Taking a tour of St. James’ Park, home of Newcastle United FC, is like visiting the city’s cathedral.
I assume Newcastle, a wonderful and historic city, has a fine cathedral … somewhere. But without a doubt the biggest house of worship in town, the one that inspires the most devotion and passion, the one you will see rivers of people flowing towards every other weekend, is the 52,000-seat football ground at the top of the hill. It is visible from literally every part of town.
I can’t think of a place — certainly one the size of Newcastle — more connected and thoroughly associated with its football club. They have had success, but essentially not for 50 years or more, and yet the fans fill St. James’ Park on a regular basis, travel with the best of them, and demand much of the their club — much more than they’ve been getting.
And at the hub of it all is a truly amazing stadium. With 52,000+ seats, it is now the seventh largest in England — the sixth largest for a club, with Wembley being the largest of all. But that’s only been a recent development, since West Ham moved into London Stadium and there were expansions at Manchester City and Liverpool. And when I attended a game there, it was a Tuesday night, against Norwich City in the Championship, and there were more than 45,000 people there, singing like crazy.
By the way, this has been their home — this location, anyway — since 1892!
The stadium is truly in the middle of town, and in fact a city street goes under one stand (at right). They over three tours, two of which are pretty standard for clubs:
- The Classic Tour (£15) is the usual deal, twice a day on weekdays and a bit more on weekends other than game days.
- Tour Plus Pub Lunch (£20) is just the usual tour plus a lunch.
- A Legends Tour, led by former players “including Bob Moncur and John Beresford,” according to the website. I know, me neither. These are pretty infrequent, with neither a schedule nor prices on their website.
But the tour I want to go back for is the Rooftop Tour! You go 150 feet up onto the roof, which is glass by the way, and is the largest cantilever structure in Europe. It’s glass to let the sun hit the grass, on the rare occasion it shines in the northeast of England. It’s £20 a head, and happens twice each (non-game) weekend day from April to October.
I only found out about it during my tour, so I didn’t get to do it. Here is a panorama from the top tier, featuring the Georgie accent of our cool guide:
The rest of the tour is the usual stuff: media room, dressing rooms, pitch-side, but they also include the security control room, which is kind of cool.
Here is the tunnel walk-out, a feature of every tour. The guy with the beard is our guide, and the two older fellas are the two Dennises. More on them in a bit.
After my tour, the two older fellas invited me out for a pint at The Strawberry Pub, right across the street from the ground and an absolute must-visit if you’re on a soccer tour. On game days it will be, as they say, heaving. On others, stop in for a pint and check out the memorabilia.
Another hard and fast rule of English soccer travel: If local fans offer to buy you a pint, say yes. And them buy them one back. This is especially true if the offer comes from two older, utterly charming men, both named Dennis, who have been supporting Newcastle since the days of black-and-white photographs, who remember the three FA Cup wins in the 50s, who come to town for a pint every now and then, just because.
If you haven’t guessed, I did say yes, and even though I don’t drink alcohol anymore, sitting with the Dennises in the Strawberry, sipping lemonade while they told me stories about the old days, and trying to make them laugh, was one of the highlights of all my English soccer travels. Occasionally I would make one of them think and say “Aye” in agreement with me, and at least once I made them laugh, and I got a “Good lad” from them. I wanted to hug everybody when I walked out of there, and (don’t tell my friends in Sunderland), but I really admire the heck out of Newcastle United and hope they do well … for the Dennises, I mean.
Anyway, below is my gallery from the tour; click on the first image to scroll through them all. To read my other stuff about Newcastle, you can click on their club page here. For more information on taking a tour, see nufc.co.uk.