Tales from End to End
The Staggering Surfer’s Tale
by Peter Eckersley
Following the Victorian railway revolution, Whitley Bay, Tynemouth and other towns on the coast around Newcastle became popular holiday destinations for families from northern England and southern Scotland. They developed as traditional British seaside towns, with long stretches of sand, beach huts, entertainment venues, cafés, caravan sites and hotels. In Whitley Bay, a permanent fairground, the Spanish City, was sited on the sea front next to an iconic art deco building whose domed roof was the second largest in the UK (after St Paul’s Cathedral) when it was constructed in 1910.
As was the case with many seaside resorts however, more accessible air travel and higher disposable incomes led to many tourists rejecting UK resorts in favour of the warmer climes of the Mediterranean. In recent decades, the fairground, which was immortalised in the Dire Straits track Tunnel of Love, began to operate only on bank holiday weekends, and the Dome fell into disrepair and became something of an eyesore.
Nonetheless, much of the traditional architecture and ‘feel’ of the British seaside resort remains. More recently, the Dome has been refurbished and North Tyneside Council has begun to market the area as a weekend destination – there are still plenty of hotels, restaurants and other tourist-related businesses operating along the coast. And although many of its residents are far from delighted by the impact it has had on some parts of the town, Whitley Bay in particular has developed a reputation for attracting stag and hen parties.
When the wedding of your Tyneside-based correspondent approached, he decided to celebrate his stag weekend locally. Along with a visit to Newcastle’s greyhound track and an ale or two in quality local hostelries, he opted for a barbeque and surfing on Tynemouth’s Longsands beach on the Saturday afternoon.
Surfing in the UK has taken off in recent decades, with beaches in the south-west of England (particularly Cornwall) developing reputations for large swells and hosting regular competitions. Due to its location, Cornwall benefits from big waves when the wind comes from a south-westerly direction, which has the added advantage of bringing warm weather from the Azores. In contrast, surfing conditions on the east coast are normally at their best when the wind blows in from Scandinavia or the Arctic.
The waves at Longsands beach on my stag weekend were perhaps the best I’d seen there in around a decade living on Tyneside. Needless to say, this meant it wasn’t the warmest day I’ve ever experienced during that time. However, anyone who has ever had a night out on Tyneside in January will be aware that Geordies have their own internal thermostats, which render apparel such as coats, scarves, hats and gloves completely unnecessary. Unfortunately, visitors from the south are unable to develop these thermostats – even by drinking Brown Ale – and so perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised that seven of the party (southerners almost to a man) refused to take part on what was a fairly chilly day. They remained unconvinced that the temperature of the North Sea makes it a good place to surf, since man-eating (or even stag-eating) sharks tend to be at a premium in colder waters.
So together with three fellow northerners (and, to be fair, a token southerner), I paid for a quick masterclass instruction session in surfing basics, practising on the dry beach. Unfortunately, we had to remove our wigs before taking to the waves (the theme for the weekend was mullet haircuts), in case they came off in the water and ended up in a Norwegian fjord. But believe it or not, surfing is easier than it looks – each of us was able to stand up on our boards on several occasions. The hardest part is fighting against the power of the waves to get back out to sea each time, which can be exhausting.
The southern stags, still bewigged, split into two groups while we were in the water. Some huddled round the barbeque, but a couple of others retreated to the comforts of the nearest pub. After our two hours of coaching and surfing was up, we joined them of course – staggering up the beach – though not for a cup of cocoa, to warm up.
Editor’s note: Such has been the phenomenal (staggering, you might say) rise of the North-East’s surfing reputation that public relations officials in Cornwall are reported to be running scared. It has been suggested that Newquay, the self-styled mecca for surfers from around the world, is considering a wholesale rebranding of its image in order to counter the threat from Northumberland. On the street gossip suggests that ‘Newquay, the Whitley Bay of the South’ is likely to be the favoured publicity catch phrase. Remember; you first heard it here.
Peter is our son and lives with his wife Susannah and daughter Abigail in Whitley Bay. He is still a York City fan even though he is greatly appreciating his chosen Northumberland home.