Earl Grey is big in Newcastle. Not so much because it’s the afternoon cuppa for the locals. More because the monument to this 19th century Prime Minister is such a landmark in the centre of town.
After saluting the man whose name is today associated with a bergamot-scented tea (but who is more famous historically for bringing in the reforms that gave new towns the right to elect MPs…), our next port of call in Newcastle was the Anglican Cathedral. Long before Earl Grey got famous enough to have a monument, the Cathedral’s spire was used as a navigation point for incoming ships.
Not far behind the Cathedral is Newcastle’s castle! Now, I didn’t even realise Newcastle had a castle until yesterday, in spite of the city’s name. But this is a fantastic spot with great views down to the river and the Tyne Bridge, which is much more the recognisable icon most people probably associate with Newcastle today.
And I got myself into a jump of excitement when I discovered a little street called Amen Corner just between the Cathedral and the Castle. Hey, was this where the 1960s pop band came from, I asked myself (but no, a later google search showed that there are several streets called Amen Corner and the band came from South Wales – in fact the guy who runs the first coffee shop I visited hadn’t even heard of Amen Corner; sad reflection of my age, perhaps…)
So, talking of coffee, someone had told me about a little place just about 10 minutes’ walk from the Cathedral underneath a rather mystical, alternative gift shop. Wow, very easy to walk right past this place if you’re not looking for it. And even once inside, you need to slip past the miniature buddhas and tarot cards to find the little spiral staircase down to Flat Caps.
There I found Joe, busy preparing different concoctions as he tries to find the perfect espresso to enter in the upcoming national Barista Championships. Will he build on his recent regional award for the North East of England? We’ll have to wait and see. But meantime, Joe is not one to let his coffee go to his head: he’s a local lad who runs a one-man show here (yes, when Joe’s on holiday, this place closes) and getting to know his regulars is as important to him as the coffee he serves. This was a great little find.
Now, Joe gets his coffee from Pumphrey’s, whose big HQ is just outside town in Blaydon. But they now have a stall in the old covered Grainger Market, just back past the Earl Grey Monument, and they’re well—placed right in the middle of the market, just round the corner from the wonderful Marks & Spencer’s Penny Bazaar (which still draws the crowds even today, I might add).
Pumphrey’s is also a barista training school churning out great latte artists all over the North East. Pumphrey’s has history, mind you: the market espresso bar may be new (only opened last autumn) but the company set up as a grocers and tea merchants back in 1750 (I’m yet to get to the bottom of how they switched over the years from tea specialists to coffee…).
All caffeined up, I headed on down to the second Cathedral in town, the Catholic one. As cathedrals go, this is pretty self-effacing. There’s a fascinating story of the crypt, built in 1844 but sealed up four years later, with a bishop and priest inside: they’d both died of cholera and it wasn’t considered safe to allow people near the bodies. But there’s no leaflet to guide you round so you can only guess at the other stories around this church that was built just as Newcastle hit its industrial prime.
The Catholic Cathedral is nearest to the first of our tea venues. Tea Sutra is another place you could easily walk right past, down a little narrow road off one of Newcastle’s main shopping streets. This is a wonderful find and a must for tea lovers. It is NOT your average posh afternoon tea place; it is actually run by two Buddhist guys and they’ve created a beautiful haven away from the noise of buses and cars and shoppers.
They were apparently inspired by similar places in Barcelona and Prague (and Glasgow, as we’ll make a point of checking when we get up there later this year). Great tea, really nice cakes, and very very relaxing atmosphere: what more could you ask for? A massage or reiki session maybe? Yep, well there are treatment rooms just down the hall if you fancy a session before your tea.
Now, all of these venues and the two cathedrals are all in a relatively small area in the centre of the city. It is probably no more than 10-15 minutes walk between any of them. And there are many other coffee and tea venues we didn’t get to try. Newcastle is really blessed on the tea and coffee front.
But for our fourth recommendation, we took a bit of a hike away from the town centre. Newcastle has two fantastic green areas just a short distance from downtown. There’s the Town Moor, an enormous area of land to the north of the city where you can still graze your animals if you want. And then, just 10 minute’s walk from the centre of town, there’s the deep ravine of the Ouseburne, where you can lose yourself among ancient trees and babbling stream and totally forget you’re less than a mile from the centre of one of England’s biggest cities.
About a mile upstream you’ll find Jesmond Dene House Hotel, one of Newcastle’s nicest hotels. And here you’ll get your posh afternoon tea in a beautiful oak-panelled sitting room by the roaring fire. It’s posh but actually fantastic value (at least compared to similar feasts down in London) and soooo much food, we had to do the very American thing of asking for a doggie bag to take the remainders home with us.
Apparently this hotel was originally owned by a physicist working in the armaments industry. These days the biggest battle appears to be between the two guys who own it now over which of the two football teams they support should be given prominence. You’d better go along there to see which team won…