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Sunday, 20 May 2012

Walk 67 Sunderland to South Shields

Walk 67          Sunderland to South Shields (Tyne and Wear)

(First leg of English coastal walk – Broadstairs in Kent to Berwick at the border with Scotland).

Map: L/R 88
Distance: about 9 miles
Difficulty: Quite easy 
Terrain: footpaths and pavement
Access: Parking at both ends
Public transport: Regular Metro connections from both ends

Start on the north side of the River Wear near the bridge and walk past the university buildings towards the estuary. At the mouth of the river is Roker Lighthouse which was built in 1903. The pier going out to it is very popular with local anglers who seem to brave all conditions.  On occasions, coastguards have had to use the emergency tunnel which runs under the length of the pier.

The beaches here are sandy and attractive. A little further along you will need to go slightly inland through a part of Roker Park and over a bridge. The park was originally a Victorian pleasure park and near to here was the old home of Sunderland FC also called Roker Park (used until 1997 when the club moved to The Stadium of Light). In between here and Whitburn Bay is the Bede Memorial Cross. Bede was born in the Sunderland area in 672 AD. At the age of 12 he moved to St Paul’s monastery at Jarrow where he lived as a monk. He wrote many books on history, nature and astrology and is a unique source of English history up to 729. In 1899 he was made a Doctor of the Church by the Pope; this entitled him to be officially known as ‘Venerable’. More can be found out about him at a museum in Jarrow.

Whitburn Bay looks to be a well cared for and attractive settlement. Near the sandy beaches and grassed frontage is a unique lighthouse. It was originally built in 1856 on Sunderland’s south pier. It was dismantled and re-erected here in 1983 to allow for harbour improvements.

On this walk you will notice two restaurants which feature train carriages. One is The Pulham Lodge Hotel and the other nearer to the end of the walk at South Shields is The Rattler. This was the name for the railway line that ran from South Shields to Whitburn Colliery. The carriages were gleaned from different railway companies and the line became known as ‘The Rattler’ because of the noise they made. The line was officially closed in 1953.

Just before Whitburn the path follows the cliff top around to Marsden Bay. There are firing ranges here so care needs to be taken to follow any instructions on display. On the walk around this point is a cove called The Wherry which had its shape defined by natural erosion, quarrying and mining. Part of the bay was known as The Lads and Lasses Wherries (a light rowing boat for carrying passengers) because of the fishing and picnics that were popular.

Near Lizard Point is Souter Lighthouse; the first one in Britain to power its light and foghorn using electric current. It was built in 1871 and the light was provided by carbon arcs rather than a giant bulb. A steam engine on site generated the power. The fog horns were powered by compressed air and the sound was so deafening that the lighthouse keepers were paid 2 old pennies extra and hour for the inconvenience (or to save for hearing aids?) The lighthouse is now owned by the National Trust.

There is a choice of footpaths across The Leas, I took the one nearest the coast. However, do not miss the odd looking buildings alongside the road; these were the old Marsden limekilns. Lime was used on farms and in the making of steel. A village was built around here in the 1870s. It had 135 houses, a church and other buildings to serve the lime-works and Marsden Colliery. The village was demolished in 1968 when the works closed.

On the coastal side look out for Marsden Rock; this is the remaining part of a much larger rock. There was once an arch of larger rock to the right but stormy seas brought it down in 1996. Victorian visitors flocked here to climb the stairs to the top – at one stage a choral service was held on top of the rock (picture on an information panel nearby shows this).

This part of the coast was a smugglers haven. John the Jibber, a local smuggler, betrayed his colleagues to a local custom man and was hung in a basket half way down the cliff and left to starve! Legend has it that following a family dispute in Saxon times the ghost of a mare of one of the protagonists wandered the cliffs hence it was called The Mares Den.

Also near here is Velvets Bed (because of the fine springy turf) and Camel Island (because of its shape). The path has been rerouted because of erosion; at Frenchman’s Bay part of the cliff face collapsed as recently as 2010. The bay was once popular with smugglers and gained its name from a French ship which ran aground here in the 17th century.

To the south of South Shields is Trow Quarry where lime was extracted until the 1960s. It was then used for industrial landfill and, although now an open public space, a notice warns people not to dig on the land, eat or handle anything on the shore! At Trow Point there is a restored World War 2 gun. It is called a ‘disappearing gun’ as it popped up from its fortifications to fire – apparently the design was not a success.

Flat golden sands at South Shields include Little Haven beach. Look out for the odd bronze sculptures near the car park they are by Jean Munoz and are locally known as the ‘weebles’. Those of us around with children in the 1970s will know why!

Around the estuary of The Tyne is an impressive view of the structures on the opposite bank. The walk continues along here past many fishermen and then is mainly by road into South Shields. The design of the first lifeboat originated in the town. ‘The Original’ was commissioned in 1790 – the designer William Woodhouse refused the guinea he was offered for his trouble and died in poverty. More information is in the local museum.

While in the town it is worth while finding your way through houses to Arbeia the local Roman fort. This guarded the Roman port at the mouth of the Tyne. In 208AD the emperor Septimus Severus came to Britain and turned the fort into a supply house for his troops fighting in Scotland and then used it to support the soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall 4 miles to the east. In the 4th century a naval unit was sent from the River Tigris (now in Iraq) to garrison the fort. This was when it gained its name Arbeia – ‘the place of the Arabs’. You can visit the fort at certain times. Local roads tend to have names with a Roman connection.

Photos show: Marsden Rock, the'weebles' at South Shields and Frenchman's Bay.

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