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Come along this way, into the woods
To see if the bears are there
They may be shy, they may be rough
They may be gentle, they may be gruff
But they all have a story to share
My wife Narrelle and I are learning about fictional bears at an exhibition at Seven Stories, Britain's National Centre for Children's Books. These furry creatures have been a mainstay of children's literature for centuries, as the exhibition's introduction (quoted above) suggests. The displays here have mentions of Winnie the Pooh, Paddington, Rupert, Goldilocks' ursine adversaries, and the scary Bear Under the Stairs.
However, we're nowhere near the woods. Seven Stories is housed within a Victorian-era flour mill in the Ouseburn Valley, a former industrial area east of the city centre in Newcastle upon Tyne. Its seven levels are dedicated to kids' books, with regular storytelling sessions in the Harry Potter-themed attic.
Of most interest to adult visitors are the changing exhibitions. They're pitched at a level that works for any age, sparking nostalgia in grown-ups as well as delight. In addition to the bears on the day we visit, there's an excellent presentation about comic books.
I grew up with British comics as a distinctive contrast to American superhero titles, and it's fun to reacquaint myself with very British heroes such as the space-faring Dan Dare.
Outside on Lime Street, which parallels the twisting Ouseburn River as it heads to the River Tyne, there's plenty more to explore. Not far away is the entrance to the Victoria Tunnel, a preserved 19th-century wagonway which was used to transport coal beneath the city, and which served as an air raid shelter in World War II. It's possible to join a tour of the tunnel, learning about its history along the way.
We're staying above ground though, and admiring the views across the river. In the 19th century this would have been a reeking, smoky, industrial quarter, as the tides of the Ouseburn were used to float coal and other goods on barges out to ships. The vista still has some industrial grit, but the river appears clean and there are rows of new apartments on the opposite bank.
On that side is also the Cook House. This restaurant started out within shipping containers and has recently moved into more substantial premises. Its menu puts me in mind of informal cafe dining in Australia, with choices including roast chicken and celeriac salad; whipped feta on toast with roast maple pears and walnuts; and soused mackerel with a pickled fennel salad.
Heading inland, Lime Street rises sharply. Hauling up the slope, beneath a massive viaduct, we pass the Ship Inn, a pub with a large sheep's head painted on its side. It's one of several pubs and restaurants in the area, some of which stage live music nights.
The weather is starting to turn temperamental, occasionally letting fall a vigorous shower, so we're glad to make the grade and reach the Biscuit Factory. This former industrial facility is now Britain's largest commercial art gallery, and its two vast floors are packed with art for sale, including paintings, sculpture, jewellery, crafts and homewares. It's an atmospheric space in which to browse, with timber floors, exposed rafters, and unique items on display from local creators.
There's more to see in the area, including the community-run Ouseburn Farm, and the cult movies of the Star and Shadow, a funky local cinema run by volunteers. For the time being, I'm happy to let the rain fall outside while we browse art above the Ouseburn.
Cathay Pacific flies to London or Manchester, from where Newcastle can be reached by train. See cathaypacific.com and trainline.com
Hotel Indigo is conveniently placed in Newcastle's city centre. From £85 a night. See hotelindigo.com
Seven Stories admission is £7.70 for adults; children's fees vary by age. See sevenstories.org.uk
The Victoria Tunnel tour costs £8 adults, £4 children. See ouseburntrust.org.uk
For Cook House menu and bookings, see cookhouse.org
The Biscuit Factory is free to enter. See thebiscuitfactory.com
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Cathay Pacific and Visit Britain, and paid for his accommodation in Newcastle.