ST. PETER`S AND THE ART OF RENEWAL

 

 

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he Monkwearmouth area of Sunderland lies on the northern bank of the River Wear where it turns towards the end of a 65 mile journey from Wearhead, close to the Cumbrian border, to Roker and the cold North Sea. This is an area rich in history, where the noted chronicler of Anglo-Saxon affairs, the Venerable Bede, lived for the early part of his life before making the short trip north to Jarrow. It is an area where glassmaking began as long ago as the 7th century, where the exportation of coal from the vast Durham coalfields played a leading role in the prosperity of the town and where shipbuilding dominated for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

 

Widely regarded as the largest in the world, the shipyards of Sunderland reached a zenith in the period 1939-45 when together they built some 245 ships, weighing a total of 1.5 million tons. This represented a quarter of the tonnage produced in the UK during that period. But the world was changing and the subsequent global decline in shipbuilding eventually brought Sunderland’s role in the industry to a sad end with the closure of the last remaining shipyard in 1988.

 

The bank of the river was a derelict and ghostly place when, in 1990, Tyne & Wear Development Corporation and Sunderland Borough Council embarked on a major scheme of regeneration of the Monkwearmouth area. The massive project would ultimately lead to the construction of a new urban village, a marina and a marine services building, a restaurant, the National Glass Centre, a new University campus and a substantial number of public works of art.

 

 

St. Peter`s Church

 

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he area, its history and the many works of art cry out for further exploration and the perfect place to start such a journey is where the City of Sunderland had its earliest beginnings, at St. Peter’s Church. Here in AD 674, on land granted to him by Ecgfrith, the King of Northumbria, Benedict Biscop built the monastery of St. Peter’s and endowed it with a library. It became one of the earliest seats of learning in England and the King, pleased with its success, gave further land, this time in Jarrow, to Benedict Biscop and urged him to build a second monastery. The foundation of St. Paul’s was established there in AD 685 and the two sites became regarded as one.

 

Only the west wall of the present nave and the lowest stage of the tower of the original church remain.  In his 1953 book `The Buildings of England - County Durham` Nikolaus Pevsner wrote, “Like Jarrow, the venerable site is in the midst of relatively recent riverside industry, the worst effects distanced by wide new streets and a big churchyard.” The industry has disappeared and the twin monastery at Wearmouth and Jarrow is now bidding to become, like Hadrian’s Wall and Durham Cathedral and Castle, a World Heritage Site. In March 2004 the City of Sunderland adopted Benedict Biscop as its patron saint.

 

With the gates of St. Peter’s Church immediately behind you it is time to move on. Head more or less straight across the road and along the street with the red and white no entry signs at its exit. Within less than 100 metres turn left through the vehicle barriers and into the Sir Tom Cowie Campus of the University of Sunderland. From repairing and selling motor cycles in a backyard in Sunderland after the Second World War, Tom Cowie went on to build one of the fastest growing companies in the country, the Cowie Group. He has long been one of the University’s primary supporters.

 

Continue straight on, leaving the road via the pathway which descends, to your right, to the clearly visible river. Once there your route heads downstream, but before `going with the flow` look to your  right and examine at close hand the large sculpture entitled `Shadows in Another Light`. This is the first of a number of works of public art you will pass on this walk and which were the result of one of the longest continuous artists` residencies to have taken place in Europe. Spanning the ten years from 1991 to 2001, the project, led by sculptor Colin Wilbourn, aimed to demonstrate, through art, that a community can be encouraged to play an active role in the development of their environment.

 

 

`Shadows in Another Light`

 

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he work `Shadows in Another Light` was a joint creation by Colin Wilbourn, his assistant Karl Fisher, blacksmith-artist Craig Knowles and writer Chaz Brenchley. It consists of various elements in steel, concrete, wood and stone. The main feature is the large steel tree standing on a high octagonal stone pedestal and the work picks up a theme first explored in a story written by local school children for `Windows and Walls`, another artwork in the St. Peter’s area. The story tells how the last tree by a river was cut down and made into a boat, resulting immediately in a decline in the fortunes of the town. Upon salvaging the boat and hauling it onto dry land the wood proved to be magic and new trees sprouted in its place. The tree is, therefore, seen as `the tree of life` and can be taken as a direct representation of the regeneration of the St. Peter’s area. There was considerable input by people from the local community and it is well worthy of a thorough investigation before heading on your way.

 

With the artwork and the 1929-built Wearmouth Bridge behind you, follow the riverside path and you will immediately pass a series of oversized nuts and bolts, some partially buried, together with a 100 metre long `shadow` of a crane sandblasted into the white paving stones. The small boats moored in the centre of the river act as a reminder that fishing continues to play an important part in daily life.

 

As the path bends left with the river you will see, outside the University’s Prospect Building, the yellow sandstone artwork, `Pathways of Knowledge` by Colin Wilbourn. The end book of a large pile is open with a relief carving of the Venerable Bede on one leaf and a coloured manuscript on the other. Three Saxon Bibles were produced at the twin monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow and the illuminated Codex Amiatinus was carried to Rome by Ceolfrith, Abbot of Jarrow, in AD 716 as a gift to Pope Gregory II. It survives to this day and is held in the Laurentian Library in Florence. The artwork, which was unveiled by the Queen in May 1993, stands outside the University’s library, thus evoking a direct link with reading and scholarship. This part of the University stands on the site of the former J.L Thompson shipyard.

 

 

Not to everyone`s taste?

 

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s you continue onwards, the National Glass Centre quickly comes into view. The steel, glass and concrete building has a tough, no-nonsense, industrial feel and will certainly not please everyone’s eye. It slopes out from the ground towards the river with the huge south facing glass frontage abutting onto a pleasant riverside promenade. Constructed at a cost of £16 million and opened in June 1998, the Centre celebrates Sunderland’s glassmaking history. This began in the 7th century when Benedict Biscop brought glassmakers from Gaul to make windows for the monastery at St. Peter’s. The `modern` era of glassmaking in Sunderland began in the 1690`s and reached a peak of production in the mid-19th century.

 

Before leaving the National Glass Centre climb the steel staircase nearest to the promenade, at the western end of the building, to look out over the vast expanse of the concrete and  glass roof. From here there are fine views of the river and down through the non-slip glass into the interior of the building. There is also the artwork `Light Transformer` by artists Stepan Pala and Zora Palova close to the main entrance to the Centre.

 

Back on the promenade and the pathway edges slightly away from the river as you follow the signs for Cycle Routes 7 & 20. Within a matter of 100 metres you arrive at the large red sandstone sculpture entitled `Red House` created by Colin Wilbourn, Karl Fisher and Chaz Brenchley. This sculpture represents the ground floor of a house, left open to the elements. There is a coat hanging behind a door and a rug on the floor has the words `What goes around comes around` carved around its edges. There is a fireplace, a table, books, tools and a secretoire and there is a feeling that this is a house which is lived in. The sandstone was reclaimed from the old Queen Alexandra Bridge which once crossed the river and the work took almost one year to complete.

 

 

A peaceful day at the marina

 

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he path climbs gently upwards as good views to the marina and the pier beyond begin to open up. On reaching the highest point be sure to take the path leading to the far right hand corner and the somewhat concealed flight of steps downwards. Before descending, be sure to look behind you and examine the detail of the artwork `Watching & Waiting`. Consisting of a telescope, travelling bag, picnic hamper, book, a map of the river mouth and a folding stool the work suggests someone waiting for the return of a sailor. Visitors complete the work by sitting on the stool and becoming part of the picnic ensemble.

 

 At the bottom of the stairs, cut diagonally across the small gravelled car park area to join the promenade around the marina. This was created from the old North Dock which was designed for Sir Hedworth Williamson by the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Opened in 1837 the dock was once known as Wearmouth Dock and was nicknamed `Sir Hedworth’s Bathtub` because of its relatively small size. It is now an area of peace and tranquility.

 

As you continue to follow the edge of the marina the artworks come thick and fast, so keep your eyes peeled and watch out for the small steel plates, in the shape of pages torn from a reporter’s notebook. These are attached to various walls along this section of the walk and bear inscriptions relating to the artworks. As you turn the first corner you are greeted by a steel bird on a long pole. This 1997 work is known as `Flight` and after turning the next right hand corner the major work entitled `Passing Through` lies to your left. It occupies a sheltered site which was, for the period 1961-64, the location of the Sunderland Canoe Club.

 

This artwork was unveiled in July 1997 and consists of four elements, all dealing with the theme of doorways. The work, created by Colin Wilbourn, Craig Knowles and Karl Fisher, also continues the general maritime theme. One of the elements, carved into the retaining wall, is a large projection of a sailing ship which appears distorted when viewed face on. The perspective is brought into correct alignment by sitting on the nearby bench and looking through the keyhole of the half door.

 

 

`Passing Through`

 

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atch out for the two seats made from reclaimed wooden railway sleepers, bound together with steel bands, as these mark the eastern end of the 136 mile long Sea to Sea (C2C) Cycle Route. Immediately before the Marine Activities Centre is reached be careful not to miss, tucked away to your left, the delightful `Paddle Gate`. The railings surrounding and protecting the nearby small trees repeat the paddle theme. The Marine Activities Centre, officially opened by round-the-world yachtsman Chay Blyth, is operated by a charitable trust and, as well as offering berthing facilities within the marina, also provides training in a wide variety of waterborne activities. The building houses a number of other organisations, including an Italian restaurant, a café and a boating club.

 

Continue to follow the marina promenade but make sure to examine the brick walls to your left. Set within the walls are twenty six relief panels moulded out of yellow fired clay. Each of the six sets of four illustrate a fantastical story, written by local school children, and each panel has a `latch` to the left so that the image appears to be seen through a window. The work is known as `Windows and Walls`.

 

Where the promenade narrows, take time to walk to the point which overlooks the entrance to the marina from the river. Along this short stretch you will find three brightly painted `bell bouys`, once positioned at the river mouth, and the artwork `Taking Flight`. The five pieces of this work by Craig Knowles progressively transform from an industrial steel girder into a cormorant taking flight, a journey from `birth` to `flight`. Set against a clear blue sky and viewed from below the final piece of the work is seen at its best. If you are lucky enough, you may catch sight of the real thing, a cormorant preening itself on the nearby old mooring post standing in the river.

 

 

Cormorants on an old mooring post

 

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ontinue to follow the narrow main promenade and immediately before the path squeezes past the boatyard  be sure to look down to your right, towards the water, to see the artwork, `Stone Stair Carpet`. The eleven steps were part of the original dock and were re-carved by Colin Wilbourn in 1992. They appear to have a carpet running down them with a key pattern and rope style edging. This changes to chains and seaweed nearer the water. Follow the waterside path, a popular place for local fishermen, and soon you will reach the 1797-built North Pier. This was superseded by the slightly more northerly Roker Pier, with its distinctive red and white granite lighthouse, in 1903.

 

 

`High Tide` & Roker Pier

 

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urn sharp left and immediately you will emerge at the southern end of Roker beach and the natural end of this riverside walk. However, before beating a track for home, make sure to investigate `High Tide`, the last sculpture to be completed as part of the St. Peter’s Riverside Project. Set on the beach, just above the high water mark, the seven concrete hemispheres which make up the work are arranged in a crescent. Along the rim of each one is a thought-provoking poetic text. With the words, “Still baleful, still hungry, still drawing water from the world’s well” to ponder over, why not end your day with a gentle stroll along the water’s edge of Roker`s sandy beach.

 

 

Written: Geoff Holland 2006

Photographs: Geoff Holland 2006

 

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