As the rich chimes of St Nicholas Cathedral announce 8 o’clock on this dark, dank late November morning, their resonance starts me thinking... Amidst the clamour of the 21st century rush hour, commuters hurry past and as the traffic queues towards the station, central Newcastle is beginning to wake from its slumber. The buildings gradually come to life. Some have endured an evening of high energy, such is their life today, others gradually flicker awake as office lights click on ready for the day ahead. Some are magnificent, others less so. St Nicholas, as ever, is majestic. The Castle Keep stands proud and the wonderful Lit and Phil also catches the eye. The station surrounded by the constant chaos of recent times is striking in its design and busy too as I head towards Grey Street. Even in the semi-darkness I enjoy one of England’s great vistas, north towards Newcastle’s Theatre Royal and Grey’s Monument. Even on this dark day it lifts my spirits.
Off Grey Street is Hood Street and at its heart is Number 11, otherwise known as The Northern Counties Club and current esteemed address of one of not just the country’s, but the world’s, oldest private members’ clubs. It is 185 years old this year. Like the celebrated theatre nearby, The Northern Counties Club has enjoyed good days and more challenging ones and today, despite its tradition and heritage, it has an agreeably enlightened outlook. Indeed, as I recently discovered with my better half, it also offers one of the very best places to have lunch in Newcastle. Some might suggest that a club such as this belongs in the past. But many of the younger members and current Chairman Chris Robson would heartily disagree.
‘The Club provides a unique environment for the benefit of members and their guests. They can take part in lively conversation linked to both social and business affairs or enjoy the calm of a peaceful oasis in the heart of Newcastle’, explains Chris.
In fact, while you detect a genuine fondness for some traditions the bigger picture takes in a far more contemporary view. Which I guess is entirely appropriate given that one of its founding members was Earl Grey, he of the tea, the statue and more significantly the Reformation of the People Act, 1832 (The Great Reform Act).
Sadly, as I pass on by I can’t enjoy ‘the best breakfast in town’ as I’m not a member. I consider the prospect. In some ways it’s most appealing. Not for reasons of networking or hobnobbing (splendid word) though clearly there is ample opportunity for both, but really to be a part of one of the finest havens to be found in a busy city. Mind you I’m not certain they would have me as membership requires a formal introduction and approval to weed out the ‘wrong ‘uns’. In reality, the Committee is keen to welcome all-comers and if you don’t know an existing member don’t be put off. Crucially you don’t have to be part of an ancient family line or the social elite to apply, simply contact the General Manager if you are interested. Mind you, when the Northern Counties was formed in 1829 the original membership tells a different story as a glimpse at the Club’s minute book records: ‘On 26th November 1829, the principal gentry of Newcastle and Northumberland met in the Newcastle Assembly Rooms and determined to establish a club, on the plan of the club houses of London, to be called the Northern Counties Club.’ Some descendants of the original founding families remain members but they have brothers (and sisters) in arms from all walks of life and certainly the mood of the place is very welcoming to one and all.
Central to the Club’s success is not merely the strength of its members but also its staff, and today’s General Manager David Devennie, is a man who quite clearly respects the traditions of the club and understands good service, the importance of good food, and the need to develop and move with the times.
A thorough analysis of the minute book was undertaken by John Browne-Swinburne in preparation for a commemorative speech he recently made to the members. It makes for fascinating reading. Commenting on both good times and bad, he says: ‘Reading through the original minute books, over the next 100 years nothing was to cause more problems than the Club’s Billiard Room.’ As Britain created the Empire and entered wars to save world peace it may be somewhat ironic but also indicative of life and its varied paths too. He comments, ‘In July 1945, due to lack of supplies, it was decided that members be rationed to one large or two small glasses of whisky and gin and one of sherry per day. However, this line was only taken for six months, after which it was agreed that the reserve stock of drink be released for sale and the daily ration per member doubled.’ His next paragraph talks of the Club’s War Memorial dedicated to the memory of the many members who had lost their lives in the two World Wars. His summary also hints at the more archaic goings on and the role of the Club in one of the North’s most vibrant cities. One pivotal moment came about with the proposed conversion of Old Eldon Square, in which the Club occupied the prime position. Initially mooted in 1961, it was not until August 1972 that the Club was forced to move and of the various sites under consideration it was the then unloved, temperance Tyne Hotel on Hood Street belonging to the Grainger Estates which was selected. Many of the furnishings and pictures were moved with the Club and continue to grace its walls today, but the Committee have been determined to modernise and update where possible. It’s probably this as much as the heritage that appeals.
In 1999, Living North was delighted to meet the Northern Counties Club first female member, Lucy Winskell. Then it was an historic moment. Now women are a vital part of the Club. Perhaps some of those valiant founding members may not have approved but that was then and this is now and the Club continues its central role in the lives of many of its members. Popular at lunchtime, the members’ dining room is often busy and there is a daily cold buffet table (the food is fantastic) which means you can eat extremely well, and extremely quickly, should the need arise. There is also table service with a choice of several hot dishes including desserts – sadly the sticky toffee pudding had sold out when we were there. It’s a great way of meeting people, catching up with colleagues and associates and simply widening the business network. The Club also arranges social evenings which are becoming increasingly popular, especially with the younger members. There are three private rooms for hire here – ideal for smaller meetings – and the venue is also available for hire for private parties and weddings.
There are many benefits to being part of such an historic Club, and not just because it’s a great place to eat and drink, and to entertain. The Club has reciprocal arrangements across a network of other clubs, including 13 in London alone and several overseas. All offer good value accommodation in elegant surrounding and with all mod cons. Unashamedly traditional in many ways, we expect the Northern Counties Club can look forward to a healthy future. Chris Robson as Chairman is very much involved in ensuring its longevity. ‘As a private members’ club, the fundamental challenge in the future is to maintain the current record levels of members. Membership of a club such as ours comes with a personal financial cost, and although dining and accommodation facilities are offered at very attractive rates, members must never be left thinking twice about whether to renew their annual subscription.’ Although attitudes to working lunches have changed markedly over time, with the assured continued support of all the members and staff, the club is likely to remain at the heart of the region’s business environment for a long time to come.