A morning Full English breakfast. This being my ‘Last Chance To See’ I have eaten Full Englishes and Fish ‘n’ Chips with a sort of reverence, as if I was visiting museum pieces. Who really eats these things regularly in normal life? But this tour has concentrated all British experiences and senses for me. Sunday church bells floating from afar over the summer air, tinkling music from an ice cream van, both of which I would usually ignore or feel mildly content at at best, now bring me to tears.
We sit and eat as the farm/hotel owner talks endlessly to a family in the breakfast room – pictures all around of long-departed sheepdogs lugubriously staring from frames. Anorak-ed wife grinning with pride, rosetted in front of a beer marque, a canvas Gents, tickling the blank-faced victorious dog at some Show Saturday Festival.
The obvious regular takers of their holidays here are confessed to about how finances have turned tough, what a struggle the business is now, not sure how they’ll cope. He talks and talks, moans and bleats. “Whatever happened to the British stiff lips?” says Passepartout, not quite right, and without much care at the man’s plight either. We turn to the garden which is a riot of plants and flowers.
“How many flowers bloom and grow in an English country gar-den?” I’m inspired to sing, patting a cutlery rattling pom-pom-pom on the table edge, watched darkly by my unimpressed breakfasting companion. “I’ll tell you now of some that I know and those that I miss you’ll surely par-don”.
My mind then goes totally blank. I can’t think of a single English flower. “Roses?” I weakly offer. Song over.
We set off with the harassed owner who’s conducting the not–usual task in a hotel of taking his flocks to market. A woodpecker sends us off above with a clacking farwell and we pass the luckless black faced Cheviot sheep standing, unredeemed, in his fields as we head out, southwards through country roads towards Newcastle.
Coming down high above Hexham, we both coo: it looks picturesque, the abbey, the bridge, but the coos turn sour as an impossibly ugly factory emerges up from the trees. The weather is bleak and we skirt Newcastle, through roadworks, to find the Angel of the North as the rain comes down and the roads around us are dug up. I crane for a sight of the statue and I actually feel myself foolishly quite frightened by its appearance – like a dark spectre on top of the grimy horizon. As we get closer, the gigantic figure – Gormley again – is doing well to hold his flasher’s mac opened in the wind and squalling rain. A quick picture for us of the Angel and then a dive back into the car.
We have a room to stay in the Benwell area of Newcastle and stop to ask for directions. The face that’s pulled gives us a good indication that we’re not going to be staying somewhere particularly salubrious.
As we park outside the house in the driving rain, passing loafing oafs leer into the car window and as we climb the stairs to the second floor flat I hear our Geordie neighbour for the night below us bellow instructions to his girlfriend “Get doon the offie and get us 6 cans’a strong lager. And don’t fanny fart aboot”
With the rain lashing the windows, we decide to have a Greek siesta. Waking up later to find the rain stopped and an orange light filtering thorough the delicate mare’s tail of infinitesimal drizzle, we decide to drive in to see the city centre. But there’s a problem. The back wheel has been nicked.
After panic, swearing, blame and repercussions, we have to finally settle on the acceptance stage and spend a long time talking to incompetent rental car services and inattentive police on the phone. In the end there’s nothing left but to walk, solemnly, into town.
The sky is purple behind the Tyne Bridge. We find a high vantage point and look down on the city. A jewellery box of a million twinkling street lights. We gaze down on the concentrated area of construction on the riverside: the conversion of the breadmaker Hovis’ old Baltic flour mill into an art gallery; the glass and steel of the Sage concert hall – the long contours rolling like the high arches of the bridges surrounding it and looking like some shiny scaled snake has just swallowed a pig; the Millennium titling bridge which rolls over to let boat traffic under and appears like a giant eye, winking at you as it conducts its cute manoeuvres.
We walk down through the arches and turrets of the main university building and through dull pedestrianised shopping streets to look for Grey Street.
I had read, some years ago, that Grey Street had been voted Britain’s best road. It’s easy to see why: classical architecture from the 1820s and 30s, Grade I-listed Theatre Royal, a monument to the man who reformed Parliament and gave us Earl Grey tea. It is also of grim significance to us as we have travelled here – in a long crescent moon-shape – all the way round England from our home just off the Streatham High Road – voted the worst.
For all its physical beauty, Grey Street still has to accommodate a fairly charmless crowd within its wide descending subtle curve. The weekend revellers are out in force. No one dressed for the chill evening of course. The same inflatable penis from Swansea makes an appearance. I spot one man walking along in a pair of trousers that make it look as if he is being given a piggyback by a frog. None of his other friends appear to be in fancy dress. It makes me wonder if he’d just popped out for a quick pint and was crestfallen to find these were his only clean pair of trousers in the drawer.
The whole scene makes the Greek stop and wonder.
“The difference with Britain and Greece” she says as she stares “is EVERY NIGHT seems to be carnival here”.
As we get out of the smooth, clean Newcastle Metro system at Central Station – odd, but brilliant, for a city of this size to have a metro system – Passepartout points out one of the new public art instillations of a man striding by in causal garb “Look, even the statues are wearing short sleeves”.
We stop at the Centurion bar in the station – originally the first class waiting lounge in the 19th Century. In the 1960s British Rail used it as their cell for ticket dodgers and perpetrators of other miscreant deeds committed under the great curving station roof. They happily slapped red paint all over multi-million pounds worth of historic tiles, murals and columns. It has now been fully restored though, and we sit sipping a Newcastle Brown Ale in sumptuous surrounds, as old men watch the silent tv sports reports and the more nervous and retiring hen dos mousily chat in the corner.
Later, as we make our enforced walk home – the rental car up on bricks 2 miles away – Passepartout points at the dominating sight of St James Park stadium. Oblivious to the “football is a religion” idea in this part of the world she states “Look, we should have parked in one of those big car park places”.
I say nothing. We trudge on in silence.