WALKING / There's more than just fog on the Tyne: Susan Elkin discovers the faded glory of South Shields
Tuesday 24 May 1994
Mill Dam, where I parked and looked across to the north bank, is a splendid spot, with gulls watching for titbits wailing and wheeling overhead. A lone fisherman sat impassively under an umbrella below the jetty. Dredgers, cheerful pleasure craft, fishing boats and derelict hulks bobbed untidily on the choppy river.
There was once a large inlet which stretched away from the Tyne, but when the soldiers returned from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, they flooded the job market and high unemployment ensued. The inlet was filled in, and the reclaimed area came to be known as Mill Dam.
Today, the grandeur of two Victorian buildings serenely facing the water's edge tell the story of Mill Dam's growing commercial status in the 19th century. With my back to the river I gazed at the larger building, the old local marine board offices.
The recession has taken its toll on shipping, repairs and shipbuilding on the Tyne, and the marine board building was boarded up. There are, however, plans to convert it into an arts centre.
Reluctantly, I secured the hood of my anorak against the wet North Sea wind and walked away from Mill Dam towards the town centre. There are tiny pubs with nautical names, old chandlers' shops, disused chapels, tattooists, and barbers along the narrow streets: the traditional infrastructure of a port.
South Shields town centre has been modernised and its main street closed to through-traffic to enable the descendants of those 19th-century shipwrights and sailors to get to the shops in safety. I decided to take the more interesting Ocean Road, which leads back to the peace of the sea. Here are boarding houses and tea shops to suit every pocket, and also several Indian restaurants.
After sampling one of the extremely hot meat curries (which the locals wash down with pints of Scotch - a rich draft beer), I continued my waterlogged walk towards South Pier and the opposite side of the Tyne loop which encircles South Shields.
At the bottom of Ocean Road I picked up my trivia snippet for the day: William Wouldhave of South Shields invented the lifeboat. I spent a little while looking at a lifeboat which has been secured on a plinth as part of the town's detailed and grateful memorial to Wouldhave. In the adjacent South Marine Park, trees dripped on undaunted kissing couples and disconsolate ducks honked flatly at each other in their crust-hungry way.
Over the road a few determined fishermen on a concrete causeway oversaw limp fishing lines dipping into the North Sea. On the short sandy beach, otherwise deserted, an oil-skinned man with a metal detector unearthed a child's spade.
I continued my circular walk along Harbour Drive, River Drive and Ferry Street following the line of the Tyne meander. This was once the heart of the shipbuilding and repair industry, but it now no longer beats. There are dry docks, derelict and decaying, and old slipways, deserted huts, and bits of rusty machinery.
As you wander past, you have a clear view down to the water on your right from the vantage point of the road. A real lesson in industrial history, the shipping area was - at one time - enormous and provided work for thousands. By half-closing my eyes I could conjure up the activity of the place when it was alive. It is an evocative graveyard.
And so, past the shiny new orange Metro Ferry which links South Shields with North Shields across the Tyne, to Mill Dam and the dry interior of my car.
A walk round an ordinary town like South Shields shows that you don't have to go far from home, or to a recognised tourist attraction to find something interesting to look at and learn about.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 3 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens trailer: The most extreme fan reactions on Twitter
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
Madonna might be a stand-up comedy virgin - but she wasn't terrible
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a white stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Russian warships in English Channel 'to conduct anti-aircraft and anti-submarine military drills'