The character of Fish Quay, Tynemouth

19 October 2001 | blog, frameworks, place making, strategy, waterfronts, working with communities

General view of Fish Quay

In March 2001, North Tyneside Council commissioned a multi-disciplinary consultant team, led by EDAW, to prepare a regeneration strategy and master plan for the historic quarter of Fish Quay, adjacent to North Shields town centre. We were part of the team.

Study Brief

The study brief required the consultants to produce a physical master plan with programmes and projects which would:

  • revitalise the local economy
  • improve the building stock
  • encourage development
  • promote the Fish Quay as a community resource
  • promote increased spend and investment
  • improve physical links with North Shields town centre
  • promote the character & heritage value of the area
  • encourage heritage-led development and sustainable development
  • improve and enhance the built and natural environment

The ultimate aim of the commission was to produce a strategy, which would identify the means by which a range of programmes and projects can be implemented in the medium to long term. This regeneration strategy for Fish Quay provides a clear context and framework for future action and investment by the public, private and community organisations to progress social, economic and physical development.

Report Extract


This appraisal explores the physical and environmental aspects of Fish Quay. Although it primarily deals with the physical environment, it also examines activities and spaces as these are also indicators of the quality and character of place. Equally important is the sense of heritage in the area, even where the presence of buildings of individual architectural quality might not be strong.
Fish Quay Seafront
Fish Quay is an unusual place with a blend of topography, buildings and uses which set it apart from the surrounding urban fabric of North Shields and Tynemouth. It is worked in and lived in but it is also a destination for people buying sea produce or simply walking or sitting by the river. It has industries ranging from high-tech electronic fabrication to traditional fish processing but also accommodates artists studios. Its buildings range from small-scale traditional brick constructions to more contemporary buildings. The seafront is part working, part derelict and partly used for recreation. The area has a Scheduled Ancient Monument which provides a setting for fish processing, offices, light industry and more recently for residential use. It has a modest but busy shopping street with easy, if somewhat chaotic parking arrangements. It is also a venue for music festivals.

Regeneration of the Fish Quay area will inevitable change this unusual and delicate balance of uses and physical fabric. This could happen in a positive managed way in which many strands of policy and action combine to meet the aspirations of residents, businesses and visitors. Alternatively, one use or strategic theme could dominate, changing Fish Quay into a less interesting and attractive place.

The purpose of this appraisal is therefore to areas which have value and can continue to make a positive contribution to the character of Fish Quay while identifying weaknesses which might be the subject of change and improvement.

Topography and Setting

Fish Quay has a distinctive topographical setting on a promontory near the mouth of the River Tyne. The core of the study area around Clifford’s Fort and Union Quay is around 4-6m OD with the northern fringes rising up Tanners Bank and Brewhouse Bank to around 20m OD. The lower level area is dominated by a sharply rising escarpment with a 1:1 slope rising up from Union Quay to Tyne Street at its east end decreasing to 1:5 at the west end of the study area. This gives a high degree of enclosure to the core area. Fish Quay effectively has two waterfronts: a river front facing south over the Tyne and a seafront facing east towards the mouth of the river and the North Sea. This striking physical setting is pointed up by the High Light, the Low Light and the Wooden Doll public house which is perched on the highest point of the escarpment overlooking Union Quay. The backdrop of the escarpment and the changes in level over the site also allow larger industrial buildings to co-exist with smaller domestic scale structures.


The morphology of the study area is markedly different from the terraced grid street pattern of much of North Shields. Union Quay – Union Road, Tanners Bank and Brewhouse Bank form a Y-shape which closely follows the topography and is general marked out by terraced buildings ranging in size from 2-storey traditional properties to 4-storey industrial premises. In the Clifford’s Fort area to the east of Union Quay, the building pattern follows the line of the fort walls but between this area and Union Quay, buildings appear to be more randomly placed, especially around the New Dolphin Inn, reflecting site clearance over the years and the breaking down of the original street pattern. Similarly, between Brewhouse Bank and Tanners Bank, the buildings have a random layout. In the north west of the study area around Hudson Street, Northumberland Street and East Percy Street, the grid pattern of North Shields starts to become dominant.

Gateways and Movement Networks

The main access points to Fish Quay by road are along the waterfront entering the area at Dolphin Quays and down Tanners Bank. The Tanners Bank route is the more interesting of the two, giving a strong sense of arrival, firstly under the height restricted Metro Bridge then down the Bank towards Union Road through trees and embankments, interesting buildings and landmarks with long views over the Tyne. Care should be taken to ensure that the qualities of this route are not diminished by insensitive new development or road improvements. The Dolphin Quays route has less interest and surprise and is a more straightforward drive along the riverside. The main pedestrian routes to Fish Quay from North Shields are along Tyne Street then down a choice of stairways to Union Quay or Bell Street. These are dramatic approaches to Fish Quay although they have negative associations for personal security and for the disabled. Both vehicle and pedestrian approaches to Fish Quay involve a valuable sense of arrival and unfolding which should be maintained or enhanced.

Internal / External Views

The topography of the study area and its surroundings ensure that Fish Quay is one of North Shields hidden assets, more visible from the Tyne and from South Shields than from the north bank of the river. The dominant features of these long range views are the High Light and Low Light. Inside the study area, while the Lights are still substantial landmarks, the Wooden Doll public house and larger industrial premises are important townscape features. Views of the river are important from the Low Lights car park, Breakies Beach and Western Quay but the Tyne is not particularly visible form other areas, especially Clifford’s Fort.

Character Areas

Fish Quay Character Areas
The identification of areas of distinct character is a useful means of structuring an area and determining how separate parts can either maintain their positive identities in terms of use, activities, scale and materials or how they might change to create an enhanced environment. Fish Quay can be split into nine character areas as described below but although these areas are fundamentally different, they have common themes which are important parts of the Fish Quay experience. Throughout the study area there is a microlevel of incident including minor buildings and their uses, walls, surface finishes and artefacts which could be worked with and incorporated in new development thus ensuring continuity between past and present. On the other hand, these features could be said to contribute to the general atmosphere of decay and dereliction throughout the study area and attention could be given to sweeping them away in an all-embracing clean-up. Inevitably, the latter approach would bring major change to Fish Quay and runs the risk of creating a more sanitised environment which might be contrary to future aspirations for the area.

Union Quay

This is the active heart of Fish Quay and consists of a terrace of two and three-storey properties, traditional in style, with a variety of uses including retail, cafes, hot food shops, residential, fish-related businesses and an artists studio. It is effectively a one-sided street, set against the backdrop of the escarpment bank rising to Tyne Street with the almost blank elevations of the sheds associated with the Gut on the south side. It is a busy area with on street parking and the current natural focus for visitors to Fish Quay. The area has a great variety in style and condition of shop front and while many of the buildings appear to be well maintained and some of recent construction, others are shabby with vacant upper floors. Narrow pavements, trucks and ad hoc parking practices make this a less than ideal pedestrian environment. Some recent improvements have been carried out to the public realm but these are now looking dated and inappropriate. At the east end of the area, the well structured sense of space starts to deteriorate and uses and activity become more fragmented. This is a strong and valuable character area which would benefit from increased maintenance and facelifts of buildings and shopfronts. Also, an improved pedestrian environment with better materials and encouragement to make use of vacant shops and upper floors, could help to maintain the diversity of use and activity which gives the area its distinctive character.

Clifford’s Fort

This area is the site of a 17th century defence installation – now a Scheduled Ancient Monument – although little remains to be seen of the structure and its buildings except for the boundary wall. It is approximately 2 metres higher than the surrounding land and is currently used for a variety of purposes although fish processing dominates. The area contains four listed buildings or structures as well as six other unlisted buildings of some architectural or historic interest including two smoke houses which were originally linked by wagon-way to the jetty which is now the Lifeboat Station. The remainder of the buildings are of no particular historic or architectural interest and are of more recent construction. While this is historically perhaps the most interesting part of Fish Quay, there is very little evidence of the past other than low walls, a courtyard and signs marking the existence of the Fort. The construction of most of the recent buildings in the area has followed the line of the wall but unfortunately this has resulted in views of the river being blocked and there is therefore little sense of connection with the Tyne. The uses in Clifford’s Fort and the area’s status as a SAM is an unusual combination. Aspirations to develop the archaeological and heritage interest of the Fort will inevitably result in pressure for businesses, particularly fish processing, to move to a more appropriate area. There is however some benefit in retaining a mix of uses in the Fort but this should be accompanied by radical changes to the quality of buildings and public realm, alterations to the road system and new development which would create a more permeable visual and functional relationship with the river through Breakies Beach and with the core activity area of Union Quay through a new central focal point.

Harbour – The Gut

The Harbour, or the Gut as it is known locally, is a sometimes bustling and enclosed semi-private environment. It is a pleasant and sheltered space, dominated by the Low Light and separated from Union Quay by a single storey row of sheds. The decorative grills and doorway of these sheds provide glimpses into the harbour from Union Quay providing a strong here-and-there experience. While the immediate Harbourside is an interesting and pleasant environment the eastern edges of this area, where it connects to Union Quay around the public toilets, is less satisfactory with uninteresting buildings of recent construction and drab public realm works. The extension of the area eastwards towards the Lifeboat Station is a metal clad shed but this is not readily accessible or visible. As long as fishing landing takes place at Fish Quay it is unlikely that substantial change will take place in the harbour area but the connection of the Gut to Union Quay could be the subject of restructuring and improvement, possibly involving a stronger focus such as a fish market.

Low Lights Car Park

This is a popular area for recreation and viewing although it is detached from the core activity zone of the study area around Union Quay and the New Dolphin Inn. The character of the area is open and somewhat exposed with very little to commend it in environmental terms. Its outlook towards Tynemouth, its promenade and links with riverside walkways are positive assets but in design terms it is drab and institutionalised. The area requires better integration with the rest of the study area, particularly through clearer links with the core activity area.

Breakies Beach

This an exposed part of the study area with strong seaward connections but little unity with the rest of the study area. It is visually cut off from the Union Quay area by Clifford’s Fort and there is little activity except around the tatty row of brick sheds parallel to the east wall of Clifford’s Fort and along the access road to the Fish Market. It has a small beach but the surrounding environment is poor quality with concrete foundations, floor pads used for informal car parking, and derelict buildings. Nevertheless it is an atmospheric part of Fish Quay with a positive visual relationship with the sea and the river, both of which should be turned to more beneficial purpose in future plans for the area. This will involve establishing a use for the area and opening up better visual and functional connections with Clifford’s Fort.

Western Quay/Bell Street/Dolphin Quays

This is the westwards continuation of Union Quay towards the new residential development at Dolphin Quays. It is a distinctly riverside area with a mix of uses including residential, some retail and industry with the prominent backdrop of escarpment face rising up to Tyne Street. Western Quay does not appear to be used for maritime purposes and is a popular sitting and walking area which is also used as a venue during music festivals. Retail uses peter out from west to east and towards the Ice factory, there is very little pedestrian activity or interest. Dolphin Quays itself is a very private residential domain, inaccessible to non residents and effectively sterilises the river front. The area could be improved with further development along the riverside but only at the western end. This might include new uses in addition to residential and should allow easier public access to the riverside.

Tyne Street and Escarpment

This area forms the northern boundary between residential North Shields and the west end of the study area and it is also a natural edge or barrier. It provides excellent panoramic views over the River Tyne towards South Shields as well as the best views of Fish Quay itself. Much of the area is rough grass or scrub woodland and a clearer view of its intended long term state would assist in the development of an appropriate maintenance regime. Some scrub areas should be allowed to develop into woodland while other areas should be more carefully maintained grass. As it is, this area is an excellent promenade and viewing platform and it is the best approach to Fish Quay. It’s connections to the lower level are difficult and in some cases intimidating and improvements to existing footpaths, ramps and stairways would be beneficial.

Tanners Bank/Brewhouse Bank

This area consists of the rising land from Union Road to the highest part of the site bounded by the Metro line at the north edge of the study area. It is predominantly an industrial area with a wide range of premises and uses ranging from hi-tech fabrications to a tyre depot and engineering works. The area has many derelict properties in the process of collapse mixed with more recent renovations and new construction including the Caley Fisheries Group building on Tanners Bank which is something of a landmark. There are numerous other buildings of note including the Low Lights Tavern on Brewhouse Bank, a narrow-gabled derelict gatehouse also on Brewhouse Bank and various remnants and artefacts of the area’s industrial past such as decorative brick chimneys, smoke houses and fine stone and brick walls. While there has been at least one innovative conversion of a smoke house to a hi-tech fabrication plant, this would seem to be the exception rather than the rule and it seems inevitable that this area will continue to lose much of its existing character as more buildings and structures deteriorate or are demolished. The southern part of this area around the junction of Brewhouse Bank and Union Road is the most sensitive as far as the rest of Fish Quay is concerned and care will need to be exercised in the consideration of new uses, rehabilitation or redevelopment.

Prospect Terrace and Surrounding Industry

In this area, the dominant grid of North Shields starts to merge with the more random and organic street pattern of Fish Quay. The area is almost exclusively industrial but lacks the heritage interest of the Tanners Bank area. It is basically unattractive and uninteresting and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Environmental improvements will go some way towards lifting the area.

Green Areas

In addition to the escarpment bank that defines the part of the northern study area boundary (discussed above), the Fish Quay area contains large swathes of grass areas, scrub and woodland, particularly in the Brewhouse Bank and Tanners bank area. These have potential for improvement through better maintenance and additional planting. They could also form the framework for a better network of walkways and cycleways through the area which connect to more strategic routes.

Conservation and Heritage

The study area contains a Scheduled Ancient Monument, eight Grade II Listed Buildings of which the High Light and Low Light are the most prominent. The Clifford’s Fort area contains four listed buildings or structures including the remains of the Fort walls. The other listings are smaller buildings consisting of a public house on Brewhouse Bank and a former maltings on Tanners Bank.

15/127 New High Light and House Attached Grade II
13/45 Low Lights Tavern Grade II
13/125 The Old Maltings Grade II
13/133 Ballard’s Smoke House Grade II
15/134 Clifford’s Fort Trinity House Almshouses and Boundary Stone Attached Grade II
13/135 Clifford’s Fort South and East Wall Facing River Grade II
15/136 Clifford’s Fort West and South West Wall Grade II
15/137 Low Lighthouse and Building Attached to North Grade II
Clifford’s Fort SAM

The study area contains many other buildings of individual merit and interest ranging from domestic scale 2 and 3 storey premises and smaller artefacts to larger industrial warehouses and other structure such as chimneys and walls. It may not be feasible or desirable to protect all of these with individual listing but the designation of a Conservation Area would seem to be a positive means of not only maintaining and enhancing the character of the area but also ensuring that new developments met minimum standards appropriate to Fish Quay.


The environment of Fish Quay is rich and complex. While it is an attractive and interesting place, it exhibits facets of decline and deterioration which, if unchecked, will ultimately upset its delicate balance of uses and physical structure – so change is desirable and necessary. However, large scale change involving the dominance of one use over others, the merging of distinctive character areas, the creation of large development parcels from smaller sites, excessive demolition and site clearance, inappropriate public realm treatments or the needless tidying up of remnants and artefacts will all detract from the Fish Quay experience. A more measured and managed approach which is sensitive to the areas character and assets would be of greater long term benefit.