Big Walk: Northern lights

Trace the North East’s industrial past along the Tyne and Wear Heritage Way, a long-distance loop that takes in a wealth of engineering marvels, from lighthouses and bridges to historic waggonways.

A man in front of a lighthouse
 

By Matthew Jones, photography Ellie Clewlow.

Something smells fishy as I step out along the waterfront in North Shields. It is a chilly morning and the dim light of dawn lends the sky a soft blue pallor. But nothing sinister is afoot – the whiff in the air is simply the characteristic odour of Fish Quay, home port of the Tynemouth fishing fleet. I pass a tangle of ropes, nets and buoys as trawlers bob at their hawsers along the quay. An oily black cormorant and a large gull watch my progress with an air of lofty detachment, perched silently on a warehouse roof. Even at this early hour, the first customers of the day are busy scanning the fishmongers’ stalls, stocked with catch that comes ‘fresh o_ the boats in under 10 minutes’, as one chalked sign proudly reads.

This area marks the start of the first stretch of the Tyne and Wear Heritage Way, an 80-mile loop split into nine sections. It begins at the mouth of the Tyne and heads northwards along the coast, before leading inland to encircle a swathe of the North East. The return follows the River Wear to Sunderland, revisiting the coast at Roker Pier before tracking north once again to finish at South Shields. Along the way, it traces the rich historic and industrial heritage of the area, often following the old waggonways that were once used to carry coal to the river, where it was ferried in keelboats to Newcastle for onward transit. The route also takes in a series of engineering marvels, from lighthouses and bridges to a unique heritage railway. These sites are interspersed with sprawling country estates, wooded valleys and long, sandy beaches.

Industrial past

It seems appropriate that the trail both begins and ends at the sea, given the area’s historical association with shipbuilding. It is also apt that the route includes stretches of both the Tyne and the Wear, two great rivers that were conduits for commerce and industry. Indeed, the North East played a defining role in Britain’s industrial past. At various periods in history, it has produced salt, glass, bleaches and dyes, wooden and iron ships and, of course, coal. The growth of such commercial activity proved to be catalysts for change – bringing prosperity to the area and driving innovation in science, engineering and technology.

Yet the decline of many of these industries is also a well-known part of the story of the North East. As they dwindled, the region suffered – causing economic slumps, mass unemployment and resulting deprivation. Shipyard losses in the early and mid-20th century caused huge upheaval, while the residual impacts of the pit closures of the 1960s, 70s and 80s are arguably still being felt today. Fortunately, recent investment and regeneration of key areas have brought new vitality to parts of the North East, driven by the resilience and resourcefulness of local communities.

In many ways, the story of the region is mirrored in the history of the path itself. The original concept for a long-distance heritage trail was the brainchild of the former Tyne and Wear County Council. It proved a useful addition to the path network. However, when the council was abolished in 1986 and replaced by five metropolitan boroughs, the route gradually fell into disrepair. ‘It was basically forgotten – it just disappeared,’ explains Mike Webber, chair of Northumbria Ramblers. ‘Then, almost three years ago, some of our volunteers were discussing local heritage and someone mentioned the sad state of the way. So we decided to look at it, and the project grew from there.’

Testing times and new life

The route’s transformation, culminating in an official relaunch last year, has been the result of a lot of hard work allied with effective collaboration between Ramblers volunteers, local authorities and landowners. There were, of course, some testing times. ‘Our first challenge was getting the different rights of way officers on side,’ says Mike. This involved liaising with highway authorities from five different boroughs, as well as the county councils of Northumberland and Durham. ‘Fortunately, thanks to our volunteers, Northumbria Ramblers had pretty good relationships with them already, so it was a case of building on those existing relations in order to grow support for re-establishing the route.’

The entire trail was surveyed in order to assess its condition and path maintenance was undertaken to ensure it was walkable again. This included cutting back vegetation and installing new marker posts, coordinating all the work with landowners. New Heritage Way roundels were designed, produced and placed along the trail. ‘The aim was to try to ensure that every section of the route could be walked easily in either direction, with public transport links at each end,’ says Mike. To promote the route, a dedicated website was built, which includes free downloadable route guides to each of the nine sections.

On this new trail, high above Tynemouth, stand two conspicuous landmarks, clearly visible almost from the start of the route. The first is a monument to a British naval hero who is one of Newcastle’s most famous sons – Admiral Lord Collingwood, Nelson’s second in command at the Battle of Trafalgar. I walk up its stone steps flanked by four cannons from Collingwood’s flagship, HMS Royal Sovereign, and gaze up at the imposing statue of Collingwood, noting his rather haughty expression.

Indeed, famous sons are a recurring theme of the walk. A later section visits the humble cottage where railway pioneer George Stephenson was born and lived as a young boy. The path here follows the route of the Wylam Waggonway, which passes directly in front of the cottage. As I gaze into the lower floor window, where the Stephenson family lived – all sharing a single room and even just one bed – I wonder whether the young George’s spirit of invention was perhaps inspired by the sight of men and horses hauling coal waggons along its rails. Further on, the walk visits Washington Old Hall, a picturesque manor house set in beautiful gardens that was the family seat of the ancestors of George Washington, first president of the United States of America.

Just north of Whitley Bay, I visit St Mary’s Lighthouse, situated on a rocky island that is linked to the mainland by a short concrete causeway, which is submerged at high tide. This is the first of several Instagram-worthy lighthouses along the coastal sections of the route, at Roker Pier, the re-erected lighthouse in Roker Cliff Park and Herd Groyne – as well as the famous Souter Lighthouse, the world’s first purpose-built electric lighthouse. They are testament not just to the importance of shipping in the North East, but also to the treachery of this coastline.

The route is punctuated at regular intervals with other extraordinary feats of engineering, from monuments to bridges. They include impressive Causey Arch, the oldest surviving single-arch railway bridge in the world, which was completed in 1726 to carry horse-drawn coal waggons to the River Tyne. The trail also visits Hagg Bank Bridge, a Victorian ironwork railway bridge that employed what was, for its time, a cutting-edge design consisting of three curved metal spans and a latticework of rods and girders.

Midway along the trail, a few miles south of Gateshead, I spot a true icon of the North East on the horizon. It’s the unmistakable silhouette of the Angel of the North, Antony Gormley’s 20-metre steel sculpture that stands sentinel over the surrounding landscape. Though the Heritage Way doesn’t actually visit the Angel, a quick check of the map reveals it to be an irresistibly short detour. Some half an hour later, I am standing beneath its outstretched wings. It’s even more impressive up close. What does it stand for? I wonder. Gormley has said that its meanings are multiple, but that it is partly a focus for hope. In this way, it stands proudly as an emblem of the post-industrial resurrection of the North East.

There are plenty of pockets of nature to enjoy on the Heritage Way, too, even close to major urban populations. As I work my way up the coast, walking along the busy promenade, I spot oystercatchers wading in rockpools, as well as lapwings, redshanks and sandpipers. Heading inland through the steep-sided woodland valley of Holywell Dene, I see a graceful egret and a grey heron stalking the banks of the burn, while stands of hazel, birch and beech are home to a profusion of smaller birds.

This section is one of Mike Webber’s favourites. ‘There’s a community organisation called Friends of Holywell Dene, who do a great job of looking after that area through conservation projects. It makes lovely walking in spring and summer.’ For Mike, it also sums up the appeal of the trail as a whole. ‘It links a lot of the heritage and countryside in this area together, which is ultimately why the route evolved in the fi rst place. But it’s also simple, straightforward, mostly fl at walking, which is accessible via public transport. So it’s an easy way for local people to get more active, but also has lots to o_ er for visitors to the North East.’

Looking to the future

With the first anniversary of the Heritage Way’s reopening on 31 May, Northumbria Ramblers are keen to emphasise their commitment to the future of the route. They continue to monitor the state of the trail, informed by walkers. ‘We’ve had plenty of feedback,’ says Mike. ‘And even the grumpy comments are helpful, as it means we can look at specific sections really critically, with a view to making continual improvements to waymarking and so on.’ They are also working with local interest groups and community volunteer organisations such as the Friends of Holywell Dene as part of a stewardship scheme. ‘We really want to safeguard the trail’s future,’ says Mike. ‘So the intention is to work with local groups and walk each section twice a year to look out for any path problems or other issues.’

Walk it!

Time/Distance

North Shields to South Shields via Seaton Sluice, Burradon, Ponteland, Wylam, Thornley Wood, Beamish, Washington village and Roker Pier; 129km/80 miles; up to nine days. MAPS OS Explorer 316 and 308; Landranger 88.

Accommodation

Newcastle upon Tyne is the best base for walking the trail. Choose from budget B&Bs to luxury hotels. newcastlegateshead.com/accommodation

Further info

tynewearheritageway.org.uk