Magical Marsden captured in postcard splendour

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A SNAPSHOT of life beside the seaside in the village that vanished is on offer in a new book.

The Victorian-built mining community of Marsden once flourished on the windswept cliff tops close to Whitburn – overlooking the bay and Marsden Rock.

OLD VIEW: A very early view of the Grotto - long before the lift was added to give drinkers safe access to the pub.

OLD VIEW: A very early view of the Grotto - long before the lift was added to give drinkers safe access to the pub.

Today the village has gone, but memories live on through new book South Shields – The Postcard Collection, which features several shots of the beach.

“Long before the package holiday arrived, folk from all over the country would visit our glorious beaches,” said author Caroline Barnsley.

“The tidal island off the north end of Marsden Bay was known as the Velvet Beds - so called because fine, springy grass used to flourish there.

“Today the more common name is Camel island - now that it is bare and its shape resembles such a beast.”

The village of Marsden was built within the shadow of Souter lighthouse in 1871 by Whitburn Coal Company - to house the workforce of the new Marsden pit.

Dozens of mining families lived in nine streets of back-to-back cottages, while three rows of more substantial homes were built for colliery officials.

Behind them, on the lower reaches of the hillside, were allotments where miners grew both flowers and fresh vegetables – vital in hard times and strikes.

And, when there was money to be spent, a large Co-operative store catered for all needs - from fresh meat, to grocery, hardware, vegetables and drapery.

Traders with horses and carts visited regularly too, including greengrocers George Moody and Dick Gray, while milk was delivered from the local farm.

A knife grinder and pot and pan mender made frequent trips as well, as did Mr Carruthers, who sold ice cream from a churn, and fish and chip man Mr Gibbons.

But, by the 1960s, coastal erosion had started to make in-roads into Marsden, Indeed, some villagers claimed they could now fish from their own back yards.

The final death knell came with the closure of the pit in 1968. But today there is still one ever-popular reminder of Marsden - the Grotto pub.

“The history of Marsden Grotto is steeped in the colourful, bygone days of cruel seas and hardened smugglers,” said Caroline.

“A man who became known as Jack the Blaster is said to have been the first to live in the cave. He moved to Marsden in 1782, to work in the local quarry.”

It is believed that Jack, a pensioner originally from Allendale, blasted out a small cave on the beach – to make a roomy new home for himself and his wife.

As news of the strange abode spread far and wide, day-trippers started visiting the pair - with Jack supplying them with food and drink, at a profit.

It was the second resident of the cave, however, who decided to turn his home into a business - with the help of a modest win at the races.

Peter Allan, who also worked at the limestone quarry, set up in business as a landlord in 1828 – using the profits to blast out more of the cave.

Some, however, suggested he may have been more than a landlord - given the smuggling history of the coast - but he was eventually granted a license to carry on.

“The ghost of John the Jibber, who died a lingering death suspended in a coal bucket after betraying fellow smugglers, is said to haunt the ballroom,” said Caroline.

Peter’s family continued to run the Grotto after his death, making further improvements - although a catastrophic rock fall in 1865 almost destroyed the inn.

In the latter half of the 19th century, however, it was acquired by Harton Coal Company, who enjoyed great success - before allowing it to fall into disrepair.

A decision by Vaux to take on the Grotto in 1898 brought a new lease of life to the pub, which had become littered with beer barrels that draymen refused to collect.

And, in 1938, the brewery managed to purchase the site - immediately launching a revamp programme which saw the old inn rebuilt and a lift to the surface added.

“The roughly hewn steep steps - said to have been built by Jack the Blaster - were the only hazardous way down to the sweeping bay before this,” said Caroline.

“The Marsden Grotto became renowned for being the only restaurant and bar in a cave in the whole of Europe. Legends of smugglers, wrecks and colourful characters still abound.”

•South Shields - The Postcard Collection, by Caroline Barnsley, is published by Amberley Books at £14.99.