40. Explore Castle Keep

If I am completely honest with myself, I am not convinced that I actually knew there was a castle in Newcastle before I moved to the city. And yes – this is despite growing up in Northumberland and despite the very significant clue in the city’s name. I suppose if I had given it any thought I would have assumed that there had been a castle at some point, but that it no longer existed today aside from perhaps a few old ruins.

It came as some surprise to me therefore to discover that Castle Keep (as I now knew the castle was called) was located just a short walk from Newcastle’s rail station and that, far from being a pile of ruins, consisted of two buildings both in really quite excellent shape. In the past there would have been many other buildings making up the castle in its entirity, but the two that remain today  – the Black Gate and Castle Keep (a keep is generally a fortified residence in a tower) provide more than enough opportunities for exploration on their own.

The first castle built on the site where Castle Keep stands now was built by Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror, in 1080. It was rebuilt in stone by King Henry II in around 1170 who was eager to regain authority of this part of England which had been difficult to control due to its close proximity to Scotland. The castle’s keep was completed in 1178, but it took until 1250 for the last part of the castle to be completed – the barbican or, as we know it today, the Black Gate.


When visiting the castle it is necessary to buy tickets from the reception which stands inside the Black Gate. This then naturally leads a person to explore the Black Gate before they explore Castle Keep. This, however, is slightly confusing if, like me, you prefer to learn history chronologically. The Black Gate was extensively remodelled in the 1600s and so the museum located inside the Black Gate focuses on this era. The small, but informative, room explains how the Black Gate got its name – it was named after Patrick Black, tailor to King Charles I, who owned it although, probably, never lived in it. It also provides information about life in the area around the castle during the 1600s and shows some newspaper articles about the castle during this period. These include bizarre anecdotes such as one about a man who made a donkey “fly” from the roof of the castle and thus caused serious injuries to numerous people including the death of one very unfortunate girl.

From the Black Gate you walk through the grounds of the castle passing, on your way, the  infamous Heron Pit. This was an underground prison built by the cruel and brutal William Heron – High Sheriff of Northumberland and all round unpleasant sounding chap.


From the Heron Pit you carry on walking, past some chapel ruins and then take the stairs into the Castle Keep. We were encouraged, by a lovely man working at the castle, to first head up on to the roof and then to explore the inside of the castle.

Now I accept (albeit reluctantly) that my love for history is not necessarily shared by all others and that for many, therefore, a visit to a castle may not seem particularly enticing. In the case of Castle Keep, however, I urge you to reconsider, because even if its history doesn’t appeal to you, the views from its roof undoubtedly will. Astrid and I wandered around the roof happily capturing photographs of our glorious city from numerous different angles. No doubt we would have stayed much longer had we not had a lunch date in a short amount of time and so needed to ensure we gave ourselves enough time to explore the rest of Castle Keep.


Castle Keep, unlike the Black Gate, does start at the beginning of the castle’s history and provides you with a fascinating overview of all that has happened here. Obviously I am unable to recount here all that we learned (partially because this would be the longest blog in the world and partially because I don’t want to ruin the experience for anybody planning to go) but I will mention a few of my highlights:

There are a few prison cells in the castle – many of which were relatively comfortable and thus thought to have been used to host prisoners of importance. Amongst the many prisoners to be held here was Mary Bruce, sister of Robert the Bruce, who was held capitve in Castle Keep from 1310 to 1314 when she was exchanged for English prisoners.


In a separate prison cell there is graffiti clearly visible on the wall, which was written by two prisoners, Thomas Cuthbert and John Danby, during the Siege of Newcastle in the Civil War of the 1600s.


The Great Hall is also well worth a visit – a large and impressive room, it is here that feasts would have been held and, as it is known that Edward I spent winter in Newcastle in 1292, there is speculation that he may have hosted his Christmas feast in that very room.


I have only touched upon the various anecdotes and sights of the Black Gate and Castle Keep here. Our aforementioned time shortage meant that we had to be fairly speedy on our journey around the castle and so are both eager to go back another time to catch up on any aspect of the castle we may have missed. Adult tickets for the castle are just £6.50 and if you’ve ever a spare hour or two in Newcastle and are eager to know more about the city’s history or just to enjoy some phenomenal views then there are fewer places more worthy of your time.

 

 

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39. Dine at Blackfriars

Blackfriars is, for a history nerd like myself, undoubtedly the most interesting restaurant in Newcastle. It is the oldest dining room in the whole of the United Kingdom with a fascinating history that dates back to 1239.

Blackfriars began life as a Priory for Dominican Friars who were travelling the world in an attempt to establish their order. They were able to build Blackfriars thanks to donations from the then Mayor of Newcastle, Sir Peter Scot, as well as three sisters who, unfortunately, remain anonymous to this day.

As well as having the impressive accolade of having hosted King Henry III on several occasions when he was fighting the Scots, Blackfriars may also be responsible for the famous black and white kit of the Newcastle United football team! It is said that the Dominican Friars wore white tunics and black cloaks and that this uniform influenced the football club into choosing black and white for their home strip.

The Dominican Friars were forced to leave Newcastle during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1500s under King Henry VIII and only returned in 1860. Today there are just five left in the city.

There are many options for dining at Blackfriars and for various other cooking events which look absolutely incredible but which are, for the time being at least, very much out of my price range. The restaurants hosts traditional medieval banquets in its historical banquet hall, provides wine, beer and whiskey tasting and also has a range of other rooms where you can go just to enjoy some absolutely excellent food.

Neil’s parents were visiting us last weekend and to celebrate Neil having passed his most recent exams they very kindly took us for Sunday lunch at Blackfriars. We began with some drinks – I had the GeordieJack (hugely recommended for gin lovers), Corrinne and Paul opted for wine and Neil decided to try something traditional and got himself a mead based drink. He expected it to come in some sort of tankard and was slightly sheepish when it turned up like this…


Food wise I went slightly rogue for a Sunday lunch – beginning with a beetroot risotto, followed by salmon and then lemon posset for pudding. Neil was more traditional with fishcakes and roast lamb. He didn’t get a pudding – inexcusable really.

 




The food was just delicious and the service and atmosphere of the restaurant superb. Eating at Blackfriars on an evening can cost around £20 for a main course, but Sunday lunch is just £21 for three courses and honestly it is so bloody good. I am genuinely now just sat here reminiscing happily about it and trying to work out when I can next find an excuse to go back!

38. Bowl and dine at Lane 7!

I’ve always been partial to a spot of bowling – as a child I made many a train journey from Hexham to Metro Centre with my pals purely to participate in the sport. It is a sport right? I’m calling it a sport. Anyway, in the same way that Tyneside Cinema feels like more of an occasion than the average cinema trip, so too does Lane 7 feel like more of an experience than just a game of bowling. 

It is, essentially, bowling for grown ups – think stylish decor and cocktails as opposed to fluorescent lights and slush puppies (FYI I love both those things – but it’s nice to have an alternative too).

Three of my pals from university were staying this weekend. Two had stayed before over a year ago and I took them to Lane 7 then. I think my words at that time were something like “So it’s like bowling.. but trendy. It’s trendy bowling.” I think they were a little cynical about my description, but on their return visit they requested that we go “trendy bowling” again. 

This time, for the sake of easiness and curiosity, I booked us into dine as well as bowl and the four of us headed there last night.

We ordered ourselves some cocktails (I recommend the Bramble – delicious) and began our game. 


It was an embarrassingly shaky start by all of us (I blame pre drinks) but then some of us began to perform magnificently (Jess); some of us were at least respectable (Shalini) and two of us were absolutely horrendous and battled it out for third place. That’s me and Anna. FYI I beat her. Soz Cookie.



 After bowling (and a ridiculous amount of photos – my bad) we had our tea. Burgers all round and they were actually really bloody good. Maybe it was just that we were super hungry, but they received rave reviews all round. In fact, when Anna got up this morning she told us she had spent the first of her ten waking moments just thinking about her chicken burger. If that hasn’t convinced you to give it a go I just don’t know what will!

37. Shop around in Grainger Market

Situated in a Grade 1 building in the centre of Newcastle, Grainger Market first opened in October 1835 as the biggest market in all of Europe. Back then it was divided into a flesh market (butchers) and a vegetable market. Shoppers can still get their meat and veg there today, but can also enjoy a vast range of other stores and eateries – over 100 in total. Notable amongst the stores are the world’s smallest Marks and Spencer store – the  ‘Marks and Spencer Original Penny Bazaar’ – and thehistorical  Weigh House. The Weigh House was  originally used back in the 19th century for stall holders and customers to weigh their products. Today, however, it has changed its purpose just slightly and is used instead for customers to weigh themselves! 


I have been to Grainger Market a fair few times –  I went to their Christmas event last December and have popped in for lunch a couple of times too. What I very rarely do, however, is actually go there to do my shopping. Although I like to think of myself as the sort of person who shops at markets and independent stores the reality is that the vast majority of the time I, like so many others, fail to resist the convenience of a large supermarket. For this week, however, I decided to change that and, along with my friend Bridie, headed there with £30 and my weekly shopping list to see what I could get.

Today, as on the other rare occasions I have completed my food shop outside of a supermarket, I was reminded of just how satisfying it is to food shop in a proper traditional market. People actually chat to you for a start and you get that feel-good glow about the fact that you are shopping locally from independent retailers rather than giving your money to enormous corporations.

We made brief stops at a butchers and fishmongers and a lengthier one at a greengrocers where I bought everything seen below for just £7.00 and had a lovely chat with the owner of the stall who, in true Geordie style, called me “love” or “pet” at every opportunity. God I love Newcastle.


We also had a wander to a cheese store where I pretty much wanted to buy everything in the shop (I have a serious thing for cheese) but, sensily albeit reluctantly, left only with some Parmesan. The final item on my list was chorizo which I picked up in a very pretty Spanish delicatesen pictured below.


Bridie and I had planned to buy our lunch in the market too and were seriously tempted by pretty much every café/eaterie we wandered past. Crepes, pizza and Sloppy Joes were all strong contenders, but we eventually settled on some  mixed dumplings and a cup of Jasmine tea each.


I’d been to Grainger Market more recently than Bridie and it was great to go with someone who was seeing it through fresh eyes. She confessed to me that not having been since she was a child she always kind of thought of it as a “butchers and big knickers kind of place” and, returning as an adult, was now incredible impressed with all it had to offer. We were both eager to return and try out some more of the food on offer and whilst I can’t pretend that I am likely to begin to complete my food shop at Grainger Market on a weekly basis, I am going to make a significant effort to do it a lot more often than I have previously.

36. Climb to the top of Grey’s Monument!

Anyone who has read my blog in its entirety (I think that’s essentially my mum, Neil and Molly – thanks guys!) may recall that a while ago (blog post 22) I wrote about eating lunch on the steps of Grey’s Monument. I did this because I really wanted to include the Monument in my blog and I had missed my chance last summer to buy tickets to climb it. These tickets are honestly like gold dust – they only cost £4, but it’s only open around 8 weekends a year with a small number of tickets available each weekend. 

I’ve tried every year since moving here to get the tickets and failed every time until this summer when I put an alarm on my phone for the day they went on sale. Even then we still almost missed our chance when there was an admin error at the other side – thankfully they not only sorted this out, but actually gave us our tickets for free – cheers guys! Anyone else looking to do this (and you really should) the tickets go on sale on this website: 

http://www.shopnewcastlegateshead.com/tickets/greys-monument/

Obviously they are all sold out for this year, but it’s well worth keeping an eye out for when they’ll be on sale for next year!

We made our way to Monument at midday today, scrambled through a tiny little door in its side and clambered our way up a 164 step spiral staircase before reaching the top. I am normally okay with heights, but I felt seriously dizzy when we first got up there and had to kind of casually cling to the side whilst pretending I was absolutely fine.

Luckily my little spell of fear calmed down pretty soon and I was able to enjoy the incredible views of our beautiful city. I chatted a lot about the history of the Monument and about Earl Grey in my other Monument blog so in this one I’m just going to let you all enjoy the views too!

Tiny doorway…
So many stairs!

35. A stadium tour of St James’ Park

When Neil and I got engaged back in December we received some pretty fantastic messages, cards and gifts from our lovely friends and family. Amongst these, to my delight, was a stadium tour of the glorious St James’ Park bought for us by our friends Aimee and James. Despite having been a Newcastle fan for my entire life I had never done this tour and was pretty excited to have the chance to tick this one off my Newcastle list!

We headed there today in the beautiful sunshine and were introduced to our tour guide – the funny, friendly and informative Carol. Over forty of us were on the tour and it was lovely to see many of Newcastle’s international fans there – we had people from France, Germany, the Netherlands and even Canada in our group!


Carol took us first to see the executive boxes at the stadium. Prices for these at Newcastle range from £28,000 to £65,000 for the season. I thought this was pretty ridiculous until I was told that the most expensive box at Chelsea is £1000,000 and at Arsenal is £1,400,000. What is actually wrong with London!?

That price, at least in St James’, doesn’t include alcohol and, what I hadn’t known until today, is that it’s actually illegal to drink alcohol when facing a football pitch. If those in a box want to enjoy a drink when watching the game they have to draw the blinds of their box and watch it on a television screen instead. Madness.

After discovering how the other half live we headed to the highest level to enjoy some fantastic views of the stadium and of Newcastle itself. We discovered at this point that due to it being such an old stadium Newcastle have loads of problems with their pitch and it’s currently being completely dug up, meaning it didn’t look quite its usual lovely self…


We were then able to head to the area of the stadium where the media sit and where there are seats dedicated to special people associated with the club. I took great delight in sitting in the seat of the late, great Bobby Robson and made Neil take an obligatory photo of me with the Newcastle crest.


Having admired the stadium from its best viewing point, we were next taken to the home and away changing rooms where Carol filled us in on all of the psychological tricks played on opponents. I literally had no idea, although I can see it makes sense, that away changing rooms are designed to just completely ruin the opposition. Apparently St James’ Park offers one of the better away changing rooms simply because it used to be the home one, but awkwardly shaped rooms painted in hideous colours, uncomfortable room temperatures and freezing showers are pretty much a given. The away changing room at Everton has toilets with no doors, Arsenal’s has a high table in the middle of the room to prevent the manager from making eye contact with their players and Southampton have a mirror that means that when away players go to the toilet they see themselves wearing a Southampton shirt. The exception to this rule was, apparently, Mourhino at Stamford Bridge; he preferred to use reverse psychology by giving away teams comfortable dressing rooms so that they let their guard down and could then be hammered on the pitch.

Our final stop on the tour was a trip down the tunnel and into the dugout. Carol blasted Local Hero for us as we walked down and we got to see the spot where the team sit during the games and learn about a couple more psychological tricks; the home dugout has 19 heated seats while the away dugout has an unlucky 13 seats which are, of course, unheated!


It wouldn’t be a proper blog activity without a pint and so after the tour we popped to one of Newcastle’s most famous pubs – the Strawberry – and enjoyed a quick drink whilst surrounded by memorabilia of this wonderful club!

34. Take a tour of Tyne Bank Brewery

A couple of months back now, our quiz team – the Heaton Hinnies – won tickets for a tour of the Tyne Bank Brewery. We initially felt pretty smug about our prize but then Les (our quiz master and basically my favourite person in the world) kind of ruined this by literally giving away as many tours as he could every week. Ah well.

Nonetheless we were still eager to give the tour a go and so headed down to the brewery yesterday daytime and enjoyed a couple of pre-tour pints!


Tyne Bank Brewery has recently moved to a new, much bigger building after a successful crowdfunding campaign. I don’t think you could visit the last brewery so I am not sure what it used to be like, but it is just LOVELY now. It’s a huge open space with a bar (obviously), books, board games, a dart board, football table and table tennis. 

The tour itself was pretty intimate and incredibly laid back. Our group included only ourselves and two other men and we were able to wander around with a pint in hand. Our tour guide was a lovely chap called Joe and he was more than happy to answer all of our questions (mainly from Bridie) let us take random photographs (again I’m looking at you, Bridie) and tolerate the stealing of stickers (anddd that’s Bridie again).

I was a bit foolish yesterday, I went out for breakfast but then skipped lunch and so I already felt a bit tipsy by the time the tour began. This could have left this blog post entirely devoid of any facts, but fortunately I had Newcastle’s greatest quiz team on hand to help me out. Between them they’ve managed to remember that:

One of the two brewers at Tyne Bank Brewery is genuinely called Adam Brewer. As in A.Brewer. Mind blown.

Japanese hops taste soapy, New Zealand hops taste like gooseberries and American hops are tropical.

A cask holds 30 litres and costs from £64 to £90.

The brewery experiment with all sorts of flavours to make new ales. They currently have a rhubarb and custard one on the go, had a Creme Egg one at Easter time and, most excitingly of all, are in the process of developing a Harry Potter ale! Apparently it’s going to involve butterscotch and be served warm. Wow.

Joe isn’t allowed to name the beers, but totally should be allowed to name beers because for a pint of gueuze he came up with the name Frankie Gueuze to Hollywood. You have our complete support, Joe!

Bridie and Molly also both had the number 72 written down, but none of us can remember why. If anyone does a tour please feel free to let us know its significance!

We hadn’t realised that alcohol was included as part of the tour, but once it was done we were given four tasters each! 

I am not going to lie – I’ve completely forgotten which ales we tried, I just know I enjoyed the light ones and struggled with the dark ones. What a sophisticated description of beer tasting.

I do thoroughly recommend the tour for anyone who has an interest in beer brewing or just enjoys a pint. And if my words haven’t convinced you then maybe this face of absolute joy will…