Local Landmark: Marsden Rock and Marsden Grotto

Standing on Marsden Beach you can’t help but feel moved by the general surroundings. The jaggedness of the cliff face against the golden sands and the strange combination of pillars which seem to rise up from the ground. It’s hard to believe that these large pillars made of magnesium limestone once formed part of the mainland. Left to face the elements after years of erosion, they are a gentle reminder of how time has changed the face of our town.

The most significant and striking of these pillars is that of Marsden Rock. A pivotal part of our history, this huge rock formation is one of the most magnificent in Britain. A large rock fall in 1911 formed the famous archway which made the rock a celebrated and photographed landmark featuring on many postcards of South Shields. Sadly, the face of the rock was dramatically changed when the archway collapsed from tidal erosion in 1996. The rock split into two separate stacks, the smallest of which was demolished a year later in the interest of public safety.

The rock itself stands 100 feet high and in the early nineteenth century was accessible to locals via a ladder constructed to the side. The soft grass on its flat top was apparently a perfect and slightly unusual location to hold a picnic and people paid for the privilege of eating there. There is also a newspaper illustration from 1903 which shows members of a combined church choir holding a service on the top. This must have been an incredible sight for the audience who lined the cliff tops.

One thing is also apparent when looking at old photographs of Marsden rock and that is the absence of sea birds which now reside on the rock and the surrounding cliff face in their thousands. The birds were a later addition to the rock with Fulmars and kittiwakes arriving in the 1920’s, followed by herring gulls during the war. It is these and other seabird colonies which make Marsden Rock one of the most important seabird breeding sites in this area.

Lying in the shadow of Marsden rock is the mysterious and well known Marsden Grotto. In 1782 this unusual site was initially home for an Allenhead miner named Jack Bates being a convenient location for his work at Marsden Quarry. He blasted out the cave with explosives making it habitable for himself and his wife and was locally known as ‘Jack the Blaster. They soon turned their home into a tea room as this novel residence attracted a number of visitors to the bay. He also constructed a flight of stairs leading down the cliff face to the Grotto known as ‘Jack the Blaster’ stairs.

Following Jacks death the Grotto was left to the elements until Peter Allen from Whitburn succeeded the tenancy in 1826, enlarging the cave and extending Jacks hospitality by turning it into a hotel named the Tam O’Shanter (later changed to the Grotto). It consisted of kitchen, bar, ballroom and 15 bedrooms. He used debris from the excavations to form a quay in front of the cliff preventing the sea from washing in. It is said that during these excavations Peter discovered the skeleton of a man with a pistol bullet in his ribs as well as three other skeletons at the base of the rock.

Peter catered for visitors to the bay but was forced to obtain a drinks licence when Excise authorities became suspicious as to why someone would live in such an isolated place unless connected in some way with smuggling.

It was Peter who constructed the ladder to the side of Marsden Rock allowing locals to climb to the top and he was also known for having a pet raven named ‘Ralphy’ who he kept in the grotto for many years.

Things were going well until John Clay, lessee of the adjoining land made a claim to him for rent in 1848. Peter refused, stating he had created the grotto from natural rock and his own exertion. An exhaustive court battle followed which resulted in Peter taking a lease on the property for 21 years. Peter died in 1850 and his widow continued to occupy the grotto for many years during which time in 1865 it was nearly destroyed when several tons of rock fell from the roof. Following her death in 1870 the property was rented by Sidney Milnes Hawkes, a barrister and journalist who made the property a resort for literary men, artists and politicians.

Following a takeover by Vaux and Son’s in 1898 they carried out an extensive modernisation programme installing the legendary electric lift to the cliff top in 1938. It has since been owned by hotel chains and restaurants including more recently the Tavistock but still remains open as a fully licenced bar and restaurant.

With its small caves the bay has a colourful history of smugglers so it is not surprising there are many stories and tales linked to the bay. People stating they have heard the moans and groans of ‘John the Jibber’ a smuggler who after betraying his fellow smugglers was tied in a basket hung halfway up the cliff from which he could not escape, a slow death awaited him. Another famous story from the 1840’s is of a young smuggler who was shot dead on the beach after a scuffle with an Excise officer. Peter Allen who witnessed the event, took the man’s tankard and nailed it to the wall of the Grotto stating ‘Let no man drink from this tankard from this day forth, lest he be cursed.’ The tankard has since disappeared.

With over 200 years of history, it’s not surprising that there are rumours of ghosts and paranormal activity but that said, this has to be one of the most interesting beaches along the coast and if you can manage the steps down to it, it is well worth a visit.

Jill Whitehead ©2012