Mark Bickerdike finds a traditional British holiday in South Shields.
I think it’s fair to say that in recent times the traditional British seaside holiday has taken a bit of a battering.
Underinvestment in towns, a tendency to trade on past glories and, not least, the vagaries of the British weather have all conspired to leave many of our former coastal gems looking, well, let’s be generous and say, a little tired.
One town determined to beat the decline though is South Shields in South Tyneside.
Situated just ten miles east of Newcastle at the southern mouth of the River Tyne, South Shields is a classic seaside resort with beautiful golden sandy beaches that encourage you to take a dip in the ‘bracing’ North Sea.
Overlooking the beach is the new promenade, a crisp clean inviting place to be, thanks to a multi-million pound project to transform it into not just a place for a stroll but a hive of activity. You’ll find a skate park, games area and an amphitheatre where, if you’re lucky, you can catch Tommy the Trumpeter putting on his regular show for the kids, what could be more traditional than that?
If Tommy’s not your cup of tea there’s always the nearby Ocean Beach Pleasure Park where you’ll find amusement arcades, crazy golf and dozens of fun rides, so there should be something to keep everyone happy.
At the northern end of the promenade was the base for our stay, the Little Haven Hotel. A 62-bed hotel perfectly placed on the beach, with many of the rooms giving panoramic views of Tynemouth Priory and Castle and the North Sea where you can sit and watch the boats and ships heading up and down the River Tyne.
If South Shields position on the coast made it popular for holidaymakers and visitors in recent years, it was absolutely crucial to a group of visitors from the more distant past – the Romans.
Perched above the town is the Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum which dates from AD160. Originally built to house a Roman garrison it became the base for supplies of equipment, food and personnel for the 17 forts along Hadrian’s Wall.
Nowadays the fort is an ongoing archaeological site, home to reconstructions of buildings as they might have appeared in Roman times, and a fascinating museum displaying many of the finds from the site.
In nearby Jarrow you’ll find another historical site worth a visit. Celebrating the work of a man who has been called the ‘Father of English History’, Bede’s World charts the life of the Anglo-Saxon scholar the Venerable Bede whose most famous book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (AD 731), gives one of the earliest understandings of life at the formation of England as a country. Speaking as someone who had heard of, but knew very little about, Bede, I have to say I found our visit highly educational, and, whilst not wishing to diminish the life and work of one of England’s foremost historians, it does have an excellent tearoom.
Speaking of food, no trip to the seaside would be complete without some traditional fish and chips and South Shields can boast the current holder of the National Fish and Chip Awards restaurant of the year title, the local institution that is Colman’s.
From their humble beginnings in a small seafront hut, The Colman family have been serving fish and chips in the town since 1905 and moved to their current restaurant on Ocean Road in 1926. Their menu now includes not only your good old haddock, chips and mushy peas, but also a few other dishes which probably weren’t offered in 1905 such as Thai prawn cakes, calamari and lobster. There are other famous East Coast fish and chip restaurants but I’ve never eaten better than Colman’s. You’ll also find it listed as one of the five places to visit by local MP David Milliband who, putting his money where his mouth is, just happened to be on the next table to us when we visited.
For lovers of the outdoors, or those who may have over-indulged on fish and chips, the coastline near South Shields offers some wonderful opportunities to get a little exercise and take in the spectacular scenery of the East Coast. Bikes can be hired on the sea front and you can take advantage of the sea front and clifftop cycle route which takes you past the historic Souter Lighthouse. Or simply take a stroll and explore the rocks and caves close to the Marsden Grotto where you’ll also find Europe’s only restaurant and bar in a cave.
There’s a lot to offer in and around South Shields but on a good day what could be better than just a lazy day on the beach? It’s an often overlooked pleasure of a UK holiday and, whilst I personally didn’t dare to dip any more than a toe in the North Sea, there were plenty of hardier souls enjoying the waves as they crashed onto the beautifully kept beaches of Sandhaven and Littlehaven, and the kids loved exploring the sand dunes.
If you’ve never looked further up the East Coast than Scarborough or Whitby then I would encourage you to go the extra few miles and give South Shields a visit. Whether for a day trip, a weekend, or full family holiday there is plenty to keep you entertained.
The region is working hard to move the traditional seaside holiday out of the ‘old days’ – and with work starting on a new multi-million pound seafront indoor pool and leisure complex, they may even have found a way to keep that pesky British weather at bay.
* The Little Haven Hotel have special short break rates from £49.50 per person per night and family rates from £125.25 for two adults and two children.
* South Tyneside visitor information www.visitsouthtyneside.co.uk
* Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum www.twmuseums.org.uk/arbeia.
* Bede’s World www.bedesworld.co.uk.
* Ocean Beach Pleasure Park www.oceanbeach.co.uk.
* Souter Lighthouse www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
* Marsden Grotto www.marsden-grotto.co.uk.