Finding home: Newcastle

What does it mean to find home? Can we claim to ‘know’ a place?

This post is the first in a series on place, homes, and travel. When the next parts are published, they will be linked here. If you subscribe to me on Substack, though, you’ll get notified about every part as soon as I post it.

There are few things I enjoy more than a city in the early hours of a crisp, cold morning. There’s a really distinct serenity to them. If it’s cold, it’s probably autumn or winter, so the sky is either the most beautiful shade of orange you could ever imagine, the most tender blue that a sky can muster, or a sea of grey clouds bringing a sullenness to everything. I love each of these equally. I love nothing more than lacing up my shoes (who am I kidding, I’ve probably slipped on the same already-laced pair of shoes I wore yesterday), heading out and just seeing a place come to life. That doesn’t mean I do it as much as I’d like to, of course. But I love it when I do it.

A few weeks ago, I woke up on a crisp, cold day in Glasgow. I’ve only visited Glasgow a handful of times, but it’s fast on its way to being one of my favourite cities that isn’t Newcastle. As I stalked round the city centre streets in the morning, I was so desperately aware of how much I come to know a city by seeing its patterns—this guy opens his shop at 8am, and then takes the bins out after he opens up; these children are always on the same metro; the magpies always fly over my house around 6:30am. I love the sense that I’m attuning myself to its rhythms, its heartbeat. I love the first train of the day, the laziness of the station, the hazy tiredness of everyone. I love watching people go for sunrise walks, compelled to witness the beauty of a day birthing itself.

A brutalist building.
This is the only vaguely aesthetically pleasing photo I have of Glasgow. It’s much nicer than this I promise.

I started writing this a few weeks ago when I was in Glasgow, but the right words wouldn’t come to me. Right now, I’m writing from the road, pitched up in a camper van by the Atlantic Ocean on the Moroccan coast. How fitting that I find the words to talk about home whilst I’m thousands of miles away from mine. Those of you who have been following me on Polarsteps will know it’s been a difficult experience, whilst also being absolutely beautiful and eye-opening. I find travel exceedingly complicated, and I am feeling that so sharply right now. I am loving my trip, and also I am merely tolerating it. I love experiencing new cultures and tasting new foods and meeting new people and also it drains me endlessly. I am so sharply aware of how much more I love a trip in retrospect than at the time. Over the next few weeks, I want to chew on the question of “why we travel” with you, but I want to ground it first in its opposite: “what can be found in the places we call home?”

I’ll be working through each of the three places that I have called home in reverse order. I can’t promise that there’s a clear message waiting for you at the end of all of this—I’m sure there’s going to be contradictions and hypocrisy and waxing lyrical about things I like. I can promise you, though, that I will do my best to show you the texture of the places I am speaking about. What it’s like to be there, to drink a coffee there, to get lost there. In doing so, I hope I can show you something about what we call home.


I get off the train, and I am hit with the sights and sounds of city. It initially puts me off. I took a sleeper train from Falmouth, arriving in London at 5:30am when the sparks that power the city have just begun to fly, before heading northbound on the first train. As I stepped onto the Virgin train my immediate thought was god this is nicer than the sleeper. The South West always gets the worst of it. Nameless towns flew past as I headed north. Town, farm, farm, pylon, town. I got into the city stupidly early, and as I got off the train, I definitely didn’t have a distinct sense that this would be my future home. I had a sense that I hated this place.

A sandstone architecture cityscape. It's Newcastle, if you know it.
The first photo I ever took of Newcastle, seconds off the train in 2017.

I struggled to connect with it, to find the version of me who might walk these streets and feel their resonance. I walked up Grainger Street and Northumberland Street and was unimpressed. Years later, when I visit Manchester for the first time, I feel myself swallowed whole by the Arndale Centre in much the same way. I was certain that this was a place that was utterly devoid of feeling and character. Sure, Grey’s Monument was cool, and there was a metro system supposedly, but I really couldn’t see myself living there. I had the interview—the reason I was there—and before stumbling to my hotel I sat on a bench outside of the Civic Centre. This place is soulless, I thought to myself. There’s nothing here I like. The campus was nice I guess, but the city itself was just Pret after Greggs after Starbucks after Five Guys.

When I was a teenager, I stumbled on the psychogeographic work of Guy Debord and the Situationists, and without really understanding it, I fell into the world of dérive-ing. Derived from the French for “drift”, the dérive is an unplanned journey through a space (normally a city) in which the drifter has no goal or destination in mind, and moves deliberately through the space. This may be moving intentionally with the space, paying attention to terrain and architecture and seeing which ways the landscape wants you to move through it; it may be against the space, deliberately defying the intentions of planners; or it may be by following arbitrary rules like ‘only make right turns’ or ‘follow red cars’. I first dérived in London, after a The Fault in Our Stars book launch event, and found myself intentionally lost in Kensington and ended up at the Saatchi Gallery where I saw modern art for the first time, which embedded into me a deep love for art. The power of the dérive.

So I dérived my way from the Civic Centre through to Jesmond and the very street that I’d come to live on later that year. Jesmond’s architecture is so different than the city centre, it’s like moving into a different world just by crossing through the underpass. A portal to some other place. As I circled the streets nearest the metro and walked down Osborne Road, I realised that I could probably live here. The next day, on a train out of the city, I got an email offering me a place on the PhD programme and accepted just as the train pulled away from the station. As I was still anxious to move north from coastal Cornwall, though. When I finally moved up a few months later, I used the same strategy to find my feet in a new city: I tied my laces and got walking.

I had an anxious first night in my house share, because I wasn’t sure whether I would get on with any of the other eight people and felt socially exhausted just considering making friends with them. The next morning, I walked ten minutes from my house to a coffee shop that no longer exists. I filled my infrequently-kept journal with all my worries and hopes. I felt dislocated, which is fitting, given that I had literally been dis-located. Moving is the most disorienting of experiences. In the weeks afterwards, I quite literally found my feet, memorising the contours of the city with my shoes. I walked down to the Quayside in my first week and found the Baltic Gallery for Contemporary Art, basking in the exhibits and thanking my lucky stars that I finally lived in a place with an art gallery. I stared at all seven of Newcastle’s bridges from the viewing gallery and knew this was a view that I would return to, over and over again.

I let go of my fear of my housemates and learned what Jesmond Dene was like with them, just minutes away from our house. Over the course of that year, it became our go-to place for a walk: when hungover, sad, pissed off, lost, bored, we’d get lost in the reaching trees, crumbling water mills, and ambling river. The first time we walked to Heaton was because our housemate wanted to go to a BYOB Indian restaurant and drink port, and another housemate cried as she told us that she thought her dog was going to die. That first time in Heaton felt like going to an entirely new world, though the bring-your-own-port may have had something to do with that. A year later, I would move to Heaton and learn its streets and parks and pubs better than I had ever known Jesmond.

A snowy bridge. Many people are enjoying the bridge, including my then-housemates.
Armstrong Bridge in the snow, above Jesmond Dene.

Within weeks of moving to the North East I know more deeply than any of my friends who have lived here for years. I could tell you every curve of Jesmond Dene, the quickest way into town from our house, the strangest nooks at the far end of town, and the right turning to get to Tynemouth by car. A friend tells me her dad always told her “the country’s not that big; if you get lost, keep driving until you hit water”. We must be lost a lot because we find ourselves hitting water so many times in this first year. Years later, I move out to the coast, and map that land with my feet too. We sign for a flat in Tynemouth and the very next week, I find myself pulled to know every inch of the way from our current house to our new one. I scoot to the coast. Yes, you read that right. I scoot for eight miles. It’s fucking ridiculous. Don’t do that. Or do, because it is ridiculous, and what is life for if not the ridiculous? I see in-between places, which I always have a soft spot for. Here is a park that no-one uses, here is the nature park next to the motorway, here are the wide-yet-somehow-empty streets before Meadow Well. Just me grinding the wheels of my scooter to absolutely nothing. Two years before, I walked to the coast on a random day and listened to Wild by Cheryl Strayed and found some resonance in a woman who processed her grief by putting one foot after another on the Pacific Crest Trail. Our bodies breathe easier when we are in movement, perhaps. The world around us tells us stories before we even know we need to hear them.

But I’ve been making some assumptions in all of this, haven’t I? I’ve lived in the North East for six years now, which is a good amount of time but it’s still pretty far off being someone who grew up here. I’ve walked and scooted and cycled and driven so much of this place, but do I know it? What does it even mean to know a place? Do I know a place just because I can tell you where the right turning is, or something about its history, or because I tripped and scraped my knee and spilled blood there? The places we call home certainly can hold us. Their consistency and familiarity can help us through hard times—or turn us towards nostalgia and make us terrified of change. Change is of course inevitable—that place you loved four years ago might not exist anymore, might have changed for the worse, or might have changed for someone else’s better. But are places ever static enough to claim we know them in the first place?

Next week, I’m going to tell you about a small coastal town called Falmouth, the three years I spent there, and the time I went back and tried to find the version of myself I left there.

A headland is in the distance. In the foreground there is sea. It's a calm sky.
Falmouth on the day of my graduation.