Exploring England by rail: Sunderland

Penshaw Monument, arguably Sunderland’s best-known landmark, resembles a Greek temple. As you stand on Penshaw Hill you might quietly wish the weather was more like Greece’s.

Even on seemingly calm summer days wind often whips between the columns of the monument, which was built in the 1840s in honour of John Lambton, the Earl of Durham and a Governor-General of Canada. If you have a head for heights you can head to the top of the National Trust-run property on weekends and bank holidays from Easter until the end of September. It’s a good spot to gain an overview of the surrounding area.

I grew up in Sunderland and currently live in the city. Friends have even suggested that was a factor in me becoming a travel writer, joking it was the only way I was going to get into Europe, given the perennial lack of success of Sunderland’s football club.

Touring Sunderland’s Stadium of Light

What do they know? The club have, in fact, won England’s league title six times, albeit most recently back in 1936. If you enjoy football, find out more about the club’s history during a tour of the 49,000-capacity Stadium of Light, whose first league game, during the 1997-98 season, saw Sunderland beat Manchester City 3-1.

From there it’s a short walk to Monkwearmouth Station Museum, a Victorian railway station with a Classical façade. As you’d expect, the museum provides insights into the history of transport but also hosts temporary exhibitions on aspects of regional heritage. In 2014, to coincide with the centenary of the beginning of World War One, propaganda posters were put on display.

The beach at Sunderland

In fine weather you could head to the coast and walk along the promenade between Roker and Seaburn. Kick off your shoes, if you don’t mind the chill of the North Sea, and scrunch golden sand under your feet while plodging along the shoreline.

To gain insights into Sunderland’s urban history head towards the East End, the site of Holy Trinity Church, which was consecrated on 5 September 1719. Inside the Baroque-style church you’ll see a statue of Robert Gray, the rector between 1819 and 1838, a man who played an active role in civic matters plus a painted font. A plaque in the foyer records the heroics of local man Jack Crawford at the naval battle between British and Dutch ships at Camperdown in 1797.

Within Sunderland Museum and Winter Garden you can learn about the history of the city and see artefacts relating to the region’s industrial heritage. The art collection includes paintings by L.S. Lowry, who spent time painting in the North-East. The domed winter garden, always a good place to warm up if it’s cold outside, houses around 2,000 plant and tree species.

When to visit Sunderland

Around a million people visited the city during the 2015 Sunderland International Airshow, held from 24 to 26 July. The RAF Red Arrows are a regular fixture at the annual event, which features aerobatics, parachute displays plus flypasts by historic and contemporary aircraft.

The Royal Air Force Red Arrows fly past Seaburn Lighthouse during Sunderland International Airshow.
The Royal Air Force Red Arrows fly past Seaburn Lighthouse during Sunderland International Airshow.

Quirky but true

The origins of Sunderland’s name are said to hark to medieval times and refer to the ‘sundered land’ across the River Wear from the Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery on its north bank. Coincidentally, in Hindi the word ‘sundar’ means beautiful. On several occasions while in India I mentioned I came from Sunderland and people muttered “ah, a beautiful place”.

The erstwhile monastic land is now the site of the University of Sunderland’s St Peter’s Campus, named after St Peter’s Church, which has 7th century origins. The first stained glass windows in the country were made for the monastery, of which the church was once a part. This explains why you’ll find the United Kingdom’s National Glass Centre in Sunderland.

It’s beer o’clock

If you like real ales and a ‘proper pub’ atmosphere head to The Kings Arms in Beach Street, Deptford, across the River Wear from Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. The long-established, laid-back pub has a wood-panelled bar and a couple of fires to sup beer by on chilly evenings. If you like football memorabilia check out the photos and illustrations on the walls, where you’ll also see an example of the wooden seating once used in Roker Park. It’s a great spot for a pre- or post-match pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord or one of the regularly changing guest beers, many of which come from breweries in Durham and Northumberland. If it wasn’t for the lack of an apostrophe in its name I’d be tempted to name this place as the perfect pub.

The Dun Cow (9 High Street West) stands opposite the Sunderland Empire theatre, so is well-located for meeting ahead of shows. The Edwardian pub underwent major restoration works in 2014 and it’s worth popping in to take a look at the intricately carved woodwork behind the bar. While you’re there you might as well sample the hand-pulled ales. There’s a decent selection, as you’d expect from a pub that’s part of the Head of Steam chain.

The Edwardian facades of the Sunderland Empire theatre and Dun Cow pub.
The Edwardian facades of the Sunderland Empire theatre and Dun Cow pub.

Where to eat in Sunderland

I enjoy the food served in the National Glass Centre’s The Glass Yard (Liberty Way; tel. +44 (0)191 5155555), a bright, modern restaurant by the north bank of the River Wear. I’ve dined here a number of times and like the fact the food is well-presented while the atmosphere remains informal. If you’re with a group the grazing platters are good option to share. Regional cuisine, such as fisherman’s pie, plus Mediterranean-influenced dishes are among the items on the menu.

If you’re in the vicinity of Herrington Country Park swing by The Stables (McClaren Way; tel. +44 (0)191 5849226) for lunch. Better still, book a table well in advance and hope you pick a fine day for a walk in the landscaped park – if not you can experience an afternoon of real ale. This is a country pub packed with bric-a-brac and atmosphere. The menu includes modern British dishes as well as tasty international bites. The chicken liver pate and mussels in Thai sauce are two standout options.

How to get to Sunderland

Grand Central runs a direct rail service between London Kings Cross and Sunderland. The journey takes approximately 3 hours 30 minutes.

The journey from Newcastle International Airport to Sunderland takes 52 minutes on the Tyne and Wear Metro. The Metro takes 27 minutes to get between Newcastle Central Station and Sunderland.

Where to stay in Sunderland

Rooms at the Travelodge Sunderland Central hotel (Low Row) place you in the centre of the city.

The Sunderland Marriott Hotel (Queens Parade), on the seafront at Seaburn, is the city’s only 4-star property. The 82-room hotel has a pool and fitness room plus an on-site restaurant and bar.

Further information

See the SeeitdoitSunderland website for further ideas on what to do and where to go in Sunderland.

Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.

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The National Glass Centre in Sunderland, England.
The National Glass Centre in Sunderland, England.

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