White sands and cliffs north and south of historic Tynemouth
Coal has been a major influence on the coast north of the Tyne. Harbours were built for coal shipping at Amble and Blyth, and an early coal harbour of 1660 can be seen at Seaton Sluice. Between the ports the coast remains largely unspoiled, with lovely stretches of white sands and dunes that are often deserted. The people of Tyneside can travel to the seaside by Metro, and to the south, at Marsden Bay, there is a lift down the cliffs to the beach.
At one time the harbour at Amble was bustling with ships loading coal from local mines. As many as 80 mine shafts were in operation in the mile between Amble and Hauxley, but they are all closed now, and Amble is adjusting to a quieter routine as a fishing and manufacturing town. There is a coble boat-builder’s yard beside the River Coquet, and sailing boats moor in the estuary. The shore is sand, shingle and rock. Although the Coquet estuary is known as Warkworth Harbour, Warkworth itself is 1 mile away, its castle prominent on the skyline. Coquet Island, 1 mile off Amble, has only a lighthouse, but it once had a monk’s cell which was the refuge of the 12th-century ascetic, Henry the Hermit. He is said to have been directed in a vision to become a hermit, thus escaping a marriage that his parents were trying to impose upon him.
There is enough sand on Druridge Bay to satisfy the most imperial, of sandcastle builders – 5 miles of it, backed by extensive dunes. The road, running along the dunes near Cresswell, makes the southern end of the bay easily accessible. It may be crowded in the summer, but those requiring a mile or two of sand to themselves only have to walk north from the National Trust car park at Druridge, where kestrels hover above the dunes and flocks of lapwings gather. Inland to the north of the bay scars of open-cast mines have been filled in, and there are now fields on land that recently yielded coal.
The skyline of chimneys, pylons and mining machinery and the constant thumping and whirring of industry keep visitors away from the Lynemouth shoreline. The beach is black with coal dust washed by the sea from the waste tips along the shore. The workings of the Lynemouth and Ellington collieries go several miles under the sea, and many people still collect waste coal from the beach. Just south of Lynemouth, a hamlet called Woodhorn is a small oasis in the industrial desert. There is a windmill, and St Mary’s Church has been converted into a museum, with Saxon and medieval tombstones.
Where the church stands on the headland at the north of Newbiggin Bay there is a macabre stretch of coast where the sea has cut into the graveyard, and fragments of human bones are powdered into a rough white sand among the rocks. Near by, a breakwater of large boulders protects the sandy bay, which is safe for swimming. In the Middle Ages Newbiggin was a large grain port, but it is a haven now only for a few leisure boats and a fleet of fishing cobles which are launched off the sands. ‘BLOOD’ ON THE CL1FFTOP
In summer, large clusters of bloody crane’s-bill splash limestone cliffs and lime-rich dunes with patches of purplish-crimson, pink or, more rarely, white flowers. In autumn the rounded, deeply divided leaves turn a deep shade of blood-red; this and the beak-like fruits explain the plant’s name.
Ashington, 2 miles inland on the River Wansbeck, is a mining town. Its Riverside Park is an imaginative leisure development that includes a 2 mile walk along the river banks to the sea. North of the town a colliery spoil heap has been transformed into a public country park, with a 40 acre lake used for sailing and windsurfing.
A beach of sand and shingle, speckled with coal dust, extends from North Blyth 2 miles north to the estuary of the River Wansbeck. Rocks shelter the northern pier of Blyth’s harbour, which extends the line of the coast for almost another mile before allowing the River Blyth to meet the sea. The largely modern town of Blyth is 100 yds away across the harbour, but 5 miles by road.
Blyth’s main harbour is busy with ships loading coal and unloading timber. In the South Harbour are fishing and sailing boats, cruisers, and the headquarters of the Royal Northumberland Yacht Club, housed in a redundant wooden lightship. South of the harbour a sandy beach, safe for swimming, stretches 2 miles to Seaton Sluice, where rocks begin again. Volunteer lifeguards patrol Blyth beach in summer.
The large dressed stones that line the tiny harbour at the mouth of the river recall Seaton’s industrial past. A narrow canal, now silted up, cuts through the rock to make a second way to the sea. The stones have been in place since 1660, when Sir Ralph Delaval had the harbour built for the export of coal and salt. Even then the silting up of the harbour caused problems, and a novel solution was found in a sluice gate, which gave the village its name but no longer exists. At low tide the river water was held back by the sluice gate. Horse-drawn ploughs were used to disturb the silt-bed of the harbour. Then the water was released from the sluice to wash the silt away.
The imposing dark stone mansion of Seaton Delaval Hall, 1 mile inland, was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in 1718-19. The house, open by appointment only, was built for the Delaval family, one of whom ensured his election to Parliament by firing golden guineas into the crowd from a cannon. Volunteer lifeguards operate at Seaton Sluice beach in summer.
The sleek trains of the Tyneside Metro from Newcastle put passengers down within a few yards of the sea at the resort of Whitley Bay and neighbouring Cullercoats and Tynemouth. Hotels and guest houses line the seafront, and pleasant flower gardens decorate the grassy slopes between the road and the beach. Whitley Sands are safe for bathing, but visitors tempted to potter around the rocks at the southern end of the beach should take care not to get cut off by the tide.
The north end of the beach is also rocky, and at low tide it is possible to walk across a causeway to St Mary’s Island, where there is a pretty group of houses and a lighthouse. Volunteer lifeguards operate on the beach at summer weekends.
Cullercoats was a fishing village that has become absorbed into the sprawling resort, but the stone walls of the little harbour survive, and shelter a sandy bay.
From the crescent of tall white-fronted houses and hotels set back from the road along the seafront, the eye is drawn to the mellow stone walls of the ruined Tynemouth Priory on a headland above the river mouth. Built as a Norman church in 1090, on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery, the priory was much altered in later centuries, particularly when the site was fortified and a Gate Tower built at the time of Richard II. Curiously eroded gravestones are gathered round the ruins, and from the clifftop lawns of the priory there are fine views down to the busy shipping in the Tyne.
Just below the priory is the little bay of Prior’s Haven where sailing boats are drawn up on the sand and shingle, sheltered by Tynemouth’s North Pier. On the hill above Prior’s Haven is the timber watch house of the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, set up in 1864. The watch house contains a little museum with evocative mementoes of wrecks and rescues off the coast near by. Beyond the watch house a statue of Admiral Collingwood, Nelson’s contemporary, stands aloof on his column facing the river. North of the priory is a little bay of sand girdled with rocks, beyond that Tynemouth’s principal beach, Long Sands, stretches to Cullercoats.
The centre of Tynemouth, behind the seafront, has some fine 18th-century houses.
Houses and pigeon lofts hang precariously on the hill that slopes sharply down from North Shields to the Tyne waterfront. Small fishing trawlers line the quayside, and they are serviced by a row of ships chandlers and provision merchants across the road.
The best time to see North Shields is in the early morning, when there is a fish market and the place bustles with buyers perching on fish boxes as the auctioneers move between them.
MARSDEN ROCK Offshore from the crumbling limestone cliffs facing Marsden Bay, the buffeting winds and pounding seas have sculpted a huge triumphal arch, 139 ft high and 230 ft long.
Beside the dank inlet of the Tyne, overlooked by oil storage tanks and dwarfed by pylons, stands a blackened and modest-looking church with the shattered walls of a monastery beside it. St Paul’s Church was one of the cradles of English literature and history, for it was there that the Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a few years after the monastery was dedicated in AD 685. The dedication stone can still be seen, mounted in the stonework of the chancel arch. The Bede Monastery Museum at Jarrow Hall, across the green from the church, contains further relics of the Anglo-Saxon period.
The Romans built their fort of Arbeia on a hill commanding the southern bank of the Tyne, where South Shields now stands. Arbeia was a storage depot for grain for the Roman army in the north, and the foundations of several granaries can still be seen, together with a museum displaying objects of Roman army life.
From the hilltop a wooded park slopes down towards the south pier, which projects almost a mile into the sea. It is a pleasant walk to the end of the pier, but not one to be undertaken in stormy weather. The sandy beach north of the pier is safe for swimming, but bathing in Tyne water, albeit diluted by the sea, is not to everybody’s taste. South of the pier a long sandy beach faces the open sea, and volunteer lifeguards patrol in summer. Currents make swimming dangerous at the northern end.
A grassy border lines the crumbling limestone cliffs south of South Shields. It is dangerous to go near the edge of these cliffs, which continue around the sandy are of Marsden Bay. The bay is dominated by the spectacularly eroded arch of Marsden Rock, surmounted by a roost of sea-birds that breed on it. From the car park, a steep flight of steps leads to the beach. There is also a lift, taking visitors to a pub called the Grotto built into caves at the foot of the cliffs. The Grotto was built in 1782 by a miner who lived in the caves with his family.