Most cities have the odd claim to fame. Being the birthplace of modern Christianity is a pretty big one though. Add to that strong links with the formation of the United States of America, legends of giant monsters and a seemingly incongruous Greek style temple then it’s clear to see that Sunderland’s heritage is a fascinating one.
Founded by the pioneering Benedict Biscop and home to leading scholars like Bede, St Peter’s in Sunderland, is truly a pivotal site in world history. It’s the site where much of Christianity as we know it was born, where ‘modern’ skills such as stonemasonry and glass making were brought to the British Isles and even where the timing of Easter was decided.
The site can trace its religious roots back to the Wearmouth monastery created by Biscop in 674AD. Large parts of the monastery survive in the Church used to this day, but thanks to Viking raids in the 9th Century, not all. It is though still possible to walk some of the paths almost certainly walked by Bede himself and appreciate the impact he made on the world he lived in. Knowledgeable volunteer guides are frequently on hand and tours can be booked for groups.
A few miles up the River Wear from St Peter’s sits Washington. The fact that it shares the same name with the capital of the United States of America is no coincidence.
Washington Old Hall is the ancestral home of George Washington’s family; indeed it’s the very reason that he was called Washington… and of course the capital of the USA is named after him.
The surviving stone manor house of Washington Old Hall includes parts of the original medieval home of George Washington’s ancestors. Restored rooms help visitors understand the history of this important structure. The ground floor, with its great hall, kitchen and panelled room complete with beautiful carved oak furniture is rooted firmly in the 17th Centuries.
The hall’s staircase and ‘liberty room’ are home to an incredible collection of George Washington related memorabilia commemorating his life and achievements.
It’s not all glamor though, on the first floor is a recreation of the family home of a family that lived in the hall up to the 1930s. At that time the hall was divided into homes for up to nine families.
The hall is also set in a beautifully manicured formal garden, where you’ll also find a tempting tea room.
Greeks and mythology
From Washington, and in fact from most of Sunderland, a large Greek style temple dominates the skyline. Far from being the work of an ancient civilisation, Penshaw Monument is actually a memorial to one of the most popular men Wearside has ever produced, the first Earl of Durham, John George Lambton.
As well as being a major colliery owner, Lambton was instrumental in the reform of British politics and in improving the representation of ordinary people. Such was his energy for improvement he was known by the nickname of ‘Radical Jack’.
When he died in 1840 his funeral procession included 150 carriages and thousands lined the route. Local people raised £6,000 to pay for a monument in his memory on top of Penshaw Hill. Officially known as The Earl of Durham’s Monument, the structure stands at 21 metres tall and is a half scale replica of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens.
Ever since the foundation stone was laid in 1844, the monument has been a powerful symbol of Sunderland. Even today spotting the imposing columns on the skyline lets millions of North East folk now that they’re home.
But while the view from the ground up is spectacular; the view from the top is perhaps even more so. From Easter to the end of September visitors can climb the narrow spiral staircase inside one of the pillars that leads to the top. On a clear day the view is second to none stretching out to sea and over land towards the North Pennines.
Penshaw Hill has another claim to fame in folklore… as the possible resting place of a giant monster, also linked to the Lambton family.
The Lambton Worm was a horrible beast, which grew from a worm plucked by John Lambton from the River Wear. He caught the worm, or so the story goes, whilst he should have been in church and threw it down a nearby well. Trapped in the well it grew and grew until it was big enough to devour sheep and cattle and eventually broke free to terrorise local people.
Meanwhile John Lambton was away, fighting in the Crusades. He returned to avenge the beast but also managed to place a terrible curse on the Lambton family that saw nine generations meet an unexpected end.
Today thankfully there are no such beasts on the banks of the Wear and the stretch where the worm once tormented all is now a very pleasant riverside walk. From the walk it’s easy to make a slight detour and say hello to some rather less fearsome beasts at Washington Wetland Centre.
As well as the chance to observe a host of rare bird species, including flamingos and Eurasian cranes, at close quarters, the centre is home to adorable otters and is even occasionally visited by roe deer.
Feeding times, when the centre’s experts explain all about the species’, are not to be missed. The gentle Hawaiian goose can even be fed by visitors themselves; it’s a great way for youngsters to get ‘nose to beak’ with the birds.
There’s a surprise around every corner in Sunderland’s fascinating history.