A former teacher and charity worker from the North East of England, I love people and places and like to try out new experiences wherever possible. Capturing that 'perfect pic' is all part of the pleasure. Access issues are a particular interest.
Published May 28th 2014
Plenty to Smile About, South of the Tyne
South Shields Sight Seeing
Facade at South Shields Town Hall - Image from South Tyneside Council and Community website
A visit to a fairly average, mid-sized provincial English town may not be at the top of everyone's list but my home town of South Shields at the mouth of the River Tyne in the North East of England, has many visitors who come back year after year.
Perhaps it's the ancient site of a Roman Fort that draws them in? Or the beautiful parks along the seafront and European Blue Flag beaches? For some it's the end point for the Great North Run or maybe it's the seabird sanctuary and beaches of Marsden Bay? For others it's the market days that take place every week in the town's Market Square.
It could be the annual Summer Festival, once called 'The Catherine Cookson Festival' – named after the world renowned author who was born in the town – or maybe just the friendliness of the people with their distinctive 'Geordie' accents, the place certainly has a charm of it's own.
Arbeia Roman Fort
The reconstructed West gate at Arbeia Roman Fort. Image by Chris McKenna ((Thryduulf)) from Wikimedia Commons
With a history dating back to Roman times, if not earlier, South Shields seems an unlikely place to study this era of British heritage, however, the Roman ruins of Arbeia exist in in an elevated area of the town known as the Lawe Top, which was once an island in the River Tyne that provided an excellent vantage point over the mouth of the river that could be easily defended.
Built around 120 CE/AD, the site was first excavated in the late 19th century, and further and ongoing work, which began in the 1970s, has produced the visitor attraction we see today.
The impressive rebuilding of the West Gate a few decades ago gives an insight into the scale of the site that was once a storage depot supplying outposts along Hadrian's Wall, which cuts across Britain from Cumbria in the west to Tyneside in the east – ending at the aptly named town of Wallsend; situated slightly upstream across the river from South Shields on the north bank of the River Tyne.
The fort is known by its Latin name 'Arbeia' as many of its soldiers were posted from warmer climes, such as Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and Asturia (Spain), to what was once the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire and the name is thought to reflect a Roman term for troops from Arabia.
Arbeia is essentially an archaeological site with many enthusiasts visiting the fort on a regular basis including re-enactment societies which occasionally give displays of Roman activities and battles.
The site has benefited from investment in recent years as part of the Commanding Officer's quarters have been reconstructed using original foundations and designs such as murals as seen at well-known Roman sites such as Pompeii near Naples in Italy.
Standing in Ocean Road, in the centre of town is the rather grand South Shields Museum and Art Gallery, which houses a permanent display related to the life of world renowned author Catherine Cookson, who was born in the town. It's through her writing that a picture of North East life over the last 150 years or so has really put the town on the map, with many of her works adapted for television drama, stage and film.
A statue in honour of Kirkpatrick, who was a stretcher bearer during the First World War at Gallipoli in 1915 and who used a stray donkey to ferry the wounded to safety, has been erected in Ocean Road and a public house bearing his name is just across the pedestrianised street from the museum.
The 19th century museum building, once the town's central library, also has frequent visiting displays from around the UK and beyond and is now part of a hub of museums and galleries (which includes Arbeia) operated by Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, most of which are free to enter.
Statue of John Simpson Kirkpatrick - The Man with the Donkey
Have you ever heard of 'Taking coals to Newcastle'? Well this saying derives from the abundance of coal which was transported from the coalfields of Durham and Northumberland (Newcastle upon Tyne being the largest city in the area), particularly from the 19th century onwards, to destinations all over the world. The idiom meant that anything which could be seen as a pointless task would be like 'taking coals to Newcastle' due to the vast amount of trade in this commodity going out into the world. It was the vibrancy of this trade and manufacturing industries that made Tyneside rich, and in South Shields this was reflected in the grand early 20th century Town Hall, with is impressive façade and Westminster chiming clock tower - all signifying a town that was doing very well out of its position as a rapidly growing, bustling port town in a world where trade was booming.
The town of South Shields is centuries old but it became the principal town in the newly created municipal borough of South Tyneside in 1974, with the neighbouring towns of Jarrow and Hebburn and surrounding villages of Cleadon, Boldon and Whitburn now forming a cluster of localities governed by one local authority,
South Shields Town Hall celebrated its centenary in 2010 with the repositioning of a statue of Queen Victoria, the Queen Empress to the front of the building. Queen Victoria, who is the great-grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II, ruled from 1837 – 1901, and the statue was a feature of the building from 1913 until it was removed in the 1940s.
And the majesty continues inside. A venture up the imposing steps to the front entrance reveals an interior that equals the impressive external edifice, with highly polished black and white tiled marble floors and sumptious grand staircases, making this prestigious venue a popular choice for local weddings and civil ceremonies.
For general information call 0191 427 7000
Market Place and Old Town Hall
Old Town Hall and Market Place
Meanwhile, down in the Market Place, about half a mile away, a former Town Hall dating back to the 1768 still presides over the town's everyday life. Markets are held every Monday and Saturday, with many visitors hopping over from North Shields on the local ferry that runs every half-hour throughout the day. The town centre is earmarked for redevelopment in the coming years so the location of the market and its trading days may change during the development phase of the current market area around the Old Town Hall, which is a listed building.
Never a pretty building in my view, but this 18th century former manorial court and administrative centre survived the town centre bombings of World War II, as did the lovely old Anglican church of St Hilda a short distance away.
St. Hilda's stands in its own little park, (which was once consecrated for local burials) and overlooks the River Tyne as it meanders towards the North Sea. There have been religious buildings on this site since Saxon times and it is still the centre of traditional Christian worship in this area of the town. The church has beautiful stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible and a commemorative window to the county regiment, the Durham Light Infantry (DLI). There is also a visitor centre and coffee bar which is operated by volunteers and is open to the public a few times a week.
Head a little further down towards the riverside to see how the town's seafaring heritage is reflected in a statue commemorating the contribution of the merchant navy community in the Second World War with a simple statue of a seafarer at the wheel positioned outside the Customs House theatre at the Mill Dam, right on the banks of the Tyne. A new riverside park with landscaped gardens and walkways replaces old coal staiths and is a pleasant place to sit and watch the world go by as you look across the river towards the north bank.
Although the vast amount of trade that once flowed in and out of the Tyne has depleted in the last few decades, there's still plenty going on to the observant eye.