The Engineer’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Engineer’s Tale

Newbiggin-by-the-Sea

by Claire Fugill

Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, like many Northumberland villages, has a large amount of history and character. The name ‘Newbiggin’ is rumoured to have been named by the Vikings meaning ‘New Beginnings’. At one time, Newbiggin was a major port for the shipping of grain and was said to be third in importance in this trade after Hull and London.

Many inhabitants of the village were employed in coal mining, and the closure of Newbiggin Colliery in 1967 had a great impact on the village and the residents. However, the village today is best known as a traditional small fishing port making use of traditional coble boats.

There are a number of landmarks along the coast at Newbiggin; one of the most notable is the lifeboat station. The lifeboat station, that has been open since 1851, is the oldest operational boat house in the British Isles. The Newbiggin rescue station is a key example of the strong local community spirit. Over the past 160 years, many lifeboat crew volunteers have played a vital part in the running of the station and as a result many lives have been saved.

In 2007 the village underwent a large Bay Regeneration Project. This involved a number of different aspects including:

  • the construction of a 200m breakwater
  • 500,000 tonnes of sand dredged from Lincolnshire being placed on the beach
  • the installation of an offshore sculpture: ‘The Couple’
  • promenade improvements.
Claire Fugill on Newbiggin beach
Claire Fugill on Newbiggin beach

At university I studied Civil and Structural Engineering – as a result during my summers I often donned a hard hat and hi-visibility vest and headed out on site to gain some course relevant experience. In June 2007 I found myself working in Newbiggin alongside a site team responsible for the promenade improvements of the regeneration project. Unfortunately, by the time September came round my suntan was somewhat non-existent compared to other people who had spent all summer on a beach – the main reason for this is a beach on the North-East coast of England which definitely does not get as much sun as a sandy beach on an exotic holiday island. This is a fact I was very aware on some cold and early Monday mornings on site!

The promenade improvements consisted of four main areas- viewing platforms behind the existing breakwater wall, Vernon Place – a new landscaping area adjacent to the lifeboat station, new horseshoe steps providing additional access for the public onto the (newly sanded) beach and finally the renovation of the old boat yard at the far south end of the promenade.

The walk from the site office to the boat yard was nearly a mile, although this was normally quite an enjoyable walk, and doing it a couple of times a day definitely kept me fit, you could always guarantee (especially the days you were very much in a hurry) that a very keen and friendly local would stop you in your tracks and begin an in-depth discussion into the progress of all the work. Although inconvenient at times, this showed how passionate and excited many of the local residents were about all the work going on in their home village. Due to all the dredging work also going on at the same time, Newbiggin Bay was becoming Newbiggin beach and the first few days of summer weather resulted in many of the locals heading out with their buckets and spades enjoying their new sea front.

The enthusiasm from the villagers meant that I, and the other site staff, became familiar with a few characters who were very keen to help, in any way they could, with the work. A website was frequently updated with photos taken by observers as the work progressed. Although the website and the photos were very useful when I came to report on my summer placement back at university, there was also an element of harmless stalking when occasionally a photo of myself, or a colleague, would appear on the website and we would have no idea the photo had been taken! One of my favourite ‘Newbiggin helpers’ was an elderly lady who regularly baked fresh home-made pies and passed them through the site barriers to some of the labourers to ‘keep their energy up!’.

Newbiggin Bay Sculpture
Newbiggin Bay Sculpture

Part of the regeneration project was the installation of the ‘Couple’ statue, which is Britain’s first permanent offshore sculpture. The Couple stand on the Bay’s breakwater looking out across the North Sea. Although only the back of the Couple can be seen, a miniature version of the sculpture is located at Vernon Place and can be seen from the front and back! When the Couple was first installed, like all art work, the opinion of what people thought was very varied. Regardless of the varied opinions; and I will leave it to yourself to decided what you think; the Couple has become part of Newbiggin’s identity, an identity many residents are proud to be associated with.