South Shields - there's no finer place to be this summer
PUBLISHED: 21:09 13 August 2012 | UPDATED: 21:44 20 February 2013
There's not much, if anything, that South Shields is short of, as Chris Titley discovered
A fantastic beach, lashings of history and three months of live music is there a better place in Britain to spend summer than South Shields?
While the London set cram themselves onto the shingle at Brighton hoping to catch a beat or two of Fatboy Slim, 250 miles north the South Tyneside Summer Festival provides a much more harmonious
Already Bents Park has echoed to the happy guitars of both Scouting For Girls and The Feeling, as well as the plaintive voice of X Factor winner Matt Cardle. Lots of local bands have also put on gigs.
But the free music isnt aimed just at the Radio One generation. For youngsters, Tommy The Trumpeter better known as South Shields entertainer and executive director of arts centre The Custom House, Ray Spencer is hosting parties at the Amphitheatre throughout the holidays. And regular brass band performances are held there and at the bandstand in South Marine Park too.
The festival is one of the biggest free events in the UK. It began life as the Cookson Festival, in honour of the towns best known former resident, prolific author Catherine Cookson. But that name was dropped six years ago.
While it is still a source of pride that wor Kate overcame the poverty of her upbringing to become Britains most widely-read novelist, South Shields is now looking to the future as much as it looks to the past.
People dont ask what you did yesterday, they always want to know what you are doing tomorrow, says Eileen Leask, the Mayor of South Tyneside.
She does not deny the problems facing the town, pointing to high unemployment.
The recession hasnt helped anybody. Its the young people its hitting the hardest.
But the council has not closed anything despite millions of pounds of cutbacks, she says. The libraries might not be open as often as they were, but we have kept everything going as best we can. And quite honestly its been extremely hard.
South Shields is used to hardship. Any town built upon perhaps the three toughest industries fishing, coalmining and shipbuilding can take whatever life chooses to throw at it.
The towns history goes way back. Given its position where the mouth of the River Tyne joins the North Sea, it has always had military value. It was a fact those master strategists the Romans recognised they built the Arbeia Fort here around AD160.
A garrison was housed inside and it became the military supply base for the 17 forts along Hadrians Wall. You can imagine what life was like for the soldiers today thanks to the impressive reconstruction of the buildings alongside the excavated remains. The West Gate of the fort gives a sense of the scale of Roman fortifications, while the living quarters of the ordinary centurion are a little more spartan.
Taking the story on is South Shields Museum and Art Gallery. Its Changing Faces display charts South Tynesides history from the Bronze Age to the 20th century, while another celebrates the Catherine Cookson story.
South Shields is clearly a creative place. As well as giving Cookson to the world, it has brought us Python Eric Idle, Alien and Blade Runner director Sir Ridley Scott, and more recently comedian Sarah Millican. With her own BBC show and appearances on the likes of Loose Women under her belt, she gets to mingle with the showbiz set.
Millican appears totally at home with everyone from Hollywood stars to hip hop artists. And its all down to her home town. People put them on a pedestal, but I decided to talk to them like they were a couple of fellas down the pub like youre down the Alum House in South Shields having a bit of a chat, she told a newspaper.
A new chapter in the towns history is now being built with the opening of a 16 million swimming pool and leisure complex on the seafront. Due to be completed next spring, it will include both a competition and a teaching pool as well as leisure waters with flumes, sprays and bubble pools, plus a gym, sauna, dance studio and caf.
Eileen Leask cant wait to see it open, as another great addition her home town. Her fathers family first moved to South Shields in 1815, the year of Waterloo, and she still lives in the house she was brought up in.
Why does Eileen consider the town special? We have the longest sandy beach in England, thats a fact. We have the most beautiful coastline. The seafront is absolutely marvellous. Our parks are wonderful.
But even more important than the amazing setting are the residents, she says. The people come first here. Its that sort of place. They help each other.
Theres a few wonderful charities that wouldnt have worked elsewhere, I dont think, like Cancer Connections on Harton Lane. I cant envisage it working anywhere else.
Our people are so helpful and so kind, and they have got less than anybody else.
As she says, moneys not everything. We have a beautiful place to live. Parents can take their children to the beach in the summer, it costs nothing.
As we spoke, Eileen was preparing for the most remarkable appointment of her year in office the Queens visit to South Shields last month. The Queen is a wonderful woman and I think shes done a fabulous job, Eileen said.
For her, the visit is the icing on the cake. I am very proud of my home town, she said. And I am extremely proud I am Mayor of South Tyneside. Its a beautiful place with wonderful people.
Those in the capital who eshew the limited charms of Brighton and make their way to South Shields instead inevitably agree that the town is one of Britains best kept secrets.
My son is in London, said Eileen. When he brings his friends up, they always get a shock at how beautiful it is.