Artworks, sandy beaches and towers of all types line this varied coastal route in a rejuvenated corner of north-east England.
In a region renowned for rivalry South Shields has split loyalties. Ten miles to the west up the Tyne lies Newcastle and a similar distance to the south on the coast sits Sunderland. I grew to love Newcastle from working there but always had a blind spot towards its rival city partly because of the derogatory remarks my colleagues said about it. How wrong they were on the evidence of this ride along the Two Rivers Cycleway, the best I’ve done this year. In fact, the southern end turned out to be my favourite.
The coastline is a case study in regeneration and, I suspect, has never looked more spick and span. I started my ride at a spindly red lighthouse at South Shields which marks the mouth of the Tyne. Here work is underway to rebuild the sea defences and, in the process, create a new beach area and promenade.
Much of the route is off-road including the first few miles. To start with, however, the cycle path just runs alongside the main road with a grassy sward separating the cyclist from the cliffs. All a bit frustrating. I diverted briefly to have a look at the Souter lighthouse. Opened in 1871 and now owned by the National Trust, it’s located on a headland that was the site of the Marsden coal mining village and, as such, was the first lighthouse to use electric light power by a coal-fired generator. This stretch of coastline was once the most dangerous in the UK with an average of 44 shipwrecks per mile. They’re very proud of the lighthouse around here: it figures on the logo of both the primary school and dental practice.
Sunderland City Council is spending over £5m improving the city’s seafront with more than half of this sum dedicated to Seaburn where new granite steps on the promenade and seating have been completed. The existing shelter is to be redeveloped into a bar, café and restaurant complex. A little further south, Roker beach is also undergoing improvement and restoration. I couldn’t resist a pedal past all the fishermen along the long curve of the pier to the lighthouse both of which are included in the works.
Around the corner the sea became the River Wear and I suddenly entered another world. The contrast in surroundings would have been all the more dramatic a few decades ago. I had swapped golden sands for a pair of dockside cranes. The packed marina in the sunshine soon brightened things up, though, looking as if it had been transplanted from the south of France.
At the site of the former canoe club trees are protected by fences made of paddles and steel rope while a door frame sculpture has two further paddles leaning up against it. Nice touches and a hint of the quirky street art that punctuates the rest of the ride. The Wear’s industrial past is evinced by giant concrete nuts and bolts and other shipbuiding materials lying on the riverside. I also passed a steel sculpture of the metamorphosis of a shipyard crane into a tree entitled Shadows in Another Light. An inscription below read dramatically: “Follow the footsteps to see what these people saw and then pass from shadow into light.” Another artwork was a ruined house in which all the furniture and fittings as well as the coat hanging on the back of the door are made from recycled stone. Nearby a similar creation depicts a telescope, two maps, a book, Gladstone bag and wicker basket also made from stone.
This stretch of the river was once flanked by 10 shipyards as pinpointed on a sign outside the new Sir Tom Cowie Campus, part of the University of Sunderland and one of the new buildings on the riverside. The freshness and peacefulness of the National Glass Centre next door seemed so far away from the grime and noise of this landscape’s previous usage. Sad that I didn’t have time to make it all the way to another of the city’s newer structures, the Stadium of Light football ground, I turned back at the Wearmouth bridge (which looks a bit like the Tyne Bridge, dare I say?) and returned the way I came with a couple of variations on the theme.
One of them was a map reading error at Roker which happily diverted me through Whitburn, a pretty village set around a green with pond and colourful flower beds which otherwise I’d have missed. Afterwards I passed two fields with grazing horses and a windmill in a wildflower meadow. It felt like I was in the middle of Olde England rather than a mile or two from one of the north’s great industrial cities. Thinking back it had been an afternoon of towers of all sorts. As well as the windmill I’d passed shipbuilding cranes, a mast on the North Pier, three lighthouses, and a stone memorial cross in memory of St Bede.
Sunderland had certainly made an impression but, before I set off home, it seemed rude not to give South Shields some attention as well especially as there was an appealing cycle route ringing the town and leading down to the Tyne. I had a look at the Customs House – built in the 1860s and today a theatre, cinema and art gallery – and arrived at the ferry terminal just as the service to North Shields was departing. Beside me the Spirit of South Shields sculpture (this had been a very arty ride) harboured a ship safely in one arm while raising the other in greeting.
I’d seen why Sunderland must make a fine finale to the Sea to Sea cycle route. The dunes at Littlehaven beach, with an ice cream in my hand, were the perfect ending to my little outing.
Distance: 20 miles
Time: 2 hours.
Park at the Littlehaven Beach car park (charge). Proceed south along Sea Road then, at junction next to yachting lake, turn left onto off-road cycle path along the promenade. This soon bears right to become National Cycle Network Route 1 which runs alongside the A183 past Souter lighthouse. After Whitburn windmill turn left at the dental practice, bear right and at crossroads, turn left to pass the new academy. Bear right past garages then push through width restriction on the left and onto the coastal path. Rejoin the cycle path running alongside the southbound A183.
At Roker beach, just before The Bungalow Café, drop down towards Roker Amusements then turn sharp right to the lower promenade to pass the Smugglers pub. Go around Sunderland Yacht Club then continue towards Marine Activity Centre. At a BP petrol station turn left to stay on signed NCN Route 1 and proceed past the National Glass Centre to the Wearmouth bridge. Return the same way (staying on the A183 if you want to visit Whitburn village).
As you approach South Shields keep to the cycle path beside the A183 to the roundabout with Bents Park Rd. Keep ahead at roundabout but using the cycle path along the edge of the park. Where the path ends turn right then immediately left up Sea Way. Keep ahead on Maudline Row (traffic-free). At the end cross over main road and continue ahead down the Two Rivers Cycleway signed to the pedestrian ferry. Pass to the rear of Wicks then, at Asda, turn right (still on cycle path) up to roundabout. (Turn left here for Customs House). Keep ahead (and on road) at roundabout up Ferry Rd. After the Alum Ale House turn left down Coble Landing. Follow riverside path over a wharf and ahead onto an estate road. At t-junction turn left down Long Row which becomes Wapping St. Turn left on B1344 back to Littlehaven.
Water’s Edge bar, restaurant and function room, Marsden. 0191 427 5504. Also see Marsden Grotto, below.
National Trust tea room at Souter lighthouse, Marsden. See below.
The Village Café, Front St, Whitburn. 0191-529 2603. whitburncaterers.co.uk.
Toney Minchella ice cream and refreshments, Whitburn. 0191 456 6125.
The Bungalow Café, Roker. 0191 519 6660.
The Smugglers bar, Marine Walk, Roker. 0191 514 3844 and the-smugglers.com.
MarinaVista Ristorante, Sunderland marina. 0191 510 0600 and marina-vista.co.uk.
Brasserie at the National Glass Centre (see below).
Available every day from Sports Recycler, a South Tyneside Council social enterprise operating from the foreshore office of the amphitheatre (which also houses the Tourist Information Centre) on the South Shields seafront. Only adult bikes available. From late July-early Sept ring 0191 455 6313 and at other times 0191 427 4615.