Deepest Tyneside: a trip around North Shields

Maritime Chambers

North Shields is a surprising place.  For all the town’s blue-collar reputation the stretch from, say, Osborne Gardens to Washington Terrace comprises handsome red brick and creamy stone streets of genuine refinement.  This is quintessential nineteenth century urban Tyneside, and embodies, perfectly, the craft and fortitude of the artisans whose toil built up the ‘Shielings’ around the wind-battered harbour into a Victorian boom-town.

I wonder if Ian Nairn ever came here? His father hailed from Tyneside and Nairn himself loved Newcastle, so it’s possible. Nairn’s work is so exciting because he really understood the ‘emotional power of townscape’. Where Pevsner and his (still utterly essential) Guides are taxonomical, Nairn was a genius with a broad brush, and his impressionistic descriptions are often a much better introduction to a place.

The other thing I admire about Nairn’s work is how seriously he took everywhere he visited.  To be sure, he was an enthusiast for the grandeur of London and Paris, but his ‘Football Towns’ series of the 1970s, for example, showed how much he respected the dignity of smaller places, especially in the North of England. We should all be grateful to Gillian Darley and others for keeping his flame alive.

Northumberland Square

North Shields is not much known outside the North East. Neil Tennant was born here, Stan Laurel grew up in Shields, and the sea-shanty ‘Dance to Your Daddy’ was probably written in the town. The clever motto of the old Borough of Tynemouth was ‘Messis ab Altis’ (‘Harvest from the deep’ – i.e. fish and coal), and, in its heyday Shields was a hub of heavy industry and maritime trades like chandlery, ropeworks and ship-repair. The Tyne has literally marinated this town in history, and the fact that this place has witnessed everything from the splash of Hadrian’s trireme in AD122 to the full-steam of the Mauretania in 1907 has given the streets of Shields a tremendous historical depth and emotional power.  This really is Tyneside profonde.

But this tough little town was badly battered in the twentieth century: 2,000 men from Tynemouth borough were killed in the Great War (a disproportionately high number, even for the North East), and it suffered the greatest single civilian loss of life in World War Two after a direct hit on an air raid shelter.  Slow industrial decline followed the war, and North Shields gained a certain notoriety after the ‘Meadowell’ riots of 1990. These were arguably the direct result of crude town planning: when the gritty families who lived in the rookeries above the Fish Quay were thoughtlessly scooped up and dropped into new council estates, dissipating the familial networks that had always made the place tick.

A good deal is still shabby, particularly the main shopping drag around Bedford Street and its southern and western fringes, but the well-built streets and handsome public buildings of its northern and eastern parts are worth exploring and give North Shields a dignity that certainly deserves our attention.

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The best way to approach the town is to begin uphill, near the broad acres of Preston Cemetery whose funerary urns and weeping angels give a good sense of nineteenth-century prosperity and the rapid expansion of the town northward and away from the Tyne.  Head south first down the proudly-pruned 1930s suburbia of Walton Avenue, towards the ebullient Tynemouth College (1909).  Originally the borough’s grammar school, its ‘massing’ could make this a gloomy building were it not for the rhubarb and custard colour scheme and playful Art-Nouveau details: note, for example, the curlicues on the BOYS and GIRLS entrances and the quirky janitor’s house fit for a hobbit.

Queen Alexandra Road

From the College, head east to see one of the most distinctive urban vistas in the North East.  Were it not for the kink at the junction with Preston Road, Queen Alexandra Road and Trevor Terrace would present a relentless terraced kilometre bristling with two-storey bay windows.  These are the distinctive signature of the better sort of ‘Tyneside flats’, small but dignified homes fit for clerks or foremen (indeed ‘bay-window’ became something of a deprecation, suggestive of social-climbing and la-di-dah airs and graces).  The North East shares much in common with its northern neighbour, but where the Scots built tenements to save space when land was expensive, the Geordies (being English) preferred the dominion of their own front door.

North from here are the leafy terraces of Preston Avenue and Sandringham Gardens, the Wahnfried-like former vicarage and the solemn villas of Preston Park – the sort of places where you might find, in the words of Evelyn Waugh, ‘an aged colonel playing wireless music to an obese retriever’.  For this is the North Shields that John Betjeman might appreciate – ‘under cedar-shaded palings,
 low laburnum-leaned-on railings’ – from the quiet Georgian serenity of Camp Terrace to the Edwardian affluence of Cleveland Avenue. Here again are the ubiquitous bay windows, but grander still with heavy Downing Street-style wooden front doors, fanlights, basements and smartly striped cornices.  Alma Place is worth a stroll too, spacious and comfortable with creamy brickwork, distinctive heavy stone lintels and Tuscan door cases – a motif repeated in almost all the residential buildings put up in Shields between c1850 and 1910.

Emerging from Alma Place, you are confronted by the sooty basilica of Christ Church.  This replaced the ruined medieval Priory Church on Tynemouth headland and was built in stages from 1670 to 1789.  Seven miles north of here Nairn himself wrote of the ‘dour Northumberland grandeur that Vanburgh captured so perfectly at Seaton Delaval Hall’ and Robert Trollope pulled off something similar in Shields: huge stone slabs, gloomy battlemented tower, little ornament.

Christ Church

Christ Church sits on the ridge that formed the natural route of the Newcastle turnpike and once commanded views of the Tyne and the sea. From here the town gradually, and then steeply, falls away to the river.  (This is also an opportune moment to repair to the wonderful Keel Row Bookshop, itself a fine early Victorian townhouse.)

Eighteenth century North Shields now takes shape, most notably in the form of Northumberland Square – one of three such squares, and the focus of John Wright’s ‘New Town’. As in Edinburgh, Shields’s New Town was built on virgin ground and provided refined Georgian oases above and away from the stink and squalor of the teeming ‘bankside’ slums. Pevsner thought the square too wide for the scale of its graceful two-storey ashlar houses, but it is undoubtedly an elegant space.

Scotch Presbyterian Church

This part of town provides much interest for the church-spotter. The centrepiece of Northumberland Square is St Columba’s of 1853 (formerly English Presbyterian, now URC) a typically crisp neo-classical essay by the great John Dobson, a native of North Shields. But most styles are catered for: further along Albion Road is the gothic Wesleyan church of 1889 (now a dreaded ‘soft play’ centre) with its peculiar tower like a rocket idling at Cape Canaveral, and south of the square the broad and handsome Howard Street reveals three more Victorian churches. Two of these are by Dobson again, including his ‘Scotch Presbyterian’ church of 1811, which shows that even at 24 he had mastered the tricky Greek Doric vocabulary of friezes, triglyphs, attic floors and all the rest.  But Dobson could converse in several architectural languages, and on the opposite corner he demonstrates his stylistic dexterity yet again.

Dobson’s Elizabethan Town Hall of 1844 is actually a precinct of buildings, atypically domestic and not at all grandiose like its municipal contemporaries.  Its scale and stonework reminds me of an Oxford college: Mansfield perhaps, or University College, but more compact.  Tynemouth Corporation was notoriously penny-pinching which may explain its modest dimensions – the large, mullioned south facing oriel describes the width of the poky council chamber – but this makes the building all the more humane, and its well-pointed stone compliments the sturdy residential architecture of this hardy Tyneside town.

North Shields Town Hall

The Italianate Free Library of 1857 picks up the rhythm of Howard Street south of the junction with Saville Street, and introduces a nice stretch of well-mannered former banks done up like palazzi as was the fashion. The street culminates with a little piazza offering thrilling cliff edge views over the river to South Shields, west to Jarrow Slake (‘Jarra Slack’) and east to Tynemouth.  Perched next to this is the charming Tynemouth Literary and Philosophical Society of 1806, now North Tyneside Register Office.  The pedimented Tuscan doorcase and gorgeous big venetian window wouldn’t look out of place on a Georgian rectory, but is entirely typical of classical Tyneside.

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In Nairn’s wonderful essay on ‘Superlative Newcastle’, he described how the Tyne’s steep sides provide a sort of ‘topographical ecstasy as you go up and down perpetually seeing the same objects in different ways’.  You get this in Shields too: from the pleasing way Grey Street slouches down to the Pow Burn (a tributary of the Tyne, now Northumberland Park – the Jesmond Dene of North Shields) to the view, from the otherwise cheerless Charlotte Street, of Knott’s Flats which looms like Prague Castle over the Black Middens, the infamous ship-wrecking reef in the Tyne estuary.

But Tyne Street offers the most invigorating vistas of all. It’s built on an escarpment parallel to the Tyne, and a fantastic riparian panorama unfolds beneath you like a sort of Northumbrian Lilliput.  From here you pass the site of Dockwray Square, the grandest of the town’s eighteenth century squares, and once the home of Stan Laurel (sadly, his cartoonish statue is hideous).  The literal focal point here is the most Heathcliffian building in Shields: the impossibly romantic ‘High Light’ of 1808 which clings to a windswept eerie above the Quay.  It was used as rudimentary, but effective, navigational aid to enter the Tyne (skippers would line up the high and low lights to find a safe channel) but now I wouldn’t be surprised if a romantic poet spent his days here musing on the seascape. Or perhaps a scientist lives here and conducts galvanic experiments in its lantern …

High Light

Now we must descend to the Fish Quay. This was once a moral, as well as a physical descent into a seedy land of sex and violence. The Northumberland Arms (aka ‘The Jungle’) at the western end of the Quay was built as the grandly becolumned townhouse of the eponymous Duke, but became one of the most notorious sailor’s pubs in the world (and may have inspired the setting of Get Carter on Tyneside).  Alas, the Jungle is no longer trading – now remodeled into pricey apartments – and the whole stretch from Smith’s Dock to the Groyne is now a (relatively!) safe and rewarding place to stroll around.

The authenticity of the place is still striking. This is a working fishing port after all, and although the forces of gentrification have made inroads, the heart of the place remains ‘the gut’ and the salty tang of the fish shops and factories that surround it (as it was when Mitchell and Kenyon filmed the place in 1901).  The cyclopean Low Light (companion to the High Light) dominates the scene.  A square white pylon, seven stories high with whittled corners like an unfinished chair leg, it is a striking sight (and was sketched by JMW Turner in 1818), but delve further and from amidst the clutter of the Fish Quay emerges the Vaubanesque ramparts of Clifford’s Fort.  This comes as a surprise amid the fish crates and forklift trucks but then Northumberland is the most fortified English county, and North Shields is a kind of counterscarp at its most southeasterly tip.  Built by the Swedish engineer Martin Beckman in 1670 (on the orders of Lord Clifford ‘of Cabal’) to prevent the Dutch doing to the Tyne what they did to Thames, its 29 gun embrasures now stare blankly out to sea.

Clifford's Fort

Within the bailey of the fort is yet another ‘light’, in this case the seventeenth century Old Low Light. An illuminated third floor window on the narrow sea facing side served as a beacon until the new Low Light came along. It’s now ‘The Net’ an exciting community-led maritime heritage centre. Watch this space.

Before we leave the Quay take some time to drink it all in. Notice the Victorian military buildings disguised as smokehouses, stand back and admire Irvin’s smart Edwardian warehouse (now, inevitably, a brasserie), and maybe repair to the Low Lights Tavern on Brewhouse Bank (reputedly the oldest pub on the Tyne – and certainly one of the best) for a well-earned pint and one of their delicious pies.

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Emerging refreshed we must climb another bank – Tanner’s – and dip under Hawks, Crawshay and Sons’ sturdy iron bridge (built for the North Eastern Railway in 1863) to reach Correction House Bank.  As the name suggests justice was once meted out here, and the borough’s bridewell – an intriguing pale stone shed of 1792 – still stands, forming a striking contrast to the caramel tiles and red brick of the Tynemouth Lodge Hotel next door.   The ‘Bier Garten’ of the Lodge overlooks Northumberland Park, a nineteenth century pleasure ground hemmed in by the tight streets of Shields.  In New York, Frederick Olmsted had wanted Central Park to be a place of ‘silence, peace and repose away from the ills and agues of the city’.  The dene of the Pow Burn is certainly a blissfully arcadian rus in urbe, but given the park’s proximity to the quay, it’s unclear how well the burghers of North Shields ever escaped the agues and bad airs of the fish industry.  Nevertheless I’m delighted that the council is restoring it to its Victorian glory.

Master Mariners Homes

Further along Tynemouth Road you find two wonderful examples of ‘social housing’ built exactly a century apart. First, the cheerfully Jacobean Master-Mariners’ Homes, put up in 1837 by John and Benjamin Green (major contributors to Grainger’s rebuilding of Newcastle) as a sort of retirement complex for grizzled matelots.  ‘Northumberland knows no prince but a Percy’, and the family are still the major landowners in these parts.  As such the Mariners’ Homes are arranged obsequiously around a rather rum-looking statue of its benefactor, the 4th Duke of Northumberland – but it’s a great treat to observe that, on closer inspection, beneath his Garter mantle, His Grace is wearing what can only be described as frilly hot-pants.

The final stop on our tour is a stupendous sight. Knott’s Flats is six storeys tall and snakes almost 900 feet from west to east. This colossal block was built in the 1930s, thanks to funds left by Sir James Knott, to house families displaced by slum clearance around the Fish Quay.  Knott has been born in humble circumstances in Howdon, near North Shields, but his ‘Prince’ shipping line made him one of the richest men in Britain.  Losing two of his sons in the Great War inspired him to great heights of philanthropy which has left a great architectural, as well as charitable, legacy.  The Arts & Crafts Ss James and Basil in Newcastle (named for his two fallen sons), the strikingly Art Deco YMCA on Church Way in North Shields, and even St George’s Memorial Church in Ypres, are all buildings of great quality and originality.

Knott's Flats

Knott’s Flats is similarly unusual.  Built on a vast scale by Charles Holden (famous for 55 Broadway and the UCL Senate House) it was completed in 1938 and constructed, tellingly, out of fire-resistant materials with integrated air-raid shelters.  An urban myth persists that the Luftwaffe – or was it the Gestapo? – had it lined up as their prospective Northern HQ post Sea Lion, its vertiginous balconies perfect for defenestration.  Knott’s Flats is actually a more humane building than that, reminiscent of noble Gemeindebau like the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, with comfortable living space and, in this case, incredible views of the sea. I think this places it firmly within the building traditions of North Shields: well built, but not flashy, vigorous but not unfriendly.  Rather like the people who live here in fact.  So why not come and see for yourself?

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In the next installment I’ll look at the ‘Northumbrian Riviera’ from Tynemouth, through Cullercoats, Whitley Bay and Seaton Sluice, to Blyth.

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