Things to do and see in South Shields

Stuart Forster introduces things to do and see in South Shields.

The seaside town of South Shields is in northeast England. Attractions include The Word, the United Kingdom’s National Centre for the Written Word, and Arbeia, a partially reconstructed Roman Fort.

Every year thousands of runners are pleased when they arrive into South Shields on the Coast Road, which skirts the North Sea’s shoreline into town, to cross the finish line of the Great North Run. No half-marathon in the world attracts more participants.

South Shield’s sandy beaches are especially beautiful to visit on sunny days. Sandhaven Beach has golden sand and stands just beyond the Ocean Beach Pleasure Park, whose rides open from Friday to Sunday.

Littlehaven Beach lies between the River Tyne and South Shields Pier. The lighthouse at the end of the pier was constructed in 1895. Strolling the pier’s 1,570-metre length on fine days brings good views of Tynemouth Priory and Castle.

Resembling a red lunar landing capsule, the Herd Groyne Lighthouse dates from 1882 and stands on the Groyne Promenade. Look across the Tyne from there and you’ll see the Collingwood Monument, built in memory of the Royal Navy officer who served at the Battle of Trafalgar aboard HMS Royal Sovereign. Four of the ship’s guns are on the memorial.

Herd Groyne Lighthouse at South Shields was constructed in the 1880s on the Groyne Promenade
The Herd Groyne Lighthouse at South Shields was constructed in the 1880s on the Groyne Promenade.

Walk along the South Shields seafront and you’ll spot a handful of artworks. They include Conversation Piece by Juan Muñoz, a work featuring distorted, balloon-like bodies that always prompt me to think of Weebles, vintage toy figures that wobbled before righting themselves.

Littlehaven Beach is lapped by the water of the North Sea at South Shields.
Littlehaven Beach at South Shields.

South Shield’s parks

A series of three parks run between the seafront and the town.

Bents Park hosts occasional food and drinks events plus concerts during the annual South Tyneside Festival. Rick Astley and the Lightning Seeds count among the acts that have performed in previous years. Ella Henderson and Will Young are set to play at the 2020 edition. The festival also includes performances by brass bands at the Sandhaven Amphitheatre.

South Marine Park opened in 1990. During the late-1880s head gardener John Peebles re-purposed hills of industrial ballast while landscaping the park. It features a lake for sailing model boats, a bandstand and a miniature steam railway.

North Marine Park is on the far side of Pier Parade, the location of South Shield’s Lifeboat Memorial. The memorial features a lifeboat, a clock tower plus bas relief sculptures depicting the lifeboat and its crew in action.

The boat at the Tyne Lifeboat memorial at Pier Parade in South Shields dates from 1833 and is the world's second oldest lifeboat
The boat at the Tyne Lifeboat memorial at Pier Parade in South Shields dates from 1833 and is the world’s second oldest lifeboat.

The largest of the three is North Marine Park. It’s worth strolling through for views down onto the seafront and mouth of the River Tyne. One of the entrances features signs fashioned as Roman-style shields, a tip of the hat to South Shields once hosting a fort with granaries that served Hadrian’s Wall.

Roman style shields and spears mark the entrance to North Marine Park in South Shields.
Roman style shields and spears mark the entrance to North Marine Park in South Shields.

Lawe Top and battery

Lawe Top offers views of the surrounding area and is the oldest place of settlement in South Shields. The brick obelisk there now once aided ships in navigating the Tyne.

Cannons by the Harbour Lights pub stand in memory of volunteers who were ready to defend the coast when Britain was threatened from the sea. An information board by the guns explains that the South Shields Loyal Volunteers formed in 1797 to repel French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte.

Cannon by the Harbour Lights at Lawe Battery in South Shields
Cannon by the Harbour Lights at Lawe Battery in South Shields.

Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort

The Romans knew South Shields as Arbeia, a name thought to be derived from the Arabian origin of the troops stationed at its fort. The fort helped defend Hadrian’s Wall and is now part of UNESCO’s Frontiers of the Roman Empire world heritage site.

The site, on Baring Street, is open from 1 April to 30 September and has a compact but informative museum with Roman-era artefacts. It provides insights into the lives of people who served at Arbeia.

The reconstructed West Gate, barrack room and commander’s quarters help convey how the fort looked around 18 centuries ago.

Reconstructed main gate of the Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort
The reconstructed gate of the Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort.

Ocean Road and food in South Shields

If you enjoy a good curry take your pick from the restaurants dotted along Ocean Road. They include the Spice Garden (202 Ocean Road), whose tandoori mixed grill is served on a sizzling platter.

Colmans (176-186 Ocean Road) serves some of the best fish and chips in the region. Colmans Seafood Temple (Sea Road) has an oyster bar.

Signs for Arbeia Roman Fort and Colmans Award Winning Fish and Chips in South Shields.
Signs for Arbeia Roman Fort and Colmans Award Winning Fish and Chips in South Shields.

For ice cream pop to one of the parlours operated by Minchella and Co..

A statue of John Simpson Kirkpatrick stands outside of a pub that bearing his surname. South Shields-born, Kirkpatrick served in the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps at Gallipoli during World War One. Known as ‘the man with the donkey’, he moved numerous wounded soldiers on the pack animals before himself falling victim to Ottoman bullets.

Statue of John Simpson Kirkpatrick, known as 'The Man with the Donkey', in South Shields
Statue of John Simpson Kirkpatrick, known as ‘The Man with the Donkey’, who rescued more than 300 soldiers from the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign.

South Shields Museum and Art Gallery

The town’s museum and art gallery (Ocean Road) occupies a two-storey building dating from 1860. Originally it served as the South Shields Literary, Mechanical and Scientific Institution. The ground floor has a café and exhibitions about the area’s history while art is displayed on the upper level.

The museum includes a recreation of a 1930s street. It explains how the area was hit by high unemployment in the 1930s. The pressures that brought was a factor in sparking a riot targeting Arabian seamen in 1930.

The gibbet on which Jarrow-man William Jobling was executed is displayed in the museum. The striking miner was the last person in the region to be sentenced to death by gibbeting, following his conviction for the murder of a magistrate. He was hanged then his body was covered in pitch, redressed and displayed within an iron cage.

South Shields' Merchant Navy Memorial stands as a tribute to the sailors of the merchant navy lost during World War Two
The Merchant Navy Memorial stands near the Customs House, looking towards the River Tyne, as a tribute to the sailors of the merchant navy lost during World War Two.

Notable buildings in South Shields

South Shields Town Hall is an attractive building from the first decade of the 20th century. A statue of Queen Victoria stands outside. The Old Town Hall stands on the Market Place, close to St Hilda’s Church.

Since 2016 South Shields has been home to The Word, Britain’s National Centre for the Written Word. The modern, multifunctional building is open seven days a week and includes a rooftop viewing terrace with telescopes.

Facade of The Word,the UK's National Centre for the Written Word.
Facade of The Word,the UK’s National Centre for the Written Word.

Designed by FaulknerBrown Architects, this cultural centre has an open feel and is a joy to explore. It hosts a library, café and shop plus spaces for meetings and events. Author Michael Chaplin wrote Tyne Voyages, a series of stories, for display in The Word. The building’s exhibition space hosts Investigating Detectives, about fictional sleuths, from 28 March 2020 to 3 January 2021.

The town’s former customs house reopened as an entertainment venue in 1994. The Customs House has a 437-seat theatre and a 145-seat cinema.

Facade of the Customs House theatre in South Shields, which has been a theatre and cinema since 1994.
Facade of the Customs House theatre in South Shields.

Getting to South Shields

Considering using public transport rather than a private vehicle to reach South Shields? The town’s transport interchange opened in 2019, hosting both the South Shields Metro terminus and bus station.

South Shields Interchange in South Shields
South Shields Interchange in South Shields.

The Shields Ferry crosses the River Tyne connecting North and South Shield. The journey across the Tyne takes just seven minutes. Pedestrians and cyclists can use the ferry.

Ferry Terminal at South Shields
The Ferry Terminal at South Shields.

Further information

To find out more about things to do in and around South Shields take a look at the Visit South Tyneside website. The Visit England website also has information on things to do in and around South Shields.

Illustrating photos are supplied by Why Eye Photography.

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2 Comments

  • Kevin Ashton

    March 25, 2020 at 11:32 Reply

    A very interesting article Stuart, thank you for sharing. I will definitely take a trip to South Shields to see the Roman fort. as soon as lockdown ends.

    • Stuart Forster

      March 27, 2020 at 10:03 Reply

      I like South Shields a lot. Strolling on or by the beach there is something I enjoy immensely. It’s worth checking out, particularly on bright days when walking with an ice cream cone seems like a special treat.

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