The wind whips words away, yet the incessant cries of thousands of seabirds are all around Marsden Bay. To the best of my knowledge, England’s north east coast between South Shields and Sunderland features in very few guide books to Britain, whose writers seem to skip from the 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 50 – 100’ (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 warm colour in the sunlight, these cliffs do remind me a little 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 way.
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. I’d be wary of letting my dog off the lead round here, though, and even more reluctant to try kite-flying, sandwiched as it were between the twin perils of the A183 and the sea.
I wondered, as I leant into the buffeting wind, whether the shrieking of gulls masked the wails of Marsden’s most famous resident ghost. John the Jibber reputedly shopped his smuggling mates to the revenue men and, when found out, was left in a barrel suspended from the roof of a cave, where he slowly starved to death. The cave, by many accounts, is in Marsden Grotto, which describes itself as “the only cave bar in Europe”. It has, allegedly, been a pub of sorts since the 18th century and is meant to be fascinating inside. Inevitably, it being a fine summer’s afternoon (ripe for trade as it were), it was closed when I visited. Having said that, it looked particularly unappealing from the outside. 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.
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 ne’er-do-wells. What a shame.
These two man-made blights on an otherwise stunning location do not seem to bother the seabirds, who flock and nest in their thousands: mainly kittiwakes, fulmars and cormorants (apparently – I can barely distinguish a sparrow from an eagle). The birds are amazing to watch, but the cacophony of shrieks and screeches is only marginally less overpowering than their pungent smell. I guess they might voice similar observations of us in comparable circumstances; perhaps this is seabird version of overcrowded housing. They squabble a lot too - it's like avian EastEnders. 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. 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 wasn’t thinking of South Shields or Sunderland at the time? Perhaps it’s a comment on the hedonists of Newcastle upon Tyne, a little farther to the north-west.
There’s a low railing on the cliff top, a point beyond which it is unsafe to tread. I noticed a couple of bunches of sorry-looking decaying flowers tied to this in different places, and in one instance something very like a home-made shrine. The really sad – in fact, tragic - bit about Marsden Bay and its surroundings is not the grotty buildings disfiguring a naturally beautiful part of Britain’s coast, but 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.