Beachcombing is one of my favourite hobbies in the summer.
City beaches are some of the best places for gentle strolls at this time of year… and for finding hidden treasure!
It’s fascinating what you can pick up off the beach, from odd, discarded objects to the flotsam and jetsam that has washed up on the shore.
I love looking for interesting rocks which have been sculpted by the sea into weird and wonderful shapes.
An impromptu trip to Marsden Bay near South Shields proved to be a winner this week, not least because of the sunny weather and gorgeous blue skies.
It’s a great beachcombing location with its cache of coastal discoveries and mix of rocky and sandy beach which always throws up unexpected items.
Beaches and birds
The bay’s landscape is dramatic with sheer limestone cliffs, sea stacks and strange caves hewn into the rock face.
The foot of the cliff is littered with cobbles and limestone boulders, providing some unusual stones and pebbles for beachcombers like me.
On this visit every stone we picked up, I placed back in the location where it had been found.
I rather liked the idea of the ebb and flow of the tide washing the stones back and forth – being reclaimed by the sea at high tide.
Looking out from the beach there are a series of rocky stacks formed by marine erosion standing out like chunky chimneys.
The two largest stacks are around 25 metres high and their imposing position makes them popular with nesting seabirds including herring gulls, cormorants, shags and fulmars.
I love the way the cormorants stand with their black wings outstretched, creating a silhouette on the top of the stacks.
Apparently they do this to digest their food properly rather than as a territorial display – and there’s plenty of food for them in the sea below.
Up on the limestone cliffs at the back of the beach, kittiwakes nest on the rocks – it’s hard to imagine how they balance on the precarious ledges with their chicks.
It’s fascinating to watch the young birds with their downy feathers, still being fed by mum and dad in a complex, balancing act on the sheer rock face.
There are so many herring gulls and cormorants that it’s like ‘bird HQ’ – and it’s fascinating to watch the birds congregating on the rocks.
Every few minutes there’s a fly-past with birds swooping overhead, vying for the best territory and nesting spots on the stacks and cliff faces.
I love the kittiwakes with their gorgeous white faces and sleek, elegant body shape. They’re by far the prettiest of the gull family in my humble opinion.
But this is a changing landscape which is constantly being worn away by the elements – the wind and the waves.
When I arrived on Tyneside 30 years ago, I remember the famous Marsden Arch, an impressive structure, an iconic image that featured on postcards and photographs.
But the scene today is very different.
The roof of the arch collapsed in February 1996 and Marsden Arch became a stunted stack!
Any trip to Marsden Bay wouldn’t complete without a trip to its most famous landmark – the Grotto.
The Marsden Grotto pub and restaurant is built into the cliff face in a striking location at the foot of the 100 feet high rocks.
This is the ultimate pub on the beach with a magnificent view of the sea and thousands of birds zooming overhead.
The Marsden Grotto has always fascinated me, right from my first visit when I moved to North East England in the 1980s.
History says that the pub was originally the house of a local miner called ‘Jack the Blaster’ in the 1780s – he blasted out a dwelling which also became a place for drinking and smuggling.
It’s reached by Jack the Blaster’s zigzagging stairs – all 137 of them.
In later years a weird, tiny lift was built to take passengers up and down to the pub for a small payment.
There’s something quaint and intriguing about this brief trip – and it’s fun to arrive in the grotto-like pub with its walls gouged into the caves and rocky cliff face.
History of the inn
In the 1820s the owner of the dwelling in the caves, Peter Allan, saw the grotto’s potential as an inn – and the rest is, as they say, history.
During excavation work 18 skeletons were found, reinforcing the pub’s colourful history which is rich in tales of smugglers, illicit goings-on and ghostly hauntings.
The Marsden Grotto has several ghosts including ‘Jack the Jibber’, a smuggler who betrayed his colleagues to HM Customs and, as a result, was hung in a nearby cave called Smuggler’s Hole.
Many years ago the pub landlord used to put out a special tankard of ale every night for him, but sadly this ritual has died out.
Paranormal investigators claim they’ve found seven ghosts on the premises, reflecting its shady history, no doubt. I certainly wouldn’t want to stay there on my own at night.
When we visited, a wedding party was in full swing and there wasn’t a smuggler or ghostly apparition to be seen!
Back on the beach, there’s some great exploration opportunities down by the caves and main stack but beware of the tides and slippery rocks.
After only five minutes, I saw one screaming child with a gashed leg. Another was dallying in some rather dangerous-looking rock pools near the sea stack.
Gentler pastimes are recommended as an alternative – like paddling and beachcombing.
Kicking off your shoes and having a paddle is one of my partner Tony’s favourite pursuits, although I’m a little more reticent about getting my feet wet and full of sand!
As we were on the beach, several old planes flew over from the Sunderland International Air Show which was taking place down the road.
It was great to spot a World War Two Catalina flying boat airplane directly overhead… followed by a couple of Spitfires.
As we enjoyed our gentle stroll, the beach gleamed in the summer sunshine whilst the sea rippled with azure blue waves.
It was hard to imagine we were in the heart of urban Tyneside!
It’s fair to say that Marsden Bay isn’t in the same class as the wild, remote beaches of Northumberland’s coastline further up the coast.
But there’s something charming and engaging about this ‘urban’ beach which feels quite ‘private’ because of the enclosed nature of the bay.
Breathing in the sea air and enjoying nature so close to the city makes for the perfect afternoon trip.
There was just the small matter of the exhausting walk back up the 137 steps to the car park. I knew we should have taken that lift…
And next time, I’ll remember my bucket and spade. I do love making a good sand castle!
Tammy’s top tips
Marsden Bay is located midway between Whitburn and South Shields on the South Tyneside coast in the North East of England.
There’s car parking on the sea front (charges apply) next to the Marsden Grotto pub. Steps lead down to the beach or you can take the pub lift to the bottom of the cliffs.
The Marsden Grotto has a traditional pub food menu including fish and chips. It’s not posh, but the main attraction is its history and the impressive views of the sea.
Don’t forget to check tide times if you’re planning an excursion to the beach – and keep safe near the caves and sea.
Other nearby attractions include Souter Lighthouse and The Leas (National Trust). Souter was the first lighthouse in the world designed to be powered by electricity.
The Leas is a two and a half mile stretch of limestone cliffs, wave-cut foreshore and coastal grassland, which makes for a gentle cliff-top stroll.
Combine a trip to Marsden Bay with a visit to Sunderland’s National Glass Centre down the road, about 12 minutes drive away.
If you fancy a pint or a meal at a gastro-pub, drive to nearby South Shields where the newly refurbished Harbour Lights on Lawe Road has great riverside views and decent quality, well-priced food.
The guy who runs it was a BBC Mastermind finalist a couple of years ago – and he’s done a great job of creating a pub with character.
The pub is located near the historic riverside beacons in South Shields not far from the Arbeia Roman fort.
For nature lovers, I can recommends the wildlife reserve south of Souter Point lighthouse which has some great coastal views of sea birds all year-round.
Don’t forget your bucket and spade!