‘I’ll just leave it for you to see’ were Mike’s words as we were driving through South Shields towards Marsden. He’d mentioned nothing about Kittiwakes, a lift or a pub and as we drove into the car-park none of this trio were evident, but he’d said something about a grotto?
An Unlikely entrance
Leaving the car I saw a rock and gulls of some sort wheeling around, the rock was topped by a back crust of cormorants. Then to the entrance, something akin to a fairground ride but it led to a lift and felt as if it belonged in a multi storey car-park – but we were on the coast and I could now see that the gulls were of the kittiwake variety.
On the doors opening at the bottom we were in a pub with great views of the rock and now I could see the extent of the kittiwake colony and also how close they were to the beach. They were nesting on the cliffs on either side of the pub and their onomatopoeic cries were everywhere. I knew I was going to have to come back as we only had an hour before we were due in Sunderland and I wanted longer with them.
It’s actually a really important seabird colony and talking with Keith Bowey, the co-editor of The Birds of Durham and one of the expert natural historians that accompany Mike on his VARC walks, he’s amazed it isn’t better known. I’d never heard of it and wondered why.
‘Jack the blaster’
On returning home and doing a little research it’s got a fascinating history linked with smugglers and contraband runners. It was actually blasted from the rock in 1782 by a local miner Jack Bates, ‘Jack the Blaster’ who carved a living from running a tearoom and other less legitimate practices no doubt!
It got its name, ‘The Marsden Grotto’ from a local proprietor who bought it in 1826 after years of neglect after ‘Jack the Blaster died and turned it into a fifteen room mansion with a public inn attached. Still with a colourful life related to smuggling a number of incidents occurred involving hangings and shootings. These have left their mark in the form of paranormal activity reported in the form of blood curdling screams and gun shot cracks being heard around the grotto. Ghost nights are a regular feature of the existing pub now!
The unique lift
The lift was added in 1938 when Vaux Breweries purchased the The Grotto and it remained with them till 1999 when it was closed down and once again left to the elements. Since then it has passed through various owners and is now in the hands of Oxford Hotels and Inns Management. It was closed in 2007 for repairs to the only fire exist, the stairs down to the beach and of course back up in the event of a fire! It re-opened in 2008 as a pub and club. Again, typical of its colourful history, it provoked local anger when it hosted a private bondage club.
On a much more sinister note the place, being so close to urban conurbations and all that comes with them, has a history of gruesome Kittiwake kills. Numbers of nests have peaked here at 6,000 in the early nineties and now stands at close to 3,000 having reached a low of 1,200 in the late nineties. Just so many birds so close that some idiots see it as chance to use them as shooting practice. In 2001 some 80 birds were shot and laid out on the sands to spell the word ‘death’
I spent the rest of the evening until sunset with the Kittiwakes and finished it off with a bag of fish and chips that my brother went to collect as he could see I was in no mood for moving on!
The images of the Kittiwakes in this post were taken on my first visit during the early afternoon when a clear blue sky gave a crisp backdrop, the ones in the following post were taken towards the evening when it had clouded over. In such overcast conditions it’s then best, I find, to work the birds against the cliffs and the sea.