I’ve been meaning to get up to Whitley Bay for a while now, and today I finally made the trip. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long: it’s half an hour from central Newcastle on the metro – no bother at all to get there from Durham.
A Victorian seaside resort, Whitley has a forgotten feel to it: time has passed it by and walking from the metro station to the esplanade I felt like walking through a ghost town. There were no tourists or day trippers to be seen, despite this being half term week. I was reminded of Westcliff-on-Sea, the Essex resort I lived in for three years before escaping two miles down the coast to the more desirable Leigh-on-Sea. Like Westcliff, but with fewer people and more boarded up buildings.
I got to the sea front to find the tide in, and the sea a deep vibrant blue. The coast here consists of sandy bays separated by rocky cliffs. I followed the cliff road north towards St Mary’s Island and its prominent lighthouse. Whitley Bay itself (or should I say Whitley Sands) looked unappealing and I was starting to wonder if it was worth the trip to come here. The only people about were locals: family groups and older couples. But everyone seemed relaxed and I found myself missing that sense of ownership and pride that comes with living in a coastal town.
I walk past a small skate park, and stop to watch the kids playing daredevil on their scooters and bikes. I feel fear – that one of them might come a cropper – and envy at their fearlessness, ability and amazing sense of timing. The scene looked chaotic but the children naturally choreographed their movements to avoid collision. Skateboarding was popular in Westcliff too, but they only had the promenade to play on, and had to dodge walkers not each other.
As the lighthouse comes into view, I notice orchids growing on the cliff face. I am starting to forget the aura of neglect from Whitley town, and instead start to feel peace and tranquility. More people are congregated on the outcrop of land leading to St Mary’s. Everyone is relaxed and happy. Gulls, terns and oystercatchers wait out the high tide on the rocks below, while carrion crows and starlings hang out on the promenade railings.
I turn around and face south. From here, Whitley looks proud and majestic – in its prime. I can see why people wanted to visit here in their droves in the past, and I wonder what has changed for the town to be in such decline. The coastal resorts along the Thames estuary where I spent so many years teem with summer visitors, yet the quality of the coastline here along the Tyne estuary is far superior to anything Essex has to offer.
While my map shows the lighthouse to be reachable by road, this is actually a causeway that floods in high tide. I’ll have to come back another day to explore St Mary’s. I walk back along the bay as the tide is starting to go out. But first I stop at an elbow in the land where the spring tide has dumped mounds of rotting seaweed. Swallows and sand martins fearlessly hoover up flies at high speed – more like bats than birds. Meanwhile, families of starlings pick over the seaweed for invertebrates. So much life and death in such a small space.
The ever-so-slowly retreating waves leave a black glitter of coal dust. In the North East you are never far away from coal. Black pebbles lie among green, red, blue and brown ones. Some bear fossils, all tell a story if you know how to read it.
Halfway back to Whitley, people are pointing out to sea. A seal! A flotilla of canada geese drift northwards. The seal plays peek a boo and then disappears back out to sea.
Reaching the end of the bay, I find myself reluctant to head back home. I climb out of the bay and walk along the esplanade towards Cullacoats. Again, I feel the sense of loss and abandonment to the town. People go about their business, but this place should be buzzing. I head back along the cliff path, dog walkers and fishermen the only human company. Fulmars patrol the cliffs, and several are nesting on the cliff face. A rock pipit displays, looking and sounding like a skylark on acid.
I reluctantly head back to the metro station and home. The town still feels empty, but I felt very welcome here. I hope the future for Whitley is as bright as its past, but whatever happens to the town, the coastline here will always be a treasure.
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