Archive | November, 2017

Alone — in Sunderland.

11 Nov

My friend, Ian and I like visiting places that are not on the normal tourist radar. We have invariably enjoyed our explorations of towns and cities that are deemed dull, unattractive or not worth bothering with. We like to test our theory that every place is interesting if only one is willing to be interested in it. Thus we have found ourselves wandering round unpromising northern towns like Darlington, Doncaster, Stockton and Hartlepool and have always, so far, had  interesting and enjoyable days. It was in this spirit that we decided to visit Sunderland.

Sunderland is Britain’s newest city but apart from that accolade, it doesn’t seem, at first glance, to have much going for it. In the north east of England it is eclipsed in most departments by its close neighbour, Newcastle upon Tyne, at least from a tourist’s viewpoint. Its centre is a large, non-descript pedestrian precinct. I suppose the city got badly bombed in the war and lost many of its more distinguished buildings. Only a sprinkling of older civic buildings still survive, such as the Museum and Winter Gardens and the Empire Theatre. Since the war, the area has suffered from bad economic depression following the collapse of the coal-mining and ship-building industries. It used to be a proud boast of Sunderland that whatever ships were required, the Wearside ship-yards could “Makem” ( make them.) This has now become the nickname, often used derogatively, for people from the Sunderland area. (” Makems” or “mackems.”)  The current employment saviour of Sunderland is ironically Japan. Nissan has set up a big car- manufacturing plant in nearby Washington New Town. This is now the biggest source of employment in the area. I say this is ironic because it was foreign competition, including from the Japanese, that put paid to Wearside’s once prolific shipyards. Between 1939 and 1945, the Second  World War years, the Wear yards launched 245 ships, totalling 1.5 million tons. This represented a quarter of all merchant ships built in that period in the entire UK. Now all the shipyards on the River Wear have gone. The last one closed in 1988.

So we planned to visit what seems, on the surface, to be a very depressed area. Even Sunderland’s famous football team is now languishing at the bottom of the second tier of the English leagues, after suffering a humiliating relegation from the Premier League last season. It is only early November (2017) but they have already sacked their latest manager. The lights seem to have all been switched off at Sunderland’s so called “Stadium of Light.” Our proposed visit didn’t sound very promising, but at least it would be a good excuse for a get-together and a catch-up chat. Then, unfortunately, Ian informed me that he could no longer come because his mother was ill. I had already got my rail tickets so I was faced with either wasting my money and staying at home, or going to Sunderland, alone! My wife, who probably wanted to get rid of me, encouraged me to go.

So it was that a few days later, I found myself getting up on the 7am alarm clock in order to catch an early train out of Saltburn. I was reluctant to leave my warm, comfortable bed. But straight away, this potentially unpromising day threw up a lovely surprise. As I munched my cereal I glanced out of the window and witnessed a beautiful sunrise. Streaks of vivid orange, yellow and light blue lit up the sky above the rooftops. The next compensation came when I enjoyed an excellent toasted teacake and filter coffee ( breakfast, part 2) at Middlesbrough rail station as I waited for my connecting train. The day was looking up! The journey north, up the Durham coast was interesting and occasionally picturesque. Glimpses of cliffs, beaches, a pier, meadows, denes and ravines  reminded me of my sponsored walk down that very coast earlier in the year. The train passed through Stockton, Billingham, Hartlepool and Seaham before finally arriving at Sunderland.

Sunderland’s unprepossessing railway station is underground, in a dark, depressing tunnel. As well as mainline trains, it is also serves the Tyne and Wear Metro. I bought a ticket and travelled 2 stops north of the city centre to the seaside suburb of Seaburn. The train’s emergence from the dingy tunnel, out into the bright autumn sunshine, coincided with an eye-catching crossing of the Wear, the river that divides the city. The rail bridge runs parallel and in close proximity to a gracefully arched, iron road bridge.( Wearmouth Bridge)  It’s a wonderful array of green painted girders, running in all directions. It’s like a mini Sydney Harbour Bridge or Tyne Bridge. Soon, the Metro arrived at Seaburn station and my walk of discovery began.

A long, straight road ran down to the sea. Unsurprisingly it is called Sea Road! It was busy with traffic and banks of shops. These were mostly the usual suspects but I was surprised to find that Seaburn has a Swiss bakers. It’s called Mullers, if you’re ever in the area. Because I still had the Middlesbrough teacake in my tummy I didn’t go in and try its exotic wares, although I now think I should have done. After a 10 minutes brisk walk, passing row after row of terraced houses, I reached the seafront and the pleasant, leafy Seaburn Park. Beyond this was the promenade. At the end of the prom’s row of shops and restaurants is the large Marriot Hotel. This was my first port of call, because it was here, under its previous name of the Seaburn Hotel, that the famous artist, L S Lowry used to stay on his  visits to the north-east coast. Lowry regularly visited Sunderland in the 1960’s and always stayed in Room 104 at the Seaburn. ( Luckily, not Room 101!) Some of his seascapes and industrial scenes are exhibited at the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

Seaburn beach is long and attractive, sweeping round a shallow bay. On this bright, autumnal morning, it was largely empty, apart from a few dog walkers and the occasional jogger. At its northern extremity it merges with a cluster of rocks and pools. Two herring gulls perched on adjoining rocks and surveyed the scene. Nearby an unidentified wader poked its long, pointed beak into the soft mud, looking for a tasty, mid-morning morsel. I planned to follow Heritage Trail Number 7, produced by Sunderland Council — “Roker Seafront Circular.”  The Lowry hotel was my first stop. ( I wasn’t doing it in the right order.) Now I strode towards a gleaming white lighthouse, on a grassy stretch of the promenade above the beach.

It seemed to be a strange location for a light-house. They are usually found on headlands , on off-shore islands or at the ends of piers, in order to safeguard shipping.  But this particular lighthouse was set back, well away from any spot where it could have been any use to a ship. The answer to the mystery is that the lighthouse in question, designed by James Meick in 1856, had originally been placed on the end of Sunderland’s South Pier. When that pier eventually started to crumble, the Meick lighthouse was dismantled and re-erected here, on the promenade between Seaburn and Roker, in 1983. It’s an impressive edifice. Meick designed it in the form of a classical Tuscan column. As I looked up, I saw that the shining, white tower was topped by a round , wrought iron balcony and a large weather-vane. Inside, apparently, is an intricate, cast iron, spiral staircase. Its powerful lantern, that for so long safely guided ships into the mouth of the Wear, is now displayed in the Museum and Winter Gardens.

I walked back down to the sea and on to the beach.  The tide was out and I was able to walk round the headland that separates Seaburn from Roker. The flat, empty sands were backed by medium tall cliffs shored up by a stout seawall. On a slope leading down to the beach, I passed a little wooden shack – the Bankside Café. Clumps of people were gathered there, chatting and sipping from their mugs of tea and coffee. The smell of bacon drifted on the air. I was tempted to stop, but remembering, just in time, that I am a vegetarian, I wandered on. Roker beach and prom now stood before me, lined with cafes and amusement arcades. It being November, most of them were closed however, so I was faced with a row of shutters. 2 large back and white photos from the early 20th century showed how popular Roker beach used to be. The place had been packed. People strolled along the prom, others sat on their deck-chairs on the sands, while yet more holidaymakers paddled or swam in the sea. Ranks of tall, narrow changing- tents spread down the beach. Behind all this, the North Pier was also packed with people. Today the pier was empty, being fenced off by workmen carrying out repairs. That was a pity as I’d planned to stroll along it to get a closer look at its graceful, red and white striped lighthouse.

I left the lower promenade and climbed up to the upper level. Here was a rusty red Second World War naval mine ( 1940), now used to collect donations for “The Shipwrecked Mariners Society.” This had been founded in 1839 to help distressed sailors and their families. It claims to have helped over 1,000,000 people. On the side of the mine is the sad epitaph: ” There is sorrow on the sea.”

I was now in an area of the sea- front that used to be a military zone. In the world wars, big artillery guns were mounted there to help protect the entrance to the port. The beach would have been covered with barbed wire and the area patrolled by soldiers. Local people were moved back from the seafront and their houses turned into soldiers’ billets. This area, now known as Cliff park, had a series of defensive trenches dug across it during the time of the First World War. There had been guns at the ends of both piers. A badly faded map that I tried to decypher, referred mysteriously to a World War 1 U Boat and a torpedo battery, both just off the mouth of the Wear. Surveying the peaceful scene, I found it difficult to imagine all that menacing wartime activity. The gun posts have now been turned into seats.

Just across the green from the naval mine was what looked like an old Celtic  stone cross. It was on my heritage list. The cross was erected in 1904 in memory of one of the North-east’s most famous religious figures: The Venerable Bede. It had been paid for by public subscription, £300 having been raised in record time. Although fairly modern, the cross is decorated with Celtic and Anglo-Saxon style patterns and pictures. Birds, animals, leaves and berries are intertwined into swirling designs. The monk and scholar known as the Venerable Bede lived and worked at the nearby Church of St Peters 1300 years ago. This was one half of the famous Wearmouth-Jarrow Monastery, Jarrow being a little further north in South Tyneside. Bede was the greatest scholar of his day and wrote the first- ever history of  England, which is still in print.( “An Eccliessiastical History of the English People.”) On one side of the cross, scenes from Bede’s life have been carved, while on the other side are pictures of some of his important countrymen — Abbots and Kings. There is also an inscription honouring St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. Bede’s Cross was dismantled and removed during both world wars to keep it safe. It was last re-erected in 1949.  I wander how many of today’s motorists or pedestrians notice it or give it a second thought as they hurry past. One good thing about being retired is having the time to stop and appreciate things.

Across the busy road from the cross is one of the upper entrances to Roker Park. A lower entrance is down by the beach and plunges one into a deep, dramatic ravine, which dissects the northern end of the park. I descended to a bridge which spanned  this ravine and looked down into a place that used to be the notorious haunt of smugglers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The ravine has caves, one of which used to be the home of “Spottie”, an 18th century sailor whose ship was wrecked on the north-east coast.

The modern recreational park was opened in June, 1880 to cater for the many holidaymakers and residents of what had developed into the affluent suburb of Roker. It has all the usual amenities– a fine Victorian bandstand, a boating lake, floral displays, a miniature railway, a water fountain and a bowling green. As I pottered about, I spotted the surreal sight of Alice in Wonderland sitting on a low hedge in a bright, blue and white dress. Apparently Lewis Carrol had connections with Sunderland too. When I arrived at the lake there were no boats, it being out of season. A few strollers had stopped to feed the ducks or admire a couple of swans. However, it was what was happening in the middle of the lake that grabbed my attention. A workman was wading through the water, slowly gathering in a collection of large lamps that were sticking out of the water. His colleague stood on the shore trying to sort out a large tangle of electric cables. I was intrigued, so I asked the latter guy what was happening. It turned out that in late October and early November the boating lake had been the scene of a popular “sight and sound” show, which was part of Sunderland’s Illuminations. It seems that hordes of people had attended. The promenade had been lit up with sparkling displays and Bede’s Cross had shared its space on the sea-front with a lit-up big wheel, a traditional funfair and the inevitable food stalls. I wonder what the Venerable Monk would have made of it all?

Roker Park itself had been transformed into a Festival of Light with a Disney theme.( pass the sick bag please.) There were pirates, dinosaurs and fairies and other Disney characters. I know that a lot of people and especially children would have enjoyed it but I don’t see why all our entertainments have to be Americanised. The whole thing ended with a spectacular firework display on the seafront. It must have been great fun for some. Fantasy is our society’s great escape. I missed it all which is perhaps as well as I don’t like huge crowds. On the day I visited, all the excitement had evaporated and the crowds had disappeared. It was lovely and quiet. There was just me, a jogger, a couple of dog walkers and the council men clearing up. As a child I used to love our annual visits to Blackpool’s Illuminations but I have never been to Sunderland’s, even though I have lived in the North-east of England for nearly 40 years. Maybe next year…?

There were lots of big, nice houses in the area of the park. Roker is obviously one of Sunderland’s more prosperous areas. I walked on to St Andrews Church, which was next on my heritage list. Built in 1907, St Andrews is regarded as one of Britain’s finest early 20th century churches. It was also known as the “Cathedral of the Arts and Crafts movement” because of its beautiful, decorative interior. As I approached, my step quickened as I love buildings from that era. The church is very large and long, built of rather austere grey stone. It has a line of huge, arched windows and a crennalated tower that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a medieval castle. I looked forward to going in to see the famed interior. However, all that awaited me was a massive anti-climax. I couldn’t get in! The door was locked and when I rang the bell as a sign instructed me to do, no-one answered. The office was supposed to be open until 1pm and it was only 12-40. Obviously they had  knocked off early and done a runner, or whatever the term is. It was a big disappointment, but I’m already planning to return, after contacting St Andrews and making sure I’ll be able to get in next time. It’s always nice to have an excuse to go back.

The rest of my walk took me along the remaining  seafront to the mouth of the river. I then turned inland to walk the northern bank of the Wear back to Wearmouth Bridge and the city centre. I had done this walk before with my daughter on our long-distance trek down the coast of the old County of Durham. So it’s described  in my coastal walk blogs — the 2 piers, the sculpture trail, the marina, the National Glass Centre and Sunderland University. I enjoyed it all again, especially the series of shiny metal scultures showing a cormorant taking off from a small pier. I had lunch at the popular Snow Goose Cafe just by the marina. On the walls were old black and white photos and colourful tourist posters from Sunderland’s heyday. One of them, split down the middle, advertised the twin attractions of Seaburn and Roker Resorts with the slogan: “Gay and bright by day and night” It was obvously produced in a more innocent, less sexualised age! ( at least on the surface.)

So my day alone in Sunderland wasn’t so bad afterall. In fact it was very enjoyable. The weather was lovely and I saw lots of interesting things. Being on your own means you can go at your own pace and get lost in one’s own thoughts. And anyway, I wasn’t really alone. I got to talk to: the ticket inspector, the man at Middlesbrough station cafe, a dog walker on the prom, the councilworker in the park, the waitress at the Snow Goose Cafe and a lovely lady in the city centre who kindly directed me back to the station. I just stuck with that title because it sounded  dramatic, and I couldn’t resist playing the sympathy card! But rest assured, there’s no need to feel sorry for me —  I had a great day.