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Hidden in plain sight – discover The Common Room with us

One of Newcastle’s most significant buildings has been turned into a sensational new events space and a hub for innovation – and it even has its own cocktail bar! We head down there to take a look, chat with CEO Liz Mayes and find out why heralding the next generation of female engineers is top of her to-do list.

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 30.07.2021

Last week, we were kindly invited to grab a sneak peek at The Common Room – Newcastle’s newest and most iconic events space. And we left seriously impressed.

Well, we say ‘newest’… The building The Common Room has taken over is actually 149 years old. We just knew it as The Mining Institute.

Neville Hall (its official name) was built between 1869 and 1872 to provide a headquarters for The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, and is home to the largest publicly accessible collection of mining information in the world. Yep, the world.

The Institute itself was founded in 1852 to address safety issues in mines, as well as to promote research and learning in the fields of mining and engineering. And the fact that their headquarters were here in Newcastle just shows how influential and world-leading the city was in these sectors at the time. The absolute greatest innovators in the world once gathered here, which is pretty darn special.

And The Common Room don’t intend to forget this illustrious history any time soon. The two-year redevelopment project – which was facilitated by a Heritage Fund from The National Lottery of £5,050,000 – has restored the former glory of the building’s original features. Features like The Wood Hall – a gorgeously antique Victorian library, channeling those mystical church-like vibes through ornate wood carvings, welcoming fireplaces and stained-glass windows. Or like the Edwardian Lecture Theatre, which has steeply-tiered seating and old portraits lining the walls, immediately conjuring daydreams of the esteemed learning and pioneering speakers of days gone by.

And what’s so exciting about The Common Room is that now these gorgeous rooms absolutely brimming with history and character have been thrown open to us mere mortals. Not only to visit for the day, but to hire out ourselves if we so wish. Planning a work do? A corporate event? A wedding? The Common Room has got you covered. And it’s a venue that is guaranteed to stick in the mind of your guests for years to come.

Don’t have a specific event in mind, but still fancy popping in and seeing what The Common Room is all about? Get yourself down there! As well as a one-of-a-kind events space, The Common Room’s bread and butter is still to bring together the local community – and they plan to regularly invite businesses, artists, families and the next generation of engineers and innovators to celebrate all that is truly great about the ingenuity in the North East of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

‘Our mission is to use our unique heritage to inspire the next generation,’ explains Liz Mayes, Chief Executive of The Common Room. ‘We know there’s still a really strong story of engineering in the North East to tell, but at the moment it’s hidden away from young people – it’s in the Team Valley or Cramlington or Peterlee.

‘In a previous role, I spent a lot of time talking within the local business community and there was a constant discussion about engineering skills and how young people weren’t choosing to enter into those sectors. So when I found out about this project, I felt like The Common Room could be the missing link – it’s right in the city centre, it’s very visible, and we can bring those big engineering companies in to talk to the next generation here. We’ve got lots planned to get the ball rolling on that.’

Having opened their doors to the public for the first time on Friday – marking the occasions with the unveiling of a special artwork, The Polymorphic Carbon Library, created by local artists Charles Danby and Rob Smith – The Common Room have played host to a variety of workshops and talks this weekend alone, including a LEGO takeover with artist Steve Mayes, (who has also created a LEGO model of the building, entirely to scale).

But that’s not the events done and dusted. Far from it. From Monday 16th August to Friday 20th August, live science shows by The Rock Showman will inspire young minds, while The Common Room’s maker space will host a dino-dig, where young visitors can unearth fossils and learn about geology. Also in August, businesses and engineering organisations will come together for a series of takeover days designed to help the engineers of the future get hands-on with activities, including virtual welding and holograms.

And throughout the opening festival, an exhibition celebrating world-changing engineering feats from the North East will be on show. Graft and Glory tells the story of how the region has been continually at the forefront of the engineering industry – from the development of the first passenger railway in the 1800s, through to today’s renewable energy projects. Best of all, the exhibition shines a light on some of the female engineers whose stories have been overlooked in the past.

 

In fact, spotlighting women working in STEM roles and heralding the next generation of female engineers is top of Liz’s to-do list.

‘It’s a really important priority for me and my team,’ she tells us. ‘There have been numerous initiatives over the past 30 years to get more women into STEM, but there are still only about 13% of engineers who are women at the moment. So there’s still a long way to go. What we want to do is spend a bit of time uncovering what the real barriers are.

‘It’s a really important priority for me and my team,’ she tells us. ‘There have been numerous initiatives over the past 30 years to get more women into STEM, but there are still only about 13% of engineers who are women at the moment. So there’s still a long way to go. What we want to do is spend a bit of time uncovering what the real barriers are.

‘One of the first things we’ve done is launch our Face of Engineering podcast earlier in the year. It’s hosted by Ngunan Adamu, who is a BBC presenter. So far, she has interviewed 13 female engineers – predominantly female engineers of colour – about their roles and the challenges they’ve faced. We’re going to bring that podcast to life in October by running a Face of Engineering conference to get those women up here in the region. We just want to tell women’s stories, because they do exist.’

And if all that female empowerment, world-leading innovation and local pride has got you working up an appetite (or just a thirst), we’ve only got the best things to say about onsite café-come-cocktail bar, 5 Quarter. As perfect a bolthole for the start of a right old knees up as it is for a quiet coffee while out shopping in town, you don’t have to even go into The Common Room to enjoy the exceptional food and drink on offer here, (trust us, we’ve tasted it). And better still, they’re committed to working as sustainably as possible – making sure that every ounce of the ingredients they source are used in their recipes. I mean, who even knew excess lemon zest could be turned into sugar?!

 

All this sounds pretty epic, right? And trust us – the real thing is far more impressive than anything we could ever write. Don’t believe us? Head along for yourself, why doncha…

To find out more about what’s now on offer at The Common Room, or to book any of the sensational events spaces for your next event, visit their website, Facebook page or Instagram

Or check out the real thing: The Common Room, Neville Hall, Westgate Road, Newcastle NE1 1SE

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