Did you know Newcastle has one of England’s highest concentrations of listed buildings? Guest blogger, JOHN MURPHY explores the North East’s building heritage and the risks historic buildings face in rural areas.
In Britain, Listed Buildings form the backbone of some of our most famous cities – whether found prominently on high streets serving as banks or offices, or tucked away in quiet streets as ornate homes.
Grade I and II listed buildings are beautiful, historical structures that have decades (and sometimes centuries) of character. They are prestigious, eye-catching and come with their own rules for builders and occupiers.
The North East, in particular, has one of the best concentrations of listed buildings in the UK with many in Newcastle upon Tyne. The North East enjoys a far higher concentration of Grade I and II* listed buildings than other regions.
Newcastle, in particular has the following:
Grade I – The national average for concentrations of Grade I buildings (which are of exceptional interest) is 2.5% throughout England. In Newcastle upon Tyne, that number is as high as 7%.
Grade II* buildings are deemed to be of more than special interest and in England Grade II* accounts for around 5.5% of all list entries. Newcastle, astonishingly, enjoys almost quadruple the national average at 20%.
Grade II (without the *) are buildings of special interest that make up the remaining 92% of listed buildings in England and in Newcastle that figure is 73%.
Grainger Town, the historic heart of the city centre, enjoys one of the highest concentrations of listed buildings in the entire country. Of its 450 buildings, 244 are listed – with 29 Grade I and 49 Grade II*.
All work on these buildings is protected by the planning authority, with English Heritage involved for any Grade I and II* buildings. Some of the most famous structures in the city fall under this protection. For example, the popular landmark Grey’s Monument is Grade I listed.
Unfortunately, despite this protection, listed buildings are at risk due to a lack of investment and damage from both vandalism and wear and tear. The Heritage at Risk register monitors buildings of historical significance that are at risk and unfortunately, the North East is in crisis – nationally the ratio is 3.8% and the North East has 6.2%.
What is causing this risk? How can the region remedy it?
One of the biggest risks the region encountered was urban decay in Newcastle City Centre during the early 1990s. The area experienced decay as private investor’s moved out of listed buildings, which were being classified as both ‘at risk’ and ‘vulnerable.’
However, a programme of development and enhancement was started by Newcastle City Council and English Heritage. Thanks to both government and private investment through the late 90s and early 2000s, the area was revamped and now stands as one of the best examples of listed buildings in the country.
Now, the more rural areas are by far the most at risk – with 30 buildings in Northumberland listed on the heritage risk list. 24 from County Durham are at risk. Compared to more urban areas, it’s clear buildings in those areas are more vulnerable. Just five buildings in Newcastle upon Tyne and six in Gateshead are on the heritage risk list – clearly illustrating that their more central location has given access to better funding and repair work.
Crime is one of the biggest risks to listed buildings, especially in rural areas where surveillance and protection isn’t readily available. A national survey found that 70,000 buildings were harmed in 2011, mainly due to metal theft.
However, in rural areas in the North East, such as Northumberland, the main threats to buildings seem to be erosion and plant growth. Perhaps the region as a whole needs to turn its attention to the more rural areas, especially as Northumberland grows as a visitor attraction. The historical buildings of the past must be preserved as the future nears.
Sunderland fan and beer blogger PAUL WHITE swallows his pride, a glass of Shearer and a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale but does it leave a bitter taste?
Well, my football team, Sunderland, got hammered and my fantasy league side had a pretty low-scoring day. Our rival football team, Newcastle, won. Ireland won in the rugby (that’s a good thing in our house). All round, yesterday was a pretty mixed bag, in terms of sports.
So, what better way to wind down than with a couple of beers, and I thought I would look at the relationship between beer and sport. In particular, beers that one might associate with a rival team. In my case, that means Newcastle United.
I guess the question I’m asking myself is, should you ever be put off a good beer because its association with the “other side” of a sporting rivalry leaves a bitter taste before the first drop has been tasted? Or, is it tantamount to a chance to get one over on the opposition: “I’ll boo your team, but drink your beer.” I’m sure other analogies can be found.
Now, Tyneside has its fair share of excellent breweries, but I have gone for one beer that is indelibly associated with the football team, and one that is, well, only linked by virtue of an unfortunate name.
Let’s start with that one and ease myself into it.
Shearer, from Black Sheep, is actually named in honour of sheep shearers, as opposed to being a tribute to Alan. Still, I thought twice, only half-heartedly, about whether I could bring myself to drink a beer that carries the name of the hero – legend, even – for those up the road.
As far as I recall, despite being the all-time Premier League goalscoring record holder, Shearer the player only ever scored three times against Sunderland (Gary Rowell managed that many against Newcastle in one game).He is also very fair about Sunderland in his punditry on Match of the Day, even quite vocal in his praise on the rare occasion it is warranted (not tonight, definitely not tonight). Plus, you have to admire a player who will choose to reject a move to a big club where he might achieve his true potential in order to fulfil the dream of joining the team he supported from childhood*.
So, actually, I don’t have any issue with the man himself, and as I take my first taste of the beer, I realise that I can put the loose link to Newcastle to one side and enjoy a really fresh, citrusy, pale ale. It’s probably more a summer ale, being so light and fruity, rather than a drink for a cold February night with a good chance of waking up to a snowy scene in the morning.
This is probably lighter than anything I’ve tasted from Black Sheep and I’ve had pretty much everything they’ve had on offer in the last five years or so. It goes down really well and you could drink it all afternoon on a good beer garden day, especially as it’s a nice steady 4.1%. Probably not in a Sunderland beer garden, though.
So, yes, this very loosely affiliated beer is a winner, but I won’t be shouting its name in bars any time soon.
Now, onto the second of the beers. Newcastle Brown Ale takes me back to the days when the iconic Blue Star adorned not only the label of its bottles, but also the shirts of Newcastle United. However, it’s also a beer I’ve enjoyed many times in the past, as far afield as New York. As someone who is proud of the North East as a whole, it’s great to see a beer from the region finding its way into bars around the world.
However, as I’ve historically considered it a strong beer, I’ve often only turned to Newcastle Brown Ale once I’ve been well into a night out. Nowadays, 4.7% doesn’t seem that strong, with many of the beers on the market going much higher.
In reality, it is probably my North East roots and the cultural identity that Newcastle Brown Ale has, stretching much further than the association with the football team, that make me feel more than comfortable about enjoying a bottle of Dog.
The nickname alone says something about life in the North East in days gone by, with “I’m gannin’ to see a man about a Dog” often being an excuse to get out of the house and down to the pub.
There’s something about Newcastle Brown Ale that makes it far more a part of the North East than purely being a Newcastle United-related drink. And that’s before I even talk about the beer itself. Few beers achieve such iconic status without being good. Dog is good. Very good.
Smooth and full of flavour and aroma, one can forgive the fact it’s now brewed in Yorkshire if it means keeping a great beer alive.
Having enjoyed bottles of Sunderland’s Double Maxim and Guinness Original XX last Saturday, while Sunderland were enjoying their 0-4 smash and grab raid at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park and Ireland were narrowly being beaten by Scotland in an RBS Six Nations classic, I can say that great beers go with sport and it’s nice to have that association. However, why deny your tastebuds a treat simply because of sporting allegiances?
*Tongue firmly in cheek. You won’t get many footballers making that sort of choice these days.
Chef’s wife and food blogger, KIRSTIN HANNAFORD heads to Prezzo for a pre-match meal with her dad before joining the crowds for some festive season football
There used to be a time when a midweek home match at St James’ Park followed a set pattern. I’d rush to get finished at work by 6pm and race down into the centre of Newcastle to meet my dad for a bite to eat before heading to the ground to take our seats in time for kick off. That was back in 2010 when relegation to the Championship after 16 years in the Premier League led to an increase in games on weekday evenings, and I still cared enough to sit in the cold for 90 minutes knowing I had to be up early for work the next day.
Six years on I still make it to most Saturday afternoon matches, but it’s been a good few years since I spent an evening shivering in the crowd watching 22 men run around the pitch at St James’ Park hoping I’d be repaid for my efforts with the glory of a win.
So when my father offered me the chance to accompany him to the Nottingham Forest match during the lull between Christmas and New Year, I decided it was time to get the layers on and join the other 50 odd thousand folk hoping for another three points. Plus, a spot of Italian cuisine and a night with my dad had far more appeal than another evening of eating left-over turkey curry and watching the Big Fat Quiz of the Year on catch up.
Feeling pretty fed up with festive fodder, I booked a table at Prezzo, located on the edge of Old Eldon Square’s “hippy green” in the spot that once housed fellow Italian chain, Strada.
Prezzo opened its doors in Newcastle in November 2014 and became the company’s 250th restaurant. It immediately blended in with the plethora of high street pizza pasta chain restaurants that appear to be multiplying in the city centre, each presenting identikit menus to droves of hungry customers, often seen clutching two for one vouchers.
For many people the idea of a chain is synonymous with mediocrity, but this doesn’t need to be the case although such unimaginative places frustrate my husband. Apparently they are the culinary equivalent of painting by numbers. However, Mr Chef wasn’t invited on this occasion and while I understand his preference for a good old fashioned trattoria, where mama lovingly serves up a hearty Italian feast, there is something slightly reassuring about a familiar menu and recognisable surroundings when you have a quick turnaround and you’re feeling rather peckish.
As I approached the glass fronted restaurant on what was a surprisingly mild December evening, I could see my father waiting expectantly in the doorway and so we swiftly made our way inside.
We were met by a direct but not unwelcoming waitress who showed us to our table at the front of the restaurant looking out over Old Eldon Square and the multiple crowds of teenagers set for the night with their beer cans in hand, each trying to outdo one another with their bizarreness.
The restaurant has a modern interior over two floors with a mix of tiles and wooden panelling lining the walls, shiny silver light fittings and neutral décor giving a contemporary minimalistic feel devoid of any real atmosphere. Most of the tables were occupied by diners of varying ages, families with children and a number of obvious fellow match goers, so I was pleased to have booked in advance. We settled down at our table and surveyed the menu which as expected contained a selection of pizzas, pastas, risottos, salads, and meat dishes.
As anyone who lives with a chef will know every good Italian meal should contain wine and olives, so I decided to start with marinated olives and a large glass of Merlot. My dad on the other hand opted for polpette gigante, large meatballs made of veal, pork, beef and pancetta. Having always been a bit of a cheapskate, he chose to accompany it with a glass of house white which perhaps predictably was a tad sharp.
The mixture of black and green olives served in a light olive oil with peppers, garlic and herbs was full of flavour and proved a successful choice in taking the edge off my hunger. My father’s meatballs were tasty and came in a tangy tomato sauce, dressed with basil and some kind of unidentifiable cheese slivers which he described as somewhat insipid.
On to the mains which arrived promptly once the starter plates were cleared. I plumped for prosciutto e funghi pizza (Prosciutto ham, mushrooms, olives, rosemary, mozzarella and tomato), but chose the light option which is made with a smaller flatbread base and is complemented by a side salad with optional dressing.
My dad played devil’s advocate and decided on pasta. His large bowl of pappardelle gorgonzola (chicken, pancetta, leeks, broccoli and parsley in a gorgonzola sauce) looked appetising enough and the pasta was cooked perfectly, however the sauce was disappointingly bland and lacked the depth of flavour promised by the prospect of a rich creamy blue cheese sauce. Mine was an okay pizza; a thin and crispy base just on the safe side of overdone with a decent amount of ham and mushroom topping.
The staff were friendly throughout and the service was on the whole attentive with a check back after the starter and again after the main to ensure everything was okay. We did wait around 10 minutes for my second glass of Merlot to arrive from the bar and at times there was a certain amount of aimless wandering to be observed as waiting staff tried to decide whose antipasto was whose.
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to be critical given that we got exactly what we ordered. The bill came promptly on request as did the amended version once I’d remembered the 25 per cent off voucher I had printed off in haste before I left the office earlier. The bill came to £43.41 which for two courses and three drinks I considered a reasonable price.
And so ended a meal that was generally competent, with a few own goals but no adrenalin surge from a superb shot on target. All in all an unexceptional but okay dining experience. But with the company’s tagline offering to “bring a touch of class to Italian casual dining” I had hoped for a bit more as well as the chance to prove Mr Chef and his cynical outlook wrong.
I suppose that the appeal of many chains is that generally you know what to expect, and I guess we got exactly that, another faux Italian delivering food that fails to surprise, but doesn’t offend.
HELEN GILDERSLEEVE speaks to the founders of Newcastle based charity WECare Worldwide about the fantastic work they do to save the lives, treat and care for Sri Lankan street dogs.
After a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I discovered the heart breaking plight of many stray dogs there. As beautiful a country this is, it is very far removed from the UK when it comes to animal welfare; dogs are often viewed as pests and there’s an unprecedented amount of homeless dogs due to a lack of neutering available.
I remember sitting on the beach one night realising I was surrounded by more stray dogs than people, all desperately seeking food, shelter and basic human affection. I ended up sharing most of my rice with a couple as they looked at me with desperately sad eyes. It led me to want to help and volunteer for the charities that work tirelessly to save these poor creatures. Little did I know that a wonderful group of vets from my home town were doing just this!
WECare Worldwide are a team of veterinary surgeons and nurses from Newcastle’s Westway Veterinary Group whose aim is to provide a high level of veterinary expertise to animals who don’t have access to any other form of healthcare.
The charity was set up by local veterinary surgeon, Janey Lowes, from the Westway Veterinary Group in October 2014. Janey, who is originally from Barnard Castle has a mission is to provide veterinary care for less fortunate animals around the world, starting in Sri Lanka. A huge amount of work goes into the charity from the UK who often host events, fundraisers and sell Sri Lankan made products in Westway branches across the North East. This year she became the first vet to receive a Points of Light award – an accolade given by the Prime Minister to volunteers who make positive changes in their community.
Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, said; “She has undoubtedly changed the fate of scores of vulnerable animals by protecting them from disease and providing much needed care. “I am recognising Janey as a Point of Light, not only for the positive impact she’s had through helping animals in need, but also for the countless people that will have been protected from rabies by her work.”
With no healthcare available, many of the street dogs in Sri Lanka live in a considerable degree of pain and discomfort. Some of the injuries that occur there are beyond belief and many have previously died slow and painful deaths. From skin disease, to multiple fractures to inflicted injuries, such as severe burns, bomb injuries and collar wounds- these dogs have been to hell and back and it is time for this to stop.
Sri Lanka’s roaming dog population is rumoured to be 1 to 3 million in a country the size of Ireland with a human population of 20 million. Unsurprisingly, there are not enough resources to support this number of dogs and as a result many starve to death or succumb to disease, with 60% of puppies dying before they reach their first year.
Education on animal welfare and responsible pet ownership is non-existent in Sri Lanka, leading to generations of families demonstrating neglect and often cruelty of an extreme kind to dogs, both stray and owned. They often do not know any better and feel as though they are doing a good thing by protecting their families from vermin. To make matters worse, the veterinary profession in Sri Lanka does little to promote compassionate care.
Charities like WECare Worldwide truly are a godsend and without these, many of these beautiful dogs would die.
To date, WECare has carried out the following treatments:
In a quest for a great curry and a spicy Indian banquet, KIRSTIN HANNAFORD heads out to Dabbawal, a recent contestant in Newcastle’s Argie Bhaji Curry Battle, and finds that although they didn’t win the battle they may just win the war!
It’s a common misconception when you live with a chef that you must get delicious meals cooked for you every evening. What people clearly forget is that he works long shifts most days, rarely has weekends off and any free time he does get is more than likely spent catching up on his sleep.
When he does cook at home, and to be fair it’s a lot more often than I do, it’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that it will be a curry. There’s nothing he loves more than creating a huge big steamy pot of generously spiced beef and spinach Madras and inviting a crowd of friends over to enjoy the results. I think it has something to do with his love of flavours and his slightly worrying obsession with the kind of obscure sounding ingredients that your everyday supermarket wouldn’t even know existed. Needless to say, he does curry well. With such high standards at home when we treat ourselves to an Indian takeaway or frequent one of the many local Indian restaurants, it has to be something special to impress.
When we found out about Wylam Brewery’s Argie Bhaji Curry Battle last weekend I got a craving for spicy cuisine. It seemed the perfect chance to catch up with some old friends for a good beer and a spot of curry all together in one place. Plus, the opportunity to try offerings from the likes of Sachins, Dabbawal and Curry Rolls was one not to be missed. Hot off the heels of their Battle of the Burgers event back in September and billed as a sensory overload of all things Indian spice, I have to admit I was quite excited.
Unfortunately, it was not to be as the unexpected hordes of hungry curry lovers led to a jam packed venue and queues for food that even my stomach couldn’t wait for. My hankering for a good quality Indian feast was sadly left unfulfilled. Not one to give up easily, I had a word in the other half’s ear and managed to persuade him that we ought to try out one of the contenders in situ. And so, the following Tuesday evening we ventured to Dabawal’s Newcastle restaurant in the hope of an Indian banquet to top all others.
The modern looking eatery is tucked away on High Bridge Street, but when we arrived around 9pm we found most tables occupied, which for a week night can only be a good sign. Simply furnished with unclothed wooden tables, industrial light fittings and brightly coloured graphics adorning the walls, it provided a well needed haven from the bitter Geordie weather.
The restaurant is named after the dabbawallas – lunchbox delivery men, who bring the comfort of home-cooked food to offices in cities across India – or so I was helpfully informed by my curry connoisseur husband as we were guided to our table by a friendly waiter. While appreciative of the lesson in Indian culture my eyes turned quickly to the menu which offers an array of Indian street food served tapas-style as well as a range of traditional and more imaginative sounding curries. Accompanied by a friend, we chose not to be our usual selfish selves and opted to eat socially, sharing everything, making our selections from the street food tapas menu.
The Vegetable Samosa Chaat – a dome of sliced crispy samosa parcels on top of a spicy chickpea sauce, drizzled with tamarind and yogurt – was crunchy, fragrant and very moreish. On the recommendation of the waitress we also went for Haryali Chicken Tikka, succulent chicken breast pieces marinated in coriander, mint yoghurt and green chili. Perhaps the best chicken tikka I’ve ever tried and I was pleased we’d asked for the expert advice.
The Seekh Kebab Kybria – spiced minced lamb kebabs with red onion and sweet peppers – were tasty but a bit dry and in my opinion would have benefited from a bit less time in the oven and a tad more yoghurt sauce, but they were devoured all the same. With the addition of some juicy Citrus King Prawns, and sides of Lentil Battered Okra and creamy Paneer and Spinach we were set for the night.
We chose to mop up the sauces with some steamed rice, a perfectly baked roti and a somewhat disappointing Peshwari naan. It was overly sweet, with congealed sugar crystals clearly visible on the surface of the dough and the only real let down of the night.
It might be stating the obvious but none of us had room for dessert and with work calling in the morning it was time to head for home. Carrying on the sharing spirit we split the bill three ways. In my view £22 each for an over generous helping of spicy delights, a bottle of cobra beer and two large glasses of house red wine wasn’t bad value.
With the majority of dishes hitting the mark and impeccable service throughout from attentive, knowledgeable and friendly staff, Dabawal may not have been crowned the winners of Wylam Brewery’s Curry Battle (that prize went to Curry Rolls), but they definitely won us over. I certainly won’t be giving up the home cooked curry from my mister, but we’ll absolutely go back to Dabawal for seconds.
With 70 million cups of coffee consumed in the UK every day, it’s easy to see why we’ve taken to roasting coffee on our doorstep. HELEN GILDERSLEEVE explores the region’s growing independent coffee roasteries, suppliers and cafes.
Tyneside’s longest reigning coffee supplier is the much loved Pumphrey’s Coffee, based in Blaydon. Established in Newcastle’s Flesh Market (near the Bigg Market) back in 1750, Pumphrey’s is a true family business. Directors Stuart Archer (Snr) and son Stuart Archer (Jnr) provide top quality coffee and are dedicated to meeting customer requirements whether that be coffee beans, teas, brewing equipment or espresso machinery.
Pumphrey’s strive to purchase the finest coffee beans from around the world and roast them to order in the traditional way with flames. This involves open flame roasting drums dating back over 80 years and under the careful eye of master roaster Stuart Lee Archer, Pumphrey’s aim to provide delicious tasting, fresh coffee to their customers’ choosing.
Since 1983, Pumphrey’s Coffee has been based at Bridge Street in Blaydon. The site comprises a warehouse, factory, training room and a coffee shop open to trade and the general public.
Newer to the scene is the equally popular Ouseburn Coffee Co (OCC), based in Foundry Lane in Newcastle’s Ouseburn area. Established in 2012 by a small band of artisan coffee roasters and baristas it offers a highly selective range of coffee from around the world. All OCC coffee is lovingly roasted in small batch lots and bagged up fresh the same day.
Established in 2012 and offering ethically sourced seasonal coffee the coffee is roasted and bagged by hand in small batches on Foundry Lane in the heart of the Ouseburn Valley.
The business has gone from strength to strength and opened the doors of its Harvest Canteen café in Jesmond in 2014.
Famed for its simple, striking black and white design, which carries through to Harvest’s décor, the cafe has a clean, chic and relaxing feel and coffee lovers can pick anything from a flat white or an espresso through to a 7oz latte.
The more eccentric of coffee drinkers may even want to try OCC’s Cold Brew. Using just fresh roast single origin coffee, slow cold water extraction and triple filtration, OCC don’t add anything else to their brew and it is recommended to be enjoyed either on its own for the ultimate kick, with water or even added to gin or rum for a boozy drink with a difference.
They also have a regular stall at the popular Tynemouth Station Market every weekend. I love nothing more than sipping one of their lattes whilst browsing the market. This year also saw OCC boasting its own counter in Fenwick’s all new Food Hall. It certainly looks like there’s more to come from these guys.
A particular favourite of mine is BLK Coffee on Heaton’s bustling Chillingham Road. BLK has a regular rotation of beans from around the globe for the most dedicated and adventurous of coffee lovers.
The brainchild of BLK is local lass Alison Bell, who has her own coffee inspired blog and website- Black Coffee and Other Stories. BLK also stock amazing cakes every time I go in. Keep up the great work, Alison.
For city centre folk in need of a pick-me-up, Pink Lane Coffee near Newcastle’s Central Station has established itself as one of the foremost speciality coffee destinations in the region, featuring in publications such as Grazia, ShortList and the UK edition of the Condé Nast Traveller since opening in 2012.
Pink Lane Coffee is a spacious and creatively designed café featuring local art work and a quirky décor. It even has its own mini library of books to borrow for those like me who often forget to remember their own.
They now roast their own beans called Colour Coffee which are served at various cafes across the North East. Owner, Anth Atkinson, set up shop in Sandyford where he hopes to encourage locals to enjoy independent coffee.
Since Colour Coffee was founded in November 2013, near Corbridge, Northumberland, the firm has sourced a range of seasonal coffees from across the world, taking a scientific approach to production, with laptops and temperature sensors used to monitor and replicate each successful roast. Who knew science could taste so good?
Other fabulous independents across the region include the very popular Flat White in Durham, Flat Caps Coffee and Laneway & Co in Newcastle, Cullercoats Coffee and The Boatyard in Cullercoats, Navaho and Coolaboola in Jesmond, Holmeside Coffee and Café Eighteen in Sunderland and The Mockingbird Deli in Yarm, to name a few.
DAVID SIMPSON meets Newcastle tour guide, Alexander Iles, who talks about his popular city tours and his hopes for the region
I meet tour guide, Alexander Iles at Newcastle’s Journey Café to the rear of the the Laing Art Gallery. He’s very welcoming and offers me a coffee. My first impression is of an enthusiastic, engaging young man full of passion for Newcastle and very keen to share his knowledge of the city and region.
He draws my attention to a nearby building that was home to Victorian architect, John Dobson and points out what looks like a plain pavement just outside the café. Alex explains that this is the controversial ‘Blue Carpet’, a worse for wear art installation of 250,000 glass tiles, completed in 1999 at a cost of £1.6 million. He’s clearly not impressed by its sorry state, but it’s great to have your eyes opened to something you might not have otherwise noticed and in this Alex excels.
Alex is the owner of Iles Tours, a three and a half-year-old business providing popular walking tours that have become, in a very short space of time, a major tourist fixture in Newcastle. They are also a great treat for locals wanting to learn more about their city.
You’re left in no doubt that the success of the business is down to Alex’s knowledge, determination and passion for Newcastle. We chat for more than an hour and I’m struck by his desire to share as much of what he knows about the city and the region as he possibly can. What he knows is exceptional. I learned much that I did not know and as a North East historian myself, I’d say my knowledge is certainly better than average.
Though only 25, Alex has soaked up facts, stories and insights spanning centuries and this all helps to make his energy and passion so much more infectious. In fact such is his passion that it’s sometimes hard to get a word in, but it’s endearing because what he has to say is so fascinating and inspiring. What’s more it’s all told with a conviction that Newcastle and the North East has an extraordinary story that just has to be told and that this is a city and region destined for great things.
“It all started in March 2012” says Alex, remembering the beginning of his entrepreneurial adventure fondly, “there was a blizzard on the day and I started asking people if they would like a tour of Newcastle.”
Alex had studied Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University and stayed on to follow up with a Masters in Innovation Creativity and Entrepreneurship. He believes his academic background helped him understand cultures and how to “take apart the method of idea generation.”
Post university and frustrated by his job searches, being told he was either overqualified or inexperienced, he opted for self employment.
“I didn’t want to do an office job and loved Newcastle” he reflects.
“When I was younger my family and I went to the Edinburgh Festival and I remembered the guides and thought, well, that is something I could do.”
As a student, Alex developed a great affection for Newcastle and in his preparation for business his passion for the city’s history was further ignited through absorbent research:
“I went into Newcastle Library and read every book I could get on Newcastle and wrote my first tour – the Historical Tour.
“From here I went out and started asking people if they wanted tours and contacting people about what I could offer them.”
In setting up the business Alex received guidance from PNE (Project North East) and Rise Up at Newcastle University who gave him a £400 grant to build a website and make the first flyers.
“It helped a lot, as I had a vision but not much finance to get off the ground.
“For research I went to York to learn about guiding and how the city of York structures things. I wanted to see how it was done in a place with lots of tourism so I could then see where Newcastle would and will be”
Alex is motivated when people get passionate about the region and start seeing it for what it is. He wants people to love the region and to fight for it too. I find him optimistic about the region’s future as well and he believes the North East is on the verge of another great period of prosperity.
His optimism is based on the belief that a new industry or technology will be found for the city. Let’s hope he’s right. Indeed, as part of his research into a new tour featuring the city’s historic entrepreneurs, Alex has learned much about modern technology developments and technology companies within the city and the region and this will feature in his latest themed tour.
I ask him what it is about Newcastle and the North East that he thinks is so special?
“This is the greatest region in England and has so much rich history that makes it so vibrant today” he says.
“The North East is a location with such a unique culture, it is English, but it’s not, it is communal, friendly, based on honesty and mutual respect with a huge sense of humour.
“The layers of history are near the surface with the ancient Hadrian’s Wall side by side with the modern parts of the region. It is also the durability of the location; it always picks itself up, has a bit of a laugh about it and gets on with the work needed”
Typical customers on Alex’s tours are from all walks of life, ranging from school children on trips to students and professionals, to older people taking city breaks. He also undertakes corporate tours from time to time at the request of local businesses.
Around half of Alex’s customers are British, around a quarter are from Europe and the rest are from English speaking countries. He seems to get some great feedback from customers who are impressed by what they learn. This is certainly backed up by glowing reviews on Trip Advisor.
Alex clearly gets a great buzz from inspiring and educating people about the region. Even when they are local, he is keen to show that although they may ‘know’ their city there is always so much more to know.
I ask what kind of expectations or preconceptions visitors have about Newcastle on his tours and Alex has a view on this:
“I think many people think Newcastle will just be a party city. Geordie Shore has had a lot of influence on the way people view the city. Others think Newcastle is just flat caps, coal and ships – or the lack of all three! I like showing that there is so much more to the city than this.”
Alex has made many surprising discoveries about the city but one of the things that strikes him the most is how much the world owes day to day things to the city. He believes that the inventions and inventors who came from Newcastle and the region are often taken for granted despite the fact that they transformed the way the world works and I am inclined to agree.
Light bulbs, power stations, competitive rowing, cranes at docks are among the developments Alex mentions.
“Newcastle has been pivotal in how the world has worked” he says.
Alex is an entertaining teller of tales, but also a stickler for accuracy which is a good thing, but I want to know what are his favourite stories about the city?
“It depends on how people I am touring respond to it (the tour) as to which one is my favourite” he says.
“Currently on a personal level it is the story of Roger Thornton and Ralph Carr, entrepreneurial businessmen who were very influential in Newcastle during their day. I look to them as heroes in my own business. Both men started with some advantages but had to work hard on their business to succeed in Newcastle and grew to the level where they were two of the most influential people in the North East and able to protect and invest in the region through their finances.”
Alex undertakes a number of different kinds of walking tours in Newcastle, each with a different theme. There’s an historical tour, a cultural tour and a gory tour and, as mentioned, he is close to introducing the new tour focused on Newcastle’s entrepreneurs. He can also create bespoke tours for people on request.
His gory tour started this way after Newcastle Blood Bank wanted a medical tour of the city. Alex put together the tour for them and realised he enjoyed the material, so started adding and editing it.
Alex is of course not the only guide offering walking tours in Newcastle and the North East. There are many experienced, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides offering such services throughout the region, so I want to know what he believes makes his tours different?
“I think it’s a combination of my passion for the region and wanting people to love the area as much as I do. Anyone can list off facts, but to create an engaging story you need to take the facts and make it relevant and comparable to the age in which we live. History is a lot of stories and you need to draw it out of the facts and help people feel it.”
So as the business begins to grow where does Alex go from here? Well, Alex is clear in his future ambitions:
“My dream is to expand Iles Tours across the North of England within the decade – from Glasgow and Scotland down to the south of Yorkshire and then to plan expansion into Scandinavia, northern Europe and eventually southern England.”
However, in the present he’s focused on our region and hopes to continue developing the educational arm of his business as part of a teaching group called Meet The Ancestors – where like minded businesses work to teach the past to schools and the region. Alex has also written a book that he’s hoping to get published entitled A Time Travellers Guide to the North East.
“It is a passion of mine to work in establishing festivals in the North East”, he says “and helping to get people passionate about their region” he adds, and it is in this, it seems to me, that Alex is a shining light.
For more information about how to book an Iles Tour visit the Iles Tour website at Ilestours.co.uk
With such a broad choice of comedy venues and lots of up-and-coming comic talent, HELEN GILDERSLEEVE finds much to laugh about in North East England
The North-East is fast becoming known as the hub of an eclectic and talented comedy scene.
Gone are the days when all showbiz talent was London based; the region now has proud ties, past and present to comedy legends like Ross Noble, Sarah Millican, Bobby Pattinson, Brendan Healy, Bobby Thompson and Chris Ramsey to name drop a few.
So what is it about the North-East that produces such comedy genius?
Some would argue it’s our laid back and sarcastic outlook on life. Others may argue that Northerners are naturally happier than their Southern counterparts thus making better jibes. Northerners aren’t known for being overly-stressed or possessing a stiff upper lip and this could be the crux of our hilarious observational comedy and often zany outlook on life.
One only has to hear everyone’s favourite randomist and nonsense-spouter Ross Noble go off on one of his famous tangents to appreciate the Geordie stance on life. Famed for his scarily quick freewheeling style and imaginative flights of fancy, a Noble show is always an unmissable event.
Many lesser known, up and coming North East comics are fast making waves across the comedy circuit and have the potential to become household names in the not too distant future. Born and bred Sunderland comic, Matt Reed, has an affable, cheeky style (and claims to look like a‘scruffy Jesus’) that has won him fans across the UK. In 2015 Reed took his debut show to the Edinburgh Fringe, retelling the four year ordeal of how he was stalked and cat-fished by an online admirer. The show won rave reviews from critics and audience alike and he now boasts sell out shows and a growing fan base.
Jarrow-born Carl Hutchinson is enjoying similar success. He’s been and done Edinburgh supporting fellow comic and school friend, Chris Ramsey. Hutchinson’s latest show, The Fixer, shows him hilariously squaring off against life’s petty annoyances. From giving ‘banter cards’ to people you get stuck with who have dull chat, to mocking overly cheery motivational quotes on social media.
Other local acts showing great potential include Jason Cook, Patrick Monahan, Lauren Pattison, George Zacharopoulos and Mike Milligan.
As well as solo comics, the region’s improvisation acts are enjoying equal success. Newcastle based The Suggestibles have been enjoying national success for a decade now. Their team of comedy actors react at lightening speed to audience suggestions to create spontaneous scenes, skits, stories, sketches and songs. No show is ever the same and audiences must always expect the unexpected. The gang’s original venue and comedy home is at the Cumberland Arms in Newcastle’s Ouseburn and they’ve since frequented most comedy hot spots in the city.
Newer to the improv scene is Spontaneous Wrecks who perform a live two-hour improvised comedy show in the style of ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ each month. The team create sketches, scenes, and games based entirely on audience suggestions. Spontaneous Wrecks perform on the first Wednesday of each month at The Bridge Hotel in Newcastle.
Comedy venues across the region are becoming ever popular too. The Stand, The Gala Durham, The Tyne Theatre and Opera House, Sunderland Empire and Newcastle City Hall are just a selection of the venues that play host to a stream of laugh makers every month.
Those who can’t get to the Edinburgh Fringe this year still have the opportunity to see gigs at a variety of venues across the region including Newcastle’s new Bottle Shop Bar and Kitchen, The Stand, Punch-Drunk Comedy in Northumberland, Big Mouth Comedy Club in Teesside, Hilarity Bites Comedy Club in Darlington and The Venue in Northallerton.
It’s also pleasing to see that many North East town are now hosting their very own comedy festivals so locals can enjoy a mini Edinburgh Fringe on their doorstep.
This summer saw the success of the South Tyneside Comedy Festival, the Darlington Comedy Festival, Newcastle’s Jesterval, Sunderland Comedy Festival and Monkeyshine Comedy Festival in Middlesbrough.