If you look at a map of Newbiggin by the Sea, there’s a large open space in the middle of the town, like a huge chunk of the place has just disappeared. There’s not much to tell you what was there, apart from an old pit tub with a touching story , at the junction of Collingwood Road and the A197, and a pit head winding wheel, set on a plinth on the other side of the road. The plaque on the pit tub says, Newbiggin Colliery 1908 – 1967, the words on the side tell of close on twelve hundred men who worked there, the old pit site not becoming reclaimed until 1978.
Even though the colliery has long gone, there’s something evocative about places like this. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of lost industry on a rural landscape, a sort of Beauty and the Beast. Being able to walk down a street of houses that just peters out into broad acres and a big sky. I could be in the South Yorkshire coalfield I was familiar with as a boy. The houses are similar, you look up imagining the colliery still being there at the end of the street, pit wheels racing against the sky. I get back in the car and drive the short distance into the town centre, plain, ordinary, functional and very tidy, everywhere’s so clean and tidy. It’s puzzlingly familiar, but different. Like sitting on the 234 bus going into town through Dodworth and miraculously coming across a beach the other side of the M1, instead of Barnsley.
What a beach as well! St Bartholomews Church dominates the Northern end of the almost enclosed, curving sweep, of sandy bay and stood on the headland, I was told, on a clear day you can see beyond industrial Tyneside, right down to the North Yorkshire Moors and coast.
I jokingly asked the small group of people gazing out to see through binoculars and other miscellaneous optical devices if I could join them? They were more than happy for me to become associated and made me promise to join Newbiggin by the Sea Dolphin Watch on Facebook. Researcher and head Dolphin watcher, Dr. Ivor Clark, put me straight on my sighting of Porpoises from the beer garden of The Old Shippe, Seahouses, the previous evening, saying I’d seen one of the pods of Bottle Nosed Dolphins that patrolled the Northumbrian coast. Apparently you get one species or the other in a particular area and never the twain …
Bidding goodbye to the local Cetacean group, I wandered over to Newbiggin Maritime centre. A pleasant, spacious arts centre and museum, with a very good café, full of people listening to a live folk music jam session, a sort of BYO Banjo. Alas, little old terriers weren’t allowed in, so we sat outside with a coffee and stared at the Couple stood on the breakwater in the middle of the bay, wondering what they were doing and how the hell they got there? Perhaps the people sailing around the harbour conveyed them? Maybe they were towed out at low tide by one of the veteran tractors which pulled the boats out. I counted ten of them parked up on the beach and around the lifeboat house.
Wandering on, I stumbled across a couple having a quiet sit, whilst out on a bike ride, while a younger Couple stood behind them, just staring out at the Couple on the breakwater in the middle of the bay. They looked familiar, same faces, same clothes, same hair, just three sizes smaller. ‘Ask Sean Henry’, the old people said, ‘he put them there.’ I walked on, unsure as to what had happened, feeling almost as if I’d been involved in some sort of weird, living, breathing, art installation conceptual thingy. It felt good though.
I loved the well kept functionality of the town. No pretensions of being something it’s not, just a small place where people live, and once worked, at the edge of the land. I wonder how long it will last? New builds above the promenade, with glass walled balconies, wailed a lament of gentrification. Hopefully, the blanket of smog from the Geordie chimneys in the near distance will protect it from those seeking second homes.
There’s a few pubs in Newbiggin by the Sea, WhatPub says five, but only two of them serve real ale. It wasn’t hard to pick which one to go to, The Queens Head aka Porter’s, is the only one in the GBG. It lets you take the old terrier in, provided he doesn’t bark, or otherwise annoy the other customers, or the resident Yorkie. I’ve no grand picture of the outside, I’m not really into scaffolding. The two doors off the porch hint at some modernisation, both leading you into what is now, basically, one large room. Maybe half a dozen blokes, eight at a push, were sat in the window drinking pints, each nodding to acknowledge my presence as I entered.
The inside took me back a bit. I’ve been in lots of pubs like this, sadly most of them haven’t stayed like it. Big heavy wooden bar. Red vinyl banquette seats around the main room, with a gap between seat and back rest, no vacuum cleaners to clean down the crack in the seat when they made these. Proper narrow tables, enough room for your pint and to just rest a small newspaper on. Lino floor in the bar area and carpet in the best side, which also accommodated the dart board. The hard marbled effect floor in the corridor led to the gents, which were old fashioned, but spotless with gleaming bright porcelain. In fact the pub, although boasting many original Edwardian fittings, was spotlessly clean throughout. Why don’t modern pub designers ever go for the well made, well kept, fastidiously clean effect rather than a perpetually dusty, shabby chic look?
There were three hand pumps on the bar, but only two were in use. I chatted with licensee, David Stringer, who’s owned and run The Queens Head for fifteen years. He said at one time he had four or five cask lines in operation, sadly there had been a decline in real ale drinkers amongst his clientele as older drinkers had passed on. These days he only has one cask ale on during the week, which is supplemented by a second one on Friday morning until it’s gone, usually by the end of Saturday night. He told me the beers constantly changed though and the number of pump clips on his trophy wall bore testament to that.
I tried both cask ales, Consett Man of Steel, and Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted. Both were better than very good and I’d give them each a conservative 4 on NBSS. The strategy of a short selection and rotation was definitely working, the outcome being beer of the highest quality.
I was surprised to see Sam Smith’s beers on the bar, Taddy Lager, Best Bitter and Stout. David told me he would solely sell Sam’s keg beers and get rid of John’s and Fosters if he could wean the locals off them. He’d already managed to do it with Guinness. His only criticism of Sam Smith’s being they only sold OBB in eighteens which didn’t suit his turnover and QC strategy. He reckoned OBB would go a bomb if he could get it in firkins. I got the feeling, from what he was telling me, that pricing was a factor in his customers choices. Mind you at £2.60 a pint for well kept real ale from respected brewers, they can’t really complain.
Walking back to the free car park I noticed a squat, square, single storey brick building sat on the roundabout, which more or less marks the end of the main street. A typical example of functional British municipal public toilet architecture, that in times of strife could possibly function as some sort of civil defence facility? And we think we’re suffering austerity!
It sort of looked out of place, a bit like Newbiggin, which if it were anywhere else wouldn’t be by the sea at all. I took a photo and an old lass waiting for a bus told me the toilets had been there longer than she had. She thanked me for taking the photograph so that others could see what it had looked like after it had gone.
Verdict – Brilliant pub with outstanding cask ale in unspoilt gem of a real seaside town that I’m now wishing I never posted about, in case others go there and spoil it.