The big idea

Well, the big idea here is that there are two big ideas: the importance of the coast; and the pursuit of fitness and activity. Sunderland sprang to prominence thanks to its location on the north-east coast – it built its fortunes on shipbuilding – and is now the national home of glass-making thanks to the abundance of sand. But what may surprise some people is that Sunderland is the home of adrenaline seekers wanting their next fix – for this is the place to be for hardcore swimming, diving, water sports, long-distance cycling, skiing and climbing.

But to leave it there is to do the place an injustice as it has played a significant role in history on two counts: it was the home of the Venerable Bede, one of the greatest scholars of all time, whose writings in the Middle Ages were the most celebrated across the whole of Europe; and it is the ancestral seat of George Washington, first president of the USA.

Coastal wonders

As with any other coastal city located on the estuary of a river, Sunderland’s lifeblood and fortune has relied heavily on the sea. From its beginnings as a fishing village and its growth as a coal port, Sunderland eventually developed into the world’s largest shipbuilding town and at one point employed over 4,000 people in shipbuilding and related industries. But what sets Sunderland apart from its coastal contemporaries is its use of another coastal product: sand (Sunderland boasts one of the UK’s longest stretches of sand). Glass-making has long been a tradition here – the art of glass-making was introduced to the UK at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow – and the city is now well known for its glass manufacture. In fact, it’s home to the National Glass Centre (part of the University of Sunderland), a unique building, and experience, dedicated to exploring glass and encouraging creativity in others. This heritage can also be seen throughout the city, from the magnificent glass sculptures at the award-winning Sunniside gardens to fragments of the oldest stained-glass window in the country at St Peter’s Church.

Adrenaline rush

If you really want to feel alive and perhaps get hooked on the rush like all the other adrenaline junkies, then this is the place for you. Forget TV, consoles and gadgets, you’ll never have the time or inclination. If you want to start off gently, get some walking in on the popular Bede’s Way Walk or on the spectacular coastal paths with some stunning views. Want to amp it up a bit? Check out the Sunderland Wall, Europe’s premier indoor climbing centre, or Silksworth Sports Complex and Ski Slope, where you can ski, snowboard, skate, fish, play sports and even dabble in some athletics. If you love cycling, try the coast to coast cycle trail, the UK’s most popular long-distance cycle route, which goes from Cumbria to Sunderland and ends when you dip your wheels in the sea at Roker. For full-on water sports get down to Adventure Sunderland, a £1 million marina complex, diving academy and water sports centre. If swimming is more your thing, visit the Aquatic Centre, which boasts the only Olympic-sized swimming pool in the North East.

Finally, if you’re more of a spectator than a do-er, there’s always the huge Stadium of Light, where you can watch other people do all the hard work.

The essence


Who’s it ideal for/how it can make you feel

This place will make you feel alive, invigorated, and exhilarated, so it’s perfect for those with a zest for doing things: get the family together – or a group of friends – and give everything a go. You’re guaranteed a good time and it’s a great way of getting some exercise.


Sunderland’s history is generally thought to have begun in 647 AD when Benedict Biscop was granted the land by the then king and used it to build a monastery (visit St Peter’s Church to see what remains of the monastery today) – and it was at this monastery a few years later that the Venerable Bede became a monk (the monastery was a distinguished centre of learning at the time). At this time the area was known as Monkwearmouth; it wasn’t until later in this period, when the land was separated from the monasteries, that the town became known as Sunderland, as it was ‘torn asunder’.

Interestingly, Sunderland is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, but in a short space it rocketed; a small fishing village by 1100; by 1154 it was granted a town charter, with the right to hold a weekly market; and in 1186 it became a borough. By the 1300s, Sunderland’s reliance on its coastal location was growing, as shipbuilding began in the area (by a chap named Thomas Melville), and salt production started. By the 1500s, Sunderland was a coal port – initially an offshoot of the salt-making industry, and was much better known for this than shipbuilding until much later. Thanks to its success as a coal port Sunderland became one of the wealthiest towns in England in the 1500s, something which continued over the next few hundred years.

During the civil war of the 1640’s the city’s republican stance was clear. Sunderland stood defiantly against the Royalists- similarly to the 1630’s when they’d rebuffed the Bishop of Durham’s attempts at controlling them.
By the late 1600s glass-making was becoming a major industry in the town- especially useful as it used up some of the vast quantities of sand ballast created in the port- and in the 1700s Sunderland boomed even more when ship building (and rope-making) took off at a rate of knots, so much so that by the 1800s the place was the world’s largest ship-building town.

With Sunderland’s wealth in the Victorian era came new docks, new housing and public buildings and fantastic public parks such as Roker and Mowbray.

However, Sunderland’s fortunes changed during the depression of the 1930s, when a third of all men were unemployed. It appeared for a long time that the town may never recover from this period, particularly when in the late 1980s ship building and coal mining all but stopped production. The arrival of Nissan, however, in 1986 helped turn Sunderland’s fortunes around again, it became the UK’s largest car plant and the most productive plant in Europe. With the plant came plenty of jobs and further businesses were attracted to the area. By 1992, Sunderland had been granted city status; and in 2011, Wearmouth, and its twin site at Jarrow, passed the first assessment stage on the way to becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

How to experience what’s different/get under the skin of the city

Heading into the city from the A1(M), along the A1231, stop off at the pretty village of Washington, and look for Washington Old Hall. Dubbed one of the UK’s ‘great little houses’ this 17th century Jacobean manor house still has remnants of the original 12th century building that was home to the direct ancestors of George Washington, first President of the United States.

Heading towards the city from here, also look out for Hylton Castle. The second oldest building in the city, this distinctive gatehouse is now all that’s left of the tower house built by Sir William Hylton, of a powerful local family, in the 1400’s. Now an abundance of wildlife resides in the area, but this would once have been at the centre of a huge manorial estate.
You should now see the River Wear on the approach road (if you headed over the Queen Alexandra bridge you’d be a short right turn away from the Sunderland Wall, with 900 square metres of climbing wall, and the tallest competition wall in the country). In front of you are the magnificent Stadium of Light- unveiled in 1997 and one of the finer stadia in Europe- and next door, the Sunderland Aquatic Centre, with some of the best swimming and diving facilities in the North-East.

From here, head along Millenium Way, onto the Roker Avenue, and cut down Church Street. Here at the end is where it pretty much all began - the church of St Peters, one half of the twin-monastery UNESCO World Heritage Site bid. This is one of the first stone-built churches in the country and at one time was one of the most influential institutions in the world. Today on display are fragments of the oldest stained glass in the country dating back to the 7th century.

Apt really as next door is the new National Glass Centre. And with exhibition areas, production facilities, artist’s studios and a panorama over the River Wear this is a place to really experience the art of glass-making, not just look at it.

OK, that’s the US President, the greatest scholar in Europe and the Glass Centre done. Maybe now for a bit of embracing outdoors recreation? Head from here around the coast towards Roker and Seaburn beaches; a wonderful seaside playground with golden sands. Roker is nearer to the city and includes Sunderland Marina and the Yacht Club, Adventure Sunderland - the new watersports centre - and the dramatic end point of the C2C cycle race every year; further north at Seaburn is another  wide open stretch of open sands. Throw in the bracing North Sea and this is a place to really feel alive; and to marvel at the growth of such an important city, all from making use of the natural facilities afforded it on the coast.

Now head into the city over the Wearmouth Bridge. To the left, on the coast, is the Fish Quay and the Sunderland Maritime Heritage archive, dedicated to keeping alive the shipbuilding history of the city. Head straight down Fawcett Street until you get to the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, a fabulous and very popular museum. Originally founded in 1846 it was the first museum outside London to be municipally funded; based on the model of Crystal Palace, it was redeveloped in 2001 with the largest public art programme funded by the Heritage Lottery fund. Including features such as the ‘Monolith’, a 10-metre tall stainless steel water sculpture, it’s an impressive site, and is home to a really wide collection of exhibits that aren’t normally found elsewhere: the only British skeleton of a flying reptile, a walrus (reputedly the inspiration for Lewis Carroll to write ‘The Walrus’), and the very first Nissan produced at the local huge car plant. And the Winter Gardens themselves house a collection of over 2000 flowers and plants from around the globe.

The Museum and Winter Gardens are in Mowbray Park, which is worth a relaxing stroll around; check out several of the sculptures in the park, including the Mowbray Gates, developed using images from the city’s past; the children’s play area, with sculptures based on ‘Alice in Wonderland’by Lewis Carroll, who spent time writing in the city; and the moving Victoria Hall Tragedy Memorial, in memory of the 183 children who died in a tragic accident in 1883 while watching a variety show, which prompted a national outrage and changed the way public venues are constructed ever since.

Over the road from the park is the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Arts, on the top floor of the City Library and Arts Centre, with new exhibitions of local and national artists every two months; from here stroll along Fawcett Street and cut through to the Market Square and you’ll find The Bridges Shopping Centre, with over 100 stores, and if you cut through the Crowtree Leisure Centre you’ll be at Sunderland Minster. Previously Bishopwearmouth Parish church, a church has stood on the site for over a thousand years. With the title of city granted Sunderland in 1998, the church was re-designated as Sunderland Minster-likely the first Minster Church in England since the Reformation.

Over the way from here is Sunderland Empire Theatre. This is a huge theatre, one of the only theatres in the north big enough to hold the large West End touring shows. It’s got a great history as well; it provided the debut for Tommy Steele, and is said to be haunted with the ghost of Sid James. Following its refurbishment in 2004 it is THE theatre in the North for big shows.

Finally, head out south-west of the city and you’ll find a feast for sports-lovers. Silksworth Ski complex and sports resort, formerly a colliery and evidence of how the city has adapted to the loss of its former industries, now has three ski and snowboard slopes, the skate park SK8 for BMX-ers and bladers, two astro-turf football pitches, an athletics track and an angling lake.

When to visit

City pics