Who am I?
It’s a profound question that every human being asks at key points in life.
In Northern England, an ambitious and well-executed festival considers the answers as they may apply to the collective of people who live in the region that lies south of Edinburgh, north of Manchester and, for many residents, not far enough from London.
Running until September 9, the Great Exhibition of the North has infused Newcastle — a city about 50 miles (80 kilometres) below the Scottish border — with purpose to show off its best. More than 1,000 perpetually smiling volunteers are stationed at venues throughout the city to educate visitors and encourage them to further explore. The city’s historic landmark, a 130-foot-tall (40 metres) column with a statue of Lord Earl Grey planted on top of it, has been draped in colorful curtains that festival-goers are invited to grab and then circle around the monolith, recreating the maypole tradition that has existed in summers in western Europe for centuries.
Artists have partnered with engineers, designers, and software developers to create contemporary art and music that is innovative while also presenting ideas of northern identity.
“London is such a big city it has a gravitational pull that makes it hard for anything else to exist away from it,” says Mark Fell, a composer who is based in Sheffield, another northern town. “The reason I was drawn to this project wasn’t so much because it was to show what the North is about it. It was about demonstrating there is life outside of London.”
For his commissioned piece, Fell involved the public, soliciting citizens to provide their “sounds of the North” and what emerges is a mix of nature (howls of winds, bird calls, waves) and industry. The discordant composition fills the atmospheric opera hall called Sage Gateshead, a beautiful Norman Foster-designed building of undulating lines and gleaming glass that spreads along a hill overlooking the Tyne River. The building is a focal point for the Great Exhibition of the North. The festival’s opening events at the concert hall included the gruelling attempt to name the best 100 songs from artists who hail from northern England. You know The Beatles are from Liverpool, but were you aware Dire Straits’ Knopfler brothers are from Newcastle? Or modern stars such as Corrine Bailey Rae and the Arctic Monkeys are from towns nearby?
Exporting pop music is far easier than doing so for tourism, though. The planet of choice we live in is juxtaposed with limitations on vacation time and dollars to spend. Most consumers have the list of iconic places they want to see and a more organic list of places that speaks to them. Northern England has made efforts to carve a niche for itself in the arts, believing that creative minds will create amazing things that the world will want to see.
With the Great Exhibition of the North, organizers and supports aim to accelerate that process, pushing Northern England so much into the forefront that it stamps itself as a place the world — perhaps even a few open-minded Londoners — will venture to visit, searching out cultural experiences that are both historic and cutting edge.
“The exhibition will be a chance to get people to want to come back,” says Kim McGuinness, a Newcastle city councillor and the cabinet minister who oversees culture and sport in the area. “We think this will be a really successful 80 days, but we need to be looking beyond the end of the event, and being in position to increase the overall visitation for the city in the long term.”
Organizers and the festival supporters are aware the attempt to move travellers away from London is like moving the Alps across the English Sea. That is the undertaking, however, and there exists genuine belief the world’s arts lovers will come for the programming and then want to come again. For a number of reasons (not the least of which is the amount of time and money spent), the plan seems certain to work.
“The thing I find most fascinating about the North is the level of excitement around the change that’s happening here,” says Thom Hetherington, the CEO and founder of the Manchester Art Fair that takes place in October. “These northern cities at one time were among the richest in the world and there is an Ozymandiast notion to go back to what you once were or what you once had. There’s some of that going on and there’s also the sense that London, which is a great city of the world, no doubt, is what it’s going to be, but that’s not the case here. The rate of change is unprecedented for this area and it’s very, very exciting to be in the North right now.”
Newcastle is an embodiment of that change. A post-industrial city, Newcastle has succeeded in transforming from a steel manufacturing and shipbuilding center to a global leader in bio-research and an increasingly important hub for tech-based businesses. It hangs onto its heritage, though, which, as Hetherington points out, is decorated with importance.
Newcastle was the place where the train engine that powered the Industrial Revolution was invented. During the festival visitors can see “The Rocket,” which was built by Robert Stephenson in 1829 and is credited with launching the railway industry in England and beyond. On loan to the Discovery Museum, “The Rocket” has been in the Science Museum in London but is back in Newcastle for the first time in 156 years as part of the exhibition. The Discovery Museum also features a simulator where the nation’s conductors will be tested before they take control of the new fleet of trains set to be deployed before 2019. Visitors can also try their hand at being a conductor while learning about how modern trains operate.
When it comes to finding your identity, knowing your past and embracing it is vital. So too is understanding your place in the world — and that isn’t always easy for the North.
“I’m from Scotland and the difference for someone from Scotland is that Scotland is politically defined and it is culturally defined as well. They know what the borders are and that makes a difference when we talk about identity. Here, there is not a political border and that has made it difficult for cultural awareness of the North to come through, until now,” says Sarah Munro, director of the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, a key player in the exhibition.
The lightbulb, co-invented by Thomas Edison and Newcastle’s Joseph Swan, has impacted the city’s history (the first street illuminated by artificial light still exists here) and it seems an appropriate symbol for England’s North in the 21st century. Newcastle and its neighboring region is full of lightbulb moments these days as they look to vault higher in prosperity and importance.
“Two key objectives for the exhibition are raising pride and aspirations of our citizens of what is possible and it is also about changing perception of what the north of England is,” says Carol Bell, executive director for the Great Exhibition. “Looking further down the road, the legacy is about getting people here and then getting them to go out and explore these other parts of the region.”
MORE ABOUT THE GREAT EXHIBITION OF THE NORTH
Dates: Until September 9, 2018
Getting There: Newcastle is 75 minutes by air from London, where flights are scheduled frequently each day. A metro station connects Newcastle’s airport with the city center via public transit.
Where to Stay: Hotel Indigo provides quality rooms in the heart of Newcastle’s Grainger Market, known for its nightlife and restaurants. The hotel is also a short walk from major attractions tied to the exhibition as well as the waterfront. Nightly Rates: A recent search on the hotel’s website returned a rate of 75.20 British pounds (or $99 USD) for a weekend night in August.
Where to Dine: Six at the BALTIC arts centre provides excellent views of the Tyne River and fine cuisine too. Pioneering celebrity chef Marco Pierre White has a location of his eponymous restaurant chain at Hotel Indigo. Blackfriars provides a unique dining experience in a property that is home to the oldest continuously operating kitchen in England.
Where to Drink: The Botanist, which is the name of a chain of cocktail restaurants in Northern England, has a location in Newcastle that overlooks the central square and the Earl Grey monument. The menu includes a fun sharing item — gin or rum cocktails served in a watering can (25.95 British pounds, or $35 USD) that can be dispensed to diners’ smaller mugs or glasses.