A second series of reviews covering a New Year in and around the North of Newcastle
by Slug on February 13, 2013
After our bracing and windy walk from Bolam Lake, we thought we deserved a pint and a sit down before our trip back to Newcastle and our pending New Year's Eve Meal. I instantly liked the busy friendly pub, The Highlander and the barman chatted away to us as if we were locals. In fact, the place felt so comfortable I convinced myself that I had been here before, although on reflection I suspect that's not true. Looking around the bar there were tables of all shapes and sizes to cater to diners, and then some space at the bar for the regulars of the village dropping in for a pint or two. I was particularly drawn to the high backed benches next to the window which was up a step from the bar. I liked the airy space and while it was empty when we arrived it soon filled. Around the top of the wall was a space where all manner of knick knacks had been stored. I usually hate the "obvious" way that pubs do this, but the Highlander just felt like an honest and slightly upmarket country pub that has been around for years. In fact, it dates from around 1700 and still sources its meat, fish and vegetables from local farms and businesses. Towards the back of the pub was a lovely real fire and I almost regretted my impulse to enjoy the last of the natural light by the window. After our man helped us choose a good well kept pint of real ale (they always have a couple of guest beers available), we decided that as our New Years Eve's meal was still some way away we would just have a light bite. Unfortunately the Highlander is very much a three course meal foodie pub so they didn't have anything like sandwiches although the barman said they would be fine just to offer us a starter if there was anything we fancied. To be fair they also had full bookings for the evening meal so I think a starter suited the pub also. The pub specialises in fairly traditional fare; hearty meat dishes and such like. Starters come in at around £5 and most standard mains £10 (with things like tiger prawns at £15 or so), which i didn't feel was a bad price for a good meal. Although they had a busy lunch time session and were preparing for perhaps the busiest evening of the year, staff were friendly and bouncy and out starts soon arrived. I was particularly appreciative of my simple but very tasty and smooth home-made pate, and my fellow diners were also very content with their choices. We actually regretted not having booked within walking distance so we could have sampled the full New Year's Eve menu, which from memory seemed to be a very reasonable £25 a head or so. Summing up we enjoyed our pit stop at the Highlander, and enjoyed our light bite. We will return one of these days to really give the menu a good going over.
by Slug on February 10, 2013
After all that eating and drinking of Christmas and New Year, we were keen to take a walk around some of the local area but not go too far in the car. We found what seemed to fit the bill an 8 mile or so circular walk from Bolam Lake to Shaftoe Crags with our starting point just 14 miles or so out of Newcastle. To get some ideas for routes either buy an OS map or pop the two names into a search engine; various web sites offer routes. This is a very pretty little area and often missed by folks racing on up into more northern parts of Northumberland. Bolam Lake Country Park has plenty of parking and walks through a small wood to the lake. It is very family orientated rather than really being in the wilds, but it is a pretty place nevertheless. The lake is quite reedy but I understand you can canoe and fish in summer months. Despite being pretty close to Newcastle, you can see deer, red squirrel and numerous birds here. From here we left the Country Park and followed our path across some fields; unfortunately this was really heavy going due to the terrible rains we have been having and at one point I really was all for turning back. In fact, were it not for the thought of the slippery plough back up the hill I would have done so. After the fields, we turned onto a firmer flat field boundary; fortunately the strong wind was to our side rather than directly in our faces but it meant we were all walking with our hoods up and heads down. This part of the hike really wasn't particularly striking, and started to make me wonder why I ever chose hiking as my sport of choice. Eventually we spotted our goal; a rather fine house on the hill with a very strange slightly isolated walled garden to its left. Behind the gardens was a route up to and through some of the old crags at Shaftoe. The crags are on a ridge and the views back across the valley really felt like we had walked miles uphill to get there. At the top we sheltered in the lee of a crag and had a quick sandwich and drink to replenish ourselves, before going back behind the farm following a beautifully made and maintained dry stone wall back into Bolam Lake. We concluded our hike was one of two halves; the first part wet, windy and not particularly spectacular apart from the lake itself, but the hike over the crag and ridge was well worth the effort. Overall we were happy bunnies.
by Slug on February 9, 2013
We've passed through the pretty town of Alnwick (which is said as Ann-Ick) before, but have had mixed success with finding a nice pub for a beer and a sit down. We seem to either land up in a place where the bar staff sneer if you aren't prepared for a three course meal or the place is a little bit too local, and the voices drop off as you emerge from the doorway. It was in our ever ending quest for a place perfect for us that we stopped off for a couple of beers at the Queen's Head in the town centre. The pub is a nice looking whitewashed Georgian coaching house where a sign outside confirmed the pub as been around since the 1770s and was one of the stopping places for people travelling along the Great North Road in the days of yore. The inside of the pub is modern and I imagine the owners much regret the previous refurbishment which has removed any possible original features of the pub. Today it is a rather large open plan place with tables and plenty of space to stand. As we were in the place early evening, it was pretty quiet and we found ourselves a table near the door. The bar is large, and it seems that if you stand in the wrong place that you might easily get missed – fortunately the bar staff were friendly and attentive and regularly checked around the corner to see if anyone was waiting. We had an amusing moment as one of the bar staff seemed new and obviously wasn't from the North East of England. When a regular asked for his regular pint of Carling Lager, he was rather bemused to be asked by the staff what a pint of "Colin" was! While we didn't eat at the Queens Head, the smell of traditional roast dinner certainly tempted us despite knowing we had an appointment with a curry later that evening. There was quite a mixed age group in the bar, and we enjoyed listening to the group of polite but fairly boisterous young lads meeting for the first time after Christmas discussing the chances of one of their number getting to the next Olympics. I'm guessing that sitting in a pub downing a few ciders isn't perhaps the most perfect training regime. We also enjoyed our pint of local beer; the 5.5% toffee flavoured Hexham Brewery. It was kept well and we ended up sampling a second pint as it was so good. Summing up, I think we have finally found our Alnwick pub where we can just have a couple of beers sat in the corner in a relaxing environment – a good standard and traditional choice.
We probably wouldn't have bothered to stop off at the Falcons Nest pub on the outskirts of Gosforth were it not for our Travelodge hotel being a literal stone's throw away. While the pub is handily near the Newcastle racecourse, it is also on a small unattractive clump of retail businesses on the side of a busy road with a petrol station and a 24 hour co-op and the Travelodge to keep it company. The aspect of the beer garden is hardly atmospheric.Still the pub owners have done their best and this modern building does have something of the feel of a farmhouse, albeit with a rather open plan feel to it. The pub is large with two large areas for dining tables and a very long bar. I was impressed with the open fire which looked traditional. I do love an open fire in a pub. While they serve 5 or 6 real ales none of the ones on offer were strong beers and I decided that I'd sink a few premium lagers on the New Year's Eve evening we visited. However, the bar is well stocked and it sells a good range of drinks. My drinking buddy kept to the ale and told me that it was well looked after; unfortunately there was just nothing to grab my fancy. The wine too was reasonably priced and with a reasonable range on offer. We also visited for breakfast which the pub offers on a weekend. The full English was £7 a head, but there was some confusion about whether the "help yourself" toast was included in the deal. The sign simply said you could have toast and juice for £3.50 or so if wished. As it turned out we weren't charged for having toast so we assumed it must be in the breakfast deal. The cooked breakfast was cooked to order (rather than being on a hot plate or some such (((shudder))) and came non greasy and good if just a little on the small side. That toast sure came in handy. We also ate here at New Years Eve. I had Turkey and the trimmings and concluded that the vegetables were very good although the gravy was rather over salted for my taste and the turkey a little dry. However we probably didn't see the place in its best light as it was so busy, and I have to say the service was excellent. The meals seem to be fairly standard brought in affairs, but at a reasonable cost. It's not a place I'd look to impress anyone with, but if you want a bit of tucker while you are on the road, or wanting a bite to eat after the races then I can see you could clearly do worse. To sum up, if I'm truly honest I wouldn't have visited the Falcons Nest were it not for the Travelodge next door, but it is an attractive looking building selling reasonable quality if standard food and beer.
Our travelling salesman friend often starts his day with a breakfast at the local Weatherspoons pub and so it seemed natural to him to hunt down the local Gosforth example during our extended weekend visit to the area. The Job Bulman is located on a side street in the centre of Gosforth and located in a grand building which used to be the Post Office. It’s quite easy to walk onto the main street where there is a co-op for a newspaper and the like, and there is a cash machine almost opposite the Job Bulman if you need money. Parking is available either on the street, or if you want to stay a while a (pay and display) car park is available behind the Job Bulman Although the Weatherspoons formula is pretty standard up and down the country with its bright carpets, lots of wood and comfortable seating, I always hunt round for a board which explains the history of the building and who the pub is named after. In this instance, it was a bit of a struggle, although I did find out about the history of the site of the race course up the road (they used to make early aircraft and cars there). Eventually I did spot a board which explained the Post Office history, and rather strangely it seemed that Job Bulman was a local town banker. I'm not quite sure why Weatherspoon’s put the two together (the building often has some connection with the person it is named after), but I guess it's not for me to wonder why.The breakfast at Weatherspoons is always very good and the Gosforth example was no exception. I ordered the vegetarian breakfast and got a fried egg, potato hash browns (although they are more beige), beans and half a fried tomato and some toast. I always order orange juice and Weatherspoons always provide it in huge portions. Two breakfasts on consecutive days with a pint of orange juice each time and I thought I might go orange myself.The breakfasts are good value and while I personally might try to find a local independent breakfast spot, to be fair to my salesman friend, the Weatherspoons is usually the best value and of course always consistent. We didn't visit the Weatherspoons on an evening, but it is a big place and I can fully imagine it having a lively atmosphere. Again, Weatherspoons is one of the cheapest places to buy alcohol and its pleasant surroundings mean you can do far worse. There are plenty of real ales to sample, and there is also a good choice of wines and other drinks. Meals are also on offer during the day although they tend to be of the microwave or deep fry variety, although good value for what you get.
One of the things we had arranged for our New Year trip to the North East of England were tickets to Alnwick Garden’s Festival of Fools at £12.50 a person. The Festival of Fools is open for a few weeks up until New Year, and I presume will be on again at the end of 2013. I'm guessing it is a good way for the trustees of Alnwick Gardens (founded by the wife of the Duke of Northumberland) to keep the garden as a paying attraction in the winter months. The tickets were provided in half hour time slots so as to ensure the Festival of Fools did not get too busy. I seem to remember that the festival runs from about 6pm to 9pm or so. I advise you book for the event ahead as it is a pound or so cheaper if you do, and you might find you have quite a wait if you simply turn up expecting entrance. Alnwick Gardens are adjacent to Alnwick Castle and were originally developed for the first Duke in 1750 by Capability Brown, but in recent years they have been extensively enhanced and re-landscaped by the current Duke’s wife. You can often see her sitting in a dumper truck shifting soil and rocks around. OK OK, she actually pays other people to develop the gardens although I understand she is hands on with the plans and development and is one of the trustees of the charity. I’ve been to Alnwick Gardens in summer and the other main attraction are the Poison Gardens which are kept under lock and key with escorted viewing only, and where you can see poison plants and opium poppies and a cannabis plant (although I confess I have in the past mingled in circles where they are not that uncommon to spot).Our tour of the gardens after dark took us through the gloriously lit main focal point of the gardens, the cascades, and up to the walled garden where most of the activity took place. The shop and cafe were open if you wanted a warm up either before you walked through the Festival of Fools or afterwards. At the entrance we were greeted by a marked man who spoke in riddles; he explained we needed to speak to each of the characters dotted around the garden to collect clues to a saying. We were not to leave the garden until the words had been collected and were handed a card and a pen with which to collect the various letters that would obtain our prize. Around us the garden had also been decked in pretty lights. Although it was cold in the night air, we spent a happy hour talking to the various characters in the garden to try and find out which letter they represented. There were also some groovy lights to explore. Once the letters had been obtained (we got them all bar one), it was time to rearrange them from an anagram into two words. Thankfully we saved embarrassment by getting the wording right rather than having to beg someone to give us a clue or two. However, I do have to say it wasn't simple, but not too hard either. I'm sure kids from the age of 8 up would certainly enjoy the quiz, although perhaps younger ones might both be scared by the freaky characters and frustrated by some of the clues. I’m also pleased to say we were not the only party sans enfants.On exit we were all quite proud to wear a badge affirming that we had broken the code; even to the point of wearing them in the Indian Restaurant that evening. How old are we?We didn't quite know what to expect with the Festival of Fools and completely enjoyed our exploration of the characters and the lights in the garden. The acting was superb and none of the characters seemed bored or looked like they wanted to be anywhere else. If you are in the area at the end of 2013 then look out for this attraction; I don't think you will be disappointed.
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