Anyone who uses the word ‘staycation’ in my presence will get a punch up the bracket from me.
But yes, I take your point. After previous Christmasses in Copenhagen and Prague, going to Newcastle in 2009 seems like a bit of a comedown by comparison. And the reasons why we ended up there were the same reasons used by anyone else who’s taken a holiday close to home recently: uncertainty about the money situation, coupled with a last-minute booking that limited our options somewhat.
Does that make it a bad Christmas? Does it hell. After all, if we’d repeated our plan from the last two years and travelled on the Eurostar on the Saturday before Christmas, who knows how we’d have ended up. Not to mention the revelation a few days later of the risks of travelling on planes to America with cockbombers. No, a train to Newcastle (courtesy of the newly-renationalised East Coast Rail) suited The Belated Birthday Girl and me just fine, even though everyone we talked to beforehand made the crass assumption that we had friends or relatives we were visiting up there. We haven’t: it’s just a city we’ve always liked the look of but never visited, and it’s got plenty of the sort of stuff going on that we like to talk about here.
Booking at the last minute (more precisely, two weeks before arrival) paid off in terms of the hotel we stayed at. We had two requirements – they had to be reasonably close to the centre of things, and they had to be willing to serve us lunch on Christmas Day. A couple of our usual hotel favourites – Hotel du Vin and Malmaison – could accommodate us, but their restaurants were full. Others like the Grey Street Hotel looked quite funky, but didn’t even have a restaurant, just a secret passageway to the Living Room next door (which wasn’t open on Christmas Day anyway). What to do?
Here’s the funny thing: I don’t even like Hiltons. I remember, as a child, hearing the name and assuming it was the last word in hotel luxury. When I finally got to stay in one – admittedly, in an industrial park on the outskirts of Bristol – I got a rather rude awakening, as it was a tatty old dive and no mistake. But the Hilton Gateshead gave us the best possible combination of food availability (including a full and splendid Christmas Day lunch, and a surprisingly varied breakfast buffet) and cheapish accommodation. Plus, going old-school hotel in Newcastle has one major bonus. The newer boutiquier hotels are all down the end of town closest to the new Millennium Bridge. The Hilton, on the other hand, is right next to the Tyne Bridge, with terrific views from many of the rooms, including the one we were in. We ended up waking up about 7.30am each day just so we could draw the curtains and watch the sun coming up over it.
If I had to make one complaint about the Hilton's location, it would be that in order to achieve the elevation needed to give you a view like the one in the picture above, the hotel was built on a hill with a 45 degree incline. Which made it terribly exciting whenever we had to leave the hotel to go exploring, given how every paved surface was permanently iced over for the whole of Christmas week. Somehow, in the six days we spent in Newcastle, we managed to get through without falling over once, but it was a close run thing - even in Jesmond, of which more later.
Still, once we managed to get across the bridge, the main city centre was being gritted pretty regularly, so we managed to get to explore the town. Although most of the main sights were closed down after December 23rd, so we had to rush. The castle of the same name has lots of interesting passageways to explore, even if most of them don't actually lead to anything: the view of the city from the top is stunning, if bloody cold at this time of year. Bessie Surtees House was a slightly warmer proposition: the site of a famous elopement, it's now the Tyneside office of English Heritage, with a few rooms of period furnishings to keep people interested.
Getting around town wasn't a problem - as Londoners, The BBG and I automatically gravitated towards the Metro underground system. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that the two main days we used it were the main discount ticket days. The Wednesday saver gets you round the transport network for a reasonable £2.70 a day, made slightly disappointing because it didn't cover the rail tickets for a trip to the MetroCentre. (It's possible that local legend and co-founder of Viz Simon Donald was there at the same time as us.) The Sunday saver is even more sensational - £3.90 for unlimited travel for two adults and two children, which we managed to use all day and have two children in change at the end. We used it for an epic journey across town: out to bustling South Shields, ferry across the Tyne, a quick marvel at the ghost town that North Shields has become (it appears to be a bunch of boarded-up pubs and nothing else) and then the Metro back, all on that one ticket.
But all of this is forgetting what Christmas is really all about: shopping. The megashops were inevitably doing a roaring trade in the run-up to the holidays, be it the hellish out-of-town monstrosity of the aforementioned MetroCentre (like Royston Vasey, you'll never leave, mainly because the exits are inadequately signposted), or the traditional department store Fenwicks (whose window Nativity scene gets extra credit for having the graffiti ROMANES EUNT DOMUS on one wall). At the smaller end of the shopping continuum, our big discovery was the Travelling Man comics shop, which frankly makes the Forbidden Planet down the road look like shit. It proved to be a great location for picking up local publications, such as the monthly listings magazine The Crack (although we ended up using the online version more), and small press gems like the anti-charver ragmag Newcastle Stuff or the surreal kids' comic Space Monkey. (Yes, I know that was an obvious purchase on my part.)
The most useful bits on The Crack's website were the restaurant and bar listings. Which is, inevitably, the cue for The Belated Birthday Girl to do her purple-coloured thing. (Or her Times New Roman thing, if I get around to doing a second travel book.)
Our first dining destination in Newcastle was the very stylish SIX Restaurant at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Arts, down at Gateshead Quays. Located on the 6th floor (hence the name), it is known for its terrific views of Newcastle, as well as its well-executed modern British menu. The service was also friendly and efficient on our visit. Get there early, and start with a cocktail in the bar from an interesting list – we can recommend the Sidecar and Kaffir Lime Margarita. The food was good – Spank had butternut squash soup to start, followed by pheasant, while I started with prawns and had a vegetable strudel for my main – with the seriously chunky chips especially good. We didn't have room for pudding.
And at my favourite of our Newcastle restaurants, Starters & Puds, we only managed to share one pud between us, in spite of the restaurant's name. Starters & Puds is a terrific concept, terrifically carried out. Similar to Tapas, rather than having a starter and a main, you choose several small dishes from the “Starters” menu, with some sides on offer. Everything Spank and I ate there was wonderful, and there were many other things on the menu I would have loved to have ordered. What we did have between us was butternut squash risotto, bacon and cheese burger, smoked haddock fishcake, roast figs, pan fried gnocchi, and crispy potato skins. I can personally vouch for everything apart from the burger, but Spank tells me that was excellent, too. Although we were there on Christmas Eve, so it was very quiet and I'm sure the staff wanted to get off home, the service was incredibly friendly. The wines by the glass were extremely good, too, with my Sauvignon Blanc one of the best I have had anywhere. With all those starters, we had barely left room for the eponymous Puds, so we shared an extremely tasty chocolate brownie. If I'm ever in Newcastle again, this place would be top of my list to go back to.
Our other big meal of the trip was at the restaurant at Jesmond Dene House, a rather posh hotel in leafy Jesmond. The one drawback of the location was that the ice on the ground meant it was not physically possible to do the walk from the nearest station to the hotel. And when Spank tried to call a cab from the firm our hotel had recommended to us to take us the few minutes' drive, they put the phone down on him just saying “Try a local cab firm”. If we hadn't happened to see a taxi from Noda Cabs go past with their number on display, we would probably have been stood stranded until the ice thawed! But Noda Cabs got us to Jesmond Dene House, and the staff were very welcoming. And the atmosphere and food was very high class. My starter of exquisite truffle risotto, and Spank's main of beautifully done beef, were our respective highlights. Spank's starter of game terrine and my main of parsley root linguine, though good, paled in comparison. We accompanied our meals with an excellent Mountain Red wine. And our shared dessert of millefeuille was also delightful. It's a testament to the service – as well as the food – that we were happy and relaxed by the time we got Noda Cabs to take us back to our hotel.
Aside from these 3 terrific dinners, there are a few other places I'd like to give a mention to.
Flatbread Cafe is another really good concept of a restaurant, once again based on a Tapas-style idea, but this time with various “world foods” accompanied by the eponymous flatbread. It's a small Newcastle chain (2 branches, at time of writing), which offered us an interesting, budget alternative to the normal pasta and pizza or curry places in the MetroCentre after a movie. The food was decent, and the flatbreads fluffy and warm. Go for more flatbreads rather than the other carb options.
Bob Trollops is a pub serving only vegetarian food. Options include a decent chili non carne and a tasty vegetable hotpot. We washed ours down with Newcastle Brown, as we hadn't had any in our whole visit, but I believe vegetarian beers were also on offer.
And finally a couple of places we just went to for the beer, in a kind-of Viz pilgrimage. The Strawberry Inn is, as the Viz adverts used to have it, a bottle's throw from St. James' Park footy ground, and there we sampled a couple of local ales – Polar Piddle for Spank, and Number 9 for me. And The Trent House has a famous juke box, filled with CDs which are basically people's mix tapes. There we had another local beer, Kiss Me Quick, and a Deuchars.
And I'm back with the cultural stuff from our visit. Our Gateshead location put us within walking distance (or more accurately, sliding distance) of two major arts venues. Sadly, we didn't have time to visit the Sage at all, and we had to try and skim all four exhibitions at BALTIC in one hilariously crammed hour. We managed it, though, so...
Malcolm McLaren's Shallow was a sequence of 'musical paintings', which means cut-up old soft porn films looped over cut-up old records. The visual element isn't all that hot, but some of the musical juxtapositions are jaw-dropping, including an inspired mashup of Joy Division and Captain & Tennille. Damien Hirst's Pharmacy was BALTIC's big commercial draw at the time, theoretically: but it was virtually deserted in that final hour before the Christmas break, and all you can really do with it is scan the shelves looking for medicines you recognise. Martin Parr's exhibition Parrworld was the other big news at the time, as it had been rejected by the Hayward in London before Newcastle picked it up. The main focus is a collection of photos of rich people at play called Luxury: I don't usually go with the generally-accepted opinion that Parr takes the piss out of his subjects, but he's definitely doing it here, and he seems to have found a foolproof way of photographing cigars to make the person at the other end look like a knob. For me, though, the best things on display were Kimsooja's video installations featuring her standing in various world locations, back to the camera, and watching the world react to her.
We saw a couple of movies, too: but they were Avatar and Nine, so it's not like we saw any good ones. Avatar we caught at the IMAX cinema at the Odeon MetroCentre, which had opened less than a week earlier. The BFI IMAX in London was booked out through to the end of January, with thrillseekers keen to watch it on its legendary screen as tall as seven double-decker buses: so catching the film in Newcastle was our second choice. We were disappointed to discover that it's one of those mini-IMAXes which have caused controversy in some quarters, emphasised by the non-ironic comment I overheard behind me: "the screen's supposed to be as tall as two double-decker buses!" But The Tyneside Cinema isn't disappointing at all: a lovely Art Deco cinema with double seats for canoodling, free archive newsreel screenings to celebrate its past as a news theatre, and a bar next door serving cocktails related to the current film. (Given the presence of Daniel Day Lewis in Nine, they missed a trick by not serving milkshakes.)
None of this is very Christmassy, though, is it? We needed a festive family show, so we checked out Stephen Sharkey and Erica Whyman's adaptation of Peter Pan at Northern Stage, whose version of Our Friends In The North was so impressive two years ago. You can see what writer Sharkey and director Whyman are up to - rather than a big glitzy panto that's full of people off the telly, they want to do something closer to the original. But what's actually happened is that they've drained all the fun out of it, and failed to find anything to replace that fun. There's one little bit of magic in Neil Murray's design, a gigantic swinging mast that suddenly turns the stage into Captain Hook's ship, but there's not enough of that sort of thing. And a version of Peter Pan where the crocodile doesn't eat Hook at the end is just political correctness gone mad. It makes you yearn for a bit more old-fashioned vulgarity: possibly we might have got it from the Peter Pan playing down the road at the Sunderland Empire, where Hook was played by Boycie from Only Fools And Horses.
As has become the tradition on this site, we're doing the writeup of our Christmas holiday over the Easter holiday. I can barely remember that time over three months ago when it was so cold, there were only two girls outside on Bigg Market smoking fags in the freezing weather in their microskirts. But it made for a fun Christmas break, and I'd be happy doing it again. Though you wouldn't catch me outside wearing one of those things. Being a monkey, and all.