Newcastle-upon-Tyne (pop. 275,000 ; with suburbs 800,000) is the largest city in North-East England. It is a city of contrast, with a strong industrial past, and yet has more listed classical buildings than any other city in Britain. Newcastle is also renowned for its modern architecture, such as the stunning Sage Gateshead and the photogenic Tyne Bridge, that have contributed in giving the city a reputation for cool, hipster culture. The city has a thriving restaurant and bar scene and some excellent museums and art galleries.
Home to a section a Hadrian's Wall, guardian of the Roman Empire's northern borders for 300 years, Newcastle also played the role of border city during medieval times, as attested by its grand Norman keep, the New Castle, to which it owes its name.
The locals are known as the Geordies, which is also the name of the dialect of English spoken in Tyneside. Like other northern dialects, Geordie remains closer phonetically and in vocabulary to the Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon dialect, thus featuring many characteristics of Old English lost in Standard English. For example, words like "house" and "about" are pronounced like "hoose" and "aboot", while "alright" sounds like "alreet" and "town" like "toon". The Geordies are known to be proud, hard-working, energetic and positive - all qualities that must have once been vital to survive in a harsh weather border town .
Newcastle is well known among football fans for its premiership football club, Newcastle United. The city's St. James's Park Stadium is the second largest football stadium in the United Kingdom, with a capacity of 52,000.
The city has two universities : Newcastle University and Northumbria University. The former was founded as Durham University's School of Medicine and Surgery in 1834, and became an independent university in 1963.
France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Norway and Iceland all have a consulate in Newcastle.
Newcastle was founded by the Roman emperor Hadrian between 120 and 128 CE. It was just a small Roman settlement of 2,000 people along Hadrian's Wall. The Romans built a stone-walled fort in 150 CE to protect the river crossing. The settlement took the name of that bridge, Pons Aelius.
After the Roman departure from Britain in the early 5th century, the region of Newcastle became part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia, then from 634 to the kingdom of Northumbria, although there is no evidence of.settlement from that period in Newcastle itself. The seventh century became known as the 'Golden Age of Northumbria', when the area was a beacon of culture and learning in Europe. Many monasteries sprang up in the Tyne and Wear valley, like those of Monkwearmouth, Hexham and Jarrow. Around the 9th century, a village at the location of present-day Newcastle became known as Monkchester. The Danes raided and pillaged monasteries in Northumbria from 793, and Monkchester's turn apparently came in 875.
In 1069, rebellion against the new Norman rule took place in the whole of Northumbria. The Northumbrians then marched on York, were defeated by William the Conqueror, then attacked York again later in the same year. In 1080, William Walcher, the Norman bishop of Durham and his followers were brutally murdered at Gateshead. This time Odo, bishop of Bayeux, Williamís half brother, devastated the land between the Tees and the Tweed. This was known as the 'Harrying of the North'. Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror, erected a wooden castle there in the same year, and the town took the name of Novum Castellum, the Latin for "New Castle".
Newcastle served as the main fortress defending England's northern border with Scotland during the Middle Ages. By 1275 Newcastle was the sixth largest wool exporting port in England. The principal exports at this time were wool, timber, coal, millstones, dairy produce, fish, salt and hides. Much of the developing trade was with the Baltic countries and Germany.
A number of religious houses were established within the walls between the 11th and 13th centuries. Among them were the Benedictine nunnery of St Bartholomew (founded in 1086), the Dominican Blackfriars (1239), the Carmelite Whitefriars (1262), the Franciscan Greyfriars (1274), the Augustinian Austinfriars (1290) and the Order of the Holy Trinity (1360). All of the religious houses were closed in about 1540, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries.
In 1400 Henry IV granted a new charter, which separated the town, but not the Castle, from the county of Northumberland and recognised it as a "county of itself" with a right to have a sheriff of its own. By 1547, about 10,000 people were living in Newcastle.
In 1644 the Scots crossed the border. Newcastle strengthened its defences in preparation. The Scottish army, with 40,000 troops, besieged Newcastle for three months until the garrison of 1,500 surrendered.
Coal played an important role in the local economy well before the 19th century. Coal was being exported from Newcastle by 1250, and by 1350 the burgesses received a royal licence to export coal. From 1530 a royal act restricted all shipments of coal from Tyneside to Newcastle Quayside, giving a monopoly in the coal trade to a cartel of Newcastle burgesses known as the Hostmen. From the Industrial Revolution, coal mining became backbone of the economy. Some of the world's earliest railway lines linked Newcastle to the collieries in surrounding villages. Newcastle developed a major shipbuilding industry, but was also active in locomotive manufacture, glassmaking, pottery and armaments.
In the 18th century, Newcastle was the country's fourth largest print centre after London, Oxford and Cambridge. Newcastle also became the greatest glass producer in the world.
Central Newcastle was entirely rebuilt in classical style between 1824 and 1839. It is the work of a partnership between two architects : Richard Grainger and John Dobson. In 1849, the High Level Bridge, designed by Robert Stephenson, opened to carry road and rail traffic across the Tyne Gorge.
The city aquired its own university in 1963 and its Metro in 1978. The 1990's and early 2000's saw a major redevelopment, with new offices, restaurants, bars and residential accommodation, as well as some impressive works of modern architecture, such as the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.
The historic heart of Newcastle is known as Grainger Town - named after the architect that designed its classical streets, Richard Grainger (1797-1861). It is lined with elegant shopping streets and limestone buildings reminiscent of Bath or Oxford. Built between 1824 and 1841, the classical centre changed Newcastle from a city of bricks and timber to one of stone. Its landmarks are the Grainger Market, the Theatre Royal, and Grey's Monument. The main streets of interest are Grey Street, Grainger Street and Clayton Street.
You can get a glimpse at some fine Jacobean architecture and interiors at at Bessie Surtees House, in fact two adjoining town houses that belonged to 16th and 17th-century merchants. It is also the regional office of the English Heritage.
Older still, the Black Gate was built during the reign of Henry III (1216 -1272) to reinforce the New Castle. The Castle Keep itself dates from the 1170's and replaced a wooden motte and bailey style castle from 1080 built on the site of the Roman fort. Newcastle's Castle and the Black Gate lie to the east of Newcastle Central Station.
The construction of the Newcastle town wall started around 1265 and had six main gates. Remains of the West Walls can be seen , on the western side of the city, such as Stowell Street or Orchard Street. From the same period, the Blackfriars was used as a monastic retreat for 300 years. The friary was renovated in the 1990's. It is close to the city's Chinatown.
Bridges and modern architecture
Newcastle conjures up images of bridges over the River Tyne. There are actually seven bridges in the city. The most famous is the iconic Tyne Bridge (built in 1928). The newest bridge is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian and cyclist tilt bridge connecting the city centre to the south bank district of Gateshead. The bridge is often referred to as the 'Winking Eye Bridge' due to its elliptical shape and its rotational movement.
The tubular glass structure known as The Sage Gateshead is a centre for musical education and a performance hall. Completed in 2004, its construction cost over £70 million, amidst some local controversy.
Gateshead is also home to the Riverside Sculpture Park, and more importantly Antony Gormleyís Angel of the North - one Britain's most famous work of public modern art. The steel sculpture representing an angel (or Icarus figure ?) stands at 20 m (66 feet) tall, with wings spanning 54 m (178 feet) across. The sculpture was constructed between 1994 and 1998 and cost £1 million. It stands on a hill on the southern edge of Low Fell, about 2 miles south of the river.
The area around New Bridge Street has been pedestrianised as part of the Millennium Art scheme. An art comptetion was held by the city council in 1996. The winning designer, Thomas Heatherwick, used special blue tiles made from glass and resin to create the so-called Blue Carpet. The idea was to emulate an imaginary carpet that had fallen from the sky and was left the way it landed. The nearby Laing Art Gallery has free admission.
Museums & Art Galleries
No visit to Newcastle would be complete without a visit to the Great North Museum. Originally known as the Hancock Museum (of natural history, established in 1884), it was completely refurbished from 2006 to 2009 at a cost of £26 million to accommodate the collections of two other institutions : the Museum of Antiquities (Newcastle's Roman history) and the Shefton Museum (archeological museum of Ancient Greece). The new museum opened its doors in May 2009. It includes displays on natural history and geology, Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, Romans and Hadrian's Wall, World Cultures and Pre-history.
The Hatton Gallery, Newcastle University's art exhibition gallery, is also part of the Great North Museum project, but remained at its original location in the Fine Art Building.
Newcastle's local history museum is the Discovery Museum, which will take you through the ages to see how life was at the time of the Romans, during the Middle Ages, in Georgian times or in the 20th century.
The city's scientific venue, for children and adults alike, is the Centre for Life, an educational science centre aiming to raise standards in science education for young people. It also has an exhibition space, medical clinics, research laboratories used by Newcastle University.
If you still have time at hand, the The Customs House is a major arts centre in South Shields, the Tyne's estuary. It combines theatre, cinema and art gallery.
Note that the Military Vehicle Museum is closed for an undetermined period due to lack of funds.
A substantial section of Hadrian's Wall has been preserved around Newcastle. There are three good place to visit it. The closest to the centre is Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths & Museum, in the eastern suburb of Wallsend. It is just a few minutes' walk from Wallsend Metro and Bus Station.
Further east is the similar Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum at South Shields. It is ten minute walk from South Shields Metro and Bus Station.
The third is visible at Tynemouth Priory & Castle, on the edge of the North Sea. It is about 5 minutes walk from Tynemouth railway station. This was the very eastern end of the wall - a strategic location serving as a bastion throughout English history, not just against the Scots, but also against potential invasions from the sea during the Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars. An Anglian monastery was founded at Tynemouth in the 7th century, but destroyed by Danish Vikings. The present castle dates from 700 years ago, and became a royal castle under Henry VIII, then a fortress until 1945.
If you want to follow the wall by bicycle or on foot, Hadrianís Cycleway start from Tynemouth, and the Hadrianís Wall Path National Trail from Wallsend, and continue all the way to Carlisle and beyond.
If you fancy a day to the countryside from Newcastle, you could ride and old steam train. After all the region is home to the world's first railway, the Stockton and Darlington Railway (opened in 1821) in nearby County Durham. There are two alternative to choose from.
The Tanfield Railway runs on part of a former colliery wooden wagonway intended to transport coal from the hinterland to ships on the River Tyne. The oldest part of the tracks dates from 1647. The surviving 1725 Sunniside to Causey section is now the world's oldest working railway. It operates preserved steam and diesel industrial tank locomotives on a Stephenson gauge. The northern terminus is at Sunniside, Gateshead, which makes for easy access from Newcastle. The southern terminus at East Tanfield, County Durham, 3 miles (5 km) to the south.
The other possibility is the Bowes Railway, built by George Stephenson in 1826. It is the world's only preserved operational standard gauge cable railway system. It also departs from Gateshead, with destination Blackham's Hill and Springwell village.
You can learn more about steam and electric locomotives at the Stephenson Railway Museum.
A few miles east of Newcastle is seaside resort town of Whitley Bay. Its golden sand beaches are very popular with people from North East England and Scotland in summer. The main attraction is St. Mary's Lighthouse on St Mary's Island, in the northern section of Whitley Bay.
How to get there
Newcastle is located on the A1 motorway that runs between London and Edinburgh. The city is about 30km north of Durham, 175 km north of Leeds and 475 km north of London.
Trains run from/to London Kings Cross (3h15min), Leeds (1h30m), Durham (15min) and Edinburgh (1h45min).
National Express operates several daily coaches from York (about 2h30min, £14.70), Leeds (2h30min to 3h30min, from £12) and London (6h30min to 8 hours, from £18). If you are crossing over from the North-West, there is also one daily coach from Lancaster (4 hours, £25.60) and a few from Liverpool (6h30min to 8 hours, £23.80).
Newcastle Airport has flights to/from about 20 countries in Western and Southern Europe, including to major hubs like London, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt and Copenhagen. The airport is a 15 minutes' drive away from the city centre.
Train timetables & reservations