Newcastle upon Tyne is my home city, it’s not far from where I was brought up and it’s somewhere I thought I knew very well. Having not lived here for over twenty years things, as you can imagine, have changed a lot so I thought it was time I rediscovered the city and on a recent trip up to Newcastle that’s exactly what I did.
This post is all about the historic “Grainger Town” area of the city. Grey’s Monument is regarded by many to be the modern heart of Newcastle and was erected in 1838 to commemorate Earl Grey’s achievements in passing the Great Reform Bill of 1832. Sitting atop the monument is the man himself, former Northumberland MP and Prime Minister Earl Grey.
Coming directly off the Monument area is Grey Street, voted the most beautiful street in the country by the listeners of Radio 4 and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Enviroment (CABE). It really is a magnificent sight and is the work of visionary property developer Richard Grainger. Starting in 1834, Grainger set about transforming Newcastle, with his classically designed streets as part of his “City of Palaces” blueprint.
Behind the Earl and the Monument he stands on is Blackett Street, the ornate building on the corner is the Emerson Chambers, built around 1903 for Robert Emerson Junior, a local brewer and inn keeper and designed primarily by Benjamin Simpson one of the city’s more eccentric architects. The building is a fine example of the Art Nouveau style.
Going down the alley between this building and Fenwick’s department store will take you into Brunswick Place and to the Brunswick Methodist Chapel, it’s one of the earliest of its type in the north east of England.
Back on Blackett Street is the Old Eldon Square. In 1824 Richard Grainger commissioned John Dobson to produce designs for Eldon Square, the design was for three terraces facing a central square, in the 1960’s the west and north terraces were demolished to make way for the new Eldon Square Shopping Centre. Today the square still houses the city’s war memorial, a bronze statue of St George – the patron saint of the Northumberland Fusiliers – slaying a dragon.
At the top of Blackett Street where it meets Newgate Street is St Andrew’s Church. Structurally the building contains more 12th century work than any other in the area making it the oldest church in the city. At the back of the church you can see a short stretch of the medieval town wall.
Just along Newgate Street is the huge and unmissable facade of the Co-op building which originally housed the Co-operative Wholesale movement. The building is a great example of the Art Deco style, popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The building is currently closed and undergoing extensive refurbishment but has some superb Art Deco touches inside particularly the stairwells in the towers that have little human figures carrying the handrails.
Right next to the Co-op is the modern Gate development, home to bars, restaurants and a cinema. Just outside is a glass and steel sculpture called “Ellipsis Eclipses’s” by Danny Lane. Just underneath the glass pedestrian bridge and on the right is Dispensary Lane which takes you into Blackfriars.
Blackfriars is a real step back in time. This quiet little haven is one of Newcastle’s hidden gems, and befitting the quiet air, was once home to Dominican Friars who arrived here in 1239. The church that was once here was destroyed during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, but its outline is still visible today. The building the friars used as their eating area is now an award winning restaurant.
A small little archway takes you from Blackfriars and out onto Stowell Street, home to Newcastle’s Chinatown. You’ll be greeted by a wonderful array of aromas informing you that you’ve reached the best Chinese restaurants in town.
Going left down Stowell Street you’ll come to the West Walls, the longest section of the original town walls. Built between 1280 and 1283 to protect the city large pieces still survive today.
The Tyne Theatre on Westgate Road which opened in 1867 is one of the most important theatres in the country as it still houses its original 19th century stage machinery which is still operational today.
Just down Westgate Road are the Assembly Rooms. Designed by William Newton they were built in 1774 and are still one of the city’s finest and grandest Georgian buildings.
Further down on the corner of Grainger Street is St John’s Church. Inside the church there are some interesting features including a commemoration to Richard Grainger himself. Look carefully at the wooden choirstalls in the north aisle and you’ll spot little wooden mice that were carved by the Yorkshire craftsman Robert “mousey” Thompson, who developed that particular trademark as an indication that he and his fellow craftsmen were “as poor as church mice”.
Back out onto Grainger Street and there are more of Grainger’s magnificent buildings to be seen. Along the way is the Grainger Market, a covered indoor market that was thought to have been designed by John Dobson who worked closely with Grainger.
The market contains many shops that have been with the same family for generations, and is still home to one of the original Marks and Spencer’s Penny Bazaars. This particular one was built in 1895 and its shop front is the oldest and smallest Marks and Spencer’s still surviving today.
The Central Arcade is another of Grainger’s creations and dates from 1906, its ornate interior is really worth a look with its porcelain tiles and mosaic floor.
Walking out of the Central Arcade and back on to Grey Street one building dominates the view in front of you, the Theatre Royal. This beautiful Grade I listed building was opened in 1837 and was recently refurbished to bring it back to what it would originally have looked like. It is also the third home to the Royal Shakespeare Company after London and Stratford upon Avon.
Not far away from the Theatre Royal on Pilgrim Street is the Tyneside Cinema, one of the few independent cinemas remaining in England. It still boasts a delightful 1930’s Art Deco auditorium. There’s a great little cafe in the cinema that serves some of the best coffee in the city.
On the corner of Pilgrim Street and Blackett Street is the Northern Goldsmiths. Look up and you’ll see the beautiful golden lady representing Venus atop an ornate clock.
Northumberland Street is Newcastle’s main shopping area, just past Fenwick’s department store look up at the white stone building with the four stone figures gazing down at the shoppers below. The building was once owned by Boots the Chemist, who had a habit of decorating their buildings with local historic figures. These are: Thomas Bewick (the 18th century wood engraver), Harry Hotspur (14th century soldier and son of the first Earl of Northumberland), Sir John Marlay (Newcastle’s Mayor during the civil war period) and Roger Thornton (Newcastle’s 15th century Dick Whittington).
New Bridge Street just round the corner from Northumberland Street is home to the Laing Art Gallery founded in 1901 by Alexander Laing, a local businessman. The gallery houses an internationally important art collection focusing on British oil paintings, watercolours, ceramics, silver and glassware, it’s free to visit with the exception of some exhibitions.
Back on Pilgrim Street there’s a narrow opening called High Bridge, this is one of the oldest streets in Newcastle and is home to some lovely boutiques and independent retailers.
At the end of High Bridge you come into the Bigg Market. This is where medieval Newcastle citizens once sold and bought a type of barley known as “bigg”.
Towards the top end of this paved area is the Rutherford Memorial, possibly the most ironic monument in Newcastle. It commemorates John Hunter Rutherford, a Scottish doctor and educational reformer of the mid 1800’s, and a strong advocate of temperance. Today the area is a well known party place filled with pubs and bars. The inscription on the monument, “water is best” seems a little out of place.
Looking down the hill and to the left is a building with small white crescent moons on the outside, a reminder of its past as an old coaching inn.
Some other noticeable features of the area include the wonderful tiling of the Beehive Pub, The Old George Pub – go into the alleyway and look at the building opposite, it was once a stable – the pub has been in existence since 1690. Balmbras which is now empty was where the Geordie anthem “The Blaydon Races” was first sung.
St Nicholas’ Cathedral with its elegant Lantern Tower (1448) is particularly ornate and the cathedral’s crowning glory, it’s also worth a look inside as there’s a host of interesting features.
Going past the old church yard you arrive at a paved area. On the doorway opposite there’s a fanged hare, or as it’s more popularly known the Vampire Rabbit. One of the more striking sights in town but nobody knows why it’s actually there.
In the south corner of this enclosed area is a bust of 18th century local artist and wood engraver, Thomas Bewick. Bewick was a pioneer of wood engraving and his workshop once stood on this site.
Not far from here is another view of Grey Street, Sir John Betjeman who once commented “I shall never forget seeing it to perfection, traffic-less on a misty Sunday morning. Not even Regent Street, even Old Regent Street, London, can compare with that subtle descending curve”.