I am standing on what has been voted the hippest street in Britain. South Shore Road in Gateshead, on the banks of the River Tyne, is home to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, where one of the high-profile exhibitions in the contemporary art calendar, the Turner Prize, will open this month. Nearby is Sage Gateshead, the futuristic Norman Foster-designed concert hall.
It may be hip but, on a Saturday afternoon, there is not a lot happening. Inside the Baltic, trade at the ground floor café is brisk and, in the spectacular rooftop restaurant, late lunch parties chatter noisily. On the floors between, visitors are checking out a frankly unnerving installation by Maurizio Anzeri, in which old photographs of people are defaced by intricate, embroidered patterns. At the Sage, meanwhile, the vibe is that of an empty arts centre from outer space, though it is an unexpected privilege to eavesdrop on the resident orchestra, Northern Sinfonia, rehearsing for the evening’s all-Mozart performance.
Outside, there is little buzz on the street that runs between these two temples of cutting-edge culture. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to describe it as a street – it’s more of a service road crossed with a car park. And, as a local newspaper pointed out in the wake of the poll, carried out by Google Street View this summer, the Sage is technically on the street behind South Shore Road.
I am looking for bars, for crowds, for clues. But further exploration of the area only brings more industrial estate and the occasional display of public art. Behind the Baltic itself there is development – apartments (Baltic Quay) and an office block (Baltic Tower). A new Jury’s Inn hotel has just arrived for the area’s growing conference crowds but it is not immediately as hot a destination as the Malmaison that sits in a converted Victorian warehouse on the opposite side of the Tyne.
A couple of serious young men in windcheaters walk past, apparently wrestling with the significance of it all. The Japanese tourists taking pictures of the car park look more convinced that they have come to the right place.
On hearing of Gateshead’s pre-eminent coolness, some hipsters who had mistakenly chosen to live in London or Liverpool or Leeds were bemused. Did they have a point? At least, I conclude, there are the buildings. And later, as I stand at the window at the top of the Baltic and watch the spectacular riverside light up, I realise that in Gateshead and on South Shore Road it is all about the buildings.
Before its rebirth as an art space in 2002, the Baltic was a disused flour mill, a sign of the industrial collapse that hit the area in the 1980s following the demise of its shipping and mining industries. The Sage, built on another abandoned site, didn’t exist at all till 2004. The Millennium footbridge, which tilts after dark, dragging its illuminated arc across the water, is only just a decade old. Prior to this, no one outside Gateshead, and possibly Newcastle on the other side of the Tyne, had heard of South Shore Road, let alone been there to consider how cool it was. The perception of this corner of the north-east 300 miles from London was, if people bothered to form one, probably of brown ale and a football team with a player called Gazza. Now the Baltic and the Sage have joined Antony Gormley’s trailblazing “Angel of the North” – erected down the road in 1998 on the site of a former pit head and originally viewed by some as a monstrosity – to form the region’s trio of calling cards for visitors and coolhunters.
If the benefits of this development for Gateshead are obvious, then it’s apparent that there has been plenty in it for Newcastle too (something acknowledged by the initiative that promotes the two neighbours as one twin destination, Newcastle Gateshead). It, too, has noteworthy architecture (the classical sweep of Grey Street, where sun bounces off the sandstone as evening falls), and impressive galleries, such as the Laing, where paintings by Holman Hunt and Gainsborough share space with the most compelling contemporary piece I see on the trip, Barnaby Barford’s ceramic modern parable about a lottery winner. But would so many people be aware of these attractions now if they hadn’t been drawn here by the Baltic or, for that matter, by daft polls about trendy streets?
Across the city it is clear people have come here for all sorts of reasons: for the football at St James’s Park, which on Saturday evening somehow manages to disgorge 50,000 people into the middle of town with barely a ripple; for stag nights in the infamous Bigg Market – perceptions of the area are, despite its cultural achievements, still split between South Shore and Geordie Shore, a reality TV show that plays to the stereotype that the area is full of underdressed women on a big night out. In fact, as with the best, most vibrant cities, the ability to accommodate all these tribes is one of the qualities that marks somewhere truly hip.
In contrast to South Shore Road, on the north side of the river it is sometimes hard to find a building that is not a bar or a restaurant. The Broad Chare, opened just off Newcastle quayside this year by renowned local chef Terry Laybourne, specialises in “proper food and proper beer” and stands out for the best Scotch egg I’m ever likely to taste. Another newcomer worth seeking out is the Town Wall in the Central Station area, once home to the artist and naturalist Thomas Bewick, now an elegant and airy watering hole.
But it is to the east of the centre, via a winding canal path from the quayside, that I stumble across the kind of road that I had been hoping to find behind the Baltic. Ouseburn, an area central to Newcastle during the 18th and 19th centuries for its heavy industry, is now full of arts factories, ranging from galleries – such as the Biscuit Factory and the Mushroom Works – to innovative literature projects, such as the Seven Stories children’s archive. With off-the-beaten-track pubs such as the Cumberland Arms, it possesses the true hipster-ish quality of somewhere that not many others know about.
In the Cluny, a pub with club sitting next to a mini village green under a railway bridge, I chance upon a gig by the excellent US alt-country band Richmond Fontaine. The crowd is a happy mix of devoted dad-aged men with facial hair and curious but clued-up kids open to the appeal of this old-timers’ music.
As to whether a street can even be cool, what does that mean now, when we like to search for this elusive quality in such different places: in converted factories; in starchitect-designed concert halls where the acoustics are calibrated so that empty seats don’t distort our listening experience; in Victorian buildings with arts and crafts stained-glass windows. Whether we find it in these places will ultimately come down to whether we dig live country rock, Mozart’s Mass in C Minor or 19th-century landscape paintings. In the end, I managed to find what I was looking for.
Neil O’Sullivan was a guest of Malmaison (www.malmaison.com; doubles from £135 ($209)) and travelled from London with East Coast Trains (www.eastcoast.co.uk; returns from £30). For information on forthcoming exhibitions and festivals in Newcastle and Gateshead see www.newcastlegateshead.com