START: Sunderland, Tyne & Wear
FINISH: South Shields, Tyne & Wear
DISTANCE: 9.25 miles
APPROXIMATE WALKING TIME: 4 to 4.5 hours
MAPS: OS Explorer 308 & OS Explorer 316
Following the last coastal ramble between Seaham and Sunderland I was eager to continue walking northwards along the coast and further into uncharted territory. Looking at the map the next obvious destination north of Sunderland was South Shields, nestling on the south bank of the River Tyne, so almost two weeks after the Easter Sunday walk into the heart of Wearside I was pulling my walking boots back on and heading off to Sunderland once more.
I started this walk on the Wearmouth Bridge where I finished off the last coastwalk. Fortunately the city’s football team weren’t playing at home this weekend so there were no rowdy football fans to dodge this time round. Once again the weather was pleasant and the sun was glinting off the River Wear as I crossed the Wearmouth Bridge into Monkwearmouth. At the other side there were signs for the England Coast Path pointing eastwards down a street called Bonner’s Field which descended down to the north bank of the river.
Monkwearmouth dates back to 674AD when land on the northern bank of the River Wear was granted by King Ecgfrith of Northumbria to a noble called Benedict Biscop (who subsequently went on to become a saint and then the patron saint of Sunderland). Biscop, who was probably very glad of this kingly gift, went onto build a monastery (I would have built a shopping centre myself and made lots of money but each to their own). The monastery, along with its twin at Jarrow on Tyneside, would go on to achieve international fame thanks to the saint and scholar, the Sunderland-born (and proud Mackem…possibly) Venerable Bede (675-735AD), who was a major celebrity in his time (no he didn’t appear in Celebrity Big Brother). The Venerable Bede was a man of learning and was the first historian of the English people, writing the 8th century bestseller Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Both the monasteries at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow were renowned throughout Europe as centres of learning.
Unfortunately this way of life at the two monasteries was brought to an end in the 9th century thanks to the marauding Vikings Hubba and Hinguar (they sound like a Norwegian comedy act) and it wasn’t until the late-11th century when the monasteries were re-established as cells of Durham Cathedral. Monastic life at Monkwearmouth continued until the 1500s when moody King Henry VIII closed the cell during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. All that remains of the monastery today is the beautiful Saxon church of St. Peter’s which has stood the test of time.
The coastal path continues along the north bank of the river which has been completely transformed in recent decades. Nowadays this area of Sunderland is home to university campuses and modern housing, however once over there would have been timber yards, potteries (which Sunderland was also famous for) and shipyards dotted all along the north bank.
The promenade on the north bank is quite pleasant to walk along with a number of fancy artworks including one of a steel tree that looked like it had sprouted out of a concrete plinth (left) which was in fact the remnant of a former shipyard crane. There were also modern buildings along the north bank including the National Glass Centre which commemorates Sunderland’s glass-making heritage.
Glassmaking was introduced to Sunderland in the 7th century by Benedict Biscop at the nearby monastery when glaziers from France were brought over to produce glass. This started off the first glassmaking industry in Britain. Sunderland was ideally situated for this industry as it was close to the coast and clustered around the magnesian limestone gorge of the River Wear meaning that there was easy access to plenty of sand and limestone, the key ingredients for making glass. Glass bottles were exported from Sunderland in 1685 and by the 1850s there were 16 bottleworks which produced between 60,000-70,000 bottles a day. The largest glassworks in the country, James Hartley’s Wear Glass Works, was built in 1836 and produced a considerable proportion of the glass used in the construction of Crystal Palace in London. Like most other industries in the city, glassmaking fell into decline and then ceased altogether. Nowadays the centuries-old tradition of glassmaking is now kept alive by the National Glass Centre.
Continuing past the National Glass Centre, the path hugged the River Wear with more artworks soon reached including ‘The Red House’ which is an ‘exploded’ house carved out of stone which has a murder story written about it. Less than a quarter-of-a-mile later I descended down into a marina which was dotted by small leisure boats surrounded by attractive modern apartments.
The marina used to be the old North Dock which was built in 1837 and was somewhat of a source of amusement amongst the folk of Sunderland when it first opened. Due to Sunderland’s ever-expanding shipping trade there were calls for a much-needed new dock to be constructed on the south side of the River Wear. However, influential local MP Sir Hedworth Williamson (whose family had inherited the estate at Monkwearmouth in the 1640s) persuaded Parliament to reject this proposal and instead build a dock on the north side of the river on his family’s land. Despite going against engineering advice and commercial considerations, the North Dock opened and was immediately a failure being too small to handle ships of any significant size, resulting in the dock becoming known as “Sir Hedworth’s Bath Tub”.
The venture was a commercial and political disaster for Sir Hedworth as not only did it lose him a lot of money, but it also lost him his seat in Parliament as he lost out to his rival George “the Railway King” Hudson. Hudson, on his victory, went on to build the much-needed dock on the south bank of the Wear which took his name – Hudson Dock.
I wanted to walk all the way around the “Bath Tub”, however due to a crane blocking the path which was unloading a boat into the marina, I had to cut through the small modern housing estate on the eastern edge of the marina and out on to Roker Beach.
ROKER & SEABURN
Roker was left largely underdeveloped whilst the rest of Sunderland grow, however with the opening of Roker Park in 1880, this was all to change. Soon, well-to-do people attracted by the new park along with the nearby sandy beach came flocking to Roker and built new homes centred around the park. With the arrival of the electrical tram in 1900 (a horse-drawn tram had been in operation since 1879) allowing easy access to Roker, the resort became extremely popular with local working-class people. In 1903 the huge 2800 foot pier (above) was opened (following 18 years of construction) which proved popular with visitors, along with a brand new lighthouse. In 2012 the lighthouse and pier underwent a £1.35 million restoration to restore them to their former glory.
Walking along Marine Walk at the shoreline I was sorely tempted to work my way along the pier, however I was keen to keep going up the coast and see what new sights I could see. I will, however, make sure I return to Roker Pier one day as it looks a fantastic place to visit. At the end of Marine Walk I climbed up onto the coastal road and across a bridge over a ravine which leads into Roker Park. At the end of the bridge a sign for the England Coast Path pointed me in the direction of a paved path which hugged the cliff tops from Roker into Seaburn. This area was once the site of a coastal battery built during the Napoleonic Wars. The battery saw action in both the First and Second World Wars and was in use until 1951.
Just past the site of the battery was a large Celtic cross (left). This cross was opened in 1904 by the Bishop of York to commemorate the life of St Bede. A little further along the clifftops I passed a small lighthouse which was originally built on the South Breakwater in the port of Sunderland in 1856 before being removed in 1983 and reconstructed in Cliffe Park overlooking Seaburn Beach
Seaburn Beach, like Roker, was popular with Victorian holidaymakers and its popularity continues to this day as there were plenty of people enjoying the sunshine whilst I worked my way along the golden sands. About three-quarters away along Seaburn Beach I re-joined the coastal path where it began to edge a little further eastwards around the Whitburn and Souter Point. Before I left the beach I took one last look down the coast and was just about able to make out the smoking factory chimneys of Teesside in the distance simmering in the hazy sunshine.
Whitburn is Saxon in origin and its name is either thought to mean ‘white barn’ or it is derived from ‘Hwittabyrgen’ – ‘Hwitta’ being a Saxon chieftain and ‘byrgen’ meaning a burial place. The village itself is one of the most attractive on the North East coast and has a close association with the author Lewis Carroll. Carroll was a regular visitor to the village and during his many stays here he wrote most of the nonsense poem Jabberwocky, no doubt inspired by local legends of the Lambton Worm and the Sockburn Worm, and The Walrus and the Carpenter.
Rounding the edge of Whitburn, the coastal path soon comes to the site of an old rifle range, which is marked on some fairly recent OS Maps as a “Danger Area”. Fortunately, the rifle range is now closed so it is possible to walk along the clifftops all the way without being diverted into Whitburn. Walking past the old rifle range I could make out Whitburn Windmill complete with sails standing on top of hill looking out to sea. The windmill was built in 1796 although there has been a windmill on this site since the 17th century.
Below the cliffs were a number of rocky outcrops which often proved tricky for ships trying to work their way up and down this section of the coast. Indeed due to the heavy shipping traffic particularly in the 19th and early 20th century, the coast between the Tyne and Tees has one of the highest concentrations of shipwrecks in the British Isles with an average of nearly 44 vessels per mile. Despite nearby Souter Lighthouse doing its best to keep ships away from Whitburn Steel there were a number of shipwrecks here including allegedly two ships belonging to the Spanish Armada ran aground here (admittedly they crashed before Souter Lighthouse was ever even thought off) with the locals making good use of the ships’ timber and other items. On the 17th October 1940 a group of Royal Navy destroyers found themselves in trouble when they ran aground in heavy fog, fortunately they were later able to be re-floated and repaired.
The sun had gone in by the time I reached the next scenic spot on the walk – Whitburn Coastal Park and Souter Lighthouse.
MARSDEN (WHITBURN) COLLIERY & SOUTER LIGHTHOUSE
Whitburn Coastal Park was once home to Marsden Colliery which was originally owned by the Whitburn Coal Company (which is sometimes why it is called Whitburn Colliery). The colliery was sunk in 1874 with coal production beginning eight years later. A colliery village soon sprang up to accommodate the workers to the north of Souter lighthouse (see below). At its height in 1921 the colliery was employing nearly 3,500 men, however by the time of closure in 1968 this was down to just over 1,000 men.
Since the closure of the colliery nearly 50 years ago the site has been landscaped over by the National Trust who have turned the area from a rocky moon-like landscape blighted by slap heaps into one teeming with wildlife. The park is recognised as being a ‘hot spot’ for migratory birds during spring and autumn with over 70 different species having been recorded as visiting the Coastal Park.
On entering the coastal park there was a fantastic view up the coast towards Souter Lighthouse with a variety of interesting geological features to observe including a natural archway in the sea (right). I soon reached the lighthouse (below right) which looked beautiful in the sunlight (well it did until the sun decided to bugger off as I got there).
The lighthouse was erected in 1871 on Lizard Point and was the first in the world to be purposely built to be powered by electricity. It was originally planned to be built on Souter Point a mile to the south, however Lizard Point was deemed a more suitable site to warn shipping of the dangers of nearby Whitburn Steel. It kept the name Souter so as to avoid confusion with Lizard Lighthouse in Cornwall. After 117 years service it was decommissioned in 1988, before being opened as a tourist attraction by the National Trust in 1990.
Passing by the lighthouse I soon came to a large expanse of level ground close to the clifftops which was once the home of an entire community, now long gone.
THE LOST VILLAGE OF MARSDEN COLLIERY
As mentioned earlier with the opening of Marsden/Whitburn Colliery in 1878 a new village was built to the north of Souter Lighthouse to accommodate the new workers. By 1891 the village had a population of over 700 living in fairly small houses with no more than four rooms (two up, two down). As the community grew, a new school and chapel was built along with a recreation ground near the lighthouse which was home to the village’s football team. It has been recorded that having a lighthouse with a fog horn next to the football pitch had some unexpected tactical benefits. If the home team was losing, one of the spectators would go and ask the lighthouse keeper (not the goalkeeper) to sound the foghorn. The resulting blast from the foghorn would scare the living hell out of the opposing team resulting in them falling to the floor and allowing the home team to score. I can’t see the big Premier League teams of today being able to use this tactic as surely it would count as unsportsmanlike conduct.
The village, along with the colliery, was served by the ‘Marsden Rattler’. No it is not a local species of snake but rather the nickname of a railway line which connected Marsden Colliery and the colliery village with nearby South Shields. The service was given its nickname due to the railway using second hand stock which was often in poor condition, producing a uncomfortable ‘rattly’ journey for its passengers. The line eventually closed in 1968 when the colliery was shut down.
By the 1960s the village was starting to empty as miners moved into new houses in nearby Whitburn or South Shields. With the closure of the colliery the village became earmarked for demolition as it became one of the county’s notorious ‘Category D’ villages. ‘Category D’ villages were mining settlements where no future development would be permitted and all remaining houses would be bought up by the Council and demolished. Due to the declining housing stock and also the threat of coastal erosion the decision was made to completely level Marsden Colliery village. It would be hard to imagine that there was once a thriving community and industry around Souter Lighthouse with the only noticeable feature being the remains of limekilns built in the 1870s crumbling next to the coastal road (above).
Waving goodbye to Souter Lighthouse (not literally, that would have just looked weird) I continued northwards towards South Shields, passing by a car park which had been closed off due to it being in danger from collapse from coastal erosion. The next mile-and-a-half to Marsden Grotto was very scenic with a number of rock stacks rising from the sea filled to the brim with hundreds of seabirds (right).
MARSDEN BAY & MARSDEN GROTTO
Soon the coastal path reaches the clifftops above Marsden Bay which was once frequently used by smugglers up until to the mid-nineteenth century.
There is a gruesome story associated with smuggling at Marsden Bay. One time a group of smugglers were nearly caught in the act when one of their number turned informer and passed on information to the excise men in South Shields that contraband goods would be landed on the bay. Luckily for the smugglers they learned of the deception and they were able to quickly change their plans and land their smuggled goods further south at Souter Point. Having learned the identity of the traitor in their midst – ‘John the Jibber’ he was supposedly hung in a bucket inside a shaft known as Smuggler’s Hole near Marsden Grotto. His former comrades then taunted him by eating large quantities of food whilst he starved to death. The nearby Grotto is said to be haunted by the ghost of ‘John the Jibber’ and up until 1999 resident landlords would leave a tankard full of ale out every night for John, and the following morning it would be gone. This apparently placated the ghost, that is until one day when a local radio presenter drank from the tankard resulting in increased paranormal activity in the Grotto. Silly bugger!
About a quarter of the way along the bay built into the magnesian limestone cliffs is the Marsden Grotto Public House. The story of the Grotto goes back to 1782 when a lead miner called Jack Bates (known as ‘Jack the Blaster’) from Allendale in south-west Northumberland came to work in the nearby quarries and blasted out a rent-free home for him and his family out of one of the caves in the bay. Mr ‘Blaster’ became known for his hospitality amongst the locals (including allegedly some of the smugglers) resulting in his home developing into an inn.
In 1826 the Grotto was owned by a local man called Peter Allan who extended the caves into a 15-room home with a ballroom and kitchen. The inn was run by the Allan family until the mid-19th century when it was taken over by a local coal company and then Vaux Breweries, who owned the Grotto until 1999. Since then the inn has been refurbished, being brought up to modern safety standards and is now open as a pub/restaurant, being one of the few ‘cave bars’ in Europe. The Grotto can be reached by a lift which descends from a car park on the cliff tops, or alternatively you can walk down a set of steps at the northern end of the bay and walk along the beach to the pub.
Standing a little out into the bay near the Grotto is a large stack of limestone rock called Marsden Rock. Until 1996 the rock featured a magnificent archway but sea erosion caused the arch to collapse leaving behind two stacks, the smallest being subsequently demolished as it was unsafe. Nowadays the rock stack is home to seabirds such as Kittiwakes and Cormorants (and there was certainly plenty of them out and about when I was there that day).
I didn’t go down onto Marsden Bay that day as time was pressing, however I will return there one day as the golden sands below looked very tempting as I followed the coastal path around the edge of the bay.
For the next couple of miles the coastal path winds its way along the clifftops next to a large strip of grassland – The Leas – which is owned by the National Trust. This stretch of the walk was very scenic with the path passing by a number of little sheltered bays including Frenchman’s Bay.
Soon the magnesian limestone cliffs which have been an almost constant companion along this section of the coast from Hartlepool come to an end as the path descended onto a promenade and the sandy beach of South Shields. As I had done very little beach walking on this walk, despite walking by many lovely beaches, I decided to trundle along the golden sands of South Shields to the journey’s end at Ocean Beach Pleasure Park. There were excellent views across the River Tyne to Tynemouth with the Priory standing on top of a hill overlooking the river – I would pass this historic place on my next coastwalk. There were plenty of people on the beach with the weather being so good, and the Pleasure Park was full to bursting with thrill-seekers enjoying the rollercoaster and fairground rides. It was a bit too noisy for me so I didn’t stop on the beach for long before walking into the town centre past Marine Park to start my journey home.
The town of South Shields has an extensive history with evidence of Stone Age arrowheads and an Iron Age fort being found on the site of Arbeia Roman Fort. The fort itself was built by Emperor Hadrian in 128AD to supply soldiers garrisoned along Hadrian’s Wall. The name ‘Arbeia’ allegedly comes from the historical regional name ‘Arbaye’ in what is now present day Iraq and Turkey where the soldiers who resided at the fort came from. Arbeia Fort has been excavated and partially reconstructed and is now open to the public.
Following the departure of the Romans in the early 5th century, the area where South Shields is became known as ‘Caer Urfe’ which comes from the Ancient Welsh/British for a fort. This fort was on the site of its Roman predecessor which had continued to be inhabited by Romanised Britons even after the Romans had buggered off back to Italy. During the 6th and 7th century the area was invaded by the Saxons who settled down and made a home for themselves. During the Saxon era a monastery was built by St Hilda at South Shields around 648AD on land granted by the King Oswin of Northumbria. St Hilda would later go on to become Abbess of the monastery at Hartlepool and then establish another monastery at Whitby. There is nothing left of the Saxon monastery at South Shields although it is believed that the town’s historic parish church of St Hilda (the name is a bit of a giveaway) stands on the site of the monastery.
It was during the Saxon era that South Shields gained part of its name – ‘Scheles’ – which refers to the temporary fisherman’s huts which would have existed on the south shore of the Tyne at the time. For most of its medieval history South Shields was a small fishing village belonging to the Priors of Durham Cathedral. It was a suitable site for a port, however nearby Newcastle dominated the local shipping trade and with it being a royalist stronghold was able to get King Edward III to issue a ban in 1303 on the unloading and loading of ships at South Shields. This dispute continued well into the 1500s and it wasn’t until 1848 when South Shields was able to split from Newcastle and become recognised as a port in its own right.
With the expansion of the port in the mid-19th century, the town also saw an increase in industrial activity with the oncoming of coal mining and glassmaking, leading to a population boom in the town. By the 1860s some 75,000 lived in the town, many of whom had migrated here from Ireland, Scotland and from other areas of England. The town also became an important centre of shipbuilding along the south bank of the Tyne.
Like the rest of the industrial North-East the town saw a decline in the latter half of the 20th Century due to rising costs and increased competition from overseas which saw many of the town’s traditional industries shut down. Nowadays the town relies on some port activity and manufacturing along with the tourist trade as South Shields re-invents itself as a popular destination for day-trippers and holidaymakers. It was a fantastic place to end the day’s walk and I looked forward to returning there to continue my way further northwards up the beautiful North-East coast.
http://www.englandsnortheast.co.uk/SunderlandMonkwearmouth.html – History of Monkwearmouth and St. Bede (and Sir Hedworth’s Bath Tub)
http://www.englandsnortheast.co.uk/SunderlandIndustries.html – History of glassmaking in Sunderland.
http://www.nationalglasscentre.com/about/aboutus/whyarewehere/ – Information about the National Glass Centre.
http://wp.sunderland.ac.uk/seagullcity/riverside-sculpture-walk/ – Webpage about the various artworks along the north bank of the River Wear.
http://www.sunderland.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=11555&p=0 – Leaflet about the history of Roker
http://www.worldwidelighthouses.com/Lighthouses/English-Lighthouses/Privately-Owned/Sunderland – Webpage about the South Breakwater Lighthouse
http://www.englandsnortheast.co.uk/SouthShieldsVillages.html – Useful website about the history of Whitburn, Marsden, Souter Lighthouse and Marsden Bay/Grotto.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/wear/content/articles/2005/06/29/coast05walks_stage6_walk.shtml – Webpage about Whitburn Windmill.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/wear/content/articles/2005/06/29/coast05walks_stage8_walk.shtml – BBC webpage about the shipwrecks at Whitburn
http://www.marsdenbannergroup.btck.co.uk/WhitburnMarsdenColliery – Webpage about Marsden/Whitburn Colliery
https://achangingcoast.wordpress.com/whitburn-coastal-park/ – Blog about Whitburn Coastal Park
http://www.marsdenbannergroup.btck.co.uk/MarsdenVillage – Webpage about Marsden Colliery village.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/wear/content/articles/2005/06/29/coast05walks_stage2_walk.shtml – BBC webpage about Marsden Colliery village
http://www.marsdenbannergroup.btck.co.uk/MarsdenRattler – Webpage about the ‘Marsden Rattler’.
http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/history/story-marsden-rock-marsden-beach-11361514 – Newcastle Chronicle article about Marsden Grotto and ‘John the Jibber’
http://www.englandsnortheast.co.uk/SouthShieldsOrigins.html – History of the Roman and Saxon eras in South Shields
http://www.englandsnortheast.co.uk/SouthShields.html – History of South Shields in the medieval and Victorian eras.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Shields – Additional historical info on South Shields