WALKING / There's more than just fog on the Tyne: Susan Elkin discovers the faded glory of South Shields

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The Independent Culture
THE rain fell greyly and steadily, as it so often does in the North East. I manoeuvred the car cautiously through the deepening puddles of the narrow back streets of South Shields, heading for the river. And suddenly there it was: the romance and faded glory of the Tyne.

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.

(Photograph omitted)