A New Year wandering around Newcastle and Southern Northumberland
by Slug on January 29, 2013
With a night time appointment at the Kielder Observatory to stargaze, we were in something of a rush for a fast food bite but in no mind to queue for a tasteless chain burger. So what to do in rural Northumberland? We could be found just before New Year’s Eve in the pretty town of Hexham, parked up and us racing up and down the High Street looking for a fish and chip bar or such like. Right at the end of our hurried search on the corner of the end of the main row of shops we thought we had hit pot luck at the Hexham Fish Bar. Unfortunately on the evening we arrived the Hexham Fish Bar was a rare beast indeed; a fish bar with no fish. Actually the reason was rather reassuring; they were shutting for a few days over New Year and they didn't want to keep fresh food until they reopened. In the right time of day and year, the Hexham fish bar offers a Greek special and fish and chips. Although we weren't in the place long, with our scampi and chips being cooked straight from the freezer it seemed obvious that the Hexham fish bar was a friendly family concern. The owners apologised for the limited menu choice and gave a cheery welcome to everyone that arrived. While the Hexham Fish Bar is modest in style (think plastic topped tables and plastic chairs) with a standard menu of the likes of fish, chicken, sausage, fish cakes and chips and the like, it is obviously well cared for and nice and clean. The bright lighting was very unforgiving so I could even inspect under tables very easily and found it all to be spick and span. I was not surprised to check on the Scores on the Doors website that the official environmental health inspectors have given the Hexham Fish Bar five stars (the best possible grade) for the standard of cleanliness. Most of the diners come in for a take away meal, but there were a few other guests still eating at the point we arrived. The cost of our full meal was roughly £5 a head for a meal including a can of soft drink pop. It's not a place that is open late into the evening and from memory it closed at 8pm each night. If you want a quick bit of tucker, cooked well in a clean environment and which doesn’t break the bank then you could do much worse than dine at the Hexham Fish Bar.
I am sometimes a bit of a hotel snob but if I'm truthful as we are usually out all day and all evening so we do only use the room to shower and sleep in. I will always look at the Travelodge website to see if they have rooms available for a good price. When we discovered we could bag 3 nights away at New Year for a little over £60 per couple then we all agreed it was a deal too good to miss. That the Gosforth Travelodge also had a pub and a 24 hour Co-op supermarket next door was an extra bonus. Actually this Travelodge is something of a find as it's only 4 miles or so out of Newcastle city centre. The Travelodge there is popular with stag and hen parties being right in the middle of party land and is often noisy. The Gosforth Travelodge was rather more sedate, although we were woken up a couple of times with lads bouncing off the corridor walls as they tried to navigate a straight line to their room, but it didn’t last long in any case. The Gosforth Travelodge is also only two and a half miles from the Newcastle Airport Travelodge, so again it makes a handy alternative if the hotel is full or pricey. Our mission was to do a bit of exploring of the south Northumberland countryside, and once again the Gosforth Travelodge is on the right side of Newcastle meaning you don't need to drive through the city to get out into the countryside. Finally, the Gosforth Travelodge is a hop, skip and jump from Newcastle's racecourse, and Gosforth town itself (which actually also has a few nice looking bars and restaurants) is just a couple of miles down the road. Check in was fast and efficient and the friendly woman on reception was welcoming enough and our rooms were tidied each day and our bed remade. There are machines for snacks in the lobby, but the 24 hour co-op obviously has far more choice and is cheaper. You can dine in the pub next door if you wish (and they open for breakfast on a weekend). The food is fine if unexceptional. I loved the "no smoking" signs on the room doors in the hotel as the colour of the letters could be picked away and some enterprising souls had created new words. It all reminded me of the opening credits to Fawlty Towers. Our room bore the legend "Smoking Poo".Our room was quite a modern example of the typical Travelodge with red carpet (rather than the blue), and white walls. This was one of the later smaller rooms without the addition of a bed settee. However, the room was plenty big enough for a few days stay, and at £20 we weren't going to complain. You always know you are in a classy joint when there is a rustling plastic bed sheet under the cotton sheet, but again it was a small grumble. The TV was good modern and quite large, but the digital connection kept on failing lending something of a 1980s Max Headroom feel to the TV programme we were watching. There was only a shower in the bathroom (no bath) and as always the only freebie toiletries was a bar of soap. The towels were new, white and reasonable quality. The bedside lights were not working meaning we had an "all or nothing" lighting experience. Heating was of the convector heating kind and it soon warmed up the room. No complaints there. Our ground floor view looked over the car park, but as it was a holiday weekend no one stirred too early in the morning. We enjoyed our £60 3 night stay in Newcastle, and found the Gosforth Travelodge suitably clean and conveniently located. While it isn't the place for a romantic date to impress the missus, I'd certainly have no qualms about staying here again and it made our short break certainly affordable..
by Slug on February 2, 2013
I remember the excitement as a child when my father occasionally used to wake my sister and me up pre-dawn to go on one of our expeditions. We were never quite sure whether it was to see spiders webs delineated in fine beads of morning mist or just to watch the sun rise over the river. However, one of my favourite early morning excursions was to go out star gazing while my father pointed out the various star constellations. When our friends booked us all a night at Kielder Observatory at £10 a head, I didn't quite know what to expect. One thing we certainly underestimated was just how far out into the wilds the building was. Obviously to get the best of the night sky, the observatory has to be in a very dark place, and Kielder is estimated to be in the darkest spot in the UK (in the middle of a forest). So it was that we were driving 90 minutes through the night from the outskirts of Newcastle. No fun when the talk finished at the wrong side of 11pm, and when the 30 minutes drive closest to the observatory is through forest along winding roads. Next time we will stay a little closer if we can. During the drive we were grateful for the full moon, and the view across the trees down to Kielder Lake itself looked magical. Unfortunately while the moon made our journey a bit easier it also would prove to be our downfall, as the Northern Lights that we had a vague chance of seeing can't compete with a full moon. Unfortunately during our end of year trip that it then started snowing while the initial presentations were ongoing simply added insult to injury. The people that manage the Observatory explained that they got about one night in 5 where they could see the stars without rain, mist or cloud obscuring their view. Oh, to go and visit the Observatory in Tenerife. We were treated to a lecture on the Observatory and the Northern Lights. The talk was reasonably pitched for everybody although I guess your child would need to something of a science geek if they were to get too much from it. However, the technical bits are interspersed with pretty time lapse displays of the northern lights and a few bad jokes from the presenter. While I'm post graduate educated, science and physics in particular is a weak spot, so the technical niceties of how a telescope worked lost me a little, although I got the gist.Unfortunately, while we got to look at the microscopes they didn't show us anything as by then it was pouring down with rain and even the moon was hidden from view. This gave us chance for another fascinating lecture about how big the cosmos is and what the Hubble telescope have taught us. There was also a bit of a scary piece about solar flares and how in 1859 they caused major disruption to the then telegraph system, and what it might do if (no in fact the word is "when") we got another one in the modern world. Scary indeed.We also learnt about the history of Kielder Observatory and how it had been built 4 years ago largely though the eco architecture of the wooden building. They are however already hoping to refurbish the telescopes, and perhaps even to extend the building. Towards the end of the evening we were rewarded with mugs of hot chocolate, although to be fair with the live fire stove in the corner of the room it was not too cold despite the driving snow outside. Our fascinating 3 hours plus cost £10 per person, and we left before they got into some more technical geeky discussion. It was well past 11pm and with another 90 minute drive back to our hotel we thought we would quit while we were still awake. The Kielder Observatory is open most evenings for presentations and talks of one kind or another, but pre-booking is essential as they don't just accept people arriving on the off chance. It is also an out of the way place so it's not really an ideal drive for a whim.
We had heard quite a lot about Northumberlandia in the media so I was anticipating some grand things about the development. On paper it sounds great; a coal mining company redevelops an exhausted mining site with the moulded shape of a reclining woman; the largest such structure in the world with 4 miles of path and walkway for visitors to explore. The reality was rather different; the obvious flaw in the plan is that you need to somehow float about half a mile above the woman to really appreciate the form. The two viewing "towers" (mounds of earth) are woefully inadequate and you barely get a better perspective from them than other spots on the site. You might imagine the display boards at least show the woman from above but nope nothing.The walkways are rather frustratingly curved; while they help form the shape of the woman (from above at least) it is difficult not to be tempted to walk across the grass to form a shortcut. Although the sculpture only opened a couple of months, the head is already falling apart. I didn't think the structure was so revolutionary in design to think they might not have anticipated that the angle of a head might need additional support. Likewise, the paths were pretty muddy; sure it has rained a bit but this is the north east of England! The woman appears to be lying on her back in a muddy puddle. That many young people find themselves in this state in the early hours of a Saturday morning on city streets was not lost on me. However, I didn't find the setting romantic or graceful just a little sad. The structure itself is surrounded by mine works and a busy road. Of course, I appreciate the sculpture cannot choose its surroundings but it didn't really give a peaceful ambience. Perhaps in a few years once the mine has been worked through it will all look rather better.The parking to the Northumberlandia attraction is free although a £2 donation is suggested, and the car parking area is staffed. I suggest you take a look at the structure for yourself before deciding whether your experience was worth it – for me I was disappointed perhaps by the over hype and won't be rushing back to take another look.
by Slug on February 3, 2013
During last summer's Northumberland Coast hike, I made a sticky mark on the shop window of Cabosse in the town of Warkworth while drooling at their cakes and chocolate. Unfortunately it was a day we had made sandwiches so I rather moodily stomped down to the river to eat them dreaming about how nice an hour at Cabosse would have been. So, when we wanted something of a light bite for lunch while we were wandering around the town over New Year, I had no shame in strong arming our party to the front door and pushing them in. Cabosse is in two main sections; a front little shop area where you can purchase the likes of sandwiches, quiches, cakes and chocolates for take away, or you can enter into the room behind where there is a small cafe with probably about 15 covers. At 2pm we were lucky to find the place almost empty; five minutes later people were being turned away. There was a small but perfectly formed menu with a choice of savoury; sandwiches or filled croissants. Ham seemed to loom large on the menu which was a nuisance as neither my beloved nor I will touch the stuff, but a nip back to the counter revealed a rather nice brie and salad filled croissant. It arrived with some crisps a side salad, and beetroot chutney (which would have been lovely if I didn't hate the smell of beetroot) which was thoughtfully served in a separate bowl so I could quickly move it from under my nose.Although the place is licensed to sell alcohol, it felt more like a place for coffee and my beloved enjoyed her milky example. Our food arrived pretty quickly although the staff seemed to be on a bit of a flap as others diners arrived. After what I thought of as something of a snackette I found myself pretty full of brie and croissant, so I almost regretted that I had ordered the chocolate and almond tart. I say "almost" as it was wonderful; I particularly liked the chocolate which is made in the shop. My 3 fellow diners were also happy to help me out. The meal for the two of us came to £16 and service was friendly and attentive. My only grumble was that the dining room itself had been arranged for maximum chairs and tables and it felt rather cramped. We had to walk a rather circular loop to escape but we were generally pleased we got lucky and had sat in a corner table a little out of the way of the main melee.
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