Hidden Gems on the Smugglers’ Coast

I was in the mood for a change from my usual patch today, but with little time to spare I turned to Sunderland’s near neighbour South Shields for somewhere to train my lens.  I’ve written about Shields before, but today I was specifically in search of art in the “Land of the Sandancer“.

I’ve been fairly critical of some of the attempts at public art in Sunderland, so how would South Tyneside compare?  I knew there were a number of works around the river mouth so set off to begin my survey at the Customs House and the Merchant Navy Memorial, sculpted by Robert Olley.


A major civil engineering project is underway there, and to protect the memorial it has been encased in tall wooden panels.  Not the stuff of interesting photographs.

Things soon improved when I reached what was the old Market Dry Dock and two pieces by Irene Brown.  Fleet, installed in 2004, may be a little tarnished now, but in contrast to the steel shapes of Sunderland’s Ambit it remains an attractive piece.  Nearby, casting her eyes over the Tyne is Spirit of South Shields (2000), a guardian for shipping that became symbolic of the town for a number of years.  In tiny detail at her feet are landmarks of Shields; the original lighthouse, a colliery, and the gates of Arbeia Roman Fort among them.

Moving on I managed to miss my next goal – a statue of local fishwife, nurse and smuggler Dolly Peel, who lived here in the 18th Century.  Perhaps it’s no surprise since she was skilled at hiding local seamen from visiting press gangs.

Reaching the coast I stopped at the “weebles” or more properly Conversation Piece by Juan Munoz (1998).  Another success, they engage with passing pedestrians and blend seamlessly into their environment.  But this is where I went off track a bit.

That splash of red, marking the Groyne lighthouse demanded more of my attention, and soon I’d forgotten art in favour of architecture.  More pictures of the Groyne, and then turning to look across the river to North Shields a wonderful sky crowned the view of the Fish Quay.  The two white towers are the High Light and Low Light, navigational aids that, when aligned by an approaching skipper, allow him to follow the safe channel into the river mouth.  As the course of the Tyne has changed over the years so has this channel, and you can see an earlier High Light on the hill-top between the two current structures.

And so with the bit between my teeth for navigational aids, where else would I head but for Souter Lighthouse, where I hoped to find a portrait too.  In this “contrasty” light, Souter did not disappoint, but I thought I’d missed most of the people as the car park was emptying as I arrived.I was in luck though and met a very friendly Hindu family, with Rathna agreeing to be photographed.  In Hindi, her name means gem, or pearl, (like my daughter Megan).  A gem of a smile certainly.

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