Newcastle by Janet Walker – City of Steel to City of Style

The Lonely Planet guide lists as the world’s ninth most livable city Newcastle, NSW in Australia, a simply stunning harbour city surrounded by surf beaches.

I’ve just had a lovely four day break there and disagree with the Lonely Planet’s livable city rating – it’s a five on my list, right after Melbourne, Paris, Buenos Aires and Geelong.

The gorgeous beaches, the heritage architecture (lots of art deco), a great regional art gallery together with cafes, boutiques, antique shops, affordable accommodation and friendly locals, make Newcastle a delightfully laid back cool holiday destination.

Australia’s second oldest city, its heritage streetscapes and historic sites, most within walking or biking distance, are a fascinating step back in time.

A free comprehensive guide to touring Newcastle and surrounds is available from the Newcastle Information Centre, Newcastle Airport and most accommodation facilities.

If you are an Australian history buff or of a military bent, a good place to start a tour is Fort Scratchley. There’s a lot to do at the Fort: picnic on the grassy slopes, wander around the site and marvel at the beauty of the harbour views.

If you’re lucky (I wasn’t) you might see dolphins or maybe even a whale or two.

The large and elaborate state of the fort constructed during the 1880s, reflects the importance of the region’s resources at the time and the apprehension the population felt for their safety.

The only coastal fort in Australia to have returned fire at an enemy vessel during a time of war when a Japanese submarine attacked Newcastle in June, 1942, Fort Scratchley offers regular guided tours of the fort’s underground tunnels. They provide an insight into the important national coastal defense role the fort has played in Australia’s history since it was built.

Nearby, at Newcastle beach is the historic Bogey Hole, a hand-hewn ocean rock pool carved out of a cliff face by convicts in the nineteenth century.

Sited at the base of the historic King Alfred Park, it was originally built for the personal use of Newcastle’s Commandant Morrisett in about 1820; an amazing achievement by prisoners who were forced to labour in harrowing conditions.

The pool, crowded on hot summer days is still used by swimmers who want to enjoy a tranquil bathing spot close to the city centre.

I fell in love with the art deco pavilion at Newcastle’s Ocean Baths. Located on Shortland Esplanade, adjacent to Newcastle Beach, the baths opened in 1922 and house a saltwater bathing complex and change rooms.

Popular with bathers and photographers – the open air pools and Art Deco Pavilion facade are great for amateur photography with the added bonus of a swim in pristine saltwater pools.

Nobby’s Beach, the next beach along the coastline is the most well known of Newcastle’s beaches.

A favourite spot for family groups and L-plate surfers it has Lifeguard Services Monday to Saturday year round.

If your calf muscles are younger than mine, the coastal walk from Nobby’s Beach to Merewether Beach takes about three hours and is a great way to explore the city.

Newcastle CBD is a touch hilly, so I took a rain check on the beach walk and headed back into town to visit Christ Church Cathedral. The most recognizable landmark in Newcastle’s city centre, it sits atop Cooks Hill.

One of the first places of worship built in Newcastle; the church graveyard is where many of the pioneers who shaped Newcastle are buried.

If you like being spooked then you can book for an escorted ghost tour from Newcastle Ghost Tours.

A Cathedral designed in the Gothic Revival style by John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904), a Canadian born architect who worked in Sydney and rural NSW from 1863, it replaced the original church, built in 1817, in 1868.

The interior carved woodwork, stained glass, marble floors and banners are quite magnificent – standing amidst the shafts of light that illuminate the altar is a mystical experience.

At the back of the altar, St Michael’s Chapel (Warrior’s Chapel) was built as a memorial to those who did not return from World War I and there are also War Memorial panels commemorating the fallen from World War II and Vietnam.

Along the sidewalls, protected by glass panels, medals and memorabilia from both World Wars are displayed.

Friendly volunteer staff is happy to provide historical facts about the Cathedral and information on concerts and church services. I always visit Christ Church Cathedral whenever I am in Newcastle for an interlude of quiet beauty above the vibrant pulse of the city’s CBD.

A walk back downtown for a restorative coffee and cake provides plenty of choice.

A stroll down Derby Street, eateries of all persuasions dotted amongst boutiques featuring designer goods – everything from clothes to original artworks, is an opportunity to let your inner shopper take control of the helm between pauses for world-class coffee and cuisine.

If you are still peckish or haven’t maxed out your credit card then heading for Hunter Street, which lined with heritage buildings and even more boutiques and cafes, will make it hard to resist reaching for your plastic.

A further temptation is the weekend artist’s markets held in front of the old David Jones building, a haven for young designers and their stalls.

Newcastle CBD streetscapes feature an interesting architectural mixture – Victorian, Federation and Art Deco buildings, both commercial and residential, wherever you stroll. I particularly liked the artisan brickwork, arched doorways and wrought iron gates, reminders of a time when buildings were designed not just erected.

Newcastle Art Gallery is another not to be missed treat for visitors. Opened in March 1977 it was Australia’s first purpose built regional gallery.

A model for medium sized galleries with an innovative floor plan and hanging system, the building is also an important example of early 1970s architecture with its geometric forms and brutalist aesthetic.

Today the Gallery has 6100 works of art in its collection and it is considered as one of the most significant public collections in Australia. Rather thoughtfully, the city council has provided a small amount of free car parking right outside the gallery front entrance. There is also ticketed parking available in surrounding streets.

The Gallery’s current exhibition, Fully Figurative, runs from15 February – 11 May 2014 and is delightful viewing. The show features diverse works including sculpture by George Baldessin, works on paper by Mike Parr, photography by Fiona Hall and paintings by Jon Molvig, the works of art in this exhibition respond to artist’s seemingly endless fascination with the human body.

Regional galleries often exhibit gems; lesser known works by prominent artists sometimes overlooked by the larger State galleries.

In this exhibition there are two paintings by William Dobell, one of a nude done as a student and the other, of a young man painted in 1968 when Dobell’s iconic style had begun to emerge.

The exhibition also includes a number of Ivor Hele’s drawings. Hele, an Australian artist I probably should know but don’t, was awarded several Australian art awards, including the Archibald Prize for Portraiture on five occasions.

He was appointed official war artist to the Australian forces in both World War II and the Korean War, his grim images of the savagery of war, among the most impressive of any paintings done during those conflicts.

Hele studied in Europe under Biloul, a masterful painter of nudes, and was trained in anatomy by Moliere in Munich.

The results of his studies are reflected in the languorous dreamlike quality of the nude drawings on display.

Don’t miss a visit to the iconic Art Deco Civic Theatre, a live concert venue, on Hunter Street or catch a movie at the King Street Cinema, which hosts Film Festivals.

A visit to Beaumont Street, Hamilton, a Newcastle suburb, ten minutes from the CBD for dinner at one of the restaurants or pubs which feature a myriad of cuisines is a cool thing to do particularly on the weekend when some venues have live music. Around the corner from Hamilton is the suburb of Islington where antique shops abound – fossick around and who knows what treasures you might find.

If you have the time a visit to the Blackbutt Wildlife Reserve, Carnley Avenue, Kotara around twenty-five minutes from Newcastle CBD is a wonderful time out from, as Banjo Paterson observed ‘gritty of the dusty dirty city’.

Newcastle isn’t a gritty dirty city but it is wonderful after a short drive to leave the CBD behind to explore the 182 hectares of natural bushland, which comprises pockets of Eucalypt forests and a restored rain forest area, home to a number of rare vulnerable species.

Koalas, wombats, kangaroos, emus, reptiles and many different species of birds are displayed in natural habitat enclosures.

Well planned, it’s possible to see wildlife, particularly the birds, up close in an environment that mirrors their bushland homes.

Entry to Blackbutt Wildlife Reserve is free but they really appreciate donations to help the work of caring for and protecting wildlife.

Newcastle was first settled for its readily accessible coal and a headland, which was used as a site for navigational signals for shipping.

It was the same coal, and the threat of a fuel hungry Russian fleet in 1877, which caused the British authorities to plan a series of strategic fortifications for national coastal defense.

Some time later, along came BHP and the steelworks, which provided the town’s residents with employment and a prosperous lifestyle.

Those days, long gone, Newcastle has re-invented itself as a city of the arts, fine dining, stellar coffee, heritage architecture and sensational beaches – what more could you ask for in a holiday destination?

I forgot to mention: the weather’s good as well.

Janet Walker, Features Correspondent, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014


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