Cullercoats is, on the surface, another charming Victorian resort on the North Sea coast, in this case just to the north of the mouth of the Tyne at Tynemouth and south of the resort of Whitley Bay, and within easy reach of Newcastle upon Tyne. If you stand on the road known as the Grand Parade and look to the north you can see the stretch of sands which constitute Long Sands Beach; it is fun to go beachcombing on it, or just walk along, listening to the cries of the seagulls. It can become very crowded, however, particularly on summer weekends.
The church you can see to the left is St. George’s, an Anglican church, built in sandstone, at the behest of Algernon Percy, KG, PC, His Grace the 6th Duke of Northumberland, in 1884. It has a lovely spire in the French Gothic style, good stained glass, and a magnificent (unaltered) T.C. Lewis organ from 1885. Beyond the headland lies Cullercoats Harbour. In the 17th century, Cullercoats exported coal (mined locally), and salt (evaporated from seawater using the cheap coal!). The trade declined due to local geological difficulties, and the villagers reverted to their age-old occupation of fishing.
It was its status as a picturesque fishing village which lead to the formation of an ‘art colony’ – rather like the one which flourished at St. Ives, Cornwall (and now is the driving force behind a branch of the world-famous Tate Gallery, ‘The Tate, St. Ives’, at Porthmeor Beach, St. Ives, Cornwall). From the 1870s to the early 1920s, the ‘Cullercoats Colony’, a loose confederation of artists in many media, took for their inspiration the lives and activities of the fisherfolk, lifeboatmen and villagers of Cullercoats and its environs. Principal amongst them was the famous American painter and illustrator, Winslow Homer (1836-1910); despite only living in Cullercoats for twenty months in 1881/1882, this period shaped the rest of his life’s work. Working in both oils and watercolours, he produced maritime scenes which were quite stunning. His works are exhibited in galleries around the world; indeed, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. owns “Mending the Nets”, “Sparrow Hall”, and “Girl Carrying a Basket”, from Homer’s Cullercoats period.
What of the comparison to the famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – “the world’s largest private, nonprofit ocean research, engineering and education organization” on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts - and Cullercoats, you say? Well, it might not be as well-known, or as significant (it only has one research vessel, as opposed to four at Woods Hole) but the Dove Marine Laboratory of the School of Marine Science and Technology, Newcastle University, is located in Cullercoats Harbour, and students undertake research in the cold waters of the North Sea. The original, handsome Edwardian brick building bears two plaques, one states; “Erected A.D. 1908 by Wilfrid H. Hudleston, M.A., F.R.S. for the furtherance of marine biology and as a memorial of his ancestress Eleanor Dove”, the other commemorates 100 years of excellence in marine science, and was unveiled in 2008 by Ralph Percy, His Grace, the 12th Duke of Northumberland.
One last thing. For many years, since 1911, the School of Marine Science and Technology had its own vessel, plying the North Sea. The much-loved Research Vessel ‘Bernicia’ (built 1973, steel-hulled, 5,000 nautical mile range) has been sold to a company based in Holland, and the replacement will be an advanced, deep-V catamaran, built by a local boat-building company, Alnmaritec Ltd. from Blyth, Northumberland.
In short, Cullercoats might be small, but it is full of surprises!