The Cookery Nook - Gateshead, MetroCentre
Hello, this is the first official dispatch from the CafWalk archives. I have been amassing these explorations fairly heavily over the past four months, all of which are currently sitting in the form of photos inside of my phone and a map inside of my brain. It is a process of untangling to consolidate and externalise all of these experiences, and it feels good. I wanted to redraft this again, but in the interest of not being a perfectionist and also Actually Releasing These, I have decided to send it out as it is, so apologies if my writing is somewhat erratic and much longer than usual. This edition of CafWalk goes to The Cookery Nook in Gateshead.
This particular café-led walk took place in November 2021, which is officially Ages Ago. I had just moved back to Newcastle from London and was out of work, low on cash and feeling a bit out of sorts; adjusting to being in a new but incredibly familiar place and trying to figure out what shape my new life might take. Being skint but in dire need of some place-based stimulation, I decided to go to The Metro Centre by foot, a one hour walk away from where I currently live in Central Newcastle. During lockdown last year I briefly hyper-fixated on The Metro Centre, most specifically Metroland (RIP) and The Cookery Nook, a time capsule café I had a foggy recollection of. When trying to think of classic cafes in the North East I found it hard to think of savoury cafes to balance out the many ice cream parlours (although many if not most ice cream parlours sell savoury food, I think there is something interesting in the way in which cafes often identify themselves as Sweet Cafes or Savoury Cafes through coded visual language; pastel vs primary colours, square vs round tables, varying levels of condiment visibility. Maybe this is an essay for another time.) I had a vague memory of the cookery nook in a corner of my brain from a trip to the MetroCentre in 2017, and I remember little other than seeing Cheese Savoury sandwiches on the menu.
Growing up in The North East in the 1990s I always felt there was something quite mythical about The Metro Centre. Opening in 1986, The Metro Centre was, at the time, the biggest shopping centre in Europe and the regional figurehead of neoliberal optimism at a moment in history when the face of early-late-capitalism was less visibly sinister, with theming, plants galore, and a sense of naff-ness which would be relegated to low-brow culture under a contemporary lens. (For images of the metro centre please see this Newcastle Chronicle article. ) The Jewel in its crown was objectively Metroland, the largest indoor theme park in Europe, with its own full sized rollercoaster and everything. I never got to go on the rollercoaster, but I have clear memories of looking longingly at it from afar in hope that one day it might be me on there having the time of my life.
As children, I feel that the magic of The Metro Centre was untouched for us by the jarring political context of Thatcherism. An interesting documentary to watch on this to provide more context is Kingdom of Fun by Adam Curtis, which can be found here on youtube, which is a very interesting watch:
Recently on a non-café-led-walk, I went to The Trafford Centre, which feels like the remaining fully realised and preserved example of the genre of Fun Shopping Centres, with an around-the-world theme and an enormous cruise-ship themed food court. I won’t go further into this now, but my brain is still fizzing three weeks later.
The Metro Centre permeated my dreams as a child with its multi-levelled marble layers and heavy chlorine scent. We grew up in Whitley Bay, so to get there it was took trains, one of which was from a national rail station and thus with the journey being so clunky and the guaranteed family bickering the overwhelming-ness of the centre would bring, our visits there were an incredibly rare occurrence for either very special treats or hard to get necessities. The Metro Centre facilitated the acquisition of my first object of meaningful social currency: the Jane Norman plastic carrier bag, the must-have carrier bag for the early to mid 2000’s middle school-er’s PE kit. Mine was pink yet sadly ineffective, and my fairly low social standing remained unchanged. The scarcity of our visits are quite possibly responsible for the intensity of my yearning to return to this place as it was; the magic of having to take a special train to get there felt that it was a place that was fairly untouchable in an analogue sense, that you had to go through some sort of mechanical process to find yourself there. In November, I wanted to feel what it was like to walk there, so I did, it took an hour and it was in large parts a fairly grey, liminal walk. I crossed the River Tyne and walked over The Redheugh Bridge, Newcastle’s least glamorous pedestrian bridge(a bridge I love still), and through a mixture of by the river, fairly quiet suburban areas and some mild-industrial landscapes. There was a lot of just walking in a straight line in a way which felt liminal and expansive, but also quite plain and comforting.
Approaching The MetroCentre and seeing it from the outside was very much like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when it is revealed that The Wizard of Oz is just a man behind a curtain, a revelation which felt fairly sobering and disarming. The Metro Centre is just a building like any other large shopping centre, with external walls, liminal corridors, car parks et al. I imagine this isn’t really news to those who wouldn’t have expected otherwise, but it felt like a stark moment of growing up to me.
I entered the centre up a big stairway through a non-descript corridor and crossed over the railway bridge into the centre. I visited a few of my favourite spots whilst there, including Sweets Galore, a great sweet shop that must have been there since 1986, and the remaining themed village, which I believe is The Antiques Village. I stayed for a while in The Antiques Village, taking some time to soak in the exquisite theming, and an elderly woman asked me if the post-box in the antiques village was a real functioning post-box. I told her I wasn’t really sure. I noticed a lot of things were closed. There’s a job centre there now, I don’t know if it’s always been there, but empty units took over about 70 percent of the entire centre, and it stirred up some complicated feelings in me. So many shops are shutting down, which at face value looks like the crumbling of capitalism, but really it’s just a shift in our methods of consumption, capitalism is still out of control. What’s going to happen to all of this empty retail space, will it be repurposed to serve communities, is that even possible inside of a designed-for-retail landscape, would the people in charge even dream of letting it happen?
I walked up the old site of MetroLand, which is now a big Odeon cinema. There is no clues there but the ghost is heavy in the air. I stared at it for a while and imagined the rollercoaster, all the artificial rocks, the joy and screaming of being a theme park. It was all there in a sense but all I could see was just a big slick Odeon with no signs or indication of the historical site it was built on. I asked a young Odeon employee if there was any hidden signs or anything remaining from Metroland and they just looked confused, I realised they probably were about 4 years old when it closed in 2008 and that I was just being weird and intense and probably not blinking. The Namco arcade is still there, which replaced Metroland, but has now been there long enough to age in its own way, which I find to be a great comfort. That part of the mall is my favourite, with curved wood panelled windows on many of the now empty shops. A lot of the shops there had piles of letters inside, and had shut down due to the Pandemic.
I made it to The Cookery Nook, I had peeked at it earlier on but it was peak lunchtime hours, the outside of the café was studded with mobility scooters and it had been fairly crowded inside, so I decided to defer my quiche until later when I might get a table. I was so glad to see how busy this café was in contrast to the rest of the centre, properly buzzing, I imagine that I’m not the only person who finds comfort there. The Metro Centre is split up into colours of malls, some of which have been modernised and some less, The Cookery Nook is right at the end and next to a Post Office, and absolutely is a place to feel moments of the 90’s wash over you.
I ordered at the curved counter at the front, I had quiche, salad, and coleslaw with a fanta which I carried to my table on a navy blue cafeteria tray. I like quiche a lot. The Cookery Nook is an interesting time-warp café because it so perfectly encapsulates my childhood, whereas often in an old café I feel that I am grasping at experiencing a time I wasn’t alive for, being in this café was evocative not only of The Metro Centre as it used to be, but many places from my childhood which no longer exist. I found myself thinking of The indoor market in North Shields full of nice ladies with bright lipstick and perms that always smelt strongly of gravy(the market that is, not the ladies), where B&M bargains is now, the raised café in Eldon Square that looked like a 1970’s space ship, the café at the bottom of Collectables on Northumberland Street where my mum would take me on our trips to town because they did over-the-top salads of things like ham, slices of orange and dairy-lee triangles. It was deeply comforting and I Felt Very OK.
My energy started to wain and I felt my trip had to come to an end, I decided to go on the tiny train for children, which turned out to be an excellent decision, it cost 1.50 and the person driving the train was bemused but I wanted to go on the train more than I wanted to be anonymous and mysterious. On the train, which is essentially a train shaped golf cart with enclosed carriages which plays recorded train sounds, it snakes around the inside of the more bustling parts of the shopping centre, and I would say if you are going there even just to go to Zara, that this experience is Not To Be Missed.
I spent the 20p in my pocket on two lemon shaped bubblegum things from one of those twisty things, which turned out to be absolutely disgusting, and then I went home, feeling a lot better than I had done before my trip to The Metro Centre.