I approached the lovely city of Newcastle from the North after having visited my former home of 18 months, Edinburgh. Situated near the East Coast of England in Northumberland, the first thing I noticed about Newcastle was how it lies in the valley along the river Tyne. All roads lead downwards towards the Tyne, this kind of feature creates an extra visual interest as well as very strong orientation cues when wandering about.
After checking-in to my quayside hotel and depositing my car behind the old fish market, I set out for some initial explorations. The second thing I noticed about Newcastle was how friendly the locals are. Known as Geordies and Tyne-siders, I found that everyone I interacted with from the hotel reception to strangers on the street were warm and helpful. After determining my plan for tomorrow, I return to my hotel. On the way, the third notable aspect to me are the handsome bridges that span the Tyne. They really add to the character of this town.
I start the next day having the Full English Breakfast that came with my room. This happens all too often, I find it hard to turn down the fry-up to have the cereal and yoghurt alternative. Staying in mid-range places, many of them do include a full breakfast, but most of them do not include having a fitness centre to work it off. I will need to start balancing this better, traveling more than not as I am. But, there will be other countries to have daily fruit and coffee for my morning meal, I tell myself. Oh, the excuses.
I walk up lovely Grey Street, the Victorian corridor that curves up the valley climb that was named after Earl Grey. I’m going to the information centre to join a walking tour that starts at 10:30. I have so often missed these tours by minutes or hours by having not known about them until it was too late so now this is something I look into straight away. These are a fantastic chance to be led around an unfamiliar place by a local who has studied lots of interesting details. It’s also nice to meet some other travellers, especially when travelling alone, dining alone, wandering alone, driving alone; you get the idea. Originally I was not interested in meeting non-locals, but this has changed over time from coming to understand that it can be harder to meet people than I had anticipated.
I join a retired couple from Phoenix, Arizona (but originally from and sounding as from New Orleans), and a young man from Blackburn as we are led around the centre by a volunteer guide from Gateshead. (Gateshead is basically the continuation of Newcastle on the other side of the Tyne.)
Following the 90 minute tour, Amir, the 21 year-old from Blackburn, and I decide to continue for lunch. This turns in to quite a tour itself as we look for halal alternatives. There are lots around for dinner, not so many for lunchtime. “There are only two mosques here and they are both in the university.” Amir tells me by way of explanation. We happen by one person who notices Amir and greets him traditionally. There are not a lot of Muslims in Newcastle, at least not in this area.
Amir wants to visit every possible art gallery and we go in to two different shops when we happen upon them. He does not see the difference between a store that sells paintings and a public art gallery. Having been a store owner, I do. We are lucky at one of the galleries, the artist, from Harrowgate, is actually present today. He has some very interesting paintings on 3-dimensional canvases. He paints in reverse perspective, basically painting the exact opposite of the perspective that our brain would expect and interpret. Smaller things look like they are further away, views diminish with distance. In his work, the opposite is true which makes for fun brain confusion.
Af first when I look at them I see the dimensions of the canvas, but after a few moments they appear flat to me and my eyes strain to interpret what is in front of me. Quite fascinating, I’ve never seen them done quite like this before. Amir is excited to meet the artist but has nothing to say or ask. In fact, he led us into the gallery and then toured around as if navigating a maze rather than looking at the artwork beyond periphery glance. This he does in all three of the galleries we view today.
Outside the galleries we continue our search for food Amir can eat. He had originally only wanted take-away to keep his budget, but I am happy to treat to have a sit down meal. I need this kind of break when touring around. “There is something that I have been wanting to talk to you about,” Amir says, “but I’ll wait until we’re sitting down.”
“What!?” I am thinking. I only met him a couple of hours ago and he has already been pining to tell me something for which I should be seated? I’m not sure I want to hear whatever this could be. He’s already told me how he left his abusive father with his mother and two sisters seven years ago, and has not keep in contact. (He would have been quite little, only fourteen and the oldest of the children.) I know he has had issues that had him delay his schooling and that for the past two years he has worked at charity shops in Blackburn. I know that he wants to have four masters degrees, an odd detail of ambition I didn’t think about when he said it. Four separate masters degrees. I don’t think he’s started uni yet. I know he has a fixation on libraries, he joins the local library everywhere he goes. He has twelve library cards and today he hopes to make his favourite number, thirteen.
I’m sure he’s harmless though. Very possibly a lunatic, but safe. He’s just little too.
We finally set on Italian where he can have a vegetarian pizza. I didn’t know what a Muslim could eat but if he had shared this before we could have easily eaten an hour ago. Anyway, I order a cappuccino before we look at the menues and continue to wonder about what he could possibly want to talk to me about. He’s a traditional looking Muslim guy, a 21-year old with olive skin and a long beard stands-out. Maybe he’s struggling with being gay and wants to confide to someone outside his circle? Or maybe he’s going to ask me for money, I hope he doesn’t ask me to sponsor him to university or something. Finally the time is right, he is going to talk about whatever it is he has been waiting to share.
“So I’ve had this pen pal for 2 years and we finally met and I really like her,” he starts,”but there’s this other girl too who I think I like.”
Ha,ha,ha on me. He just wants to talk to me about his girl troubles. An older guy who is not Muslim so will not have the bias of that particular religious perspective to be the sounding board for what he should do. Of course I am instantly relieved and have to force myself not to laugh as he concludes, “so I’m kind of in a girl sandwich.”
It does sound very complicated in that to date either girl he needs to nearly concede to eventual marriage, neither girl would date without that aim in mind. As of this moment he has barely spoken to either of them, one works in the library and giggles when he speaks barely able to fuse any sort of response. The other shared buckets when there were pen pals (a type of Muslim online dating site), but became typically shy once they met in person and has barely spoken since. Anyway, it’s interesting for me but I encourage him to perhaps forget about both girls if he is being true that he does not want to marry until he’s about 30 since he knows both girls are looking for a springboard to marriage. If he doesn’t want to offer them that and he knows that is what they are both looking for then I don’t quite understand the conundrum. He’ll probably be married within the year.
After lunch we cross the incredible Gateshead Millennium Bridge. A really interesting engineering project, the pedestrian bridge is a partial loop when flat over the water, with a counter-balance hovering above. When turned on it’s axis, the horizontal walkway made vertical creates a large opening over the water. It’s very cool and adds an extra dimension to Newcastle’s lovely collection of 7 bridges.
On the opposite side of the bridge we enter the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Here we enjoy wonderful views from two viewing platforms, as well as see a few art pieces such as a square soccer ball and a large plain make-up mirror with lipstick writing on it. It said something like, “I love you” in French. It wasn’t exactly that, but it was forgettable. Clotheslines of bedsheets hanging as if to dry. That kind of thing.
Amir notices a boat tour as we approach the very impressive Sage Gateshead, a triple concert hall that reminds me of an Aubergine. It is an amazing space. Amir runs up to the concert ticket desk and asks, “How much are boat tours?” I have not yet entirely clued in yet that he is perhaps a bit off, so I find it funny that he has approached this question like a 6-year old. “Those adults at the big desk look official, they’ll know.” I imagine him thinking.
“Well, we sell concert tickets,” a kindly man replies, “but I could look that up for you on the internet.”
“I’ve been to all the cities in Yorkshire!” Amir informs and starts listing all the cities he as visited over the past two years on day trips.
“There’s an open bus tour you can take to see all of Newcastle,” a friendly adjacent ticket agent offers.
“Oh, no. I don’t want to do that. I already went on a bus tour in York so I don’t need to do that again.”
“But this is a different city, I’m sure it would be an entirely different tour?” She looks to me now with eyes a little bit widened as if looking for some glimmer of comprehension. I’m rather taken by surprise myself by his response. He has such a high function in some ways but is a very young child in others. His memory is exceptional, but memory is not intelligence. It can look like it though. I had been surprised that he includes specific dates when he talks about things he has done and when he told me of his girl troubles. “So on March 2nd I saw her a the library with my friend and she only listened from far away but on March 9th she actually talked to me.” “I went to York on April 23 and to Leeds on May 12th and I went to Liverpool on February 7th.” I am one easily impressed by details of memory because if I don’t write it down I may forget where I was three days ago. Or what I had for dinner last night.
So I have found the boat tour information using my phone before the gentleman at the counter has, distracted as he is by Amir sharing all the details of his day trips. “We missed the last one at 3PM, that’s the one we saw going.”
Next door this is a Heritage Information building where Amir inquires as to whether he can get a library card and what the library hours are. Again, the people here are very friendly and do their best to answer his random questions, but I have the answer using my phone before any of them are able to conjure it. “It closes at 5:30,” I tell him.
We cross the River Tyne over the swing bridge this time. This bridge is manned in a little office 24/7 because it needs to be operated locally. Any happening vessel, even a private yaught, can request it’s opening so hands need to be ready. All this information according to our guide, who has toured it’s interior during a specialty tour. He thinks the bridge only opens about a dozen times a year, certainly less than 20 times. That’s a lot of man-hours in waiting. Perhaps vessels should be required to phone ahead to have it opened rather than it be constantly staffed. Or, a signal could come from a bridge up-river to indicate the need to open is approaching.
We make our way to the Central Library where another kind and warm local does his best to turn off his auto-script when signing someone up to get a library card. “So when you use our online services. . . .” “I don’t have the internet.” “Right, so when you take out a book . . .” “I don’t take out books. I just want the library card. This is number 13.” “Yes, yes, you said you live in Blackburn.” The librarian seemed quite entertained and amused by this young man collecting library memberships everywhere he goes.
Amir was really excited to have his 13th card. It made the entire day with it. Three hours coming and three hours back by train to be here just the day. The ticket cost him £72 ($100 ish) which is a huge expense for him. It would be cheaper for him to stay in a hostel and visit a different nearby city before returning home, but he does each trip as a completely separate day trip. Some of the cities are very near to each other and quite far from Blackburn, but it is his way and I am not sure he could alter that. Stay overnight? No, no, I go home at night.
We stop for a milkshake at what makes Amir’s 12th different shake place, but this is only if he counts having a shake at Costa Coffee and that’s not a shake place so he’s not sure if it really counts. Not strictly, I think, but really he should make his own rules for what he has created as accomplishments so I don’t offer my opinion.
I leave Amir at the train station and wander in the direction of my hotel by the water. He insists on giving me a bag of crisps that he bought 2 for £1. I’ve not bought chips once during my trip but these don’t last the night. Oops.
What an interesting day, I’ll never know just how quirky or possibly certifiable that little guy is.
Watching the bridge rotate on it’s axis to give way for sea traffic, you can see where it got it’s nickname, “Blinking Eye”. Mostly it opens as a tourist attraction, no boats passed underneath when we viewed it’s scheduled opening.
Coming from Canada, I had no notions as to what to expect in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Only after did I read that it has a hold-over reputation as being industrial and dirty. I can say with complete confidence that this reputation should be washed away. Today, NewcastleGateshead is a very handsome, thriving, clean and interesting city and I am very happy that I included it on my itinerary. Definitely worth a visit, I will probably be back.