Thursday, 27 April 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 2: Monkwearmouth

Last time I took you to a remote corner of Northumberland. This month I want to visit a place that at first sight looks like the complete opposite: the dense conurbation at the mouth of the River Wear that we know as the city of Sunderland.

I am fond of the place. My wife’s family come from Sunderland. We became engaged on the day in May 1973 when the Black Cats won the Cup Final. How could her father refuse me on such an auspicious day? And had they lost, he’d have been past caring anyway. In those days, shipbuilding was still a major industry on Wearside. Now the huge installations are gone, but not the proud memory of North Eastern ships that were famed all over the world.
You wouldn’t think that the city (as it has been since 1993) is one of the North East’s most ancient places. It owes it all to a man named Benedict Biscop, a Northumbrian Saxon monk who came to the north bank of the Wear in 674 to found a monastery. He travelled to Rome no fewer than six times to bring back books and manuscripts and the skills to build in stone, sing plainchant and create stained glass. He went on to found the monastery at Jarrow seven years later. But perhaps his greatest achievement was to introduce the Venerable Bede to this “double monastery” and encourage him in his scholarship. Benedict Biscop is now the city’s patron saint.

The mouth of the Wear is well worth a visit. The regeneration of the estuary is impressive and makes for an enjoyable riverside walk. On the north bank the National Glass Centre celebrates Sunderland’s long history of glass making pioneered by Biscop. Nearby is the Monkwearmouth campus of Sunderland University and – best of all – St Peter’s Church, and the remains of Biscop’s monastery.

Not much is left of this great Saxon foundation, but what remains they are! Set in a breezy grassy landscape surrounded by contemporary buildings, you are acutely aware of the contrast between ancient and modern in Sunderland. This to me is one of the delights of the city. The Saxon tower is the jewel in the crown, still standing proud and holding its own against the high rise flats and main roads nearby. Beneath the tower is the church porch through which Bede himself must have walked hundreds of times. It’s moving to walk there. When the sun is setting in the west, the Saxon architecture glows with a golden light.

If you’ve caught the spirit of Bede (and who wouldn’t?), then you’ll want to visit the twin Saxon church at Jarrow a few miles ago, and of course Durham Cathedral where his tomb has been since 1022. I have an interest in Durham, of course, having been Dean there for thirteen years. It was a huge privilege to be the guardian of Bede’s bones. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest people England has given birth to. And not just England, for Bede saw himself as totally connected to European civilisation, both classical and Christian. Sunderland may have voted decisively for Brexit, but at Monkwearmouth you feel you are at the focus of a profoundly European vision of things.

While you are there, take a walk on the bracing sea front at Roker. If you’re lucky, the wind will be in the east and the waves will be hurling themselves furiously against the breakwater that defines the mouth of the Wear. On winter days when it’s blowing a gale, you feel the full force of the North Sea at Roker. It may feel like a quintessential suburb, but there aren’t many suburbs in England where the sea is a force to be reckoned with.

A few streets back from the sea front you’ll find another great church, St Andrew’s Roker. It was built in the early twentieth century and is one of the country’s greatest monuments of the Arts and Crafts period. There aren’t many modern churches of real distinction but this is one of them. Like Saxon St Peter’s, it’s another church for Sunderland to be proud of. I’ve always thought that this city is underrated. Which is why I’ve put it on my personal list of favourite places in the North East.

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