Solace in the city – Newcastle's stunning parks

Guardian Web |

In the minds of most visitors, Newcastle is dominated by the river Tyne and its bridges, along with the lively bars and clubs of Bigg Market and the Quayside. But go a little further north or east of the bustling centre and you discover another side to the city. Here, a unique urban belt of peaceful parks and open grassland offers green calm amid the exuberant churn of Geordie life. Just a few minutes from the throbbing streets and the roar of the football stadium, you’ll find quiet walks that take you over wide pastures, down dramatic river gorges, past lakes and croquet lawns, and through landscaped parkland and mature woodlands – where the ruins of an industrial past combine with spectacular Victorian engineering and abundant wildlife.

Jesmond Dene

  • A waterfall in Jesmond Dene; daffodils along the Ouseburn

Running for three miles along the Ouseburn, Jesmond Dene was landscaped and planted by local munitions manufacturer Lord Armstrong, who gave this extraordinary fairytale urban valley to the city in 1883. Sequoia, Atlantic cedar, Austrian pines, Lombard poplars and Spanish chestnut trees shade the fast-flowing stream. Waterfalls fringed by dog violets and saxifrage drop into deep pools – created by Armstrong using his own explosives – and pike lurk in the shadows. Along with the occasional electric blue streak of a kingfisher, you’ll also see grey wagtails, nuthatches and, in summer, spotted flycatchers. The former home of Armstrong’s business partner Andrew Noble, a Georgian mansion designed by John Dobson, is now a luxury boutique hotel – Jesmond Dene House – with an excellent restaurant and renowned afternoon tea.

Armstrong Park

Named after Lord Armstrong, Armstrong Park joins on to the southern tip of Jesmond Dene, alongside neighbouring Heaton Park. The latter is now a trendy inner suburb of Newcastle, with great coffee bars and cafes (try the Naked Deli ), but until the 1880s it was a tiny rural village. There’s evidence of that bucolic past in the mature woodlands of Armstrong Park, where you’ll find a stone-lined cattle run that leads down to the Ouseburn, across what was once Lord Armstrong’s private estate, and the remains of an old windmill, one of nearly 50 that once dotted the area.

  • Skylarks can be heard at the Town Moor; magnolia blossom in Leazes Park

Paddy Freeman’s Park

Attached to the north-east edge of Jesmond Dene, Paddy Freeman’s Park, with its lovely old cafe with outside seating, is a good place to start or finish any walk along the Dene. Patrick “Paddy” Freeman was a tenant farmer in High Heaton at the start of the 19th century – quite how he got to have a park named after him is a bit of a mystery though. The local model boat club – founded in Edwardian times – still sail their yachts and ships on the lake here, which was once his duck pond (and was enlarged in 1890).

The Town Moor and Exhibition Park

The Town Moor is larger than Central Park in New York, covering about 1,000 acres (400 hectares). There have been cows grazing here since before the Norman conquest and to this day the freemen of the city still have around 500 cows on its rough pastureland. Here you can walk for miles amid the summer song of skylarks and meadow pipits. Exhibition Park adjoins the south-eastern edge. Built for the Royal Jubilee Exhibition of 1887 (the splendid bandstand remains from that event) and later redeveloped for the North East Coast Exhibition of 1929 (which attracted a staggering four million visitors), Exhibition Park, with its croquet lawns and miniature railway, is a leafy monument to northern eastern pride. The boating pond – now home to water boatmen and pond skaters – was where the great engineer Charles Parsons experimented with model versions of the steam turbine, which powered a generation of ocean-going ships. The domed and colonnaded Palace of Arts – a relic of the 1929 exhibition – was once home to a military museum, and now houses Wylam Brewery, which has an excellent tap room that serves food and dozens of craft ales.

Leazes Park

  • Les Petits Choux, at the southern entrance to Leazes Park

Leazes Park sits just behind the vast stands of St James’ Park football ground, a few hundred metres from the southern edge of the Town Moor. In 2004 the park – the city’s oldest – was restored to its original Victorian splendour, complete with ornate boundary railings, and a majestic stone terrace decorated with urns and statues. Mute swans and tufted ducks glide across the wide lake and magnolia trees blossom in spring. Not far from the elaborate southern entrance you’ll find Les Petits Choux, a French patisserie and cafe that has arguably the best éclairs in the city.

Walker Riverside Park

Perhaps not the prettiest of Newcastle’s green spaces, but one of the best places to watch the river Tyne flowing past and catch glimpses of basking grey and common seals, is Walker Riverside Park. This long, narrow stretch of former industrial land runs from the marina at St Peter’s Basin – where The Merchant’s Tavern makes a good place for lunch – round to Wallsend. There’s an excellent cycle path with commanding views along the river to the shipyard cranes and across to Pelaw Fields. The wooded banks and wild grasslands are home to urban foxes and you may even be lucky enough to see Walker’s resident flock of ring-necked parakeets, descendants of some enterprising caged birds that escaped in the 1980s.

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