Award-winning beaches, romantic ruins and artisan cafés make this town a jewel on the northeast coast. Words: Jessica Johnson
Tynemouth is a bright little ruby of a town on the northeast coast, perhaps most recognisable for its clifftop castle and Benedictine abbey ruins that stand aloft over a sweeping headland of rocky outcrops and Blue Flag beaches. The area is a former stomping ground to Lord Collingwood, Admiral Nelson’s second-in command at the Battle of Trafalgar, whose weathered memorial statue stands 80ft from the cliffs. Around town (nicknamed by locals as ‘the village’), a smattering of blue plaques cling to the walls of old ship-builders’ houses, offering a tantalising glimpse into the area’s rich maritime heritage.
It’s an old town bubbling with new-found prosperity. None know it more so than the flock of surfers, kayakers, yoga converts and open-sea swimmers who gather for weekend coffee and buns at Robinson Crusoe’s, a cool, come-as-you-are café situated right on Longsands Beach. Or the many passionate foodies – a range of chefs, hoteliers and fishermen – who source the cream of the catch straight from North Shields quayside; the working dock bookends Tynemouth with Cullercoats, an ancient fishing village with a cliff-backed bay.
The current mood for food in the area will see the fourth Tynemouth Food Festival play out in the grounds of the Priory ruins this May. Then there’s the town’s weekly flea market – held in the ornate Victorian surroundings of Tynemouth train station – which has become the go-to place for artisan produce and freshly ground coffee beans, both blending in beautifully with the established antiques set. And if too much fresh air has you hankering for a night out on the town? Nay worries, pet. The bright lights and hubbub of Newcastle city centre is less than 30 minutes away by Metro.
9AM A BIG GEORDIE BREAKFAST
Martineau Guest House, a Grade II-listed building 200 metres from the sea, won the North East Bed and Breakfast/Guest Accommodation of the Year in 2014. It was formerly home to one of England’s first female journalists, Harriet Martineau, who convalesced at the house after a serious illness during 1840-45 where she was visited by the likes of Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë. Her sea-facing room is now one of four cosy en-suite bedrooms run by Sally Craigen. Sally is the driving force behind the Tynemouth Food Festival and has already notched up five stars from VisitEngland for her home-cooked breakfasts, which she makes to order from scratch while chatting away in her homely, open-plan kitchen. The Big Geordie Breakfast (which has an excellent vegetarian option as well) consists of bespoke Martineau sausages with all the trimmings and home-made organic bread.
2PM WHEELS AND ICES
Simon and Mary Laing are breathing new life into outdoor adventure pursuits on the North Tyneside coast. Their self-started company, Cullercoats Bike and Kayak, consists of a fleet of classic bicycles and sit-on-top kayaks that are available to hire or use as part of colourful guided tours. With Simon leading the way, I climb aboard a Pashley bike and hug the sea to St Mary’s lighthouse, tuning in to the many facts on local geology, culture and history that fly from Simon’s lips faster than the wind that’s carrying us. Whitley Bay’s iconic white dome, known locally as the Spanish City, is undergoing millions of pounds’ worth of investment as part of a restoration and regeneration scheme. Its heritage lives on at Delaval Ices, where we down wheels for a cornet of ‘Spanish City’: a creamy fusion of vanilla and raspberry ripple studded with white chocolate chunks that has this 100-year-old family ice-cream makers billed as the North East’s finest. Back on our saddles, we pedal down the coast to the heart of North Shields docks, passing the parched remains of Tynemouth’s 1920s-built open-air sea pool. Good news for lido lovers – with the help of a local committee, it’s hoped the pool will soon be returned to its former glory.
6PM MASTERCHEF AT WORK
Chef John Calton is a local boy made good. Following years of training alongside Michelin-starred chefs and a nail-biting cook-off on BBC One’s Masterchef: The Professionals, John opened his first restaurant, The Staith House, in the hub of North Shields quayside in 2013. My three-course meal, which starts with chunks of home-made bread and butter, consists of House cured salmon, served with salt ling, coriander, ginger and soy, followed by grilled red fish on a bed of peas, mint, lettuce and courgettes. Pudding is a generous bowl of raspberry Eton mess. The ingredients are sourced locally so the menu changes daily.
9AM STATION STOP
When you’re gently awoken to the cry of seagulls and met with panoramic views of a sparkly North Sea, you can see why Harriet Martineau chose Tynemouth for her five-year bout of bed rest. I just wish she could have sampled day two’s breakfast: a strong cup of coffee and a piece of delicious North Shields haddock topped with poached egg on toast. Tynemouth Markets, described as the ‘Covent Garden of the north’ stokes up around 9am so I get there early. The winter sun streams through the glazed skylight and the air fills with the smell of coffee and sizzling crêpes. Stallholders and book sellers dust off their antiques for the bartering and the old station is soon buzzing with chatter and the lyrical beat of busking musicians.
11AM WET PLAY
Tynemouth is geared up for a spot of rain. There’s a downpour so we head indoors to the local Blue Reef Aquarium. In addition to 40 displays of fish and marine life, including stingrays, frogs and seahorses, visitors can watch otters at feeding time and find out about the Aquarium’s work in conservation. Since being set up in 2004, the on-site Marine Rescue Centre has rescued and rehabilitated more than 200 seal pups.
1PM DIL-ICIOUS TASTES
Everyone’s talking about Dil & the Bear, a family-run artisan café and patisserie on Front Street that specialises in home-made cakes, great coffee and delicious tasting plates. I opt for the fishy platter, a trio of treacle-and-citrus-cured salmon, smoked haddock fishcake and chilli lime mackerel pâté served with Lavash crispbread brushed with warm honey. Owner Dil set up the café in 2013 after 27 years away in Dubai: ‘I’ve always loved the area and wanted to lay my roots back down here,’ she says.
2PM REMAINS OF THE DAY
The dramatic fortress and monastery of Tynemouth Priory and Castle dates back over 2,000 years. Once home to a monastic community during the seventh century, the grounds were fortified until the 1950s and have long provided a stronghold for military defence soldiers who protected the area using their once unassailable headland location. The fifteenth-century Percy Chantry, the only part of the priory church to survive, is decorated floor to ceiling with vivid illustrations.
5PM UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS
Opened in 2012, Barca Art Café is the sister of the lively Barca Art Bar, where the atmosphere is on a par with excellent locally sourced food. Warming tagines and baked whole fish have earned a great reputation among locals and visitors alike.
Martineau Guest House
Owner Sally’s ‘Taste of the Sea’ weekends include a tour of the local fish quay, expert tuition in preparing and cooking fish, with all ingredients provided, and two nights’ dinner, B&B. Prices start from £540 based on two people sharing martineau-house.co.uk
The Grand Hotel
Situated across the road from Longsands Beach, this regal hotel’s winter package includes a two-night stay with full English breakfast, dinner in the house restaurant plus wine and chocolates. Prices from £190 per person grandhotel-uk.com
Tucked in the heart of the village, this spacious, two-bedroom, self-catering cottage has characterful beams and all mod cons. Prices from £400 per week tynemouthholidaycottages.co.uk
HOW TO GET THERE
By car from the south, take the A1 straight to Newcastle, then follow the A1058 to Tynemouth. By train, Newcastle is under three hours from London King’s Cross and five hours direct from Bristol Temple Meads, then it’s a 30-minute Metro ride. For more information, go to visitnorthtyneside.com