05 December 2011

A coastline that encapsulates the history of Northern England

Darkness envelops the coast at Cullercoats, from Whitley Bay to Tynemouth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I took a walk beneath the bridges of Newcastle and along the banks of the River Tyne yesterday afternoon, crossing the Gateshead Millenium Bridge linking Newcastle and Gateshead, to see the Baltic and the Sage.

But while much of Newcastle’s fortunes were built in the past on its port and its shipbuilding, I had a feeling of being inland, and in need of a walk on a beach. After lunch, two of us decided to take the Metro from Monument out to the coast.

Looking west from the Gateshead Millennium Bridge towards the Sage (left) and the bridges crossing the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

There were three options. One spur goes out through Gateshead and Heworth and then to Seaburn, the Stadium of Light, Saint Peter’s and Sunderland. A second spur goes out through Gateshead and Heworth and then through Jarrow and Bede to South Shields.

The names of the stations are reminders that the whole span of English history is contained within this part of the north-east – a history that stretches back through the Jarrow marchers 75 years ago, to the Venerable Bede (672-735), the “Father of English History,” who lived at the Anglo-Saxon Monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow.

We thought of taking the ferry from South Shields to North Shields. But this is a lengthy Metro journey, lasting 80 minutes, and so we took the third option for reaching the coast – the line that runs through Wallsend. With its Roman fort, baths and museum, this was once Roman Segedunum, was at the end – or the beginning – of Hadrian’s Wall, built in the early second century on the northern edge of the Roman Empire.

At North Shields, we were tempted once again to hop off and take the ferry across to South Shields. But we continued on north along the coast to Tynemouth, where the station was decked out for a crafts market. It was getting dark, and we wondered whether we would see the remains of the cliff-top priory and castle if we got off here. And so we continued on through Cullercoats to Whitley Bay.

Although Whitley Bay (36,544) has become a dormitory town for Newcastle in recent decades, it is still a substantial town in its own right. This stretch of the North Sea coast has a fine stretch of golden sandy beach forming a bay from Saint Mary’s Island in the north to Cullercoats in the south.

Whitley Bay is nine miles to the east of Newcastle, and took less than half an hour to get there on the Metro. The town was a popular holiday resort for people from north-east England and Scotland until the 1980s.

Whitley Bay’s history may not be as impressive as the stories of Wallsend and Jarrow. But this is still an area rich in history, dating back to 1100, when King Henry I granted it to the Priory of Tynemouth.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Whitley passed to John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, who became Duke of Northumberland and who was father-in-law of Lady Jane Grey, “Queen for a Day.” Later holders of the title included George Fitzroy, an illegitimate son of Charles II, and – as a Jacobite title – Philip Wharton, the rake duke who owned Rathfarnham Castle and married Marie-Therese Comerford. But the title, and with it Whitley, eventually passed to the Percy family, who claimed descent from the earlier Earls of Northumberland, so that the present Duke of Northumberland is also the Lord of the Manor and the principal landowner.

A new parish was formed when the old parish of Tynemouth was divided in 1860, and the Duke of Northumberland built Saint Paul’s Church, which was consecrated in 1864. The church is well known as the starting point of the annual Saint Nicholas Festival – tomorrow [6 December] is Saint Nicholas’s Day.

Coalmining began to decline in the area from the late 19th century on, but the economic impact was eased with the growth of Whitley as a seaside holiday resort, helped by the opening of the North Tyne Loop rail in 1882, connecting Newcastle and the villages along this coast. The line followed the route of the present Metro line, and new stations were opened in the centre of Whitley, and in Monkseaton to the north and Cullercoats to the south.

Until the 1890s, the town was known simply as Whitley. But it was often confused with Whitby in Yorkshire. This was confusing for postmen and undertakers, causing mail and coffins to go to the wrong place. After one funeral mishap too many, the residents changed the name of the town. Ever since then, the place has been known as Whitley Bay, and under this name the borough received a royal charter in 1954. In 1972, Whitley Bay became part of North Tyneside within Tyne and Wear.

As a seaside resort, Whitley Bay was once famous for its fairground, known as Spanish City, its ice rink, and boat trips to Saint Mary’s Island with its lighthouse.

Famous local residents have included, WE Johns, author of the Biggles books, the Newcastle United players Steven Taylor and Mike Williamson, and the Animals guitarist Hilton Valentine.

The Watch House on the coast at Cullercoats as night falls on the northern coast and the North Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

From Whitley Bay, we walked the short distance south to Cullercoats (population 9,407), with its semi-circular sandy beach with cliffs and caves. By now darkness had fallen, but we could see the coastline stretching before us as far south as Tynemouth.

In the past, Cullercoats was a separate village, dependent on fishing, local coalmining and the export of salt and coal. When the salt industry declined and coal shipments were moved to better harbours, fishing was left as the mainstay of the local economy, and two piers were built on either side of the harbour to provide shelter for the fishing vessels.

A lifeboat station was built here in response to one sea-going disaster in 1848 but a second disaster hit the place a year later. The Watch House was built above the harbour in 1879 for the Cullercoats Volunteer Life Brigade, but the lifeboat station was still in use until a new one opened eight years ago. Today, the harbour is also home to the Dove Marine Laboratory, a research and teaching laboratory that is part of Newcastle University.

Down on the small beach below the lifeboat station, the Watch House and the laboratory, the tide was out and the beach looked pretty, even in the dark. We spent some time walking in the dark along the soft sand, looking out at the lights of the boats off the coast and the ships in the North Sea.

Climbing back up the steps from the beach, we made our way to the Queen’s Head on Front Street for a quiet, refreshing drink and a game of pool. From there, we walked through Victorian terrace houses to Cullercoats Metro station.

On our way, we passed the site of the Huddleston Arms, later the Bay Hotel but demolished in 2005. In 1881 and 1882, Room 17 in the hotel was home to the American watercolour artist, Winslow Homer, who kept a studio across the road He was the best-known artist in the “Cullercoats Colony” of artists who lived in the town from 1870 to 1920. A new apartment block was built on the site in 2007, but the artist’s colony is remembered in its name – Winslow Court.

The Theatre Royal, in bright lights in Newcastle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Within half an hour, we were back in the centre of Newcastle, with Grey Street and Grainger Town fully decked out in Christmas lights. Many of the buildings in this part of Newcastle were designed by Richard Grainger and this part of Newcastle claims to have more listed buildings than any other British city, apart from London and Bath.

The Theatre Royal plays host to the Royal Shakespeare Company in winter and to Opera North. But if I was danger of being too high-brow as I looked up at its portico, I was brought back to earth when I realised that while this is the Season of Advent it is also the season of the Christmas pantomime.

Oh no it’s not!

Oh yes it is!


City Newcastle said...

Thanks for the depth of information and research you have put into my region of the north east. I'm from Gateshead and find your write-up factually interesting, with an religion theme.

It is a useful guide for visitors to the region; especially if the visitors are of a site-seeing or religous denomination.

Keep up the good work Patrick.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you seem to have enjoyed our region of the North East. Mt Grandparents were Peter and Mary Hannah Comerford and they lived in North Shields. Peter was a seaman orginally from Glasgow.