Wednesday 11 February 2015

Tyneside Adventure without Gin

We had already had two adventures arising from the gift of an activity voucher, but this one did not quite go according to plan. Like the others, the need to travel in school holiday meant that we were tightly restricted with what we could book, and the only possibility for the gin tasting and afternoon tea was on a Sunday in Newcastle upon Tyne in the October holiday week … but the G&Tea company folded after we had redeemed our voucher. There was no loss there because the voucher company refunded the value, but the train tickets and hotel had also been booked, so we were looking at three days on Tyneside with no agenda. I had, though, booked that length of trip because I knew there was plenty to do apart from drink gin and tea and eat cake!

On a Saturday morning we set off on the 10:00 train from Stamford to Peterborough and after a few minutes around the shops caught our East Coast train for the north. The First Class tickets had been bought with our East Coast reward points earned on previous trips and I had booked seats at a window table for two. By the time we flashed over Tallington level crossing we were already sipping our coffee. Lunch came later, with wine, with the usual choice of sandwiches or a couple of light, cooked options, with fruit or cake. On the one hand it doesn't compare with the Pullman catering on First Great Western, but on the other hand it is included in the ticket price and is really very good, the wine being especially generous.

After crossing the Tyne with that famous view of the bridges, we arrived on time at Newcastle Central soon after lunch and made our way next door to the Royal Station Hotel. We were just a little early for check in and were going to ask if they could store our luggage while we went round the city centre, but we were informed that our room was ready so we could take it now and off we went. The first sign that something was not right was that the bed was not made up – stripped and neat but no sheets etc; the second sign was the lack of towels. We unpacked and went out, reporting these issues at reception and being assured that they'd deal with it while we were out. We had a great time exploring the shops in Newcastle and admiring the architecture of what must be one of the UK's most elegant city centres. A glass of Prosecco in the coffee shop at John Lewis kept us going for the afternoon and we made our way back to our hotel and to our room to find that nothing had changed. It was now evening and we needed to wash and later to sleep. We called reception on the phone and reported the now urgent need to do something; my Trip Advisor review was beginning to look unpromising and we hadn't really started yet. After a few minutes I went to reception and asked for the duty manage: it took a while for her to arrive and it turned out that while I was on my way there she'd arrived at the room and was making the bed herself! I asked bluntly what the discount would be and she offered included breakfast at no extra cost, which I took like a shot! Three mornings' breakfast for two was a worthwhile apology and the Trip Advisor review was already looking a very great deal better.

We showered and changed and wandered down to the hotel bar, looked at the menu and decided to eat there, although there were plenty of other restaurants at that end of the city but we felt we had walked enough by then and the bar meals were just what we needed. Bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale to complement the food and to ensure that we really had visited the north-east.

Sunday morning came and after breakfast we boarded the 11:10 train for Carlisle, exploring one of England's more scenic railway routes, running more-or-less parallel to Hadrian's Wall, and beginning by crossing the Tyne by the “other” bridge and looking across to the one we'd arrived over on the day before. This is a two-level bridge with a road beneath the railway and took us across to Gateshead and then out of the city on the south side of the Tyne, which we followed for many miles. The train was a semi-fast, stopping at the more important stations along the route but not all of them. 

On a summer day it would be good to give more time to this trip and visit places along the route, seeing a bit of the Roman wall and exploring some of the more interesting towns. Today we stayed on the train, however, and arrived at Carlisle just before one o'clock, in the wind and rain. 

While the weather in Newcastle had not been wonderful, here on the west side of England it was a lot worse! Still, the rain was showery and we had hooded coats so we set off to explore, neither of us having visited the city before. In the centre, not far from the station, is a triangular market “square” with English Street to the south and Scotch Street to the north: this is a border city. The third street leads towards the cathedral and museum. All is quiet, not just because it's a Sunday but because there is a relief road system taking the traffic round the edge of the little city centre. Although, as is the trend these days, most of the shops were open, many of the cafes and restaurants were not but eventually we had a light cooked lunch in a small place overlooking the cathedral – also a respite from the showers! We paid a brief visit to the museum and had a short stroll along the riverside between showers and made our way back to the station for the train to Newcastle, buying hot chocolate and biscuits at the station for our return journey – reasonable price with my Bite Card.

The centrepiece of the holiday was on Monday, and I think it would have been even if the Sunday's G&Tea Tasting had come off as planned. I had long wanted to visit the  Beamish open-air museum of the north, and this trip to Newcastle had provided an opportunity to make the visit. The weather was fine and bright, though not sunny, as we set out after breakfast to catch the 10:50 “Waggonway” bus, number 28, from Eldon Square bus station to Beamish. This is an ordinary service bus and only runs hourly but it enters the museum site and stops right by the entrance. On the way we crossed the Tyne on the lower deck of the two-level bridge we had crossed by train the day before, and we passed the Angel of the North, so it was a worthwhile ride in itself, taking about 50 minutes. By showing our bus tickets we received a discount on the admission fee to Beamish and once inside any further expenses were limited to refreshment, all exhibits and rides on the vintage buses, trams and trains were included in the admission fee. It is easy to spend an entire day at Beamish and we did in fact leave a little for a future visit. Indeed, repeated visits are worthwhile because new material is being added all the time. The museum is on the site of a former mine and although you can walk all around the huge site most people take the trams and buses which run frequently all over the museum. For me the most interesting part was the recreated town street, built from “recycled” buildings carefully dismantled from industrial towns all over the north-east and re-assembled on site. Within the buildings a past way of life is faithfully displayed, and the frightening thing is how much of it (though not all!) looked familiar from my childhood. A pint of ale in the rebuilt pub was a treat, but the enormous queue at chip shop was just not worth it in our opinion and tea and cake at an outdoor tea stand would suffice after the hotel breakfast, pending the hotel dinner. 

After dinner I went for a stroll around the riverside in the city centre and took some night-time photographs of the bridges. I had been here once before but without the time to study the townscape and architecture, so this was, for a “retired” town planner, a bit of a treat.

The train home on Tuesday was booked late enough for us to have an early dinner on the train, again the First Class ride paid for with our reward points, so we had almost another full day to enjoy. We decided to have a day at the seaside! Newcastle is close enough to the coast for “the seaside” to be a ride on the urban Metro system. This really is a city with everything: the east coast beaches are local and the English Lakes are only a day trip, and the city itself has most of what you could need: so far from other urban areas it has to have. No wonder local people are so proud of it.

Tynemouth seen from Cullercoats
We checked out of the hotel and asked them to keep our luggage and went to the Metro station at Monument (that is, the monument to Earl Grey, of tea fame, a pioneer of British democracy) which had direct trains to the coast. Most of this line is along former mainline railway tracks (like some of the London Underground) and there are some grand stations at the seaside places at which you can imagine crowds of happy families arriving in bygone times. We left the Metro at Whitley Bay and walked to the seafront. The town had a rather run-down feel (though I've seen much worse) but real attempts were being made at renovation and restoration, notably of the domed “Spanish City” entertainment venue which was behind hoardings. Much had already been done along the promenade and I think within the next couple of years a visit to Whitley Bay will once again be an uplifting experience. What nothing can take away though is the fantastic beach, which is always there. We walked along the seafront all the way to Cullercoats, the next town, which has a small beach in a sheltered bay, and a great long beach stretching south to Tynemouth. Although it was not beach weather, it was amazing in October on the North Sea coast of north-east England to sit outside a cafe on a cliff top eating ice-cream quickly because it was melting! In the present cold weather as I write it is hard to recall that in October we were wondering if the summer was ever going to end.

And so to Cullercoats Metro station to return to Newcastle, collect our luggage and board the train home. By now the drizzle has started and the damp rails made it hard for the lightweight Metro trains to accelerate. Ours struggled on the incline to Tynemouth and was so late that it was terminated short of the city centre in order to take its correct place in the return direction and we had to board the following train: not a big deal except that the station where we had to change had little canopy and it was raining by then, but we coped, sheltering along with everyone else.

The journey back was up to the usual East Coast Trains high standard and we rounded off our dinner with a couple of whiskies, the end of a brilliant few days even if not as originally planned. Connecting at Peterborough for Stamford we were soon walking home across the Meadows and up Scotgate and thinking of all else there is to do on Tyneside. We had not even looked at the attractions on the Gateshead side of the river ...

The photographs from this trip are all available on Flickr at

1 comment:

  1. As well as refunding the cost of our G&Tea experience to the person who'd given us the gift, the experience company also kindly compensated us by giving us new vouchers of a similar value for an alternative day out. You can read how we used them here: