I don’t know why we visited Newcastle. There was some sort of miscommunication, I think. We initially looked at it because Sunderland was playing a game nearby. And then we thought about Hadrian’s Wall and Durham as nearby day trips. Newcastle would be a convenient large city nearby. But we chose Manchester for the soccer game, and arrived without any concrete plans. Hadrian’s Wall is tough to visit in the winter, without a car, which left us visiting Durham.
Although it caused the rest of our trip to feel rushed, I did enjoy seeing Newcastle. It’s a city that there’s really very little reason to visit, and for that reason had a different atmosphere than London, York, or Edinburgh. Even Manchester has two enormous soccer teams to draw crowds.
We arrived late and walked quite a ways from the train station to our AirBnB. In contrast to York, this AirBnB was phenomenal, in the most AirBnB way – rather than a slick hotel, you were indisputably staying in someone’s house. But our host, a woman in her 60s, was just cool. The house was huge, three stories a little outside of town, and our host: was a beekeeper; made us mulled wine; was working on a GPS-based artfilm; had a friend with a treehouse; was housesitting two cats; owned a huge fluffy dog; offered us a wheel of cheese; and was (I think) a former teacher or professor. We spent a while talking to her (she did like to talk)!
We visited Durham the next day. It’s just a 15-minute train ride away, a perfect little day trip. It was pretty cold this late in the year, but this was clearly a seasonal town – it was host to a huge University and would be beautiful with some leaves on the trees.
The crown jewel of Durham is the Cathedral… which was my actually my personal favorite cathedral of all that I’ve visited. We took a guided tour and went up the tower as well. The cathedral is old, dating back to the end of the 12th century, and the Norman architecture is imposing in a way that the flowery Milan or Cologne cathedrals are not. It also has a great history, having held Scottish captives for some time during the English Civil War. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so you’ll have to look at the wikipedia page to get an idea of the monumental feel.
The area around the cathedral is cute: the town nestles in the elbow of a river and the downtown is tiny. There’s a dramatic hill in the town, which the cathedral is on top of, along with a castle (now the university). On the other side of the river are rolling hills, complete with hamlets. I just had that feeling I’d been hoping for all trip – “this is England” – the England of Simon Pegg’s Hot Fuzz, and Mr Bean, and the Vicar of Dibley.
Having seen the big sites, we crossed over the river and were immediately in a more plain neighborhood. After an aborted hiking expedition (it was getting too dark out), we grabbed a drink at the most traditional pub we saw in all of Britain, filled with what I’d ill-advisedly call “working class blokes.” Both Alex and I give high ratings to all British pubs, which have a much cozier, more conversational atmosphere than you see in any New York City bar.
We returned to Newcastle in early evening (in the dark) with the goal of seeing at least a little of the town. After all, we’d arrived late on the first night, and then spent the whole day in Durham, and we wanted to do Newcastle justice.
Naturally, Newcastle is named for a castle, parts of which are scattered in the city center. And they’re basically open at night – you can walk across the drawbridge and just check out the portcullis, which we did.
The main river in Newcastle, the Tyne, has some art museums on the banks and a crazy counterbalanced walking bridge. In the end, I had a pretty positive verdict of the city. Although there’s not a lot of big tourist draws, it felt like a friendly, unpretentious, livable city – one small enough that you might be able to feel a bit of community, surrounded by interesting historical sites.