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Marsden Bay lies on the South Tyneside coast between South Shields and Whitburn and it is dominated by one of the most magnificent rock formations in Britain. The most striking features of the bay are several magnesian limestone pillars formed due to erosion of the surrounding cliff by the sea. The largest pillar is known as Marsden Rock and stands over one-hundred feet high and was pierced by a natural arch; the pillar on one side of the arch was about one-hundred feet wide and the other pillar about two-hundred feet wide at its base; the Rock is flat topped and at one time had a ladder fixed to its side to allow locals to reach the top, in the past a choir and a brass band have both performed concerts from the summit and many older locals have stories to tell of picnics held at the top of the rock in their youth. At low tide the Rock lies about twelve-yards from the shore and the water around it is only about three feet deep so it is possible to wade out to the Rock. Marsden Rock is renowned for its sea bird colonies especially kittiwakes, cormorants and fulmars and in the 1960s the ladder was removed from the rock to help preserve it as a bird colony. In 1996 the face of the Rock was altered forever when the famous arch collapsed and the narrowest of the pillars had to be demolished for safety reasons but this has not detracted from the breathtaking beauty of the sheltered wide sweeping bay. Marsden Bay has a long and colourful history, because of its position at the foot of the large cliffs, which form a semi-circle around the beach with many small caves it was a popular landing site for smugglers; in 1792 a local named ‘Jack the Blaster’ and his wife took up residence in a natural cave in the cliff known as ‘The Grotto’. Using explosives Jack enlarged the cave and cut a staircase into the cliff face. From The Grotto Jack offered refreshments to local smugglers and later to the increasing number of visitors to t
he Bay, on Jack’s death The Grotto stood empty for many years. In 1874 Sidney Milnes Hawkes acquired the premises, he was a supporter of Italian unification and used The Grotto as a meeting place for his political associates and in 1882 The Grotto was taken over by Peter Allen who turned the premises into a hotel and extended it further by excavating a ballroom The Grotto was acquired in 1898 by Vaux breweries and turned into a public house; a lift was added to enable easier access from The Lees at the top of the cliff down to the Bay. The Grotto closed its doors in 2000 because it needed to undergo major restoration work making the cliff staircase the only way down to the Bay; it is to reopen over the Easter weekend under new management and totally refurbished. I have many happy memories of Marsden Bay from my own childhood and days out with my children when they were small, there are over three hundred and fifty uneven steps down the cliff face to the Bay but walking down the steps was part of the excitement, it was never much fun taking the lift but for those who do use the lift there is a small charge, which is refundable against refreshments in The Grotto. Marsden Bay has rock formations at the base of the cliff leading to a very sandy clean beach; the cliffs give shelter from the wind and create a suntrap. There are many small caves to explore with fine examples of stalagmites and stalactites and some of the caves echo and have a very eerie feel. There are numerous small rock pools full of sea creatures such as small crabs and starfish that have been stranded when the tide goes out. There are public toilets at the top of the cliff on the Lees and at The Grotto. To get to Marsden Bay follow the Coast Road from South Shields past Gypsy Green Stadium and along the Lees, just before you reach Souter Lighthouse you will find The Grotto car park, the road runs parallel with the Two Rivers cycle route. If you have
an interest in natural history, ornithology or just want a great family day out away from fun fares and one-arm bandits then Marsden Bay is an excellent choice, it truly is an area of outstanding natural beauty. If you do happen to venture down onto Marsden Bay you might just hear the moans and groans of The Grotto ghost John the Jibber. John was a well known local smuggler and legend has it that in the late 1790’s he betrayed his fellow smugglers to the customs men; his fellow smugglers found out about his betrayal of them and evaded capture, in revenge for this betrayal the smugglers kidnapped John and sentenced him to hang in a bucket halfway up the cliff. He could not escape from the bucket and he could topple out at any time, the birds swooped down at him and pecked him and the rope holding the bucket, it was a slow and terrifying death and his groans can still be heard on a dark and windy night (or are they just the noises from the bird colony on Marsden Rock, go along and listen and you decide).