Is it possible to write a travelogue of the town you live in? I want to say no, but then the thought of the ex-pat springs to mind: an outsider’s insight is surely the key to accurate reportage? Good start.
I wasn’t born in Whitley Bay, nor did I grow up here. I chose to move here when I decided it was time to flee the nest. A few years later I chose to move back when it came time to raise a family. It’s that kind of place: safe, cosy, aspirational. We have independent shops, cafes, restaurants. Whitley Bay is the envy of at least some of the local towns: we don’t much care; we’re here because we like it here.
Whitley Bay is a seaside town in North Tyneside, and can be found on the coast of what used to be Northumberland. It has huge, long, clean sandy beaches and extensive parks. It is a peaceful town, with active nightlife and a strong community spirit. It is clean and modern, except for where it is not. It has some of the best fish and chips, and Italian ice cream, in the whole country. Award winners.
Whitley Bay is a town which has undergone a lot of changes over the years; some for the good, others for the bad. However, it has come out of it all smiling and prosperous, which is nice.
Whitley Bay was a popular holiday destination for at least a century; the train network saw to that. The local holiday park thrives, even in these days of cheap flights and winter sun. For a while I used to live in Scotland; the number of kids from Glasgow, from the Highlands, from the North East who would recount tales of childhood holidays in Whitley Bay always astounded me. I’m not sure why, in any other part of the country it’s precisely the kind of place my family would find ourselves in today.
The town thrived on tourist trades of various sorts. In the late 20th / early 21st century the town attracted a very particular crowd of tourists: stag and hen parties. These would flood the town with drunken debauchery every weekend, and the once nostalgic, family reputation of Whitley Bay started to crumble. Within a few years the town centre became a no go area on weekend evenings; something needed to be done. Local businesses clamped down on large parties, and they moved on. We still get abuse from the citizens of York for passing the revellers down to them. It’s possible.
The streets of pubs which once fed these incomers are now flats and houses; local opinion is divided. On one hand, local residents are glad of the quiet after countless years of their streets being taken over by throngs of revellers. On the other hand, the decline in business which for a time decimated the shops in the town centre has been blamed on the loss of the passing trade tourism naturally brings with it. In addition to the lure of York, cheap flights have taken the bulk of the town’s visitors to sunnier climes: why paddle in the North Sea when the Mediterranean is so much warmer?
Then again, the Whitley Bay of my childhood is very different to the one of recent years. The sea front was bustling with amusement arcades, bedecked in sequins, spewing out their erratic babble, and sucking in the pocket money of generations of locals and incomers alike. Now, only two remain. They capture the mood of the arcades gone by, but are indicative of the decline the town endured.
The guest houses too: once, every terraced street was full of guest houses, accommodating families of holiday makers from around the country. Now, most streets are largely residential, and the guest houses which do remain cater mostly to contractors working in the area, working in regeneration.
Regeneration has been key to Whitley Bay in recent years: our main landmark, the Dome, has been its main focus, with scheme after scheme commissioned, commenced and then collapsing. National Lottery funding has allowed the current scheme to take hold nicely. The Dome sits above a complex known as the Spanish City, and is almost all that remains of what was funfair, concert hall and tea room, dating back to 1910. Dire Straits mention Spanish City in their song “Tunnel of Love”, its lyrics adorning the wall of the piazza it stands high above. Legend has it that another local musician, Sting, spent his time at the Spanish City, when he should have been studying for his A levels. At the time of writing, all that stands is a near derelict building amidst a construction site. Times are a-changing.
Regeneration is planned all along Whitley Bay’s sea front, its crumbling sea defences long in need of reinforcement; it’s ill-fated arcades now demolished after decades of ruin. The plan is for the site to be a public space for pop-up businesses and food markets. This fits far better with the image Whitley Bay is currently carving for itself than sleazy subterranean bars and nightclubs. Families like food.
The decline of Whitley Bay hurt us all, but it now feels that it may have only been a temporary blip. We have new cafes, fashion boutiques, restaurants, micro pubs, bakeries opening up every month or so. In contrast to recent years they are not only staying open, but they are flourishing. In contrast to recent years the largest sector of business growth is not charity shops. These new local business are joining forces, showing themselves proudly to the world via social media, uniting under the banner of a community which feels rightly happy with itself. Vibrant businesses occupy once vacant shops; we can now buy goods and services on our doorstep, rather than having to get in the car.
The Whitley Bay of 2017 feels a lot more lively, a lot more family-focussed, a lot more excited for the future than the Whitley Bay of 2007 or 1997. It feels less hung up on what has been lost, and more encouraged by what could be gained. We are not about to return to the tourist trade of old; then again, we are not about to return to the stag and hen dos of years gone by either. Whitley Bay has an exciting future; I’m glad, because I have no desire to move anywhere else. Not even Tynemouth.