An insider's guide to Newcastle
Laura Littlefair explains why the North East is 'almost heaven' with recommendations of museums and galleries to visit in Newcastle, plus tips on where to eat, drink and be inspired.
It’s probably better known as an industrial powerhouse, home to scores of coalmines, shipyards, steelyards and glassworks; however, the North East has some of the richest veins of cultural heritage to offer.
It can be hard to imagine that nestled between towering concrete office blocks and rusting goliaths of long-forgotten industries there are museums and galleries aplenty, sharing a passion for home-grown talent and harbouring the histories of the region inside.
Newcastle is its beating heart, the most populous city in the North East; renowned for its vibrancy, verve and voracious appetite for culture, and host to an abundance of art.
Art in Newcastle
Our first stop is the Laing Art Gallery, founded in 1901 by Newcastle businessman Alexander Laing, who curiously didn’t leave any art works to the gallery but was confident in the knowledge that “the liberality” of the city would populate the building with art.
Once inside this cornucopia, it becomes apparent that Laing knew exactly what he was talking about.
The gallery boasts an internationally significant collection, where you can rub shoulders with the likes of Paul Gauguin, Edward Burne-Jones and William Holman Hunt, and since 2010 the aptly named Northern Spirit gallery has been showcasing outstanding artists from the North East.
With a Student Art Pass (or National Art Pass) you can get 50% off temporary exhibitions, which have seen an eclectic array of artists over the years. A personal favourite was their Alice in Wonderland exhibition in 2016, a travelling exhibition from the British Library exploring the relationships that hundreds of designers, artists and illustrators have forged with Lewis Carroll’s literary classic.
The Laing was also ahead of the curve the same year when 10 of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings from the Royal Collection made their way north, three years prior to the recent nationwide exhibitions of his work.
Artisan food and independent shopping
After indulging in myriad artistic gems at the Laing, a stone’s throw away is STACK, a new addition to Newcastle’s cultural arts scene.
Created from shipping containers on the site of an abandoned cinema, STACK is filled with some of the North East’s hottest independent businesses; perfect for sampling some local artisanal food, crafts and homewares as you make your way towards the River Tyne.
En route you can visit a bastion of Newcastle’s heritage at Grainger Market, a Grade I listed building opened in 1853, which feels like Aladdin’s cave. Filled with everything from fruit to fabric to florists, it really is a treasure trove of shops and well worth perusing at your leisure.
Contemporary art and kittiwakes
The second stop on our cultural adventure is BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, on the south bank of the River Tyne, inside an old flour mill. Home to 2,600 square metres of floor space, it’s the largest dedicated contemporary art institution in the UK.
If you fancy a bite to eat, the BALTIC Kitchen has an excellent array of affordable and amazingly tasty homemade food, and I thoroughly recommend trying one of everything on the menu if you have the time!
The gallery is free to all and has six floors brimming with art installations and exhibitions, and there’s even the opportunity to step outside onto the balcony to see the furthest inland breeding colony of kittiwakes anywhere in the world.
With your pass you can get 10% off in the shop, and it is an art lover’s dream! With everything from Frida Kahlo socks and Salvador Dalí coffee mugs to gifts inspired by the North East and a book corner with every art book under the sun, there is definitely something for everyone here.
Treats and textiles in the North East
If you’re interested in venturing further afield for some more local history, a trip to Preston Park Museum & Grounds in Stockton-on-Tees is a must.
Preston Hall was built in 1825, becoming a museum in 1953, preserving the social history of Stockton and turning the clock back to the Victorian period with its replica Victorian Street.
Here there is a wide selection of traditional shops, including a toy shop, a working tea room, photography studio and my personal favourite, the haberdashery, where you can try on some rather fashionable hats.
Preston Park is known for its impressive textile collection and affinity with costumes – and two recent exhibitions, Behind the Seams: A History of Angels Costumes and Wedding Belles: 140 years of Bridal Fashion were perfect for a self-confessed vintage fashion aficionado like myself. The museum is free with a Student Art Pass (or National Art Pass), and like the BALTIC, there’s a glorious gift shop to boot!
There is so much to explore in the North East that it’s hard to know where to start, but as all northerners will agree (myself included), the spirit of the north is easy to find here – after all, it’s 'almost heaven'.
Laura Littlefair is a postgraduate student, about to complete her MA in Museum and Artefact Studies at Durham University. She adores all things vintage, especially clothing and accessories, exploring art galleries and spending too much money in museum gift shops!
Laura is a winner of our 2019 student writing competition.