Travel: Newcastle and Morpeth, England

Jesmond Dene House in Newcastle. Picture: David Robinson

Jesmond Dene House in Newcastle. Picture: David Robinson

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Who knew England’s North-east is a hotbed of contemporary art? Not would-be patron David Robinson

Of all the conversations I’ve ever had with my wife, this was perhaps the strangest. If you’re both rich aesthetes who regularly talk about buying paintings, it may well be commonplace. But if you’re not, it’s quite odd to hear yourself say something like: “Well, maybe we could buy it. I think we could go to £2,000, don’t you?” Normally, if I ever heard myself saying that, I’d start doubting my sanity. And as we were staying in the old Gateshead Borough Asylum, that would at least have made some kind of sense.

The painting we were both looking at, in the bar of what is now the St Mary’s Inn – the old asylum administrative offices near Morpeth have been converted into a gastro pub with 11 bedrooms which opened last year – was of an elderly miner relaxing in a bar. “Look at him,” said my wife. “He’s had a hard week, and he’s just had the first sip of his pint. He’s not talking to anyone, just looking at the bar, taking it all in. He’s starting to relax, and the artist has caught that moment perfectly.”

At the gastro pub’s swanky sister hotel, Jesmond Dene House, 15 miles to the south – where we’d stayed the previous night in a suite with its own battlement balcony – there had been plenty other paintings by Norman Cornish, the Spennymoor pitman painter, a miner for 33 of his 94 years, who died just a few months ago. Nearly all of them were of flat-capped miners hunched against the cold on their way to work, or relaxing at the bar with whippets at their feet: almost stereotypes of Tyneside’s past. But the painting at St Mary’s Inn was different: it was about that first moment of relaxation after a hard day’s work, and Cornish had captured it completely. I was in a similar mood myself. Both of us were. Neither of us had thought a trip to the north east of England would be so enjoyable and relaxing – or such an aesthetic experience.

On the train, I must have travelled through Newcastle hundreds of times, but I’d never got off there. So I didn’t even know that its city centre has a greater concentration of listed buildings than anywhere else in England. And I’d never even seen the subtly descending curve of Grey Street, which both Pevsner and Betjeman hailed as one of the country’s finest streets.

A Geordie colleague suggested a visit to the Crown Posada just a couple of minutes away near the Quayside and I’m glad he did. It’s the kind of pub Cornish’s miner would have felt at home in: an old, narrow Victorian bar with stained glass windows, superb real ales and all the music played on a 1941 record player. His other recommendation, the Free Trade Inn, is also worth a visit: you won’t get better views of the Tyne anywhere.

So I was in a good mood when we arrived at the Jesmond Dene Hotel, an upmarket boutique hotel in an idyllic woodland park setting. Once an industrialist’s mansion, after the war it became a care home for girls with emotional and learning difficulties. Since it reopened as a hotel in 2005, it has become the kind of place that shatters Geordie Shore stereotypes, not just with its superb food but for the quality of the sculpture in its halls and art on its walls. Some of its artworks – the Gary Tiplady wire sculptures and Cornish paintings – can also be found at St Mary’s Inn – like the painting of the miner supping his pint, which I was gazing at longingly over few pints of Anarchy’s hoppy blond Citra pale ale (recommended). Maybe that’s why I was getting more and more arty. Or maybe it’s because Newcastle is. These days the whole place seems to be increasingly built on art – not just the two places we’d stayed at, but the seven floors of contemporary art at the Baltic Gallery and the hundreds of artworks for sale at the Biscuit Factory, the country’s largest commercial gallery.

Everything we’d seen had been about renovation. The care home turned into a sophisticated hotel, grain stores and factories into mammoth galleries, and now a red-brick 400-patient Edwardian asylum turned into a housing development with a destination gastropub – great food at affordable prices (mains from £9.50, all locally sourced). This wasn’t the north east I’d expected.

Feeling good about life, we decided to splash more cash on art than we’d ever imagined spending. Two thousand pounds is a fortune to us. But we felt confident enough to ask how much it would cost to take that painting of the miner about to sup his pint back to Scotland.

“Oh that,” the barmaid said. “That’ll be £10,800.” Damn. Next time you’re heading south, turn east off the A1 past Morpeth to an old asylum with a bar. The Cornish painting may still be hanging there – but don’t count on it.

• Prices at Jesmond Dene House (0191-212 3000, jesmonddenehouse.co.uk) start at £160 per night per room B&B for two people and from £80 at St Mary’s Inn (01670 293293, stmarysinn.co.uk)

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