Summer 2012 is all about England.
First we’ve got the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and the race is on to get the street parties in full swing as Brits up and down the country dust down bunting left over from Kate and Will’s wedding last year, hoist up their flags, and bring out the baking tins as they prepare to mark the special occasion.
Then there’s the Olympics. After years of organising the ancient games, they’re almost here, and London is ready to accommodate the tens of thousands of visitors from across the globe that will descend on the city for these two grand occasions.
And here’s the problem for me because I’m a northern lass through and through, and while a rare glimmer of patriotism flares up in the pit of my belly when the world’s eyes are thrown on my country for such celebrations, it always seems to be London and the surrounding south that hog the limelight.
Ask any Brit, and they’ll tell you about the north-south divide; the invisible wall that may as well split England in two. You’ve got London and the affluent south that like a proud peacock is paraded in front of the world for all to see.
Then there’s the north, which sits silently, always in its big brother’s shadow. Rich in the pocket in comparison it may not be, but it’s certainly rich in culture, history, hospitality and an enviable unbreakable spirit.
Away from the capital’s heavy smog, cramped tubes filled with a poisonous, oppressive heat that smothers your lungs, catching in your throat with every breath, pavements being pounded by people battling to move and heavy traffic that never seems to sleep, there’s a whole country waiting to be explored.
And just a three hour train journey away from London sits the city of Newcastle – home to the Geordies, Newcastle United Football Club, and a warm nature that staves off the chill that blows from the North Sea.
Once hailed as England’s industrial capital, Newcastle and the surrounding area has rich coal mining and ship building roots and at the turn of the 20th century was basking in the delights of prosperity. Industry was booming and life was great.
Then along came Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and with one clench of her iron fist, she hammered the nail into the city, and region’s, industrial coffin, shutting coal mines one by one, draining the region’s lifeblood.
Within a few years, the traditions of the region were crushed, marking the end of an era for families who could trace their coal mining roots back through generations. With unemployment rising at an unprecedented rate, the region slumped into poverty and by the mid-80s there was a bitter taste in the mouths of pretty much every person living in the region.
Problems bred. Anger, bitterness, violence, and crime rose. Once beautiful buildings were left to crumble, and the city fell into a depression. Three decades later, and Newcastle is well and truly back on her feet; like the phoenix she has risen bolder and stronger from the ashes of her industrial past but still struggling to fight off an image held by most of those living down south as a drab and dreary city.
Boasting something for everyone, Newcastle combines its historical roots with the new contemporary and vibrant city that stands today. Boasting the most Grade II listed buildings outside of the capital, Grainger Town is the city center’s historical heart.
Built by Richard Grainger between 1824 and 1841, the area takes in Grey Street. Voted the best street in the UK, some of the best shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels are housed in the grand Georgian buildings that make up the gently curved street that leads to the lower end of the city.
Continue down the slope and you reach the Quayside – a symbol of the city’s radical regeneration. From the freshly paved streets that sit on the banks of the world-famous River Tyne are bustling bars, restaurants, and art galleries that provide unparalleled views of the city’s iconic seven bridges, which include the Tyne Bridge and the more recently installed arches of the Millennium Bridge.
If city life isn’t for you, then the surrounding countryside will take your breath away. The neighboring county of Northumberland is home to some of the country’s most stunning countryside containing an abundance of national parks, heather-capped hills, and rolling green countryside, dotted with quintessentially English castles.
The ancient Hadrian’s Wall, a defensive 120km structure built by the Romans in AD 122 that cuts across the country from Wallsend in Newcastle on the east coast, through Northumberland and finishing in Cumbria in the west, has to be seen to be believed.
If you’re a hardy hiker, then there’s plenty of B&Bs to host you as you make your way along the wall, or board a bus and explore a smaller section, taking in the panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
While there are plenty of castles to choose from, Alnwick Castle, nestled in the market town of the same name 30 miles north of Newcastle, is top of the list and one that Harry Potter fans will be familiar with as it provided the backdrop for Hogwarts in the first famous film.
Still home to the Percy family – immortalised by Shakespeare in Henry VI through fearless knight Harry “Hotspur” Percy – visitors can delve into the 700 year history of drama, intrigue, tragedy, and romance that has taken place inside its looming walls.
A little further north, situated on the stunning coastline of Northumberland is Bamburgh Castle. Nestled on a basalt outcrop, the castle is steeped in 2,000 years of history and overlooks the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne, an ancient monastery that sits on Holy Island, which is cut off from the mainland and only reachable during low tide.
If beaches are more your thing, then there’s plenty to choose from, but wrap up tight as the North East is renowned for the chill it carries in the air. A 20 minute Metro rise away from Newcastle is Tynemouth.
Situated at the mouth of the River Tyne, this town is home to several stretching beaches where the brave can be seen surfing the choppy waves. Tiny restaurants serve up freshly caught fish and chips, rows of friendly pubs and cafes offer a welcome break from the wind and boutiques sell everything from quirky crafts and jewellery to locally made art and ceramics.
There’s plenty more tricks up the North East’s sleeve than the few I’ve shared here but I’ll leave the rest to be discovered by you in your journey to the country’s finest quarter.
To find out more about Marissa Carruthers, check out her author bio.