HISTORY, CULTURE & A PLATE OF FISH & CHIPS

 

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espite a seemingly insatiable nationwide appetite for a plate of fish & chips, the heyday of the North Shields fishing industry is now firmly rooted in the past. Whilst the small harbour is no longer squeezed to bursting with a colourful array of fishing boats, the essence of the Fish Quay remains. The continued presence of the Fishermen`s Mission, on Union Quay, is a powerful reminder that this is still very much a working environment.

 

This is an area steeped in history, where a 1980/90`s programme of regeneration helped to preserve many important and decaying buildings. Environmental works were carried out and a number of public works of art were installed. Slowly new businesses were attracted to the quayside area as riverside housing increased. The Fish Quay is now a Conservation Area and the process of regeneration slowly continues. There are cafes, pubs, fish and chip restaurants, fish merchants, historical buildings, public works of art and riverside apartments. Work and leisure sit comfortably side by side.

 

 

North Shields Fish Quay and the `new` Low Light

 

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efore you start this interesting 2 mile walk from the car park adjoining the Fish Quay sands, take a moment to admire the magnificent view towards the piers on both sides of the River Tyne. On the north side look out for the monumental statue of Newcastle-born Admiral Lord Collingwood, Nelson`s second in command at the Battle of Trafalgar.

 

Now with your back to the piers, head towards the end of the promenade and follow the signs directing cyclists along Cycle Routes 1, 10 & 72, passing the renovated smoke houses on your left. Once past these units and outside the New Dolphin public house you will see the intriguing artwork, the `Dolphin Mooring Post`, created by Freeform Artists in 1993. Based on mooring staithes, traditionally used on the River Tyne, the work includes a cormorant sitting on top drying its wings. The cormorant, known affectionately as `Colin`, was sculpted by Richard Broderick and was added some time after the main structure was installed.

 

Head left into Union Quay and, within less than 100 metres, turn left again towards the gable end of the prominent three-storey building. Built between 1727 and 1733, this building was the original Low Light and acted as a navigational aid to shipping entering the River Tyne. It was converted to Almshouses in 1808. By the late 1980`s this important building had fallen into a dangerous state of disrepair but was saved from terminal decay by the joint efforts of the Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust and North Tyneside Council.

 

On your right, on a wall in front of the building, a blue plaque notes the existence, in this part of the Fish Quay, of Clifford`s Fort. Completed in 1672 to defend the River Tyne during the 3rd Dutch War, the Fort was commanded by the Governor of Tynemouth Castle until 1839.It acted as the headquarters of the Tyne Division of the Royal Engineers (Volunteers) from 1889 until 1928, when the Engineers moved to the new Clifford`s Fort Drill Hall, in Tynemouth.

 

Retrace your steps back to Union Quay and, turning left, continue towards the harbour and the covered fish market. At this point take time to peep into the harbour and market area and also to look up to your left to see the white painted façade of the `new` Low Light building. When aligned with the `new` High Light, to your right high on the top of the adjacent bank, this marked an entirely new channel for shipping to take when navigating the mouth of the river.

 

 

Dolphin Mooring Post & Colin the cormorant

 

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s you continue along Union Quay and then in turn Bell Street, keep a sharp eye out for the various decorative public artworks along this part of the river frontage. These include seating, bollards and street lights, all designed by Freeform Artists, along with metal grilles in sections of the market area retaining wall. These grilles depict herring girls at work and were created by artist Maureen Black. This is the heart of the Fish Quay, where North Shields born playwright Tom Hadaway came to work as a 14 year old in 1937. He continued to work in the fishing industry, using his experiences to write an impressive portfolio of plays including, The Filleting Machine, God Bless Thee Jackie Maddison, The Long Line and The Pigeon Man. He was also a contributor to the hugely popular TV series, When The Boat Comes In. Sadly, he died in 2005.

 

With the river still close by, Bell Street leads into Liddell Street and in little more than 200 metres you will be confronted by a big buxom female figure standing proudly outside the Prince of Wales Tavern. Brightly painted in a red dress with a pink face and black hair, this armless `Wooden Dolly` was carved out of oak by Martyn and Jane Grubb and stands on the spot  where a `Wooden Dolly` has traditionally stood since the early 1800`s when a figurehead from the collier brig `Alexander and Margaret` was placed here. This latest, and fourth, version was installed in 1992 when the public house, which had been closed for 25 years, reopened.

 

 

`Wooden Dolly` next to the

Prince of Wales Tavern

 

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s you continue along Liddell Street, it is hard to believe that the embankments to your right were once heavily built up and housed until the early 1930`s the majority of the population of North Shields. The new and rather grand Union Square development has now repopulated part of the area, breathing new life into this old section of the town. Where Liddell Street merges into Clive Street, turn right and start the climb up the steep incline of Bedford Street. This street follows the course of an old stream and the bottom section was once known as Wooden Bridge Bank. As the street continues to rise towards the town centre turn right into Union Street and continue up past the Magnesia Bank public house. The present name of this former commercial Bank commemorates one of the many narrow stairways which previously connected the bank top with the riverside.

 

At the top of Union Street turn right into Howard Street and head towards the small square in front of the beautiful Maritime Chambers. From the railings at the far edge of the square there are superb views over the River Tyne. Now home to the local Registry Office, Maritime Chambers was completed in 1807and originally housed the Tynemouth Literary and Philosophical Society`s library before becoming the headquarters of the family run Stag Line shipping company. The company`s stag emblem adorns the river facing gable wall of the building and, when erected, replaced the town`s official clock. Within the square itself there is a fine memorial to all those lost at sea, made from an old ship`s anchor, which was unveiled in 1999.

 

With Maritime Chambers behind you keep to the pavement which hugs the bank top along Tyne Street. In a short while, to your left, is Linskill Street where writer Robert Westall`s grandfather once lived, although the original properties have long since been demolished. Born in North Shields in 1929, Robert Westall found fame as the author of books such as The Machine Gunners, Fathom Five, The Promise, Kingdom by the Sea and Falling into Glory. References to many of the places visited in this short walk are to be found in these books, books which offer the reader a `fictional` glimpse of North Shields as it was more than half a century ago.

 

Soon you will reach the modern buildings of Dockwray Square built around a formal park area in the centre of which sits Robert Olley`s wonderful life size sculpture of Stan Laurel, another one of North Shields` famous sons. Born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston in 1890, Stan moved to North Shields in 1897 when his father came to manage the Theatre Royal in Prudhoe Street. He continued to live in 8 Dockwray Square until 1901 when he moved to Bishop Auckland. The original house has long since disappeared but a blue plaque marking the spot is affixed between the current  numbers 6 and 7 Dockwray Square.

 

 

A `quizzical` Stan Laurel

 

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he sculpture itself is worthy of closer examination. Built on a stone pedestal, the comedian`s features and the bagginess of his clothes have been exaggerated by Robert Olley. A small relief on the front of the pedestal shows the heads of both Laurel and Hardy, whose films remain as entertaining today as they did when they were first made in the 1920/30`s. The original Dockwray Square dates back to 1763 when it was laid out by Thomas Dockwray, vicar of Stamfordham. Whilst none of the original buildings remain, the rebuilt square reflects some of the style of the original houses.

 

In front of the square, clinging to the top of the bankside, is the 1807-built `new` High Light. At this point take a minor diversion down the first short flight of steps in order to see up close the Nater`s Bank Seascape. Set into a steep slope this substantial work is dominated by two large cod frolicking among highly coloured fish and other creatures. Designed by Maggie Howarth and sculpted by Richard Broderick and Graham Robinson, all of Freeform Artists, the work also contains smaller mosaic fish made by local school children.

 

Back in Tyne Street and 50 metres further along, at the beginning of the elegant Trinity Buildings, is the `old` High Light. Constructed in 1727 by Trinity House of Newcastle, this light succeeded several other similar lights which had been maintained in North Shields since as long ago as 1536. Both lights are now used as houses. Continue alongside Trinity Buildings until you reach the Wooden Doll public house where you will see the head and shoulders `Wooden Dolly` which has sat outside the pub since the 1980`s. It is a younger version of the 1958-installed` Wooden Dolly` which stands in the town`s Georgian-built Northumberland Square.

 

 

The `new` High Light

 

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efore descending the stairs adjacent to the public house take note of the detail on the hand railings alongside the stairs. As with the seating, bollards and street lights seen earlier in the walk, this detail reflects the town`s inseparable links with the fishing industry.  Once at the bottom of Union Quay Stairs, turn left and you will see, once again, the New Dolphin public house and your route back to the car park via the fish processing units passed at the beginning of the walk. However, before returning to the magnificent view of the mouth of the River Tyne, perhaps the smell of sizzling batter will tempt you to step into one of the nearby restaurants for a plate of genuine North Shields fish & chips.

 

Written: Geoff Holland 2005

Photographs: Geoff Holland 2005  

 

This article first appeared in the December 2005/January 2006 issue of The Northumbrian Magazine. Why not visit www.thenorthumbrian.co.uk by clicking here.

 

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