Coastwalk #5 – Seaham to Sunderland – The Durham Heritage Coast Part 2

START: Seaham, County Durham

FINISH: Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland, Tyne & Wear

DISTANCE: 7.3 miles (Total – 44.5 miles)


MAPS: OS Explorer 308


On Easter Sunday 2015 I decided to relieve the never-ending boredom I always experience over the Easter weekend and go for a walk somewhere. After much deliberation I decided to walk along the northern half of the Durham coast from Seaham to Sunderland. I was really looking forward to this walk as it was a completely new part of the coast for me. The weather was glorious on this particular day and with the sun beaming down there were plenty of people out and about in Seaham.

I started this walk at the “Tommy” statue again but instead of heading south like last time (although it was tempting as the views down the Durham coast looked fantastic bathed in the Spring sunlight) I turned the other way and ambled northwards towards Sunderland simmering in the haze in the distance (for some reason I’m feeling very poetic with my descriptions while I write this – I blame the fact that it’s Christmas Day and I’ve had too much to drink). Anyway back to the walk…

I followed the signs for the England Coast Path and set off along the pavement next to the coastal road. A little further on a signpost directed me down to the promenade built on top of a sea wall. The view along the promenade was champion and there were a number of people walking along the beach and the promenade itself. Construction of the sea wall and promenade began in 1953 as a measure to reduce the impact of the waves on the cliffs as they had already washed away the sea banks and were beginning to undermine the coastal road. Stretching for 3,700 feet the wall cost £168,000 and was opened in 1955. Just before the promenade ended I climbed up a ramp which headed back onto the coastal road. The road was my companion for about a quarter of a mile through which time I saw the old Saxon church of St Mary around which the original village of Seaham existed. Also I could just about make Seaham Hall in the distance located to the west of the church.


Soon the coastal path veered away from the road and headed along the clifftops past a car park which was beginning to fill up with day trippers. There were very few people walking along this section of the coast maybe because it is a little out of the way and Seaham offers a easier alternative for visitors. However, I was enjoying the semi-solitude of the walk and as always along the Durham coast the view was excellent. There were also a couple of people flying about in microlights up and down the coast no doubt getting a better view than I was.

20150405_110340As I headed further northwards the clifftops showed increasing signs of erosion. There were a couple of times where I had to skirt around where the ground had started to crack and slump for fear of starting off a avalanche of soil and rock on to the people walking along the beach below, who would have no doubt been very unimpressed if they suddenly found themselves flattened by a large section of cliff.


A little further on the footpath headed inland around Ryhope Dene, the last of the Denes on the Durham Coast before heading back out on to the cliff tops once more. To my left I could see the tall chimney stack belonging to the Ryhope Engines Museum, which was opened in 1868 as a pumping station to supply water to the burgeoning city of Sunderland. The pumping station eventually closed in 1967 due to the persistent removal of water over a hundred years increasing the risk of salt water entering the system as a result of the water table being lowered. Also new reservoirs built in the North East such as Kielder in Northumberland and Derwent in County Durham provided a more ‘soft’ alternative to the ‘hard’ water produced at Ryhope . The pumping station has been subsequently re-opened as a museum.

Ryhope village itself lay at the other side of the railway line and coastal road. There was an option to walk into the village via a footpath which led away from the coast and underneath the railway and road into the settlement, however on this occasion I kept going towards Sunderland.

The name Ryhope comes from the Old English for ‘rugged valley’ most likely referencing nearby Ryhope Dene. The village is mentioned in 930AD when King Athelstan granted Ryhope (or ‘Reofhoppa’ as it was known back then) to the See of Durham. Over the next few centuries the village developed as an agricultural community centred around a green (which still exists today) with the nearby sandy beach being a popular spot for sea-bathers.

Like most coastal settlements I’ve passed through on the Durham coast, the centuries of rural tranquillity were blasted out of existence by the arrival of the colliery. Sinking operations began in 1856 with the colliery opening in the scenic valley south of the Tunstall Hills in 1859 (naturally the valley soon became very un-scenic as a result of mining operations). 

With the coming of the colliery, the colliery company built street after street of rough limestone houses (with some of the building material being obtained from the nearby magnesian limestone cliffs) to house the influx of new workers, along with new schools, places of worship and (most importantly) pubs, resulting in a new community appearing almost overnight that was much larger than the original village. There was a divide between ‘the Colliery’ and ‘the Village’ with the inhabitants of ‘the Village’ wanting nothing to do with the colliery and its workers and they strived to retain their old way of life.

In 1966 the colliery closed marking an end of an era for Ryhope. However, unlike other colliery communities along the Durham coast, this did not mark the end of Ryhope itself. Due to it’s easy commuting distance from Sunderland, the village has been able to re-define itself as a commuter settlement marked by new housing developments in the past 50 years. Conversation efforts by Sunderland City Council have managed to preserve the charm of the original settlement around the village green.


Following Ryhope, the coastal footpath continues along some more crumbling clifftops, before soon reaching the outskirts of Sunderland and the suburb of Grangetown. Passing by Grangetown and heading into another suburb – Hendon – the footpath continues further along the cliffs before dropping down onto a promenade.  There were plenty of people walking along the promenade and the surrounding grassy areas, with a few fishermen casting their lines out into the sea. The promenade soon came to an end being blocked off by a factory, so I had to divert inland through a narrow road tunnel underneath a railway line. I will admit the next mile or so through Sunderland’s eastern suburbs wasn’t the most scenic. The England Coast Path follows the A1018 right into the heart of Hendon whilst passing by a number of factories and industrial estates.


After a mile or so of some non-descript urban walking the signs for the coastal path pointed eastwards along Lawrence Street and towards Town Moor situated at the end of the street. This was once the heart of Old Sunderland (see history of Sunderland below). The path continued on to Town Moor through a rusty gate passing by an old red-bricked building which was formerly a boys orphan asylum. This was opened in 1861 to provide a home to young boys whose fathers had died at sea (as many as 1-in-5 naval men died at sea around this time). The boys were given a bed, board and clothes and also nautical training. The orphanage soon gained a national reputation for excellence and dozens of former residents went on to have outstanding careers in the Navy. Following the closure of the orphanage, the building was used as a community centre before recently being re-developed into a care home following years of neglect.

THE THREE WEARMOUTHS – People have been living in the Sunderland area for thousands of years with evidence of habitation dating back to the Mesolithic era. What is called Sunderland today developed from three separate villages that were collectively for much of their history called ‘Wearmouth’- Monkwearmouth, Bishopwearmouth and Old Sunderland. Monkwearmouth, to the north of the river, was home to St. Bede and the Anglo-Saxon monastery built in the 7th century (I will talk more about Monkwearmouth and its monastery on the next coastwalk.)

Bishopwearmouth (or South Wearmouth as it was originally called) is located to the south of the river and now forms the city centre of modern day Sunderland. The settlement was established in Anglo-Saxon times around Wearmouth Green which still exists to this day. South Wearmouth and its surrounding lands were seized from the Church by an Irish-based Viking called Ragnald in 918AD who then passed them on one of his followers, Olaf Ball. 16 years later, King Athelstan of England returned the lands to the Bishops of Chester-Le-Street (who then became the Bishops of Durham) and it was through this association with the Church that South Wearmouth became known as Bishopwearmouth.

(Old) Sunderland was located to the east of Bishopwearmouth on the south bank of the River Wear. In its industrial heyday it was one of the busiest parts of the town being home to the town’s port. Until the 18th century Sunderland was known as only being one part of Wearmouth but as the village grew in importance primarily due to its rapid industrial growth, it soon outgrew its neighbours and the name ‘Sunderland’ soon replaced the more general term ‘Wearmouth’ for the area.

The name ‘Sunderland’ is unusual in that the suffix ‘land’ is normally used to describe a region or a nation rather than a settlement therefore it is more likely that the name referred to the surrounding region rather than just the settlement itself. In 685AD King Aldfrith of Northumberland gave a parcel of land south of the River Wear to Benedict Biscop (now the city’s patron saint) who had previously built the monastery at Monkwearmouth. This parcel of land was detached (or sundered) from the rest of the lands belonging to the twin monasteries of Jarrow-Monkwearmouth. ‘Sunderland’ (or ‘sundered-land’) could also refer to the topography of the nearby Durham coast which is divided up by numerous steep-sided coastal Denes.

Sunderland was traditionally ruled by the powerful Bishops of Durham who instigated the development of the settlement as a port in the 12th Century. Sometime between 1180 and 1183 Bishop Hugh Pudsey issued a charter creating ‘Wearmouth Borough’ with the  intention to start a trading port and encourage merchant activity by granting certain freedoms to merchants known as burgesses. The charter encouraged development of a new settlement on previously empty land on the south bank of the river from which the port town of Sunderland popped up.


SUNDERLAND VS NEWCASTLE – Over the next few centuries, the port of Sunderland was slow to develop as subsequent Bishops of Durham focused more on developing the ports at Stockton and Hartlepool. There was also competition from the nearby powerful town of Newcastle who thanks to a Royal Charter were able to control the rich coal shipping trade along the North-East coast. Any developing port was expected to pay a levy to Newcastle which cut into profits and ultimately further development.

By the 1600s, Sunderland was showing signs of increased development thanks to trade built on the shipping of coal mined in the nearby Chester-Le-Street and Washington areas. Naturally this prompted resentment from Newcastle and led to the development of a rivalry between the two towns which was further intensified during the English Civil War.

Unsurprisingly the staunchly Royalist city of Newcastle supported King Charles during the Civil War. However, in Sunderland there was significant support for the opposing Parliamentarian side led by Oliver Cromwell, as the rich merchant families saw an opportunity to challenge the supremacy of the port of Newcastle. In 1642 a detachment of Scottish soldiers entered the town who were enthusiastically received by the people of Sunderland. The Scottish soldiers were nicknamed ‘Blew Caps’ (because of their clothing) and set up camp on the south bank of the river near the present-day Wearmouth Bridge.

From Sunderland the Blew Caps launched skirmishes and battles against Royalist forces at nearby Offerton, Hylton and Boldon and seized the coastal town of South Shields. In 1644 the soldiers went after their biggest prize – Newcastle. For some time the walled city held out against the Parliamentarian forces but were soon broken down by the constant bombardment from the Scottish cannons and the city was defeated.

Having broken Newcastle’s stranglehold on the North East’s coal trade, Sunderland soon began to rapidly expand and by the 1720s the port at Sunderland was in its element, outgrowing neighbouring Bishopwearmouth and Monkwearmouth.

SHIPBUILDING AND THE ‘MACKEMS’ – Shipbuilding in Sunderland dates back to at least 1346 when the first shipbuilder, Thomas Menville, is recorded as working from Hendon. By the mid-19th century Sunderland had become one of the most important shipbuilding centres in the UK (and indeed the British Empire). In 1840 there were 65 shipyards in the town and 10 years later over 150 vessels were built in Sunderland’s yards with over 4,000 people being employed in the shipbuilding trade and associated industries. The twentieth century, however, saw a decline in the shipbuilding industry. There were 16 shipyards operating in Sunderland at the end of the First World War which had fallen to 9 during the Second World War as a result of increased overseas competition. Despite this decline, 27% of merchant ships built in Britain during WWII were built on Wearside. By 1978 there were over 7,000 people employed in the shipbuilding industry, however this declined to nearly 4,500 six years later. The city’s last two shipyards merged into one but was eventually forced to close in 1989 bringing Sunderland’s 650 year shipbuilding history to an end.

Natives of Sunderland are sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘Mackems’ which has a link to the city’s shipbuilding past. There are a number of stories as to where this nickname comes from with one theory suggesting it comes from the term ‘Mak’em and Tak’em’ meaning ‘make them’ and ‘take them’ which refers to the shipbuilders in the town who made the ships (the ‘mackem’) and the sailors who then took them out to sea (the ‘tackems’). On Tyneside, however, it is claimed that the ‘tackems’ were in fact the Tyneside shipyards who took in Sunderland-built ships (built by the ‘mackems’) to have them fitted with engines. Whatever the reason for the origin of this term it has been both used as an insult (particularly amongst some Tynesiders continuing a centuries old rivalry between the two cities) and a term of pride by locals (particularly amongst supporters of Sunderland Football Club).


Following the closure of the shipyards and also the collieries that existed in the city and surrounding areas unemployment shot up with up to 20% of Sunderland’s workforce out of work. All was not lost, however, as in 1986 the Japanese car company, Nissan, opened up a new factory in nearby Washington which still supplies a significant amount of employment in the city and region 30 years later and is now the UK’s largest car factory. From the 90s the city’s riverside has been regenerated with old shipyards cleared and new residential areas and a university built in it’s place, attracting new homeowners and also day-trippers to the city (including me on this particular occasion).

Looking northwest across Town Moor I could make out the Church of Holy Trinity. The church was built in 1719 when (Old) Sunderland became a parish in its own right, separate from the parish of Bishopwearmouth. Next to the church is a square of old houses with a green in the middle. This is called Trafalgar Square and the houses erected in 1840 were originally seaman’s almhouses. Above the door of the central house is a plaque which lists the names of the 76 sailors from Old Sunderland who fought in the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Town Moor was very peaceful on this day, however if I had been here when the nearby docks were in full swing it would have been a very noisy place indeed. The footpath passes next to the old railway line which used to serve the docks now hidden behind an old large red-brick wall. Nowadays, the railway line is largely silent but once over there would have been many trains rattling along here serving the docks and also the Town Moor Station, which was Sunderland’s first railway passenger station built in 1836 by the Durham & Sunderland Railway Company. The station was replaced 22 years later in 1858 by a new railway station which opened in nearby Hendon before itself being replaced in 1879 by the current railway station located in the city centre.

Leaving Town Moor behind, the coastal path continues along Silver Street. Once over this area would have been criss-crossed by terraced houses  home to hundreds of dockworkers and their families. Nowadays it is just a quiet residential area (the terraced houses have long since been cleared) away from the bustling city centre. 20150418_114908

A few streets to the east of Silver Street close to the docks there is a road called Barracks Street. This is named after the old barracks and gun battery that used to exist here. Defensive guns were first built here to protect the port in 1740 during the brilliantly named War of Jenkins’ Ear (a conflict between England and Spain which lasted for 9 years and was caused by a merchant captain (the so-named Jenkins) having his ear removed by Spanish coastguards who had boarded his vessel) with the barracks being built in 1795, largely as a response to the  threat of the French Revolution.  Being built so close to the shore the batteries were subject to constant erosion and had to be re-built numerous times. New batteries were built in the 1790s during the American War of Independence and were named after the American sea captain, John Paul Jones, who terrorized the North East coast during this time. The batteries were subsequently enlarged and renamed Black Cat Battery in 1805 after one of the battery’s guards supposedly mistook a large black cat for the devil (in his defence he had been spending some time in the local pub earlier that evening). Another alleged reason for the ‘Black Cat’ name is that the black cat was an apparition of a lady who passed near the battery before flinging herself into the North Sea (a bit silly really as there are for more nicer ways to pass one’s time in Sunderland).

Officers posted to Sunderland tended not to view their appointment there with much enthusiasm with one officer noting to say that “nothing can excuse the dullness of this place nor does it improve at all” (which could be why the Black Cat lady flung herself into the sea to relive the boredom). Despite this, the soldiers (and officers) at the barracks gained a bit of a reputation for partying and generally acting like complete idiots. Soldiers often (after having a bit too much to drink) would fight the local police and then runaway to the barracks to evade capture. One time in 1846 three soldiers almost killed a policeman who had tried to arrest one of them for drunkenness by biting and kicking him. Before disappearing into the barracks they started a riot along the nearby High Street which had to be stopped by the barracks’ commanding officer and a detachment of soldiers. The fun didn’t stop there – in 1848 following two privates being fined for resisting arrest after a bout of drinking, a large number of soldiers left the barracks and attacked the local police constables before heading back to the base. Being a bit peeved off the police, along with the Mayor, visited the barracks to catch the culprits, however they had to be escorted off site when the soldiers became even more violent.

In 1856 things got even further out of hand when soldiers of the Royal Tyrone Fusiliers started a full scale battle in the town when five of their number had been arrested and were being escorted to the local Police station. The soldiers attacked the Police station and although initially outnumbered the Police eventually managed to fight off and arrest half the soldiers (I wouldn’t have liked to have been doing the paperwork that day!)

During the 19th century the barracks were used by a number of different military companies before being used by the Royal Artillery. By the turn of the 20th century the barracks were in a poor condition and were eventually decommissioned and subsequently demolished in the 1930s to make way for the Corporation Quay.


At the end of  Silver Street there were a couple of cranes loading a ship up waiting at the docks providing a timely reminder that Sunderland is still an active port. I turned left on to High Street East  before descending down Bodlewell Lane to river level on Low Street. This area was once the centre of port activity in Sunderland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A number of busy lanes used to link High Street with Low Street including Bodlewell Lane (named after a well which was the main source of water in Sunderland from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century) where there used to be a ferry service across the river dating back to the 7th century. It is believed that St. Bede who resided in the monastery at the opposite side of the river used this ferry as he listed his birthplace as Sunderland.

Nowadays Low Street is a quiet place home to modern riverside apartments and university accommodation, however in the 1820s there were over 40 pubs here some of which were of ill repute. Low Street’s importance declined following the building of new docks in nearby Hendon and the Town Moor resulting in fewer ships docking at Low Street.

20150405_132215.jpgAt the site of the old river ferry I walked along the riverside promenade for a couple of hundred yards towards the arches of the Wearmouth Bridge (no relation to me) and the Monkwearmouth Railway Bridge. I came across a mural painted (left) painted on the side of the wall depicting Sunderland’s maritime and industrial past.

Past the mural I climbed up Panns Bank before joining Bridge Crescent. This then led me to Wearmouth Bridge where I finished this day’s walk. There have been two road bridges built on this site, the first was a cast iron and stone bridge built in 1796 , with a major reconstruction carried out by George Stephenson in 1857-1859. The current bridge was opened in 1929 to accommodate the ever-increasing cross-river traffic. Next to the Wearmouth Bridge is the Monkwearmouth Railway Bridge which was opened in 1879 to provide a direct rail link between Sunderland and Newcastle.


Traffic was quite heavy on this day as Sunderland Football Club were playing at the nearby Stadium of Light across the river. I hadn’t realised they were playing that day, however I was banking on there not being too much trouble as Sunderland fans by and large are generally well-behaved – that was until I saw the huge numbers of people dotted about the city centre as I headed towards the railway station. Quickly checking the fixtures on my phone I found out to my horror that Sunderland were playing their bitter rivals Newcastle United. There have been a number of clashes between the rival fans in recent years including on one occasion when a disgruntled Newcastle fan punched a horse after his team had lost 3-0 (Neigh its true!) I quickly sped towards the railway station where there was a whole platoon of Police waiting for the next train from Newcastle (which was also the train I was planning on get on). As it was the last train from Newcastle before the 3pm kick-off the train was brim full of Newcastle fans who were causing quite a ruckus and had caused a bit of a mess on the train itself. It was a sight (and sound) to behold in the underground railway station and was a good reminder of the intense historical rivalry between the two cities which still exists today, although is now mainly manifested in football matches between the cities’ football teams. It also marked an interesting end to this day especially as on the journey home I had to almost levitate in my seat as the train was swimming in booze!

REFERENCES of Seaham including the sea wall. of the Ryhope Engines Museum. of Ryhope of Ryhope’s Railway history of the Sunderland Boys’ Orphanage. of the Town Moor railway station of the Sunderland barracks useful website which gives a lot of details about Sunderland’s history and the origin of the ‘Mackem’ term. of Wearmouth Bridge and Monkwearmouth Railway Bridge.,_Tyne_and_Wear#20th_and_21st_centuriesSunderland’s recent history.

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