THE SHACK THAT ADAM BUILT
The shack that Adam built
Nigel Cabourn and Adam Riley are two likeminded Tynemouth mainstays. Both cut a distinctive figure down on the sand of King Edward’s bay: the former exercising with a vintage medicine ball or painstakingly wearing in new garments; the latter preparing and serving highly sought-after, locally sourced fish at his eponymous shack-cum-restaurant. As his staff readied themselves in their very own uniform of Nigel Cabourn dungarees and beanies, Adam was kind enough to offer up some insights into how Riley’s Fish Shack came to be the iconic local institution it is today.
There’s something about a British beach. Wind your way down the sand-strewn walkway to the beach at King Edward’s Bay on the right day and you’ll see sun hit cliff in a way that feels somehow more precious than any tan-chasing, feed-scrolling excursion to a Costa del Something ever could.
There’s something about a British beach, because even when the skies at King Edward’s Bay turn gunmetal grey and the water starts to chop like TV static, it still feels like a place you want to be. Sure, it makes you work for it. Makes you zip-up high, batten-down hatches. But when did anything really worth experiencing ever come easy, anyway? Just ask Nigel, who you might expect to see there, giving his latest pair of Naval Dungarees the most authentic of worn-in (never worn-out) patinas. Knees pressed into the sand and hands gripped around Lybro textiles. Plunging the heavy material down into the water; reverently scraping away at it with salt-soaked rocks.
There’s something about a British beach, because no matter the weather, at King Edward’s Bay you’re going to find places like Riley’s Fish Shack. An assemblage of wood and iron and hooks and stoves and local kippers and local characters. It exists only because at King Edward’s Bay you’re also going to find people like Adam Riley. A person who started out working in kitchens as a teenager on the Isle of Man – “a naughty kid” whose mum thought the job would keep him out of trouble – and ended up in Tynemouth at the helm of an eatery celebrated by local fisherman and big city food critics alike.
How did you first find your way into a kitchen?
I grew up on the Isle of Man and started working in a local restaurant when I was a teenager. It was run by an eccentric Swiss multimillionaire who ran the restaurant as a hobby. It was great fun because we’d go out foraging, or he’d turn up with a whole wild boar – it was an exciting place to work and I think my mum was glad to have me off the streets!
And from there what was the route like to where you are today?
I moved away when I was 17 and my dad has always lived in Newcastle, running a theatre company. I did some music production for a while and did a lot of theatre stuff – set design and sound design and so on. Sadly, like a lot of similar things at the time, the company lost a lot of its arts council funding in 2010.
My wife and I were living in Tynemouth, and always said it would be good to open a fish restaurant – there’s a fish market but no one’s really cooking it here because the vast majority of the fish get exported.
It all really started around the time of the Jubilee, when I welded a BBQ to a bicycle! It was just a bit of fun, but that led to doing fish and food-related things at various events, and it all took off from there – we started to get a decent following and by 2015 we’d made enough money to build and open the fish shack as it is now.
What was it about Tynemouth that felt so right?
It’s always been the place you’d want to live if you’re at the coast – certainly it was for me. It’s got the beautiful beaches, it’s clean… For years, my dad and others have gone down to King Edward’s Bay every morning to swim. It’s so tranquil and untouched, but that also means it was underused and isolated. In a way though, that’s what attracted me to it. The council said we should go somewhere we’d get more traffic coming through and thought I was mad to disagree with that! But here, I could create my own atmosphere, rather than trying to please everyone. I think if you’re trying to do that then you’re diluting what you have to offer.
And how did that atmosphere manifest itself?
Well I built it myself, with a bit of help. I like to build and change things as I go, but you can’t do that with big places that involve lots of contractors. But with the fish shack it’s more like the way I used to build theatre sets. I do what feels right and there’s not much more to it than that (though thankfully my brother-in-law is an architect so he was able to help with regulations and things like that!).
And then we have Nigel’s dungarees, which I love because they let us create a uniform without being too uniform. We can wear them in line with our own individual style, which keeps things laid-back without being contrived – and of course they’re super functional as well.
It feels like it’s important for you to foreground that type of functionality, that authenticity, in everything you’re doing there.
Yeah and I think that’s what Nigel likes about the place too. That rawness, that realness. There’s nothing there that doesn’t have a function. So there’s an industrial pulley hanging off the front for example, but that’s because the front that you stand on is actually a draw that can be lifted up. There’s things that look like they might be a ‘feature’ but yeah: they all have a function. I hate anything that’s fake in that respect, which I think is what resonated with him. He likes the fact that you can see the story of where we came from.
And I guess what’s also a big part of that story is the locally caught fish.
Yeah, I think provenance really is the next big thing in terms of what we eat. Ten years ago it was ‘organic’ – but what does that really mean? There’s no grey areas with provenance, and it also encompasses many different important issues: carbon footprint, pesticides, native species becoming extinct, supporting local communities and so on…
You know, I think even up here, people go down to the local fish shop and assume it’s all local but the reality is that most of it isn’t. Most of it is shipped in, while our fish is being exported out – North Shields is England’s largest langoustine port and 95% of them are exported to France and Spain. Some are even sent to China, turned into scampi and then shipped back!
The vast majority of what we serve though comes from local catch, sourced from North Shields market and caught using day boats, which are smaller than the big ships that go out for much longer periods.
How has the local fishing community responded to what you’re doing with the fish shack?
Well to be able to buy from the market, you need to be a merchant and put a bond down, which we did back in 2012 or 2013. At first they all laughed! “Who’s this guy? Give him six months and he’ll be gone…” But over time the respect grows of course, in part because we’re able to pay a great price, effectively acting as the merchant and the restaurant, so to speak. Which is great because it means we’ve inflated the value of the fish on the market and the fisherman are getting paid more as a result.
Really, what we’re doing – it’s good for everyone. More people are buying local fish and it’s also helping to put North Shields on the map.
Riley’s Fish Shack
King Edwards Bay
Monday / 9:30am > 10:00pm
Tuesday / 12:00pm > 10:00pm
Wednesday / 9:30am > 10:00pm
Thursday / 9:30am > 10:00pm
Friday / 9:30am > 10:00pm
Saturday / 9:30am > 10:00pm
Sunday / 9:30am > 5:30pm
Words – James Darton | Photography – Ben Benoliel