Growing up with a Dire Straits-loving step-dad, I became intimately familiar with the songs and lyrics of Mark Knopfler. One track, in particular, always stood out – a haunting eight-minute love song called Tunnel of Love, which describes a fleeting encounter at a funfair called the Spanish City. It was only decades later I discovered it's a real place, in the English seaside town of Whitley Bay, 17 kilometres north-east of Newcastle upon Tyne. So, during a recent trip to Newcastle, I decided to take a stroll down memory lane and visit the place that inspired Knopfler to write such a heartfelt, poignant ballad.
There's a metro line from Newcastle to Whitley Bay, but on the advice of locals I disembark two stops before at Tynemouth, a seaside town south of Whitley, so I can walk the five-kilometre heritage coastal trail between the two.
Arriving in Tynemouth's ornate Victorian train station on an overcast, blustery day, I brace myself for that special melancholy that descends on seaside resorts in inclement weather. Instead, I find an unexpectedly charming town with a delightful village green and a prosperous, bunting-clad high street lined with boutiques and upmarket eateries.
Thanks to its position at the mouth of the River Tyne, the town has been an important strategic base for centuries. Standing guard on the headland is Tynemouth Priory, an imposing 13th-century castle that's the burial place for several Northumbria kings. Throw in three glorious swaths of sandy beach and you can understand why The Sunday Times declared Tynemouth one of the best places to live in northern England last year.
I head north, skirting the impressive 1.6-kilometre Longsands Beach, which, despite the inclement weather, is dotted with paddle boarders and surfers. The locals are a legendarily hardy bunch and I pass many in T-shirts and shorts while I'm smothered in multiple layers.
After a quick coffee stop in the quirky Surf Cafe (A+ for eclectic surf-inspired decor; B- for the latte), I round a headland and descend into Cullercoats Bay, a sandy cove that also gets a mention in Tunnel of Love.
Along the way, information panels show the region in its 1920s heyday, when high society would flock to the coast to "take the waters" and stay at the opulent Grand Hotel, a dramatic Victorian pile on Tynemouth's seafront.
By contrast, Whitley Bay doesn't have Tynemouth's quaint village feel and its beach isn't as big or as inviting. But it does have the Spanish City – a two-storey, dazzling-white entertainment complex with a soaring dome that initially opened as a concert hall and tearoom in 1910. A permanent funfair was added later and the facility was popular until the 1990s when it fell into disrepair and was eventually closed. After a laborious seven-year, £10 million restoration, it finally reopened last July with an elegant tearoom, a champagne bar and a fine-dining restaurant with sweeping views over the bay.
On this grey, overcast day, the neighbouring funfair looks decidedly unromantic. However, if I close my eyes, I can just about imagine the neon and the noise and the teenage exuberance of a balmy summer's night in the '60s. A local lad meets a captivating young girl and they spend a magical evening together without ever learning each other's names. Twenty years later, he writes a song about it: "Girl it looks so pretty to me, like it always did/Like the Spanish City to me, when we were kids."
Located in Newcastle on the banks of the River Tyne, Hotel du Vin has plush, spacious rooms and a cosy bistro with an impressive wine collection. Rates from £95. See hotelduvin.com
Rob McFarland was a guest of Visit Britain.