Trains and boats and . . .


Actually bus, then ferry, and finally train. Not exactly Burt Bacharach/Hal David, nor Dionne Warwick (or Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas for that matter).

Yesterday, Steph and I took full advantage of our concessionary travel cards to make a round trip by bus to the ferry terminal at North Shields, crossing the River Tyne by ferry to South Shields, and returning home by the metro to our closest station at Northumberland Park.

Our travel concession permits unlimited bus travel after 09:30 each day (nationwide in fact), and with an additional Gold Card payment each of £12, unlimited travel on the local ferry and Metro as well.

The Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive, branded as NEXUS, manages an integrated transport system in the northeast of the UK around Newcastle upon Tyne.

NEXUS brings together the bus, ferry, and Metro services across the five metropolitan boroughs of North Tyneside (where we live) and Newcastle upon Tyne north of the River Tyne, and Gateshead, South Tyneside, and Sunderland south of the river, that together once constituted the metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear.

So, with that in mind, we planned our excursion that would use all three of these services to get around.

Our journey started at 10:25 from a bus stop less than a couple of hundred meters from home. The No 19 service was supposed to operate every hour, although there was some confusion yesterday since a new operator had just taken over the route, and some services did not show up. Ours was about five minutes late, and the journey to the ferry took about 35 minutes.

The journey was quite interesting since it took us through areas of North Tyneside (south of where we live) that we have never explored. It was a little bit longer than we anticipated, since we did not recognise the ferry bus stop, and so stayed on board while the bus completed its route around North Shields before returning to the ferry stop.

We just missed the 11 am ferry to South Shields. But that didn’t matter. Although quite cold (just 2-3°C), it was a bright and sunny day, so we enjoyed exploring the ferry quay and reading about its history before our ferry, Spirit of the Tyne docked around 11:20.

The trip across the Tyne takes about seven minutes, with interesting views along each bank where heavy industries like ship building once thrived. Nowadays some of the land has been converted to choice waterside apartment buildings, although further up river there is an active Port of Tyne, and quays for the ferry service to Amsterdam and where cruise ships also dock. In port yesterday was the Fred Olsen Bolette, preparing for a cruise to Iceland later that same evening.

The ferry quay on the South Shields side is just a stone’s throw from the town center.

Just beyond the quay stands The Word – that National Centre for the Written Word, which we didn’t visit but we must make a plan to return to.

We didn’t actually have any plan at all yesterday, apart from making the round trip. But as soon as we had landed in South Shields we discovered that the remains of an important Roman fort (which I had read about but totally forgotten) were less than a mile away. So we headed through the town center to reach Arbeia, on a plot of land known as The Lawes high above the town.

And we were in luck as yesterday was the first day of opening this year. Entrance was free.

Founded around AD 160, Arbeia was a key garrison and military supply base to support the troops who constructed and afterwards manned Hadrian’s Wall further west. The remains of numerous granaries (there were, at one time, up to 24 of these store houses) can be clearly seen from the ramparts of the reconstructed West Gatehouse.

In addition to the gatehouse, there is a reconstructed barracks showing what life might have been like for Roman and auxiliary soldiers all those centuries ago.

The first archaeological investigation of Arbeia began in 1870. More photos of the site and inside the reconstructed buildings (with explanations) can be viewed here.

After a quick picnic lunch, we had a look round the museum, before heading to view the mouth of the River Tyne and across the river to Tynemouth and its priory.

By about 14:00 we had arrived back at South Shields’ new Metro station at the Interchange Square, where we took the metro back home.

South Shields is the end of the line, and just as we stepped on to the platform, the next train was pulling into the station.

Trains from South Shields (yellow line) head into Newcastle city center, before turning east to Whitley Bay and Tynemouth on the North Sea coast and looping back to the St James terminus.

Our stop, Northumberland Park, was 24 stops, and almost 50 minutes. Sitting in a stuffy Metro carriage, surrounded (for part of the journey from South Shields to Jarrow) by a class of high spirited and noisy schoolchildren who we’d seen at Arbeia) was a bit trying, but crossing the River Tyne between Gateshead and Central Station (where the line goes underground for a few stops) and seeing all the bridges downriver always lifts one’s spirits.

About 15 minutes later we pulled into Northumberland Park, and the train headed off on its continuing journey to the coast.

Then it was a short 10 minute walk home, relief at being able to put my feet up (we’d walked about 4½ miles), and enjoy a welcome afternoon cup of tea. All in all, a good day’s excursion.


Riding the Metro to the sixteenth century and beyond

I love train journeys. Long or short. It makes no difference. I’d travel everywhere by train if it were possible, convenient, and affordable.

And a couple of days ago, after seven months here in the northeast of England (on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne in North Tyneside), Steph and I took our first ride on the region’s Metro. Destination: Tynemouth, just six stations and 12 minutes from our nearest station, Northumberland Park.

We had delayed taking the Metro until Covid-19 travel restrictions had been eased, infection rates had started to decline steeply, and both of us had been vaccinated. It’s now been almost three weeks since we both received our second vaccine doses: Pfizer for me, AstraZeneca for Steph.

Earlier last week we upgraded our concessionary travel passes (CTP) to Gold Cards. With our CTP, we have unlimited free travel on buses nationwide, one of the benefits of being a senior citizen. For an extra £12 fee, we purchased unlimited travel on the Metro that we can use everyday, but only after 09:30 on weekdays. Here’s my CTP. Somehow my image was squashed; the original I submitted with my online application was fine.

The Tyne & Wear Metro (a publicly-owned transport system) serves five metropolitan boroughs: Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside on the north bank of the River Tyne, and Gateshead, South Tyneside, and Sunderland, on the south side, which together make up the former Tyne & Wear metropolitan county. The first stretches of the network opened in 1980, and today comprises the Green and Yellow Lines. In all there are 60 stations along almost 50 miles of track.

Parts of the network utilize former 19th century railway lines, one of the oldest parts being the former Newcastle and North Shields Railway. In recent decades, new Metro lines have been added or extended, taking the network as far west as Newcastle Airport. The system has overhead electrification throughout. The rolling stock is, however, showing its age, and breakdowns are not infrequent. The Metro is currently undergoing a major upgrade and new rolling stock are expected to be introduced over the next couple of years.

Train to Tynemouth approaching Northumberland Park station.

Train departing Northumberland Park towards Shiremoor, the next station down the line, and on to Tynemouth, eventually leading back into Newcastle city center.

Several of the stations are the original ones built for the former rail companies. Monkseaton, Whitley Bay, and Tynemouth are particularly outstanding: beautiful red brick buildings, with glass roofs to the platform edges. Tynemouth is a striking example, and has lost none of its Victorian charm.

Northumberland Park is one of the newest stations, opened in 2005 to serve the recent housing developments nearby on reclaimed mining land, and the Cobalt Business Park just a mile or so to the south (largely vacant at the moment due to office closures during the pandemic).In this video, we are approaching Tynemouth station.

So, why did we head to Tynemouth as our first Metro destination? We’ve been there several times before when visiting Philippa and family over the years.

This time, however, we had a particular Tynemouth destination in sight: Tynemouth Priory and Castle, owned and operated by English Heritage.

This was a Benedictine priory, which the same fate as countless others under the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII between 1539.

The priory (and its fortifications) were built on the headland of Pen Bal Crag, that juts out into the North Sea opposite the end of Tynemouth Front Street.

From the grounds of the priory and castle there are excellent views of St Edward’s Bay to Sharpness Point to the north, and overlooking Short Sands beach.

To the south, the coast stretches past South Shields, overlooking the north and south piers of the entrance to the River Tyne.

While we were having our picnic lunch overlooking the Tyne, a large transporter ship entered the river, making its way west upriver to dock of the port of Newcastle. This was once a very busy port, exporting coal worldwide. And it was a major ship-building location, sadly now disappeared. Although it was a bright sunny day with little breeze, I was surprised at how rough the sea was outside the north pier. As we approached the cliff edge we could hear the booming of the waves as they crashed against the pier. On the other hand, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. For the past few days we’ve had brisk northeasterly winds, with a long fetch down the North Sea from the Arctic.

Just inland from the mouth of the River Tyne, is a huge statue (facing south) of Vice Admiral Lord Cuthbert Collingwood (a Newcastle native) who was second-in-command to Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Humans have occupied Pen Bal Crag for at least two millennia, with remains of Iron Age roundhouses discovered on the site. The earliest priory itself dates from the 7th century, but the ruins standing today date from the 13th century. There is a nice summary of Tynemouth Priory’s history on the English Heritage website.

Today the ruins are a stark reminder of how majestic Tyneside Priory must have been in its heyday. Standing on this peninsula, looking out to sea, the priory reminds me of Whitby Abbey (another site carefully managed by English Heritage on the North Yorkshire coast).

The entrance to the priory passes through the gatehouse of the castle, and opens up on to a broad grassy area, overlooking the coast, and encompassing the ruins, a cemetery of mainly 18th and 19th century graves, many incredibly weathered sandstone, and an abandoned coastguard station. There are also World War One and Two naval gun fortifications facing out to sea.

A couple of things struck me as we walked around the ruins. Again, how the monks chose such inspiring locations to build their monasteries. And second, what a beautiful sandstone they used for Tynemouth Priory and its castle fortifications. It glowed a deep golden brown in the strong May sunshine.

After the Dissolution, the site was occupied for centuries by the military and, as I mentioned earlier, artillery installations from two world wars dominate the cliffs overlooking the entrance to the River Tyne.

There has also been one further addition—a bit of a blot on the landscape—especially as it has been abandoned for 20 years. In 1980, a new coastguard station was constructed alongside the priory ruins. Following a restructuring of the coastguard service in 2001, the station was closed and stands there today, a white elephant staring out to sea. Rather incongruous, given the serenity of the priory ruins close by.

Our visit to Tynemouth Priory was certainly one of our most convenient English Heritage or National Trust visits. Having enjoyed our picnic, we made our way back to the station for the short journey home. We’d walked almost four miles, and enjoyed the sea breezes. No wonder I felt tired after we arrived home. It didn’t take long before I dozed off in my armchair.