England: Newcastle, as you've never seen it before

By Kate Simon

Kate Simon discovers that the active trail that weaves its way through Newcastle exercises the mind as well as the body.

Antony Gormley's Angel of the North looms large over Gateshead, Tyne and Wear in the north of England. Photo / Thinkstock
Antony Gormley's Angel of the North looms large over Gateshead, Tyne and Wear in the north of England. Photo / Thinkstock

The sea is flat in Tynemouth today. It can barely heave a watery sigh, let alone puff up a crest of foam. On the dunes behind Longsands beach, I'm despairing of my chances of getting in the briney. "I could take you down to the beach, go through the safety procedure,'' suggests Stephen Hudson, owner of the Tynemouth Surf Company, surveying the pathetic scene with me.

The rain starts to fall. We retreat to Stephen's shop/school on the front. After riding the waves from Australia to Hawaii, it was a no-brainer for this local boy to set up business in the north-east town where his passion was kindled. "I love this beach. I long for the winter because the surf is so good here,'' he says.

The shop's walls are lined with wetsuits, a gallery of surfboards stand ready for inspection on a balcony above. Business is swift for buying kit and booking lessons, says Stephen, a testament to how popular this stretch of coast is with surfers.

Yet this is the nearest I'll get to Neoprene today.

Never mind, it's not as though I haven't had any exercise. To get here I've just cycled 15 miles from the other side of Newcastle. This burst of activity has been prompted by the north-east city's marketeers, who are keen to convince me that this area has a greener side.

The bike ride began beneath the wings of Antony Gormley's Angel of the North in Gateshead, where I looped its feet to take in 360-degree views of the steel giant while flicking through the gears in preparation for the ride. The bike had been brought to the trailhead by Andrew Straw from the Cycle Hub, a new "cycling community centre'' with shop, café and bike hire, which opened in June at Spillers Quay in Newcastle. This social enterprise is the initiative of Andrew's Newcastle-based cycling holiday company Saddle Skedaddle and the local council, its aim being to get Geordies, as well as visitors, pedal pushing.

"Bringing the bikes is all part of the service,'' said Andrew, explaining that we'd be trying out the "Angel to Admiral'' tour, bound for the statue of Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood at Tynemouth, one of three routes, guided or self-guided, that the Cycle Hub has just devised.

We set off in drizzle along the A167 through Low Fell, an unremarkable start, but soon dipped into Saltwell Park, a Victorian confection of boating lakes and ornamental gardens with a stately pile at its heart. Onwards, we again embraced the urban jungle, sneaking under a shoulder of the Tyne Bridge to the cries of the kittiwakes that nest there in the summer. We swooped along the south bank, below Norman Foster's concert hall, the Sage, an undulating bubble of glass and metal, stopping short of the old Rank Hovis building, now the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, to turn on to the Millennium Bridge, the newest of the seven that stride the Tyne in the centre of the city.

It was only beyond the Cycle Hub itself, on the river's northern quay, that nature really began to push back the concrete. "We're on the Coast to Coast Route and Hadrian's Cycleway here,'' explained Andrew. Our path pushed inland, the Tyne put out of reach by old industrial yards, to pass by the Segedunum Roman fort at Wallsend. From there we weaved across roads to link a succession of quieter country paths before emerging in North Shields, and finally rejoining the river to see it meet the North Sea at Tynemouth. The bike ride was satisfying, if hardly taxing. We chased downhill or across the flat, with only a couple of uphill pushes at Tynemouth.

A similarly moderate walk awaited me on the new Ouseburn Trail. For the start of this six-mile riverside path, I headed to Jesmond Dene, a romantic park created in the valley of the river Ouseburn during the 19th century by local industrialist William Armstrong. Here, in Coleman's Field, a bridge has been built over the river to create an uninterrupted path from this ambrosial spot through the suburbs of the city to the banks of the Tyne.

The route of the walk is still disjointed because of ongoing work around the East Coast Mainline Bridge. Yet its most interesting section, the regenerating industrial landscape near its end at Ouseburn, is accessible now. I start this section of path from beneath the high arches of the Byker Bridge, in the shadow of former warehouses and mills on a stretch of the river once plied by freight barges known as wherries. This one-time slum, cleared only in the 1980s, has been taken over by a creative community, its buildings filled with music venues, architects offices and even a coffee roastery.

Along the towpath, my walk becomes a living history lesson, and I find it hard not to be waylaid by the information boards posted on the shore. I discover that Procter's Warehouse, once a grain store, is now Seven Stories, the Centre for Children's Books, one of many artistic enterprises transforming the area. I survey the desolate site where once stood Maling & Sons Pottery, the largest on Tyneside. And I chart the progress of a former livestock hold that became Maynards Toffee Works and is now a colourful office block.

It seems Newcastle's active trail exercises the mind as well as the body.

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