Growing up in Cullercoats

I well remember sitting behind a slight young lady with pigtails (Miss M) and finding her pretty cute, which I think I showed by tugging her pigtails.

I was born in Preston Hospital in April 1953, don’t remember much about that occasion, but came to know it and the Jubilee Hospital fairly well in my junior years, as I seemed to be in and out of the places pretty regularly for various ailments (numerous sinus washouts included).  I have an abiding memory of being bored to death in a room by myself before I could read – I’d gone in for an operation, but developed measles or similar, probably from my sister, so they segregated me.  Seem to remember I was visited, but not a lot.  I think visiting times were enforced in those days.  I don’t know how my parents got there as we didn’t have a car then and lived in Cullercoats. It may have been a number 9 bus which used to stop at the corner of Mast Lane and Broadway and went up to Shields.  After a few days, I came out again without the operation and had to go back in again later.  I hate hospitals to this day, and I would do anything to avoid staying in one.

The house we lived through all my childhood years was a 1920s/30s small semi in Newton Avenue, Cullercoats, off Mast Lane close to the Broadway.  Pre-school, I remember that we used to be able to cross the Broadway and walk up through the fields close by Marden quarry up to Hillheads Road in Whitley.  We used to come out by the back of the Ice Rink; I think there were allotments there.  I remember there always seemed to be a goat there and sometimes a kid. At that time Marden Farm Estate wasn’t there;  I can remember being able to hear cocks crowing from my bedroom.  Later I recall that when they were building houses off the Broadway, we were strictly forbidden from playing on the building sites, but we did anyway – making dens in there amongst the bricks.  Marden Quarry was also off limits and I did listen to that one – there were horror stories abounding about kids falling off the cliffs / drowning and so on.  Don’t know if that was just to scare us, but most of us listened.

Other pre-school memories include going to the clinic on Mast Lane for bottles of thick, sweetened concentrated orange juice, and tins of thick caramelly/treacly stuff which I really liked.  I recall cod liver oil too, which I didn’t like – who could?  I guess they were trying to stop us post-war babies from getting rickets and the like.  The clinic was in a green painted wood (?) building – I think it was a YMCA, it’s gone now I believe.  I think they did jabs there are as well, and bitter tasting stuff on sugar cubes.  I still hate needles too!

Occasionally I remember my Mam packing a picnic and walking my sister and I down to Cullercoats Bay to splash about in the sea and the warmer pools near the rocks in the middle of the bay.  There were a few decent days sometimes in the summer, although there was always a cold wind.

Round about the time I was born, my Grandpa and Nanna moved out to Longframlington, then Rothbury.  He would come down to Newcastle every Monday for business, then down to the Coast to collect rents and visit us.  I used to drive around with him (chauffeur him) as he made his calls around Wallsend, Shields, Whitley in a variety of cars – he was always changing them.  Earliest I remember was a Triumph Mayflower (Razor edge styling), followed by sit up and beg Ford Populars, then the rounded Ford Anglia / Populars.  Pre-school and school holidays, if we were lucky, he could be persuaded to take one of us back home with him, to return us the following week.  We’d throw a few things in a small cardboard suitcase and go the country.

We’d pass West Monkseaton and turn off at Earsdon, where as far as we were concerned, the country started.  Morpeth was deep in the country and Rothbury was a different world. (It was actually only 36 miles and we used to cycle there as teenagers!).  We used to go trout fishing, walk across the fields to the shunting yard at Rothbury railway station and cadge rides in the cab of the steam engine as it shuffled empty cattle wagons about.  As far as I could tell, it brought empty wagons about once a week, shuffled them around and took others (maybe the same ones) back.  There was a cattle mart there and I assume they brought cattle in that way at one time.  Once in a while in the summer a special excursion diesel train would come.  The railway got closed down in the early 60s and it’s all gone now, there’s a business park or such there and there’s little sign of the line.  I have a love of the country which goes back to happy times spent with my grandparents there.

Back to pre-schooling, I remember my mother trying me out at a nursery school in Tynemouth.  That didn’t last and I don’t remember liking it at all.

School started at age 4½ at Cullercoats Infants School in Mast Lane.  I seem to recall that I had a false start there, getting ill or going into hospital or something, and started proper at the next admissions.  My mam took me the first day, then I was on my own.  That was the norm in those days, and we wouldn’t have appreciated being escorted any longer.  They seemed more innocent days and traffic was less of an issue; I do remember getting veiled warnings at school from time to time about not talking to strangers though.  You could get to school by walking through a snicket from Newton Avenue onto Mast Lane and only had to cross one road where the shops were, before crossing over at the lollipop lady at the school.  I remember some new kid called Charles starting – he lived on Mast Lane.  I got press-ganged into calling for him and walking down with him.  I remember thinking this was a bit wet – but I think they were from down South.

My memories of this school are limited, a white shirt and maypole dancing on Commonwealth Day (May 24th?) – what were they thinking?  The headmistress was (I think) called Miss Huntly and I remember that she had a small stuffed alligator or crocodile with glass eyes on a table in her room.  It had been given to her by the sea-going father of one of the kids at the school (Tony Greener?) and it fascinated me.  For a while I was milk monitor, which involved pressing a plastic disc with a dimple in it (sort of thing Betterware would have made) into the foil top of the 1/3rd pint glass bottles, removing the foil and sticking a straw in.  They would sit like that till mid-morning break, when we would drink them tepid.  Another attempt to keep us post-war kids healthy.  I can’t stand drinking milk now.

On Friday afternoons we would get shown films in the hall on an old film projector.  I have an idea they might have been cartoons or such – I don’t recall them being especially educational.  They would shut blinds over the tall windows, but you could see motes of dust floating in the light as it came in the cracks.  I recall some issue with the projector getting broken and some boy called Ralph getting into bother over it.  We didn’t get films for a few weeks whilst the projector was fixed.

I guess I’d be 7 or 8 when I started at Junior School at John Street in Cullercoats.  This was an old building that had been segregated into a boys school and girls school, basically mirrored about the centre.  Classrooms were grouped around two halls.  There was a small corridor which joined the two halves.  By my time, there were mixed classes using the whole building segregated by age.  I think the two playgrounds were similarly devoted to different age groups.  The canteen was over the road, but I didn’t have school dinners if I could help it, walking home most times.  When my mam wasn’t there (which was very rarely), I would lunch at my dad’s parents’ house in Wansbeck Ave where my gran would feed me and make sure my specs were clean before sending me back. I t must have been about when we were 9 that we were allowed to bike to school when we had passed a proficiency test, which I don’t think was very much of a deal.  We parked over the road by the canteen.  They didn’t have a school playing field which limited football activities.  They used to walk us to a public playing field at Links Ave / Links Rd when grass was required.  Being somewhat bookish in those days, wearing specs and knowing nothing about the rules of football, I was generally one of the last to get picked.

At about 8 or 9 they decided that we should learn to swim (you could drop out, but foolishly, hardly anyone did). I have memories of them walking us in crocodile file along the Tynemouth Long Sands in what felt like February (probably mid-summer) to the outdoor, unheated saltwater pool by the cliffs below the Grand Hotel.  The changing rooms were wet and unheated, and the water was a touch above freezing.  Some hardy souls did learn to swim using polystyrene floats.  The rest of us skinny, specky kids near froze to death and never did learn.  It’s a wonder we didn’t all get hypothermia.  Later on, we went by bus to the trainer pool in the old school by Christ Church [referred to in Memory 12].  It was in the old school hall and must have been about 3’ deep (above ground construction).  I didn’t learn there either, couldn’t get the hang of floating and moving my arms and legs like a frog and breathing all at the same time.  In fact, I didn’t learn until I was about 14 in the Wallsend Baths.  We could go to Wallsend or Jesmond Baths by train from Cullercoats.

In earlier days, the North Tyneside loop (now incorporated in the Metro) was served by electric trains (supposedly the first example of suburban electric services anywhere).  Later they changed over to diesels (DMUs).  If we were lucky on the way to school (up until 1964 or so) we might see a steam train.  I never got into train spotting, but many lads were into it in their early teens and used to go all over.  Once in a while we’d go to Chillingham (Chilly) Rd Baths on the bus up the Coast Road, past the Wills Factory and the Rising Sun pub.  I can vaguely recall them upgrading the Coast Road to a dual carriageway.  Before leaving the topic of swimming, we sometimes used to go to the Table Rocks pool at Whitley.  This was a partly natural rock pool, probably “improved” somewhat that the tide washed in and out of.  I remember it being very slimy and being little sprat-type fish in it.  Obviously, the tide didn’t wash it well enough, because they eventually banned swimming in it on grounds of pollution.  It was probably no worse than it ever had been, just that someone thought to check it.  I don’t know if it was ever filled in.

Back to John Street; on the cultural side, I recall us all sitting cross-legged in the school hall and being fed a diet of music which basically consisted of Percy Grainger type ultra-English folk songs.  We occasionally got to listen to radio programmes fed through a 12” loudspeaker in a plywood box about 3’ square.

They tried (unsuccessfully) to teach us to write legibly in proper grown-up joined-up writing using proper ink pens.  These weren’t fountain pens but wooden nib holders with a metal retaining ring that you had to slip a metal nib into.  They made great darts; you could throw the things and get them to stick into the parquet floor (freshly sanded and highly polished once a year).  It didn’t improve the writing any.  You had to dip these things into porcelain ink pots provided in the desks we sat at.  Each desk was a metal framed two-man job with a bench and inclined hinged lids, under which you could store books and so on.  I think we sat in the same room at the same desk for all lessons, moving on each year.  I was an ink monitor for a while at John Street.  Ink was mixed up from power and stored in jars.  I think it must have been decanted into something from which we filled the inkpots.  They gave up on ink pens / blotting paper eventually, and we used ball point pens.  I don’t know if this was a natural planned progression or despair on their part.

Most of the teachers were fine and I don’t remember many of them – Mrs Smith was the first one.  One guy who sticks out was called Strachan.  He supposedly had been a prisoner of war in Germany, reckoned he’d been tortured and had escaped.  He showed us a yellowing newspaper in old-fashioned German once which purported to be about him.  He was definitely eccentric.  I don’t think he taught maths as such, but he used to make us chant out times-tables by rote before getting down to his real business.  He had a habit of spinning round and catching you like a deer in the headlights by demanding to know what 11 x 12 was or whatever.  Woe betide you if you didn’t know.  We lived in fear of him.  Mind you it stood me in good stead in later life.  Talking of fear, even at that tender age, you could get the stick (on your hand) in those days for not much at all.  Discipline wasn’t much of an issue.

Outside of school I remember the winter of 1962/63(?) as being particularly hard and long.  Up in Northumberland, villages were cut off and there were enormous snow drifts for what seemed like ever.  There were shepherds lost in the Cheviots and so on.  At the Coast we had ice and snow for weeks.  One of the best places to sledge was on the ramp from the top of the cliffs at Cullercoats Bay down to the beach by the Dove Marine Laboratory.  My grandpa had built me a green painted wooden sledge with iron runners, courtesy of Jack the blacksmith who had a forge next to where they now lived near Thropton.  Once I’d worn off the paint from the runners, we were in business, and I soon figured out laying down and digging the toes of my wellies in to steer.  It got so slick eventually that you could make it all the way to the sand where you got pulled up sharp and thrown off into the snow.

Back home, the only heating we had in the house was the coal fire in the dining room; there was a back boiler for hot water and an immersion for topping the heat up.  There was rarely a fire in the front room.  The bedrooms were always cold in winter and we used to have several layers of sheets / blankets / eiderdowns.  We’d put a rubber hot water bottle in the bed before we went up to sleep.  It took the edge off.  The bedroom windows had leaded panes and rattled in the wind and leaked cold air in.  It wasn’t uncommon to find frost and a thick layer of ice on the bottom of the windows inside in the winter when you woke up.  When we got older, my parents had central heating installed, worked off the back boiler and replaced the windows with single panes which helped.  In the winter, we used to make slides in the ice in the playground to the annoyance of the authorities. The caretaker used to wreck them with cinders / sand.

My Dad used to fix TVs when he was younger, but we didn’t have one until I guess I was about 8 or so, when we got a black and white hand-me-down set that only got BBC1.  Missing ITV, I only ever knew half of the programmes my school friends were discussing.

Somehow, and I don’t think it was my work ethic, they must have instilled enough knowledge in me at John Street because I passed the 11+ exam and got to go to Tynemouth High School, which paradoxically was actually in North Shields.

I remember there being a list of uniform requirements and other necessaries that we had to obtain before starting.  I think Hill Carters shop was on the list of uniform suppliers, and I believe we went there.  The uniform was green and yellow and, for boys, featured a cap which was ritually removed from you by the older kids on first entering the school yard and which you never wore again.  For carrying books etc, posh pupils had leather satchels or brief cases and ordinary mortals used a haversack (sack) obtained from the Army and Navy Surplus Stores on Saville Street or somewhere.  These were dyed a vivid sandy yellow or navy blue which faded over time.  These were worn over one shoulder only and wrecked your books so were discouraged by the authorities.  They did double duty as temporary goalposts for football in the yard / field.  The uniform for boys included grey flannel short pants.  I don’t remember if there were any rules about when you could graduate to long trousers, but I remember some hulking youths still wearing short trousers up to age 14 / 15 or so.

Life at Tynemouth High School was very different for those of us who had been brought up in lower middle class suburbia in Cullercoats and Tynemouth.  For the first time we were mixing with some very street wise youths and bullying was rife.  There were a number of children whose lives were made a misery by the attentions of a small group of bullies, who although yobbish, must have been bright enough to pass the 11+.  Needless to say, those picked on were the more sensitive souls; they would get ambushed at break times, on entering / leaving school, threatened, abused and generally knocked about.  I don’t recall anything much, if anything, ever being done about it.  This state of affairs pretty much went on from age 11 till 16 when that particular group left school. The 6th forms were a joy by comparison.

Transport to school was by school bus (we lived about 2½ miles away), the old London bus type with the platform at the rear, later the enclosed type with folding doors at the front.  Getting on the bus at school to return was always an absolute melee with everyone fighting to get on board.  Sometimes there was inadequate space, and some would get left behind to walk back home.  Sometimes the riot was so bad, they’d drive off and leave everyone.  In later years we could bike to school which was a lot better.  We often used to ride home ridiculously close behind the bus, pacing it, to get in the slipstream and get pulled along to some extent.  In the 6th Form, at age 16, I had a small motor bike and that opened life right up.

We were all assigned to a “form”, a form master (Mr Bromley at one stage) and a “house”. You checked in at your form room and went on your way from there according to your class schedule.  I well remember sitting behind a slight young lady with pigtails (Miss M) who suffered bouts of indifferent health and finding her pretty cute, which I think I showed by tugging her pigtails.

Assembly was in the main hall, which was tiered from ground to first floor level.  The headmaster (Cantle initially, then Cramp who insisted on calling Tynemouth ‘Tin Mouth’, followed I think by Mr Currie who was made up from Deputy) would ascend stairs from near his office at the school entrance to face and engage the assembly from a kind of mezzanine level, where he would stand at a lectern.  All very regal, he would wear his full gown and regalia.  “Fingers”, the music teacher would work the grand piano from the floor of the hall, and we’d have prayers and hymns.  I recall some wag putting drawing pins on some of the hammers of the piano which gave it a selective honk-tonk quality that didn’t amuse Fingers one bit.  He stopped mid tune, lifted the lid, investigated the source of the problem then proceeded to berate us all in a very unchristian way.  Laughter didn’t seem to be the best medicine in his case, it just made him worse.

Somehow, we got streamed early on by ability, I don’t recall the method, but I don’t think it was pure language ability.  However, strangely, the streams were “French” (thickest, studied French), followed by “Spanish” (not quite as thick, did French and Spanish), “German” (bit brighter, French / German) and “Latin” (brightest, French and Latin).

Subjects I did well in included Art (master Reg Hepple), Music (afore-mentioned, much maligned  “Fingers”, whose real name escapes me), Physics (Harding I think) and Technical Drawing (Fred Taylor).  Fred took Woodwork and Technical Drawing and was a tyrant, but I think he reckoned he needed to be to keep everyone safe in a woodwork shop.  He was much the better for knowing, and I went on to take Technical Drawing to Advanced Level.  This probably was the most useful thing I did, I learned so much from that guy.  There were advantages, at A-level we were only 3 in the class, so we used to get personal tuition.  There was a small room which I think used to be a projection room under the tiered area of the hall and we got the use of that.  We were working a project where we studied a small scooter engine, drew it, figured out the manufacturing techniques etc.  We did all that in there and got to use it as a sort of personal common room.  There was a Geography master nicknamed Pug, but I never did any good at Geography till we got a young guy called Robinson at which point I picked up enough to pass O-level (which I never would have done otherwise).

Somehow, I found myself in the school choir; I think it was to do with the fact that I had been persuaded by Fingers to join the cast of HMS Pinafore in the chorus and that required you be in the choir.  I think the reason I agreed was because I fancied one of the girls.  Sadly however, it was not reciprocated, but I still had to go through with it, so give three cheers and one cheer more etc etc….

Anyway, one way or another I got a good education, went on to get a Mechanical Engineering degree and make my way in the world. I’ve good reason to be thankful.

If you've enjoyed this memory and would like to share a story of your own why not go to our Contact Page to find out more.