Of all the places the Northumberland Coast has to offer, Newbiggin by the Sea is an unlikely choice as a day out destination. It doesn’t have the grandeur of Bamburgh, for example, or the quaint charm of Alnmouth. This downtrodden seaside town has received a number of blows to its self esteem over the years. Like many of the towns and villages in the Wansbeck area it had to overcome the legacy of coal mining decline, and then, in a cruel twist of geographical fate, lost its beach to coastal erosion. Certainly, the atmosphere when we pulled up in the car park seemed hauntingly melancholy. The sky and the sand were various shades of grey, and the strip of sea in between them choppy and charcoal coloured. Union Jack bunting from the previous weekend’s patriotic excesses was draped mournfully along railings, doleful, soggy and redundant. Even the swoops and squawks of the seagulls above our heads seemed sad.
But rather than getting back in the car and heading off to a more upbeat destination, I decided to give Newbiggin a chance. Why? Well, readers of my last blog about Whitburn will recall my affection for the seaside. Also, my husband was born in nearby Ashington, where his grandparents still live. Trips to the Newbiggin promenade were a staple part of his childhood. So this is a place I think my son should know about too, bound up as it is in his family history. With that in mind, we made our way from the bleak car park to the new Newbiggin Maritime Centre. Here, I was disabused of my first impression of Newbiggin as a grey and glum location. Newbiggin, I learned, is an extraordinary place.
The Maritime Centre sits on the sea front, and from the car park its spiky geometrical architecture echoes that of St Bartholomew’s Church set a little way back from the beach, both buildings in their own way recording the history of the town’s residents. The centre houses a cafe, gift shop, community cinema, research archive and two main exhibitions, one charting the town’s history and the second focusing on the role played by lifeboat in forming the town’s identity. In the latter, the Mary Joicey Lifeboat dominates the double height exhibition space, and in a vault below it a film charts the relationship between the town, its lifeboats and the dangerous but plentiful sea, which has both given wealth and taken lives throughout the centuries. The inclusion of traditional songs, and of verse by local poet Stan Green, made this exhibition authentic, poignant and moving. Newbiggin residents should be proud to have their history documented so skilfully. But though much of the museum focuses on the serious side of the town’s maritime heritage and the enormous bravery and sacrifice of its lifeboat volunteers, there was fun to be had too, in the form of a pirate ship-shaped reading area and lifesaving themed game of hoopla, both of which helped to keep our son entertained.
The centre’s bright and cheery Breakwater Cafe overlooks the bay and the rockpools and is the perfect place for watching the world go by whilst enjoying a crab stottie, plateful of delicious fish and chips or tub of Doddington’s ice cream. We sat and watched the lifeboat being towed back up the beach by the tractor, whilst the distant ghostly towers and chimneys of Blyth appeared through the sea fret as we looked further down the coast. After lunch we took our son for a go on the swings in the nearby play park, and walked along Northumberland’s longest stretch of promenade, which forms a huge semi circle around the bay. The town’s beach has been restored thanks to the Bay’s Sea Defence Scheme and another crucial component of this restoration is Sean Henry’s sculpture Couple. Out in the bay two distant, giant figures stand on a platform with their backs to the shore, captivated by the timeless appeal of the sea and echoing the stance of those who look out towards them. Simple but powerful, this artwork deserves as iconic a status as that other monument to our region’s industrial past, the Angel of the North.
When you think of the history of the Northumberland coast, the images that first spring to mind are the crenellations of its medieval castles or the prized, ancient manuscripts of Cuthbert and Aidan, its saints. The Newbiggin Maritime Centre however charts a quieter and less glamourous fragment of the coast’s past, that of the daily toil and trials of its residents against a harsh backdrop of industrial decline. But the centre also looks to the future. Alongside the town’s new artwork and restored beach, it was recently announced that Newbiggin is to become one of twelve “Portas Pilots”. Brainchild of cool retail guru and TV personality Mary Portas, the scheme aims to revive the town’s dilapidated high street. Food, history, art and now shops? Things are looking up for Newbiggin, and it’s about time.