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A walk to Ouseburn

View looking back towards the city from Ouseburn

In recent years the development that first started around the central part of the Quayside has spread eastwards, and the area around where the smaller Ouseburn flows into the Tyne, in particular, has benefitted from regeneration. It makes a great destination for a stroll along the river, and there’s plenty to see when you get there. It’s only about a 15 minute walk from the Tyne Bridge to the mouth of the Ouseburn, although you’re bound to stop along the way!

The first part of this route is covered in my previous entry on the Quayside, so I will pick this walk up near the Millennium Bridge. Just before the bridge, the Quayside walk becomes pedestrianised, with the road veering away to join City Road and run parallel to the river just above the apartment blocks that line the banks here. You could follow the road, but the riverside walk is far pleasanter. It’s worth a detour however when you reach Horatio Street, where you can climb the short distance to two interesting sights.

The Sailors’ Bethel

The Sailors’ Bethel

The Sailors’ Bethel

At this point in your walk your eye is very likely to be drawn upwards to the sight of the slim spire of the Sailors’ Bethel.

Climb cobbled Horatio Street for a closer look and you will find that this spire sits somewhat incongruously on a solid-looking brick chapel. It was built in 1877 to serve non-conformist sailors, mainly Danish, from the many ships that used to dock in Newcastle’s busy port just down the bank from here, bringing butter, eggs and meat, and returning with Tyneside coal. But the port fell into disuse as ships became too large to navigate this far up river, and as the trade in coal declined. Today’s ships carry huge containers and dock at the Port of Tyne near the river mouth in South Shields.


The chapel is no longer needed by sailors and today has been converted into offices. You can’t therefore go inside but the Sailors’ Bethel is nonetheless worth a quick visit to see that unusual lead-clad spire and what is said to be Newcastle’s only gargoyle.

The artist L. S. Lowry painted the Sailors’ Bethel in a painting called ‘Old Chapel’ and this is now on display in the city’s Laing Art Gallery (have a look at http://collectionssearchtwmuseums.org.uk/#details=ecatalogue.299667 to see how Lowry depicted it).

Statue of William L Blenkinsop Coulson

This imposing Victorian statue stands on City Road just above the Quayside and a little east of the central area. It commemorates a local benefactor who, as the inscription explains, was noted for his efforts on behalf of not only the weaker members of society but animals too. Appropriately therefore the statue incorporates two drinking fountains – a large one for humans at the front, and a smaller one for animals round the back!

William L Blenkinsop Coulson

On the back is another inscription, a quotation from the man himself:
'What is really needed is an allround
education of the higher impulses
true manliness, and womanliness
justice, and pity.
To try to promote these has been
my humble but earnest endeavour, and until
they are more genuinely aroused,
the legislature is useless,
for it is the people who make the laws'

The inscription on the plinth reads:
'William Lisle Blenkinsopp
1841 – 1911
erected by public subscription
in memory of his efforts
to assist the weak and defenceless.
among mankind and in the
animal world'

On the plinth

Coulson's statue originally stood in the Haymarket, near the Boer War memorial, but has been moved twice – firstly in the 1930s to a location further down Percy Street, and then in 1950 to this present spot.

Coulson was born in Haltwhistle, Northumberland, in 1840 and, as I think his pose and expression suggest, was a colonel in the army before retiring in 1892, after which he served as a magistrate and on the boards of many charities concerned with child and animal welfare. He toured schools and borstals giving lectures on morality, and published essays on the welfare of women and children. He is depicted wearing the distinctive plaid cloth that he was in the habit of wearing.

The statue is of bronze and double life-size. It was sculpted by Arnold Frédéric Rechberg and stands on a stone block, underneath which is a slab of red granite from which the two drinking troughs are carved. It commands a lovely view of the river, although Coulson is perhaps surprisingly positioned to face away from the view and is looking instead at the Sailor’s Bethel church across the road – surprising that is until you remember his devotion to the welfare of others.

The mouth of the Ouseburn

Mouth of the Ouseburn

You could carry on from here along the main road which soon crosses the Ouseburn on the Walker Bridge, and to do so will save you repeating the climb up the bank, but I recommend retracing your steps to the riverside and following the path to the mouth of the burn. At low tide the boats will be stranded on the muddy banks, or at high tide bobbing at their moorings – either way, they make a colourful scene.

Ouseburn moorings

Waymarker for cyclists

In the boatyard

Turn left here and the path will take you to a smaller bridge and past a small boatyard to three great spots to stop for refreshment on the far side. Ahead to your right is the Hub, a focal point for keen cyclists in the area, especially those following the cycle route along the Tyne to the sea. But you don’t need to be a cyclist to grab a sandwich and drink in its welcoming café, which has seating by the water for good weather visits.

View from the Hub

Alternatively, there are a couple of pubs on the other side of the road, overlooking the Ouseburn. The lower one is the Tyne Bar, which I haven’t visited, as we prefer the Free Trade Inn on the small hill above. This characterful pub isn’t fancy and it’s not smartly decorated, but it oozes atmosphere, serves a great selection of beers and has great views of the Tyne from both the pub itself and the small garden area opposite. Oh, and there’s a friendly welcome from both bar staff and the resident cat!

In the Free Trade Inn

The cat even features on the beer mats!

Although it serves snacks, really this pub is mainly about the beer. Many of the rotating selection on tap are from local breweries, while there’s also a good range of bottled beers from further afield, including Belgium. And if you’re not sure what to choose the bar staff will let you try a sample (of the tap beers, obviously, not the bottled!)

Beer with a (rainy day) view

It’s also about the view. So settle down at the window with a glass and enjoy the river scenes below. You’ll be glad you came and will quickly forgive any lack of fanciness in the décor.

Following the Ouse

From the mouth of the Ouse you can follow the footpath called Riverside Walkway along the eastern bank (on your right as you leave the Tyne), or take Ouse Street and Lime Street along its western bank – the latter are recommended if you like to spot street art. Either route will bring you to the heart of Ouseburn.

On Lime Street

Ouseburn street art

Stepney Bank Stables

Here you will find lots to do. There’s a nationally acclaimed museum devoted to children’s literature, Seven Stories, which seems to have loads going on for families – crafts, author visits and exhibitions of original work by illustrators, for instance. As a former children’s librarian, I really must visit one day!

There is a city farm here too, an acclaimed music venue, the Cluny, and another traditional old pub, the Ship Inn, plus several small galleries on Stepney Bank, where you will also find a working stable.

The Biscuit Factory

Biscuit Factory entrance

Not far away on Stoddart Street is a large independent art gallery, the Biscuit Factory. This is an art, craft and design gallery housed in a former Victorian warehouse in an area of the city that is gradually being transformed from its industrial past and becoming increasingly arty, with a number of small studios nearby. The gallery hosts four major exhibitions a year which are changed every quarter. The focus is on art you can buy – everything is for sale, much of it at reasonable prices, and the 'Own Art' scheme means that any piece can be bought and paid for in instalments.

In the Biscuit Factory

We went a couple of years ago for the summer exhibition and were very impressed by a lot of what we saw, although the sheer amount made the exhibition a little hard to take in and focus on individual artists at times. There were a lot of great prints at reasonable prices (we resisted temptations), original paintings, sculpture and also a lot of applied art – jewellery, glassware, ceramics and even furniture.

There is a light, airy café on the first floor, with great views over the eastern part of the city, and a more formal restaurant, Artisan, downstairs with an appealing menu.

When you’ve finished your explorations here you can return by the same route, or catch a bus back into the city centre on New Bridge Street a few minutes’ walk away. Alternatively, you can continue your walk and follow the Ouse all the way to Jesmond Dene, a couple of miles to the north of the city.


Walking at this eastern end of the quayside you are likely to catch glimpses of the Byker Wall.

Part of the Byker Wall

Byker is a suburb just to the east of the city centre. Like many of Newcastle’s outlying districts it was developed in Victorian times as housing for the working classes – tiny terraces in rows, with no bathrooms and little space or fresh air. By the middle of the 20th century they were little more than slums, and throughout the city a massive clearance programme was underway, as in many UK cities. In most places the solution was the same – high rise blocks that were designed to simulate terraced housing but vertically. These “streets in the sky” were later almost universally condemned – they failed to recreate the sense of community felt by those living in the terraces they replaced while creating huge social problems because of the isolation felt by many residents and the hidden corners of their stairwells and passageways which provided fertile ground for gangs and criminals.

The Byker Wall was in part an attempt to try something different – an intensive housing scheme that didn’t rely on piling people on top of each other. One end of the continuous sweep of buildings (620 maisonettes) does reach upwards, purposely designed to shield the site from a motorway which in the end was never built, but in most parts it is only a few storeys high. It was designed by Ralph Erskine (a London-born architect heavily influenced by Scandinavian style) and built during the 1970s – and it soon became as criticised as the high-rise blocks it sought to improve upon, mainly on aesthetic grounds as it challenged conservative ideas of what homes, and architecture, should be like. In more recent years its innovative approach has become more appreciated, helped by a major refurbishment and modernisation of the entire Byker Estate (of which the Wall is just a part) in the early part of the 21st century.

View towards Byker from the café at the Biscuit Factory

Today Erskine’s approach to the development of the Byker Estate seems much more in tune with concepts of community involvement than was the norm at the time. He designed the new homes to fit around existing pubs, schools and churches, so people wouldn’t lose their connections to each other within the community. And he sought residents’ views, responding to desires for gardens and meeting places. Because the development was carefully phased, people could move straight from their old house to the new, without having to temporarily leave the area – another factor that contributed to keeping social cohesion intact. Erskine also included some environmental design elements that were significantly ahead of his time, with homes heated by a power plant that ran on the rubbish collected from them, and a micro-climate created by the shelter of the Wall that allows trees to grow that would normally need a more southerly latitude.

To read more about the development check out this website: Future Communities, from where I drew some of my information. You can see the Wall from the eastern end of the Quayside and other spots at that end of the city, but for a close-up look you can catch a bus on New Bridge Street to Byker (the opposite direction to the city centre).

Posted by ToonSarah 07:34 Archived in England Tagged art buildings boats architecture monument history church river pubs city museum street_art Comments (6)

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)

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