South Tyneside Villages and Coast

Westoe, Whitburn, Cleadon, Boldon

The South Tyneside area has a number of interesting and attractive villages and a beautiful coastline. Villages include the lovely Whitburn and Cleadon villages in the countryside near the coast and the handsome village of Westoe which forms part of South Shields itself.

Westoe village
Westoe village © David Simpson

Coal mining was important in the district with notable collieries at Boldon, Westoe and Marsden. The Boldon area has a history going back to medieval times when it gave its name to the Boldon Buke, County Durham’s version of the Domesday Book instigated by the Bishops of Durham.

Westoe village © David Simpson

Westoe Village

From around 1816 as South Shields’ industrial development took on greater momentum, more prosperous members of the town began to move south into new suburbs as new terraces sprung up around Beach Road. Another popular place of retirement was the village of Westoe just to the south, which was gradually absorbed as a South Shields suburb.

Westoe Village, South Shields
Westoe Village, South Shields © David Simpson

Surprisingly, although this place has long since been swallowed up by South Shields’ growth, the oldest part of the village still remains as a leafy street with Georgian houses and handsome red brick homes of the later nineteenth century.

The Anglo-Saxon name Westoe was originally Wyvestowe meaning ‘place of the women’. The word ‘wife’ or ‘wive’ simply means woman rather than wife in the sense of a married spouse. It is tempting to think the name may have been connected with some kind of convent in Anglo-Saxon times. Anciently the land belonged to the church at Jarrow but in later times Westoe formed a manor that stretched from Monkwearmouth to Wallsend.

Westoe village
Westoe village © David Simpson

Westoe Colliery which opened in 1909 stood north of Westoe to the rear of the coastal strip of green called ‘The Bents’. The colliery, one of the last deep under sea pits of the region closed in 1993. Its site is now marked by a housing development of recent times called Westoe Crown Village. The only clues to the former presence of a mine are street-names like Sea Winnings Way (winnings refers to finding coal) and Brass Thill Way. Brass Thill was the name of a coal seam.

In North East culture, Westoe was famed as the site of ‘The Westoe Netty’ a public toilet depicted in a famous local painting of 1972 by the South Shields artist, Robert Olley.

Westoe village
Westoe village © David Simpson

The actual netty (see our Geordie Dictionary) was used by Westoe miners on their way to work. The humorous painting depicts six men standing in a row along with a younger boy, who, seemingly distracted by the artist’s presence, is peeing on one of the men’s shoes. The netty, dating from 1890 was situated within a railway embankment leading to the colliery and was saved from demolition around 1996. It was stored at a local shipyard before it was acquired by Beamish Museum and put on display in 2008.

South of Westoe is Harton, now a suburb south of South Shields but first mentioned in 1104. It derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Heortedun’ meaning ‘Hill of the stag’ and was part of the lands of Jarrow after the monastery was revived there in Norman times. Much of the area to the west towards Jarrow and beyond King George Street is called West Harton.

Over to the east of Harton we once again meet the seaside scenery of South Shields at Marsden Bay, a spot noted for its pub, its coastal formations and a history of smuggling.

Marsden Grotto
Marsden Grotto © David Simpson

Marsden Rock : Jack ‘the Blaster’

The magnesian limestone cliff formations that dominate much of the coast between Hartlepool and the River Tyne are much in evidence at Marsden. Most notable of the limestone features is Marsden Rock that was once within jumping distance of the coast but is now an isolated limestone stack providing a natural refuge for seabirds such as Kittiwakes, Cormorants and Fulmars.

Marsden Bay
Marsden Bay © David Simpson

Until 1996 the rock featured a beautiful arch that was one of the region’s most famous coastal features but sea erosion caused the arch to collapse leaving two stacks. The smaller stack was subsequently demolished for being unsafe.

Set within the coastal caves overlooking Marsden Rock is the famous Marsden Grotto Public House. Its history begins in 1782, when an Allendale lead miner, Jack Bates nicknamed ‘Jack the Blaster’ apparently came to work in the limestone quarries at Marsden and blasted a rent-free home for himself and his family out of one of the caves of Marsden Bay. Jack came to be known for his hospitality and his home developed into the Marsden Grotto Inn.

Marsden Grotto
Marsden Grotto © David Simpson

In 1826, the grotto became the home to a local man called Peter Allan who constructed around 15 rooms for himself and his family within the caves. Unfortunately in the 1840s he became embroiled in a legal battle with the Dean and Chapter of Durham who owned the land. Allan was ordered to pay costs and although a tenancy agreement was drawn up it took its toll on the occupant and he died in the year 1849. His wife continued to run the establishment.

Today the grotto still continues to operate as a substantial public house and eating place set within a cave. It can be reached by a lift from the cliff top or by the zigzagging stairs on the adjacent cliff side.

Marsden Rock near South Shields
Marsden Rock near South Shields © David Simpson

Smugglers’ Coast

Marsden Bay was once a frequent haunt for local smugglers, who apparently numbered among Jack the Blaster’s best customers and suppliers during the eighteenth century. On one occasion the smugglers were nearly caught in the act at Marsden after one of their fraternity turned informer and passed information to the South Shields excise men regarding the landing of illegal cargo at Marsden Bay.

Cavernous coast at Marsden
Cavernous coast at Marsden © David Simpson

The smugglers learned of the imminent danger of being caught and managed to warn off the vessel that was delivering illegal merchandise. It dumped its cargo further down the coast at Souter Point near Whitburn.

When the identity of the informer, known as ‘John the Jibber’, was discovered by the smugglers he was apparently hung in a bucket, inside a shaft called the Smuggler’s Hole which had been bored into a cave near the Marsden Grotto. Here poor Jibber suffered the jibes of his angry comrades who gluttonously feasted in front of his eyes and used him as a target for their refuse. It is said that on cold dark stormy nights, the Jibber’s ghostly wails can be heard above the sound of the howling winds.

Cliffs and sea stack at Marsden
Cliffs and sea stack at Marsden © David Simpson

Smuggling took place in the vicinity of Marsden well into the nineteenth century and as late as 1851 there is a record of the capture of a cargo of 8000 lb of contraband tobacco in the area with an estimated value of £4,000.

The beach at Marsden
The beach at Marsden © David Simpson

Souter Lighthouse

Less than a mile south of Marsden Bay is Lizard Point on which stands the beautiful Souter Lighthouse. Originally intended for Souter Point at Whitburn which is a mile to the south, the Lizard was considered a more suitable location but the lighthouse was given the name Souter to avoid confusion with the Lizard Lighthouse in Cornwall.

Souter lighthouse
Souter lighthouse © David Simpson

Souter, built in 1871, was the first lighthouse in the world to be purposely built to be powered by electricity and was the first to use alternating current. Decommissioned in 1988 after 117 years of service it became a National Trust visitor attraction in 1990. It had been built to warn ships of the neighbouring hazard of Whitburn Steel reefs which are just one of many hidden dangers on what is the most treacherous stretch of coastline in the British Isles. The coastal area between the Tyne and Tees has an average of nearly 44 wrecks per mile, worse than Goodwin Sands off the coast Kent where the average is 32.

Souter Lighthouse
Souter Lighthouse © David Simpson

Visitors can climb the 76 steps to the lantern at the top, which has lights capable of producing 800,000 candle power visible up to 26 miles away. There is much more to see than the lighthouse tower with various operational rooms at the base and displays about the history and landscape of the surrounding area.

View looking north from Marsden
View looking north from Marsden showing Tynemouth Priory and Castle, the piers at the mouth of the Tyne and St Mary’s Lighthouse © David Simpson

From 1877 Marsden Colliery operated close to the lighthouse and was the site of a substantial colliery village of some 7,000 people. The colliery closed in 1968 and like many mining villages in the former County of Durham it was declared Category D which meant that it no longer had a future. The whole village was demolished and its residents moved to new council houses at Whitburn village a mile to the south.

Whitburn Village
Whitburn Village © David Simpson

Whitburn Village

Whitburn, south of Souter, is a mile from the northern outskirts of Sunderland and one of the most attractive tree-lined villages in the North East. Even the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who had visited many places, described Whitburn as “uncommonly attractive”.

There is no coastal stream or ‘burn’ here although the ‘sea burn‘ at Sunderland just to the south does enter the sea at Whitburn Bay. Either way, the name Whitburn is thought to have originally meant ‘white barn’ although a more imaginative suggestion is that it was the burial place or ‘byrgen’ of a Saxon chieftain called Hwitta.

Whitburn church
Whitburn church © David Simpson

Whitburn church, dedicated to St Andrew dates to the thirteenth century, with the upper part of the tower dating to the fifteenth century. Inside is a curious tomb chest of 1689 featuring the rather plump, carved recumbent effigy of an elderly man called Michael Matthew of Cleadon dressed in clothes of the era, including a periwig.

The old part of Whitburn village around Front Street is picture postcard from most viewpoints with fine houses of the Georgian and Victorian eras. Notable houses include Whitburn House (eighteenth century); The Lodge; The Limes and Thorncliffe which once had its own observatory.

Whitburn village © David Simpson

Then we have the handsome Tudoresque Victorian brick extravaganza near the church called Red Cottage dating from 1843. It was designed by Benjamin Green whose other work includes Penshaw Monument, Grey’s Monument and Newcastle Theatre Royal.

Red Cottage, Whitburn Village
Red Cottage, Whitburn Village © David Simpson

Close to Souter Point, Whitburn’s tree-lined charms are made all the more endearing by its coastal location overlooking Souter Point. With Marsden Rocks and Souter lighthouse close by, the area is steeped in legend and history. Closer to Whitburn and overlooking the sea is Whitburn windmill complete with its sails. It was built of stone in 1796 after a previous mill was destroyed in a storm.

Whitburn Windmill
Whitburn Windmill © David Simpson

In Elizabethan times 2 galleons of the Spanish Armada were supposedly swept ashore at Whitburn and the locals are said to have made good use of recovered timber and other items. Today the sands of Whitburn Bay are more familiar to the bucket and spade brigade than they are to bounty hunters as they form the beach at Seaburn in Sunderland and continue south to Roker Pier at the mouth of the Wear.

Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was a frequent visitor to Whitburn. He visited, amongst other places, Whitburn Hall, the Hedworth Williamson family (who were also associated with Monkwearmouth) and it is known that Lady Hedworth Williamson was the second cousin of Alice Liddell to whom Lewis Carroll dedicated the eponymous Alice in Wonderland.

The leafy village of Whitburn © David Simpson

The Liddells were an influential family with strong links to the North East. Their principal seat was Ravensworth Castle in the Team Valley near Gateshead but it seems Lewis Carroll first met Alice Liddell at Oxford where she was the daughter of the Dean of Christchurch. Whitburn Hall was a hotchpotch of architectural styles but part dated back to the 1600s. Sadly, it suffered from fires and was demolished in 1980.

There was another house at Whitburn where Carroll had a much stronger connection and at which he regularly stayed. It was called Highcroft but has also sadly gone. Highcroft was the home to Margaret Wilcox, Lewis Carroll’s cousin who was the wife of the customs collector of Sunderland. It was here that the family spent evenings composing verses and Carroll contributed Jabberwocky, that famous piece of Anglo-Saxon stanza about the slaying of a dragon-like worm or wyvern that featured in Alice through the Looking Glass.

Whitburn Village
Whitburn Village © David Simpson

The Wearside legend of the Lambton Worm is believed to have contributed to the idea for the Jabberwocky poem. Certainly the poem’s verse featuring a father excitedly greeting a son following the slaying of the beast followed by a repetition of the peculiarly mysterious first verse suggests something sinister will follow. This has echoes of the Lambton Worm legend.

According to Lewis Carroll’s nephew, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, the verses of the Jabberwocky were seemingly created at Whitburn in 1855 except for the first (and identical last verse) which was written at the Rectory of Croft on Tees, near Darlington where Lewis Carroll grew up.

Whitburn Village
Whitburn Village © David Simpson

New bishops of Durham traditionally entered their diocese for the first time at Croft Bridge. There, on a bridge across the Tees, overlooked by the Croft rectory, Bishops of Durham were presented with the sword that was allegedly used in the slaying a dragon called the Sockburn Worm, which was undoubtedly a legend Lewis Carroll was familiar with in his childhood. You can read about Croft, the Sockburn Worm and Jabberwocky here and about Wearside’s Lambton Worm here.

Whitburn © David Simpson

Whitburn and the nearby Whitburn Sands are the places where Lewis Carroll is thought to have written the eighteen verse poem called The Walrus and the Carpenter, published, like The Jabberwocky in Alice Through the Looking Glass in 1872.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little oysters stood
And waited in a row.
“The time has come”; the walrus said
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax
Of cabbages and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings”.

The Sunderland and Shields area would seem a likely setting for the poem, as in Carroll’s time Sunderland was a great shipbuilding port employing many carpenters. Boiling hot sea could be a reference to the steam-boat colliers in the area and a stuffed walrus in Sunderland museum is said to have provided further inspiration, though the date for the appearance of the walrus at the museum makes this unlikely.

Today a sculpture of a walrus can be seen outside Sunderland’s museum and winter gardens in Mowbray Park commemorating the Carroll connection.

Whitburn Village Green
Whitburn Village Green © David Simpson

A more likely candidate could be a walrus thought to have been kept at Southwick where Lewis Carroll had another family connection. Further references in the poem to “seven maids with mops” cleaning up the beach could certainly describe the changing beach conditions. Intriguingly, the poem was published the year after Souter Lighthouse opened and the bright, intrusive, night time presence of the lighthouse could well have inspired the following verse:

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun,
Had got no business to be there,
After the day was done
“It’s very rude of him” she said.
“To come and spoil the fun!”

Cleadon : What the Dickens?

Cleadon, a mile inland from Whitburn rivals its neighbours in its picturesque appearance. Recorded in the Boldon Book of 1183 as ‘Clyvedon’, the name is Anglo-Saxon and means hill (don) of the steep slopes. It is not certain but the name is thought to refer to the nearby Cleadon Hills rather than the cliffs of the Whitburn coast.

Cleadon village
Cleadon village © David Simpson

The church, All Saints, at Cleadon is not medieval like St Andrew’s church at Whitburn and only dates to 1869, but as at Whitburn there are plenty of notable houses in this pretty village. In Front Street, the five-bay Cleadon House of 1738 is quite notable. Charles Dickens was a friend of the knowledgeable George Cooper Abbs who lived here in Victorian times.

Cleadon Village
Cleadon Village © David Simpson

During his stay, Dickens was no doubt told the story of an earlier Abbs family member, a male, who organised a pre-wedding party to be held in the dining room of this house only to be jilted by his future bride on the day of the party.

Cleadon House of 1738
Cleadon House of 1738 © David Simpson

The would-be groom ordered everything in the room to be kept exactly as it was from that day on. The state of the room became something of a local curiosity and later the windows were painted black to stop people gawping. If the story is true it could well have provided Dickens inspiration for Miss Haversham in Great Expectations. Abbs was, incidentally, also a friend of Lewis Carroll.

Cleadon Tower
Cleadon Tower © David Simpson

Along the street from Cleadon House, another house of note is Cleadon Tower, first mentioned in 1587 but dating back to around 1490 and historically associated with a family called Chambers. The building once incorporated a defensive pele tower similar to those often found in Northumberland but the tower was removed around 1790.

When a new window was fitted into the outer wall of the house in the 1970s, the skeleton of a cat was found imbedded into the wall, probably reflecting a superstitious Tudor tradition that burying a live cat in the masonry of a new building could ward off witches.

Shops, Cleadon Village
Shops, Cleadon Village © David Simpson

The scenery to the north of Cleadon towards South Shields is dominated by the Cleadon Hills and the two hilltop landmarks of Cleadon Windmill (which dates from around 1820) and the water tower at Cleadon Park on the outskirts of South Shields.

Cleadon Windmill and Water Tower
Cleadon Windmill and Water Tower © David Simpson

Unlike the windmill at Whitburn, Cleadon Mill no longer has its sails. The water tower dates from the 1860s and is really the chimney of a former Sunderland and Shields Water Company pumping station.

The Seal of Bishop Pudsey
Seal of Bishop Hugh Pudsey (Du Puiset), the instigator of the Boldon Buke

Boldons and Brockley Whins

Boldon is a name very familiar to historians in the North East as it gave its name to the Boldon Book (or Boldon Buke) that was an important record and survey of the manors of the Bishop of Durham undertaken in 1183.

East Boldon
East Boldon © David Simpson

The Domesday Book of 1086 did not cover Northumberland and Durham so the Boldon Book, a land survey instigated by Bishop Pudsey, is often regarded as Durham’s ‘Domesday’. The survey also covered certain parts of Northumberland that once lay within the territory of Durham’s Prince Bishops.

West Boldon © David Simpson

Boldon is not the first place mentioned in the Boldon Book as that honour goes to Durham itself but it is is mentioned early in the survey with substantial details that are frequently referred to throughout the book in relation to paid dues where they are listed “as at Boldon”.

East Boldon
East Boldon © David Simpson

The Anglo-Saxon name Boldon means ’rounded hill’. During the English Civil War the Boldon Hills were the site of a skirmish called the Battle of Boldon Hills fought on March 8th 1644 between the Royalist forces of the Marquis of Newcastle and Scots Covenanters who had established a garrison at Sunderland some four days before.

Boldon Hills viewed from West Boldon
Boldon Hills viewed from West Boldon, the Sunderland suburbs of Downhill and Town End Farm are just over the other side of the hill © David Simpson

On March 19th that year the Royalist garrison at South Shields was captured by the Scots and a few days later, on March 24th, a second minor skirmish occurred, this time at Hylton near Sunderland. Later, from August to October in 1644, the Sunderland-based Scots were involved in the siege of Newcastle which eventually resulted in the surrender of that town.

West Boldon
West Boldon © David Simpson

Today Boldon consists of three places : East Boldon, West Boldon and Boldon Colliery. There are a handful of buildings from the eighteenth century at the first two places, notably Boldon House and Boldon Lodge at East Boldon.

Boldon House, East Boldon
Boldon House, East Boldon © David Simpson

East and West Boldon villages have now merged together but were separted by open land for most of their history. East Boldon began as a planned medieval settlement and was originally called Newton : ‘the new farm or village’. In later years the two villages became popular places of residence for wealthy merchants from Sunderland and South Shields.

East Boldon
East Boldon © David Simpson

Number 94 Front Street in East Boldon was the home to Sir William Mills (1856-1932) the Sunderland-born (Southwick) inventor of the Mills Bomb, the first modern grenade, actively used in the First World War. It was the first grenade that wasn’t just as deadly to the thrower as it was to the intended target.

Bank House, West Boldon
Bank House, West Boldon © David Simpson

At West Boldon we find West Boldon Hall (1709); Bank House and Downhill House. West Boldon is home to another of South Tyneside’s windmills, Boldon Mill. It stands on the approximate site of the Civil War skirmish.

The spire of St Nicholas church, St Nicholas Road, West Boldo
The spire of St Nicholas church can just be seen above the houses in St Nicholas Road, West Boldon © David Simpson

The church of St Nicholas at West Boldon dates from the early to mid thirteenth century, and is much older than the parish church of East Boldon (St. George) which only dates to 1903.

West Boldon
West Boldon © David Simpson

The village of Boldon Colliery was the site of a coal mine that operated from 1869 to 1982. To the north of Boldon Colliery we are back into the outskirts of Tyneside at Brockley Whins, a place named from a whin dyke, a kind of volcanic intrusion that forms an undulating course of solid rock hereabouts.

Close by is Biddick Hall (not to be confused with Biddick Hall near Penshaw and Washington). The actual hall may have taken its name from the neighbouring dyke as the name Biddick perhaps means ‘By Dyke’. The hall was built on the site where Biddick Hall housing estate now stands.

North of here is West Harton and Simonside the latter probably named from an Anglo-Saxon called Sigemund. Simonside or at least part of it was also apparently once called South Preston – ‘the priest’s place’. It was probably called South Preston to distinguish it from another Preston across the river at North Shields.

To the west of Boldon is much open land drained by the River Don, which here is nothing more than a tiny stream. In truth even upon reaching the Tyne at Jarrow it is still a small rivulet though its tidal nature there earns it the status of river.

Don is an old name for the river that seems to have been revived in the late nineteenth century as before that time it had been known as the Hedworth Burn. It was named from the place called Hedworth near Jarrow. The Hedworth family were likewise named from the place and in 1381 they lived in a house in the fields to the east of Boldon on which the present Scots House of 1798 now stands.

Boldon miners' banner at the Durham Miners' Gala
Boldon miners’ banner at the Durham Miners’ Gala © David Simpson

South Shields | Roman-Saxon Shields 

 South Shields and the Sea 

Bede’s Jarrow | Jarrow and Tyne Dock | Hebburn

Sunderland Monkwearmouth 

 Roker, Fulwell, Seaburn, Southwick, Hylton


North East England History and Culture