The narrow river mouth, and consequent deep river bed, had made Sunderland an ideal location for shipbuilding since medieval times. The discovery of vast coal reserves in the area in the 18th century fuelled the industrialisation of the river at this point. During the 19th century, the river became an industrial power house of shipbuilders, collieries and glass manufacturers. By 1900, Sunderland was being described as the ‘greatest shipbuilding town in the world’, but by the end of the century, all of this vast industrial might had more or less vanished. An aerial photograph taken in 1967 shows the river from Wearmouth Bridge to the coast.

12 Wearmouth_Bridge and river to sea 1967

Photograph courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives.

St Peter’s church is clearly visible in the centre, and the old Roker Park stadium of Sunderland AFC is at the top left. The declining industrial landscape along the river was eventually revitalised by a cultural regeneration project in the 1990s and into the 21st century. The University of Sunderland’s new campus was built on the site of Thompson’s Yard, in this photo marked by the large ship being fitted on the quayside on the north bank.

The riverside was a bustling, industrial site, with ship building and associated trades along both banks.  This late 19th century photograph shows the view down Panns Bank looking across the river to the east of Wearmouth Bridge.

12r Panns - East of Bridge

Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

This photograph from 1858 shows the location of Scott and Horn’s Bottleworks on the south side of the river before the first railway bridge was built in 1879.  It also clearly shows the ‘hump’ in the original bridge that was later levelled during the restructuring work carried out by George Stephenson.

12s Wear Bridge with Scott and Horns bottleworks - 1858

Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

The 1980s saw the gradual de-industrialisation of this part of the river, with the closure of the shipyards, the mine, and the associated trades. But the heritage of this industrial past was not forgotten and many of the sculptures celebrate this history, with reminders of the associated architecture left in situ at various places along the river.

Stadium of Light

Built on the site of Wearmouth Colliery, the home of Sunderland AFC dominates the city’s skyline. Following the Taylor Report (1990) into safety in football stadiums in Britain, the football club had been looking to build a new stadium to replace the much-loved old Roker Park ground which was deemed inappropriate for modification to all-seater as required by the Taylor Report. Several sites were considered, but eventually the site of the colliery was chosen. This had closed in December 1993 after 158 years of mining on that site. However, the location was ideal as it was close to the site of Roker Park and also the city centre with good transport links. The new stadium was built by Ballast Wiltshire at an initial cost of £15 million. The stadium was opened on 30 July, 1997 by Prince Andrew. It was further extended in 2000 to increase the seating capacity to 49,000, bringing the total cost of the build to £23 million. The new stadium’s name was chosen to reflect the miner’s safety lamp and thus the mining heritage connected to the site. There is a statue of a Davy Lamp at the entrance to the stadium by the ticket office. The stadium hosts rock concerts during the summer, and since 2004 has been the location of graduation ceremonies for the University of Sunderland.

This aerial photo of the stadium also shows the river up to the harbour. The greenery along this stretch of the river shows just how de-industrialised the site has become in the last 20 years.  St Peter’s church offers a point of reference to the aerial photo from 1968, and the final curve of the river is no longer Thompson’s Yard but the St Peter’s Campus of the University of Sunderland.

30a Stadium and river

Image courtesy of Sunderland AFC.

Sunderland’s Riverside Sculpture Trail

Spanning the north bank of the river from just to the west of Wearmouth Bridge to the harbour, this was mainly created between 1991-97 by sculptors Colin Wilbourn and Karl Fisher, blacksmith Craig Knowles, and writer Chaz Brenchley, who worked with Sunderland residents. To see this in its entirety, walk down the steps at the side of the bridge, or the road down from opposite St Peter’s Metro Station.

12a Bridge steps

The first sculpture is to the right of the bridge, upstream just beyond the railway bridge. ‘Men of Steel’  is by Graeme Hopper and shows steel men pushing boulders of coal uphill in homage to the generations of miners who worked at Wearmouth Colliery where the Stadium of Light now stands.

12b Men of Steel

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

A plaque in the footpath close to this point gives a plan of the scale and extent of the coal mine at its peak. Interestingly, there is a spelling mistake on this: Ryhope is misspelled ‘Rhyhope’ (visible in the bottom left corner).

12c Bottom Main map

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

Directly under the bridge is a more recent sculpture, ‘Second Sun’, by Liverpool-based artist Andrew Small. This massive sculpture is one of a pair he was commissioned to make as part of the final stage of the C2C cycle route in 2009 (the other, ‘C’, is on Roker beach). He was inspired by the work of Venerable Bede, who calculated the motion of the sun and moon. The central aluminium sphere features animated images of the sun taken by NASA.

12d Second Sun

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

The Second Sun sculpture covers the greatest area on the riverside as it extends along to the coast in the form of smaller installations along the path. These installations carry the names of all the planets in our solar system and are placed proportionately distant from the Second Sun, with the added animated element of offering C2C and W2W cyclists and walkers the distance they are from their finish line.  The Uranus marker pictured is close to the Red House sculpture further along the riverside.

12e Uranus post

Looking across the river, the site of the old graving dock has been decorated with a mural depicting life on the river. Designed and painted by Frank Styles, this was completed in October 2015 and includes the name of the shipyard, S.P. Austin and Sons, that once occupied this site. Styles has contributed several other colourful murals across the city, particularly in the High Street East area.

12d Graving dock mural

The largest single sculpture further down the river is entitled ‘Shadows in Another Light’. It resembles a steel tree and stands on the base of a former shipyard crane. The giant rivets, nuts and bolts belong to it. Around the plinth are plaques, created in workshops by blind and partially sighted people, which relate the history of Sunderland, including the legend of the Lambton Worm. The sculpture’s shadow is visible even without sunlight; it is set into the paving stones beneath.
12f Tree crane

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

12f Lambton worm

Pathways of Knowledge’ is outside the library at the University of Sunderland’s St Peter’s campus. The sculpture reflects the intellectual heritage of the area. During the Anglo-Saxon period, the twin monasteries of St Peter’s (on the site of St Peter’s church behind the campus) and St Paul’s (Jarrow) were the greatest centres of learning in Western Europe (the Oxford and Cambridge of their day). St Bede is depicted on the open book on the end, and there is a mosaic decorated in imitation of an illuminated manuscript from St Peter’s Church.
12g Murray books 2

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

St Peter’s Campus, University of Sunderland

The University of Sunderland’s St Peter’s Campus occupies the site of the former Thompson’s Yard at the point on the north bank where the river curves dramatically before opening out into the North Sea.  The steep bank that leads down from St Peter’s Church to the river is incorporated into the design of the campus.  Building Design Partnership (BDP) designed this campus in three stages from 1992 right the way through to the final stage, the Media Centre, in 2002.  Featuring sweeping roof lines and elegant curves, the strong Scandinavian influence of the design incorporates timber cladding, steel and pale brick, showing the influence of Alvar Alto.

Soden, Robert; St Peter's Campus, University of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear; University of Sunderland; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/st-peters-campus-university-of-sunderland-tyne-and-wear-57678

The sweeping roof-lines dipping towards the quayside are captured in this painting by Robert Soden.  Soden was commissioned by the University of Sunderland to record the construction of the first stage of building on the St Peter’s campus in 1992-3. This painting shows the almost-complete building work at that time. Image courtesy of University of Sunderland.

The contemporary design of the buildings fit into the site they occupy, with none taller than the St Peter’s Church tower.  Large windows form atriums in the four main buildings, each window offering a different panoramic view of the river. The campus won RIBA awards in 1994 and 1997, and the Civic Trust award in 1998. Architectural photographer Martine Hamilton Knight listed this campus as one of her two favourite BDP designs when the architects celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2011.

14t Campus from ferry landing

St Peter’s Campus. Location of the ferry crossing.

The National Glass Centre

The National Glass Centre is situated on the north bank of the River Wear on the former site of J.L Thompson and Sons shipyard.

32a NGC

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

Close to St Peter’s church, this site is significant for its links with the history of glass making in Britain. Benedict Biscop introduced glass making in the seventh century when he employed French glaziers to make the windows of his new priory in 674. Glass making in Sunderland grew considerably in the 18th century, when the site made it ideal in terms of the basic material of cheap coal and a port situation for importing of high quality sand from the Baltic. Sunderland’s glass making industry included Pyrex and Corning, and the decorative glass produced on the river became famous throughout the country. The decline in shipbuilding was mirrored by the decline in the glass industry, but the Glass Centre was developed in the late 1990s as part of the regeneration of the area.  This was opened in 1998 and is a striking design of glass and steel, with a glass-panelled roof that is 6cm thick and provides a walkway to look out across the river and port. The Glass Centre is the part of the University of Sunderland’s glass and ceramics department, and also has a museum, exhibition space, shop and restaurant. Directly outside the Glass Centre, in the river, is a relic of the shipyard that once occupied this site: the green-painted pole with triangle at the top marks the starboard side of the slipway that would have been used to launch ships into the river.

32b Sliproad marker

Behind the National Glass Centre is the first sculpture from the St Peter’s Riverside project in 1992. ‘The Always Open Gates‘ by Colin Wilbourn and Karl Fisher incorporate two bikes into the frame of the ‘gates’.

32c Always Open Gates

Photo courtesy of Colin Smith.

The Coast to Coast cycle route runs close by and, over the years, new sculptures have been added to those that formed part of the original project to take into account the increased popularity of this route. For example, just up from the ‘High Tide’ sculpture is an iron mile post informing cyclists of the distance to various local destinations.

32d Cycle mile post

Photo courtesy of Colin Smith.

The Red House’ is an ‘exploded’ house carved from stone, with fragments of it along the trail.
12i Red House 112j Red House 2

Photographs courtesy of Colin Smith.

Chaz Brenchley wrote an accompanying story, ‘Murder at the Red House’, which you can listen to here: Murder at the Red House

Watching and Waiting’ is a sculpture that includes a telescope, a hamper with a book open on it, and a seat. Designed and made by Colin Wilbourn, Karl Firsher, Craig Knowles and Chaz Brenchly, the site of this sculpture is inspired by old maps which refer to this as ‘Look Out Hill’. The steel book in this sculpture features a piece of writing by Brenchly about the sea, and incorporates a version of this in braille. You can read the text that is engraved in the sculpture here.
12k Watching and Waiting

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

Sunderland Marina

This marina is now home to many pleasure boats, but also the RNLI facility for Sunderland.  The origins of the marina are in the old North Dock.  Work on that began in 1828, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunell and funded by Sir Hedworth Williamson (7th Baronet). It covered just nine acres and by the time it opened in 1837 it was already too small to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding coal trade. The North Dock was also difficult for ships to navigate, soon gaining it the nickname ‘Sir Hedworth’s bathtub’. (See also Roker and Whitburn for more information about the Williamson family.)

The area around the marina houses more sculptures. ‘Passing Through’ is a series of three doors, representing the past, present and future. It is only possible to go through the present door. Colin Wilbourn, Karl Fisher and Craig Knowles designed and built this sculpture around the theme of domesticity. In order to view the distorted image carved into the wall behind it, you need to align yourself with the small stool and keyehole.
12l Passing Through

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

12l Passing through glass

Detail of the stained glass ‘window’.

The ‘Windows and Walls’ sculpture involved local schools in the production of these scenes of sea and country life. The panels are grouped into six sets of four, each set illustrating a story that is inscribed on small metal plates attached to the wall between them. This was designed around stories about the sea and country life, written by local school children. There are groups of six sets of four, each illustrating a story that is inscribed on metal plates beside them.

12m Windows and Walls

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

The Paddle Gate‘ sculpture is part of the architecture around the rowing club’s boathouse in St Peter’s Marina.

12n Paddle Gate

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

On the promontory of the marina, ‘Taking Flight’ is a sequence of sculptures which shows the different stages as a cormorant takes off across the Wear. Craig Knowles’ statue features four steel girders graded in order of increasing height as they near the water, atop of which is a cormorant gradually emerging and taking flight. Knowles regarded this as a metaphor to show the emergence of St Peter’s from an area of industrialisation to one that was closer to nature.
12n Taking flight12o Taking Flight detail

Photographs courtesy of Colin Smith.

Stone Stair Carpet’ consists of carved steps going down into the river. Colin Wilbourn created this sculpture by carving into the original stone steps that were once part of the docks in this area. The carvings draw on images inspired by the pre-industrial heritage of the area.
12p Stone Stair Carpet

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

High Tide’ is a sculpture on Roker Beach that consists of a set of lunar pieces representing seven phases of the moon caught in the concrete bowls, with words by Chaz Brenchley around the rims. On hot sunny days, these provide seating and shade.

12q High Tide

Photograph courtesy of Colin Smith.

Andrew Small’s final sculputure in the sequence is designed to allow cyclists (and others) to be photorgraphed framed by the central stone with the lighthouse in the background. This photo shows the sculpture in its unpeopled context at sunset.

12r Final c2c