a weekend in newcastle with national express;

Something I didn’t make enough of after our visit to Derby last summer is how unfamiliar I still am with much of England. For a country that’s pretty tiny in the scheme of things, the UK packs a lot in – and every one of its urban centres comes with a very distinct history, culture and vibe, as well as plenty of people willing to sing the praises of their particular hometown.

It’s why, when National Express came calling with the offer of weekend city break, I decided against the likes of Manchester or York and instead opted for somewhere a little less familiar. I’ve had one night in Newcastle but, apart from a few days spent working in Gateshead in 2010, I haven’t had much to do with the North East at all – but I’ve always appreciated the poetry of the seven bridges over the Tyne whenever I’ve passed through, and from the reception I got (from one colleague in particular – thank you Elaine!) when I asked for recommendations I had a feeling I would find much to love about one of England’s most historic cities. Plus, with the Great Exhibition of the North putting the spotlight firmly on Newcastle and the broader North East region right now, there’s never been a better time to visit.

Things to do in Newcastle: sleepy, make-up free face on National Express bus
Things to do in Newcastle: view of the Tyne Bridge

Our weekend started with a Greggs, which seemed appropriate: founded and headquartered in Newcastle, the UK’s favourite bakery has 31 outlets in its home city according to some reports – as well as one in Glasgow’s Buchanan Bus Station, which I suspect is relatively new if the excitement and surprise in reaction to my tweet about the news is anything to go by. I confess that we weren’t really feeling our 7:40am departure – but, with a journey time of under four hours (via Edinburgh), we were looking forward to reaching our destination earlier than I’m even out of bed some Saturdays.

As the UK’s largest operator of scheduled coach services, National Express connects over 900 destinations across the country (many of them to Glasgow: our Newcastle-bound coach was ultimately off to Birmingham, with stops in major urban centres along the way). Reservations include a guaranteed seat and a generous luggage allowance of two medium-sized suitcases in addition to on-coach hand luggage – and you can even reserve a specific seat for a £2 surcharge on certain services, doing away with that mad rush when everybody tries to push onto the coach at once.

The average age of a National Express coach is less than five years thanks to continued investment in the fleet, and coaches come equipped with comfortable leather seats, air conditioning and wifi. You can even access a range of recent film, TV and magazine content via the onboard VUER app for your smartphone or tablet – but, with power sockets at every seat, I was happy to spend my journey reading, playing iOS games and listening to podcasts without worrying about leaving myself without battery at the other end.

But if you were to ask me what I thought the best thing about National Express was after our weekend? I’d answer the drivers, without hesitation. Their friendliness and courtesy – and top-class banter – made for a comfortable journey, and they were quick to offer assistance with luggage and answer any questions on the journey. I also enjoyed the ingenuity of the relief driver feeding his colleague directions by way of Google Maps when our journey along the picturesque east coast coastal road was interrupted by a road closure.

Things to do in Newcastle: through Chinatown to St James Park

We arrived in Newcastle just in time for a midday kickoff on the first game of the Premier League season – although the less said about Saturday’s score the better – and my first interaction was with a nice middle-aged lady who complimented my skirt. After our first attempt to check into our room at a well-kent budget hotel chain ended in failure (when will I learn to check that they haven’t labelled all three of them as “city centre” on Google Maps?) we decided to cut our losses and grab something to eat before getting our bearings.

Red’s True Barbecue is an American-style smokehouse that can now claim the 4th greatest barbecue in the world – not bad, for a small restaurant chain founded in Leeds. Our visit actually coincided with the launch of Chuck’s Unforgettable Sports Bar (20 different varieties of chicken wing, served for FREE during live matches? Sold) at the Intu Eldon Square site, which meant the added bonus of getting to squish my gal Rhianna AS WELL AS eating all the meat.

And eat all the meat we did. Red’s very kindly comped us our lunch in exchange for a review, which I’ll do for real at some point in the next couple of weeks – but for now, let me just say that they’re not joking when they call their little bit o’ everything platter The Feast (#FeastFace). Also, their new banoffee cheesecake? The stuff of dreams, my friends.

Things to do in Newcastle: Reds True Barbecue
Things to do in Newcastle: banoffee cheesecake at Red's True Barbecue

Stuffed, we thought a long, scenic walk to our hotel along the Quayside would be a good idea (let’s kid on it was an idea, and not a map-reading failure, okay?). Here’s something else I didn’t know about Newcastle: the city has a lot of hills, and it’s no fun being on the wrong side of them when you really didn’t have to be. That, plus our early start meant that by the time we got to the hotel, we were good for very little but a dozy afternoon napping and watching the first half of the Wolves game.

It meant that it was getting into evening before we made it out to picturesque Tynemouth, but although many of the cute shops along Front Street were already closed we still had a lovely time wandering from Tynemouth Priory to the centre of the village and then along the blustery pier. There was enough of chill in the air by this point that I was glad I’d turned back for a cardigan before leaving the house that morning, but as you know I’m no fan of the heat so it was the perfect evening.

Things to do in Newcastle: pink door, Front Street, Tynemouth
Things to do in Newcastle: Lis and Stringer at King Edward Bay
Things to do in Newcastle: windswept Lis at King Edward Bay
Things to do in Newcastle: Children of the Revolution storefront, Front St, Tynemouth

Besides, had it been another summertime scorcher we’d have been queuing a lot longer than 40 minutes to eat at Riley’s Fish Shack, I reckon. This tiny Tynemouth institution, beloved of the Guardian’s Jay Rayner, was top among my colleague’s recommendations, and while I might not be much of a fish eater even I couldn’t resist the thought of that day’s catch, cooked from scratch, eaten with my fingers and a view of the North Sea. And Stringer, whose fussy wife limits his seafood intake at home to fish tacos and the occasional chippy, was delighted by the prospect.

Riley’s make everything from scratch on a chargrilled barbecue in their tiny space made from two repurposed shipping containers, from flatbreads and sourdough to the chilli fish empanadas Stringer ordered. I picked at my plump monkfish kebab while the love of my life removed the nasty aioli I hadn’t thought to ask them to leave off my crispy barbecue potatoes in a single swoop, and I honestly couldn’t think of a time I had been happier.

Things to do in Newcastle: monkfish kebab at Riley's Fish Shack
Things to do in Newcastle: chilli fish empanadas at Riley's Fish Shack

Unsurprisingly, we must have had one of the best night’s sleeps of our lives once we got back to the hotel (after Match of the Day, of course – welcome back, Wolves!). We chose Pitcher & Piano for breakfast for a combination of reasons: a recommendation from our taxi driver the previous night; that it was the only place other than the concert arena I could remember visiting with my mum and sister a few years previously (there’s a picture of my sister and I, taken there, on my mum’s mantlepiece); and its proximity to both our hotel and the Quayside Market. There were pancakes for her, a cooked breakfast for him – and party rings served with your coffee. Top marks.

Things to do in Newcastle: coffee and Party Rings at Pitcher & Piano
Things to do in Newcastle: pancakes/cooked breakfast at Pitcher & Piano

Sunday trading is another of those English anomalies I always forget when I cross the border. I’d been keen to visit the Grainger Market – a historic covered market that is home to both independent traders and traditional fresh produce stalls – but with it being closed, the weekly Quayside Market was a more than ample substitute.

The market’s strong foodie focus meant that we were quickly regretting our decision to have breakfast, since there was so much tasty street food on offer that we just weren’t hungry for: Thai, gyros, sausage sandwiches, doughnuts, pulled pork pastry… Instead, we stocked up on some tasty artisan fudge for the road from the Canny Candy Gadgies (the cherry bakewell version needs to be tasted to be believed), along with freshly-ground flavoured coffees from Sanity Beans.

Things to do in Newcastle: Millennium Bridge
Things to do in Newcastle: Quayside Sunday market

Foodie haven mmm… and glug… on Grainger Street is another place that’s frequently recommended in Newcastle city guides (most recently by lovely Bekah, who did a very similar post to this a couple of weeks ago) and for good reason: it’s a treasure trove of fresh herbs and spices, condiments, pastas, chutneys, beers and spirits, much of which is locally sourced. I popped in for a jar of Hawkshead salted caramel sauce and Fat Lass gin cocktail marmalade – and left having sampled most of the gin shelf, after a bottle of Masons (almost certainly the only gin made with Yorkshire Tea botanicals) caught my eye.

Things to do in Newcastle: Masons gin at mmm... and glug...
Things to do in Newcastle: freshly-ground spices at mmm... and glug...

Newcastle is actually home to two cat cafés, but Mog on the Tyne was the first – and is certainly the better-named! As with similar establishments I’ve visited across the UK and beyond, the idea is to spend an hour enjoying some tea, cake or a sandwich (if you’re brave) in the company of adorable cats, and Mog on the Tyne certainly had the “adorable” factor covered. The café’s ethos is based around raising awareness of homeless, stray and abandoned cats, and all of their cats and kittens have been rescued from shelters both at home and overseas.

We bonded quickly with the residents of Mog on the Tyne: Jaffa, the big ginger, who slept in a box on our table for most of our visit waking up only for food (made us feel right at home!); and cheeky Tyrion, with her fondness for milkshake. Ballet and Wobble, who came to the cafe from an animal sanctuary in Thailand, were born with a neurological disorder called cerebellar hypoplasia and watching them wobble around the cafe was the purest thing. And Stan, the cafe’s gorgeous mascot who loves his own space, allowed Stringer a quick pet in exchange for some kibble.

Things to do in Newcastle_ Mog on the Tyne cat cafe
Things to do in Newcastle: Stan the Man at Mog on the Tyne cat cafe

Just when we thought that Newcastle had no secrets left to share, we left Mog on the Tyne only to discover a freaking dog. cafe. next door – but there are only so many milkshakes two people can drink in the space of a couple of hours. Instead, we popped onto the Great Exhibition of the North website to see if there was anything going on nearby. The Great Exhibition of the North, which you may have seen advertised even on Glasgow buses, is a summer-long celebration of the pioneering spirit of the north of England, centred on Newcastle/Gateshead and boasting a packed programme of events, activities and exhibitions up until 9th September.

That’s how we discovered local LEGO artist Steve Mayes’ LEGO Timeline of Northern Innovation at the Mining Institute: an intricate presentation of everything that the North of England has given the world rendered in over 50,000 bricks, featuring everything from Steel City and Emmeline Pankhurst to Oasis, test tube babies, Greggs (obviously) and the first female Doctor. Even better, local makers have been urged to contribute their own models of anything that Steve has missed – we even spotted a tiny Riley’s Fish Shack (although it was a little less impressive when we read the card and realised that the eight-year-old architect had had a bit of help from his dad!).

Things to do in Newcastle: Great Exhibition of the North
Things to do in Newcastle: LEGO Timeline of Northern Innovation by Steve Mayes

With over 2,000 words worth of memories and a little over an hour to kill before our bus back home, we curled up at Pink Lane Coffee for some caffeine, toast and charge for our phones. Newcastle may have stolen our hearts, but there’s nothing like that little thrill when you cross the border back into Scotland by road – or maybe it’s the thought of potable tap water. Who knows.. but it certainly won’t be my last trip to this absolute gem of a city.

This post is sponsored by National Express but all opinions and experiences shared here are my own.

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