Newcastle, where the sky’s the limit

Eoin Edwards gets ready for a ropey experience on the Sage Gateshead Roofwalk Experience, 120ft off the ground in Newcastle, England.

Football, Europe’s largest indoor shopping centre, roof walks and sandy beaches — Newcastle has it all.

IGNORANCE is a fright — and a delight. I consider myself reasonably well-travelled but never have I thought a trip to Newcastle/Gateshead in the north of England would be a good idea. Ignorance got in the way.

An in-law was known to often quote the line ‘presumption is worse than consumption’ to those who cared to listen, and, while I took it on board, its significance only really sunk in while taking a walk on the Tyne-side recently — except this was no ordinary walk, I was 120ft off the ground on the roof of iconic Sage Gateshead.

Over the years I presumed Newcastle was rough, tough, a no-go area for an innocent lad like me. So when the opportunity for a weekend in the city landed on my desk, well I thought about it for a few seconds and thought better of it. It would be like carrying coals to Newcastle, I thought, a foolhardy thing to do. It just hadn’t the XFactor.

But that’s when lightning struck. What if, just what if, SHE was there, on some publicity stunt, performing at the Sage Gateshead. Not alone would I climb the roof, I’d climb the country’s most famous work of 20th Century public art — Newcastle landmark, The Angel of the North — to see my Angel of the North... Cheryl Cole.

That thought, and the opportunity to see a home Premier League game against Hull City, who would be fielding three Irish players, Robbie Brady, Stephen Quinn and David Meyler, did it.

Now I’ve never suffered from consumption, or pulmonary tuberculosis to give it its more common name, but given the outstanding weekend I had in that wonderful part of northern England, I have suffered because of my presumption.

Newcastle/Gateshead is a wonderful place to visit for the weekend, mainly for its people. But look what else it has to offer. It’s merely a one-hour flight from Cork Airport to a compact and people-friendly Newcastle International Airport, via Jet2.com. Fly out Friday afternoon at 5.45pm, arriving at 7pm, and returning Sunday night at 7pm, landing in Cork at 8.15pm. It is a once-a-week service.

I stayed at the Hilton (only to impress Cheryl). It has outstanding views overlooking the quayside and River Tyne with its Millennium, Tyne, and High Level bridges, one prettier than the other. The hotel is an easy 10-minute walk from the city centre and overlooks St James’ Park, which not alone dominates the skyline, right smack in the middle of the city, it dominates everything to do with the city.

Football is a religion here after all. Saturday afternoon was a testament to that as I joined grannies, granddads, delirious and distracted ’ale and ’arty fans, Director of Football at Newcastle United, Joe Kinnear; manager Alan Pardew; French powerhouse, midfielder Moussa Sissoko and centre-back Fabricio Coloccini in the stadium for an afternoon of football, fun and failure, beaten 3-2 again. The Irish boys played well for Hull City, but naturally we didn’t celebrate, outwardly anyway.

There are many other accommodation options throughout the city but I knew Cheryl would want classy surroundings so I was more than happy on the other side of the river at the Hilton, where, on the night we arrived, Geordie pride was building to celebrate 30 years of one of the region’s best loved TV exports, Auf Wiedersehen Pet. Many of the cast, writers and producers joined fans in a unique celebration of the iconic show.

While the economic downturn, and an ‘unsupportive’ Tory government — this is after all Labour country — makes it harder for cojoined NewcastleGateshead to compete, the transformation of the riverside in the past 15 years, from a black, grimy, hanging-on-to-its-fingertips ship building and heavy industry area into a vibrant, exciting, stunning, fashionable location has been impressive.

The chances are you will have heard of The Angel of the North, the Gateshead sculpture whose impact on the fortunes and perception of the region has dwarfed even its own ample dimensions, but add to that the former Ranks flour mill, now Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (equipped with a wonderful restaurant); a gloriously restored and ancient St Mary’s church; the Sage Gateshead, as much a tourist attraction for its architecture as it is for its music within and, well, you won’t be bored.

Here’s one for the bucket list, the annual screening at the Sage of Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman, accompanied by the Royal Northern Sinfonia performing Howard Blake’s score live and a chorister to sing ‘Walking In The Air’, a song which immediately came to mind while experiencing the venue’s unique ‘Roof Walk Experience’, which included a behind the scenes tour of the famous music and arts venue designed by Sir Norman Foster.

There are 3,043 stainless steel panels on its roof covering 9,000 square metres, the equivalent to more than two football pitches. It is not as ‘ropey’ an experience as it initially seems, looking at other adventurers on high a few hours later from the comfort of a bar on the opposite bank of the Tyne. It is however one of the many interesting experiences.

With a packed year-round calendar of events ranging from music, theatre, art and food festivals to energy-sapping shopping at the Metrocentre, at Eldon Square, Europe’s largest indoor shopping and leisure centre, with over 300 shops, or Grainger Town, Jesmond or Gosforth for designer boutiques, all washed down by a canny night out in the company of big, friendly personalities in the city’s many fine restaurants and bars, it’s a value-for-money weekend.

One gets a great sense of history in Newcastle, with evidence of occupation going back 2,000 years. The city is not just a product of the Industrial Revolution, although one can really feel its importance to that era. Still clear for all to see in the city centre are tantalising fragments of Hadrian’s Wall, parts of the medieval city walls and the 12th Century Castle Keep.

The Northumberland coast and its outstanding beaches is just minutes from the city, but for me, one of the best features I saw all weekend was the beautifully kept sandy beach, opposite the Gateshead Millennium Swing Bridge, where on a brisk, dry winter’s day, one can step off the busy riverside footpath to play sandcastles or lie back on a deckchair to dream of next year’s summer sunshine. Now that’s what I call an optimistic city. Wonder what Cheryl’s doing next summer?

Flights

Jet2.com flies to Newcastle from Cork on Fridays at 17.20, arriving 18.40 and departs Sundays at 17.00 arriving in Cork

18.20 with a return fare costing approx €135. It’s an ideal time really, take a half day off work on Friday and there’s your weekend off to a great start, arriving in Newcastle in time for a quick shower and shave before you head out to explore the city’s night streetscape. Metro and buses take you to the city in a heartbeat.

Staying there

Hilton NewcastleGateshead, ideally situated overlooking the quayside and Tyne Bridge, is an easy 10-minute walk from the city centre. See its website for any special offers.

There are plenty of other options from 3-star backpackers accommodation at the Albatross Backbackers In to the Holiday Inn Express, Best Western Hardwick Hall Hotel, Jurys Inn and the lovely Malmaison Quay-side boutique hotel, plus seven Premier Inn options, not an surprising name for a city that loves its Premier League football.

What to do

Where to start? Book the flight and your imagination is guaranteed to be fulfilled.

TRAVEL DIGEST

by Barry Coughlan

NINE-NIGHT CRUISE OF SPAIN-MADEIRA, €625

At €625, a cruise for nine nights taking in Spain, Morocco, Madeira and Lanzarote can’t be a bad deal and it’s available for departure on Friday next (Nov 22).

It includes flights with Thomas Cook. Details by ringing 01-5140336, or on www.thomascook.ie/cruise.

SKI HOLIDAY IN THE ITALIAN ALPS FOR €499

Topflight, voted again as Ireland’s leading ski-tour operator, has hot deals to Italy this winter to the duty-free resort of Livigno, in the Alps. Prices start at €499 for a Dec 21 departure (seven nights). The company also offers more luxurious packages, from €899. Details on www.topflight.ie or call 01-2401700.

ESCORTED JOURNEYS AND NEW DESTINATIONS

Insight Vacations has released its 2014 Europe brochure, featuring a range of escorted journeys, new destinations, an expansion of the country roads-style of touring, and a plethora of new features, with hotel and dining experiences. Check out at www.insightvacations.com, or by calling 01-7753803.

WALKING TRAIL FOR SHAKESPEARE BIRTHDAY

To commemorate the 450th anniversary of William Shake-speare’s birth, the UK walking-holiday operator, Celtic Trails, is to introduce a self-guided trail in the footsteps of the Bard. It stretches from Stratford-upon-Avon to Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s Bankside. Details available on www.celtic-trails.com.

EMIRATES FLIGHTS OUT OF IRELAND FOR XMAS

There has been a surge in Christmas bookings and Emirates has introduced extra flights out of Ireland, with one targeting the Christmas market via a Dec 21 departure. Scheduled to include connections from Dublin to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Thailand and the Philippines. Details on www.emirates.ie.


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