I have always been a sucker for bridges. Growing up in India’s only city with a distinctive bridge, my first love was the Howrah Bridge which spans the Hooghly, marvellously suspended above the muddy brown river.
I learned as much as I could about it in those BG (Before Google) days and would gleefully quiz visitors to the city, begging them to please, please just guess how many nuts and bolts it took to build (the answer is of course none; the bridge is riveted together, not bolted).
Later, when I first went abroad, it was love at first sight with London’s Westminster Bridge. Even now, whenever I walk on it, I silently quote to myself the first lines of Wordsworth’s poem: Earth has not anything to show more fair… a sight so touching in its majesty. Across the channel of course are the many romantic bridges of Paris, fabled in song and story, especially the exquisite Pont Neuf. And in Venice, even as a starving five-dollars-a-day tourist, I remember gladly skipping my dinner to pay instead for a gondola ride which swept me along beneath the tragic Bridge of Sighs.
Down Under, the Sydney Harbour Bridge makes for a memorable mental snapshot with the dazzling Opera House sharing the frame and in America, it’s always been a toss up between San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge and the slim, sparkling Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York.
So imagine my delight when I first set eyes on the Gateshead Millennium Bridge — in Newcastle of all places. In a town which I’d always considered boring, industrial and not worth visiting.
The Blinking Eye
But here stands this unexpectedly sexy landmark. Slender, curvy and drop-dead elegant, this is the Princess Diana of bridges. Gracefully spanning the River Tyne, this beauty unites Newcastle, known primarily for its coal mining history (as in “carrying coal to Newcastle”) and Gateshead, known for nothing at all, and bonds them into a new entity known as NewcastleGateshead, as engaging and rewarding a holiday destination as the most jaded tourist could desire.
Built to commemorate the millennium, the bridge is not only aesthetically satisfying, but also constitutes a marvel of engineering expertise, opening to allow boats to pass below, with a unique tilting action inspired by the way the human eyelid blinks, causing the locals to affectionately nickname it ‘The Blinking Eye Bridge’.
On the Newcastle side, the skyline is dominated by the Castle Keep, one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in England. From there, in this attractively walkable city, it’s an easy stroll down to the city centre at Grey Street, a magnificent crescent, prominent with the towering statue of Earl Grey (yes, he for whom the tea is named), who was once the prime minister of England.
Coming down to the quayside, past the ancient, sagging house where one Bessie Surtees eloped out of the window with a suitor considered undesirable by her parents (only to have him go on to become the Lord Chancellor of England, so there!), are a number of welcoming riverside pubs where the famous Newcastle Brown Ale is refreshingly on tap.
On the Gateshead side of the bridge is the shiny glass Sage Gateshead concert complex, designed by Norman Foster, and looking like a gigantic mirrored peanut shell, split open and lying on its side. (I am convinced Foster is a foodie: considering his famous gherkin in London and the ice cream cone he put on the Bundestag building in Berlin). Outside, free open air concerts lure passersby to take a seat on the grassy embankment and listen for a while.
If this is not enough, NewcastleGateshead offers a shopping street as lavishly equipped as London’s celebrated Oxford Street: a host of restaurants, including the fashionable Café 21 (delicious roast cod!), where Terry Laybourne, one of Northern England’s top chefs wields a deft skillet; a twenty-minute metro ride to the seaside with golden sand, not the dreaded English pebbly beaches; and the remains of an ancient Roman fort on the outskirts of the city, complete with vestiges of the famous China-like Wall built by the Emperor Hadrian to keep the northern barbarians (savage Scots) out of Roman England.
Easy excursions include Alnwick (pronounced Annick) Gardens, with a spectacular cascade rather like Srinagar’s Chasme Shahi but on a much grander scale. Nearby, Alnwick Castle houses paintings by Titian and Canaletto among others, in rooms that can only be described as sumptuous. On the crenellated surrounding walls you recognise the turrets among which Harry Potter swooped and dived on his magic broomstick, and nestled among the trees is Hagrid’s hut.
Back in NewcastleGateshead, we sit on the waterfront with a last glass of wine and watch the lights of the city shimmering in the water.
The Bridge, like a catwalk model changing her outfits, slowly changes colour in a continuing panorama of lights, from silvery white to turquoise to indigo to green to purple to red and back again in a repeated pattern of visual delight. The sight leaves me both shaken and stirred.