Sandy beaches line a section of the Tyneside and south Northumberland coast that’s little known to visitors from outside the region.
Hoard of happy holidaymakers swarmed over swards of grass in front of the gleaming, white mosque-like dome at Whitley Bay. That was the scene depicted on a Victorian railway poster hanging in my B&B. When I visited one evening recently there were fewer people but as much activity. The funfair had started up, a boy was sailing a kite and skateboarding (at the same time), people were pitching and putting on the links and there were joggers everywhere.
Paint now peals from dome, several other buildings are boarded up and the former outdoor swimming pool is a square of tarmac surrounded by benches and flowerbeds. The big attraction of Whitley Bay for me, though, was that it provided a convenient starting point for an excellent and largely traffic-free coastal bike ride with an equally enjoyable and peaceful return along a former railway line.
The first – and most obvious – attraction en route is St Mary’s Lighthouse which is connected to the mainland by a short causeway. Sitting so neatly on its little island with two houses adjacent, the lighthouse looks as picturesque and pristine as if it were part of a model village.
A short distance further on is the village of Seaton Sluice. Its name comes from the sluice erected across the mouth of Seaton Burn by Sir Ralph Delaval, a great landowner who lived nearby in the 17th century. The object was to pent up the waters of the river after the tide had come in before releasing them to flush out the silt and sand from the harbour. Although the idea was sound it didn’t work and, instead, a great cut was made through solid rock in the 1760s to serve as a new harbour entrance. Now it lies abandoned with great sandstone boulders blocking the entrance.
I left my bike beside the road and set off on foot up Holywell Dene in search of Starlight Castle. It was built in 1750 by a later Delaval, Frank, after accepting a bet that he could not construct a home for a lady friend in a day. The name comes from the legend that it was started when the stars were shining and completed by daylight. Now all that remains is an arched window and a scrap of wall but its position – high in trees with a great view down the dene – make it well worth seeking out.
After Seaton Sluice the path weaves its way in and out of the dunes. Around one corner I across a group of monoliths with pictures of cyclists engraved into them between which the sun was setting. Resting on the beach at Blyth I watched two windsurfers and a lifeboat returning to the shore leaving only the jet skiiers out to play. I was ready to head back too. In the distance wind turbines, cranes and other evidence of industry marked the boundary of cycling country.
Between the road and the beach are lifeguard buildings that, in another guise, formed an anti-aircraft site in the Second World War. It was occupied by the 225th AAA Searchlight Battalion Skylighters from the United States whose purpose was to home friendly aircraft and detect and illuminate enemy aircraft approaching over the North Sea from Norway. In the event no hostile planes were engaged as they turned south before coming in range. However, the battalion’s posting provided good training for its role in the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach. Either side of the bridleway that took me inland were several solid cement buildings. What were other anti-aircraft installations are now pig stys built to last.
The last section of the route followed the course of a disused railway line. As I sped along I rang my bell on the approach to each corner much like trains may once have tooted. As the path narrowed so willow herb brushed my shoulders and I lifted my feet off the pedals to avoid the nettles.
At long last, I came to a point at which the old railway would have joined what is now the only railway line. Above me was an illuminated ‘M’ sign. No: I hadn’t reached MacDonalds but Monkseaton Metro station. I was back in Whitley Bay. A takeaway, though, was not far from my thoughts.
Distance: 16 miles.
Time: 1¾ hours.
Directions: The outward journey up the coast follows the signed, Sustrans cycle route No 1. Follow path through the links just above Whitley Sands. The official route turns L just before lighthouse but you can carry right up to it if you like. Shortly after a group of masts turn L up East End to Hartley. R at roundabout then fork R down Bay Rd to Seaton Sluice. At junction with A193 turn R, go straight over roundabout then follow path on R into the dunes to Blyth beach. Return south along the A193 leaving road to take bridleway on R immediately after Gloucester Lodge Farm. After entering Lysdon Farm fork immediately L past a house then keep going in direction of the railway and through Seaton Red House Farm. Cross over A190 and turn R and immediately L onto disused railway line back to Whitley Bay.