After decades in dire straits, Whitley Bay leads renaissance of northern resorts

Inspired by the reinvention of southern seaside towns, the pleasure beach immortalised by Mark Knopfler is enjoying a multimillion-pound revamp

Dire Straits sang in 1981 about Whitley Bay’s Spanish City pleasure beach, where lead singer Mark Knopfler first heard loud rock music. Twenty years after the song, Tunnel of Love, hit the charts, Spanish City’s domed Edwardian concert hall closed and fell derelict. Now the seaside resort, like many of its northern contemporaries, is gearing up for an ambitious renaissance.

The site of Spanish City is teeming with workmen restoring it to its former glory – part of a masterplan to turn the dilapidated town’s fortunes around.

The past decade has seen a striking revival in the fortunes of southern English seaside towns, notably Margate, Hastings and Whitstable. That has made their northern counterparts, such as North Tyneside’s Whitley Bay, set their sights on their own renewal after decades of neglect that resulted from the collapse of the tourist trade in the 1980s.

Whitley Bay has an ambitious £36m regeneration plan for the seafront. Patrick Melia, chief executive of North Tyneside council, sits on a bench in front of the Spanish City dome, as diggers create the foundations for a hotel being built alongside it, and recalls going to Whitley Bay prom as a boy.

“It was very prosperous from the 50s to 70s, then deteriorated,” says Melia. “But we’re hoping that by investing and bringing the promenade back to life we bring the town back to life.”

Work on the dome will begin next month and Spanish City will reopen for summer 2018.

Soaking up the sun on the beach, on the first truly summery day of the year, Liz Aitchison, 67, a retired care services officer who has lived in Whitley Bay since 1981, says: “People don’t want to go into Whitley Bay because it’s scruffy. It’s a shame because it’s a beautiful coastline. But the council’s made a massive difference along the beach and if it draws more people in, I’ll be thrilled to bits.”

CGI image of the Whitley Bay regeneration
CGI image of the Whitley Bay regeneration. Photograph: ADP Architects

The recent fall in the value of sterling has provided a boost for the domestic travel industry, and figures from VisitEngland show that in 2014-15 overnight visits to English seaside towns grew by 7% to 19.36 million. However, visits to northern seasides fell 11% to 1.77 million. Last week the British Hospitality Association called for a “seaside tsar” to oversee the resurgence in the country’s coastal towns.

If anywhere encapsulates how once-glamorous resorts have turned to poverty, it is Blackpool. The town that was a beacon of fun for half of England now has the highest proportion of neighbourhoods – one in five – in the most-deprived 1% in England.

As part of a three-year plan called Destination Blackpool, the town is doing its best to appeal to holidaymakers again. Margate’s regeneration has been largely attributed to the success of the Turner Contemporary gallery, opened in 2011, and the Dreamland theme park, reopened as a high-class heritage attraction last year. Blackpool is hoping to emulate those moves by promoting its own Grundy Art Gallery and creating a museum in the old Winter Gardens, dedicated to Blackpool’s history as a destination for entertainment. Next May English National Opera will perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado over 10 days – the company’s first performances outside London since 1982.

Wayne Hemingway at the Vintage by the Sea festival in Morecambe
Wayne Hemingway at the Vintage by the Sea festival in Morecambe. Photograph: Rahil Ahmad

The museum’s director, Belinda Betts, says the attraction will help renew a sense of pride in the town. “And it will be a major visitor attraction – a grownup museum, but with a sense of fun. We can’t go back to the past, but there are art installations on the sea defences, the museum, a Comedy Carpet [a huge artwork celebrating comedy catchphrases and writers] on the prom. Blackpool is evolving.”

The signs are positive, but it is a slow evolution – the museum will not open until 2020 – and it may yet fail, as other projects have done. Urban Splash, a leading architectural firm specialising in regeneration, failed to get its ambitious eight-year plan to renew Morecambe seafront off the ground.

Travis Elborough, author of Wish You Were Here: England on Sea, a history of English seaside towns, says: “The northern resorts have trailed behind those in the south, which have relaunched themselves as artistic hubs. It’s been slower because they don’t have the same dependency on London. But places like Scarborough, which I’m a huge fan of, have fabulous architecture, interesting history, and have had a lot of lottery money spent on their heritage, so there is artistic regeneration going on.

“On the other hand, Blackpool’s big draw for a long time was the stag crowd and to have the duality of places like it becoming a sophisticated, arty destination is not the easiest balance to meet.”

It will take skill to pull it off. One project that has managed this balance of past and present is Morecambe’s annual Vintage by the Sea festival, created by the designer Wayne Hemingway. On 3-4 September, for the fourth year running, festival goers will sport tweeds and dance the foxtrot, as their predecessors did in the 1950s. Hemingway was born in the town in 1961 and is immensely fond of it. “It was a very exciting place,” he says. “It always felt like a holiday – Bedlam in a good way.”

And after recent decades when the town’s overarching mood was “misery”, he feels more hopeful than he has for a long time: “Like a lot of seaside towns, it’s on the up, a renaissance – not at the pace of Margate, but it’s a Morecambe renaissance.” He points to new art installations and landscaping on the seafront. “If you invest in culture – like Margate did with the Turner and Dreamland – it brings people. It can never go back to the glory days but if you’re there on a day with a colourful sky you still fall in love with the place.”


Scarborough, North Yorkshire

The Alpamare water park opens on 28 July. It features a heated pool, waterslides, a spa and an outdoor pool overlooking the sea at North Bay.

Whitehaven, Cumbria

A £1.2m extension to the harbour Beacon Museum will allow major touring exhibitions to visit. Brick City, featuring 70 Lego models of famous buildings around the world, opened on Saturday and runs until 11 September.

Roker, Sunderland

The pier and the lighthouse on its tip will be reopened after a £1.35m restoration. For the first time, the public will be taken on tours through the tunnel that also connects it to the mainland.

Blyth, Northumberland

Blyth will host the North Sea Tall Ships Regatta from 26-29 August, with music and races.

Lytham, Lancashire

The Lytham festival has grown from a weekend gig to a seven-day festival, from 1-7 August, with Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and Bryan Adams.


Gareth Rubin

The GuardianTramp

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