Northumberland Square heritage tours celebrate jewel in North Shields’ crown

The tour in progress in Northumberland Square

Tours of North Shields’ historic Northumberland Square have marked the end of the town’s four-year Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) scheme.

Dr Lucy Jessop, senior Architectural Investigator at Historic England, led two 90-minute walks around the recently-restored square on Tuesday 5 March.

Using historic maps and images, she explored the history of the square and its buildings and the changing design of its garden over two centuries.

The historic Northumberland Square conservation area is considered the nearest thing Tyneside has to the celebrated Georgian squares of London, Bath, Edinburgh, and Dublin.

Works in 2021 and 2022 saw it taken back to something close to its original Georgian layout of footpaths and a perimeter of trees, enhancing the biodiversity of the park by introducing thousands of new plants. Traditional sandstone paving and cobbled-style paths were installed throughout the square, with new contemporary lighting and up-lighting to trees.

Dr Jessop said: “Northumberland Square has been a jewel in North Shields’ crown since it was built.

“Its buildings tell a story of later Georgian urban development and they and the garden have survived two centuries of change”.

North Shields is one of more than 60 High Street Heritage Action Zones around the country, part of a government-funded initiative led by Historic England. It aims to breathe new life into local high streets, from regenerating historic buildings to engaging local communities through art and cultural projects.

The HAZ scheme is part of North Tyneside Council’s Ambition for North Shields and the Fish Quay, which aims to create a more vibrant town centre with flexible retail opportunities, expanding the evening and weekend economy and improving the quality of public space in the town centre.

Howard Street and Northumberland Square include some of the best parts of North Shields' Georgian and Victorian town centre with some strikingly elegant buildings and public spaces.

Cllr Carl Johnson, Deputy Mayor for North Tyneside and cabinet member responsible for Regeneration, Economic Development and Culture said: “The HAZ scheme has brought lasting improvements to Howard Street, Northumberland Square and Northumberland Place, bringing benefits to the communities who use them.

“Since the scheme began in 2020, we’ve worked closely with partners to champion and revive the conservation area.

“Our aims have always been sustainable economic and cultural growth, enhancing local historic character, and making the conservation area an attractive, engaging and vibrant place for people to live, work and play.

“The HAZ scheme is coming to an end but North Tyneside Council’s Ambition for North Shields and the Fish Quay continues to create a more vibrant town centre for the future.”

Funding for the redevelopment came from Historic England and The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s Getting Building fund. Through third party grants several Georgian townhouses around Northumberland Square have been restored to their former glory through meticulous repairs to masonry, roofing and windows.

The HAZ scheme saw neighbouring Howard Street transformed from a traffic thoroughfare to a new pedestrian and cyclist-friendly zone. Natural materials appropriate to the conservation area were used and an avenue of trees and seating lead up to Northumberland Square.

There was a fascinating glimpse into North Shields’ past when tram lines dating back to the late 19th Century were uncovered as part of the work to redevelop Howard Street. The tram lines were removed for operational reasons but the council worked with Stephenson Railway Museum to put some sections on display.

The historic Exchange Theatre is a stunning centrepiece of the HAZ and a lynchpin of the new North Shields Cultural Quarter. The landmark building on the corner of Howard Street and Saville Street reopened in the winter of 2023 under the new name The Exchange 1856. The Grade-II listed theatre, bar, and arts venue underwent a meticulous programme of conservation and restoration work as part of the HAZ scheme, funded by Historic England and North Tyneside Council.

Communities were involved with the HAZ through The Culture Consortium, working in partnership with VODA North Tyneside, The Exchange Theatre, Helix Arts, North Shields Heritologists and Remembering the Past.

The Culture Consortium brought residents, local community groups and established artists together to celebrate what’s unique about the North Shields HAZ. The project has engaged people in workshops, oral history projects and public performances, putting businesses, community groups, schools and residents in charge of celebrating the past and imagining the future of HAZ.

A bronze plaque is to be installed at The Exchange 1856 to remember the achievements of the 2020-2024 North Shields HAZ scheme.