I was walking underneath them, one by one. There were a couple of low-level crossings, too. A swing bridge, and the Millennium footbridge.

Many old commercial buildings lined the north bank (left in my pictures, for I was walking seawards), some of them embellished with elaborate stonework:

They were mostly now converted for use as bars and restaurants. There were plenty of new hotels too. Newcastle is clearly a major recreational centre, as well as a regional business hub. I thought the city planners had struck a nice balance between keeping the old buildings - or at least their outward shells - and inserting new, contemporary structures. It was very pleasant to stroll past it all.

The most impressive bridge of all - a bit like Sydney Harbour Bridge - seemed massive close-up.

I carried on down-river. There was some more new stuff here, with one or two reminders of times past. 

The bow-like structure coming into view was the Millennium Bridge. It looked delicate, but close-up it was more substantial than one might have guessed. I ventured out onto it. I'd spotted the Baltic, Newcastle's answer to London's Tate Modern, and I wanted to see what was inside. 

Once over, on the Gateshead side of the river, I saw that the bridge was hinged, and could be tilted to allow boats to pass under it. There were massive hydraulic rams. I was in-between tilting times. It wasn't worth waiting for another tilt. Next, the Baltic. I had high expectations. 

My goodness. Look at that list of patrons! Bryan Ferry, Sting, Yoko Ono, Melvyn Bragg, Antony Gormley...

So what was the main exhibition? Uh, a collage installation by someone called Adam Pendleton.

I found this rather a let-down. I had a nice chat with the female student who was on hand to explain Mr Pendleton's work, but about other things, not Mr Pendleton's concept and execution. Privately, the phrase 'head up botty' came to mind. And the other exhibition I looked at, by a girl called Holly Hendry - apparently of artificial fluffy clouds - equally failed to engage me. Hmph. The Baltic had proved boring and pretentious, a bit of a con. I was reminded of the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, which was another big building lightly-filled with contemporary artworks of dubious merit. Neither had a permanent collection of weightier modern art - and this is where, in my opinion, the Tate Modern in London (which I last saw in August 2013) definitely scored, because it did have such a permanent collection. There's nothing like a few Rothkos to liven up the place! I shot these there in 2013:

The Tate Modern's other exhibitions, permanent or just flying-by, were also stimulating:

Mind you, the pile of charcoal (or dung?) in the corner of this shot didn't do it for me, although it obviously succeeded in catching my attention:

You know, what is the real difference in artistic merit between the sort of thing you will see in these city galleries and (say) street art like this Brighton mural (shot in 2013), or even these straightforward pictures of food I prepared (2013 again)?  

Even at the Tate Modern, I'd found the building more inspirational than its contents. Striking photos of the interior came easily. Funny how they so resembled the work of some of the 'official' artists.

So I wondered whether my visit to the Baltic could be saved by shooting the inside of the building, or the view out, instead of the artworks. And yes, it worked. Well, I think it does! Good old Tigerlily! 

As for the view out, towards the top of the Baltic was this cocktail lounge. Two other girls were there, and like me had no intention of purchasing cocktails, only wanting to admire the river view. And what a view it was. This is the best reason to go to the Baltic. Trust me.

Let's leave it there for now. Next: my afternoon adventures.

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