The Spanish City
A magical place, but it's a long walk home
Yeah girl it looks so pretty to me
Just like it always did
Oh like the Spanish City to me
When we were kids
Check it out
(From Tunnel Of Love, by Dire Straits)
The Spanish City used to be an amusement park, situated in the seaside town of Whitley Bay, on the north-east coast of England. The structure’s main feature, which dates back to 1910. is a huge white dome, which still stands today, and the building itself, originally a ballroom, is in use as an upmarket wining and dining outlet. But when Mark Knopfler, author of the above lyric, and I were kids (he’s some way older than me), a trip to the Spanish City was about as good as it got.
An Extra Thrill
Back then, no school summer holiday period would be complete without at least one trip to what we called the shows at the Spanish City. The name itself was magical to our young imaginations. Children from my town, who took the 308 bus to Whitley Bay, got an extra thrill, because that bus lumbered up a steady incline at Seaton Sluice, but then, on gaining the brow of the hill, the white dome came into view, almost glowing in the distance. On seeing our pure white destination, excitement levels on the bus went up to eleven.
As exciting as a trip to the Spanish City was as children, our teenage years brought a whole new level of thrills, as we turned up minus our parents. Now we could smoke, and go on more daring rides, like the waltzer and the twister. There were girls to chat up, hooligans from other towns to avoid, and hot dogs to eat. And from an amusement arcade jukebox, One and One is One, by Medicine Head became the soundtrack to our day.
Aside from blaring pop songs, there were screams as the big dipper took a plunge, the crack of air rifles from a sideshow, a wailing child who’d dropped his ice cream, competing with louder wailing from sirens on the rides, the throb of generators, and the faint drone of numbers being called at a distant prize bingo. There was a heady combination of smells coming from the candy floss machine and chip shops, making you wish you hadn’t wasted your money on the rather tame ghost train. And diesel fumes.
It was also a time of harsh lessons, as we learned, or rather we didn’t learn, that spending our bus fare home on one last ride on the waltzer was to exchange a moment of thrills for some two hours of toil. We had a seven mile walk back home.
After such an irreversible commitment, our thoughts became focused on doing whatever we could to obtain the wherewithal that would save our legs. We scoured the ground, looking for dropped coins or, dare we dream it, a banknote. We pawed at the empty payout trays of every one-armed bandit in the place. Away from the suspicious gaze of the attendant, we accidentally bumped against penny falls machines, hoping to dislodge just one coin, which we could then gamble in a slot machine and, well, who knows? Hope springs eternal in the human breast.
But, the hoped for pennies from heaven never landed, and we eventually became resigned to our mammoth trek, part of which we would undertake on the unforgiving terrain of dry sand. As we trudged along the beach on one of those homeward hikes, when I was about fourteen, we tormented each other by stating what delicacies we hoped would be waiting for us when we got home. With our throats on the verge of desiccation, one of our number suggested chilled watermelon.
Mother of all saints: chilled watermelon! I couldn’t shake the image from my thoughts, and I pictured myself biting into its cold, wet, yielding flesh. At that moment, I may have sold my parents into slavery for just one slice of honeydew, fresh from the fridge. All right, two slices.
But there was to be no respite, for under that baking sun, a trio of teens trudged across dry sand, dreaming of what refreshments awaited once their destinations had been reached. It was almost like a junior remake of Ice Cold in Alex.
At about the half-way point of our journey, we decided to abandon the beach in favour of firmer pavements. Better still, one of our number had a low-denomination coin that he intended to use to buy chewing gum. Such a purchase wouldn’t fill our rumbling bellies, of course, but minty freshness would bring welcome relief to our parched throats.
When our benefactor went into the shop, the rest of us kept walking, aware that stopping and then restarting only made things harder. We heard the ping of the shop door, and approaching footsteps behind us, and our friend caught us up, clutching a bright yellow and green pack of Beech Nut gum. But he didn’t break out the chickle immediately. Rather, he was quietly laughing to himself.
When we had put some distance between us and the shop, our friend pulled from his pockets four Penguin chocolate biscuits he’d picked up when the shopkeeper wasn’t looking. To call this development a pleasant surprise would be akin to calling the Titanic a tugboat. We had food.
We Didn’t Care
We decided to break up the spare biscuit into three, and devour that first so we would each have a whole one to enjoy after it. Peeling off the foil wrappers was cumbersome, as the chocolate was melting, but we didn’t care. We marched along in silence, going at our treats with great gusto, like Magwitch went at the apple he took from Pip, in David Lean’s version of Great Expectations.
That brief repast reinvigorated us, and we continued our trek in a more positive frame of mind. After we had swallowed the last vestige of chocolate flavour from our Penguins, we freshened up with the legitemately obtained Beech Nut. And, eventually, we got home.
That wouldn’t be the last time I’d make that journey, and those miserable hikes taught me nothing. For as a young adult I occasionally attended a night club some three miles from my home, and I would invariably spend my taxi fare on one final drink, thus lumbering myself with a long walk home, often in inclement conditions.
The child really is father to the man.