A thriving seaside resort with a fabulous Blue Flag Beach, South Shields is on the mouth of the Tyne facing North Shields across the river.
Like all of Tyne and Wear, South Shields, which had long been a shipbuilding centre, was taken over by heavy industries like coalmining and glassmaking in the 19th century.
In 1906 the author Catherine Cookson was born in South Shields, and her legacy can still be felt at the brand new Word library and heritage centre, founded in 2016. South Shields in the 21st century is an inviting resort town, an amusement park for youngsters, a chain of seaside parks and lots of history.
Arbeia for instance is the easternmost fort on Hadrian’s wall and the supply centre for that entire Roman defence system.
Let’s explore the best things to do in South Shields:
1. Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum
The most excavated Roman military supply base in the empire, Arbeia was built at the mouth of the Tyne in 160 AD, eventually becoming the supply depot for all 17 forts along Hadrian’s Wall.
The site was excavated for the first time in the 1870s and the commanding officer’s house, barracks and gatehouse have all been reconstructed over their original foundations.
The museum has lots of material brought to light in the excavations, giving a sense of just how international this settlement used to be.
There’s a stele for a freed Moorish slave, and a freed British woman from the Catuvellauni tribe (roughly South East England). You’ll get a sense of the luxury of the commander’s house, climb the west gate and learn about the Roman soldiers’ daily routine and view all sorts of artefacts from along the wall.
2. South and North Marine Parks
An integral part of South Shields’ seafront is this pair of Victorian parks next to the beach and the Ocean Beach Pleasure Park.
There’s loads going on in the South Marine Park in summer.
The park has a miniature railway, a boating lake hiring out pedal boats, two soft play areas, distant sea views and a cafe.
The restored Victorian bandstand is a source of pride, hosting concerts on summer weekends, as well as the Proms in the Park in July.
The quieter North Marine Park stretches up to Arbeia and the mouth of the Tyne, and has facilities for bowls and petanque, as well as a commanding viewpoint where you can watch the river traffic and ponder the North Sea.
3. Souter Lighthouse
This National Trust property is a must see, especially if you’re interested in Victorian technology.
When it was completed in 1871 the Souter Lighthouse was the most advanced lighthouse in the world as it was purpose-designed and built to use alternating electric current.
The location was key, as the South Tyneside coastline had witnessed scores of shipwrecks due to its hidden reefs.
The building, with bands of red and white, is an icon in the North East, and since it was decommissioned in 1988 has become a visitor attraction.
The historic machinery is on show inside, while you can climb the 76 steps to the top for a view to behold.
At the reconstructed lighthouse keeper’s cottage you can also find out about the routine of the people who manned the light, while the 2.5 miles of Magnesian limestone cliffs and grassy foreshore on this patch of coast deserve a bit of exploration.
4. Ocean Beach Pleasure Park
People visiting South Shields with children and teenagers in tow have no choice but to set some time aside for this amusement park by the sea.
The amount of things packed into Ocean Beach Pleasure Park is impressive, and for a small intro there are rollercoasters, a giant inflatable beach slide, a pirate ship, spinners, carousels, dodgems, a dry “Urban Wave” for budding surfers, soft play areas and a ghost house.
On top of all this you’ll find arcades, laser tag, a laser maze, bowling, a smuggling-themed adventure golf course and miniature cars for children to take the driver’s seat.
5. Sandhaven Beach
Starting at the South Tyne Pier there’s a sensational sandy beach, traced by dunes and large enough to feel very remote even at the height of summer.
Sandhaven Beach has been awarded the Blue Flag (the global gold standard for beaches) and is of course at its best in summer when kids can build sandcastles, paddle in the clean water and explore rockpools when the tide goes out.
There are RNLI lifeguards at Sandhaven Beach from the end of May to the start of September, and when the conditions are right you could also sign up for a surf lesson.
The further south you travel the rockier the coast becomes, until you arrive at the Trow Rocks, a dominant headland reinforced by a Victorian gun position.
6. South Shields Museum and Art Gallery
Away from the coast you could pass an edifying couple of hours at this free museum uncovering South Shields’ past from a few different angles.
The Victorian building itself is a museum piece, dating back more than 150 years.
There are exhibitions about coal mining and shipbuilding, and you can learn the back-story of the Jarrow March of 1936 when out-of-work shipbuilders walked from Jarrow to London to protest unemployment and poverty.
At the Creature Corner the bravest kids can meet and handle live snakes and spiders, while there’s a display on the best-selling author Dame Catherine Cookson, who was a South Shields native.
On the first floor is the art gallery, putting on short-term exhibitions.
In 2018-19 there was a show for the turn-of-the-century Scottish painter Dame Ethel Walker.
7. The Word, National Centre for the Written Word
By the Tyne there’s an eye-catching new landmark on South Shields’ townscape.
The Word is a cultural centre that opened in 2016 and hosts exhibitions, activities and experiences for people of all ages.
For children these might be seasonal arts and crafts workshops, storytelling and cooking lessons.
The “FabLab” is a cutting edge creative space for young designers, with a 3D printer and laser and vinyl cutters.
Regular demonstrations and courses take place here.
And beyond all this, the Word has several exhibitions running at any one time.
In late 2018 you could find out the effect of the First World War on South Tyneside, while kids could learn all about their favourite monsters, from Monster’s Inc’s Sully to Dracula or the Grinch.
8. The Customs House
South Tyneside’s only professional performing arts venue is at a Neoclassical building constructed next to the ferry landing on Mill Dam in 1848. The centre has a 437-seater main auditorium, as well as a smaller studio theatre, a restaurant and exhibition space.
The Customs House also has an annexe of handsome restored warehouses containing offices, a rehearsal room and a community room.
There’s something for all tastes here, whether you’re up for ballet, serious drama, musicals, comedy, pantomimes or live music.
The Customs House also screens movies most nights, showing a mixture of new Hollywood blockbusters, independent films and classics.
9. Marsden Beach
On the way down to the Souter Lighthouse you can experience the full majesty of the Magnesian coastline at the sandy Marsden Beach.
The stratified cliffs here date back 250 million years and have been eroded by the sea to form stacks like Marsden Rock.
This stands almost 100 metres from the cliff face and rises to 30 metres.
The rock’s pitted faces provide a habitat for thousands of seabirds like cormorants, gulls, fulmars and black-legged kittiwakes.
Take the lift down to Marsden’s Grotto, which is in the cliff opposite the rock and is a rare formation known as a cave bar, once used by smugglers.
At low tide you can also wander out to check out the sea life collected by the beach’s many rockpools.
10. Shields Ferry
One of the things you simply have to do in South Shields is catch the ferry across the Tyne to North Shields.
This service departs the terminal next to the Word every half hour at 15 and 45. There has been a ferry crossing the mouth of the Tyne since 1377, and the current crossing time is just seven minutes.
The ferry is crucial, and in the absence of a bridge on this stretch of the river, provides a viable alternative to the Tyne and Wear Metro, which requires a journey to Newcastle city centre and back.
On the river’s north bank there’s lots to see and do, as we’ll find out below.
11. Bents Park
The third in South Shield’s string of seafront parks, Bents Park was laid out in 1901 on former sand dunes to prevent industrial encroachment on the seaside.
Most of the park is open lawns, with snaking belts of trees planted to offer some shelter from the sea breezes.
The profuse open space makes Bents Park an obvious choice for outdoor events , and the South Tyneside Festival is a series of high-profile concerts and family fun days taking place across three months in the park every summer.
12. Jarrow Hall Anglo-Saxon Farm Village and Bede
A ten-minute drive or a few brief stops on the Tyne and Wear Metro and you’ll be at this museum celebrating the life of the 7th-century Benedictine Monk, Venerable Bede.
A scholar, teacher and author, he has been dubbed the “Father of English History” and lived right here at the Monkwearmouth–Jarrow Abbey, a centre of learning until it was sacked by the Vikings in the 9th century.
The museum has archaeological finds and information, filling you in on his life, while there’s a recreated Anglo-Saxon farm and village that sends you back to Northumbria in the centuries before the Norman Conquest.
The farm has recently become an animal sanctuary, home to 70 rare domestic breeds and provides insights about how the Anglo-Saxons lived and worked with animals.
Next to the Georgian Jarrow Hall House is a herb garden planted according to the 9th-century Plan of St Gall and even producing ingredients for the Hive Coffee Company, a cafe in the house.
13. North East Maritime Trust
Based next to the Tyne on Wapping Street, this charity helps keep North East England’s shipbuilding heritage alive.
From the age of sail up to the late 20th century, shipbuilding, and all of the dozens of trades associated with it, was a major employer in the region.
On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays you can visit the trust’s workshops to see historic vessels being brought back to life using old-time materials and knowhow passed down generations.
The volunteers will be happy to answer questions, and show off their handiwork.
14. Old Low Light Heritage Centre
A ten-minute walk along the Tyne from the North Shields Ferry Terminal will bring you to this museum about the history of the North Shields Fish Quay.
It is set in the Old Low Light, a beacon established in the 17th century then reconstructed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the Heritage Gallery you’ll learn how the River Tyne has supported livelihoods for hundreds of years, and hear anecdotes from fishermen still working the river in the 21st century.
Kids can dress up in maritime gear and there’s lots of information about the river’s wildlife, which has rebounded since the decline of heavy industry.
A highlight is climbing up to the light’s viewing platform to appreciate the Tyne in all its beauty.
On a warm day you can park yourself on the cafe’s terrace with a cool drink or cup of tea.
15. Tynemouth Castle and Priory
A brief walk and one Metro stop from the North Shields Terminal and you’ll be confronted by what was once one of the largest fortified enclosures in England.
The Medieval castle and much older priory are in a dramatic setting on a rugged headland.
The priory was founded at the start of the 7th century and was the burial place for three Kings of Northumbria in the 7th and 8th centuries.
One of the unmissable sights is the 13th-century chapel, which has a painted ceiling embellished with coats of arms, as well as fine stained glass windows.
Later the headland served as a key defence at the mouth of the Tyne, and the Second World War-era gun emplacements, guardroom and armoury have been restored and opened to the public.