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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Algarve - not quite

Marsden Bay, the Leas, Tyne and Wear

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.

Souter Lighthouse, clifftops, Leas

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.

Cormorants, Marsden Bay, Tyne and Wear

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.

Marsden Grotto, Tyne and Wear

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.

Lifeguard hut, Marsden Bay, Tyne and Wear

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.

Lot's Wife, Marsden Bay, limestone stack, Tyne and Wear

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.

Kittiwakes, Marsden Bay, Tyne and Wear


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.


Marsden Bay, Marsden Rock


Marsden Bay, romance

31 comments:

  1. I've been in Marsden Grotto and actually it's fascinating inside. It used to be a great restaurant! The problem is that the very tall tower is a lift shaft - the only easy way to reach the beach and most favoured by diners and staff. It was declared unsafe a few years ago and will cost too much to repair to make it worthwhile as a business. I think it's a shame. Nice photos. Good birdy ones.

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  2. What a fabulous post Mike - and a place probably only few know about or have visited. Love the birds and your description of them as squabbling avian Eastenders!!!

    A shame the manmade bits are so ugly - is that an elevator going down to the grotty looking pub? When I think of all the quaint British pubs to stop at for refreshment, I have to admit this one would be at the very bottom of my list! Wonder if they do a good Stilton Ploughman's though.

    Where are you going next? You do find the best/interesting places to visit.
    Mary -

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    1. Thanks to your previous commenter - I see now that it is a lift shaft!
      Mary -

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  3. You have captured the beauty of a lesser known part of our rich coastline. Fabulous photos.

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  4. I lived in Northumberland for several years and am ashamed that I never made it to Marsden Bay, looks as if it was a big mistake on my part. I always assumed that the coast around that corner was covered in bits of coal and rather bleak. The bird colony is wonderful, but to my eyes it would be greatly improved if the buildings were removed or had a makeover.

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  5. The coast is stunning but I don't think the pub will tempt me up there, particularly if it's closed!

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  6. What a great coast and those photos are wonderful.

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  7. Only 9 pictures? Looked good for many more. Okay...you were lazy, huh? Or just angry the pub was closed.

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  8. Manmade blights aside, I really like the look of the area! Wild and beautiful.

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  9. Howay man, we were up in those parts yesterday morning and didn't even know this seaside scenery was so close - we'll definitely explore it next time we go.

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  10. Those are amazing cliffs. I had to use Google Earth to see where this spot was. It went right to the Grotto. Thanks for the tour.

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  11. Very interesting to see this spot not in the tourist books.

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  12. Marsden Bay is an interesting place; the cliffs and Lot's Wife look beautiful. The pub is indeed a bit of a mess architecture-wise and probably should go. But what is that tall, man-made tower? Can't figure if it is a lighthouse, or a quick means of getting down to the pub.

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  13. Just looks like the limestone pinnacles on the Great Ocean Road on Bass Strait in
    Australia- called the Twelve Apostles.
    Here:
    http://www.visitvictoria.com/Regions/Great-Ocean-Road/Things-to-do/Nature-and-wildlife/Beaches-and-coastlines/12-Apostles
    However I think only recently one of the Apostles gave way to the elements - God only knows how long they have been in this area of Australia. And yes swimming in this area in Australia is not advisable unless
    you like Great White Sharks!!!!
    Very picturesque area of your country.
    Cheers
    Colin

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  14. Fantastic photos and such a brilliant sense of humour! Thanks for highlighting this area of the coast.

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  15. It reminds me of places along the South coast. Hopefully we will get e serious winter storm and it will wash the crap off the cliffs including the lift which looks horrendous. What idiot thought that up. Up till you got to the buildings the place looked idyllic now I know what to avoid. Great blog this week

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  16. It might not be the Algarve, but it looks beautiful and very interesting too! xx

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  17. With nature as her sculpture and the gulls, this is a lovely place all by itself! Have a grand day!

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  18. What wonderful photos, it does look alright indeed, thank you I like seeing photos of places I doubt I ever will get to see in person

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  19. I'll stick with those first three beautiful photos. I'd love to visit those cliffs. In the several times I've been to your country, I've never visited the coast. How is that possible! At least the hedonists of Newcastle (not lumping all Newcastle residents together, of course) have a wonderful Geordie accent, certainly a somewhat redeeming factor.

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  20. Your blog should be the official guide to visit Britain!

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  21. I really enjoyed reading this... I mean REALLY! and lovely pics too!

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  22. I so love the sea too, no matter what the weather. Not just the sea but all the area around it as well. In most cases there are so many treasures be it nature or man-made, that are just waiting to be discovered! This was such a fun visit, as they always are!

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  23. Beautiful photos. I particularly like the last one :)

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  24. I've not heard of Marsden Bay before but it looks like somewhere I'd like to visit!

    In response to your comment, Himalayan Balsam is a highly invasive, non native and environmentally damaging plant that takes some getting rid of! Every year, there are 'balsam pulling' (sometimes called balsam bashing) events usually organised by nature and conservation groups. Here are a couple of links where you see it / read about it...

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impatiens_glandulifera

    http://www.plantlife.org.uk/wild_plants/plant_species/indian_himalayan_balsam

    I will have to add the links to the blog as a couple of people have asked about it!

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  25. Excellent post telling exactly how it is. One thing that came to my mind as I was the page was loading the Marsden Bay image was answered in the first two words "The Wind" haha.
    The Grotto used to be a good place to eat decades ago but sadly it has gone down hill over a period of time.

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  26. Wow what a place, never heard of it and will never get to see it in person so I thank you for showing it to us

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  27. I've actually seen the 'real' pillar of Lot's wife, with it only being about two hours from where I live. As nice as Marsden Bay looks, I can't help thinking the Dead Sea overlooking Palestine has a rather more likely aspect: picture (http://mymorningboost.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Lots-Wife-Overlooking-the-Sea-600x400-1080.jpg).

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.