If you’ve been down to South Shields town centre recently you can’t fail to notice the futuristic, timber-clad cylindrical building being erected on Ferry Street. Traffic was diverted, cranes went up and there was much speculation about what it might become – our best guess was some kind of Joe McElderry tribute concert hall (you’ve got to love that boy). But now the word is out... (see what we did there) this super savvy structure is The Word: National Centre for the Written Word, which opened on 22 October.
‘People were always complaining about the Sixties and Seventies buildings in the Market Place,’ Councillor Iain Malcolm, Leader of South Tyneside Council, told us. ‘So we thought let’s demolish them and build something new. The library building we had in South Shields wouldn’t have been fit for purpose in the next 10 years or so and there was very little we could do to attract people to use it, so we decided to create a new cultural centre.’
This won’t be your typical library with complex filing systems, enforced silences, rows of antiquated books and a stifling combination of dust, dry heat and artificial lighting. Oh no. In the first instance, this is about the lightest, brightest library we’ve ever seen. It’s also so much more than a library. This really is a ‘cultural centre’ for the 21st century. Alongside your typical IT suites, meeting rooms and café, there is a computer gaming area and a ‘FabLab’ complete with 3D printers and vinyl and laser cutters – see, we told you this library was cool.
‘At my age I’m not particularly into gaming,’ Iain laughs, ‘but I’ve always been extremely interested in local history. For me, it’s particularly political history, but I’m also interested in seeing how the town has developed over the years.’
Well, good news for Iain – even the local and family history department has been given a facelift. It’s gone all interactive. Visitors will be able to look through telescopes on the roof of the building to see how the River Tyne has developed over the years. ‘There’s different types of projection so you can see exactly what was on the River Tyne at a certain period of history,’ Iain explains. ‘I’ll enjoy that experience.’
Designed to celebrate the written word in all its guises, this is just one of a range of special exhibits on offer at The Word. StoryWorld is an immersive storytelling experience which uses projections and sound installations to bring our favourite books to life. With a little imagination and a sprinkling of fairy dust, we’ll be casting spells with Harry Potter, solving riddles with Bilbo Baggins and sailing the seven seas with Sinbad the Sailor. But if you prefer to spend your time with real-life (computer) wizards, enrol on an animation workshop, have a go at coding or create your own mini Mars Rover. You can even try your hand at news reporting or reading the weather with the aid of a green screen.
The Word will also offer a range of exciting exhibitions and they’re starting with one of South Tyneside’s biggest exports, Sir Ridley Scott. Born in South Shields in 1937, Ridley Scott has brought us some of the most iconic films of the last 40 years including the ectoplasm-oozing Alien (1979), the sci-fi cult classic Blade Runner (1982), the feminist revenge flick Thelma and Louise (1991), the Roman epic Gladiator (2000) and the recent box office smash The Martian (2015). Ridley is a legend and this promises to be one hell of a tribute with original props shown alongside clips from his films. They’ve even commissioned a 7ft replica of one of his iconic aliens.
Iain is something of a Ridley Scott fan – he admits that he’s seen Alien at least ‘a dozen times’ – but he insists that the exhibition wasn’t just created for his benefit. ‘We want to put The Word out to a national audience and Ridley Scott has got real national and international appeal,’ he says. ‘But there’s nothing to stop us having exhibitions about other favoured people from South Tyneside in the future, such as Catherine Cookson or our world-class performers like Joe McElderry or Little Mix.’ Yes, Joey boy – we knew he’d make an appearance at some point.
With something for everyone, The Word is guaranteed to be a hit with visitors of all ages. I mean who doesn’t want to star in their own mini movie, snap a selfie with a Ridley Scott alien and then head home with an armful of books to peruse over winter? Come on, it’s time to unleash your inner geek. But this is just the start of a multi-million pound regeneration project which will see South Shields transformed over the coming years. The next step is a new cinema complex in Keppel Street.
‘We want to create a nice logical route in South Shields where visitor attractions flow from the River Tyne along King Street and Ocean Road to the Foreshore and all the way along to Marsden and Souter Lighthouse,’ Iain explains. ‘This isn’t something that will happen over night, but the people of the borough are really behind us.’
Great North Run participants and spectators will be pleased to know that there are also plans to develop the metro station and transport links in South Shields too. Like the library they’re getting a modern makeover – we’ll be riding on Marty McFly hover boards in no time, mark our words. But for now keep your feet on firm ground and check out all that The Word has to offer. It’s not the National Centre for the Written Word for nothing.
The Word: National Centre for the Written Word opened on 22 October. For more information and a full programme of upcoming events visit www.theworduk.org