246. Sunderland to Shields Ferry (South Shields)

June 2013

This walk would take me from the banks of the river Wear to the banks of the river Tyne, the two rivers after which this area is named (Tyne and Wear). I had expected a fairly industrial walk but a look at the map suggested that in fact quite a bit of the walk would be through countryside.

Once again I was doing this walk from home. I had booked a train ticket from London Kings Cross to Sunderland with Grand Central Trains for £17.60 and a return from Newcastle to London Kings Cross on East Coast trains for £15, though these tickets tied me to a specific train.

I took a train from my local station to London Waterloo, two tube trains to get between London Waterloo and London Kings Cross and then the train from London to Sunderland. I arrived in the dismal station in Sunderland on-time at 11:50am.

I headed from the station through the city centre and returned to the banks of the river Wear a little to the east of the Wearmouth bridge.


The Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland

It is an impressive structure.

I followed the higher level path above the river to soon reach the bridge and turned to cross it, there is a pavement on the right hand side of the bridge (and the left), meaning I don’t have to cross the road.

The Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland

The bridge is unusual in that it carries 5 lanes of traffic. This means there are 3 lanes for going north, but 2 for coming south (and no central reservation between them either). It is an unusual arrangement that I don’t recall seeing elsewhere.

The bridge offers fine views of the river Wear, which is a long way below. I can see the open sea in the distance but there are some chimneys ahead between me and it, so I suspect more industry to come.

View from the Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland

Once over the river I find there are steps down to the right which lead down to the path right along the edge of the river.

The River Wear at Sunderland

Soon I am passing the modern buildings of the University on my left. The students have a nice view of the river at least.

The River Wear at Sunderland

Passing alongside these buildings I soon pass an information sign showing the historic docklands of Sunderland.

The River Wear, Sunderland

Sunderland Ship yards

Whilst this area is now quite peaceful it wasn’t always so and this area was once lined with shipyards. Most of the industry has gone now, with the university, offices and flats being the replacements.

On the left I also pass the National Glass Centre. This is free to enter but to be honest isn’t a subject I find hugely interesting, so I gave it a miss. Once past this, the area on my left becomes occupied by houses rather than the University.

On my left I’m now passing the docks where I could not walk last time (being all private land with no rights of way) I can see the towers I saw earlier from the Wearmouth bridge aren’t in fact chimneys but part of a ship yard where a new ship is being built (a new container ship, perhaps).

The River Wear, Sunderland

So shipbuilding in Sunderland might have declined, but it has not stopped entirely.

The houses continue until I reach a small marina. This is Sunderland Marina which is now filled with a mixture of fishing boats and leisure craft of varying types. I need to walk around this but thankfully the path follows the landward side of the marina until I am back beside the river again.

Roker Marina

There is another small marina to pass on reaching the rivers edge and then I reach the inner North Pier of Sunderland harbour (there is another outer pier further ahead). I had wondered if it might be possible to walk out onto this, but it isn’t, as the pier is behind locked gates (a look on Google Earth shows the reason why, as a part of it has crumbled away).

I have reached the mouth of the river Wear again and am back beside the open sea. Looking north from the harbour wall there is a pebble beach ahead with some odd concrete semi-circles dotted about. They reminded me a bit of the Sound Mirrors I saw back on the Kent coast near Dover, but no idea what they are for.

The beach at Roker

From the small beach by the inner pier I pass alongside a car park and then reach a small sandy beach behind the outer pier of Sunderland harbour (which is called Roker Pier). Inside the pier is a small sandy beach.

The beach at Roker

There is a promenade behind this and a sign welcomes me to “Roker, Sunderland”. I never realised Sunderland had a beach at all and it looks pretty nice.

The beach at Roker

I continued on this promenade to reach Roker Pier which like North Pier is also fenced off and inaccessible.

Beyond the harbour wall (Roker Pier) he beach improves, a fine sandy beach backed by a promenade with a small arcade behind it and what looks like some sort of castle or fortification on the cliffs above the beach.

The beach at Roker

When the cliffs start I have a choice of an upper path or a lower. I chose the lower on the basis it was closer to the sea. The cliffs start off natural but soon a concrete retaining wall has been built above which is what looks like some sort of castle or fortification, but no such structure is marked on the map so perhaps I am wrong.

The beach at Roker

Ahead the cliffs get a little lower as I reach Parson’s Rocks and continue on the lower path.

The beach at Roker

The beach to my right has become rocky rather than sandy, with what I suspect is the former base of the cliffs now visible, now forming a mixture of rock pools and sand.

The beach at Roker

To my left behind the sea wall I soon reach the white lighthouse which is just known locally as “White Lighthouse”. Steps cut into the sea wall gave me access to take a closer look at the lighthouse. I don’t think it is used any more but it looked well kept at least.

Parson's Rock Lighthouse, Roker

Just north of here the rocky beach ended and it became sandy once more as I enter Whitburn Bay.

Whitburn Bay

The name, oddly, was familiar to me, even though I hadn’t ever been here before. This is because for a while I worked for a company which had an office in Sunderland (they still do, but it is now much smaller, most of the business that was there has been sold off). The meeting rooms were, I now realise, named after local places, whilst the servers that were located there were named after local rivers. So I recall Whitburn as a name I sometimes saw crop up in meeting requests.

Not having known what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised. The tide was out so before me was a beautiful sandy beach stretching for a mile or so north. At high tide I could see there wouldn’t be a beach at all, but as the tide was out there was firm sand all the way.

Whitburn Bay

I initially followed the promenade because I could see some sort of wall heading out from the beach ahead, but once past this I descended down onto the beach.

Near the north end of the beach, the beach had become backed with pebbles and shingle and I could see low cliffs forming ahead, which the sea soon reached.

Whitburn Bay

So near the north end of the beach I found a path through the dunes back to the road.

Whitburn Bay

I passed beside a car park on the left and when the road turned back inland there was a proper coast path signed continuing along the cliff top.

Looking back from the low cliffs over Sunderland, there seemed to be plumes of smoke billowing out to sea now (I never did find out what that was).

Whitburn Bay

The pleasant path continued around the low cliffs with the town of Whitburn off to my left, but 100 metres of land inland from the cliff top had been left undeveloped meaning it did not really feel like I was in a town.

Whitburn Rocks

Part way along this path a “Danger Area” was marked on the map. This was quite small so I hadn’t researched this in advance, instead intending to follow the road around it if needed. However it turned out this was for rifle range which is now disused. So I don’t think the path is ever closed any more. Though the rifle range was closed, the artificial mounds within it were still very much in evidence.

The path soon rounded a corner to a the rock and shingle beach of Whitburn Rocks.

Whitburn Rocks

Once again there was evidence here that the level of the beach had been raised (more rubbish dumping the past?) with the back of the beach now grassing over where the sea no longer reached.

At the end of the bay I left the former rifle range and was now in the Whitburn Coastal Park. The view inland was to a windmill that I hadn’t spotted on the map and looked to be complete, even still with the sails in place.

Whitburn from the coast

Now at the north end of the bay the cliffs got higher again but the coast path continued right on the top, with a parallel cycle path.

Whitburn Rocks

The geology here was fascinating, even if I know nothing about it. The beach was rocky but in quite a few places old rocks stacks had been left behind, presumably firmer bits of the cliff where the softer rocks around them had been eroded away.

The coast at Whitburn

I passed the rocky beach of Potter’s Hole and then onwards to Byer’s Hole.

The coast at Whitburn

Here the scenery had becomes spectacular. The cliffs were clearly quite soft and had had numerous caves cut into them by the waves. There was also a rock arch I spotted at the end of one the little headlands.

The coast at Whitburn

Ahead the view got even better. I had the beautiful red and white striped Souter Lighthouse which was, confusingly to me, located at a place called Lizard Point.

The coast at Whitburn

I thought I had passed that long ago in Cornwall, but it turns out there (at least) two places on the coast called Lizard Point.

Out to sea beyond the lighthouse was another of these rock stacks, with an arch that had been cut into it by the sea.

The grassy path continued just in front of the lighthouse with more spectacular coastal scenery.

The coast at Whitburn

Souter Lighthouse, Whitburn

Of course this was presumably the reason for the lighthouse, to prevent ships running around on these rocks.

The coast at Whitburn

Inland the lighthouse looked in great condition with the old fog-horn also still intact. It is no longer  in use as a lighthouse (it was decommissioned in 1988) and is now owned by the National Trust. Despite this a pirate flag was flying next to the lighthouse for reasons I’m not clear about.

Souter Lighthouse, Whitburn

If I had known the lighthouse was open I might have built in time to look around the lighthouse, but I was keen to continue so sadly gave it a miss.

The coast path continued beyond the lighthouse passing a now closed car park (the signs said it had been under-mined by erosion).

I was now seeing far more sea birds, a bit like at Flamborough Head. The most common were (I think) Guillemots, that were all sitting on top of one of the rocks stacks.

The coast near Whitburn

I was now reaching the town of Marsden (a suburb of South Shields, I think). Here the A183 ran close to the cliff tops, but I was pleased that the urban sprawl had been constrained to the inland side of the road meaning that on the coast side was still grass and a fine cliff top path.

I soon reached Marsden Bay and this too was another spectacular beach.

The coast near Whitburn

Souter Lighthouse near Whitburn

The south part of the beach was rocky, with numerous rock stacks, often with small caves at their base.

Near Lizard Point near Whitburn

Marsden Sands, South Shields

Marsden Sands, South Shields

Further north it became sandy and soon I came to a car park where steps provided access down to the beach. For the lazy there is even a lift down too but I stuck to the stairs.

Marsden Sands, South Shields

What a beautiful beach this was. From the beach there was little to suggest that a town was close by, it was quite rural in character, apart from a rather ugly cafe at the base of the lift.

Near the steps down was an especially large rock stack where in places caves had been cut by the sea right through the stack.

Marsden Sands, South Shields

Marsden Sands, South Shields

The geology here is very interesting. The cliffs seem soft but also layered and seem very prone to forming caves.

Marsden Sands, South Shields

I spent some time on this beach walking along it and marvelling at the impressive geology on show.

Marsden Sands, South Shields

Marsden Sands, South Shields

I walked along the beach and was pleased to find near the far end of the beach there was another another flight of stairs leading back to the cliff top, so I didn’t have to walk back.

Marsden Sands, South Shields

Marsden Sands, South Shields

Now back on the cliff top I continued on the good path passing another couple of small rocky bays.

Marsden Sands, South Shields

The coast at South Shields

The coast at South Shields

Beyond this I reach the large Frenchman’s Bay, though the beach itself is tiny, it is mostly a rocky bay. I continue pass a second more sandy beach, Graham’s Sand and then on the cliff top I reach the site of a former (I presume) military battery, where there is a gun still in place (from World War II, I imagine).

Graham's Sand, South Shields

Trow Point, South Shields

Ahead of me now are the extensive sands of South Shields, somewhere I certainly have heard of.

South Shields beach

The beach itself was lovely though behind it there was some sort of event going on as I could hear music, so I kept to the beach, close to the shore. It must be nice to have such a good beach within easy access of a major city.

South Shields beach

I enjoyed the walk along the beach and at the far end came to the South Pier that marks the entrance to Tynemouth harbour, the Tyne and eventually Newcastle.

South Shields

Some sort of development work was taking place here but I could continue left along the sea wall to another smaller sandy beach at the mouth of the Tyne.

South Shields

South Shields

On the opposite bank of the Tyne I could see some old and extensive ruins which having checked the map I concluded were the remains of Tynemouth Priory. It was rather pretty and another pleasant surprise.

Tynemouth from South Shields

South Shields

At the far end of the beach was another small sea wall, this one called South Groyne, marked with a small red lighthouse on stilts. I walked out to it.

South Groyne, South Shields

Now I was at the mouth of the Tyne and enjoyed the views to Tynemouth on the other side of the Tyne.

The Tyne at South Shields

However with no ferry or bridge at the mouth of the Tyne that meant I now had to turn inland. So I now followed the tarmac path to head the coastal side of the Little Haven Hotel to another small beach.

South Shields

Beyond this was a modern housing development with a path along the river. I followed this but at the end of the development it was a dead end.

South Shields

That was irritating, so I had to head back to the B1344 instead. This had a pavement on the right and a wall on the left. As soon as this wall ended, the pavement switched to the other side of the road (why?), so I had to cross and was now passing alongside light industry. A bit further along the pavement crossed back to the right hand side of the road!

Opposite Mile End Road this pavement turned a bit away from the road, to leave an area of grass between me and the road. This then ran alongside trees to my right and the green to my left and was quite pleasant. I could follow this until it reached the road at a bridge over the railway line which oddly ended a short distance ahead. I continued along the road passing a small business park to a roundabout. Here I crossed this and continued ahead to soon reach the ferry terminal on the southern side of the river Tyne.

The Tyne Ferry at South Shields

This is where the Shields Ferry crosses the Tyne. This is the lowest crossing point of the Tyne so I decided to end the walk here as this would be the point I’d cross the Tyne.

Now I headed inland along King Street through the centre of the town of South Shields. I’m heading home from Newcastle Station so first I need to get there. Happily rather than have to use a slow meandering bus, South Shields has a station on the Tyne and Wear Metro network. This is the first coastal conurbation I’ve walked to that has a metro network. I had never used it before but it was simple to use (South Shields being the last station this branch) and soon took this to Newcastle Central Station.

South Shields metro station

I was quite impressed with the metro system which is a bit like the London Underground except that it isn’t in London and (mostly) isn’t underground. As I had a bit of time before my train I headed down to the river Tyne in the centre of Newcastle.

This was only my second visit to Newcastle (the first being during heavy rain after I had abandoned a walk further north in Northumberland due to the weather and taken a bus to Newcastle instead).

On the opposite bank was the very distinctive Sage Centre.

The Sage Centre, Gateshead

Something I had seen before from the train, but not up close. However more impressive is the array of bridges of such different styles, all extremely close to each other.

The Tyne Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The famous Tyne Bridge of course, but there is also the lower swing bridge (not sure it still swings), and two higher level rail bridges beyond it. There are a lot of bridges, as well as in the other direction the more modern “blinking eye” bridge (officially the Gateshead Millenium Bridge) that provides a pedestrian link between Newcastle and Gateshead.

Gateshead Millenium Bridge

The centre of Newcastle itself too is far nicer than I had imagined, with grand Georgian buildings on many of the streets. Whilst not as spectacular perhaps as Bath, it still did remind me of Bath.

Having explored the river and briefly the city centre I headed back to the station for my train home and ate from the buffet car on the train. The rail journey south from Newcastle is quite spectacular. First I cross the Tyne on one of the two rail bridges, offering fine views of the Sage Centre again and the famous Tyne bridge. Later I can see the Angel of the North and then the impressive cathedral and castle at Durham. Beyond that is Darlington and York where I can catch a glimpse of the minster. Sadly south of that the line is very dull and I get a bit longer than usual to enjoy it, as the train gets delayed, though not dramatically.

I hadn’t expected much from this walk but it had hugely exceeded my expectations. The coast had been quite varied and spectacular and I hadn’t expected to find such impressive geology and scenery in a major conurbation. The development had mostly been quite sensitive and so had not spoiled the coast with it’s beautiful cliffs and sandy beaches. It was only really South Shields at the end that felt urban, the rest had been lovely and my enjoyment had been helped because I had found there was a good quality coast path all the way.

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk:-

Go North East bus route 20/X20 “Prince Bishops” : South Shields (Market) – Harton Nook – Fulwell – Sunderland – East Herrington – Houghton-le-Spring – East Rainton – West Rainton – Belmont – Gilesgate Moor – Durham. Every 12 minutes Monday – Saturday. Every 20 minutes on Sundays. It takes around 35 minutes to travel between South Shields and Sunderland.

In addition the Tyne and Wear Metro can also be used to travel between South Shields and Sunderland and it is necessary to change at Pelaw.

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link

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4 Responses to 246. Sunderland to Shields Ferry (South Shields)

  1. owdjockey says:

    Hi Jon, I did virtually the same walk as yourself, but continued on to Hebburn. Yes I was also impressed with the Metro system. The story behind the pub/club/residence/disco “The Grotto” at the base of the cliffs in Marsden is full of colourful characters such as Blaster Jack and Peter Allan. I was abit put off going inside the cafe which now looked a bit posh.

    • jcombe says:

      Thanks Alan I hadn’t heard of Hebburn but I see now that it is further up the Tyne. I had heard some things about the cafe at Marsden indeed though didn’t realise it was quite as famous as that. I think the lift went right down into the cafe which yes looked a bit posh for me too which is why I stuck with the steps!

  2. As I predicted, this time you are on my home turf! We lived in Sunderland from 1962-1968 and then Newcastle till 1973 when I was 16, so most of my childhood is covered in your post. Roker Beach is backed by Roker Park (an actual park, not the old football ground) and behind that is Roker Park Rd where we lived. I spent many happy hours on those beaches.

    • jcombe says:

      Sounds like a lovely childhood. I didn’t grow up near the sea sadly, I’m sure I would have loved it. Yes I saw Roker Park on the map. Roker was far more pleasant than I had expected. Felt more like a resort really.

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