Newcastle is famously a party town, a destination for stags and hens keen to hit the Bigg Market or the bling bars of Collingwood Street’s so-called Diamond Strip. But, as in any great northern city, there is another side to Newcastle. Look in the right places (Pilgrim Street’s Creative Quarter, or Ouseburn Valley, a stroll or short bus ride away), and there’s a tight-knit Geordie underground of agitators who, in their own punky, persistent way maintain a vibrant arts ecology – with a distinctive political edge.
They might be glibly dismissed as hipsters, but Newcastle’s creatives (many of them natives) are generally unpretentious doers working on shoestring budgets. They are quietly but unapologetically determined to carve out their own space in this frequently misunderstood city. That stubborn desire to make things happen in Newcastle dates back decades.
In the 1960s, a famous reading room, Morden Tower, brought icons such as Allen Ginsberg to town. The photographic Side Gallery has been documenting working-class Newcastle since 1977. In a city where making a living from art can seem fanciful, projects are often happily uncommercial. Newcastle breeds relative musical oddballs such as Beth Jeans Houghton, Maxïmo Park, Richard Dawson or Eat Fast, as well as tiny, boutique record labels (Cel36, 104, alt.vinyl). There is nonetheless real camaraderie among its creative tribes and with other marginalised groups. Next year, techno night Backdrop will host Sound Of Solidarity, an event exploring the creation of safe, racially and sexually diverse club spaces. Such radical ideas are never far from the surface in Newcastle.
How much Newcastle city council values this can vary. At times, it has been instrumental in practically assisting grassroots creativity. For instance, it rehoused the DIY cinema Star and Shadow and helped turn several abandoned, city centre office blocks into temporary spaces for arts organisations. However, the Creative Quarter is in a precarious position. One block will soon go in the name of regeneration, and the council’s decision to allow the demolition of community and arts centre Uptin House has appalled campaigners such as artist and bar-owner Kathryn Hodgkinson:
“We’re at the mercy of aggressive development that is annihilating a lot of these projects. A lot of what [the council] needs to do to protect this sector has nothing to do with money. It’s about having strong policies in place. We’ve got a spineless planning department. I think it needs to say no to more.”
You hear a similar complaint from those involved in catering. The past few years have seen Newcastle breweries, its street food and even a Michelin-star restaurant, House of Tides, flourish, but Cook House cafe owner Anna Hedworth says: “A massive chain restaurant development has just opened at Intu Eldon Square and I think that will have an impact on the independent scene.”
Visit the venues listed here and resist that bland homogenisation of our cities.
The Free Trade Inn
This bare-bones Tyneside boozer serves stellar craft beers. “It’s a huge supporter of north-eastern brewers, particularly those blessed with firkinfuls of ingenuity. And it’s got a cat called Craig David,” says Alastair Gilmour, editor of Cheers magazine. Expect weekly pop-ups from food traders such as Naan Hut and Scream For Pizza.
• Pint from £3.30. 12 St Lawrence Road, Ouseburn, on . Open Mon-Thurs 11am-11pm, Fri 11am-midnight, Sat 10am-midnight, Sun 10am-11pm
Originally a spin-off from annual Latin American festival ¡VAMOS!, Kommunity is a bar/participatory social space that hosts dance and wellbeing classes, art house film and DJ nights and the occasional daytime family rave. Drinks range from loose-leaf teas to rum punch cocktails.
• Pint from £3.50, John Dobson Street, 07880 747492, on . Open Wed-Sat day, evening openings subject to events
Pink Lane Coffee
On a narrow cut-through opposite Newcastle Central station, Pink Lane is a boon for travellers keen to swerve the chains and drink serious coffee. Using its own PLC Roastery beans, Pink Lane covers all the single-origin pour-over and espresso bases, and it knocks out a superlative flat white.
• Coffee from £2.20. 1 Pink Lane, pinklanecoffee.co.uk. Open Mon-Fri 7.30am-6pm, Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 10am-4pm
This late-night cafe-bar sustains Ouseburn’s artists with good food, homemade sodas, infused spirits (try the horseradish vodka Bloody Mary) and local ales from the likes of Anarchy. A back room hosts lively, free DJ parties that run the gamut from Chicago house (Community) to scuzzy garage rock (No Wow).
• Pint from £3.90. 1 Boyd Street, Ouseburn, 0191-260 5216, weareernest.com. Open daily 10am till late
This railway arch micropub includes a full-size skittle alley and space for live music, and its nine cask/keg taps serve a persuasive, UK-wide selection of craft beers (Hawkshead, Firebrand, Moor). Meanwhile, the Chimp’s original site (Arch 11, Forth Street) is home to a Box Social Brewing bar. “It has a wide choice of beers to team with local Blagdon Blue cheese, hand-cured hams, olives and hunks of nettle bread,” says Gilmour.
• Split Chimp pint £3.20. Arch 7, Westgate Road, splitchimp.pub. Sun-Mon 3pm-8pm, Tues-Thurs 3pm-10pm, Fri-Sat 1pm-11pm
Newly opened in two neatly decked-out Quayside shipping containers, US-born chef Shaun Hurrell’s taqueria is receiving rave reviews. “There’s nowt in 100 miles offering anything remotely similar at that level,” says newcastleeats.co.uk blogger Jeff Lyall. He loves the “stunning” ceviche tostada, and the ox tongue and adobo pork tacos.
• Dishes £2.50-£7.50. Wesley Square, barriocomida.com. Open Wed-Sat noon-3pm and 5.30pm-10pm, Sun 10am-6pm, closed Mon-Tues
In mid-2016, this craft brewery (try its Jakehead IPA) moved into the grade II-listed Palace of Arts, a remnant from the world’s fair-style North East Coast Exhibition of 1929. Now also a bar and a gig venue, it is, says NARC. magazine editor Claire Dupree, “an evocative setting”. The bar’s small-plates menu is impressive too, running to curried butternut squash, mint yoghurt and cucumber or battered oysters, sriracha mayo and burnt lime. “There’s none of the chips and pies you might expect; it’s all very good, fresh small plates,” says Cook House’s Anna Hedworth.
• Dishes £5-£8. Exhibition Park, 0191-650 0651, wylambrewery.co.uk. Open Thurs-Fri 5pm-11pm, Sat noon-11pm, Sun noon-8pm
Peace and Loaf
By any measure Dave Coulson’s Jesmond restaurant is a one-off; which is why it is generating excitement way beyond Newcastle. Coulson’s novel, technically elevated dishes (an opening “crisp sandwich”; a deconstructed full English on toast; a pot of luxurious mash ’n’ gravy), are clever, irreverent and delicious. Rarely is fine dining such fun.
• Mains from £17. 217 Jesmond Road, Jesmond, 0191-281 5222, peaceandloaf.co.uk. Open Mon-Sat noon-2pm and 5.30pm-9.30pm, Sun noon-3.30pm
With its hand-built, wood-fired oven, its 72-hour-proved sourdough bases, its San Marzano tomatoes and Campanian buffalo mozzarella, Cal’s Own – run by the eponymous Calvin Kitchin – is renowned for serving A1 Neapolitan-style pizza. “You know how places yap on about artisan craft pizza? This guy lives and breathes it,” says Jeff Lyall.
• Pizza from £7.45. 1-2 Holly Avenue West, Jesmond, 0191-281 5522, calsown.co.uk. Open Sun, Tues-Thurs 5pm-11pm, Fri-Sat noon-2pm and 5pm-11pm
Newcastle’s best-known street food event, Boiler Shop Steamer, is in hibernation, but the scene it helped create is booming, as are the stars it spawned, such as Papa Ganoush and Nan Bei. For more Newcastle street food try the weekly Quayside Sunday Market or Jesmond Food Market (third Sat monthly). Also, alongside great beer, free gigs, film nights and craft markets, the new Tyne Bank brewery tap (at 375 Walker Road) regularly hosts key street food traders.
The New Bridge Studios
Come April, this artists’ studio complex will need to find a new home, but, until then, be sure to visit its bookshop (which specialises in rare and self-published artists’ works) and its experimental, artist-led gallery, whose shows, says artist Kathryn Hodgkinson, are always “serious and very interesting”. New Bridge’s latest major project considered contemporary Britain under the title Hidden Civil War. In the same building, the “tiny, brilliant” Alphabetti Theatre programmes new work in theatre, poetry and cabaret, as well as housing a neat little boho bar.
• 16 New Bridge Street West, 0191-232 8975, thenewbridgeproject.com
The Late Shows
Each May, Newcastle’s art hubs – from the Baltic to hastily banged-together DIY spaces – throw open their doors for a two-day, late-night cultural crawl. Many of those involved, such as the self-explanatory Northern Print, exciting contemporary gallery Vane or Ouseburn’s original, non-profit studio complex, 36 Lime Street, have exhibition spaces that are regularly open to the public, but several normally private spaces open, too. Similarly, November’s Ouseburn Open Studios sees artists and designers open workshops to talk with and sell directly to the public.
• Late Shows, 19 and 20 May, 2017, thelateshows.org.uk
Now under the direction of furniture-maker Mark Collett and Kathryn Hodgkinson (who also run the bar, Ernest), Cobalt is keen to bring the public into its artist-maker world. Its pop-up events space has become a platform for all manner of creativity, from a Body Talk party with electro DJ Ivan Smagghe to gatherings of A Bit Crack, which stages storytelling evenings. Cobalt’s own quarterly shows blend art, performance and poetry with live music and DJs.
• 10-16 Boyd Street, 0191-232 3553, on
Energetic cultural facilitator Breeze manages artists’ studios and rehearsal and exhibition spaces in Bamburgh House, as well as its gallery, Abject, which shows diverse, interrogative work from national and international artists in all manner of media – from video installation to adventurous oil paintings. Breeze was also a main mover in last year’s Block Party, which saw the surrounding Creative Quarter come together for a late-night open-house.
• Market Street East, 07784 736673, breezecreatives.com
Star and Shadow
More than just a cinema, Star and Shadow is a radical, socially engaged cultural nexus that enables grassroots music, debate and more. Following a move from its Stepney Bank site, it is being rebuilt by the volunteers who run it – opening in May 2017. “They’re a very special group,” says Hodgkinson. “They’ve all trained themselves in various techniques and they’re rebuilding it, brick by brick.” Star and Shadow has been putting on limited pop-up film events, but, otherwise, get your cinematic kicks at the local indie, Tyneside Cinema.
• Warwick Street, starandshadow.org.uk
Since the early 1980s, and in various incarnations, World HQ has been a lynchpin of Newcastle’s underground scene. A politically charged, anti-racist rallying point in its early days, it is still commited to inclusivity – without being overly earnest about it. It operates over two self-contained floors within Curtis Mayfield House. “You might have a dub night going on downstairs and a major techno DJ on upstairs,” says Joe Clarke, co-promoter of the techno night, Backdrop. “World is incredible at bringing multi-genre music and different communities together.”
• Carliol Square, East Pilgrim Street, 0191-281 3445, welovewhq.com
It is now owned by regional brewery group Camerons, but the Cluny remains independent in spirit. As a meeting place and gig venue, it is essential to Newcastle’s alternative music scene. “It’s a venue everyone wants to play and be involved with. It just has that feeling,” says Bob Allan of music development agency Generator. The smaller, half-seated Cluny 2 room is, says NARC.’s Dupree, “really good for getting personal with a band: the stage isn’t very high, and it’s dark, intimate”.
• 36 Lime Street, Ouseburn, 0191-230 4474, thecluny.com
In Chinatown, this 300-capacity rave den is where, at nights such as ape-X, Bleep and Jaunt, Newcastle’s faithful come to restore mind, body and soul via the medium of underground electronic music. “Cosmic is true to house and techno, both in the club’s build – it has a rough-edged, warehouse feel – and in its incredible wall of sound,” says Clarke, whose Backdrop night features extended sets from DJs such as Levon Vincent and Jane Fitz (11 January).
• 20 Stowell Street, on
Aside from Think Tank?, Newcastle lacks tiny basements clubs where new bands can hone their sound. Instead, local promoters flit between sympathetic venues such as the Cumberland Arms, the Dog and Parrot, and the architecturally magnificent Mining Institute. The annual Evolution Emerging festival (May 2017) happens in bars, rehearsal rooms and artist studios across Ouseburn. “It’s a matter of getting creative with spaces because there aren’t loads of specific indie venues,” says organiser Bob Allan.
Newcastle’s LGBT scene revolves around Times Square, and this warehouse space is the area’s most musically credible landmark. “It has Berlin style,” says Joe Clarke admiringly. Particularly when it plays host to the city’s best house and techno nights, such as Body Talk or Milk The Cow, expect to find a mixed gay and gay-friendly crowd here. “Milk The Cow is a bit of a movement,” says Clarke. “Its podcast covers social and political issues and it is great at bringing together people of different ages and ethnicities.”
• 44-48 Scotswood Road, on