South Shields is one of several seaside resorts in the north east of England, strung out along the coast north and south of the River Tyne, and like others has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent years, helped by significant improvements such as landscaping and beachside redevelopment.
The mouth of the Tyne from South Shields
The town lies at the mouth of the river, on its south bank. That explains ‘South’, while ‘Shields’ is derived from a small traditional fisherman’s house known as a ‘Schele’ or ‘Shield’ (and yes, there is a North Shields on the opposite bank).
South Shields has many of the ingredients of a typical seaside resort – good beaches, a funfair, ice cream parlours (Minchella’s is famous locally), promenades, a boating lake and crazy golf. Perhaps more unusually, it is famous for having, allegedly, the greatest density of Indian restaurants anywhere in the world – including even in India itself! So you won’t go hungry if you enjoy a good curry.
But South Shields also has plenty of history. It developed originally as a fishing port on the site of a Roman fort, which was a supply centre for soldiers garrisoned on Hadrian’s Wall. Later it was home to a considerable salt-panning industry and later still, like most Tyneside towns, relied on coal mining and ship-building. As these declined during the twentieth century the town suffered, but has recovered somewhat thanks to new industries and a revival in tourist trade.
More recently South Shields has become well known as the home town of author Catherine Cookson who set many of her popular historical novels here.
The mouth of the Tyne
One of the pleasures of a walk near the sea in South Shields, especially the northern stretches, is the variety of the outlook – not just the sea but also the River Tyne and all the shipping activity it generates, plus views across the river mouth to Tynemouth and North Shields.
Perhaps the most distinctive features of these views are the two piers on either side of the river’s entrance, called (prosaically) North Pier and South Pier. These were constructed in the mid 19th century to help prevent silt build up within the river’s shipping channel and to provide some protection for as it entered or left the river. The South Pier, here in South Shields, was finished in 1895. It has a lighthouse at its far point which is still operational today, guiding shipping into the river along with the North Pier lighthouse and that on the smaller Herd Groyne pier which juts out at the north end of Littlehaven, right in the river mouth. The pier is 5,150 feet (1,570 metres) in length and is a popular walk although it is closed in bad weather when waves regularly break over it.
Looking north from this part of South Shields you can see Tynemouth just across the river, with its ruined priory, statue of Admiral Collingwood and Watch House. To the west (i.e. left) is North Shields, but mostly hidden from view on this sea-facing side of town, though easily seen from the river side.
There are two good sized beaches in South Shields, plus a string of smaller ones to the south of town. The main one is larger, busier and sandier than its quieter neighbour to the north, Littlehaven. The latter is 500 metres long and sheltered by the south pier of the Tyne, so it’s a popular spot for water sports such as kayaking, canoeing, and boating. Not being as sandy as the main beach it’s maybe less of a draw for families but if sandcastles aren’t your priority this a good place from which to watch all the activity of ships sailing into and out of the river mouth.
The beach was formerly used as a World War I RAF airbase. On certain days you can apparently still see faint traces of the old landing strip near the Groyne at the northern end. The airbase was used by sea planes, land planes and airships used to monitor coastal defences and report on enemy movements.
Today it has a newly rebuilt promenade, a leisure centre nearby and a modern hotel right at the point where the river meets the sea.
The Watch House
The Watch House
I have long known about the Watch House in Tynemouth but only very recently learned that there is another here in South Shields, on the opposite side of the river mouth. It sits in a prominent position at the land end of the South Pier, a wood-framed building with carved eaves and an octagonal tower. It was built in 1865 as a base for the newly-founded South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade, and the tower added in 1875. It is Grade 2 listed and is one of the oldest all-wooden Victorian buildings in the country.
The Life Brigade was established to help saves lives endangered by shipwreck in the treacherous waters at the mouth of the Tyne. It is famous as the first such brigade to save a life from a shipwreck using the breeches buoy, when the Sunderland schooner Tenterden was wrecked on the South Pier on 2nd April 1866, the pier being still under construction at the time. It is one of only three such organisations to remain in existence today, out of the more than 500 that there once were (the other remaining ones are also in north east England, at Tynemouth (the first ever) to the north and Sunderland to the south.
Crest on the Watch House
It holds a collection of ships’ figureheads, name boards and other artefacts from shipwrecks, plus displays of rescue equipment, including the famous breeches buoy used in the Tenterden rescue, and old photographs.
But it is also the base for the still-active Volunteer Life Brigade, and while they are more often these days called to help with cliff rescues than shipwrecks, the latter are not unknown and the brigade are from time to time called upon to assist. The brigade’s motto, “Always ready”, can be seen on the crest on the wall of the Watch House.
Near the north end of Littlehaven is this eye-catching (pun intended!) sculpture by Stephen Broadbent. It is a popular spot for photos as people like to pose with the eye as a frame, though I preferred using it to frame the view beyond – of the beach, the sea and Tynemouth Priory across the river. Around the 'iris' are the words: ‘but my eye could not see it, wherever might be it, the barque that is bearing my lover to me’.
This is taken from a traditional Northumbrian ballad, 'Blow the wind southerly' – the full lyrics are:
seen through 'The Eye'
‘Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly,
Blow the wind south for the bonny blue sea.
Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly,
Blow, bonny breeze, my lover to me.
They told me last night there were ships in the offing,
And I hurried down to the deep rolling sea.
But my eye could not see it, wherever might be it,
The barque that is bearing my lover to me.
Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly,
Blow, bonny breeze, o'er the bonny blue sea.
Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly,
Blow, bonny breeze, and bring him to me.
Is it not sweet to hear the breeze singing,
As lightly it calms o'er the deep rolling sea?
But sweeter and dearer by far when 'tis bringing
The barque of my true love in safely to me!’
The same sculptor also created another piece at the southern end of Littlehaven, ‘The Sail’. Both pieces were installed here as part of recent improvement works to this stretch of coastline.
Some sculptures are all the better for being in just the right place - think of the Angel of the North or Statue of Liberty, for example – and in its own less dramatic way that is true of the Conversation Piece. A group of 22 figures are dotted around a paved area near the sea at the north end of South Shields’ Littlehaven Beach. They could be locals stopping briefly in their daily routine to gossip, or holiday-makers meeting for the first time perhaps. With the dunes as backdrop they make for a striking piece.
The figures are of bronze and were created by Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz, who created similar pieces elsewhere (the ‘Last Conversation Piece’ in Washington DC, for example). Their rounded bases mean that locals sometimes refer to them affectionately as the ‘Weebles’ or simply ‘the wobbly men’. They are for obvious reasons a popular spot for photos and children in particular seem to love to pose with, or try to climb on, the figures – it took some patience for me to get these people-free images!
The Tyne lifeboat
The world’s first purpose built lifeboat was built here in South Shields in 1789 to help rescue seamen from ships in danger off the treacherous coast or swept onto the rocks at the mouth of the river Tyne, known as the Black Middens. This boat was called the ‘Original’ and built by Henry Greathead.
The Tyne lifeboat
The lifeboat Tyne now on display on Pier Parade in the town was built to a very similar design in 1833 by local ship-builder J.Oliver, and is now Britain's second-oldest preserved lifeboat (the oldest is the Zetland, on display in Redcar just down the coast). The cost was £170. The boat was crewed by 13 men and was stationed initially at Coble Landing before being moved to the South Beach boathouse. Her first rescue mission was in 1833 when twenty people were saved from the steamer Lady of the Lake. She was South Shields’ main lifeboat until 1882 and then served as reserve boat until 1884 when she was handed over to South Shields Corporation by the Trustees of the Tyne Lifeboat Institution and placed on public display to serve as a permanent reminder of the skill and bravery of the men of the Tyne Lifeboat Institution. Both the boat and the decorative cast iron canopy that protects it have recently been restored.
The Jubilee Lifeboat Memorial
Jubilee Lifeboat Memorial
This prominent memorial stands next to the restored Tyne lifeboat and commemorates the inventor of the world’s first purpose-built lifeboat. Or rather inventors – not because it was a joint effort but because two men lay claim to that honour. William Wouldhave and Henry Greathead (what fabulous names!) both entered a competition as launched to reward any inventor who could provide a craft for the purpose of saving lives from a shipwreck, prompted by the tragic loss of life from the Adventure, a Newcastle ship that went aground near the coast at the mouth of the Tyne in 1789. Woodhave was a parish clerk in the town, having been born in neighbouring North Shields, and Greathead was a boat builder, born in Yorkshire but having grown up in South Shields.
In the event neither of their designs was chosen as the winner but both influenced the final design which was drawn up by the committee running the contest. Wouldhave’s proposal of a copper boat clad in cork to prevent it sinking was considered too radical, while Greathead’s oblong wooden boat was completely unsuited to these waters and the model turned upside down when tested! Despite this he was given the job of building the boat and it was he that suggested the keel be curved to keep it part out of the water. Meanwhile Wouldhave’s ‘radical’ proposal to use copper and cork was actually employed!
A third man, Lionel Lukin of Essex, is also considered by many to have invented the lifeboat but as he was not a resident of South Shields he is unsurprisingly not mentioned on the memorial!
And as if it weren’t enough that this memorial celebrates not one but two local luminaries, it was actually constructed primarily to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887. When the decision was taken to mark that event with a memorial, a planning committee decided that ‘nothing commended itself more than a memorial to the founder of the lifeboat, their noble townsman William Wouldhave’. However they agreed that, ‘in consequence of the diversity of opinion as to who was actually the inventor of the lifeboat, the monument should be called the “Wouldhave and Greathead memorial of the Lifeboat”’ (quotes taken from a plaque at the site).
Whatever the truth about the inventor, the memorial to the lifeboat’s origins is a striking one. It consists of four tiers. The lowest one originally had drinking fountains on two sides (north and south) and also contains a small door giving access to the clock and lighting mechanisms. Above this each face is carved – on the west side a portrait of Wouldhave, on the east one of Greathead, and on the remaining two sides reliefs showing a shipwreck and the return of the lifeboat. Above on the third tier is a clock with a dial on all four sides, and above this a dome with a weather vane.
Jubilee Lifeboat Memorial
These large billboards on the back of the amusement arcades at Ocean Beach Pleasure Park, facing the sea, are part of the output of a team of artists who in the summers of 2011 and 2012 spent time down on the sea front in South Shields meeting local people and visitors to the resort. The project was known as ‘So Shields’, with ‘So’ here being both a word used for emphasis and also an abbreviation of ‘South’. The artistic team comprised poet Jake Campbell, photographer Damien Wootten and artists Alison Unsworth, Stuart Mugridge and Jo Ray, and the works they created reflected their personal impressions of the town and its people.
There are nine billboards altogether. Here are just three of them:
The coast will wait behind you
‘The coast will wait behind you’ is part of a poem by Jake Campbell which incorporates different moments in the town’s history (the Roman fort, a shipwreck) with his own memories of a day trip here.
‘Semaforks’ by Jo Ray captures the small wooden forks traditionally provided with fish and chips, here with the addition of local dialect phrases – on one side with their definitions and on the reverse with their equivalent in semaphore. The forks themselves were distributed by fast-food places on the seafront in the summer of 2011.
‘The Visitors’ by Damien Wootten depicts the mix of visitors to the resort during the course of one summer – students from New Delhi, Zimbabwean ladies on a day trip from Byker in nearby Newcastle, and students from Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.
Other billboards include Jo Ray’s ‘A Common Treasury’ which combines typical plants of the dunes with fairground-style signage, and ‘The Sandpiper’, a mock local newspaper created by Stuart Mugridge with stories ranging from Turner’s visit to South Shields to elephant rides on the beach.
Arbeia Roman Fort
I can't really write about South Shields without a brief mention of this reconstructed Roman fort, as it is the main sight there, although as we have never yet got around to visiting I have no photos to share. Arbeia Roman Fort guarded the main sea route to Hadrian's Wall. It was a key garrison and military supply base to other forts along the Wall and is an important part of the history of Roman Britain. Today's modern reconstruction of several of its significant buildings (West Gates, Commanding Officer's house and a soldier's barrack block) serves to bring the early history of this region to life, and must make an interesting complement to a visit to the remains of forts and milecastles along Hadrian's Wall. We really must go some time!