Just another grim Northern town?


I’M from a town called South Shields. It sits at the mouth of the River Tyne in the North-East of England, the region recently characterised by The Guardian newspaper as the UK’s Detroit – a grim metaphor for urban decay. Despite its size – it’s a town of about 90,000 people – it often seems few people have heard of it. “It’s near Newcastle,” is our reluctant last resort.

It was a coal mining town, a shipbuilding and repairing town. It’s where County Durham’s miners and their families went for a summer day out. Long before that it was famous for glass – and salt. And before that, the Romans built a fort there to protect the river mouth that gave access to Hadrian’s Wall. It’s where the lifeboat was invented.

In recent years its biggest exports, via TV talent shows, have been the likes of  Joe McElderry, half of Little Mix, and, last week, a small percentage of Collabro. The comedians Sarah Millican and Chris Ramsey are from Shields, as is the journalist and political commentator Kevin Maguire.

It’s struggled since the demise of the heavy industries and the town centre isn’t the best. I moved away in 1980, but when I go back, and that’s been more often recently, I marvel at the coastline and the seafront. Here are some recent views from my grim Northern town…



The River, 1994

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Tears on the Tyne, The Northern Echo, November 4, 1994

First published in The Northern Echo, November 1994

THE first smell I remember is that of oil. It wasn’t the kind you sniff in petrol stations or by a standing wagon. This was the heavy industrial oil that goes with ships.

My dad worked on The River. We never called it the Tyne because there was only one river that mattered. The smell was in his boiler suits, in his hair and in the creases of the Daily Mirror he brought home folded in his pocket.

He had served his time in the yards on The River and he went back there after he gave up the sea.

I went to the Market Dock sometimes, to meet him at the gate or to hide behind him as he collected his wages in the weeks when the yard had been on short time.

The sounds and smells and colours of the Market Dock stay with me. There was the salt air blowing in off the harbour and the whiff of fish from the quay on the North side  –  ‘over  the water’ we called  it as if it was a foreign land.

Then there was the odour of rusted steel plates, the clang of hammer on metal, the flash of a welding torch, the lap of the tide on the gates of the dry docks and the unceasing call of the scavenger gulls.

The Market Dock didn’t build ships but its life was bound to the yards which did. For when the proud men who welded the metal and cut and assembled the engine parts, accurate to a thousandth of an inch, let their beloved vessels go to the sea they knew that time and tide would take their toll and they would have to be revived somewhere.

And when they did it was yards like the Market Dock that nursed them and revitalised them and sent them back to be useful again.

As I grew older and could go off on my own I went to The River to watch the ships come and go.

But the biggest day was a family day for tens of thousands along the Tyne. It was 1970,  The River had built the Esso Northumbria, 250,000 tons and 1,130ft long. When they launched her into 1,230ft of water her chains and the tugs – those chunky, lovely workhorses – stopped her dead.

She was so long that once gone from The River she could never return. The unforgiving bends would not allow it.

Now, she was going down The River. Memory says it was a glorious day out of school. The reality was that it was Sunday, the only day the business of The River could be stilled to let her go.

esso northumbria

Esso Northumbria leaves the River Tyne. (Image from portoftyne.co.uk)

The crowds were bigger than a nine-year-old’s imagination could dream of. We stood on River Drive, pressed against the railings. She came slowly down with ten tugs fussing about her, dwarfing everything around her,  then she was released to the open, black, bleak waters of the North Sea and her future.

Now The River is dying. The Tyne is cleaner than before of course, and people live in expensive, wind-proofed   apartments where once the Velva Liquids jetty welcomed tankers.

The Tall Ships come and we cheer them simply because they move on the water. The gulls still shriek and at the Mill Dam they’re converting the derelict old Customs House into an arts centre. Here stands the memorial, a bronze of a storm-lashed sailor, in tribute to the men of South Shields who died in the Hell that was convoy duty in the Second World War.

He looks out across The River to where the yards used to be, to where they made the ships. He might glimpse the Norway ferry once a week, but there aren’t any new giants going to sea.

And he can listen, as I did with my dad recently, to the water lapping against the tugs at their buoys as they wait, without any great hope, to be busy again.

  • This article appeared in The Northern Echo www.thenorthernecho.co.uk on November 4, 1994 as part of the paper’s coverage of the departure from the River Tyne of the last ship built there, HMS Richmond. The page one picture was taken by a terrific photographer, the late Ian Weir. We chose to run it in black-and-white, even though colour was available. It was that kind of day.
  • The Market Dock, or the TDE, was more correctly Tyne Dock Engineering (although few called it that). Houses now stand on the site. Esso Northumbria was broken up in Taiwan in 1982. HMS Richmond remains in service with the Royal Navy. The Customs House in South Shields is a thriving arts centre. The River Tyne is regarded as the best salmon fishing river in England.