The Cultural Quarter of North Shields, Where Things Happen
I’m Andrea Stephenson I am the Operational Manager for Libraries and Customer First Centres in North Tyneside which in practice means I look after the library service and particularly the North Shields and Whitley Bay areas.
I am overlooking Northumberland Square so we have all the lovely Georgian houses around the square and then the trees and the green of the square overlooking Howard Street as well so I can see part of the street and the businesses and the church that are around that area. Obviously, I get to see people going up and down Howard Street into the square, into the different buildings as well.
Howard Street in particular has changed a lot, I mean it’s pedestrianised now where it used to have cars and you used to hear the bus engines because there used to be a bus stop right down there outside. Now it’s been all repaved, it’s got trees and seats, so I think the paving is really lovely. I think it looks very smart and it’s nice to be able to see people just sat on a seat with a tree next to them and again the square it’s all been tidied up, all of the houses and the square itself which has gone obviously back closer to what it used to be and there’s been a lot of new planting and things done in there.
Well, I lived in North King Street until I was about nine and I came to the library regularly since I was young. I can remember there used to be a café in the library at the front and I can remember coming and having a sausage roll there with my mam when I was little. I know I was actually on the television, the local television when I was little because they had a brass rubbing activity in the library where they had various brasses that you would come in and rub. I don’t know how many people know what brass rubbing is nowadays. The local news filmed it, so I was on the news, so that’s a little bit of a memory.
The library opened in 1974 when I would have been three because it used to be in the old building down the road. The library was obviously very different. You used to have a huge DVD and CD section where people used to borrow things. It had quite intimidating desks, two great big desks with security gates and things like that so it’s all changed. I actually came and did my work experience here when I was at school, so I do remember working in the back office in this building. In those days there wasn’t computer systems, they had a system where they had little brown paper pockets where you used to put the book slip into, so you knew people had borrowed it. I guess that set the course for my career in a way because I’ve ended up back here, however many years later. I do have one particular memory of Northumberland Square because I am a writer and my first writing memory is in Northumberland Square. There was a bus stop and this was when I had moved, we moved when I was nine and I remember it was pouring with rain. I was sat in the bus shelter with my dad, I had been to the brownies which was in St. Augustin’s church hall and I had read a Nancy Drew book and I was writing my own version of the Nancy Drew story and I went on to do other writing. So that’s my first memory of writing which was in Northumberland Square
I do remember coming to the marching every year so in terms of things that happened in Northumberland Square that’s probably my biggest memory. All the churches march on Good Friday and everybody used to come to Shields and it used to start off in the square and you would watch them march and then you would go and probably have a hot cross bun in the café. Not that we were religious or anything because we weren’t particularly, but it was just obviously an event that everybody went to.
In 2013 we reopened after a complete refurbishment in the library. That was when it became a Customer First Centre and at the time that really helped, I think, with the town centre traffic and everything, it brought people in and it brought people to this part of the centre, and then you know we’ll take part in events like the Christmas market and that sort of thing that happen in the square.
So, I think it’s great that North Shields is getting tidied up and I do like the idea of having a cultural quarter where things like that happen, tying in obviously with what’s going to happen down at the fish quay and stuff. I worry about visitors because it seems quiet, this is post-pandemic. I mean we haven’t got quite as many visitors as we used to get although we have recovered a lot, but I think this side of town is a bit quieter now because a lot of the shops have closed. I think there’s only us and Dixons, the Working Well Hub as well, in this part of the centre, and because the bus stops have gone as well people don’t have as much cause to walk through this way so that does worry me a little bit in terms of how busy it is and perhaps it’s also the lack of traffic it just doesn’t seem as busy with activity going up and down. So, I hope that work is done to have more activities or whatever to make it into a busier area but that does worry me a bit because I think town centres are suffering anyway.
It’s all changed actually because we are now moving towards becoming Community Hubs. We’ve got a new strategy called the Connecting the Community Strategy which went to Cabinet in May and was agreed so we are starting to implement it now. So, the idea is that we will be a hub in the community. We already are to an extent, but it’s linking up more with other organisations in the area to signpost people to different services that they might need; help improve people’s well-being and reduce people being isolated. We introduced Warm Welcomes in the winter where we do some sessions with free tea and coffee, but we also just have a warm welcome generally to things going on in the library. They’ve been really well attended sometimes getting 60 people coming to have a cup of tea and we’re basically going to continue those and we are still getting quite a lot of people coming to those. At the minute it’s our summer activities programme, we’ve got loads going on, our summer reading challenge for children but we will also tie in with anything that’s happening in the square so like the North Tyneside Together festival and the Christmas market as well so there’s lots going on.
I remember there used to be a Prontaprint shop which I went in a few times for some reason, I don’t know why, whether it was for photos or something. There used to be an estate agent down there so the first flat I ever rented was through the estate agent, just near the bottom of the street. I did once go and get my feet eaten by fish; they had tanks of fish where they ate your hard skin. The business centre we moved into when this place was refurbished so we were in that building for a couple of years and I got married in the Stag Line building as well. So yes, but it’s always been a nice walk obviously down there and the river view.
Of the four town centres that we have in North Tyneside I think North Shields is still kind of the main one in my head with the most going on and I mean I’ve been watching the changes with interest. I mean obviously we’re about to get the bus station in the square on the other side of the library, so I’ve been watching with interest. I think, I guess because I feel connected to it because I grew up here that I’m quite happy working in North Shields yes. I live in North Shields still and I’ve got a five-minute walk to work every day which is great.