Whitley Bay is a fine sea side town which, in its hey day, was known as the North East’s Blackpool and was a top holiday destination for local families. Over the years, as has happened with so many of our coastal communities, things became a bit run down and it became cheaper to go to the Costa Brava than the Costa Del Whitley. Plus the weather was generally a whole lot better.
However, then came the glorious summer of 2018! For weeks now, the sun has been out warming up our cloudy little island. The wind breaks and the bucket and spades are out in force, and holiday companies have seen a definite drop in bookings as a stay-cation starts to look so much more attractive. The icing on the cake is that after languishing and being neglected for years – the Spanish City dome is finally open again! A prominent feature of Whitley Bay, the large white dome of ‘Spanish City’ is a symbol of a thriving entertainment venue of yesteryear, and efforts to restore and reopen it have taken the best part of a couple of decades. It was called Spanish City because the Toreadors concert party troupe used to perform there, and it kind of stuck.
It was formally opened in 1910 as a concert hall, restaurant, roof garden, and tearoom. At the time it was built it was believed to have been the second-largest unsupported concrete dome in the UK. The first I believe, was St Paul’s Cathedral. Next to the Spanish city dome, was also a popular fun fair. It was immortalized by Dire Straits in their 1980 song, “Tunnel of Love,” which was thereafter played every morning when the park opened. By the late 1990s, the building had fallen into disrepair and was closed.
Almost 18 years after the venue’s final closure, Spanish City is now well and truly open once again, following a £10 million project that has restored its historical features and brought new leisure facilities to the town. The Grade II listed building now houses a Trenchers fish and chips restaurant, a champagne bar that looks out over the lovely coastline, there’s a tearoom and an ice cream and waffle bar. A large function room, the St Mary’s Lighthouse Suite, is sure to prove popular for weddings and can cater for up to 200 guests. Still to open inside the famous landmark, is a high-quality steak and seafood restaurant.
The day we were there it was the middle of the school holidays, and in the twenty years I have lived here I have never seen the place so busy, which is nice to see. People were flying kites, walking on the beach and eating ice creams from some new kiosks that seem to have popped up everywhere. Quite a few dogs were enjoying a swim in the sea – less so people – it’s still the North Sea after all. My favourite kites were two that featured a pair of leg with stockings on – talk about a high kicking can can!
Colourful windbreaks created little beach hotspots, sandcastles were being built, surf board and body boards were out and people were generally enjoying themselves. It was a clear view down to St Mary’s Lighthouse in one direction and a vista dotted with huge container ships on the horizon in the other. The lighthouse is a on the tiny St Mary’s Island, just north of the town and the small rocky tidal island is linked to the mainland by a short concrete causeway which is submerged at high tide.
St. Mary’s has all the fascination of a miniature, part-time island. The Lighthouse, completed in 1898 on a hazardous coast for shipping, remained operational until 1984, when it was superseded by modern navigational techniques. Since then the Lighthouse and former keepers’ cottages have been operated as a visitor centre by North Tyneside Council. The surrounding Nature Reserve contains an area of rockpools, clifftop grassland, a beach and newly created wetland habitats. It’s great for bird watching and even seal watching at certain times of year.
This charming piece of coast line has never lost its quaint attraction for me, but it seems to be enjoying quite a renaissance at the moment, and long may it continue!