What’s in a name? Well, when you are talking about the Tyne’s twin harbour towns, a great deal, as the latest screen venture from South Shields film maker Gary Wilkinson makes clear.
Shiels, which premiered recently, is an affectionate and evocative exploration of the character of the communities located at the entrance to the river, with our shared roots in shipping and fishing.
There is something fantastic about seeing the banks of the river from the river.Ray Spencer, director, The Customs House
But where did those links go, and can they be
re-established, it asks?
Lovely archive photographs illustrate how, physically, North and South Shields once mirrored each other.
But it wasn’t just the characteristics of hilly streets fretworked with stairs that the two had in common.
Ken Taylor, who worked on the pilot cutters, points out that as many South Shields men as those from the north side once worked in the fishing industry, as well as at Smith’s Dock on the other side of the river.
Folk from ‘here’ crossed regularly to ‘there’.
Ray Spencer, director of the Customs House theatre and cinema in South Shields, remembers, from his boyhood, the children’s trips to the North side that a neighbour would organise (and the occasion, when they missed the last ferry home and were briefly accommodated, with lemonade and crisps, in probably the most notorious pub on the river, The Northumberland Arms, better known as The Jungle).
Crossing the river was part of the adventure.
“It still is for my own kids,” says Ray. “There is something fantastic about seeing the banks of the river from the river.”
The Customs House, in its original guise, grew out of North and South Shields’ bid to get out from under the foot of Newcastle.
What emerged was Shields the port - home now to the enormously successful Port of Tyne Authority on ‘our’ side and, on ‘theirs,’ what is now the biggest fishing concern on the east coast, North Shields – now primarily a prawn fishery – having overtaken the likes of Grimsby and Hull.
But do the two ‘Shields’ have a future together again, in the same way as Newcastle/Gateshead?
Conservation Architect Cyril Winskill is intriguing to listen to on the possibilities, though it comes down, in the end, to the old thorny question of how do you ‘bridge’ the river at this end?
Pontoons that would open to admit ships? River taxis? They’ve got to be worth exploring.
Shiels is a smashing little film that reminds us that the twin harbour towns don’t have to remain just neighbours occasionally only glimpsing each other over the garden fence – even a watery one.
• The next two screenings of the film are on June 8, at 2pm, at the Old Low Light on North Shields fish quay, and at the Wednesday Heritage Club at South Shields Library Theatre on July 8, also 2pm.