For centuries, the Tyne was the artery through which flowed the trade that brought prosperity and powered the growth of Newcastle.
But in the days before the building of the river’s sheltering piers, hazards such as the Black Middens and Herd Sands, plus stormy weather, made entry into the Tyne an often dangerous exercise for sailing ships.
So in 1727 what is now known as the Old Low Light was built at the mouth of the river for the masters and mariners of Trinity House, whose building on Newcastle Quayside is one of the city’s greatest heritage assets.
The Old High Light was also constructed so that incoming vessels could align both high and low to plot a safe passage into the river.
Now the Old Low Light has found a new direction, and after serving the mariners of the past will do the same for the local community of, and visitors to, North Shields Fish Quay.
The listed, three-storey building, sited inside the restored 17th Century Clifford’s Fort on the Fish Quay, has just opened its doors as a heritage and community hub.
The restored building is now a base for The Net, a voluntary undertaking set up by a group of friends and now a registered charity.
It is another port of call for the increasing numbers of visitors who come to enjoy the mix of fishing port, pubs, cafes, shops, businesses and restaurants which make up today’s Fish Quay.
The Net’s Old Low Light venture offers a cafe, an outside public space with sweeping views over the river mouth, a top floor for functions which is available for hire, facilities for a 50-seat cinema and a second floor which will tell the story of the Fish Quay, the river and North Shields.
Exhibitions, classes, workshops, talks and events are planned.
It is the latest chapter in the chequered history of the Old Low Light.
Henry VIII granted a charter to build two towers at the entrance of the haven on the Tyne for incoming ships to navigate by. They were allowed to receive four pence for every foreign ship and two pence for every English vessel entering the river.
The first graphic representation of a Low Light dates from 1655 on Ralph Gardner’s map of the River Tyne and in 1727 the present Old Low Light was built, where tallow candles were replaced by oil lamps in 1773.
In 1808 the old lights were replaced by the New Low and High Lights as shifting sand banks had changed the direction of the deep river channel.
The Old Low Light became an almshouse in 1830, with the lantern turret removed to make way for a third floor.
Tynemouth Borough Council bought the building from Trinity House in 1920 for £1,510 and adapted it for use as a fish warehouse.
The building was listed in 1986 and was refurbished by Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust for use by North Shields Sea Fisheries Association.
The North Tyneside Council-owned building is now leased by The Net, which was founded by friends Jan Taylor, Nina Brown, Dorothy Brownlee and Linda Kay- who were affectionately known as The Netties.
Nina was a head teacher and Jan a deputy head, who were also members of the Geordie Ramblers walking group, and approaching retirement.
On a walk, they discussed creating a resources box for schools, filled with items which would help teachers tell the story of the Fish Quay.
The idea was backed by Folk Interested in Shields Harbour (FISH), a voluntary group dedicated to revitalising the Fish Quay.
Two public consultation days on the concept of The Net brought in 660 completed questionnaires.
“We were given masses of ideas. It was brilliant,” says The Net chairman Jan.
They took over the lease of the Old Low Light, and a temporary opening of the partly-restored building for Heritage Open Days attracted more than 1,000 visitors.
“It has been hard work, but what kept us going was the enthusiasm of everybody,” says Jan.
Support came from North Tyneside Council, Fish Quay businesses, Tyne Wear Building Preservation Trust, the North of England Civic Trust and Kier Construction.
The Net also secured grant aid from the Government’s Coastal Communities Fund for repairs and renovation costs.
Jan says: “ Restoring the Old Low Light has been a challenge but we are excited about the prospect of turning it into a thriving social enterprise and making use of such an iconic listed building. We want this to be a true community hub.”
North Tyneside Mayor Norma Redfearn says: “The Old Low Light has had a range of different uses throughout its long history, all of which have been significant and important to the area.
“We are delighted that the building is starting this new chapter that will see it have a role in the life of the Fish Quay once again.”
The Net centre manager Pearl Saddington says: “We want to capture and celebrate the story of the Fish Quay and North Shields
“We are working with retired fishermen and local businesses and we welcome contributions from people who have stories to tell about the Fish Quay.”
While the leisure uses of the Fish Quay expand, it is also said to be the biggest prawn fishing port in England.
The different uses of the Fish Quay are reflected in an exhibition of 40 images, called Quay People, to mark the opening of the centre.
They have been selected from around 400 images of the Fish Quay community taken by Net volunteers Ernest Storey and Chris Shieba.
“The exhibition celebrates the resilience of this remarkable area and its people,” says Pearl.