England explores the idea of The North


An artistic fireworks show in Newcastle launched the Great Exhibition of the North in June. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Vacay.ca occasionally publishes content on destinations outside of Canada. In this article, Editor Adrian Brijbassi visits Northern England and a fascinating new exhibition that runs through summer 2018.

Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor


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 80 kilometres (50 miles) below the Scottish border — with purpose to show off its best. With the nation having bonded, at least temporarily, around its soccer team during the FIFA World Cup tournament, the exhibition is poised to take advantage of the sense of pride and desire for cultural exploration that has emerged among citizens in the past month. 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 40-metre-tall (130 feet) column with a statue of Lord Earl Grey planted on top of it, has been draped in colourful 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. .


Sage Gateshead is a marvellous concert venue located across the Tyne River from Newcastle. It is at the heart of the Great Exhibition of the North. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

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 the Great Exhibition of the North, Newcastle’s landmark featuring Earl Grey’s statue at the top is sheathed in drapery with provocative wording. Visitors are encouraged to use the curtains for a maypole dance. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

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?

Trying to carve out an identity for yourself in the shadow of a giant is an idea to which the people of Canada can relate. For many years, Canadians most often identified themselves as being not-American. That’s changed drastically since the turn of the 21st century as the nation has carved out an identity for being a leader in human rights and climate change, and nurtured a diverse group of pop music talent that ranges from Drake and The Weeknd to Arcade Fire, Justin Bieber, and deadmau5.

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 Stone Angel by Antony Gormley is an iconic metal sculpture located on a hillside outside of Newcastle. Although not part of the Great Exhibition of the North’s official program, the 54-metre-tall (177-foot) attraction is one visitors to the area will want to see. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

“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.


City councillor Kim McGuinness sees the Great Exhibition of the North as an opportunity to attract more travellers and businesses to Newcastle upon Tyne. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

“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.”


The Rocket, which was bulit in 1829, was the fastest locomotive of its era and was chosen as the prototype for future train engines throughout Britain. It was built in Newcastle and is on display for the 2018 Great Exhibition of the North before returning to London. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Newcastle is an embodiment of that change. A post-industrial city, Newcastle has succeeded in transforming from a steel manufacturing and shipbuilding centre 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.


Vacay.ca Editor Adrian Brijbassi is instructed on how to operate a state-of-the-art train simulator at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle. (Photo courtesy of the Discovery Museum)

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 heart of Newcastle features pedestrian-friendly streets that make exploring the city easy and enjoyable. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

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 neighbouring 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.”



Hotel Indigo features comfortable beds and attractive decor in a location ideal for exploring Newcastle upon Tyne. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Dates: Until September 9, 2018
Website: getnorth2018.com
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 centre 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 $130 CAD) 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.


The Watering Can is a favourite cocktail at The Botanist in Newcastle. It fills a pail with a gin cocktail that can serve five guests. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

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 $47 CAD) that can be dispensed to diners’ smaller mugs or glasses. 


Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.


  • Anthony Gallagher

    July 13, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    Interesting article and in parts quite an enjoyable read; however there is little mention of Gateshead, co-host of ‘The Great Exhibition of The North’. Gateshead is a town opposite Newcaslte, sitting adjacent to Newcastle on the South Bank of the Tyne. It is not part of Newcastle and is run by a seprate local authority.

    Gateshead is home to the following, that are mentioned in the article:
    Sage Gateshead
    Angel of the North
    Joseph Swan (inventor of the Light Bulb – edison stole idea and commercialised);

    • Vacay

      July 20, 2018 at 4:09 am

      Hi Anthony,
      Thanks for the note. As Vacay.ca is a travel publication with an audience of primarily Canadian and American readers our mandate when writing about overseas destinations is to introduce readers to experiences and culture. Doing so in about 1,000 words means some details will not be included. In this case, I did not point out the distinction of Gateshead as its own municipality because explaining so would slow down the narrative flow of the story and also would have little impact on a Canadian or an American who is curious about the region. Discovering Gateshead and the relationship it has with Newcastle is very much something that can be learned once a traveller arrives in Northern England. While there are many definite distinctions between Gateshead and Newcastle from a resident’s viewpoint, for a traveller those distinctions can be nuances that will not have lasting resonance for them.



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