After visiting Newcastle, and perhaps Segedunum, I reckon most people visiting the north side of the Tyne will probably want to head out to Tynemouth; but instead of getting the metro directly there, it’s worth considering taking it as far as North Shields and then walking along the riverside path to Tynemouth instead.
From North Shields railway station, it’s a fairly uninspiring, but easy, 10-minute walk down to the quayside, but I always think it’s best to get the worst bit over with first don’t you? From the front of the station turn right into Nile Street and then then left into Railway Terrace. At the end, turn right into Bedford Street and follow this road across Saville Street down to the bottom of the hill. You’re now down by the riverside and will need to turn left into Liddell Street and head towards the Fish Quay. You’ll know you’re going the right way if you come to the Prince of Wales Tavern with the ‘Wooden Dolly’ outside.
The current Wooden Dolly is the latest in a long line of replica figureheads that have replaced the original one that stood here at the entrance to the Customs House Quay in the 18th century. It belonged to the Alexander and Margaret, a collier brig that was attacked by a privateer off the North-East coast in 1781 and held to ransom. Why sailors thought that cutting pieces off of it would bring them good luck at sea after that ordeal I can’t quite fathom, but that’s what they did.
Not all the reincarnations have been faithful to the original, and at least one of them was even a carving of a ‘Fishwife’, which was an acknowledgement of the important role that women used to play in the fishing industry. The current one is a replica of the one that stood here in the late 19th century. I have a fascination for figureheads normally with their elaborate carving and interesting history, but quite honestly, if sailors wanted to take chunks out of this latest one, it might upset some people, but I’m not sure it would upset me too much.
Liddell Street leads into Bell Street which runs alongside the river to the Fish Quay. Up on the left is the Fish Quay High Light and at the far end of the quay is the Fish Quay Low Light, both of which have been here since the 16th century, although not in their present form.
Henry VIII gave permission for the first lights to be constructed, the ideal being that if ships navigating their way into the mouth of the Tyne kept the two lights in alignment, they would be able to avoid the dangerous Shields Bar and the Black Middens, a reef that hides under the water at high tide. “Time and tide wait for no man” as the saying goes, and as time marched on and the sandbanks changed position there was a need for the old lights to be replaced. In fact, there have been several changes, with the ones we see now constructed between 1807 and 1810. In the 1990s these were also decommissioned and sold off for accommodation. However, they are listed buildings and still used as day-markers.
The first time I came to North Shields it was so foggy that you could only just make out the High Light and the Low Light let alone the mouth of the Tyne, and I can’t think of a better reason to include that famous Geordie song, courtesy of Lindisfarne, right here and now.
Who remembers When the Boat Comes in starring James Bolam? It was a cracking TV series set in the fictional town of Gallowshields. The story was about life in the North-East of England between the two World Wars, but if I remember correctly it didn’t have a great deal to do with fishing, even though the catchy traditional folk song that started each programme suggested otherwise. ‘When the Boat comes in’ was sung by Alex Glasgow, and I always imagined that Gallowshields had to be somewhere near North Shields. Doing my research for this blog I had to find out whether any of the TV footage was shot in North Shields – and I was relieved to find out that it was. If you want a reminder about the song (and the very first programme) take a look at the YouTube video below
If you don’t remember When the Boat Comes in, then you might not remember Tyne Brand either, and if you do, you might prefer not to. Don’t get me wrong, there wasn’t a great deal of choice in those days, and it didn’t become the biggest canned meat company in the country for nothing, but let’s just say that if that was all the choice we had now, then I reckon I could be in the running for dieter of the year.
You’ve probably already guessed by now that the factory that fed so many hungry mouths when there wasn’t anything to throw away was located here at the end of Union Quay and the bottom of Brewhouse Bank.
The factory started up in the early 1900s using excess fish from the herring catches. It sounds hard to believe now, but according to the Chronicle Live, in those days around 6,000 tons were landed in a normal season at North Shields and by 1929 the company could process half a million herring a day.
During the First World War, the company was called upon to help feed the armed forces and that was when they started to manufacture canned meat and paste. It became staple fare for many families and was still going strong when Spillers bought the company in 1967. I’m not sure what the reasons were (and I think I’d probably rather not know), but by 1973 Spillers were making pet food instead. Three years later it closed down altogether.
Opposite where the old Tyne Brand factory used to stand is Clifford’s Fort. Originally built to help defend Tynemouth Castle, it became somewhat neglected, but in recent years things have started to change with the Old Low Light now becoming a Heritage Centre educating people about the history of the area. I have to confess that I didn’t pay it a visit when I was last here, and I would like to think that the reason was because I never realised it was an option at the time, and not because I was more interested in visiting the Staith House.
If you haven’t already guessed, the Staith House is a pub, and although it has a good reputation, I can’t actually find out anything about its history, which suggests that it hasn’t really had one. Even so, I was intrigued to see the jawbone of a Great Whale leaning up against an outside wall. There’s a plaque next to it that says it was caught in a fishing net 20 miles off the coast in 1998. All I can say is that it was just as whale (sorry!) there wasn’t a live creature on the end of it.
Walking around the outside of Clifford’s Fort brings us to Fish Quay Sands, where you’ll see a buoy with NCN 72 painted on it, which refers to ‘National Cycle Network 72’ in case you were wondering: This is also where the path starts that will take us alongside the river to Tynemouth.
The pathway is suitable for everyone, and if you ignore the incongruous 1930s block of flats up on the hill to your left, then the views are good too. There are views back to North Shields, across the river to South Shields, and straight ahead to the Mouth of the Tyne.
Close to the end of the path is the impressive Collingwood Monument, which is placed in such a position that it looks both down to the river and out to sea, and for very good reason.
Cuthbert Collingwood was born close to the river in Newcastle on 26th September 1748, and was only twelve when he first went to sea. Many people, especially up here in the North-East, feel that Collingwood was never given the recognition that he really deserved, and that was probably down to the fact that he lived in the shadow of Britain’s greatest naval war hero – Horatio Nelson.
Nelson was ten years younger than Collingwood, and so you would expect that the more experienced sailor would rise up the ranks quicker, but that wasn’t how it worked back then (or today either for that matter), because it would seem that Nelson had better connections. Their paths inevitably crossed and they became good friends, and it seems their naval rivalry never got in the way of their friendship because they both had the upmost respect for each other’s abilities.
Collingwood and Nelson’s illustrious careers finally came together at the Battle of Trafalgar, the naval battle that secured the Royal Navy’s dominance of the High Seas right up until the Second World War. The battle was fought off the south coast of Spain between Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish navy under the command of Pierre Villeneuve and the British fleet under Horatio Nelson.
The significance of the battle is hard to overestimate. If Villeneuve had been successful then there would have been nothing to prevent the French/Spanish fleet from gaining control of the English Channel and pave the way for Napoleon’s army to invade ‘Perfidious Albion’.
Nelson decided to engage the enemy with an unorthodox plan that involved two lines of battle instead of the usual one. In the first line was Nelson on his ship, Victory, and in the second line was Vice Admiral Collingwood on the Royal Sovereign.
The first shots of the battle were fired at the Royal Sovereign by the French ship Fougueux, and in return, Collingwood’s ship tore into the allied navy, and the Battle of Trafalgar had begun. As we now know, after five hours of intense fighting, Nelson won a resounding victory, but at the cost of his own life. He died half an hour before the end of the battle, knowing that the British fleet had virtually won, and it fell upon his Vice Admiral to take over as Commander of the Fleet.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Collingwood though because a storm put paid to him bringing home the prizes of war, but even so, he was rewarded for his part in Britain’s most famous naval victory and made a peer of the realm as the 1st Baron Collingwood. He never had any sons and so there was never a 2nd Baron, but he did have a wife and two daughters who he rarely saw because he lived most of his life at sea: Even after Trafalgar he continued to serve the Royal Navy, although he never became involved in any more serious conflicts.
When his health started to fail, he decided it was time to go home, but never quite made it: He died on board the Ville de Paris off Port Mahon (Menorca) on 7th March 1810. In ‘Servitude et grandeur militaires’ by Alfred de Vigny, the author says that Collingwood once wrote to his wife and told her that “he would rather his body added to sea defences rather than be given the pomp of a ceremonial burial”, but be that as it may, he was laid to rest in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral next to his friend and colleague, Sir Horatio Nelson.
Photography isn’t allowed in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and so the best I can come up with is a memorial to him in Newcastle’s St. Nicholas Cathedral – and of course a couple of photos of this monument at Tynemouth. For those interested in its construction, the statue was sculpted by John Graham Lough and the pedestal designed by John Dobson in 1845, and what I particularly like about it is that the four cannons on the walls flanking the steps come from Collingwood’s flagship, the Royal Sovereign.
Below the monument, if the tide’s right, you might be able to make out the reef known as the Black Middens that I was talking about earlier. They’ve claimed many victims over the years. and in 1864 five ships came to grief within a 3-day period taking many lives. A meeting was held and it was agreed that the coastguard could do with some help, and so the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade was formed. I wasn’t able to take a look at their museum, but I think it would be worth checking out. It’s located close to the monument and near to Prior’s Haven, which is home to the Tynemouth Rowing and Sailing Clubs.
We’re now right at the mouth of the River Tyne which is protected by two long piers on either side of the river. Tynemouth Pier is an 810-metre-long breakwater with a higher and lower level: At the end is a lighthouse which was (first) built in 1864, thirty-one years before the pier was completed – but both had to be replaced following storm damage in 1898. Needless to say, it’s popular with people who like to exercise their legs without getting their feet wet.
Overlooking the pier is Tynemouth Priory and Castle and the end of our journey from North Shields to Tynemouth. Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave out, what was once one of the largest fortified areas in England: On the contrary, I think it deserves a separate post of its own, but for now I hope you’ve enjoyed wandering along the river from North Shields with me. There are many places in the North-East that attract attention from tourists, but North Shields isn’t one of them, but I hope you now agree with me, that perhaps it should be.