It's Tuesday; it's wet and it's blustery; it's cold and it's miserable. But it's a day for raising the spirits. Earlier this week, the new Spirit of the Tyne ferry began its regular seven-minute run between North Shields and South Shields.
The two towns have numerous merits, not the least of them a choice of superb pubs serving cask-conditioned beer. A stamina-sapping real ale trail could absorb The Riverside, The Waterside, the Trimmers Arms, The Alum Ale House, The Dolly Peel, The Maltings, The Steamboat and The Stag's Head in South Shields before a bracing interlude of ozone across to North Shields and The Porthole, Oddfellows, The Magnesia Bank, the Prince of Wales, the Wooden Doll and Teac Fiddlers.
The Spirit of the Tyne dazzles in its bright blue and white livery and smells of fresh paint and crisp upholstery. The Princess Royal officially named her on March 1 this year, but she was unaware of the fresh breeze blowing in from the Black Midden Rocks - the outside world to the Royal Family is shrouded in aromas of Dulux Roll & Go and Zoflora.
The diesel-powered, computer-operated Spirit will work the crossing alongside the Pride of the Tyne, securing the 630-year-old service's long-term future. The new ferry is quick, quiet and powerful; virtually the only sensation of movement is the small vibration from its two compact engines, fore and aft. Four vertically-rotating propellors, rather than a conventional rudder, alter direction at a flick of a computer key and keep the boat stationary at each slipway.
Thirty or 40 people disembark at North Shields, and about 20 get on for the pound-each-way journey back. A young lad on the ferry has rolled up his trouser leg to reveal a huge blue Chinese dragon tattooed on his calf - like the one on soy sauce bottles. It's covered in cling film which has collected tiny rivulets of blood in its creases. He fingers his Oriental decoration gingerly, trying not to scratch it.
"It's new," he says, "and it knacks."
A porthole set into a panel above the bar is an appropriate greeting at The Porthole, the pub closest to the North Shields landing stage. It's a welcome sign, it says "halo". It's a well-used pub and it's worn, but it's very tidy and, like an old jumper, it feels right and it feels cosy. A New Orleans-style trad jazz band is playing to a packed house. The company has an air of contented retirement; grey heads nod to the Dixieland beat and comfortably-shod feet tap in time to the syncopated rhythm. The band itself, with one of the members blasting out a number on a huge silver trombone, has the look of the committee from The Vicar of Dibley. Some youthfully smokey vocals waft into the bar next door, coming surprisingly not from a jazz-cellar minx but from the more mature lady who has, minutes previously, liberated two pounds from our pocket for raffle tickets. All losers.
"We've recently started the jazz on a Tuesday lunchtime as well as a Wednesday," says Arthur Reeve, The Porthole's landlord. "It's a really popular session and well supported - and they're a great crowd."
Arthur and his wife Lilian have run the pub for the past six years - they live in the house next door and after the pub had lain boarded up for five months he decided the only way he was going to get a pint in his local would be to run it himself.
"It was the only way to get my pub back," he says. "Things are going really well now, absolutely first class. Good beer and good music, that's what does it. We use the local micros for our beer and keep it right - it's about clean lines and correct temperatures and if you keep things clean and tidy you're half-way there. We're in the Good Beer Guide so you get a lot of people coming down looking for you."
The original idea for this cross-river trip was to try different spirits of the Tyne (alongside Famous Grouse and Bell's whisky, The Porthole features Gordon's Gin, Lambs Navy Rum, smatterings of Laphroaig, Glenlivet and Glenmorangie and the intriguingly smooth Bulleit Bourbon from Kentucky), but the beer simply proved more alluring. Three handpulls on the bar offer White Wopper (3.7% alcohol by volume) from Durham Brewery, Wylam Bitter (3.8% ABV) and Courage Directors (4.0% ABV). The Directors is beautifully toffee-influenced with an intense fruit and malt rush and a hint of hoppiness. It is a superb beer. Wylam Bitter is a copper-coloured refresher with a floral hop bitterness, while the White Wopper is intensely hoppy with a touch of spice.
The pub's decor features stripped floorboards and copper-topped tables in an obvious nautical theme with ancient photographs and newer paintings of seafaring vessels in bright oils by Jack Boyd showing the Earl of Zetland and The Balmoral. A figurehead gazes out from on high, there are ships in bottles (the secret's something to do with folding masts and string), cigarette cards showing deep-sea diving equipment, ropes, knots, ship-owners' certificates and it's the first time we've ever stumbled across a table in the - immaculate - gents.
Conversation, always a joy to tune in on, slides effortlessly into Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations (a £20 note where the Scottish economist is featured has clearly crossed the bar). A former Teddy Boy sits, pint in hand, in his immaculate black suit, white shirt and dark tie, plus the modern equivalent of winkle-pickers, enjoying his lunchtime stopover. His quiff has been set in 50s style for so long it manages to sit up beautifully by itself with no help from Brylcreem or artificial stimulants. He is a sartorial delight and a credit to wet, miserable Tuesdays.
The Alum Ale House, the closest pub to the South Shields ferry landing, is very tidy, too. It's one of the North-East's classics - a 200-year-old, two-roomed, wood-panelled gem with comfortable, high-backed pews (and truly immaculate toilets) which offers six cask-conditioned beers at any one time.
Mansfield Cask Ale (3.9% ABV) is a very pleasant "session" beer; Bank's Original (3.5% ABV) is well balanced between malt and hop flavours; Jennings Cumberland (4.0% ABV) is light, dry and hoppy, and Marston's Old Empire (5.7% ABV) starts off sweetly then develops complex fruit and malt tones and a lingering bitterness.
An old range dominates the lounge area which has one of those carpets that makes your head spin with bright colours swirling through every shade of red, green and yellow. Matching brass clocks show the correct time and forecast the weather with twin pointers wavering between Fair and Very Dry. Outside it is still wet, blustery and miserable. In true meteorological style, we tap it for accuracy. It refuses to budge.
Once in The Alum Ale House's cellar bar - in what seems like a previous life - we attended a meeting of the Twilight Worlds Paranormal Research Society, a collection of people of all ages and backgrounds interested in UFO sightings, poltergeist activity, psychic phenomena and cryptozoology. It was rather a good night, despite someone believing there was an Indian chief sitting in the corner.
The pub is also well known for its resident ghosts - six of them who haunt every nook. They all have names - Old Charlie, The Victorian Gentleman, The Giggling Irish Prostitute, The Grey Lady, The Phantom in the Cupboard and The Phantom Barman.
The Spirit of the Tyne has taken hold, we can't get rid of Basin Street Blues and the rain continues - on the other hand, a pound each way has given us an exceptional run for our money. Shame about the raffle.
Crossing the Tyne
THE River Tyne would have been crossed by boat from the earliest times - several iron age dug-out canoes have been uncovered.
Records show a ferry was running between North Shields and South Shields by 1377.
In 1588, ferries were forbidden to land beggars. There is also reference to a "horse boat", around this time, although most were for passenger traffic.
The Tyne has been crossed by a number of ferries from Ryton at the western border of Tyne & Wear to Tynemouth. Between 1862 and 1908, paddle steamers ran a passenger service with 21 stops between Elswick and South Shields.
As late as 1929 there were 11 ferry routes across the Tyne between Newburn and the mouth of the river.