The wind whips words away, yet the incessant piercing cries of thousands of seabirds all around Marsden Bay cut through every sound. To the best of my knowledge, England’s north east coast between South Shields and Sunderland features in few guide books to Britain, whose writers seem to skip from the North Yorkshire Moors to the dramatic Northumbrian coast without stopping. If they did, just for a moment, they would chance upon these fine-looking limestone cliffs towering fifty to a hundred feet (15-30 metres) over the North Sea. The limestone was formed at the bottom of a shallow tropical sea that once stretched from eastern Poland to Greenland. And, with their classic limestone stacks and caves, created over centuries of erosion, and their warm colour in the sunlight, these cliffs do remind me – just a tiny bit – of Portugal’s Algarve.
OK – so the sea’s not quite as blue, or as warm, and maybe you’d struggle to find a nice, welcoming, taverna, but you must agree that it doesn’t look too bad does it? And I do believe there’s a golf course not far away, if you like that sort of thing.
The grassy cliff tops, the Leas, once partly occupied by a now vanished village near Souter Lighthouse, are much frequented by dog-walkers and, apparently, kite flyers. Personally, I’d be wary of letting my dog off the lead round here, and even more reluctant to try kite-flying, sandwiched as it were between the twin perils of the A183 and the sea.
Leaning into the buffeting wind, I wondered whether the shrieking gulls masked the wails of Marsden Bay’s most famous resident ghost. John the Jibber reputedly shopped his smuggling mates to the revenue men and, when exposed, was left in a barrel or bucket suspended from the roof of a cave, or the cliff face, where he slowly, but inexorably, starved to death. The cave, by many accounts, is in Marsden Grotto, which has been described as “one of the few cave bars in Europe”. Successive landlords used to leave jugs of ale out at night for the shade of John the Jibber, only to find the jugs empty in the morning…
Marsden Grotto has, some say, been a pub of sorts since the 18th century, when smuggling was rife, and it is meant to be fascinating inside. Inevitably, it being a fine summer’s afternoon when I visited in 2015, ripe for trade you might say, the place was closed. Having said that, it looked particularly unappealing from the outside; a cross between a military bunker and a decaying fairground attraction. When I got down to the beach and viewed it from the shore, I was left feeling distinctly puzzled as to why someone hadn’t either radically refurbished or, even better, surgically removed this piece of architectural dung long ago. The tall piece of concrete desecration, by the way, is a lift shaft. To be fair, many people have very fond memories of Marsden Grotto – perhaps in the same way that those who grew up in the 1950s remember playing on bomb sites. It has been under new management since 2017 and, checking recent comments on Trip Advisor, some people absolutely love it; others do not. Whatever – purely aesthetically, some places can’t help being sows’ ears.
Talking of eyesores, at the other end of the beach is a particularly ugly, and wrecked, lifeguard station, looking remarkably like a magnet for vandals and other ne’er-do-wells, further despoiling this wonderful stretch of coastline. The owner should be forced – physically if necessary – to remove it; and the local authority, South Tyneside, should be ashamed of itself. If money’s tight, the donation of a few thousand pounds of executive pay should sort the matter out without insulting the public any longer.
Man-made blights on an otherwise stunning location do not seem to bother the seabirds, who flock and nest at Marsden Bay in their thousands: mainly kittiwakes, fulmars and cormorants (really, don’t take my word for it, I can barely distinguish a sparrow from an eagle). The birds are amazing to observe, but the cacophony of shrieks and screeches is only marginally less overpowering than their pungent, malodorous, smell. I guess they might voice similar concerns about us in comparable circumstances; perhaps this is the seabird equivalent of overcrowded housing. They squabble a lot too – it’s like watching avian EastEnders. Eschewing integration, the cormorants seem to prefer an unnamed stack to the south, not far from the lighthouse, whereas Kittiwake & Co teem around the cliffs and Marsden Rock, a 139’ (42 metres) high stack that, until it collapsed in 1996, used to feature a sea arch and, in its day, be a notable tourist attraction. On shore, closer to the cliffs, is a slender stack known as Lot’s Wife. In the Book of Genesis, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt after looking back on the destruction of sinful Sodom. The allegedly real pillar stands today on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. Surely, whatever joker named the imitation in Tyne and Wear didn’t have South Shields or Sunderland in mind at the time? Perhaps they were thinking of the hedonists of Newcastle upon Tyne, a little farther to the north-west.
There’s a low, ineffectual, railing on the cliff top, marking the point beyond which it is unsafe to tread. I noticed a couple of bunches of decaying flowers tied to this in different places, and in one instance something very like a home-made shrine. The really tragic bit about Marsden Bay and its surroundings is not the grotty buildings disfiguring a naturally beautiful part of Britain’s coast, but the fact that people have chosen it as a place to end their lives. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the families that were about when I was there, on the beach and cliffs, laughing and having fun. Perhaps Marsden is a metaphor for life: beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow, side by side. It should certainly be in the guide-books, though. Perhaps, if someone invested a little money, it would be.