The Northumbrian Riviera
To the coast! And an abrupt change of mood as riverside North Shields turns 90 degrees north to seaside; business turns to pleasure, and production to consumption.
Just as the Victorians invented industrial life, and the discipline of the factory hooter and dockyard clock, so too did they conceive of leisure as a commodity that was consumed at certain times and in certain demarcated zones. By 1911 Britain had over a hundred substantial seaside resorts, from the big boys Blackpool and Brighton to lower league Largs and Llandudno. The Northumbrian Riviera fits somewhere in between these poles, more akin to the maritime resort suburbs of Penarth or Southsea; but like all of them it was a place of beaches, bathing and boarding houses – with a big slug of hedonism.
Here the eight miles of metal-bashing Tyneside – from Newcastle to the sea – transforms sharply into the ancestral coastal playground of the Northumbrian middle and working classes. While the Tyne was clogged, grimy and hard work, this Geordie Shore was a Mecca of relaxation, amusement and lung-fulls of fresh air. Consider the working class novelist Jack Common in Kiddar’s Luck, sallying forth eastwards – on foot – from industrial Heaton to the glories of the Riviera:
“from North Shields on the air was full of the sea glow, a salt radiance brightened all the long Tynemouth streets. And at the end of them, the land fell off at the cliff-edge into a great shining nothingness immense all ways over the lazy crimping of seas on their level floor.”
But earlier visitors were also struck by its luminescence; Harriet Martineau, recuperating in Tynemouth in the 1830s, wrote of looking out across the Tyne estuary to where
“the myrtle-green sea tumbles… and the air comes in through my open upper sash, but sun-warmed. The robins twitter and hop in my flower-boxes… and at night, what a heaven! What an expanse of stars above, appearing more steadfast, the more the Northern Lights dart and quiver”
Charles Dickens too had walked to the coast from Newcastle on one of his frequent visits to the city
“We escaped to Tynemouth for a two hour sea walk. There was a high wind blowing and a magnificent sea running. Large vessels were being towed in and out over the stormy bar with prodigious waves breaking on it, and spanning the restless uproar of the waves was a quiet rainbow of transcendental beauty. The scene was quite wonderful.”
The tide may have gone out on this coastline as a holiday destination, but it still remains a distinctive place, with a seductive rhythm of beaches, cliffs and promenades, punctuated by some of the most iconic buildings in the Geordie imagination.
The coast was long a dreamland and a resting-place for some, but for others it was always an edgy, liminal quarter where drink was taken, trousers were unbuttoned (for various reasons) and steam was let off. Respectability and debauchery were held in tension as True-Blue Tory Tynemouth – the constituency of Dame Irene Ward and Sir Neville Trotter – with its stockbrokers’ Tudor, Masonic lodges and gin-drinking golf clubs, chafed alongside the fleshpots, arcades and Wurlitzers of the Esplanade and Spanish City.
The saddest legacy of this uneasy occupation by genteel middle class tipplers and teenage revelers – sad for me anyway as a resident – is the complete absence of any really decent pubs In Tynemouth, Cullercoats or Whitley Bay.* This is certainly in contrast to the solid, characterful boozers of North Shields, of which the Tynemouth Lodge is the final outpost, and it is here that we begin our tour.
Tynemouth and Cullercoats
Northumberland Park, now magnificently restored, has long acted as a cordon sanitaire separating proletarian NE29 from patrician NE30. Some estate agents market properties in Eastern North Shields as ‘West Tynemouth’, but the change in affluence as we stroll east along Tynemouth Road is obvious as we pass the Park.
Frank Hornby himself could not have conceived of a more perfect collection of toy railway stations than the coastal stops of Tynemouth, Cullercoats, Whitley Bay and Monkseaton; each one is a gem – but Tynemouth (1881) is the grandest. A graceful exterior in polite Victorian gothic opens up to a vast platform covered by a full acre of glass roof and frilly ironwork. This usually quiet station is thronged at weekends by visitors to the Flea Market that takes up the whole concourse – look out for the odd Third Reich Memorabilia stall and their sheepish political disclaimer (“we’re not Nazis!”) – but this is prime mooching territory, and the Book Fair is always worth saving for.
It’s now worth darting back across the road, down Oxford Street then following the path above the Black Middens towards the ‘Spanish Battery’ for the stunning views over the river mouth (and the fascinating Cape Cod style clapboard Watch House of the world’s oldest Volunteer Life Brigade). When looking from the South, the drama of Lord Collingwood’s statue is an effective curtain raiser to the castle and priory on the headland behind. If the Statue of Liberty bears a message of welcome and humanist principle, Collingwood the sentinel – with its inscription from Nelson ‘see how that noble fellow takes his ship into action’ – says to the incomer ‘take note: we are a martial race’, and reminds its much press-ganged native sons of their traditional role when England needed men for fighting.
As the Tyne (and the Wear) was the most important industrial and population centre on Britain’s east coast, it was always strongly defended (the castle was in continuous military use from the seventh century until 1945), so the current site is a palimpsest of monastic cloisters, medieval battlements and twentieth century military architecture. Three Kings were buried on the Uluru-like magnesium slab of Pen Bal Crag: the Northumbrian warlords Oswin and Osred, and Malcolm III of Scotland (look out too for the gravestone of Alexander Rollo, the man who held the lantern at the burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna).
Forget the chocolate box of Dunstanburgh and Warkworth, it’s the ramparts of Tynemouth where the ‘Lordly Strand of Northumberland’ really begins. This is a set-piece of serious voltage: tense, Wagnerian and easily on a par with Dover Castle, Montjuic in Barcelona or even Dubrovnic. The gesticulating shell of the of the Priory must be one the most prominent ruins in the country, but for all that its skeleton retains a tremendous energy, the ruined barbican presents an unnecessarily snaggle-toothed face to the town (the ruins only date from the 1940s, when the army left and took down their barracks). So never mind John Ruskin, this really does need the full Violet-le-Duc treatment. Repair those crenellations!
As Ian Nairn put it, the broad high streets of Stockton and Darlington were a ‘great northern breath of fresh air’, and Tynemouth Front Street is similarly expansive: narrowing gradually from a tranquil green in front of the Kings School – with its fine bronze of the Queen Empress (five of the, by my count, eight female statues on Tyneside are of Victoria) – and up to the castle gates.
The domestic and commercial architecture here presents an embarrassment of riches: late Georgian red brick and Parisian wrought iron balconies (and in the Northumberland Terrace group overlooking the estuary a rival to Thomas Oliver’s masterpiece at Leazes Terrace), the exotic ogee arches of the Cumberland Arms, a jewellery-box of an RC chapel from the prolific Dunn and Hansom stable, and more besides. Yet the ‘offer’ is disappointing: pretentious hipster cafes charging £12 for a ‘artisan’ breakfast, jostle with distinctly arriviste bars like Lola Jeans and the unspeakably named Hugo’s At The Coast.
North East of Front Street we find the noble lawns of Percy Gardens, a lavish crescent of 1880 with a rippling drumroll of bay windows only broken by the sympathetically Brutalist (is that possible?) post-war bomb-site infill at Priory House. Hidden furtively around the street’s northern corner is an extraordinary lookout tower, built by the Navy in WW1 but now strictly domestic, its slit window still peers shiftily over the roof-tops towards the Old Grey Widow Maker.
The sands of the Northumbrian littoral unfurl northwards from this point, overlooked first by the stout and matronly Grand Hotel (built as a summer residence for a Duchess of Northumberland, it was found to be too accessible to the Tyneside hoi-poloi for Her Grace’s taste). Longsands is the Bondi of the North East; its proportions, even its municipal street furniture are remarkably similar to the plage at Sydney, and the ‘surf’ seems to be ‘up’ here all year round. There’s also the soggy shell of a 1930s open-air salt water pool, which hosted the impossible glamour of the ‘Miss Tyne Tees TV’ competition in 1971, but whose future still hangs in the balance
The Frenchified Grand finds a trim Art Deco foil in the Park Hotel (this could be Tyneside’s answer to the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, but it’s been depressingly shabby for years). What’s missing here is the stupendous Tynemouth Plaza, tragically destroyed in a suspicious fire in the early 90s. One of England’s great lost buildings, in detail and giganticism reminiscent of Cuthbert Brodrick’s Grand at Scarborough, or even Seaton Delaval six miles north. It was a huge and stately pleasure-dome whose terraces billowed down from the dunes onto the beach below; in Victorian photographs its cetacean bulk reminds me of nothing so much as the beached Star Destroyer in the opening frames of Star Wars VII.
Indeed, dominion over earth and water was an important theme in Northumbrian history; we could dredge it, tunnel under it, launch things into it, mine it and bend it to our will. (This is why while other Victorian worthies built art galleries, Newcastle’s city fathers, in a nod to the carboniferous capitalism that made their fortunes, coughed up for a natural history museum – decades before the Laing.) The natural drama of the sea edge here was and is heightened by the buildings on the shore, not least engineering feats like the 900m-long Pier itself, 50 odd years in the building, and the prodigious galleries, promenades and sea-defences from the Headland to South parade, a mantle of ‘concrete poetry’ as forbidding as Hitler’s own Atlantikwall.
Longsands is bookended by Tynemouth and Cullercoats, and the next great landmark on the coast is the emphatically vertical extrusion of St George’s (1884) whose stiletto-sharp steeple erupts from the Beaconfield above the beach. Pevsner admired its antiquarian exactitude, but thought it a little cold-blooded, and I agree: for all its imposing mass St George’s is academic and bloodless; and the expensively furnished interior seems to me sterile too (dare I say it rather like Anglo-Catholicism itself – the strand of Anglicanism to which St George’s belongs: undoubtedly well-meaning, but not very convincing).
Promenading is taken as seriously on the Northumbrian Riviera as the Cote d’Azur, but this is no catwalk; whatever the weather you’ll find a great caravan of wind-cheatered Geordie pedestrians, not so much to ‘be seen’ as to participate in the sort of bracing communal act that the locals have always enjoyed. And what a backdrop! Beverley Terrace on the sea-front is a real blockbuster, lofty Edwardian villas of real bounce and vim; a Fishermen’s Lookout of 1879 shrouded by an a immense pitched roof like the shell of a nautilus, and the mysterious Cliff House (1768), a shuttered and white-washed evocation of Moonfleet and Jamaica Inn. (The only fly in the ointment is the Dove Marine Laboratory, a clumsy building of 1908, with an even clumsier 60s extension, that squats clammily on the sands ruining the view. With some imagination this could be a superb facility, but Newcastle University really need to pull their finger out here).
Cullercoats was an ‘artists’ colony’ for a while, the home of Winslow Homer amongst others; and whilst these painters did romanticize the hard and precarious lives of fishing villagers, they did commemorate the informal matriarchy that predominated in the North East while men were away at sea, working underground or in the pub.
Longsands and Cullercoats Bay have developed something of a Newquay vibe, with surf shops, bike hire places and slightly pretentious cafes – but, typically, no decent pub (apart from the Crescent CIU Club which isn’t bad). It’s worth descending the stairs to Brown’s Bay, north of the Marconi station, to read an extraordinary interpretation board, put up by the council to describe ‘Table Rocks’ tidal bathing pool:
“Formed in 1910 the Whitley and Monkseaton Bathing Club made good use of the pool. They had a winkle motif adorning their red and black swimming costumes. It is believed that later in the club’s history each member was given a gold-plated winkle shell and that the custom of ladies and gentlemen showing each their winkles came from this.”
The ying and yang of refinement and raffishness, primness and vulgarity recurs both within and between British seaside towns: think of neighbouring Lytham and Blackpool, Hove and Brighton, even Portstewart and Portrush. The dilapidation of downtown Whitley Bay is of a piece with this: its residential zones are rich and abundant – especially the Hampstead-like Marine Avenue and Queen’s Drive axis – but the area of boarding houses and happy-hour drinking joints off South Parade and the Esplanade is dismal, peeling and radiates the seamier side of kiss-me-quick seaside culture.
The stag and hen parties may be long gone – I can vividly recall, in the 1990s, seeing a naked man being cling-filmed to the promenade clock at 3 in the afternoon, and Whitley Bay Bank holidays were always a grisly bacchanal of fighting and fornication – but being at ‘the end of the line’, with no shortage of casual work and cheap accommodation, attracts a certain demographic, and this gives the town centre a palpable edginess, even during the day. By the time I first started coming to the place as a child in the 1980s the sea-front in particular was a forlorn stretch of artless municipal flowerbeds, indifferent hotels (including the Rex, where a young Shirley Williams worked as a waitress), and obese, wheezing seagulls. Yet it had been a serious resort – “the Blackpool of the North East” – whose attractions were primped and packaged by great commercial artists like Fred Taylor and Tom Purvis for LNER, each one a masterpiece.
The architecture of Whitley (the ‘Bay’ was added in 1903 to stop it being confused with Whitby) presents a mixed bag: the churches in the town centre are generally boring (although St Paul’s has an exquisite lych-gate), the Free Jacobean town hall was sadly demolished, and the miles of commercial premises from Park View to Whitley Road speak of the town’s prosperity (they were obviously built in large stretches, on spec, to meet local demand). What is most exciting are those buildings devoted to pleasure from the town’s Edwardian heyday, all, tellingly, in the neo-baroque style: the cheerful Station of 1910 with its swagged and garlanded clock tower and Paris Metro style canopy, the main destination for Tyneside day-trippers and vacationing Glaswegians; the ionically pilastered ‘Coliseum’ picture house (1919), and the Belvedere Building on the corner of Park Parade, a creamy brick confection whose elevations undulate like Boromini’s San Carlino.
This taste for voluptuous neo-baroque was partly an Edwardian reaction to the severity of Victorian Gothic, and, as Jonathan Meades has pointed out, ‘mammarian’ domes were neo-baroque’s signature tune. When the famous Spanish City was built in 1910 – following the success of a visiting Toreador act from Hebburn – only St Paul’s Cathedral had a larger unsupported dome in Britain, and its silhouette is as distinctive as the Qubbat al-Sakhrah in Jerusalem. It was influenced by and contemporaneous with the development of Atlantic City in New Jersey, and both places specialized in the architecture of pleasure, of lubricity in place of temperance, of sybaritic escapism. Tynesiders had much to escape from; that they chose a ‘Spanish’ building that exudes the Moorish sensuality of El Andalus, or the dazzlingly white Mediterranean sunlight of a Sorolla painting – decades before the final victory of Torremolinos over the British seaside – speaks to a yearning romanticism in the Northumbrian soul, and stays with you (just as “Rock away, rock away; Cullercoats and Whitley Bay” obviously stayed with Mark Knopfler). This is why the Spanish City’s igloo-dome is the town’s cynosure, its visual shorthand, and I’m delighted that it’s finally, finally, being restored.
Could there be wider signs of life? Better standards of restaurant are popping up, and the superb Di Meo’s is leading an ice-cream led regeneration programme of its own; South Parade has lost most of its sticky-carpet bars, including Pier 39 (a teenage haunt of mine, which, in what I can only read as a heavy-handed metaphor directed at me personally, is being turned into a care home); and Park View has sustained a pretty good range of interesting shops and cafes. Given that the local demographic is so similar to Gosforth, it’s weird that the place still doesn’t have a hipsterish real-ale pub on the lines of the Brandling Villa; someone could do well here.
From the Spanish City the 50s concrete promenade and close-clipped green baize of the links sweeps northwards towards St Mary’s Lighthouse, separating the coal-streaked Bay of Whitley from the somnolent Walmington-on-Sea streetscape of the town’s northern suburbs (look out for a fine example of Miami-style seaside moderne at the end of Links Road). The image of this Lighthouse has been massively over reproduced, but deservedly so as it’s a fine spectacle: a tapering white Tuscan column of 1898 (in design similar to Souter over the river, and its twin in Gibraltar) perching on a tidal island, and surrounded by a picturesque group of cottages, rockpools and the lapping waters of Tyne, Dogger and German Bight. On the northern horizon you can see the Cheviot Hills on the Scottish border, while to the South the sands of Whitley curve towards the Spanish City with the North Sea shimmering like the Bay of Naples. This is a place that arouses great affection.
The northern edge of the town is actually delineated by Whitley Bay Cemetery, a chilly granite necropolis that seems to declare in stone that the party’s over. The chapel there has a very fine Arts and Crafts interior of 1913, with angels rendered in icing-sugar plasterwork wielding motivational quotes from scripture: ‘The Lord Giveth – The Lord Taketh’, ‘Watch For Ye Know Not The Hour’. This is a fitting change of mood, and a good introduction to the next leg of our journey up the coast to the burned over country of pitmatic South East Northumberland, a terrain of ‘Ranter’ chapels, industrial tragedy and that brooding, unsettling hulk of English baroque virtuosity: Sir John Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval Hall.
*The Rockcliffe Arms is just about all right, but in the absence of any competition it gets too crammed at weekends.