Westall Walk

A journey through history

Not much more than a stone`s throw from North Shields Metro Station Vicarage Street points downhill towards the River Tyne. You can almost feel its closeness. It was here, at number 7, an unpretentious Tyneside terraced flat, that Robert Westall lived for the first 5 years of his life, before moving little more than a mile away to 18 Balkwell Green. The blue plaque attached to the house marks the start of this walk. The son of Robert Atkinson Westall and his wife Maggie, Robert used his parents as the models for the McGills in The Machine Gunners and Fathom Five novels. At the bottom of the street, head left along the opposite side of Waterville Road before crossing into Trinity Terrace and down past the Berwick Arms public house.

Immediately after the old canteen building turn right through the small passageway into Tennyson Terrace, an address (together with its variant Tennyson Street) utilised by Robert Westall in a number of his books. In Falling Into Glory it was the home of Emma Harris whilst in The Night Mare the Leggetts lived at Back Tennyson Street. In actual fact, Robert`s grandfather, Robert Dodds Westall, lived in Tennyson Terrace in the early years of the 20th Century and he is a major character of the short story The Making of Me in the collection Echoes of War. Proceed straight ahead and once halfway along Tennyson Terrace, now an area of new housing, make a slight diversion to your right for a view down to the river. The adjacent steps, which you should take as far as the viewing balcony, ultimately lead to the site of the former Dukes Street, part of the “Low Street” referred to in Fathom Five and other books. Back in Tennyson Terrace, continue as far as the path between numbers 16 and 18 and head across the footbridge which spans the deep cutting of Borough Road as it tumbles towards the New Quay and the river.

Over the bridge and by the wall at the corner of Waldo Street and Yeoman Street where it’s just possible to catch sight of the New Quay. The ground floor of the old Sailor`s Home, on the corner of Borough Road, appears in Fathom Five in the guise of the `Ministry of Ag & Fish`. The building has now been tastefully converted into flats. Directly below the wall is Clive Street, the narrow main road of 18th Century North Shields and also part of Robert Westall`s fictitious `Low Street`. When Robert was growing up in North Shields this was a disreputable area and in his 1964 Shields Weekly News article he noted that “……nearly every male member of my family have come near drowning here”. In The Promise, Bob brings Valerie on this high walk on one of their secret trips, commenting that it is safer than taking her through the `Low Street`. He noted that you could see everything that went on below “as though from the gallery of a theatre”. Many years ago Clive Street was home to a number of Greek shipping chandlers, similar to Xenophon Kallonas, the alleged spy in Fathom Five.

Walk along Yeoman Street, passing on the corner of Lower Rudyerd Street, the old Town Mission, and continue into Little Bedford Street, ignoring the first flight of stairs on your right. Descend the next flight, Tiger Stairs, named after the Tiger Inn which once stood at the foot of the stairs, crossing the steep gradient of Bedford Street into Union Street. Continue up the slope of Union Street with the Magnesia Bank public house to your left. Nearby, the Howard Hall cinema once stood, an establishment referred to in The Night Mare as a “fleapit” and the only picture house in town. On reaching Howard Street turn right and head for the railings high above the river. From here, next to Maritime Chambers once the home of the Stag Line and before that the Tynemouth Literary and Philosophical Society`s library, there are extensive views of the river. Below, slightly to the right and now surrounded by new housing, is the Haddock Shop Dock where trawlers and lightships were serviced. This was mentioned in The Promise. To the left, on Custom House Quay, is the Prince of Wales public house where a number of `wooden dolly` figureheads have stood since the early part of the 19th Century. The people of the `Low Street` were attached to these figureheads despite their habit of cutting off pieces for luck, a practice which was noted in Fathom Five. Leaving Maritime Chambers behind, walk along the pavement adjacent to the grass bank which falls away to your right and eventually to the `Low Street`. The ice factory that delighted Valerie in The Promise stood to the right of the tall blue building on Western Quay, the current ice making plant.

To your left is Linskill Street, the address of Robert Westall`s grandfather at the time of his marriage in 1897, although the original properties have long since been demolished. It is interesting to note that in the same year a 7 year old Arthur Stanley Jefferson, better known as Stan Laurel, was just beginning his four North Shields years in the very next street, Dockwray Square.

In The Machine Gunners fabric from the barrage balloon which was tethered in the south west corner of the square was used as roofing material for the camp. Opposite the square stands the High Light, a stunning white tower, and it was here, in The Promise, that Bob Bickerstaffe brought Valerie for her very last walk. Slightly further along, on the other side of the road, stands the old High Light, built by Trinity House in 1727, and marking the start of the elegant terrace known as Trinity Buildings. From here there are splendid views of the Fish Quay which is featured in Fathom Five, The Promise and The Watch House. Continue as far as the small car park attached to the Wooden Doll public house, behind which lies the area known as Pow Dene, first developed as a tannery in 1766. Nearby stood the North Shields Fish Oil & Guano Works, whose choking smell plagued the town well into the 1960`s,and which was used by Robbie and Emma, in Falling Into Glory, as their trysting place until they were surprised by William Wilson.

Head forwards along Tynemouth Road for half a mile until you reach the first set of traffic lights. Turn left into Upper Norfolk Street and on reaching Northumberland Square cut diagonally across the central park area towards the large 1960`s Central Library building. Once at the corner of the building you will be standing next to the Wooden Dolly statue which faces down Howard Street towards the River Tyne. This 1958 life size sculpting of a fisherwoman carrying a basket and wearing traditional shawl and full skirts is carved from wood and is painted brown. It stands as a tribute to the part women played in the economic life of the area. Within the square itself there are some fine Georgian houses, now all converted to offices. Follow Howard Street until you reach the small square in front of the beautiful Maritime Chambers (10) with superb views over the River Tyne. Completed in 1807, this building originally housed the Tynemouth Literary and Philosophical Society`s library before becoming the headquarters of the family run Stag Line shipping company. The company`s stag emblem adorns the gable wall of the building, overlooking the river, and when erected replaced the town`s official clock. Within the square there is a fine memorial, made from an old ship`s anchor, to all those lost at sea. With your back to Maritime Chambers walk along the pavement adjacent to the top of the grass bank which falls away steeply to your right.

Before long you will reach the modern buildings of Dockwray Square set around a laid out park area in the centre of which sits Robert Olley`s wonderful sculpting of Stan Laurel, one of North Shields` famous sons. Born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston in 1890, Stan moved to North Shields in 1897 when his father came to manage the Theatre Royal in Prudhoe Street. He continued to live in 8 Dockwray Square until 1901 when he moved to Bishop Auckland and later, in 1906, to Glasgow. The original house has long since been demolished and the blue plaque (11) is affixed between the current numbers 6 and 7 Dockwray Square.

Take the stairs, known as Union Quay Stairs, adjacent to the Wooden Doll public house down to the Fish Quay, turning left when you reach the bottom. At the New Dolphin public house and the fine art work, `Dolphin Mooring Post`, turn right alongside the fish merchants units towards the river. Once on the riverside look to your right and you will see the wooden remains of the walkway to the former Lloyds Hailing Station over which the Dornier Flying Pencil flew in A Time of Fire. Continue to your left along the edge of the Fish Quay `sands`, “a little crescent of beach where you could always find something smelly and interesting washed up”. It was here that Chas McGill, Cem Jones and Sheila Smythson built their raft in Fathom Five before sailing out on the dangerous river. Follow the pedestrianised promenade beside the river eventually passing beneath the monumental statue of Lord Collingwood, Nelson`s second in command at the Battle of Trafalgar. The monument is a regular feature of Robert Westall`s books and from this vantage point Chas McGill watches the tug Hendon in her battles with the Kreigsmarine. In The Promise Bob and Valerie visit the monument on one of their walks and in A Time of Fire, Thomas Prudhoe vents his grief and frustration by shooting at seagulls and the monument. Later, in August 1940, Sonny Prudhoe sits on the monument`s plinth reading his dad`s letter and looking over to South Shields. It ought to be remembered that when Robert was growing up in North Shields there was no promenade here and the area around the monument came to an abrupt end at steep cliffs falling down to the notorious Black Midden rocks below. Much of the action in The Watch House took place on those cliffs and on the rocks below. Not only did the Old Feller witness the murder of Scobie Hague whilst hiding in the rocks but also the body of the Gallower was buried in the cliffs.

Written by Geoff Holland.

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Westall Walk Plaque