Will the restoration of Spanish City spark a return to Whitley Bay's glory days?
PUBLISHED: 11:58 17 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:06 20 February 2013
Will the restoration of its landmark building spark a return to Whitley Bay's glory days? Chris Titley strolls along the prom to find out
Photos courtesy of Whitley Bay Photographic Society
When he was five, Barry Stone moved with his family to Whitley Bay. But not just any street in Whitley Bay the Esplanade, which links the railway station to the beach.
From 1964 onwards when we moved there, up to about 1972, the beach on a summers day was a teeming, wriggling, alive place with zillions of people who had come from Newcastle and other areas, he recalled.
Theyd pile onto the trains. When a train had come in on a morning, you could not get out of your garden gate for people going down to the beach, carrying buckets and spades and deckchairs.
For a young boy from the Home Counties, this was an enchanting place. There were wonderful flat, golden-coloured rocks with mist curling around them. And sand that had been flattened by the tide and was ultra-smooth.
Wed lived in suburban Kent, and here we were, leaping from rock to rock with my brother in the lead saying, Come on! It was a wonderful, magical feeling. I think we all loved Whitley Bay from that day.
Barry left the Esplanade family home when he was 23. But only to move four miles away. Now a writer, his home town plays a large role in his popular novel Barking At Winston (published by Constable, 7.99).
Its vastly influenced by my home, by the excitement of growing up in a big family with a big, lively dog right bang on Whitley Bay seafront. Its brought about by the sexual and emotional politics of the seventies where to be a young gay kid as I was put you in a very difficult circumstance.
The narrator of the book is the dog, Bruce a device that allowed Barry to explore semi-autobiographical themes, such as living with a war-scarred, alcoholic father. His novel caught the eye of Clare Balding, and he appeared with her on her BBC Radio Four walking show, Ramblings, retracing the steps to his childhood home.
One of his strong memories of growing up was the Spanish City, the slightly bonkers funfair housed under a whitewashed dome. Right up until 71 or 72 the ancient big dipper was still there you could hear that thing rattling 50 miles away, he added.
The Spanish City was opened in 1910, its 73ft-high dome towering above a complex including a 1,400-seat theatre, restaurant and roof garden.
Early funfair attractions included the rainbow pleasure wheel, the great aerial flght and ye olde mill, where boats would float past various scenes including a fairy castle and a jungle.
The Spanish City has been immortalised by Mark Knopfler in his Dire Straits song Tunnel of Love and by Whitley Bay resident and poet Keith Armstrong. The days have gone; the laughter and shrieks blown away, he writes in his poem Like The Spanish City.
But perhaps those days will come back. Plans to restore the landmark have been given the go ahead. No funfair, but an activity centre, cafs and shops, a gym and a community space are proposed.
Keith remembers Spanish City from his first visits in the sixties, and has written a history of the venue. They had all the traditional rides the ghost train and fortune tellers, the helter skelter as well as some of the bigger rides, he said.
It did have the atmosphere of a fairground. It should never have been allowed to go, not in its entirety.
What does he think of the proposed reincarnation of Spanish City? In general I think its a good thing that they restored the dome.
Im not generally in favour of imposing cultural development onto local people. But I do think, in the case of Whitley Bay it needs a kind of kick-start.
A film festival was held there recently, and Keith says that is on the right lines. Theres room for festivals maybe an annual Whitley Bay Arts Festival, involving as many local people as possible.
Hes keen that any developments have the locals at heart, particularly working class people, because its still in some ways a working class town. Somebody once described it as Coronation Street on Sea.
It just needs the tone raising. You can do that in many ways: with exhibitions, films, more encouragement of local bands. Theres a band locally called The Longsands who seem to be doing quite well at the moment.
Theres plenty to enjoy at Whitley Bay in the here and now, he adds. There are some good shops in Whitley Bay, some nice ice cream parlours and fish and chip shops.
One of them, Pantrinis, has just scooped the Fish and Chip Quality Award, granted by the National Federation of Fish Friers.
And the glorious natural beauty of Whitley Bay will never fade. We should appreciate the coastline and make more of that. St Marys Islands a great asset, said Keith.
For Barry, theres only one place visitors should go. I would direct them onto the beach. Go to the railway station, walk to the bottom, stand on the seafront, look right to where the sun rises near to the mouth of the River Tyne, which is stunningly beautiful, then look left towards St Marys Island. Flip a coin and take a walk in either direction.
He has his own ideas of what to do with Spanish City turn it into the National Marriage and Civil Ceremony Centre, celebrating partnerships of all kinds.
That, he says, would see people return. Whitley Bay needs its visitors to come back, and just enjoy that fantastic coast and the culture of the region.
A sparkling year
This year isnt just the Queens Diamond Jubilee year, its also the Diamond Jubilee of Whitley Bay Photographic Society.
The society was reformed in 1952, having disbanded during the war, in the days when photography was mainly monochrome prints. Colour prints and colour slides have had their eras, and now the club concentrates mainly on digital projection and printing.
The new seasons programme began last month the group will host a series of talks, demonstrations and competitions for all members whether experienced or new.
The societys Diamond Jubilee was marked by an exhibition of framed pictures at Segedunum Roman Visitors Centre, and every year members take audio visual shows to many organisations in the area, featuring a variety of subjects.
Meetings are held every Tuesday at 7.30pm in the societys headquarters at 3 Waverley Avenue, Monkseaton, near the metro station. New members are welcome. For more information go to www.wbps.co.uk, or call 0191 2524911.