Our post tonight comes from a First Class carriage on a Virgin train speeding through Northumberland. Being a cheap date, I’ve only taken a complementary orange juice and an apple when I could have sampled proper drink and something called vegetable tagine, which is apparently ‘spicy chickpea and butternut squash tagine, served with herb bulgur wheat’. Nope, not a clue what any of that is. I had my tea before I got on the train so fruit I’m quite content with.
I’m on the way back from Newcastle tonight, one of my favourite cities but not one I’ve been to for ages. Indeed I haven’t been since before this blog started fourteen months ago. I’ve been through it a few times – usually en route to Durham or York – but not stopped. Newcastle is unfortunately surrounded by places I quite like, including Tynemouth, Hadrian’s Wall and Durham, to name but three, so it ends up being a bolt-on to a day trip some place else. Not today.
Newcastle was a regular day trip destination when I lived in Dunbar, being just an hour down the line and usually cheap to get down and back. Glasgow is that bit further away but, strangely, has a bigger choice of trains to Tyneside than Dunbar plus at least two different ways to actually get there. Tonight’s journey home takes me along the most obvious route up the east coast to Edinburgh then across. I journeyed down this morning the other way, via Carlisle, which I’ve only done once before on a spur of the moment. Despite having been on a Virgin Pendolino on Monday en route to Liverpool, I’ve always liked the route from Glasgow to Carlisle with the hilly glens and twists and turns along the way. So, off I popped, leaving Glasgow at a civilised, mid-morning sort of hour. My reserved seat was on the right side of the train and I spent a fair bit of the journey gazing out of the autumn colour bright and varied against a grey day. I also had a good view towards the Solway Firth as the train crossed the border, the wind turbines high against the landscape, the coastline slightly raised as if to distinguish it more clearly from the grey sky and sea.
Carlisle is a town I know well. I had forty minutes to kill and managed a suitably unhealthy daytripping sort of lunch (sausage rolls from Greggs – indigestion on wheels) plus a decent wander through the main shopping street towards Tullie House, the castle and the cathedral. As I was walking past Marks and Spencers on the way up, there were two guys busking brass band-style, though just as I was past them, they stopped and started blethering. When I was heading back to the station, a good ten minutes later, they were still on a break and having a serious committee meeting, all thoughts of music seemingly abandoned.
Within a few minutes of leaving Carlisle, the whole world had changed. Before Wetheral I looked up to see a river flowing fast below. Between Carlisle and Newcastle is some quite rugged country, much of the line running close to Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman frontier that for a lot of its operational existence separated the Holy Roman Empire and the barbarians beyond. Again the autumn colours were prominent through the rain and the gloom. After Hexham the river Tyne came into view and pretty much stayed there until Newcastle. At one point I saw a heron stood, stooped, in the middle of the river while a few miles on were two anglers, rod, reel, waders, the whole production, no doubt having the time of their lives while not catching a single bloody thing. As so often the Proclaimers said it best:
‘The fishing doesn’t matter
The answer’s always aye
The best view of all is where the land meets the sky’.
I headed straight down to the quayside when I arrived in Newcastle, taking my usual route by the Castle Keep and down the stairs by the High Level Bridge. The many bridges of the Tyne never fail to raise my spirits regardless how many times I’m near them and regardless that today was grey. I stopped every few feet to appreciate the angles, the curve of the Tyne Bridge, dark green as the best things tend to be, the Sage concert hall across the water subtly worked to look like a pupa, and the Baltic arts centre tall, rectangular and stout. Despite the Tyne being dark and murky with the rain, it still reflected the buildings a little in that way that isn’t still but is aiming that way. I wandered across the Millennium Bridge to the Baltic, ignoring all the exhibitions, even the playground that covered one of the galleries, and made haste for the viewing gallery with its great views up the Tyne and across Newcastle city centre.
For those who aren’t familiar with Tyneside, it is served by a light rail system called the Tyne and Wear Metro, serving a great swathe of the area. Its stations are distinguished by a yellow square bearing a big, black letter ‘M’ for Metro, naturally enough. I mention the logo because some poor bugger was gallivanting on Northumberland Street in a yellow foam suit bearing the Metro logo, evidently promoting some marketing wheeze come up with by someone paid a lot more and certainly not ever likely to be in the costume themselves. In a week that has seen me confronted by a giant Felix the Cat and absurd British Rail-era signs saying that where I am walking isn’t a recognised right of way, that’s hard to beat. Newcastle University nearly beat it with a big sign announcing that one of their buildings was a ‘Culture Lab’, but that just made me shake my head and wonder just what in the name of David Gray the world was coming to.
The Great North Museum was eminently more sensible and impressive with it. The first thing you see when you walk in the door is a two-storey natural history display with elephants, tigers and lots of animals you don’t typically see in the hereabouts. As museums go, the Great North Museum is cracking with a great variety of collections, a lot of them appealing to bairns, which was just as well as it’s still half-term in England. As I was there longer, though, the families started heading home and I had more room to breathe. The World Cultures gallery was a hotchpotch of different artefacts from around the globe but arranged thematically rather than geographically, with Newcastle United strips next to gear from Kiribati and New Ireland. The Hadrian’s Wall and Iron Age galleries were worth a look, covering a lot of ground and doing it well, keeping a good mix of objects and text to carry most audiences, but for this audience the highlight ended up being the Ancient Greece gallery, which had some beautiful pottery and some informative interpretation. Ancient Greece isn’t normally my bag but it was today and next time I’m in the British Museum, I’m going to get down and dirty with the many rooms in that fine place dedicated to all things Hellenic.
It was beginning to get dark as I headed back towards the station. Not having been to Newcastle in a while meant there were a few places still to touch base with, including the statue of Cardinal Basil Hume which is just across the way from the station. Anyone who requests the theme of Match of the Day to be played at their funeral is all right by me. Having paid my respects to Baz, I also looked at one of my favourite pieces of pavement art, an etching of a bull by Thomas Bewick, recreated right there on the street. It beats dodging dog shit every day of the week.
Newcastle Central Station is one of the best to spend time in. Since in my time I’ve had to spend more time there than I would have liked, that’s just as well. Trains for Dunbar were every two hours and more often than not ran late. I had to sit there as often two or three trains stopped bound for Scotland but, naturally, not calling at Dunbar. Newcastle is a fine station with an elegant curved roof and a square frontage with pillars and clocks. I sat for a while tonight just peoplewatching, invisible and just watching and looking. Nearby were four uniformed men whose job title was ‘Travel Safe Officers’, a beast I hadn’t before encountered. Their raison d’etre seemed to be standing in a huddle having a committee meeting and answering the odd question from confused passers-by. They were, I think, pretend polis, glorified security guards, though there were actual polis cutting about too. Goodness knows.
Just about in Glasgow. It’s been a cracking day today, maybe not weather-wise but in details and geography, even more as the train crosses the city boundary and Central looms near. It won’t be so long until I’m in Newcastle again, I’m sure, as it was a great lift to be there today, under those bridges and in sight of strange Metro mascots.