If there’s a stereotype of the North-South divide in England, I’d count myself as a soft Southerner who loves the arts, while my husband’s side of the family are the gritty Northerners who made their living from mining and engineering. But having recently visited the Great Exhibition of the North in Newcastle Gateshead, I was left no doubt that the North has plenty to be proud of in arts, design and innovation.
To celebrate the achievements of the North, the Great Exhibition of the North in Newcastle Gateshead is a free, summer-long celebration with a programme of amazing exhibits, live performances, displays of innovation, new artworks and unforgettable experiences packed into 80 days.
The exhibition is based in Newcastle Gateshead, an industrial powerhouse of the North with a past reputation for coal and industry, but now all cleaned up and reinvented as a hub of arts and culture. Witness the 50 Northern icons with Stevenson’s Rocket, the Beatles and The Angel of the North depicted in a long series of murals, or the 100 best Northern songs with all the ones we love to sing along to; 10cc, Roxy Music and Sting. I’m not sure the North’s culinary achievements are done justice by Yorkshire Tea and Greggs the bakers but there’s still a lot to shout about!
Great Exhibition of the North at Sage Gateshead
I started my day visiting the Great Exhibition of the North at Sage Gateshead. This iconic events and music centre sits on the banks of the Tyne, looking like a silver slug with its curved glass body reflecting like a mirror by day and glowing from within by night.
At the opening day media event I chatted with Carol Bell, Executive Director of the Great Exhibition who explained what it was all about.
“If you think about the great exhibitions of the past, like the Great Exhibition of 1851, or the Festival of Britain, they had the idea of showcasing some great ideas about the past and also about the future. For the Great Exhibition of the North we decided to use the beautiful city of Newcastle Gateshead as our canvas and rather than building a new structure we’ve used three different hubs.
We’ve got the Great North Museum which is a Natural History Museum that we’ve transformed, also the Sage Gateshead, an amazing music centre and Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art. Between these hubs we’ve created 3 trails; one that explores Great Northern Innovation, others for Great Northern Art and Great Northern Design. Visitors can start the trails at any of the three hubs or in the middle if they want and get involved in the great art and design across the north.”
The North in 100 Songs for the Great Exhibition of the North
As one of the main hubs for the Great Exhibition of the North, you’ll find plenty going on at Sage Gateshead. There’s a series of live gigs and weekend festivals across the summer, with everything from community choirs to rock, folk and gospel – you can get the full programme here,
The North in 100 songs is an exhibition with portraits by Manchester-based illustrator Stanley Chow, based on the 100 favourite songs voted by the people of the North. If you’re wondering what the favourite Northern Anthems were, you can see the full list here and find a link to the playlist on Spotify.
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Remake a Take Movie Trail
The Remake a Take Movie Trail is a project to showcase films or TV dramas that were shot in the North East. Check out the map of all the movie locations around the region including scenes from Get Carter, Billy Elliot and 24 Hour Party People. There are quite a few in Newcastle Gateshead itself and you might like to relive the scenes from Brief Encounter at Newcastle Central Station, or Chicken Run at Ouseburn Farm – more info here.
Sounds of the North at Sage Gateshead
It was outside Sage Gateshead that I heard more sounds of the North, in a soundscape installation Protomusic#1 created by Yorkshire based music producer Mark Fell. The real world sounds of the North were submitted by members of the public and used to create a soundscape that ranges from the sound of wind blowing through a factory floor to the roar of the Northern crowd at a football match.
When I first stepped outside the Sage Gateshead entrance, I thought there might be a stadium nearby where a real life match was taking place. As part of this sound installation I was immersed in the sounds of the crowd cheering at the football match, the waves of sound strangely reminiscent of the waves breaking on a pebble beach.
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Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts – whats on for the Great Exhibition of the North
Just along the quayside from Sage Gateshead is the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, another of the three hubs of the Great Exhibition of the North. Housed in the landmark Baltic Flour Mills on the south bank of the Tyne, it’s an international centre for contemporary art with several special exhibitions for the Exhibition of the North – see the programme here.
On Level 4 I popped in to see the Idea of the North exhibition, a curation of different mini-exhibitions each with a Northern theme, ranging from the multicoloured dome showcasing different materials, to a photo exhibition of Women by Women from the 1970s to present. On the same floor I stepped outside onto the viewing platform to get the great views over the Tyne and a close up on the squawking kittiwakes that nest along the ledge on the side of the Baltic building.
Once the glass lift had brought me down to ground level, I took a closer look at the sculptures in Baltic Square, in front of the arts centre. It appeared that a group of giant convicts had gone on the run, each leaving their ball and chain behind, but the information plaque told me about the installation by Ryan Gander called To Give Light.
Each of the 10 concrete shapes attached to a chain, represents an object with a Northern connection that’s designed to emit light, like the miner’s lamp, light bulb and cats eyes invented by Northern engineers. If you arrive on the scene in the evening, the sculptures also glow in the dark.
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50 Northern Icons – for the Great Exhibition of the North
Still on the Gateshead side of the Tyne, I walked to the Northern Design Centre where I’d heard that there was a series of murals created especially for the Great Exhibition of the North. I was just in time to see local artist Frank Styles finishing one of the murals for the 50 Northern Icons series which he had created over the previous 50 days.
Looking for a hotel in Newcastle? Read on of information about Motel One Newcastle or check prices and book for Hotels in Newcastle here
Like the songs, the public had voted to decide their favourite 50 Northern icons, with Frank being commissioned to paint them in a series of murals in front of the Northern Design Centre. I had a chat with Frank – you can see my interview with him on Facebook video and on IGTV and he told me;
“I’ve painted 50 paintings in 50 days, things that have been designed or made in the North, celebrating Northern ingenuity and what we’ve given to the world, like the first passenger train, the Rocket, the light bulb from Joseph Swan. I’ve split it up into 5 sections, so we have architecture like the Hepworth centre in Leeds, culture, transport, products and a wild-card section at the end. The murals will be here permanently, they are part of the Great Exhibition which runs for 80 days but will be a legacy for afterwards as well. “
Captions were due to be added later explaining what each of the murals were, although it was mostly obvious ranging from the Angel of the North and the film poster from Kes, to Yorkshire Tea (Earl Grey of course) and Greggs pasties from the North’s favourite bakery.
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Winged Tales of the North – in the Ouseburn Valley
My walk continued across Gateshead Millenium Bridge to the Newcastle side of the Tyne where I used the exhibition’s excellent mobile app to explore some of the artwork in the Ouseburn Valley. The trail started a short walk along the Tyne, near the Cycle Hub café and cycle shop, which is a good lunch stop or place to hire a bike.
Once a hive of industry with a glassworks, warehouses and factories, the Ouseburn Valley has become a creative and digital hub in Newcastle, home to artists’ studios, a community farm and the Seven Stories National Centre for Children’s Books. I was keen to see the series of murals and art installations in the Winged Tales of the North series, inspired by the Northern writer David Almond’s magical stories and dreamlike worlds.
The path led alongside the narrow river channel, where painted fishing boats sat on the muddy river bottom at low tide. The Tyne Bar pub under the Glasshouse bridge was proving popular in the sunshine, with some street-art murals which I don’t think were part of the exhibition but very striking nonetheless.
I found the first of the Winged Tales of the North pieces under the arch of the bridge, called Essalamus which challenged the reader;
Warning / Do not hesitate here, do not touch this wall / Do not close your eyes / Do not say the word ESSALAMUS three times / You know what will happen!
And a little further on, in front of the old Toffee Factory, now a creative and digital centre, the colourful hoardings called to the winged creature within me;
Once you dreamed you could fly / Dream it again in this valley now
Behind railings I saw more poetry created by Hannah Fox and the local primary school with playful themes of childhood;
Below the bridges / In the jungly places / The wild child lives and plays / You may glimpse them / Leave messages if you wish / But don’t disturb them / Let them be free
I reached the creative hub of the Ouseburn Valley where the Byker bridge runs overhead with its arched brick pillars carrying the main road into Newcastle, and the Ouseburn viaduct just beyond. In the shadow of the bridge are the Ouseburn Trust, Ouseburn Farm and Seven Stories Bookshop and creative centre, where you can pick up more information about the Winged Tales of the North trail.
Here was the Exhausted Angel piece from the Winged Tales of the North series, with a pigeon and poem;
On that morning in June 2017 the exhausted angel Caruna was discovered / The creature was lodged in the nearby Pigeon Cree / The rest is uncertain.
Close by in the trees were painted bird boxes created by school children featured the Ouseburn Alphabet of new and old letters found in the valley.
My final stop was at the beautiful Ancient Place mural by artist Faunographic with lettering by Ciaran Globel.
An ancient place / Of lead and stone and steel and scrap / Sluice gates, water, tunnels, mud/ Children, artists, beasts and birds / Where future grows /and shakes its wings
The free outdoor art trail is accompanied by an exhibition Where your wings were at Seven Stories which delves into the writer’s dreamlike world and the North East through the eyes of the author David Almond (entrance charge).
Looking for a hotel in Newcastle? Read on of information about Motel One Newcastle or check prices and book for Hotels in Newcastle here
Newcastle City Centre – The Great Exhibition of the North
After my walk along the Ouseburn Valley, I made my way back into the centre of Newcastle to check in to my hotel before the opening event later that evening. There’s also plenty to see in Newcastle, around the hub of the Great North Museum which has been transformed for the Great Exhibition of the North. In the Which Way North exhibition you’ll find Damien Hirst artworks and John Lenon’s piano, while the famous Stevenson’s Rocket is close by at the Discovery centre.
I also passed a few other striking installations on the way, such as the Grey’s monument that has been made into a Worker’s Maypole. The tall column is now crowned with flowers and clothed in colourful banners that are a tribute to Earl Grey, the Northumberland-born Prime minister whose work paved the way for a fairer society.
If you want an easy way to get around all the sights of Newcastle and the Great Exhibition of the North, check out the Hop on Hop off bus tour which drops off at Baltic Centre and the other key landmarks around Newcastle
Nearby at the Theatre Royal I saw another installation being set up every thing every time which creates a poem from everyday happenings around Newcastle.
The car is waiting / The music is playing / The shop is open / The road is busy / The squirrel is hiding / and the show starts.
I also popped into the Intu shopping centre Eldon Square to see the Little Black Graphene dress (can you tell I used to work in fashion?) The dress is designed to show off the properties of graphene, a material that’s stronger than steel, just one atom thick and conducts electricity better than any other material.
The dress is designed to change colour using tiny LED lights based on the wearer’s breathing. I’m not that we’ll see this dress in the shops any time soon, but it’s a glimpse of what the future of fashion could look like!
Where to stay in Newcastle for the Great Exhibition of the North
Back from my wanders around the Great Exhibition of the North, I made a quick turnaround in my hotel at Motel One in Newcastle. The unasuming brick exterior on High Bridge gave way inside to acres of trendy bar space, with an edgy, semi-industrial vibe of exposed brickwork and metallic fittings, that looked as if they’d been salvaged from an old factory.
I was impressed by this budget design hotel that is part of a group of 30+ hotels with locations in five UK cities. The hotels all have the familiar shades-of-coffee-and-chocolate decor with turquoise accents, but each location manages to interpret this in a unique way, in harmony with the overall brand but incorporating local inspiration and design references. The Newcastle Motel One cleverly includes murals of the Tyne bridges and the black and white stripes of Newcastle United Football Club behind the reception.
I enjoyed a quick recharge in the comfy leather seating of the bar, which comes into its own in the evening when it’s also open to non-residents. There’s no restaurant here but you get a healthy breakfast buffet which sadly I was unable to try due to my early morning start.
My bedroom was compact but stylish, with built in areas on either side of the bed and a couple of open clothes hanging and storage areas. There was a selection of tea and coffee with kettle, a hair dryer and large bottles of refillable toiletries in the modern shower room.
This is the type of hotel that’s perfect if you want a comfortable, stylish bedroom but don’t want to pay a fortune since you are not planning to spend much time there. I suspect it’s a popular choice with groups of friends who are coming to Newcastle to see the city and have a fun time in the bars, restaurants and clubs. Prices are advertised from £59 and you can choose to book with or without breakfast (breakfast adds £9.50 to the price).
The location of the hotel is perfect for visitors to the Great Exhibition of the North as it’s a ten minute walk from either Monument or Central Metro stations, both of which are on the direct line from the airport. It’s also an easy walk down to the Tyne where you can cross the river to the Baltic or Sage Gateshead. Motel One is certainly proof that you don’t have to pay a fortune for a hotel with style.
Where to eat in Newcastle
After a quick turnaound I was off to meet local blogging friends Stuart of Go Eat Do, Sam and Adam of SOS Travel for a quick drink and meal at The Bridge Tavern, a microbrewery that serves excellent gastro pub fare. Then it was on to the Great Exhibition of the North opening event for the big celebratory splash of music, water fountains and fireworks.
The Great Exhibition of the North Opening Event
We bagged our spot right opposite the Sage Gateshead in front of the place where we had seen the water sculpture being tested earlier in the day. As evening fell crowds gathered on the quayside and we were entertained by street performers and the occasional burst of paper confetti.
A bird-man Icarus rose above the crowd stretching out his long feathered wings, while performers dressed as elderly grannies terrorised the laughing crowd in their motorised wheelchairs. Mr Wilson’s Second Liners regaled the crowd with their high energy New Orleans style brass band, an incongruous mix of hipster beards and colourful circus style uniforms.
It was a beautiful clear evening, perfect for photographing the Gateshead Millenium Bridge in the glow of coloured lights and golden hour magic. As night fell, Newcastle’s favourite home-grown band Maximo Park belted out their hits from their stage on the Sir Bobby Robson boat, which had been turned into their stage in the middle of the river, before heading off downstream once their set had finished.
The Get North Water Sculpture
Next the water sculptures in front of Sage Gateshead shot into the air, their coloured jets timed to specially composed pieces by Maximo Park, Kate Rusby and Darkstar. You’ll be pleased to know that the Water Sculpture will be repeated every day during the exhibition until 9 September, each hour from 10am – 11pm with a coloured light display after dark. You won’t get the music played as we did in time to the jets, but instead you can stream it from the playlist on Spotify, with each session timed to a different piece of music – more information and links here.
The swarm of drones at the opening event
Between the Sage Gateshead and Baltic we saw a cloud of lights hanging in the night sky, like stars that had fallen a little too low. The cloud of drones took form, tracing more defined shapes; the North Star, a double helix, an N for the logo of the Great Exhibition and finally tracing the words G-R-E-A-T before dissolving into a cloud of stars again. The light show was created with 100 drones equiped with colour changing LED lights from Skymagic, choreographed in time to the music.
Fireworks at the Great Exhibition of the North
As a grand finale, the firework display began, the coloured water jets spouted and the fireworks burst into the sky; red and green starbursts and silver jets, timed to a crescendo of music.
After a fantastic finale to the opening day of The Great Exhibition of the North I headed back to my hotel, following the crowds who would probably party the night away in true Newcastle style. I just paused to snap the pretty coloured lights reflecting on the water from the Tyne Bridge.
It had been a wonderful opening day of the Great Exhibition of the North, but you can also experience much of what I saw and more. The free celebration of Northern arts and culture continues until 9 September 2018, so if ever there was a time to plan your visit to Newcastle, that time is now!
Download the Great Exhibition of the North Smartphone app
Make sure you download the smartphone app, that allows you to build your own personalised trail or follow one of the 3 trails – Find the link here. I found the app made it really easy to create a personalised trail and find information about the different art installations around Newcastle Gateshead.
There are three trails based around the themes of art, design and innovation, but you can also quickly build your own trail based on your own interests. Each individual element of the Great Exhibition appears on a map and it’s easy to see more information and photos to decide whether to add it to your own personalised trail.
Getting to Newcastle and the Great Exhibition of the North
Arriving to Newcastle by Air
There are numerous flights into Newcastle International Airport, from UK, European and international destinations. I took the Easyjet flight from Bristol (an easy 1 hour hop) and there are UK flights from Aberdeen, Cardiff, Exeter and London.
Once you arrive at Newcastle International Airport, there is a metro station within the airport to take you into the centre of Newcastle. Trains run every 12 minutes and the journey into the centre takes around 25 minutes.
If you have an early flight from Newcastle, make sure you check what time the first metro trains start, as you may need to get a taxi if you have an early start (this one caught me out!). It’s a 15 minute taxi ride from the centre of Newcastle to the airport and should cost £18-20.
Arriving to Newcastle by train
Newcastle is well connected by train to other UK cities and you’ll arrive at Newcastle Central Station, which is in the heart of the city.
Arriving to Newcastle by car
If you are touring the north of England by car, Newcastle is within easy reach of all the major Northern cities. If you are travelling from London or the south of England, you may prefer to avoid a long drive and travel by train, perhaps hiring a car if you want to explore some of the areas around Newcastle. The city centre is easily walkable, or you can use the metro and buses, so you don’t really need a car to visit the Great Exhibition of the North.
More Information for visiting Newcastle
For further information to plan your visit to Newcastle Gateshead, visit the Newcastle Gateshead Tourist Information website.
I was a guest of Newcastle Gateshead Initiative who covered my hotel, transport and expenses while visiting the Great Exhibition of the North.