North Shields is the town where I started my first job 30 years ago… it seems like the Stone Age when I look back.
Back then, much of North Shields’ waterfront was derelict or rotting away and the town was looking grim. Since then, there has been a huge transformation. The definition of a tourist in North Shields is no longer someone lost on their way to picturesque Tynemouth.
Today the crowds are drawn to the town’s fish and chip restaurants, its historic quayside and the statue which celebrates Hollywood legend, Stan Laurel, who once lived here.
Join me and take the new North Shields heritage trail to discover how a new generation is celebrating North Shields’ history…
1. Northumberland Square – The Georgian Town
North Shields’ history dates back to the early 1200s when a collection of fishermen’s huts called ‘shielings’ or ‘ shields’ were built on its Fish Quay.
As the North Shields grew, it expanded away from the river up the hill to the new town centre where elegant Georgian town houses were built. Start the history trail in Northumberland Square and you’ll see many of these fine buildings which pre-date Newcastle’s Grainger Town by a quarter of a century.
My favourite area of the town is Northumberland Square, a small park dominated by a ‘wooden dolly’ of a woman carrying a herring basket. These ‘dollies’ have been popular in North Shields for 200 years and were thought to bring luck to sailors. This dolly is a modern version, unveiled in 1958.
Take the short walk over the road to St Columba’s Church. This unusual building was designed by the famous architect John Dobson in 1850.
It was designed in the style of Renaissance Classicism which might explain why it looks more like it’s been transplanted from Italy or Bath.
Next stop is Albion Road, north of Northumberland Square, where you’ll discover Christ Church which dates from the 17th Century. Its unusual sundial records the consecration of the church in 1668.
It was the first church built in North Shields, designed to serve residents of the growing town and replaced the ruined parish church at Tynemouth Castle.
I was drawn to the intriguing graveyard stones including a memorial dating back to 1690 celebrating one of the church’s founders.
The impressive tomb and grave holds the bones of Edward Hodgson who was a cordwainer or shoe maker.
2. Walking Back in Time – Linskill Terrace
Next stop is down the road from the church. Walk for about 200 metres towards Tynemouth and then take a left turn down Linskill Terrace.
This attractive conservation area has strong war-time connections.
There’s a blue heritage plaque on number 81 marking the loss of 1,850 local men who gave their lives during World War One.
North Shields was the target for several bombing raids from the air during the Second World War.
Take a detour down Tynemouth Road and turn right down King Street and walk as far as George Street. This was the site of Wilkinson’s Lemonade Factory where 107 people were killed by a bomb attack in May 1941.
On the corner of Linskill Terrace there’s a great vintage shop where you can explore a fascinating collection of signs, ancient film cameras and bric a brac.
Head back to Linskill Terrace, turn down to Northumberland Park which dates back to the late 1800s and was a pleasure ground for the Victorians.
3. Northumberland Park
Walk through Northumberland Park to discover its original features including the bandstand, lake and winding walkways through a canopy of trees. There are 65 different types of tree including ash, beech, sweet chestnut and sycamore.
Strolling through the park on a quiet day, you might spot foxes and rabbits. At weekends, it’s a hive of activity and a great place for young families to play with their kids. The cycle trace with its up and down ramps looks great.
Leaving the park gates, take a look at the Tynemouth Lodge (on your left), one of the oldest public houses in North Shields, dating from 1799.
Next door to the Lodge was the old Correction House, built in 1789, which acted as a prison for offenders including prostitutes. It must’ve been a rough and tough place.
In the 18th Century, dinners for the prisoners were prepared in the cellars of the Lodge and carried down via an underground tunnel. During the 20th Century the building was used as a laundry.
Circuit Judges used to stay at the Tynemouth Lodge whilst engaged in their duties in the Justices Room. Today it’s a good stopping off point, if you fancy trying the local craft ales.
4. Down to the Quayside
After enjoying a quick tipple in the Tynemouth Lodge, cross the busy main road and head down Tanners’ Bank to North Shields Fish Quay.
As you walk though the old industrial landscape punctuated by scruffy woodland, you’ll spot a few remnants of the area’s former industries including an old kipper smoke house (see photo above).
Once at the bottom of the bank, you’re on the main quayside ready to discover North Shield’s fishing industry and waterfront heritage.
5. On the beach
Before embarking on the next section of the walking tour, I’d recommend popping down to the small, sandy beach for a quick paddle and ice cream, if it’s a warm day.
If not, take a brisk walk along the sea front where you’ll find a series of sculptures including a series of three giant-sized buoys which mark the National Cycle route along the coast.
From here you can see across the mouth of the Tyne including the ‘Black Middens’ which were notorious as a ships’ graveyard.
The most famous ship wreck happened in 1864 when the steamship Stanley was forced onto the rocks in a storm. The lifeboat was launched but was unable to save the ship and its crew due to high seas.
Thirty two people from the ships lost their lives that day as well as two of the lifeboat crew… one of the worst tragedies on the River Tyne in history.
Further along the sea front, you’ll see the larger than life figure of a North Shields fish man called James Noble.
The impressive bronze sculpture is over 10 feet tall and looks a bit like a maritime Angel of the North. It was created by sculptor Ray Lonsdale to honour fishermen killed working at sea.
There’s a moving inscription on the statue which reads: “To the fishermen lost in the cold North Sea, and the ones who will be so, I’ll be seeing you all on Fiddler’s Green, be steady as you go. For Fiddler’s Green is a place I’ve heard tell, though no one really knows, where the fishermen go if they don’t go to hell, and no Arctic wind will blow.”
In 19th Century folklore, ‘Fiddler’s Green’ was the name for the ‘afterlife’ or ‘sailor heaven’, a place where there was never-ending merriment. The sculpture is a beautiful tribute to the fishermen who lost their lives.
Take a brief detour to nearby Clifford’s Tower, the site of a defensive fort built in 1672 to protect the quay from marauding Dutch invaders. There’s not much to see but it’s a glimpse back to North Shields’ early history.
Next door, pop into the Old Low Light Heritage Centre with its small museum and exhibition as well as a cafe which is an ideal pit stop on a cold day.
The Old Low Light is the oldest surviving, occupied building on North Shields Fish Quay and began life as a lighthouse.
At the front of the Low Light building you’ll see evidence of the area’s historic defensive role – a row of cannons pointing out to sea.
It’s no surprise to learn that Clifford’s Tower and its cannons interfered with the original lighthouse, and the force of the guns sometimes damaged its fragile lantern. This was one of the reasons for the lighthouse’s closure!
By 1805 the Old Low Light had become redundant and the distinctive towers of the New Low and High Lights were constructed around 1810 to replace it.
Don’t miss a trip to the Low Light viewing platform which offers spectacular views over Fish Quay and the mouth of the Tyne, whatever the weather.
There’s an awesome panoramic view!
6. The Fish Quay – Fish and Ships
Walking further along the waterfront, you’ll find yourself in the heart of the historic Fish Quay which is always busy with small boats.
This is my favourite area of North Shields with its bustling quay front and ships bringing in fish which you can buy from local traders and stalls.
Sadly, it’s nothing like as busy as the fishing port would’ve been in its hey day when dozens of boats used to fish out of North Shields. It was once the biggest herring producer in Britain but declining fish stocks have put paid to that.
The Fish Quay was also where local boats unloaded crabs and salmon. A ragtag assortment of industries were once based down on the quay including box making, fishing net repairs, engine works, a ship yard and guano works.
It was once hugely busy with buzzing activity around the Customs House, Shipping Office and Sailors’ Home. There were chandlers, grocers, fruit shops and butchers lining the quayside.
The infamous Northumberland Arms pub, known as ‘The Jungle’ because of the animal heads on its walls, was a hot bed of drinking and debauchery. I’d scuttle past to avoid the fights and brawls on my way to the North Shields ferry landing when I worked in the town.
This den of iniquity closed in 1989 and has since been converted into smart apartments.
Look out for ‘The Gut’ which was constructed at the mouth of the Pow Burn to provide fishing vessels with facilities to unload catches and take on supplies.
Further along the Fish Quay, you can’t miss the Wooden Dolly outside of the Prince of Wales pub.
The original ship’s figurehead was erected by shipowner Alexander Bartleman in 1814. It was customary for sailors to cut off small chunks to bring them luck but this ritual eventually destroyed the dolly.
In 1850, the Dolly was attacked by a group of drunken vandals who broke her neck and ripped her body from the ground. She was replaced by a number of new Dollies, each of which suffered a similar fate.
In 1992, the most recent Dolly was placed on the Fish Quay at the same site as her forebears, once again watching over the Tyne.
Also look out for the derelict Tyne Brand building which was originally an ice factory and later became a fish canning plant. It’s one of the few industrial buildings left on the quay.
Double-back on yourself and walk back along the Fish Quay as far as William Wight’s old-fashioned grocery store which sadly closed recently. Grab a cuppa at one of the nearby cafes before moving on to the Union Stairs for the final part of your journey through the old town.
Tourism is now booming down on the Fish Quay and it has become a popular destination for drinking, eating and shopping. One of my favourite haunts is the Waterfront restaurant which cooks a mean fish and chip supper. I’m licking my lips just thinking about it.
After over-indulging on the ‘catch of the day’, I still can’t stop myself from popping into one of the fish shops on quayside to stock up on crab, smoked cod and other seafood treats.
You can smell the fish as you walk past the market traders shops in the sheds along the quay front.
7. Union Quay Stairs
Our next stop takes us up to the top of the quayside for some spectacular views across the River Tyne. Take the Union Quay Stairs – they’re right next to the Waterfront Restaurant.
As you arrive at the top, you’ll see the How Do You Do? public house with yet another Wooden Doll figurehead outside. This is one of three wooden dollies which you’ll discover on the heritage walk.
It’s a good place to sit and admire the views in good weather, if you want to take a break after climbing the stairs.
The next part of your journey takes you along the top of the river bank. Turn left along Tyne Road which runs parallel to the river and continue along for about 150 metres until you reach the High Lights, a striking white tower.
8. Low Lights and High Lights
The New High Light was once a small lighthouse designed to help ships navigate their way down the River Tyne and avoid the treacherous Black Middens. When aligned with the New Low Light on the riverfront below, boats would get a safe passage into the harbour.
The New High Light is one of my favourite buildings in North Shields and, once upon a time, I used to dream of living in it.
Sadly, somebody else had the same idea and has created their dream home from this miniature lighthouse. I’m very envious. I bet the views from the bedroom on the top floor are great!
If you like watching boats come in and out of the Fish Quay, this is the place to be – and the view is great from the roadside too.
Over the road, you’ll see another smaller white tower with a light on top which stands out from the rest of the houses on the street.
This is the Old High Light which also acted as a lighthouse before it was superseded by its taller neighbour.
This is another building on my dream homes list because of its excellent location and panoramic views over the Tyne.
9. Stan Laurel’s Comedy Roots
Continue along Tyne Street and you’ll reach Dockray Square on your right – go inside the park and you’ll discover a statue dedicated to the Hollywood film legend Stan Laurel.
Stan Laurel is one of North Shields’ famous sons. He was born in Ulverston in Cumbria but lived in Dockray Square when his father was the manager of the Theatre Royal in North Shields until 1901.
Although his old house is long gone, there’s a blue plaque on the present number 6 and 7 Dockwray Square next door to his old home at number 8.
Stan Laurel lived in North Shields from the age of seven to 11. He had a deep affinity with the area and said: “I wasn’t born here, but I feel I belong here.”
The comedian gained inspiration for Laurel and Hardy’s famous furniture removal sketch from the vertical steps running down to the fish quay from Dockray Square.
Laurel had seen furniture being dragged up the stairs as a boy. In the Hollywood movie, he re-imagined a scene in which removal men cart furniture up impossibly steep stairs, only to discover they could have taken an easier route to the top.
The duo repeated this gag in a scene for ‘The Music Box’ with two men grappling with a piano.
10. Victorian Heritage
Carry on walking along Tyne Street until you reach Howard Street and Northumberland Square with the striking Maritime Chambers or ‘Stagline’ building in one corner.
Built in 1807, this classical style building was once home to the Tynemouth Literary and Philosophical Society Subscription Library. Later, it became the HQ of the Stagline Shipping Company – look out for the striking Stagline logo on the building’s gable end.
Continue up Howard Street (to your right) and look out for several interesting buildings on your way up the hill including a former Quaker bank. If you’re in need of drink, take a detour to the Magnesia Bank public house which is full of character.
Cross the street and walk up Howard Street back to Northumberland Square where you started your walk. On the way take a quick look at the former Tudor style Town hall designed by John Dobson in 1844. It has interesting stained glass windows inside.
Once you’ve finished the walk, why not pop into one of the many historic town centre pubs for a drink or two?
North Shields is one of those up and coming tourist towns with an industrial past that is definitely well worth a trip. So what are you waiting for? Take a trip…
Tammy’s Tour Guide – North Shields Heritage Walk
It’s easy to get to North Shields by car, Metro or bus. The Metro station is located at the top end of town, a brief walk from Northumberland Square – and services run from Newcastle Monument and take around 20 minutes.
The Fish Quay is located down on the riverfront – it’s a steep walk down the bank although it is possible to catch a bus from the top of town down to the ferry landing point.
The North Shields Heritage Walk takes around two hours – or longer if you stop for fish and chips or a pint of two!
Why not extend your visit with a trip to nearby Tynemouth and its castle? The walk and bike ride along the coastal path from North Shields to Tynemouth is one of my favourites. It starts from North Shields beach and takes around 20 minutes on foot.