Memories of Ann Alexander

I travelled quite often on the North/South Shields ferry

As I was born and raised at South Shields, in a street about half a mile from the riverside, I’m a true Geordie and the river is part of my heritage and lives within my psyche. Here are my memories in chronological order.

1. I’ve always loved the song ’The Waters of Tyne’ as I associate it with my maternal grandmother, who came from North Shields. When I was a small child, she told me how she’d gone to a wedding where she’d met her future husband. They had each spotted each other ‘across a crowded room’, and had asked friends who the other person was, and the romance had blossomed from then on. Just to add to the romance, her husband was half Danish, and his father was a Danish seaman who’d run away to sea and married a North Shields woman, and so he never returned to Denmark. I loved to hear her tell this story and was proud of my Danish heritage.

2. Borough Bank is the steep road running up from the North Shields ferry. My Grandmother told me that when she was younger there was a terrible accident when a bus coming down the bank went out of control and ended up in the river. People were killed. That’s why she would never get on a bus doing that journey.

3. I remember going with my mother to visit my Grandma’s cousin who lived in Knotts Flats at North Shields. The cousin and her husband were lovely hospitable people and were ardent Methodists. The wife told us that she’d seen a vision of Christ in the street the week before. I was about 9 at the time, and I was both fascinated and frightened by this. I believe the flats were a well-known housing development in North Shields at that time. They are still there but I don’t know if they are inhabited now. I remember that there was a communal wash-house there. They are part of the skyline that you can see from the beaches at South Shields – a very evocative sight for me. I love to look across from the beach to see the outline of Tynemouth Priory, the flats, the statue of Collingwood, and the North Shields pier out at sea.

4. I travelled quite often on the North/South Shields ferry which was always dirty and noisy, not like today. Cars were also carried, and you had to wait ages while the drivers drove on to the ferry. There was a strong smell of petrol. I can picture it now vividly. My friends and I used to watch over the side for signs of sewage in the river. I never spotted any faeces, but friends would shout out ‘There’s some’. I never saw any and I suspect they were making it up, although the Tyne was a much dirtier river in those days.

5. North Shields had an enticing image of not being very respectable when I was a child. There was an apartment building straight opposite the ferry landing which was a brothel which was apparently used by foreign seamen, so I was told. This fact was common knowledge in the North East. This building is now expensive apartments! North Shields itself had lots of slums near the river when I was a child but there is expensive housing there now.

6. At least once a year, usually just before Easter, my mother and I used to go to Walkers, a big department store at the top of Borough Bank for new Easter clothes. My mother used to moan about going but she felt obliged to go to this shop as she used the account that my father’s mother had there. My mother and her mother-in-law never got on and she stopped using the account when I was about 10. I believe they had a row about this. My father loved to go to Cullercoats aquarium (now a laboratory I believe). and when I was about 8 we had a great day out walking along the fish quay and all the way to Cullercoats.

7. More recent memories of North shields and the river involve the free music festival sponsored by Orange Telephones. This was held on the late May bank holiday for about 10 years or so until about 2000. It was a large event at venues right along North Shields quayside with 3 outdoor stages. There was music of all kinds and charity and craft stalls. I remember seeing Kathryn Tickell performing and also some oriental drummers, for example. Last year I travelled regularly to North Shields on the ferry to attend drumming workshops run by the Sage at a North Shields venue. I still enjoy the ferry journey immensely. The river environment has changed a lot since I was a child on both sides of the river with the demise of the shipyards, but instead, we have residential and office developments, and of course the Customs House Theatre and arts venue at South Shields.

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