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By Metro to the coast: Tynemouth

One of the joys of Newcastle is that its compact size makes it easy to explore, but also to get out of the city when you feel like a change. If you want to get right out into the countryside the delights of Northumberland are on your doorstep – stunning coastline, ancient castles, the wild Cheviot Hills and of course Hadrian’s Wall. But you don’t have to go that far. My next few entries will offer some ideas for easy outings from the city centre, using the efficient Metro, and starting with my personal favourite.


The mouth of the Tyne

Where the River Tyne flows into the North Sea lies Tynemouth, my favourite of the several seaside communities within easy reach of Newcastle.

Tynemouth Priory from St Edward's Bay

And why do I like it so? Tynemouth for me has a bit of everything – a rich history, some great beaches, lively nightlife, scenic walks and good shopping – all in a pocket-sized town with lots of character only half an hour from the city. You can take a walk on the beaches or the long pier that juts out into the sea, explore historic buildings such as the Priory and Watch House, or enjoy good food and drink in its restaurants and pubs.

It is not surprising that such a strategic river mouth location should have been settled for so long – since the Iron Age in fact. The Romans had a settlement here and the Saxons founded a monastery on Pen Bal Crag, the headland that rises above the mouth of the Tyne. The Vikings came here, sacked the monastery and used Tynemouth as their base to sack the surrounding area. Kings are buried here and a national (if over-looked) hero commemorated.

Tynemouth’s beaches have drawn pleasure-seekers since sea bathing first became fashionable in the late 18th century, while the Black Midden rocks at the river’s mouth have sadly destroyed many ships and lives.

Today’s Tynemouth is a holiday resort popular with those who want their seaside experience to be relatively quiet, a magnet for Tyneside families on a day out, and a low key alternative to Newcastle’s sometimes frantic nightlife. I think it could also be a rather nice place to live – providing you are willing to brave those North Sea chills!

Footpaths by the mouth of the Tyne

One of the nicest things to do in Tynemouth is to take a walk on the network of paths beside the river. One path follows the river itself (and is flat and easy for anyone to use) and others climb the small hill above but are not challenging unless you have serious walking difficulties (I saw one man coping fine with these on his mobility scooter).

View from a riverside path

All the paths offer super views of the river mouth and its two piers, the Black Midden rocks (exposed at low tide), South Shields on the other side of the river and upstream to North Shields, Wallsend and beyond. You can also climb the small grassy ridge where the monument to Lord Collingwood stands.

View from a riverside path

On a sunny day this is a fantastic place to be, but in winter too, if you don’t mind the stiff winds that blow in off the North Sea, it’s a great bracing, cobweb-dispatching walk! And it’s also a good starting point for any exploration of Tynemouth as it gives you a good sense of why and how the town came into being in this strategic spot.

Monument to Admiral Collingwood

Admiral Lord Collingwood monument

What better position for a monument to one of the country’s greatest seamen than this, high above the mouth of the Tyne with a view out to sea?! Yet in many ways Collingwood is something of a forgotten hero, barely known outside his native North East. If you are one of the many who hasn’t heard of him, his “claim to fame” is that he was Nelson's second-in-command at Trafalgar, and completed the victory after Nelson was killed. He was also a great friend of Nelson’s. Born and educated in Newcastle, he had joined the navy when only 12 years old and met Nelson when they were both serving in Jamaica in 1772. His naval career took him all over Europe, North America and the West Indies and he was totally devoted to the service and to his country, as was his great friend. It is said that during his long career of almost 50 years he only spent a total of three of them on dry land.

Everyone knows, or at least believes, that Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar and saved the country from invasion by Napoleon, and there is of course a monument to recognise this fact in London’s Trafalgar Square. But maybe Collingwood should stand there too, as there were two heroes that day. Even as his best friend Nelson lay dying, Collingwood took control of the situation and rallied the troops. Commanding them from his ship, the Royal Sovereign, he routed the French and Spanish enemy forces. Had the Royal Navy lost the battle, Napoleon and his 115,000 troops would have been free to sweep across the channel from his base in Boulogne and invade England. But thanks to Collingwood the British Navy did not lose a single ship at Trafalgar, and the country was saved from invasion.

Admiral Lord Collingwood monument

Collingwood also recognised the great degree to which the Navy relied on oak trees to build the ships it needed. He knew that it took 2,000-3,000 oaks to build a ship like Victory or the Royal Sovereign. So he bought land in the Cheviots and developed forestry plantations there, and on the rare occasions he was home he planted acorns wherever he could to boost the stocks of timber for British ships. Ironically, by the time these trees were fully grown technology had moved on and ships were being built from iron rather than wood, but he was not to know that. He died at sea near Menorca in 1810, having been made a Baron for his great exploits at Trafalgar.

Visitors at the Admiral Lord Collingwood monument

This marvellous monument to him was erected in 1845, and was designed by John Dobson, with the statue sculpted by John Graham Lough. It stands about 23 feet (7.0 m) tall on a massive base incorporating a flight of steps flanked by four cannons from the Royal Sovereign, the ship he commanded at Trafalgar. The inscription on the base reads:

One of the cannons at the monument

was erected in 1845 by Public Subscription to the memory of
who in the Royal Sovereign on 21st October, 1805 led the British Fleet
into action at Trafalgar and sustained the Sea Fight for upwards of an hour
before the other ships were in gunshot which caused Nelson to exclaim:
He was born at Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1748 and died in the Service
Of his country on board of the "VILLE DE PARIS" on 7th March 1810

The Watch House

I first came to Tynemouth on my very first visit to Newcastle with Chris in 1980, and have been enjoying the sight of the Watch House on its elevated position looking over the river mouth ever since.

The Watch House

The Watch House is the base of the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, founded in 1864 as a direct result of a particularly terrible night of storm and destruction on the rocks at the mouth of the Tyne, the Black Middens. That year these rocks claimed five ships in three days with many deaths, even though the wrecks were only a few yards from the shore. On 24th November two ships, the schooner "Friendship" and the passenger steamer "Stanley", took shelter in the mouth of the river when a gale blew up and were driven onto the Black Middens. Despite several local lifeboats going to the rescue and over 30 people being rescued, 24 lives were lost that night, including two lifeboat crew. The disaster was witnessed by hundreds of people on shore, who were powerless to help.

Sign on the Watch House

One of those watching was an officer in the military volunteers based in Tynemouth Castle, John Morrison, who recognised that a well-trained group of volunteers similar to those under his command might have been able to assist the Coastguards in deploying the breeches buoy apparatus that could potentially have saved everyone on the stricken ships. He talked to local dignitaries who called a public meeting where it was agreed to set up a such body of men to assist the Coastguard in future in the event of such disasters. Over 140 men volunteered and the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade was formed – later becoming a model for similar groups around the country.

This was the second time that the River Tyne and the dangers it presents to shipping had given rise to a national response to save lives, the first being the establishment of the world’s first purpose-built lifeboat in South Shields, just across the river from Tynemouth - but that is for a future entry.

The Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade is still in operation today. It is based here at the Watch House, which was built in 1887. They provide maritime search and rescue support to the Coastguard and other emergency services on a voluntary call-out basis. They train here and store their equipment.

Inside the Watch House

But the Watch House is also a museum, displaying artefacts and rescue equipment dating from the wreck of the Stanley in 1864 to the present day, as well as assorted nautical memorabilia. These include a number of lovely figure-heads, all taken from ships that ran aground here. The first photo below is of the figure-head from the 'Fame', which was lost on the rocks off the North Pier in October 1894, although all on board were rescued by the Brigade. The other figure-head is that of the 'Hannah and Eleanor', a schooner which was driven ashore in Prior’s Haven. The crew were rescued by the local lifeboat 'Willie Wouldhave' (named for William Wouldhave of North Shields who came up with the radical idea of cladding a copper boat with cork to prevent it sinking which was adopted in the building of the world’s first lifeboat in neighbouring South Shields).

Figure-heads in the Watch House

Rescue equipment in the Watch House


Brigade Cottage garden

As well as the artefacts, the Watch House is worth visiting to see the views from the two towers and the searchlight equipment in the southern of these. The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday; admission is free but donations are encouraged – and are merited, especially when you consider that what you give will be used not only to maintain the museum but also, and perhaps more importantly, to support the work of the Brigade. The caretaker lives in the picturesque Brigade Cottage next door so ring the bell if the door is closed and she will come across and let you in.

Prior’s Haven & the Spanish Battery

Of the three beaches/bays in Tynemouth, Prior’s Haven (or simply “The Haven” as it is more commonly known) is the southernmost and the smallest. It lies in a sheltered spot within the mouth of the Tyne, protected by the pier that extends from near its northern point. In Victorian times it was popular with bathers but today is the preserve of Tynemouth Rowing Club and the local sailing club. It is a good spot for photos of the Priory and in the past has also featured on paintings by a number of artists, most famously Turner.

Boats at Prior's Haven

Above the Haven to the north are the ruins of Tynemouth Priory and Castle, and to the south the grassy hill known as the Spanish Battery. Both have been important over the centuries in defending the Tyne (so essential as a channel for iron, coal, shipbuilding and the manufacture of armaments) against naval attack. The Spanish Battery was fortified in 1545 to protect King Henry VIII's fleet as it assembled before invading Scotland and remained an important defensive position until the early years of the 20th century. It takes its name from Spanish mercenaries who were the first to be garrisoned here.

The Priory and Prior's Haven from the Spanish Battery

As well as serving a defensive purpose the guns here used to be used to summon the life brigade if a ship ran aground. In World War One the Royal Engineers operated a searchlight battery from the Spanish Battery, and like the Castle battery it was updated and operational during the Second World War too. Today though it is a fantastic spot in good weather to sit and watch the passing ships and boats, and when it is maybe less clement to take a brisk reviving walk in the energising North Sea winds!

On the Spanish Battery

Tynemouth Pier

The River Tyne is protected to the south and north by two long piers. The southern one, in South Shields, is 1,570 metres long while Tynemouth’s is rather shorter at 810 metres. It was constructed over a period of over 40 years (1854–1895) and was originally curved, but in 1898 the centre section was destroyed in a gale and the pier was rebuilt in a straighter line to better withstand future storms, being finished in 1905.

Tynemouth Pier, winter views

A winter walk on the pier

Today, like its southern counterpart, it is popular for walks in all but the worst of weathers. The path extends along its upper part, while a lower level on the more sheltered river side once carried train tracks and cranes used in loading ships. At the far end is a lighthouse which was first lit in January 1908 and is still in use today.

Tynemouth Castle and Priory

The Castle Gatehouse

The most significant historical site, and indeed sight, in Tynemouth is the ruined fortified priory on a headland just north of the river mouth. This promontory has been a strategically important spot since the time of the Saxons, who named it Pen Bal (or Benebal) Crag and founded a priory here in the 7th century. In 651 King Oswin of Deira was murdered by the soldiers of King Oswiu of Bernicia and his body brought to Tynemouth for burial, the first of three kings to be buried here. He was later canonised and his burial place became a shrine which was visited by pilgrims. The Roman Catholic church in Tynemouth, a very short distance from the Priory, is dedicated to St. Oswin.

The second king to be buried here was Osred, the deposed king of Northumbria who was murdered in 792. The third was Malcolm III, king of Scotland, who was killed at the Battle of Alnwick in 1093, but his body was later reburied in his native Scotland.

The priory was sacked by the Danes in 800 and repeatedly during the following century, including in 865 when the nuns of St Hilda, who had come here for refuge, were massacred. The Danes succeeded in destroying it in 875 and used Tynemouth as their base to sack the surrounding area.

By the 11th century the priory had long been abandoned and the burial place of St. Oswin forgotten. Tostig Godwinson, Earl of Northumbria (and brother of King Harold who was killed by William the Conqueror at Hastings), had a fortress here. When a young hermit, Edmund, reported seeing St. Oswin in a vision in which the saint showed him his tomb, that tomb was rediscovered and Tostig resolved to restore the monastery. But he was killed in the Battle of Stamford Bridge and never fulfilled his vow. However a later earl, Robert de Mowbray, did so a few years later, re-establishing a religious house here with a group of Benedictine monks from St Albans Abbey (being in dispute at the time with the Bishop of Durham). The building of the Norman church began in 1090, and the whole monastery was substantially completed by the end of the 13th century.

The castle at Tynemouth Priory

When the monastery was re-founded there were already some fortifications here (earthen ramparts and a wooden stockade), but in the 12th century these were strengthened, firstly with stone walls and later with the addition of a gatehouse and barbican on the land-facing side. In 1312 Edward II took refuge within the castle and the nearby beach, King Edward’s Bay, is probably named for him.

The priory was dissolved under Henry VIII in 1538 and the king took ownership of the castle and strengthened the fortifications of this strategic site. The church also was left standing, possibly because of its importance as a landmark for shipping along this often treacherous coast.

Tynemouth Priory church

Tynemouth Priory with the church on the right

When Tynemouth Priory was dissolved under Henry VIII in 1538 the monastic buildings were all destroyed, but the church was left standing and remained in use as the town’s parish church until 1668. Now however it is mostly in ruins, although part of the west front, rebuilt in the 13th century, remains. You can see the entrance where the main door would once have been, and the niches that would have held the statues of saints, but the 14th century tracery window that once sat above the central doorway has not survived.

West front of the priory church

Beyond this you can trace the church’s layout in the stumps of the pillars that once marked out the aisle and the outlines of various chapel walls. The north side is almost completely destroyed but much remains of the south side and of the east too, each with the remains of what must have once been graceful lancet windows, as well as an unusual oval-shaped one above the altar.

Priory church from the south (left photo) and east (right)
Interior wall detail

Extending from that eastern end is the small 15th century Oratory of St Mary or Percy Chapel which has been heavily restored and is still intact. It has an ornate painted ceiling with coats of arms and other symbols on the bosses where the ribs of the vaults intersect, some stained-glass side windows portraying various saints and a small rose window in the east wall above the altar.

Inside the Oratory

Ceiling detail

The battery at Tynemouth Priory

It is perhaps not surprising that a site as strategic as that of Tynemouth Priory was not left to become a picturesque ruin but instead has been used over the centuries for both defensive purposes and the protection of shipping. A lighthouse was built on the headland in 1665, using stone taken from the priory, to guide shipping into the Tyne, and was rebuilt in 1775. It was taken over by Trinity House (responsible for all lighthouses and lightships in the country) in 1841 and remained operational until replaced by the still-working St Mary’s Lighthouse in Whitley Bay a few miles to the north in 1895. It was demolished three years later in 1898. More recently the coastguard have been based here, but the coastguard station closed in 2001.

Gun battery

Gun at the battery emplacement

The other strategic function performed here has been defence. During the 18th and early 19th century the walls of the castle were adapted to house coastal gun batteries in response to the threats of a French invasion. These batteries were modernised at the end of the 19th century to house breech-loading and high angle guns. It was essential to provide adequate protection for the Tyne and its role as the main outlet for the iron and coal, the armaments and the ships produced on Tyneside. Today a row of gun emplacements dating from the late 19th and early part of the 20th century can be seen and explored on visits to the castle and priory. These were updated and operational during World War I and again in World War II.

In the restored magazines at the battery

As well as the batteries themselves you can go inside the restored underground magazines which stored ammunition and supplied the guns. These are quite atmospheric and, thanks to the various objects and contemporary signs, give a good sense of what life would have been like for the soldiers stationed here to operate these guns. The army remained in residence at the castle until 1960; since then much of the modern military equipment was removed but these wartime defences remain.

Tynemouth Castle and Priory are today in the ownership of English Heritage and can be visited every day in the summer and at weekends in the winter.

King Edward's Bay

King Edward's Bay, looking south

King Edward's Bay looking north

The middle of Tynemouth’s three beaches, in both geographical position and size, is King Edward’s Bay. This is thought to have been named after King Edward II who took refuge in Tynemouth Priory in 1312. The priory stands on the promontory to the south of the beach and provides a great back-drop to the seaside fun. Low cliffs rise to the north and west as well, making this a very sheltered spot, and several paths and flights of steps lead down to the sand. The relative narrowness of the bay means that the waves of the North Sea can be quite large and you do sometimes see surfers here, although the neighbouring Longsands Beach is the most popular for surfing. At low tide there are plenty of rocks exposed if you want to go rock-pooling, and these also attract a fair number of birds. Although nearer the town centre this beach tends to be a little quieter than Longsands.

Enjoying the waves, and view of the lighthouse, King Edward's Bay

King Edward's Bay in winter

Above King Edward's Bay is the best-located pub in Tynemouth, the Gibraltar Rock. The downstairs is a carvery which we haven't been to (not being fans of these), but happily the first floor is still a pub and although decorated in rather bland pale wood, it still has what has always been the ‘Rock’s best feature – a large bay window with great views of the bay below and the North Sea beyond. The pub naturally faces east (this is England’s east coast after all) so you won’t get to enjoy a sunset here, but it is still lovely to sit here on a summer evening and watch the light fade over the sea. And there are also a few tables outside at the back of the pub which enjoy the same great views.

The Gibraltar Rock, and its view of the bay

On our last visit we observed that a sort of informal protocol applied. Obviously those who had arrived first had grabbed the positions right by the windows with the uninterrupted views. But as some of these left, those at the remaining tables courteously indicated to each other which had arrived before the other and should move forwards into the vacated place. We however were happy with our seats which although set back a little allowed us to see out of both windows, so we sat back and watched this little performance without joining in!

Longsands Beach

Longsands, with the old swimming pool in the foreground

When it comes to beaches, the pride of Tynemouth is definitely the Longsands (always spelled as a single word). If it weren’t for the sometimes off-putting northern climate, this could even rank as one of the best beaches in the world. It stretches over a kilometre in length from the smaller King Edward’s Bay to the south to the next bay, Cullercoats, to the north. It has a Blue Flag award for cleanliness and is a popular summer destination for local families as well as visitors to the north east. It is also very popular with surfers who don wet-suits and brave the cold North Sea even in winter.

At the southern end of the Longsands is the currently rather forlorn-looking old outdoor pool. This was built in the 1920s when this coast saw many more holiday-makers than it does today, but was left to gradually decline as the visitor numbers fell away with the advent of cheap package holidays to Spain in the 1970s. In the 1990s it was closed down and the various buildings such as changing rooms demolished. There was a half-hearted attempt to turn it into an artificial rock pool (I have no idea why, given how many natural ones there are in the vicinity) and later talk of creating an artificial beach (again, why?!) Today it stands derelict but a local campaign group is trying to raise money for its restoration. They have a website and a presence in the Tynemouth WW1 commemoration project’s shop on Front Street, where you can see some pictures of what the pool looked like in its heyday.

More views of Longsands

The church that rises rather dramatically just to the north of the Longsands is St George’s in Cullercoats, the next community to the north. The beach is sometimes used for training runs by footballers from Newcastle United and featured in the film 'Goal'.

Some famous names

Jimi Hendrix sign

And talking of footballers, for a small place Tynemouth has some famous names associated with it. Here are just a few:

Jimi Hendrix apparently came here in 1967 after a gig in Newcastle (at the Club A’Gogo) and bought fish and chips at Marshall’s in Front Street which he ate on a bench overlooking the sea (presumably at the end of Front Street, somewhere near the Priory)

Marshall's fish shop

Plaque on the Martineau Guesthouse

Harriet Martineau, a well-known novelist, feminist and England’s first female journalist, came here to recuperate from illness in 1840 and lived till 1845 in a house on Front Street that is now a guesthouse and named after her. Incidentally the guesthouse looks lovely (we have never stayed there however) and you can stay in the same room that she slept in.

Another famous resident was Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame, who as a child attended the King’s School here in Tynemouth between 1897 and 1902. Later he returned here with Oliver Hardy, on several occasions staying at the Grand Hotel on the seafront by the Longsands while performing at the Newcastle Empire. Their last stay was for two weeks in March 1952, and a room at the hotel is named for them. Other famous visitors to the Grand, Tynemouth’s landmark hotel, include the wartime “Forces’ Sweetheart” Dame Vera Lynn, actress Margaret Rutherford, the comedian Dave Allen and more recently Bob Geldorf and local hero Sir Bobby Robson.

Grand Hotel, and plaque to Garibaldi

The film director Ridley Scott also attended the King’s School. And there are many who have holidayed here over the centuries, including authors Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll and artist Algernon Swinburne. Giuseppe Garibaldi also paid a brief visit in 1854. But perhaps the most surprising visit is that reputed to have been made by Peter the Great of Russia who is thought to have stayed here while on an incognito visit to learn about shipbuilding on the Tyne, a subject that fascinated him.

Tynemouth Market

Tynemouth Metro station

The easiest way to get to Tynemouth by public transport is by Metro from the centre of Newcastle. It is on the yellow line, which makes a loop from St James’ Metro station east following the line of the Tyne to Tynemouth and then turns north up the coast to Whitley Bay and then back into the centre via the northern suburbs and through to Gateshead and to the towns south of the Tyne beyond – a sort of back to front Q shape.

If you are here on a Saturday or Sunday, do allow time to check out the market at the Metro station. It is well-known across the region and many locals visit regularly from Newcastle and further afield. The station dates back to 1882 and was originally a mainline station before being brought into use for the first stretch of Metro line in 1980, which ran from the Haymarket in Newcastle to terminate here. The station was completely renovated in 2012 and it is now a Grade II Listed Building.

Station roof - details

There has been a market here for a long while but since the station refurbishment it has grown in size and (from what local relatives tell me, who visit often) is better than ever. It is held on both platforms, which are very wide and easily able to accommodate all this activity as well as the regular business of people boarding and alighting from trains! It has something of the feel of a flea market, but in addition to antiques and bric-a-brac you will find fresh local produce, arts and crafts, plants, books, clothing and more.

Tynemouth Market

Even if you don’t want to shop here you can easily while away an hour or so browsing the stalls and enjoying some of the light refreshments available. On every third Saturday of the month there is a Farmers’ Market and there are book fairs held quarterly. Trading starts at 10.00 AM and ends around 4.00 PM.

On sale at Tynemouth Market

Add some excellent restaurants (I recommend Davanti's Italian restaurant or the quirky Barca Art Café, both on Front Street), interesting shops (try Razzberry Bazaar for unusual gifts and clothing, or the Green Ginger Shopping Arcade, a cluster of shops spread over two floors of a converted church) and that fresh sea air, and maybe you can see why I like Tynemouth so much!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:54 Archived in England Tagged beaches castles architecture monument history ruins views market river pubs seaside Comments (13)

By Metro to the coast: South Shields

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.

Littlehaven beach

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.

South Pier

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.

Monument to Admiral Collingwood and Tynemouth Priory from South Shields


Skimming stones at Littlehaven

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.

The Eye

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’.

The Eye

This is taken from a traditional Northumbrian ballad, 'Blow the wind southerly' – the full lyrics are:

Tynemouth Priory
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.

Conversation Piece

Conversation Piece

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.

Conversation 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!

Conversation Piece

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

So Shields

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

‘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!

Posted by ToonSarah 04:31 Archived in England Tagged beaches art boats monument history seaside Comments (6)

By Metro to the coast: Cullercoats

Cullercoats Bay

The small coastal town of Cullercoats is perhaps easily overlooked in favour of its bigger siblings to the north (Whitley Bay) and south (Tynemouth). While the former offers a traditional seaside resort (today somewhat faded albeit revived in parts) and the latter loads of history, the charms of Cullercoats are more modest, but worth seeking out.

Indeed, in the past, several artists did just that. The American artist Winslow Homer spent 18 months living and working here from 1881-82, painting scenes inspired by the local fishing folk. Local artists too found their inspiration among the fishing community of Cullercoats and its marine views. John Falconer Slater, considered to be one of the region’s finest impressionist artists, painted the moods of the North Sea, as did John Wilson Carmichael. Meanwhile Robert Jobling, a former shipyard worker, focused on the fisher folk in works such as 'The Day is done and the Darkness falls from the Wings of Night' which can be seen in Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery (along with a number of other works by the Cullercoats colony), and here online: https://archive.is/nfqz/d42b4acfd5974a2a7b7531cd9321b33ab471f578.jpg

Cullercoats Bay

But of course before it was the haunt of artists Cullercoats was home to the fishermen and miners who have long populated this region. The fishing village was established by 1539 and coal was mined in simple bell pits, digging it out from just below the surface. The coal was used to fire salt pans and both coal and salt were exported from the harbour which was as busy as any along this coast. But the salt industry declined, while the growth of the railways led to coal shipments being moved to better harbours elsewhere. By the early 19th century fishing was again the only main industry.

Cullercoats Bay sheltered by the two harbour piers

Cullercoats became well-known for its ‘fishwives’, the wives and daughters of the fishermen, who played as big a role in the industry as did the fishermen themselves. They searched for the bait, digging sand-worms, and gathering mussels, limpets and crabs. They also assisted in baiting the hooks and it was they who carried the fish to the market to sell them. These women featured in many of the paintings produced by the artists who based themselves here.

But enough of the past – what does Cullercoats have to offer today? There’s a lovely sheltered sandy bay with an attractive Victorian RNLI Lifeboat Station. On the headland above the lifeboat station is the Watch House, which was built in 1879 for the Cullercoats Volunteer Life Brigade, and also to serve as a lookout for the fishermen. It still provides a sheltered spot from which to admire the views today.

Cullercoats Lifeboat Station, with Watch House above on the left

Cullercoats Bay, looking north

There are rock pools to explore, and in warmer months the sea attracts swimmers willing to brave the still-chilly North Sea waves. The rocky foreshore lies within the Northumberland Coast Special Protection Area and parts are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest because of the large numbers of birds that winter here – in particular turnstones and purple sandpipers. Other birds seen here include plovers, curlews and oystercatchers, although on our most recent walk when all these photos were taken we saw only gulls.

Rocky foreshore, Cullercoats

Views north are towards Whitley Bay with St Mary’s Lighthouse just visible at times, and beyond it the offshore wind turbines at Blyth.

Looking north from Cullercoats towards Blyth

To the south are the Long Sands of Tynemouth with the Priory dominating the headland beyond.

Looking south towards Tynemouth from Cullercoats

A coastal walk from Cullercoats to either of its neighbours is a treat at any time of year, whether you stick to the roads and cliff-top paths or descend to the beaches below. And with a direct Metro link to the city centre to all three of these coastal communities it's easy to plan such a walk.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:40 Archived in England Tagged beaches birds coast history views seaside seas Comments (12)

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