Inside Roker Pier's fascinating tunnel and lighthouse as tours reopen for 2023
She’s an icon of Sunderland instantly recognisable as a symbol of our city by the sea.
And now people can see Roker Pier and lighthouse from a whole new perspective as tunnel tours start again for the summer season.
Painstakingly constructed by 100 men over 18 years from 1885 to 1903, the Grade II-listed pier and lighthouse was a real feat of engineering.
Built at the height of Sunderland’s shipbuilding powers, the Roker lighthouse and pier and its sister New South Pier were created to protect the docks and shipping at this vital harbour.
It was built at a cost of £290,000, equivalent to £32million in today’s money, funded by the mighty River Wear Commissioners (RWC) and it’s testament to their wealth and power that she was so well constructed.
A credit too to the young RWC chief engineer Henry Hay Wake who was tasked with designing the pier and overseeing her construction.
Such was his accomplishment with Roker Pier, that his skills and expertise were much in demand after its construction.
Now, one of the finest examples of lighthouse in the country will reopen for tunnel tours for the summer season following the major £2.5million Heritage Lottery Fund-backed restoration scheme in 2018 which brought this hidden gem back to life.
After navigating the Beast from the East and the pandemic, this year will see the tours return fully in their intended purpose.
Taking place around twice a week from April 10 until September, the tours are led by a dedicated band of volunteers from Roker Heritage Group.
It’s a particularly special job for volunteer Stuart Robson whose great grandfather Ralph Scott was a RWC diver who worked on the pier’s construction.
"I’ve always had an interest in local history and have lots of stories of my great grandfather over the years. He passed away when he was 71, and did his last dive when he was 69. When the pier tunnel was restored and they were looking for tour guides, he was my real inspiration,” said Stuart.
"I feel as though Roker Pier and lighthouse doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, it’s a real triumph of engineering. Neither does Henry Hay Wake. He was a man who was much respected by his men and what he achieved is remarkable, that his design is still standing 120 years later.”
To meet the challenges of constructing Roker Pier, Wake had to design, and in turn patent, a wide range of new machinery and equipment and he moved to Roker Terrace to be as close to the site as possible.
Stuart added: "During the 70s and 80s, a lot of councils paid no regard to heritage and old buildings were torn down. But it’s so important to teach future generations about Roker Pier so they know the heritage of Sunderland and that its history isn’t lost.”
Fellow tour guide Maureen McCartney also has a close connection to the landmark.
"I used to live in Roker and I spent my life down the seafront,” said Maureen. “I knew of the old entrance to the pier tunnel before the restoration began and had always wanted to go down there. It’s lovely to be able to show off such an iconic landmark to visitors.
"It’s a really unique lighthouse, especially as it was privately funded. It’s one of the only places in the country you can do a tour like this.”
When Sunderland City Council began the restoration in 2012, the lighthouse was little more than a shell, having been repeatedly vandalised and stripped of many of its original features after the last lighthouse keeper post ended in the 1970s.
Restoration has included conservation of the lantern house, repairs to the tunnel floor and drains and work to improve access. Many of the original features have also been lovingly recreated.
Tours start at the new portal entrance in front of the pier gates.
From there, you descend into the eerie tunnel which sits directly beneath the pier. which once provided the only means for the keeper to reach the lighthouse in stormy weather.
It’s around a half mile walk to the lighthouse, with a host of interesting features along the way, including remnants of the old gas lamps and stones etched with the names of Henry Hay Wake’s children. The father of eight was very proud of the structure and would regularly bring his children on site during construction.
Either side of you, the walls are around 15ft thick and were made of granite-faced blocks, each weighing up to 45 tons. They were constructed in a purpose-built blockyard on the promenade, with The Blockyard still used as a colloquial name for the area today.
You ascend into the old workshop, then up a winding spiral staircase into the impressive engine room with its striking blue-green glazed tiles. The room above is equally impressive with its Brazilian mahogany panelling and parquet flooring, rich detailing which surpasses any other lighthouses nearby.
The lighthouse’s distinctive red and white colouring, though incidentally the colours of SAFC, is due to the colour of the Aberdeen granite. Red and white is a popular colour scheme for lighthouses to make them stand out and, in another ingenious touch by Wake, the natural colours of the alternating stone were chosen so that the lighthouse didn’t need repainting.
On the top floor is the light itself, which is today automatic and still an important navigation aid. Her range of two nautical miles acting as a beacon of Sunderland.
:: Roker Pier Tours cost £8 for adults, £5 for children (must be 10 years old or over). Tours start from April 10 and you will be able to book from March at www.rokerpier.co.uk
Keep an eye on their Facebook page for when bookings go live.
Note, due to the structure of the building, you will need to be fit and able to climb the steep staircase and navigate the narrow tunnel. Tours are also subject to tidal times and weather, and can change on the morning of the booking. You will be informed if that day’s tour can’t take place.
Roker Heritage Group are looking for people interested in becoming volunteers at one of Sunderland’s most iconic structures.
They have positions available for: tour guides, finance & administration, social media, retail, web site admin, maintenance and general duties.
They will provide you with relevant training needed and a uniform. There are no age restrictions.
For more information email [email protected]