Category Archives: Newcastle

Ah, Cambridge…

What can I say about Cambridge? It’s so very different from Newcastle that I don’t know where to start. Some of the things I’m listing pertain to my new and old neighborhoods specifically, but I think they’re characteristic.

Some things I notice that I like:

  • It’s full of Italians.
  • I can get to London in 45 minutes, which means I can attend Polyphony Down the Pub on occasion. (And a senior off-peak day return ticket costs only £16.40.)
  • It’s full of bicycles, and the infrastructure facilitates them. (When I’m fully back on my feet I may buy one.)
  • They recycle just about everything. Including food waste.
  • The colleges at the university are gorgeous.
  • The bus fare machines don’t spit out a useless paper ticket if you’ve used a pass.
  • There are a lot of local greengrocers and other shops with fruit/veg on display outside.
  • It’s easy to get good Chinese food without paying through the nose.
  • It’s awash in science. Science parks, science campuses, research organisations…
  • The river is puntable. Haven’t done it yet but am considering it.
  • It has a rather intellectual atmosphere, to some extent.
  • It should have more early music. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m told it’s there. Once I’ve got my impending new hip in and working well…
  • Pubs are reasonably likely to serve Aspall cyder. It is close to Suffolk, after all…
  • It doesn’t have a seriously ugly part right in the city centre. (Newcastle peeps, you know I’m referring to the eastern side of Pilgrim Street and that general area, and you know it’s true.)
  • It has a bustling outdoor market right in the city centre. Seven days a week.
  • My neighborhood is not nearly as swarming with students as my Newcastle neighborhood was (which is less now than it used to be). My next-door neighbors on both sides are very nice, and we have good conversations. Some things in common.
  • My office and officemates are nearby.

Some things I notice that I don’t like:

  • They recycle food waste. Which means we have to hang onto it for two weeks until they come around and empty the green bin.
  • It’s not very well served by public buses. Not compared with Newcastle, anyway.
  • It’s despairingly flat. People tell me it will grow on me and I must visit the fens. Stay tuned.
  • There is no castle.
  • The surrounding area has almost no ruined castles or abbeys.
  • There is no indoor market. (I quickly got spoiled by Grainger Market.)
  • Although there are some impressive churches, there is no cathedral. For that you have to go to Ely. (Which I plan to do fairly soon.)
  • There is no river gorge with several impressive bridges crossing it — the Cam River is not very wide and its banks are low. (Don’t even think of bringing up the Bridge of Sighs. I’ve been to Venice. Several times.)
  • It’s swarming with bicycles. When I’m driving, this makes me just a teeny bit nervous.
  • There are a lot of modern, sterile apartment buildings.
  • The Apple Store has a long waiting list for Genius Bar appointments.
  • There aren’t any back lanes where they could put community bins or even make it easier to put out our wheelie bins. We have to drag the wheelie bins around to the front, find a place to put them amidst the squeezed-in parked cars, and then drag them back around to the back.
  • The water is rather hard. Every time I go back north, I am reminded of how much my hair likes the water there.
  • My neighborhood doesn’t have parking permits. Sometimes I have to park in the next block or even on the next street over.
  • It gets HOT here. Last September I was here for a few days when the high temperature was 34C (93F). Whew!
  • It takes a lot longer to get to a decent airport. (I don’t count as decent any airport that’s served mostly by Ryanair.)
  • It almost never snows here, they tell me, other than a light dusting.
  • It takes a bit of effort to get to the coast, and even more to get to any hills to speak of.
  • Much less active local RSA chapter.
  • And of course — it’s expensive. I’m paying roughly twice the rent I paid in Newcastle, for an unfurnished place that has slightly more room inside (and admittedly a large-ish back garden). Asking prices of houses for sale are even more out of line.

This list is probably biased by the fact that I’ve just spent a weekend in Newcastle and had a day out in Northumberland. Once I’m really settled in — substantially recovered from hip surgery and able to move reasonably well again (which includes being able to finish unpacking from my move) — I’m sure that my increased ability to explore will increase the size of my positive list. I’ll post further impressions as the mood strikes me.


Newcastle makes an impression

I had lunch today with two Americans who, at my suggestion, stopped to spend a few hours in Newcastle on their way from London to Edinburgh. They are not regulars to the UK and had never been to Newcastle before. Walking from the train station toward the castle, one of them looked around and said, “London was wonderful and I marvelled at the architecture, but this really ramps it up a notch.” We took a quick look at the castle from the outside — they had suitcases so I didn’t suggest they go in and struggle with all those steps. We did go into St Nicholas Cathedral (which they loved), and before I left them there and headed home to do some more thesis writing I told them to ask the guide to direct them to Grey’s Monument after that. I’ll look forward to hearing what they thought of that. :-)

His comment reminded me of the time I spent in the Italian region of Le Marche a few years ago. My hosts (several families in sequence) insisted on driving me around to see the area, and every time we rounded a curve and I saw another panorama of hills with a hill town perched atop each one — looking for all the world like a Renaissance painting — I exclaimed, “Oh, che bello!” More than one of my host families told me that my reaction had given them a new appreciation of the place where they lived. After four years in Newcastle I’ve grown used to its beauty, and it felt really good to hear that from someone who was unbiased.

What a difference four years makes!

My guilty pleasure is that I watch murder mysteries on the web, mostly BBC and ITV shows that come available after the broadcast via their “Player” online services. I especially enjoy watching the ones filmed in and around Newcastle — of which there are at least four that I can think of off the top of my head. It tickles me to spot familiar places among the filming locations, and the other evening I hit the jackpot. I was watching an old episode of “Wire in the Blood” (they’re all old, actually, but this was an early one) and at one point I sat up straight and ran the video back a few seconds. Yep, there it was. My neighborhood. A street close to mine and parallel to it. I’ve seen that view a gazillion times, mostly heading to the supermarket or to the bus stop for the 15/15A.

What makes this especially interesting is that this was the second time I had watched that episode — but it was the first time I had noticed and recognized that location. My first viewing must have been fairly early in my time here, before I had built up enough of a “sense of place” of the neighborhood to “feel” such a view as home. But now, after four years, there it was.

The amazing thing is that there are probably thousands of streets in the Newcastle area that are lined with the classic Tyneside flats. But there are precious few — possibly only one — that have that particular configuration of high-rises in the distance and industrial building along the left side.

Nope, it’s my neighborhood all right.

Fortunately, it’s not my street. I would not have chosen to live in a place that looked out onto such an unappealing industrial area, nope nope nope. Its not being my street has the added advantage of letting me give you an idea of where I live without being too specific about it. :-)

Here are three screenshots that show the area.

Dinsdale Road, looking southwest

The scene that made me sit up and take notice, stopping the video to check what I was seeing (Dinsdale Road, looking southwest)

Dinsdale Road Eastbound

Looking the opposite way, north east on Dinsdale Road. The car ahead is stopped at the intersection of Dinsdale Road and Starbeck Avenue.

Newington Road, looking southeast

They have now turned right and are headed southeast on Newington Road (the extension of Starbeck, sort of). I used to walk down this street to go to Morrisons (I now take the bus), and when I return in a taxi it brings me up this way.

Christmas in Newcastle

This year I stayed in Newcastle over the Christmas break and didn’t have company or go to anyone’s home. I took advantage of five “Christmas in Newcastle” events in the series sponsored by the students’ unions of Northumbria and Newcastle Universities. Three of these had been on my Newcastle bucket list: the Beamish Museum, a Christmastime pantomime, and the Northumberlandia outdoor sculpture.

Christmas Dinner

A traditional English Christmas dinner is served on Christmas afternoon at a local church. We had turkey, stuffing, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding — the traditional dishes of Christmas dinner in the UK. Then we watched the Queen’s annual Christmas Day speech to the Commonwealth. I sat with some Chinese students and got validation of my impression of Chinese food in Newcastle — quality costs more than it should. (IOW, the good stuff is expensive and the less expensive stuff is not good.) The Queen spoke for 15 minutes or so, mostly about good will and Christmas. I would have liked to see more personality and feeling in her delivery, but my British friends tell me that the wooden style is how the British monarchy presents itelf. Oh well.

Beamish Museum

On the Sunday after Christmas, a coach (bus) took two dozen students to the Beamish Museum, an outdoor museum that illustrates life in the North East of England in the 1820s, 1900s, and 1940s. They have a 1940s town, a 1900s pit mine village, and an 1820s manor house and church. They also have a working farm, a steam train, a couple of ice rinks, amusement-park rides, cafes, and several gift shops. The staff dress in period costume and explain to visitors how life was in that time and place. Some offer demonstrations of period techniques (see photo for candymaking). This is how I like to learn about history.

Kneading candy
Beamish Museum candymaker kneads sugar concoction while making lemon drops.

Tyneside Cinema

Although I had already seen a few films at our wonderful independent movie house, the Tyneside Cinema, I signed up for the afternoon there, with the film to be determined on the day. The selected movie turned out to be the new Star Wars episode, in 3D. The film didn’t have much of a plot (a couple of surprises near the end), but I enjoyed watching the special effects.


Dick Whittington pantomime screenOn New Year’s Eve I had my first experience of that classic British Christmas tradition, the pantomime (“panto”). I knew it wouldn’t really be my thing, but it was definitely an experience I had to have during my time in the UK. This one was Dick Whittington at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, and it loosely followed the legend of Dick Whittington, whose cat is said to have driven the rats out of London and thereby made Whittington Lord Mayor. This production substituted Newcastle for London (of course), and it contained a lot of in-jokes about Geordie language and culture (some of which I got, to my pleasure). I would describe the panto as, basically, slapstick musical comedy with audience participation and displays of skill (e.g., magic and acrobatics). I enjoyed the comedy and the repartee with the audience. I’ve never gotten into slapstick or musical theater, but I found engaging the overall feeling of joy and fun. I doubt I’ll attend another panto, but I’m glad I discovered what it’s like.


Northumberlandia from the airToday a minibus took a dozen students to visit the Northumberlandia land sculpture, also called the Lady of the North. One cannot get an overview of this sculpture from the ground, but that’s what aerial photography is for. (This image is from the Northumberlandia site).

The face of NorthumberlandiaThe weather wasn’t ideal: I would have liked to see the place on a sunny day, and the ice on parts of the path prevented me from walking the whole thing and ascending to the forehead. At least it wasn’t raining, though, and I managed to get a few decent photos. The one here shows the face (left) and one breast reflected in the pond.

We also had lunch in the pub next to the park. I loved the atmosphere (family pubs are something I’ll miss terribly if I have to leave the UK), which was why I found the food disappointing. However, it’s one of the few pubs I’ve found in the North East that have Aspall cyder on draft.

And in the park I ran into some people I know!

Senior bus pass!

Travel Pass photoThis week I received my “Concessionary Travel Pass“, the pass that allows older people to use local buses free after 9:30am and on weekends. Each country in the UK has its own pass, and since I live in England mine is good for any local bus service in England. (This includes the London buses!) The pass is free to anyone who has resided in the UK for at least six months — easy for me to show, because my UK driving licence, one year old, has my address on it — but you have to give them a passport-style photo, and that costs £5 in a photo booth. (You’re not supposed to smile, but I think it’s just that you’re not supposed to show your teeth, and I’m happy that I managed to get a faint smile into mine.) After my pass arrived, I took it in and paid £12 to have one year’s travel on the Tyne and Wear Metro (same hours) added on to it.

Folks, this is an incredible deal, especially for people who live in a city such as Newcastle, which is very well served by local buses and not badly served by a subway/light-rail line (Newcastle’s goes directly to the airport, for example). My pass arrived on Tuesday, I used it for the first time on Wednesday night, and in less than 48 hours it saved me more in bus fare than the £5 I spent on the photo. Now, I admit that two of the bus journeys I took were for trips I probably would have done on foot if I hadn’t had the pass, but in my defense I’ll note that those bus trips saved me at least half an hour and I spent that time working on my thesis.

One thing I like about the UK is that senior pricing generally starts at age 60. You are probably aware that I’m a little beyond 60 at this point, so you may be asking why I didn’t get this pass until now, especially since Nexus calls it the card “for people over 60”. Well, UK residents used to become eligible for these passes as soon as they turned 60. Several years ago, however, the government started increasing the age of eligibility, such that for every month your birthday is later, you have to wait an extra two months to get your travel pass. For example, my friend Sue is four months older than I am and she’s had her pass eight months longer.

I do have to be careful not to let this make me lazy.

A satisfying break, with family

I’ve just had a wonderful two weeks — no, I live in the UK now; I’ve just had a wonderful fortnight — with a couple of family members who came to spend Christmas with me and see part of the UK. We spent four nights in London, then had two overnights on our way to three nights in Islay, then they spent five nights at my flat in Newcastle. It was kind of a whirlwind trip (planned by moi) but exciting and satisfying, and they said it was a very rich experience.

My visitors did a lot of the London touristy things by themselves; many of those were somewhat expensive and I had done them before, so (for example) while they went on the London Eye I sat in a cafe below and worked on my data coding. (Yes, I carried my laptop around London in my daypack/rucksack. What can I say? I’m used to carting it around Newcastle.) The day we left London we took a taxi to Heathrow Airport to pick up the car I had arranged for us to rent/hire (yes, I know it’s more expensive at the airport, but we had very good logistical reasons for doing this) and we headed west. We upgraded to a slightly larger car with built-in GPS/SatNav, and although I would have preferred a car about 6″/15cm narrower I was glad we had the GPS (which we ended up naming Synthea).

My personal highlight of London: Dinner with four long-time friends of mine, one of whom had never met two of the other three. My visitors enjoyed them all.

First day out of London: Stonehenge, lunch inside the Avebury circle, half an hour at Tintern Abbey, ending with an overnight in Stroud, complete with dinner & drink with a friend there. Stroud was slightly out of our way, but it’s a family name on my mother’s side and anyway it allowed my visitors to meet my friend.

Second day on the road: Liverpool, with a late lunch in the Beatles’ home stomping ground and a look in the Cavern Club. Overnight in a wonderful cottage in the Lake District. I’ll be back there again, I think.

Third day on the road: No substantial stops because we had at least five hours of driving and a hard deadline for the ferry to Islay. Synthea directed us onto a route that had two ferry crossings but that “she” said was quicker than the road route. After taking the first ferry (Gourock-Dunoon) we took the overland route the rest of the way because we weren’t convinced of the existence of the other ferry. Unfortunately, because we had taken the first ferry we missed seeing the beautiful and aptly named Rest and Be Thankful pass in the daytime. Oh well. We did stop a few minutes in Inverary to take a short walk so one of my visitors could photograph the castle. It was her first castle, after all (other than the Tower of London), and we weren’t going to see any in Islay.

We travelled to Islay on Caledonian MacBrayne’s beautiful new ferry, the MV Finlaggan. (It was new to me, anyhow; and it is only three years old, their newest one.) We arrived to find that the hotel had lost our booking (a mixup on their part) but they had other rooms available and we got profuse apologies and a decent price break. I had been hoping for a peat fire (the hotel’s website says they have one in their pub), but all they had was coal and nobody knew where I could find a peat fire. My guess is that it’s mostly the distilleries that burn peat any more, and all of those were shut down for the holidays. So I settled for buying a box of peat incense. I’ll have to try harder next time!

I had done all of the driving up to this point, as I was the only one with any experience driving on the left. But we had registered two of us to drive this car because my visitors were going to have to drive it back to Heathrow from Newcastle without me. So the other driver did all of the driving on the Islay roads. I thought it would be good for him to start there, as there are no roundabouts and most of the roads have only one lane anyhow. As I had suspected he would, he did fine. Fine enough to brave the roundabouts and the motorways and drive to Newcastle.

Maol Buidhe

I wanted to show my visitors all of Islay and a reasonable amount of its neighboring island of Jura (whence the Buie surname comes), but two and a half days simply wasn’t enough time. We drove most of the Islay roads, though, from Kildalton to Kilnave to Kilchoman (missing out Sanaigmore, Saligo, and the Oa, unfortunately), and we saw the Islay Woollen Mill, the Kildalton High Cross, the Cultoon Stone Circle, the Kilchiaran Chapel, the Kilnave Chapel and Cross, some prehistoric hut circles west of Gruinart, two places named “buie” (Tigh na Buie and Maol Buidhe), and the Finlaggan Visitor Centre, site of the headquarters of the Lords of the Isles from about 1350 to 1492. That last was especially meaningful for me because we were greeted by Donald Bell, who had showed me around Finlaggan on my first visit to Islay in 1987, which I think was before the visitor centre was even in the full planning stage. We went to Jura for an afternoon and had tea at the hotel, where they were just taking homemade shortbread and mince pies out of the oven. Mmmmmm! As we checked in for the ferry to return to the mainland, my visitors remarked on how great it was to be in a place where people hear your name and know how to spell it. :-)

On the way to Newcastle we made a short detour to Carlisle to have a look at the castle from the outside, and then we stopped by a Hadrian’s Wall site so my visitors could stand on the wall. It was a Wednesday and Birdoswald Roman Fort was closed, but the wall itself was of course accessible, so they stood atop it and I took their photo for Facebook.

We arrived at my flat the evening of Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning we slept in a bit (the first time since they had arrived) and made a pound cake. Then we went to Evensong at Durham Cathedral (one simply cannot visit the North East of England without seeing that magnificent building), and they found the service interesting and meaningful; then we came home and cooked Christmas dinner and skyped with some other family members. In their remaining days with me we did a lot of walking around Newcastle and visited several medieval sites (Tynemouth Priory and Castle, Warkworth Castle, and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne). We were disappointed that Newcastle’s Castle Keep is closed until the spring (renovations, the sign said), but at least they got to go inside two castles and see three others from the outside. And I introduced them to some grand British Christmas traditions — particularly, Christmas crackers and Fenwick’s window. They loved it all.

They left about 6:30am on Monday for the drive back to Heathrow. We were all concerned about possible contingencies, but they made it in good time and now they are safely back at home in the States. We all had a fabulous trip, and now I’m settled back into sorting out my data coding scheme and doing the analysis. Plus preparing several presentations, both for academia and for industry. It’s a good thing the long winter nights don’t much affect my productivity any more!

This was my third Christmas in the UK, and my first with family present. I found it very, very meaningful.

And you know, that fortnight saw me doing more of two things than I had done in the previous two years: driving, and saying “y’all”. :-)

My third Guy Fawkes Night

Fireworks Clock

A fireworks burst at Newcastle’s 2014 Guy Fawkes event reminds me of a clock.

This year I didn’t go to Whitley Bay for the Guy Fawkes celebration. I just walked over to Newcastle City Stadium and watched the city’s fireworks display. I have to admit that North Tyneside’s festivities are much better (that’s where I discovered the mesmerising Worldbeaters Music “Spark!” show two years ago), but I didn’t feel like taking the time to go out there, as I’m heavy into data analysis right now (almost finished with the first pass of coding my interviews) and feeling the time pressure of that. So walking the 200 yards or so to the city’s display seemed like the thing to do this year. I’m glad I’ve photographed fireworks enough to have a sense of what may come out well and what won’t, so that I can spend my time just watching the “what won’t” without trying to photograph it. I enjoy both the photographing and the watching, and this is a good balance for me.

In case you’re curious, you’ll find my set of fireworks photographs on Flickr. Some of the older ones are not so great and I should probably delete them. But I have more urgent things to do right now. So I’ll end this here and get back to interview data coding. Ciao e a presto!

Ice skating!

Newcastle and Northumbria Universities jointly organize a number of events during the Christmas holidays, mostly for nonlocal students who are not going elsewhere for the holidays. This evening I went to the first of the four for which I signed up, an hour of ice skating at the Centre for Life (which is not an antiabortion group, despite what its name might connote in the USA). I was trying to identify how long ago I last went ice skating, but at one point it struck me that it had to have been before my knee surgery in late 1984. So let’s say it was the winter before that — 30 years ago.

Many years ago I took lessons for several terms at the Wheaton Ice Arena, and I enjoyed skating there fairly regularly. I reached a level that I would characterize as “advanced intermediate” and today I was uncertain how much of it I would remember or whether I would be able to do any of it at all. Well, I started out very unsteady on my feet, experiencing what my climbing friends used to call “sewing-machine legs” which I ascribed to my legs being nowhere near as strong as they were back then. Plus, the ice was very rough (it turns out that they do the Zamboni thing only once a day, in the morning) and that contributed to the unsteadiness.

Eventually I settled down and managed to skate fairly comfortably, every so often waving my arms to keep my balance or grabbing the rail to keep myself upright after a stop — but I succeeded in staying on my feet, I skated more and more smoothly, and I even managed to do one of the easy maneuvers I had learned way back then.

I’m thinking I’d like to do more skating. Winter sports are the only ones I really enjoy doing, and there isn’t enough snow around here to make it worth spending the money on cross-country ski equipment. I’ve also learned that the year-round ice rink in Whitley Bay is on one of the bus routes that passes 1/4 mile from my flat, so I can get there and back fairly easily; and they offer individual coaching sessions at a reasonable price. So I’m going to look into doing more of it.

Especially if, tomorrow and the next day, my knees are still uncomplaining.

Of Elephants without Donkeys

Elephants stand at various points around Newcastle’s sprawling city-centre mall, intu Eldon Square. Elaborate and fanciful they are, painted elephants about five or six feet high. But it feels weird to see elephants alone. My Unconscious keeps tugging at me: Where are the donkeys?

I am from Washington DC*, you understand. For 35 years I lived just outside the city where US national affairs are more a part of local culture than they are anywhere else in the world. And this means that Elephants and Donkeys are inextricable: you just can’t have one without the other.

Elephants and donkeys, you see, are the symbols of the two major US political parties. And for six months, a decade ago, the city of Washington was dotted with 200 statues of these animals. The exhibit, called “Party Animals“, cropped up everywhere you went.

But the exhibition of elephant statues in Newcastle is this city’s turn to host Elephant Parade, a tour of art works designed “to raise awareness of, and funds for, The Asian Elephant Foundation, a charity which supports elephant conservation projects.” It’s here for a month.

Still, I feel a little discombobulated seeing large sculptures of elephants with no donkeys to complement them. And perhaps offset them.

*Yes, yes, I know I grew up in North Carolina. But I lived 3/5 of my life in the DC area before moving to Newcastle.

I <3 Grainger Market

Shortly after I moved to Newcastle, a friend introduced me to Grainger Market. Occupying a full block in the heart of the city, Grainger Market is like a combination farmer’s market, variety store, and food court, all under one roof.

I didn’t buy anything on my first visit, but I loved the feel of the place. I found myself dropping in whenever I was nearby, and soon I started making occasional purchases. I started with some Northumberland cheese and (at last!) Fontina Val d’Aosta, realizing that the market houses the only good cheese shop that’s convenient to me.

In the last few months Grainger Market has become my go-to place for certain items. I shop there at least once a week, probably close to twice for some things. I go there so often, in fact, that I’m the “mayor” of Grainger Market on the social media site FourSquare. I buy almost all my “fruit & veg” (“fresh produce” in the States) there, and I have recently begun buying eggs and chicken there because it’s cheaper than in the supermarket (Newcastle is never so hot that it will go bad before I can get it home on the bus). The various fruit&veg stalls vary a surprising amount in price, and I always check the prices of the main things I want before I start shopping. Also, I frequent the stalls where I can walk in and choose the pieces myself.

A couple of weeks ago I bought some netting from a fabric stall and hook-and-loop fastening (hook side only) from a crafts stall, to use as window screening to keep out bugs.

And today I bought a package of venison.

To understand what a big deal this is, you have to know that I quit eating mammals in 1978. Thirty-five years ago this autumn, it was. I didn’t do it for reasons of compassion for animals (although I certainly sympathize with that view), but because I learned how energy inefficient it is to grow crops to feed cows and pigs rather than growing crops to feed people. But this is England. It’s next door to Scotland. (About 60 miles, in fact, when you’re as far north as Newcastle.) Which is full of wild deer. Which people hunt and sell to butchers. So, after verifying that the venison in A. Kettlewell’s case was hunted rather than farmed, I bought a package of it. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do with it — probably combine it with veggies and rice — but I’ll think of something. Venison costs almost twice as much as chicken, so I won’t be buying it often — but a girl has to have some variety, doesn’t she?

I can walk to Grainger Market in 20 minutes and get home with my purchases in a £1.40 ($2) bus ride and a two-block walk.

I totally love living in easy reach of such a place.

Vegetable and butcher stalls at Grainger Market
Photo by J0nny_t, used under Creative Commons license