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
ADMIRAL LORD COLLINGWOOD
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:
"SEE HOW THAT NOBLE FELLOW COLLINGWOOD TAKES HIS SHIPS INTO ACTION"
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
AND WAS BURIED IN ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL
THE FOUR GUNS UPON THIS MONUMENT BELONGED TO HIS SHIP THE
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
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
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.
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
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 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, 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 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.
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.
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!