Monday, 16 July 2018

St Mary's Island

When I arrived at Hartley Caravan and Motorhome Club Site on 6th June I was very pleased to see how close it was to the low cliff edge. It was a sloping site, and you would probably have a view of the sea from every part of it; but I was able to get onto a pitch that had a really excellent prospect of not only the sea, but St Mary's Island just offshore.

To some extent, the small, old-fashioned pitches on the site - laid out donkeys years ago, and too small now for many of the largest modern caravans and motorhomes - worked in my favour, as my little caravan (seen above) can get on any sized pitch. The site was in fact almost full, and only these smaller pitches were still available on the day.

The sky was a bit grey on arrival, but sun and blue sky soon broke through. Then I could appreciate the Island in all its splendour! I could see it through my door window, from the pitch, and if I sashayed down to the perimeter fence next to the cliff-edge public path, I got a particularly impressive view. 

As you can see, there is a prominent lighthouse on the Island, plus some houses. It's linked to the mainland by a short causeway, which is submerged at really high tides. I imagine that, at least in calm weather, it's possible to wade out to the Island, or wade off it, in most states of the tide.

I very much wanted to go and see St Mary's Island and stand on it. My plan that evening was to drive first into Whitley Bay, then cut back to the Island car park, walk out along the causeway, and see if I could catch the last of the sunset from next to the lighthouse.

The sun was sinking fast as I parked, just before 9.15pm. It was in fact getting tangled up with the trees overlooking the local nature reserve - and likely to quench itself in the nature reserve lake at any moment.

There was not a moment to lose. I hastened down to the causeway. The lighthouse was like a pink candle, set in a pink-blue sea.

Oh no, a hitch in my plans! The causeway was partly under water! More accurately, lazy little waves were creeping over it, not all of them going all the way across. Perhaps an agile and determined person could, with care, make their way onto the Island without necessarily getting wet shoes. I stood and watched a bit: was the tide coming in, or going out?

Now supposing I tight-roped along that raised length of concrete - and kept my balance all the way? Could I do that? I needed to make my mind up fast, because, looking sideways towards the cliff, I could see that the sun had very nearly set.

If the tide were still coming in, then the result of negotiating that narrow length of concrete and reaching the Island would most certainly be wet (and ruined) shoes on the way back, as by then the causeway would be at least ankle-deep in seawater. And the thought of wading barefoot in semi-darkness was not appealing. No, I must return another day. I gazed at the Island one last time. So near, yet so far!

Back at Fiona, I watched a scene that must unfold nightly. One by one, cars driven by young people drove in - some in a spirited manner - and parked in what seemed to be pre-arranged spots. Clearly this was where girls and boys met up. 

I felt that I might be cramping their style, so I fired up Fiona and departed in a blast, just to show them that oldies can be spirited too. 

As it turned out, I didn't get another chance on this holiday to take a low-tide look at St Mary's Island. Something for next year then.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Vera territory - Whitley Bay and the Spanish City

Vera Stanhope, the portly middle-aged Northumbrian Detective Inspector, hit the ITV screens back in 2011, and there has been a fresh batch of Vera episodes annually since then, with more to come for 2019. Until last September, I'd never watched any of them, nor read the original books written by Ann Cleeves. But I saw that lady give a talk at the Appledore Book Festival, and I eventually followed it up by buying the 'Vera' books one by one.

I presently have six of them. But I gave priority to buying and reading the seven 'Shetland' books that feature another Ann Cleeves creation, Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. There came a point when I was reading about Jimmy and Vera alternately. Both detectives improved with knowing, but it was much easier to identify with Vera Stanhope. Well, she was a woman, a bit overweight, had had (like me) an unconventional childhood, and now, in middle age, was very comfortable with her own company. Of course I warmed to her. In the books she's sloppier, and less physically attractive, than the TV version so well-played by actress Brenda Blethyn. But they have merged in my mind, and that's a good thing, because then there is little or no conflict between my mental image of her from reading the books, and the one I have from seeing the TV series.

The visual demands and limitations of TV have however changed the plots and personnel in the books somewhat, though not enough to be concerning. Speaking for myself, I quite like the TV line-up at the police station: they are interesting and as characterful as the people in the books.

One thing the books and the TV series both share is the pervading presence of the Northumbrian coast and countryside, with bits of Tyneside thrown in too. When I finally began to watch Vera on catch-up TV there was many a spot that I recognised - I have been visiting (or passing through) Northumberland since 2002, my first holiday there being in 2006.

Whitley Bay was one of those locations. I had a good look at it (for the first time) last year, as described in my post A day trip to Newcastle 2 on 8th August 2017. But this was before I saw Ann Cleeves at Appledore on 23rd September, and I did not come to Whitley Bay with any special insight, and definitely didn't see it with the eyes of the TV Vera: more than one episode shows scenes of Whitley Bay.

In 2018 I wanted to go back - I was at the Club site at Hartley, just up the coast a bit - and explore the place afresh. I especially wanted to see the Spanish City. In its heyday this had been a grandiose entertainment complex, with a ballroom and funfair rides. Inevitably it had acquired a reputation, as indeed did all of Whitley Bay: it was a magnet for the same kind of loose-living people that Brighton drew in between the wars and after. The place became run-down and tatty. The rides became just a memory.

But now the Spanish City is being completely modernised. Whitley Bay, so long just the destination of choice for sleazy hen and stag parties, is reinventing itself and going somewhat upmarket. I doubt if all the tackiness will disappear, but the face-lift I saw being given to the promenade last year seemed to promise much. Let's see how it turned out.

So. I had just arrived from Barnard Castle, and after my evening meal in the caravan, I drove the two miles into Whitley Bay and parked easily. (In that respect, Whitley Bay is vastly different from Brighton, which hates the motorist) Sunset was coming on. I had perhaps an hour. The big white dome of the Spanish City was my number one objective.

They were still refurbishing it, and a security wall hid much of the ground-level view, although there were small windows to peep through...

...and in places you could get a half-decent ground-level view.

The magnificent white dome and statue-topped towers looked fabulous in the golden light.

Information panels adorned the security wall. It was possible to get a good idea of what the Spanish City had been like in its wildly popular earlier days, before seediness and decay set in. 

Other panels gave impressions of what was planned in the modern renovation.

Lucky Whitley Bay, I say. The rest of the seafront was getting a makeover too.

It was time to leave the Spanish City and explore elsewhere. The sun was going down fast!

Some Vera beach scenes here, to be sure. In the far distance, St Mary's Island and its famous lighthouse - the subject of my next post. And sand all the way.

Some new promenade features caught my eye. Among them, giant metal sandcastles.

They were really shelters from the breeze, while you ate your fish and chips. New seating commemorated the best-known rides.

It was all very smart. Did I have time to walk a stretch of lower promenade in the Cullercoats direction? I decided that I did.

I passed a scene of lovers, dressed as if they had just been to posh do of some kind. They were completely wrapped up in each other, and didn't notice me. The takeaway the young man held seemed incongruous, a nuisance. Put it down, and hold her properly!

Further along, I came to a clock that had looked pretty battered last year. Now it had had a repaint.

I walked back along the road, past caf├ęs and restaurants. No, old-style Whitley Bay wasn't going to fade away. On one corner, a new fish and chip shop was going to open...

Only a little further along, Hinnes ('Geordie Comfort Food'). It was packed with a smart-looking crowd, even though it was a Wednesday night. I decided I would book a meal there (but never did go, as will be explained in a post to come).

Amusement arcades, of course. And ice-cream parlours. Both looked well-maintained though. Perhaps the local council insisted, to ensure that no tattiness spoiled the general impression of a family resort on the up again. 

Vera enthusiasts will recognise the last two scenes!

I'm a devotee of British seaside resorts large and small. I thought Whitley Bay was a great place to go. Plenty of entertainment and places to eat; a smart promenade; the Spanish City; and those sands. 

There was still some light left. The sun was very low now, but not yet gone. Fiona got me to St Mary's Island just in time - next post.