This short fantasy story about North Shields was written by Tynemouth writer and singer-songwriter, Celia Bryce, for Historic England’s High Street Tales series in 2021.
It’s the dead of night in Bedford Street, everything sleepy under wide-awake street lamps and a spill of light from the moon. A fox comes silently by, trotting from shadow to shadow, bench to bench. She noses around the base of the white tower and its clock, presses her nose into doorways and against the night-time shutters of the Beacon Centre. She sniffs the air.
This is her place, she knows every inch of it: every incline to the low road and the river, every narrow stairway which plunges down the bankside, the angles and corners, the shadowy spots between the town on the plateau and the river below.
When the clock begins to chime a late hour the fox stops, alert as if hunted. The sound is wrong, odd. The hands on the clock begin to turn back, scraping away at the minutes till they’re shed like sea foam, floating. The fox stands transfixed.
The earth is turning to a different melody and Time is all asway, so that the Beacon Centre fades, giving way to its Once-Upon-A-Time-ness: shops emerging all ghostly with corbels and capitals, pilasters and plinths. Canopies unfurl. A butcher stands at his doorway; a draper arranges bolts of cloth; the man who sells the oil lamps sets a taper to a wick. Trams trundle, horses clatter. There’s coffee roasting. The light has turned to sepia.
At the foot of Pen Bal Crag appears a man; where he’s come from is a mystery but it’s clear that he’s in a hurry. His hat’s crumpled, as if a cat has slept in it. From a rope slung across his chest hang various shoe lasts, while from his belt swings a hammer and wrench, a bag of clinch nails, rivets, heel plates. Leather pieces dandle. On his back, a sack so heavy he curves. He has the look of a man seeking solace. He walks along the path that climbs up the bank from the sea and down again to meet the river. He passes the Black Middens where ships have foundered and lives have too. As he walks, the man fishes out a shoe from his sack, draws out another and another, glancing at each of them as if searching for the correct one. He discards them. Carries on walking.
Time has swayed and bobbed about so much that at the head of Pen Bal Crag, Tynemouth’s Priory begins to grow from the stumps of its ruins, stone over stone, arch over arch. Glass, stained and beautiful, pours into its windows. A bell tolls where no bell has been for centuries; it echoes through the cloisters. Monks set aside their gardening tools, fold up their kitchen aprons, put down their pens. There are a hundred of them, maybe more, hoods pulled up against the wind which never ceases, the cold which never wavers. Their sandals scrape along the path. Soon the chanting begins in an old, old tongue.
The man with the sack hears the bell, the chanting, but he’s not interested in the Hours that monks must keep to. He wends his way towards the great Pow Burn Valley whose steep sides enfold ancient trees and stinging bushes; where cows graze at edges, drink from rivulets. At the top lies the plateau, flat and green with a small scattering of windmills, their sails slowly drifting round. He could get there if he scrambled up the slopes, but the high ground isn’t the place he’s looking for. He must carry on along the Low Road till he finds it.
As he moves, Time has called for the monks to drain the marshy land at the bottom of the Pow Burn Valley, reclaim it from the greedy river and build shiels with wood and thatch and mud to seal the gaps. Shelters, they’ll be, for the fishermen who provision the Priory. There’ll be quays, too, for the mooring of their little fishing boats.
And in an instant, because Time is being tricksy, it is done, and already a small crowd of people, from their riverside dwellings, have gathered curious to see what’s left after the monks have taken their share of fish. Perhaps there’ll be some bits to take home, something for the stew pot. Seagulls fly about, hopeful for scraps.
Shedding shoes from his sack, the man carries on flinging them into the air, this way and that, not watching where they land, only knowing that he hasn’t found the correct one yet. The cast-offs are like small beings, lying restless where they’ve landed, as if waiting for a reason to move. He walks past a shamble of houses crammed together against the bankside so that any natural light is leeched out, leaving only dark places where flickering lamps drop golden slivers into reeking gutters. Here, children spurt about on tough-skinned feet; they crawl up the scrubby bank behind their homes, yelping at each other as they escape from where the air swims with disease.
Mothers gossip as they hang tatters of wet clothes. Fisherman lost at sea? they say. God Rest the poor soul. Whose man is he? How many bairns? They know that if it’s not the coal mine that takes the men, it’s the sea.
On the opposite side of the thin path, more buildings: workshops, smoke houses, brew houses. They’re tacked along the river’s edge, with landings perched over the water and wooden supports pressed into the mud-bed below. The river slops around them.
At Pen Bal Crag, knavish Time has ravaged the Priory like a Dane seeking wealth, leaving only ruins and grave stones, brown as old teeth, under which lie the bones of ancient Kings. It has grown piers at the river mouth which stretch out as if in welcome; each bearing a lighthouse, whose patterns of flashes warn of treacherous places, of sand bars, and beyond those, the raggedness of rocks. Through the piers come Dutch luggers, French coasters, stately East Indiamen. They tie up at the quay, shoulder to shoulder with sculler boats and steamers. Jostling for space is a fleet of rust-coloured sails as the cobles come home from the fishing.
The man heeds none of this, still searching for that one shoe in among all the others. He throws away boots for miners, for sailors and ship builders; footwear for brewers, for bakers and tea sellers. Fancies for gentle-folk up on the heights, whose houses blossom in fresh-cut grass, and where the air is good, and light. As quickly as he sheds shoes from his sack, they are replaced, like porridge in a magic pot. But the one he needs can’t be found, nor can the place he has to go. Something like despair creeps in while Time thunders on behind him. At the end of Liddle Street, he climbs the wooden bridge to cross the marshland near Dogger Letch. Time follows, and before the man can step into Clive Street, pipes are already capturing the fresh water running down the hill and the sicket running up, culverting and burying this watersmeet under hard surface and cobbles.
He has reached the Bull Ring, where Time has built Georgian houses and put in a thriving market. From out of the Sailor’s Home nearby, young men tumble, released from their ships and bent on enjoyment for a brief spell, bringing with them a soup of languages. Flashing eyes and dancing, music and drinking are things they all understand. An accordion begins to play.
The man stops at the landing where the ferry boat crosses the river and knows he’s come too far. The shifts in Time confuse him. He is anxious now and begins to walk back, all wearied, till he reaches the Wooden Bridge once more, only to see it vanish, along with the marsh below it, giving way to a sign which reads Bedford Street, with cobbles and businesses stretching all the way to the top, where Time has ploughed the plateau into streets and roads, seeded it with houses and shops, and custom from beyond and beyond.
The man pauses. There’s something familiar here, at the bottom of the street. Time has found him a small shop with a sign reading Boot & Shoe Company; and a bell which jangles when someone goes in. He remembers. This is his shop. It was his shop. It’s just a shadow now but he can still see the walls inside, and that is all he needs.
And, in his sack, miraculously, is the shoe he’s been searching for, as if it’s been waiting to be called just at the right moment, in the right place. It’s delicately made, the finest he ever produced, something he was inordinately proud of, though it broke his heart. It’s a Typhoid shoe, a Cholera shoe; it’s a Measles, a Scarlet Fever shoe. It’s a shoe for every sickness that ever lived in the bad air, and for every child taken to its Maker. Including his own.
He begins to do what he should have done more than a century ago, almost two. He scrabbles a hole into the wall. Plaster falls away, too much for just one small thing. But he places it there, like a priest puts Chalice into Tabernacle. For this is something precious. It was made here, in this waterside town, and it speaks for all that is lost and gone before, and all that is to be found, in whatever form. Safely buried, wrapped in sacking along with the tools that fashioned it, perhaps it will keep away bad fortune or fearful malady.
Isn’t that what they say?
He covers up the hole just in time. Everything begins to disappear, leaving just air, clear and fresh; and a crop of new spacious houses.
The man retraces his steps paying no heed to the swirl of Time about him, the movement of things back and forth. He’s heading along the river to that great gash in the rocks where a high crag juts out, catching the wind and storms; where the Priory ruins ring with the story of monks, of fish and of shiels built for fishermen.
If anyone was to notice him, they’d see a character who walks with a jig in his step; a crumpled hat jaunty on his head, his back straight and tall. He reaches the river mouth and climbs up the steep bank and down the other side. At the base of Pen Bal Crag he fades, like sea foam blown away.
But it doesn’t end there.
Along the river’s edge, east and west, come an array of boots and shoes, as if summoned; each one searching for its mate and finding it.
Ignoring all the ways up to the top they dance in pairs along the Low Road where there is plenty of light, no bad air, and children’s feet are shod. They collect at the bottom of Bedford Street where new houses sport gardens and cars and clear river views. At the top of this now-tarmacked road is the Beacon Centre and its clock.
Up they go.
Waiting for them is a gathering of such footwear the man could never have imagined making. Shocking-pink platforms, white vinyl knee highs; wedge-heeled court shoes, gleaming jelly sandals. But they’re here. With winkle pickers and beetle crushers; kitten heels, stiletto heels. There are trainers and Pods. And in the middle, a pair of ballet shoes, pirouetting.
They begin to dance. High heels teetering while hob nails crunch; Oxfords waltzing while gaiter-boots reel, needle-toes rock and rolling while graceful block-toes twirl. There’s music matched to every step, instruments for every style, as if each one has brought along its own dance, its own musicians to celebrate this coming together.
The hands on the clock race forward as if to seize this moment, grasping the hours, the months and years, storing them in the Beacon’s tower. Memories of those Once-Upon-A-Time days, those high days and holidays, those heydays, and glory days and the not so very hey or high, the not so glorious or holy but, like old photographs, wonderful in their variety and safe as a shoe in a wall, warding off bad fortune and fearful malady.
The spinning hands are slower now, more reasoned, more dignified; Time shifting back into place as if it never really left and never met the Shoe Man.
The clock finishes its late-hour chiming while the town waits sleepily for morning. The fox, emerging from her trance, begins to walk, meandering about the benches and waste bins; dandering between the Phone Shop, the Loan Shop, the Charity Shop, the Co-op. She dawdles by the Family Hub, the Pow Burn Pub, the Dentist and the Bargain Store.
She begins to trot, crossing Saville Street; she’s at the lower end of Bedford Street now, approaching the river road, focused, all senses alert.
The air is clear. It’s a fine night for hunting. And it’s Time.
Celia’s debut novel ‘Anthem for Jackson Dawes’ published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, is available here.