City 42 Sunderland


Getting There

Lichfield to Sunderland is a three and a half hour drive. 178.4 miles via the A19 but I’m not in Lichfield, I’m in Newcastle, Sunderland’s rowdy twin. In my mind they’re a comedy double act but to the residents they are warring siblings, like Romulus and Remus. The drive from the Jury’s Inn is about 30 minutes in rush hour and I get horn-blasted numerous times on account of my atrocious lane etiquette. Having spent the last three weeks on the job fulminating about parking charges I google free parking in Sunderland and find a lane just south of the Tyne called Pann’s Bank. Immediately I think of Pan’s people in ludicrous costumes waving their arms about on Top of the Pops and then Beast of the Beeb, Sir James Saville, comes to mind and I have to shut it all down. 

I park up and check with a just arriving driver if its okay to park on the sloping bank. She affirms  that it is and we carry on a conversation from opposite sides of the street. I follow google maps going transmetropolitan for 12 minutes arriving at the library thirty minutes prior to opening. My contact and I, Alison, a former Walkabout client, whom I guided in 2021 on the Highland Railways and Hills tour,  are due to meet up on the morrow at 12.30 so I’m a little early. My reasoning for this is twofold. First I have some spare hours and secondly Allison has done what most Walk and Talk clients don’t and What’s Apped me a hand written plan. She’s amazingly thorough is Alison and I feel I owe it to her to do my homework.

I Am The Walrus

Adjoined to the library is a museum and the Russian Sounding Wintergardens. Behind the library is Mowbray park and I wander around the park pulled up short by a statue that drives me into a state of shock.Its a walrus covered in white streaks of bird shit. I gasp on account of the breaking news. Last night, I read that the Norwegian Government had ‘euthanised’ a walrus that Norwegian Tourists were insisting on being photographed with in Oslo fjord. Freya, as the wee beastie was named had previously holidayed on the North East Coast before heading over to Norwegian waters. There the Head of Norway’s Fisheries Directorate ‘on the basis of a global evaluation of the persistent threat to human security’ took the decision to liquidate her and not the tourists. I can’t help but hope somebody makes the same decision about him following a global evaluation of his persistent threat to marine life. 

Oh well…back to Sunderland. Mowbray Park opened in 1857, 6 years after the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace, is a charming space, a handsome set of green lungs with well-tended flower beds of red, white and blue, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne, the so-called Platinum Jubilee. I’m still trying to forget the Silver Jubilee of 1977 having failed to win a medal in the fancy dress competition but the release of Star Wars more than made up for that. Also of note here is the Veteran’s Walk, a pathway made of tiles for those who have fallen or passed away in the service of their country as well as those still serving. The pathway is very beautiful in an understated way and is nicely offset by the thrusting column surmounted by Nike clutching a victory wreath. I wonder, as I turn back to look at the Walrus, if anyone can ever be said to be victorious in war. Past wars just beget future wars as the rage of nations rolls down the centuries. 

From a certain angle the rounded glasshouse behind the walrus looks like Jabba’s palace on Tatooine. I like it though and once inside I see the Winter Gardens in all their tropical glory replete with cheese plants and palms and water cascading down steel tubes. And a pond full of tail-swirling koi, supermodels of the piscine world. Originally opened in 1879 to provide a recreational space for the over burdened and underpaid the Winter Gardens were flattened in 1941 during the Blitz and had to wait  another sixty years for a Lottery Grant Makeover.

It was worth the wait though. As well as the Winter Gardens there is a museum that celebrates what Sunderland is best known for, namely coal, ship building and glass. Oh and the football team. The Coal exhibit is festooned with flags rimmed in red, that celebrate the National Union of Mine workers. As the Bard of Barking, Billy Bragg sang ‘There is Power in the Union’, or at least there was. That power was smashed by Thatcher in the 1984/5 strike. Once strong communities were shattered and the scars remain with those who crossed picket lines still remembered as scabs. The industry was destroyed and as of 1996 fewer than 30 pits remain. Coal, as fossil fuel and producer of greenhouse gases just ain’t sexy anymore but the way those men and those communities were criminalised and broken apart is a national disgrace. No wonder they sang The Witch Is Dead when that grocer’s daughter from Grantham breathed her last.   

The glass cased model ships are wonderful to behold as is the red felt backed exhibition of Londonderry glass on display but by now I’m all museumed out which for me is always a clear and present danger. John Street, visible from the library window draws me away. The librarian told me with a sneer that that was where the posh people and their servants lived. Very revealing that sneer, demonstrating an acute awareness of the class divide and how some have it easy from birth whilst others have to struggle for every crust and  breath. 

The Toon

Walking the streets I have to say, with all due respect, that the city has its shabby side. High rises totter and tower beneath a drizzling northern sky and significant buildings appear to have been bombed, probably during the Blitz, appearing only as piles of rubble and toppled masonry awaiting clearance and ressurection. Other structures are propped up by scaffolding like one in three people appear to be propped up by crutches or zimmer frames. Many tear round on mobility scooters or stare listlessly into the middle distance.

The charity shops are a feature, where thirty year old women try on clothes that would be more suited to women in their eighties. La Macarena blares out of one set of speakers, Tom Jones’s ‘Delialah’ out of another. Its like the land that time forget marooned somewhere in the 1980s. Maybe 81. I hurry on. Debeham’s looms boarded up and derelict. A one legged man is slumped against a wall. I assume he is begging but there is no bowl and he doesn’t even ask, just looks up at me with pleading eyes. I fumble in my bag and find a quid for which he seems grateful. I ask he if he’s okay, if he has somewhere to stay. He just mumbles something unintelligible and I have to walk away.

The drizzle is steady and persistent, more of a threat to one’s mood than anything else. I pass a music and comedy venue called The Point where Big Country are playing later this month. Their eighties glamour is long gone and they look battered and bruised, like they’ve spent a lifetime on the bins. More and more I find myself staring at the people, who are like living waxworks, their lives and their characters writ large on their faces. A harried, fearful looking woman grasps her husband’s arm, as though she is terrified that after a life drawing on his strength she’ll be left alone to fend for herself after he goes. And to be honest he looks ill, like its just his will that keeps him marching onwards. Another man by the bus station curses, ‘oh no I’ve forgotten my bloody hat,’ like after a year without one, he’s just this moment noticed that devastating fact. It’s weirdly jolting and amusing and at the same time oddly compelling.  As always I search for patterns of order and disorder but the place seems to defy easy classification. Perhaps it's the weather that’s scrambled me. The streets are full of hairdressers and barbers shops. In one a man with tattoos on his head and a string vest on his chest leans backwards in his chair to swig from a can of special brew whilst the tortured barber tries not to impale him with his scissors . I want to photograph this living sculpture but fear for my life. He looks like a brawler, a throat slitter. 

But setting the unreality of it all to one side for a moment, the people I talk to are unfailingly kind. Keen to direct or inform, able and willing to reach out for some kind of human contact even with a stranger. Like the Geordies they hate pretence, people thinking they are better than others cus they’ve got a bit of brass. They graft and they drink and they suffer and despite the deprivation and the urban decay there is still a sense of community. But Newcastle next to this city looks positively opulent. 

Time to go. I head back to the car but at every step there is something I want to photograph. The crumbling blue and white tower of the Mecca bingo, a mural of black and white butterflies behind scaffolding,a half eaten pie on a windowsill, a looming black bird perched on the finial of a red brick building like a fallen angel taking in the show. I drive down to Wearmouth bridge and run out of a road. More ruin, more rubble and a fading mural of a more prosperous time, a clipper ship heading out to sea.


Consulting Allison’s list, I head out for the end of the Sculpture Trail on Roker’s beach. It looks promising and I snap the final sculpture, a black square with a hollow circle that provides a viewing lens onto the lighthouse beyond. The harbour and beach are pretty but, without the sun, somewhat superfluous. I drive on, promising to return on warmer days, past roadworks and round roundabouts heading  out of town towards the Penshaw Monument, an architectural curiosity built in 1844. The rain slackens and I get out and march up the recently repaired path to what is billed as one of the North-East’s most prominent landmarks. And for once it lives up to the billing. It reminds me of Carlton Hill in Edinburgh with its partially completed Parthenon or even the ridge at Agrigento in Sicily where I saw the cyclopean architecture dedicated to the Greek God Zeus. Anyway it’s a winning structure and I love it. An old fella of 75 and his doting wife slog up the path and every step is a hard earned victory. By the time I’m on the way down he’s just arriving. Time to move on. The final image of the day is of a tractor  working its way along the edge of field turning the recently cut cornstubble. A whirling cloud of rooks and gulls follow his every move screaming in indignation dn delight. Its worthy of a painting or at least a photo but the traffic nudges me away and I have to leave it behind.

Different Eyes

What a difference a day makes. The grey-white wall of cloud has gone along with the drizzle and blue skies reign again along with fluffy white clouds and the lightest of breezes. I pick up where I left off returning to the Penshaw Monument and from there to the nearby Herrington Park, formerly a colliery. Its a picturesque spot, a bit like a links golf course crossed with a Capability Brown landscape and it begs to be walked. Well signed and well pathed its  an easy spot to pass a couple of hours in and far less fraught than the City Centre. I’m meeting Alison at 12.30 so I have time to enjoy.

And there is much to enjoy. For the kids a skate park with the obligatory graffiti, there’s an amphitheatre for whoever and a lake where parents and toddlers can feed the small army of swans that are gathered there; all the time mindful of not getting too close to snapping beaks and the possibility of a broken arm or pecked eyes. My gaze is drawn away onto a low sculpture crowned rise and I circumnavigate the lake to get there. Its part of another sculpture trail and from a distance looks like a stone circle such as I’ve seen on Orkney at the Ring of Brodgar. Closer inspection reveals a broken ring and more ingenious still small, black hollow frames through which to view certain aspects of the landscape. The faux Greek Temple of the Penshaw Monument, at 130 metres above sea level is an obvious frame but less obvious are the row of painted houses, or nearby rolling hills like dunes. 


The more you walk and the more you see, the more you’re reminded of  other things you’ve seen and loved or loathed whilst out and about. I’m beginning to like Sunderland. I like the fact that on my return journey the kids in the skate park say Hi and not F. Off, I like that people smile, or nod and wish you well.  I like that there are bits that work as well as stuff that doesn’t. Back near the car I observe a family of fatties flying kites and reflect how I used to love doing this too, tying the twin threads to my fishing reels so that I had more line at my disposal.

Its the same story here as was on display at the museum yesterday; the rise and fall of the Coal Industry, with the first pit sunk in 1874 and the last mine closed in 1985 in the same year that the Smiths released Meat is Murder. Communities destroyed, jobs lost, traditions abandoned. Its billed as a tragedy but like the Highland Clearances, as terrible as they were, the Landscape has benefitted. And so too here. With its ten miles of walking trails, its 16 miles of hedging and 100 acres of woodland its become both haven for wildlife and sanctuary from the city. 

And talking of the city I decide to return feeling bad that my first impressions and subsequent writeup were coloured by the weather and my mood.  Its a good call as parking in the same spot and retracing my route I see an entirely different town centre. Heat helps and I fairly bounce along returning to the charity shops to pick up the books I wished I’d purchased the day before and finding more and more to enjoy. There’s a rabbit and frog sculpted from shaggy green plastic like topiary statues of yore, dancing fountains and those mural covered buildings.

On one warehouse wall, I see the legend TRANSFORMATION and think yes, that’s it.  The city is transforming and re-generating but whilst the new shines through the tatters of the old remain. At 11.30 I retrieve the car and drive to Saint Peter’s, formerly a part of the Wearmouth-Jarrow Monastery into which the Venerable Bede moved at the tender age of just seven. The old church was built in 674AD and cleverly they’ve relaid the foundations of the old church in concrete so that one might get a taste of what was there. I fancy a taste of what lies in the Church cafe though. A splendid chap in a red waistcoat and a lady with dayglow hair serve me a cut price coffee and strawberry scone and cream in Sunderland Colours. I don’t need the tour. Its enough to occupy the same space as the Great Bede. I love his name, the best name of any historian ever. Edward is Gibbon and Schama is Simon but neither are venerable; only Bede is venerable. Visionary too in that he saw that history wasn’t just stories written to flatter conquerors with but a way to establish a national identity. Churchill said history will be kind to us, we will write it ourselves and Bede was perhaps the start of that great national habit.

Points of Connection

I arrive five minutes early at Alison’s house from force of habit and we head up to the first item on Allison’s list, the Souter Lighthouse which is a few miles north of our position. It is accessed via the coastal road the A183 and passes the blue flag, award winning beaches at Roker and Seaburn. Sun bathed, the beaches are glorious and the sand of superior quality. Great for your classic bucket and spade type holiday outings. The Road out of town passes the legendary Jolly Sailer pub beloved of Allison’s friend Linda, who likewise came on the Scottish tour. 

Parking down a sideroad we cross the main road and approach the lighthouse. Constructed in 1871, it was the first lighthouse in the world to be designed to use AC current, and when first lit, was described as being ‘without doubt one of the most powerful lights in the world.’ And back then, containing the light of 800,000 candles it was. Originally it was to be called the Lizard Point lighthouse but to avoid confusion with the Lizard Lighthouse in Cornwall the name was changed to the Souter Lighthouse. I recognise the word from Robert Burns poem Tam O Shanter where one of his drinking pals is known as Souter Johnie. In that context a Souter was a cobbler. Here I’m not sure.

Working around the coast of Scotland as I do,  I’m used to the charcoal, mustard and cream colour pattern of the Stevenson Lighthouses, one of whom was the fabled RL Stevenson, authour of renowned classics Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde as well as the 2000+ mile Stevenson Trail that I walked back in 2018. Here the Souter Stack is white, green and red, beautifully maintained by the National Trust and with its walled garden and play area beloved of local sunbathers and those in need of a break, 

Allison has a personal connection with the place as she lived here from 1991 to 1996. We look in at the windows of her front room and take a quick photo to record the moment. Allison reminisces about how folk would leave wounded or abandoned seabird chicks at her door for her to tend. It was like a field hospital she says. ‘I didn’t mind the  gulls but the fulmars, not so much on account of the foul smelling liquid that they would cough up and spit on the slightest provocation. We regularly had a guillemot in the bath. I liked them.’

We chat about the effect of Avian flu on bird populations throughout the British Isles and she tells em the numbers of swans at Herrington Park have been drastically effected.  This is sad and I hope the RSPB can do something to help the afflicted creatures. But there is no vaccine for them, no hospital beds or respirators. They struggle and die alone, like the disoriented gannet I found on the beach at Sumburgh in the Shetland Isles. The cafe and museum are open and we have have a nose and move on. Alison points out a line kiln and beyond it the site where miners cottages once stood. There’s nothing there now but open field occupied by brown and white ponies and a few ragged clumps of ragwort.

During the second world war Sunderland was heavily bombed due to the fact it wa such a major centre of the ship building industry and Alison tells me how the coast was heavily fortfierd with gun batteries and barbed wire. Back then the threat of invasion from the North Sea was very real. I wonder what it must have been like to live through that and recall a friend saying how his grandparents had been of the mind that if  Britain had been overcome by the Germans, as it had the Roman, they would have drowned their children in the local canal.

A Jolly Sailor Amongst The Windmills

We drive back down the road, stopping at Linda’s local, the Jolly Sailor for a drink. Vic the barman is very accommodating and we sit in the front parlour on its lush red upholstered seats. The bar is well stocked and the parlour truly snug. There’s a cricket match on the widescreen TV from the mid noughties (I know this as Atherton is still young)  and the model of a ship on the windowsill. It's a well maintained if old fashioned sort of pub, not some trendy noshery and I get why Linda loves it so much. It's truly homely and welcoming. We chat about how COVID has affected everybody but especially the old in terms of their confidence to do things and go places and just to be around other people.  In town I noticed a high proportion of people still wearing masks. Will it ever go back to how it was? No, we agree, the world has changed for good and folk need their communities now more than ever.

From the Jolly Sailor we head off again, pulling over to look at a beautiful windmill on what looks almost like a village green. I tell Alison how I stopped off in Hull to investigate a working windmill museum and how it was closed. She promptly directs me to the only working windmill in the North East, the nearby Fulwell Windmill where we meet Doug, our guide, who takes us on a whistle stop tour of the four floored structure, explaining how everything worked and still works thanks to the obligatory lottery grant and a loyal cast of volunteers. I am overjoyed to see that there is a light film of flower coating the nearby rails and benches but also mindful that such dusty atmosphere could have been hellish to work in.

Running out of time, we thank Doug and head off one last time, to our final exhibit, the Stadium of Light, home ground of Sunderland FC, the so-called Black Cats. Alison shows me a photo of herself and Linda at the last game of the season in their Sunderland kits, Allison having borrowed her son’s oversized shirt. From a promising 2-0 lead at half time  they ended up with a disappointing 2-2 draw. Ah well, best to be philosophical and let sleeping cats lie. At the grandly titled Stadium of Light we take our last photos of the day by the hallowed gates. Below us the River Wear sparkles with flashing diamonds of light and Alison outlines a scheme to build a new footbridge over the river that will open up the city more and more.

To my eyes, Sunderland is a work in progress and I’m glad I saw it over two very different days and with such a great guide as Alison. There are still items on her list to tick off, trails to be walked, museums to visit and cafes to drink coffee and eat scones in.

But I am mindful now that Sunderland is not one thing, it is a place of very stark contrasts and seeing those contrasts play out over two days I see now that what I have experienced and written about is A Tale of Two Cities.    

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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