The northeast outpost of Newcastle will host the All Blacks during 2015's Rugby World Cup in England. Fans tempted to watch from a London pub should think again, writes Geoff Cumming.
Unless doomed to support its under-achieving football team or intrigued by the behaviour on Geordie Shore, Newcastle isn't on the radar of most New Zealanders visiting Britain.
It's a football town famous for its drinking culture — or is that the other way around?
The northeast seems a long way from London and, other than its famous exports — Gazza and, er, coal — most of us know little about the place. Its old image as a hard-headed industrial town doesn't help.
But preconceptions of cloth caps and grime disappear as soon as you step off the train at Central Station. You emerge into a precinct of neo-classical buildings, dating from an early-1800s makeover, which give the city a European flavour. The coherent sandstone fabric is sprinkled with heritage gems dating from Norman times.
The city centre slopes down to the Tyne River, where the once rundown and seedy port is given over largely to pleasure: bars, restaurants and arts venues make ideal viewing spots to gaze at the line-up of distinctive bridges.
A far cry from the post-Thatcher years, Newcastle's reinvention as a cultural capital is a lesson for other port cities looking at "transformation".
Next year, the Toon hosts three Rugby World Cup matches including a double-header weekend: the All Blacks v Tonga on Friday night and Scotland against Samoa the following night.
It's the perfect excuse to spend a few days in the north and enjoy a region rich in cultural, leisure and scenic attractions.
Here's a First XV of things to do.
1. Get to the park
St James' Park, that is. The home of premier league football stalwarts Newcastle United will host three Rugby World Cup games and the stands' proximity to the sidelines will ensure intense viewing (even if the short dead-ball areas will put the wingers off extravagant dives). But the best reason for a preview is the rooftop stadium tour. It's not for the faint-hearted: the cantilevered roof was the biggest in the world when built and the steel-mesh grates you walk on are troublingly thin. But the reward is spectacular views of the city and surrounds — and the turf 55m below. It's a great way to get your bearings.
2. Go shopping
The city has the best of both worlds: one of the biggest malls in Britain in Eldon Square and high street shopping with all the European labels in revitalised heritage Grainger Town. The area's wide streets and Greek and Roman-styled buildings date from the early 1800s, when builder Richard Grainger and architect John Dobson oversaw redevelopment of the town centre. But, by the 1990s, the area was in disrepair. An award-winning restoration has brought back a healthy mix of retail, commerce and markets — and plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants.
Georgian buildings reflected in the mirror glass of Eldon Square shopping centre Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Darren Harmon
3. Enjoy Grey St
Curving down from Grey's Monument, the towering 1838 tribute to Earl Grey, the Northumberland-born Prime Minister, Grey St was rated Britain's best street in a radio poll a few years ago, chiefly because of its architecture. A highlight is the domed Central Arcade, built in Edwardian times to cater for Newcastle's rich, with its ornate tiling and full-glass frontages.
4. Take in the theatre
The 1837 Theatre Royal, its portico imitating the Pantheon, is the northern base of the Royal Shakespeare Company and hosts most successful London plays and shows. The restored interior reproduces the original wallpaper and tiling, and there's enough gold leaf to rival the Civic.
5. Stoppage time
Cross over to High Bridge, a narrow street of medieval buildings (the name dates from earlier times when a stream ran along here). It's home to a comedy club, bars, restaurants and cafes — a good place for a light lunch.
6. Take on fluid
Duck up the chare (alleyway) to the Old George Inn, Newcastle's oldest pub and originally a stagecoach inn. The turning point for the coaches is now a garden bar flanked by the original stables. It's an atmospheric spot for your first cask ale.
7. Be inspired
Heading for the river, the dominant landmark is St Nicholas' Cathedral, the Anglican church dating from the 14th century. Its impressive lantern spire, added in 1448, was used to guide ships. It survived a Scottish invasion in the 1600s only when the town's mayor claimed to have filled the tower with Scottish prisoners.
8. Draw strength from Castle Keep
The tower is the stronghold — and pretty much all that remains - of the castle which gave the town its name. The first "new castle" was built in 1080 by William the Conqueror's eldest son, Robert II, who tore down a Roman castle and built a new one overlooking the river. Castle Keep was added a century later. Climb the tower for a great view of the Tyne. Alongside is Black Gate, added in the 13th century to protect the castle from the Scots. It is currently being renovated as a heritage centre.
St James' Park is the home of Newcastle United. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Brian Hargadon
9. Take on more fluid
Built over the castle walls and in the shadows of High Level Bridge is The Bridge Hotel — not to be confused with the Bridge Tavern, built beneath the stanchions of Tyne Bridge. Though my itinerary prevented me inspecting either, Bridge Hotel is listed in the Camra (Campaign for Real Ale) good beer guide, and its website shows a fine Victorian interior, while The Bridge Tavern boasts a micro-brewery. Best to sample both. Positioned neatly between the two is the Crown Posada, another well-regarded nurturer of cask ales. The narrow bar has splendid Victorian decor and stained glass, apparently commissioned by a Spanish ship captain for his mistress. In the city centre is The Town Wall, with delicious ales and meals and quirky artwork by hip-hop artist Mr Scruff.
10. Pay homage to Bessie
Sandhills, a bar/restaurant precinct just up from the river, is home to Bessie Surtees' House, distinguished by its panelled-glass frontage — a statement of wealth in the 16th century when it was built. Bessie ensured her place in Toon folklore by running away to Scotland with her lover at age 18 — because her father planned to marry her off to his 69-year-old friend. The pair later returned to Newcastle, married in St Nicholas', and her lawyer beau went on to become Lord Chancellor, taking the title Lord Eldon. The house is owned by English Heritage and open to visitors.
11. Choose your bridge
You've made it to the river, where locals come to promenade and graze at open-air bars and cafes while admiring the line-up of distinctive bridges and arts venues across the river. There are seven bridges within a few hundred metres, each with architectural merits to debate — a bit like selecting an All Blacks' backline.
Tyne bridge is a smaller version of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; iron for both came from near here. Cutest is the 1876 Swing Bridge, which rotates horizontally so ships can pass on either side. It's on the site of the first Roman bridge, which lasted over 1000 years.
But capturing all attention these days is the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge, a streamlined suspension bridge which pivots 45degrees so ships can pass beneath. It's the Dan Carter of bridges.
12. Visit the Sage Gateshead
Unmissable as you wander the quayside are the imposing arts venues across the river at Gateshead. The first, the Sage Gateshead, is a centre for music performance and teaching shaped like an elongated igloo. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, glass and steel panelling on the exterior forms a profile of a ship's funnels, a nod to Gateshead's shipbuilding heritage. Inside are three performance venues with superb acoustics, the biggest seating 1400 people.
13. The Baltic Centre
Just next door is a contemporary art gallery taking up six storeys of a former flour mill. Geordies' reputation as culture vultures was boosted a few years ago when the venue hosted the Turner Prize-winner — and more people came to see it than at its home, the Tate Modern in London. The restaurant on level six has great views of the river and city.
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Quay. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Leo Reynolds
14. Sidestep to Ouseburn Valley
Just east of the city centre, this once industrial area is now home to a healthy alternative arts scene. Former warehouses have been converted into galleries and studios for designers, jewellers, artists, furniture-makers and printmakers. Top alternative music venues include The Cluny, in an old whisky-bottling plant, and The Tyne Bar, near Quayside.
15. On your bike
When on tour, especially if following the Rugby World Cup, it's essential to keep health and fitness levels up between celebrations. The best detox in Newcastle lies in its many bike trails. The Cycle Hub, at the far end of Quayside, took me on a 16km excursion to the coast, mostly on off-road paths and cycle lanes. An ideal halfway point is the North Shields fishing village for the freshest seafood near the river mouth. Then there's a decent climb to Tynemouth Priory and Castle, a spectacular ruin on a headland. From there, it's a scenic ride past golden-sand surf beaches to the Cullercoats bike cafe, where you can hire a kayak for a North Sea paddle.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies twice daily from Auckland to London, via Hong Kong.
Seeing the sights: Try Tom Keating Personalised Touring Services. The Visitor Information Centre in Central Arcade also offers guided/walking options.
Further information: See VisitEngland.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of Visit England and Cathay Pacific.