There is a club in the heart of Newcastle where mobile phones are banned, there is no loud music and all the staff know its members by name. In The Northern Counties Club, whole Northumberland estates were once reputedly won and lost on the turn of a card, and lunchtimes lasted hours. Urmee Khan reports.
TWO neo-classical pillars greet visitors to the Northern Counties Club in Hood Street – one of the last of its kind in the North-East.
One sharp rat-a-tat on the brass door knocker, and suddenly you are transported into a Victorian hallway where a grand stairway opens out in front of you.
To the left is a bar and to the right a dining room where you can imagine the throwing of bread rolls is de rigeur – games of indoor cricket have apparently taken place in the corridors and entrance hall.
At first sight, it could easily be Bertie Wooster’s club, the Drones, a fictional London gentlemen’s club for “generally idle men”.
Describing his club, Wooster said: “We’re pretty broad minded here, and if you stop short of smashing the piano, there isn’t much you can do at the Drones that will cause the raised eyebrow and the sharp intake of breath.”
There is little doubt the Northern Counties Club was once like this, but this is an image the club is keen to change.
David Devennie, the new manager, said: “We’re working hard to dispel these common perceptions of the club. Even some of the members’ wives feel intimidated by the club and we are trying hard to break this image.”
Devennie, 35, has been brought in from De Vere Slaley Hall in Northumberland to spearhead the club’s revamp and make it more attractive to younger people and the business community.
Founded in 1829 when Richard Grainger was developing the centre of Newcastle, the club was originally in Eldon Square (the old site is now the shopping centre). It moved to its current location in 1972.
In its heyday the club included some very prominent members, including politicians, landowners and gentry.
The region once had quite a few of these gentlemen’s clubs, but one by one they have all been closed, like the Union Club, and clubs such as the Northern Constitutional have faced a downward spiral in membership.
However, the Northern Counties Club, which has 400 members, is determined not to suffer this fate and has tried to come into the modern era. It now offers wireless broadband connection for its members and a new chef (poached from Slaley Hall) is offering a series of themed dinners. David Devennie, described by members as “young, enthusiastic and a revolutionary” has lots of plans.
“I think the place is really focused on growing its younger membership. Previously it was really traditional, but now we have introduced a new chef and a more fashionable style of cooking and there are many more business networking opportunities.” he said.
Business is the key word of the revamp and lunchtimes provide an ideal opportunity to network.
The Journal found itself invited to lunch with members Nick Craig and Richard Middleton, both lawyers.
In a large dining room, plenty of boisterous conversation and business are taking place.
In front of our little table is a giant communal table where sit a dozen or so members.
A giant oil painting of a fox with a rabbit in its mouth stares down. It is strangely creepy yet comfortably traditional, with the Northumberland countryside paintings proclaiming the club’s origins.
Nick Craig mischievously divulges stories of drinking games and boisterous activity throughout the years and reminisces about the time quite recently when Vivienne Westwood models stayed at the club as the Westwood shop opened next door.
“As you can imagine, some of the members were more than a little surprised when these beauties walked in through the door. I’m sure a few hearts were racing,” he chuckled.
As we are seated, it is clear that food seems to be at the heart of the new launch (David Devennie had mentioned earlier that already Sunday roasts are popular with the younger crowd).
In fact, my lunch partner Nick Craig laments the decline of the long lunch even as we are tucking into three courses of carrot and coriander soup, cod, and waistline stretching sticky toffee pudding, priced for members at a mere £10, and served with a glass of port.
For many members, the club is a welcome return to the days when men simply had a bit more time on their hands – for eating, principally.
Ed Nicholl says: “In the old days, we’d have three courses for lunch and there would be three sittings. We didn’t work as hard then and more business was done over lunch.”
And younger member Charlie Renwick, whose father was also a member, laments: “These days you’re too busy for lunch. Going to the gym and having a sandwich at your desk is about all you can manage.
“This is a local institution and although I’m not a big fan of the big lunch, I do use the club when I’m staying in town and I often go before the football when they host the football dinners.”
As Nick talks, we’re surrounded by a cheerfully full dining room of elder statesmen types, and a woman reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher, slowly drinking tea from a porcelain cup.
History lecturer Dr Martin Farr at Newcastle University said: “Clubs like this exist to network, attract likewise people and it has been about social status and snobbery.
“For many, it has been an ‘oasis of civilisation in a British city’.
“It is harder for clubs in the provinces these days and to sustain themselves, clubs have to adapt, to host conferences, for example. Above all, though, a club like this is a social club – not a vertical drinking bar of the kind the city centre is full of in Newcastle.”
It’s futile to deny that for many members, the very attraction of the club is that it’s still something of a retreat from the modern city.
One member said: “The best thing is that there is no rap music and no mobile phones and you’re always very welcome. It’s a unique place and you never know who you might meet.”
The club’s members retain an old-fashioned discretion about what takes place behind closed doors.
There are mentions of large parties hiring the rooms upstairs – there’s a big red room and a big green room and in the corridor upstairs hangs a large picture of men gambling. They are the mythical Recorder Club. Apparently they still meet today and in years long ago whole country estates would be won and lost around the table.
David Devennie knows that to keep the club going he has to be true to its spirit as well as look to the future. He said: “We offer something very different for younger people – we’re not like Tiger Tiger – here they are members of a club going on for hundreds of years without it being stuffy.
“We tried to change the dress code, but the younger ones wanted to keep it.”
And although new members are always welcome, he does admit that “most members” are invited.
“We are never going to advertise it and start getting people off the streets,” he said.
But radical changes can and do happen. Women now enjoy full membership rights and family membership is encouraged.
Two of the club’s proudest traditions remain: that the staff know all the members by name and that they give the warmest welcome to members of reciprocal clubs from elsewhere, be they just coming in for refreshment or staying in the guest bedrooms.
Perhaps, despite all the odds against it, the Northern Counties Club has moved into the 21st Century and may yet be around for the 22nd.