Northern exposure uncovers Geordie joys

There's more to Newcastle than just football, beer, curry and chips, writes Phil Lutton.

A stiff breeze whipping its way along the River Tyne is all it takes to jolt me out of a jetlagged daze and remind me that the suffocating Brisbane summer I'd just left is half a world away.

I've landed in Newcastle just as a late-November cold snap starts to infiltrate England's northeast. It feels like a sharp slap to my stubbled face but what else would you expect from a reformed coal-mining, ship-building factory town brash enough to rebadge itself as a modern European address, tapping into productive seams of culture, food and nightlife.

The seven iconic bridges spanning the pragmatic waterway, which has sustained Newcastle as it spawned from a Roman settlement to an industrial powerhouse to a cracking Brit city break destination, dominate the views on both sides as I peer across from Gateshead, one half of Newcastle's split personality, although the twin cities are marketed as one.

Behind me, the enormous glass bubbles of The Sage concert hall mirror the view north as cars, trains and pedestrians criss-cross the Tyne in an endless transfusion of bodies and vehicles.

On a hill perched above the city centre, a riverside parcel of land carved up by crooked medieval lanes known as "chares", the white cantilever roof of St James' Park floats as if it's priming for its ascent to the heavens.

It's a cathedral in its own right but the pews may have some extra room next season after the beloved Magpies were demoted from the Premier League after a year as depressing as a Smashing Pumpkins album in the early 90s.

It's an unwelcome development that will dent the pride of the Geordies, the nickname of the locals and their unique and warming dialect. But they've seen tough times before and coping with the shock simply provides another excuse to talk about football, which ranks just behind the weather when it comes to English conversation topics.

Obsessive as the Tynesiders may be, there's more under the skin of Newcastle than Alan Shearer, curry and chips, Brown Ale and rowdy boozers. Nor does the city still exist on the economic nourishment of its coal and engineering background, even if the remnants of that proud blue-collar past are both embraced and recycled.

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Red-brick Tyneside warehouses, like the statuesque Baltic Flour Mill, are now cutting-edge art galleries. The former headquarters of the Tyne Tees Steam Shipping Company is now the luxurious and eclectic Hotel du Vin. It's a theme of renewal that has driven Newcastle's energetic renaissance.

What was once a region covered in black dust, where a day at the office meant a perilous descent underground or manning a welder on the docks, is now a favourite weekend haunt for southerners who want to swap the impersonal sprawl of London for a dash of northern hospitality, Geordie laughs and a change of scenery.

What isn't so clear to local tourism operators is how to convince visiting Australians to stop in as they flit between the tourist powerhouses of London and nearby Edinburgh, usually via a cheap flight from one of London's satellite airports.

The image of a dreary northern town has been somewhat challenging for Newcastle to shake at an international level, even if the city cast off that cloak years ago on the domestic front.

It's a grand shame. Newcastle has the exuberant allure of a confident northern lass, short of skirt but long on substance. For a pocket-sized city, she punches above her weight in terms of cultural attractions and proximity to some of England's most glorious countryside.

A 10-minute drive beyond the city heart will introduce you to the rolling fields of a region historically known as Northumbria, a diverse and beautiful slice of the Isles stacked with castles, postcard villages, the wilds of the Pennines and ancient Roman ruins.

Hadrian's Wall begins its crossing of the island at Wallsend in Newcastle before meandering its way for 117km past Roman forts and farms until it reaches its conclusion on the shores of the Solway Firth, on the country's opposite coast.

It was initiated by the Emperor Hadrian in 122AD to help keep the northern heathens at bay. Today, the wall is one of the UK's best summer walks for hikers and the north's most-visited tourist attraction. Hop-on, hop-off buses also skirt the wall during the peak season for those less interested in footing it between points of interest.

It's not just what you can see and do in "the toon" that makes it worth a thorough investigation. It's what you hear as well, then trying to decipher it.

The broad and well-loved Geordie accent, which ensures a "like (leek)" or a "marn (man)" is casually tossed on the end of every second sentence, is an audible feast but can take some unravelling to the untrained ear, especially after a few bevies in one of the city's cosy pubs or swish vodka bars.

The accent was recently voted the most-loved in Britain, even if the rival regions of the north (the Liverpudlians  and Mancurians) enjoy nothing more than taking barely decipherable pot-shots at each other's communication skills.

After a riverside dinner of succulent local organic pork chops, I opt to brave the chill on my short walk back to the hotel. The soaring, illuminated arch of the Millennium Bridge fades into the background as I trudge through the cold, driven forward by the waiting warmth in my room.

I'm asleep before I hit the pillow, eventually waking to see the light fight its way through the mist hovering on the Tyne to illuminate a city waking to a glorious northern day.

Newcastle might lack the PR of its better-known counterparts but to trade in a meander through its  honest charms for the cramped confines of a Ryanair flight is bordering on the criminally insane.

It's worth the four-hour train ride from London and then some. Haway man! (see below for English translation).

Phil Lutton was a guest of One Northeast

GETTING THERE

Emirates currently operate double-daily services from Sydney and Brisbane to Dubai, with a thrice-daily service from Melbourne to Dubai. There are daily connections between Dubai and Newcastle. See www.emirates.com/au.
Stay The Hotel Du Vin is a 42-room boutique hotel in the former home of the Tyne Tees Steam Shipping Company, a short distance from the city centre. See www.hotelduvin.com/newcastle.

The Jesmond Dene Hotel, a short drive from the city, is set beside a bubbling stream and overlooks a peaceful wooded valley. The 40-room historic home also features a bistro run by local celebrity chef Terry Leybourne. See www.jesmonddenehouse.co.uk.

Say Haway man (come on), aye (yes), toon (town), dee (do), kets (sweets), nettie (toilet), yem (home).
Do Take a daytrip to Hadrian's Wall and a Roman fort, explore the ever-changing exhibitions of the Baltic Flour Mill, take the kids to explore the Seven Stories Centre for Children's Books, stand at the foot of the soaring Angel of the North statue, check out Newcastle's buzzing after-dark scene, visit the wine bars and cafes at nearby Tynemouth.

More www.northeastengland.com.au