A trip to Geordie shore
Fenwick department store on Northumberland Street
Newcastle Milennium Bridge
There's plenty of postcard-pretty views and bridges, but shopping, nightlife and Cheryl Cole are really at the heart of any Newcastle experience, reckons ROSEMARY MAC CABE
When I tell people I am off to Newcastle for the weekend, there are two things that immediately come up: Geordie Shore, the MTV reality show that depicted Newcastle as a city of lads ‘n’ lasses boozing and bonking (and very little else), and Cheryl Cole, member of Girls Aloud, talent show judge and much-loved Geordie lass.
Though our itinerary suggests there will be very little carousing and only a smidgen of Cole (in the form of a Girls Aloud concert in Newcastle’s Metro Radio Arena), the flight over is worrying. I have never been on a plane with such a high ratio of men to women. In fact, excluding our group of seven women (and token man), there are four women on the 45-minute flight, two of whom are cabin crew. And the din created by a plane full of men is a rare and unforgettable sound; whoever said women are the talkative sex hasn’t fallen asleep to the bass murmur of a plane load of stags.
It doesn’t bode well; if there are that many stag parties on board, are we bound to encounter a man in a gimp mask around every corner? Will women in angel wings disturb our dinner? Will we queue for the bar next to crowds in customised T-shirts?
But the confounding of stereotypes is always bittersweet; until we board the homeward bound flight we will remain undisturbed by soon-to-be-married partygoers. Not great for the war stories but good for the blood pressure.
Our first port of call is check-in at Malmaison, a boutique hotel on Newcastle’s Quayside, which overlooks the Gateshead millennium bridge, an impressive structure that is vaguely reminiscent of Dublin’s James Joyce bridge.
Malmaison is a thoroughly modern madame – the colour scheme is royal purple and shades of beige. Rooms feel larger than they are, with high beds, higher ceilings and heavy black-out curtains. It’s tapas for lunch at La Tasca next door, before we take a walking tour with Blue Badge Walking Tours’ Jan, a human encyclopaedia of names, dates and Geordie history.
We start with the bridges – they’re hard to ignore, after all, and make up a decent swathe of Newcastle’s postcard views. There are seven in total, in a half-mile stretch. The oldest, the high-level bridge, dates to 1848 and was the world’s first to combine train and car travel. Queen Victoria came to officially open it, and rumour has it that, due to inclement weather conditions, she stuck her head out her carriage window and announced “consider your bridge open” before high-tailing it back to London.
The town centre is a mere 10 minutes’ walk but prepare to make that 20 if you stop to take snaps of every piece of impressive architecture. On Quayside alone, the Sage Gateshead, a Norman Foster-designed concert venue, vies for attention with the Baltic centre for contemporary art, a former flour mill that houses a constantly rotating programme of modern art and architecture.
In town, new and old are further juxtaposed in the form of the ruins of a medieval castle, outlines of a Roman fort and thoroughly modern features – the Life Science building, for example, which houses a children’s exploration centre and, from above, is shaped like a human embryo.
That evening’s dinner is in Café 21, a modern bistro restaurant with a large seafood offering and delicious seared scallops. But the thrill is back at Malmaison after dinner, where we run into Nicola and Kimberley from Girls Aloud, having a post-gig drink in the hotel bar after night two of their three-night residency in Newcastle.
The Queen Victoria story becomes more plausible when we wake on Saturday to a white landscape and flurries of snow. I’m tempted to call the whole thing off but Geordies don’t stop for cold weather, it seems. Town is packed with shoppers, although a sales assistant in Office tells me it is “very, very quiet”. (Ireland hasn’t seen the likes since 2005.)
We stop by Fenwick on Northumberland Street for the obligatory Geordie blow-dry, but before our pampering we take a look at the personal shopping suite. Fenwick is fashionista top dog Hilary Alexander’s favourite department store and it’s easy to see why – high-end brands such as Max Mara and Burberry sit alongside Warehouse and Topshop in a packed-to-the-rafters shop that somehow manages not to feel crowded.
We’ve been told more than once that Geordies like to shop, and they’ve certainly got a lot of choice, in high-end boutiques such as Vivienne Westwood or high-street shops including Topshop (the largest in northern England) and River Island, as well as the odd hidden gem. One such treasure is Attica, a vintage shop hidden down a side street and around a corner, with two floors of fashions from the 20th century. It’s next to Blackfriars, a restaurant set in the dining hall of a former friary – a beautiful medieval development that seems to drown out all the noise of the town.
Early dinner on Saturday is in the Marco Pierre White steakhouse in the Hotel Indigo, a short walk (and – ahem – even shorter taxi ride) from Malmaison. Those anticipating steak are disappointed, however; the set menu for our group of eight has three options, pork, salmon and duck. Luckily, the pork was delicious and the creamed spinach on the side was something worth writing home about.
The Geordie love of shopping pales only when compared to the Geordie love of Cheryl Cole. The crowd in the Metro Radio Arena may cheer for Girls Aloud, but the queen of the Geordies need only raise her mic for them to start screaming. When she throws in the word “Newcastle” (which she does frequently) the place erupts. It snows steadily while the Girls belt through a string of hits from their decade-long reign as pop princesses, but this means nothing to Newcastle’s indigenous people, who are apparently impervious to any extremes of temperature.
On our treacherous walk through icy Newcastle after the gig, reveller after reveller slips, slides and stumbles by in various states of undress.
Jan of Blue Badge fame tells us that Geordies don’t own coats, and the proof is in the pudding of arms, legs and midriffs exposed to minus temperatures – we see a woman wearing a mini-skirt and crop-top combo, gripping the arm of a friend in hot pants and a vest. And the men fare no better, in shirt sleeves and light cotton chinos.
With the best of intentions we head toward Tokyo, a cool bar near the central train station, but a four-man-deep queue for the bar quickly has us running back to the safety of Malmaison, where we have a pre-bedtime nightcap.
We’re not here, after all, to see the Newcastle of lads, lasses and “tashin’ on” (one for Geordie Shore fans only, perhaps) but to get a look at the architecture, the shopping and an insight into a very specific Geordie culture that extends past bare limbs and Cheryl Cole. If it’s good nightlife you’re after, NewcastleGateshead has it – but that’s most certainly not all.
ROSEMARY MAC CABEtravelled to Newcastle courtesy of NewcastleGateshead Initiative