Whitley Bay and Tynemouth look forward with confidence
PUBLISHED: 01:18 16 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:22 20 February 2013
Boasting long sandy beaches, a variety of family attractions and great local history, the seaside towns of Whitley Bay and Tynemouth are bursting with coastal character. Words and Photography by Louise Brown
To an adoring public, over several decades Whitley Bay and Tynemouth offered a taste of the Riviera at temperatures more, well, comfortable than their Mediterranean counterparts, prices more affordable and a location more accessible.
To native North Easterners a visit to these close neighbours was special. To those from further afield it often represented the highlight of the year as huge numbers visited week after week and year after year throughout the summer months. Increased prosperity, cheaper foreign travel and the introduction of the package holiday led to a fall in visitor numbers before the economic downturn inflicted further damage upon the area. The challenge to recover was on - and Whitley Bay and Tynemouth are responding.
An eclectic mix of cosy cafes, unique independent shops and a range of activities to suit all the family give Whitley Bay and Tynemouth a compelling charm, sharing much more than the stunning coastline which seamlessly connects them.
Situated eight miles to the east of Newcastle, with easy access to the city and neighbouring towns, Whitley Bay thrives on tourism, a significant feature in the towns fascinating history.
Beginning life as a tiny hamlet known as Whitley, a name which is thought to derive from white lea or pasture land, but perhaps attributed to the deWhitley family - local landowners who held a manor house in the area up to 1538 - the Bay was added to the name only in the 1890s, by which time confusion of the name with Whitby, Yorkshire, was the cause of much misdirected mail. In response, the local council asked residents to suggest a new name and the most popular choice was Whitley Bay. It has been known as that ever since.
The town began to emerge as a holiday resort in the late 19th and early 20th century, its seaside location and close proximity to Newcastle and nearby industrial towns making Whitley Bay a real attraction for holidaymakers and day-trippers. This popularity increased with the opening of the North Tyne loop railway line in 1882, connecting the coastal villages to Newcastle.
As the town grew in popularity, boarding houses, cafes and amusements were established to accommodate and entertain visitors. In 1904, the Toreadors concert party troupe performed in an open air theatre in Whitley Park which, being decorated in Spanish style, became known as The Spanish City. The location as an amusement park commenced in1910, when The Spanish City and Whitley Pleasure Gardens formally opened.
The main building, with its distinctive dome as a centrepiece, became Whitley Bays main attraction for many years and even gained rock and roll acclaim when it was mentioned in the band Dire Straits 1980 song Tunnel of Love. The song became the unofficial theme tune for the fairground, being played every morning when the gates opened.
Whitley Bay remained a popular destination for holidaymakers, principally from Scotland and the North East, up until the 1980s, when sadly the lure of budget foreign holiday packages caused numbers to fall and its once-irresistible seaside glamour to fade.
Today, after years of relative obscurity, regeneration is underway in a bid to reinstate Whitley Bay as a popular tourist destination. A multi-million pound scheme to rejuvenate the Spanish City and the seafront is in place and the beginnings of change are visible. The famous dome has been restored to a glimmering white and, when completed, the Spanish City will become the cultural hub of the town.
Playing a leading role in the councils plans is the newly-refurbished Playhouse. Situated on Marine Avenue, the venue has become an integral part of the local community programme, playing host to productions from local artistic and drama groups.
For the serious shopper, the principal street is Park View. Here, independent boutiques and antique stores give Whitley Bay an individuality notwithstanding the presence of high street regulars, found here as in all other town centres. With the regeneration scheme encouraging start-up of new local businesses and helping those already in existence, the town, while retaining its unique character, is working hard to establish a prosperous future.
The best of Whitley Bay inevitably is found at the coast. The promenade area is soaked in old-world charm, with grand avenues of imposing houses and guest houses in the Victorian style. Cafes, bars and restaurants abound, providing compelling reason for visitors to come to the town and looking to benefit from those who do.
Walking along the seafront on a sunny day is to experience the very spirit of Whitley Bay, the North Sea providing a dramatic backdrop to a pastime treasured by many who have passed this way before, perhaps in the halcyon days of the town, new and vibrant to the uninitiated, but intensely rewarding for all.
Situated at the mouth of the River Tyne, between North Shields and Cullercoats, Tynemouth combines contemporary style with rich tradition and heritage to create an impressive setting. Reports suggest that the town owes its existence to the Benedictine Priory and the later fortifications, whose ruins stand prominent on the headland, sheltering the town.
Pilgrims seeking the shrine of St Oswin, buried here in 651AD, visited in numbers and a population developed around the nearby monastery as, slowly, the town grew. Tynemouth underwent considerable change over centuries of political unrest, becoming popular in the 18th century as a health resort for those seeking relief from the poor sanitation of neighbouring towns.
Residents encouraged visitors to come to the town by providing lodgings, bathing machines and a range of amusements. Between 1871 and 1881 the population increased by one third and Tynemouth became firmly established as a holiday destination.
Today, the stylish Front Street offers a range of niche shops and boutiques as well as cafes, wine bars and restaurants which are perfect for a weekday or weekend pit stop.
As its name implies, Tynemouth also benefits from a seaside location and offers a range of activities and attractions to suit all the family and satisfy the most or least energetic.
For a truly indulgent experience, Gareth James Chocolatier is a chocolate lovers dream and an expression of Tynemouths individuality.
Tynemouth is a great place to run a business, said owner Gareth Mellor, who realised his dream of combining a passion for chocolate-making and running a business in his home area when opening the shop eight months ago. The town has a real continental feel, he added, and the locals are very welcoming to new businesses which offer something different.
Located on Front Street, Gareths chocolate salon offers chocolates in a wide range of flavours while serving hot chocolate well worth breaking the summer diet for. With all produce made on site by Gareth and his team, Gareth James Chocolatier fits comfortably into the profile of Tynemouth, which fuses the timeless, relaxed elegance of its Victorian architecture with the dynamism of its business community, preserving its status and driving the town forward.
For Whitley Bay and Tynemouth the journey through a long and often troubled history has perhaps been no Tunnel of Love ride, but each has survived the many challenges, most recently that of global recession, to establish itself impressively in the new economic environment.
St Marys iconic lighthouse
If the Spanish City dome represents Whitley Bays principal landmark, St Marys Island, situated to the North of the town, comes a very close second.
Standing in sharp relief against the ever-changing, often dramatic backdrop of the North Sea, the islands eponymous lighthouse takes pride of place as Whitley Bays main coastal feature, now guiding southbound visitors into the town as, in the past, it guided the seafarer away from a dangerous promontory for generations following its construction in 1899.
The visitor would be ill-advised to simply admire from afar the appearance of the island and its lighthouse, however, when driving along the delightful coastal road which connects Seaton Sluice and Old Hartley to the town. To visit the island is a truly rewarding experience, access being gained via the short causeway at low tide, and there, for the energetic, to climb the 137 steps inside the lighthouse tower to the lantern room and enjoy spectacular views along the North East coast.
Those unimpressed by the prospect of this climb can take in the islands exhibition centre and Nature reserve or enjoy the same panoramic views by video, all available at ground level.
Can Whitley Bay continue to be regarded as a resort that should be able to attract todays more widely-travelled and affluent visitors?
Tell us about the attractions that you enjoy in this grand old seaside town. Leave a comment below