South Shields – a dismal place?
Some years ago, when he was still a junior minister, David Miliband offered to send me a copy of South Tyneside’s cultural strategy. I was astonished and excited: my mother lives in Miliband’s South Shields constituency, which I visited frequently as a child, and I remember it as a rather dismal place with lots of fish and chip shops and a dingy slot-machine arcade. I’ve been back plenty of times since and now it’s even more run-down……….
South Shields was never in the same league as Hastings.
Beauty of course is in the eye of the beholder, and unfortunately Hastings simply cannot compete with the natural beauty of our remarkable northern coastline, nor our broad flat spacious sandy beaches, or our miles of open green space on The Leas and our wonderful sea front public parks. Hastings has it’s cliff face and a narrow pebbly beach with ornate colonnaded Victorian buildings and one or two smart inviting hotels, it’s closeness to it’s history is not nearly as intimate or as old as ours (think of Bede), it is indeed more memorable for its traditional English pier which was sadly destroyed a few days ago. I have visited Hastings, it is nice of course and it is closer to the traditional expectation of a seaside resort being more compact than South Shields, but I could find just as much to feel dismal about it with it’s tacky gift shops, candy floss atmosphere, amusement arcades, and keep off the grass signs.
I have been relatively excited by some of our new developments that have happened recently in South Shields but seriously disappointed at the snail’s pace at which we introduce changes and improvements. Redevelopment at the Ocean Beach Amusement Park has been welcome, the South Marine Park is a real gem now, the Littlehaven Hotel was an excellent addition to amenities, new housing along the riverside has been a boon (although the fledgling plans to build a marina at the old Velva Liquids site might have been a bigger plus if they had been pursued), the plan for the regeneration of Rekendyke is a good one but so slow in progress, but Ms. Smith is essentially right in asserting that we need to make the very most of our relationship with the sea and our beaches, to which I will add our maritime heritage.
The new swimming pool promised for the Pier Head area will be a massive improvement and add to the amenities available for use in all weathers, but we do, however, need to add more and I see scope for additional hotels (the Gypsies Green proposal was excellent but a major disappointment that it ran into opposition financially and politically), a maritime and shipping museum on underused Port of Tyne land at the Pier Head incorporating the Volunteer Life Brigade Watch House would also prove to be a draw as would the relocation of the Westovian’s Theatre to this area. I also see scope in the future for development opportunities in the North Marine Park and would love to see a “community glass house” growing exotic plants and perhaps cactii and trees tended by school groups or allotment associations in the area occupied by the former Parks Department building. In the South Marine Park I’d like to see further development of the Lakeshore Railroad station that might include the Tourist Information Office and static displays illustrating the history and renewal of the Victorian park all within a station building constructed along Victorian designs with a waiting room and small cafe. I’d like to see greater links between the Littlehaven beach and the Arbeia Roman Fort, although any buildings ought to be confined to the beach facing frontage below the park’s heights. I’d like to see some really bold moves to relocate the football pitches on “the Dragon” to the Gypsies Green area with the co-operation of the National Trust, to allow an expansion of leisure facilities, perhaps including another stab at attracting a hotel/conference centre surrounded by retail units (go see the far end of Hartlepool’s marina for an example of the style which I prefer).
If we want to be extremely bold and dashing then why can we not set about doing “a Bridges” on King Street, all it needs is a big imagination and bags of will!
South Shields, unfortunately, is not a town which can be passed through easily, we do not sit on a major road or rail route and therefore we need to continue to attract and entice people here, however our proximity to the A194M and the A19 as well as the Tyne Tunnel makes us an ideal base for touring Durham and Northumberland with their history, cathedrals and castles, we have numerous smaller guest houses but precious few quality hotels, so there are opportunities to be grasped here. A framework and a plan is in place, and we must never be afraid to change and alter our viewpoint from time to time in the quest to exploit our natural position and resources next to the sea to grow our local economy.
In this time of recession we need to remain optimistic and enthusiastic, knowing full well that we cannot guarantee the sort of regular weather patterns that attract thousands to the seaside, therefore we need to offer more for those days in the spring and summer months when rain may arrive at any moment. What we have right now is certainly not “dismal” , but it has to be recognised that it is insufficient to reinvigorate and spark local economic growth, with some of the plans already announce we need to enthuse our leaders to push ahead harder and faster to make the changes happen, where we have fallen down in the past is self evident, great promises but slow evolution of development which has left us playing catch up with our neighbours.
What’s needed to revitalise the English seaside is a bold approach that puts the sea and the beach at the very heart of the town’s amenities. It’s an amazing fact that what people expect when they arrive in an English resort (and indeed what they get) is a dismal row of tattoo parlours, slot machine arcades and takeaway food shops. What happened to the entrepreneurial spirit that gave us piers, oyster bars, art-deco lidos and even the Brighton Pavilion? Art galleries and seaside art installations are a start, but we also need seafood restaurants, modern hotels and a range of activities including sea fishing and boat trips. Otherwise, what’s happening to English seaside towns really will turn into the end of-the-pier show.
Joan Smith is right on some of these points but if she visited her mother in South Shields more often she’d discover that the people here, with our aspirations and medium term plans, are anything but dismal.