I love exploring Northern towns (and cities) and was particularly excited about my first proper visit to Sunderland today. I’d been before, of course, but only pretty much straight to the match and home again (give or take a pub or two). Today Sunderland was going to get the full Football Tourist Guide treatment.
On my virtual visit (when all matches were behind closed doors during lockdown), I had discovered a fair few pubs, a lighthouse and a pier. Through watching Sunderland Til I Die, I had formed an affection for the
town city and its people. That didn’t stop me from finding their prolonged stay in League One hilarious, of course. Sunderland YouTuber The Mad Mistake has been the source of much mirth on the way home from long away trips when Sunderland have lost. And during lockdown I first encountered fellow blogger Shaun, a Sunderland fan, who enjoyed our live watchalongs.
Ahead of our fixture at the Stadium of Light, I was somewhat in demand media-wise. I did this interview with my counterparts at A Love Supreme, the Sunderland fanzine. And this interview with the Wise Men Say podcast. Those were in addition to my weekend appearance on The Second Tier podcast.
All this left me little time to prepare for the Sunderland mission; however I did have a long list of touristy spots and pubs to choose from. I also knew exactly when and where we would be starting our day, so I resolved to figure out the rest en route.
We headed out around 0700. And then back home around ten minutes later – after filling up with petrol or diesel or whatever (driving isn’t my job) – when I was already tucking into my Alpen Light Jaffa bars and Lee realised that he’d left his car snackage at home.
While Lee was slicing watermelon (I’ve been most impressed with his kitchen skills of late), I was busy researching tuneage for the trip. Famous musicians from Sunderland…oh there’s a great one on this list.
Dave Stewart aside, it was predominantly punk – which I knew would distress Lee – although we did enjoy this number.
En route, Ronnie (of Hartlepool fame) remarked (via Twitter) that we couldn’t miss out on the Penshaw Monument when visiting Sunderland. I didn’t know what this was but added it to the itinerary nonetheless. I’m all for a good recommendation.
We called in at Durham Services for a comfort break. It was here that a strong theme of the trip was first encountered: a powerful hand drier. What a rare treat! And then, heading out of the services, I spotted the most exciting tee ever.
I would have LOVED these when I was little (I still am, as I’d be reminded later).
Now onto our first planned stop of the day which, as usual, is a museum that opens at 1000.
North East Land Sea & Air Museum (NELSAM)
You know we love a good transport museum. Here we were promised a collection of army transport as well as an exhibition of Blackpool trams – hence this was a must-visit.
On entry (£6.50, card only) we stepped out of the little shop into an outdoor area where this beauty was the main attraction.
I think we’ve now seen as many Vulcans on these Football Tourist Guides as Preston have scored goals this season.
There were several hangars containing different displays and here are my highlights.
I was interested to learn here about the rationing of food during the war. This is something that I knew of anecdotally but had never really thought about.
The old pop delivery vehicles were a highlight for me. I can never remember if it was Barrs or Ben Shaws who used to deliver to us back in the day but it was always a treat.
But you know I was really here for some tram action.
What a lovely museum this was. It was nice to be left alone to wander around but there was a very helpful man in the main hangar who was happy to be interviewed by Lee for the accompanying Football Tourist Guide video.
On our way out, I scanned the little shop for item/s of interest. It was wonderfully retro and this was my favourite piece – reminiscent of the free gifts I used to get with the Beano (is that still going?).
We had a little time to play with ahead of lunch – and spotted Ronnie’s recommendation was close by, so we headed over there.
Past Me would have baulked at the idea of a hill climb but Paddington has helped me to reframe them as a good opportunity to exercise, so up we headed. Karen’s tip of taking small steps and advancing slowly proved really helpful and I wasn’t even out of breath when I reached the top.
I had been expecting a plaque or something providing information on the monument, but I couldn’t see anything, so I headed to t’internet. Here I learned that the monument was built in 1844-5 to commemorate the Earl of Durham. One of the pillars houses a spiral staircase leading up to a walkway at the top of the monument. I looked around and suspected it was here.
The viewing platform was closed in 1926 after a 15-year-old boy fell to his death.
There was no escaping the high winds up here – the pillars offering little shelter.
We headed back down quicker than we had climbed and were soon back in the car heading into Sunderland City Centre.
I knew where we were heading for lunch but hadn’t researched car parking; however Shaun had assured me there was ample reasonably-priced parking and he wasn’t wrong. We soon found ourselves in a multi-storey car park which cost just £1.50 an hour (take note Nottingham). It was roomy (not tight like Hounds Hill) and even the stairwell smelled nice (not of ammonia like they usually do). More bonus points for Sunderland.
We crossed the beautiful Bishopwearmouth Green and soon found ourselves in a still-being-redeveloped area of Sunderland.
When selecting pubs for these Football Tourist Guides, I take a number of things into consideration:
- Real ale (obvs)
- SlimmingWorld friendly menu (e.g. home cooked food / steak / jacket potatoes / veg that’s not covered in butter/dressing, pasta or curry with tomato-based sauce)
- Good location in relation to other places on the itinerary
- Eye candy for the video
Surprisingly there were plenty of SlimmingWorld friendly menus in the pubs of Sunderland. There were also a couple that served parmos – a local delicacy that I really wanted to try but was conscious that they would NOT be SlimmingWorld friendly, as they seemed a bit dirty. I opted for the one with the best location (the next place on the itinerary was walkable) – and how could a converted fire station NOT be eye candy? Lee was awestruck and announced it was his favourite pub EVER.
Of course there was beer here, too – and here’s what was on today:
I had half of each of the cask ales as I couldn’t decide between the two.
We were led to a specific area at the back of the open-plan room reserved for diners. Ooh look at these comfy chairs.
I considered the menu even though I had already selected what I was going to have (as well as ensuring that I stay on plan, this must save me at least ten minutes in menu-studying in the pub on the day).
I’m not having this, obvs – but what’s a stottie? I had to look this up and the answer is here.
Here’s what I did have:
I had purposefully asked for the sauce to be served separately because I wasn’t sure what was in it. When it arrived, I asked the question. After a quick visit to the kitchen to ask, I got my answer: leek, fennel, capers and garlic. This meant that I could safely eat it (SlimmingWorld friendly) but Lee couldn’t (garlic). I do wish menus specified EXACTLY what was in things; it would make the whole selection process much easier (or more complicated?). Anyway the meal was delicious.
Prior to leaving, I conducted a loo review, where I again encountered a nice powerful hand drier.
In the same building was a theatre (this was a great artsy quarter). While we were in the foyer having a nose, we were approached by a very helpful man who gave us comprehensive directions to our next port of call, with various points of interest on the way.
Ooh look – there’s another theatre practically next door, as well as The Dun Cow, which is one of the fine pubs I visited on my virtual visit to Sunderland during the lockdown season.
Right. Now it was time to stroll over to the next museum. We somehow got diverted so ended up going a different route to the scenic one with the cobbled streets and interesting graffiti that was recommended, but here’s a bin.
This would be the first Winter Gardens visited as part of this Football Tourist Guide series and we were interested to see how it would compare to Blackpool’s. It looked amazing online – with actual GARDENS, which ours doesn’t have – but from the outside it didn’t look quite so grand, so I became hopeful of a Blackpool win.
We were also here to learn about Sunderland, as this was our first proper visit here and all we really knew so far was that they had a fascination for Blackpool Transport (there had been a Blackpool bus in NELSAM in addition to the trams) and specialised in powerful hand driers. Here are my highlights from Sunderland Museum.
When conducting my research, I learned that Sunderland was the home of Pyrex – and there was an exhibition all about it.
Seated at the table above, I watched a delightful video featuring people’s stories and memories of Pyrex, be that the camaraderie working at Pyrex, collecting Pyrex or particular pieces that held special meaning for people. I learned that Pyrex was designed to be durable and I recognised some of the pieces in the video as ones that have popped up in houses where I have lived over the years. I have bought Pyrex food containers and measuring jugs as recently as last month. And in a former life I worked for a company that provided lab equipment for schools and much of this was Pyrex.
But on to dinosaurs…
I am a big fan of animals and always enjoy taxidermy in museums.
Now onto the Winter Gardens…
Ooh fish! Some of these were actually gold, which made me realise that goldfish are, in fact, orange. Time for a rebranding?
There was an interesting collection of cacti, a viewing balcony and an impressive water feature that was so big the building had to be constructed around it. However I had been expecting birds or butterflies, neither of which were present. Blackpool wins the battle of the Winter Gardens because that has dinosaurs (I saw Jurassic Earth at the Opera House) and multiple entertainment venues and Morecambe and Wise and Eddie Large.
The museum shop was magnificent and needs a highlights reel all of its own.
Now it was time to walk (sans dinosaur) back to the car.
As part of our research into Penshaw Monument, we had learned that it appeared in Sunderland’s crest – and we spotted one in the window of a pub.
We were staying here because it was practically on Roker Beach (we hadn’t even realised Sunderland was by the sea) and I had a hotels.com voucher to use (from Christmas, I think – thanks Liz) and this place looked lovely.
We entered through the stunning Poetic License Bar.
You know that any pub that welcomes animals gets bonus points from me. But this place has actual beer for dogs!
Ooh there’s a local ale on too.
This pub had been on the shortlist for food today; however we had taken the decision to eat at the ground tonight (find out why later) so this was simply a walkthrough of this pub today. It seemed like a belting hotel bar, though – superior to the usual Premier Inn fayre.
Check-in was quick and painless and we followed the directions to our room (through that door, up the stairs, across the hotel, down the stairs practically into the basement). This long slog brought back memories of a trip to Hartlepool 20 years ago, when I was practically consigned to the servants quarters for being a smoker. But there was plenty to look at en route, including RIDICULOUSLY HUGE ROOM NUMBERS, an enormous mirror on the landing and lots of pictures of Sunderland.
The room itself was pleasant and had a few quirks. There were stairs down into the bathroom. And on the bathroom wall was this notice.
After watching an episode of Paddington on the bit-too-high tv, we headed out for the 30-minute walk into the city, where we would be spending the rest of the evening, calling in at four locations all in close proximity to one another.
We passed the marina/docks – something else we didn’t know Sunderland had.
As we continued our walk, I became aware of an insistent sound.
This phone was ringing, dear reader. And yet the phone was not only off the hook but the handset had been smashed to smithereens. But I needed to know who was on the other end of the phone. Whilst this incident was frustrating, it would help me win an argument later…
Shaun (more of him later) had recommended this place. It was a football museum (the only one in the country outside of Manchester, according to our host) – predominantly Sunderland but with appeal to all football fans (maybe not Newcastle so much). On arrival we spotted an outside bar – and there was a bar inside the museum, too. This was my kind of museum.
This museum is situated in a former railway station and railway museum. There remains a viewing platform which forms part of the bar.
Bob Stokoe had been Blackpool manager when we had won the Anglo Italian Cup in 1971 before he was poached by Sunderland, who went on to win the FA Cup in 1973, when they had been in the Second Division and beaten First Division Leeds.
Roker End Cafe & A Love Supreme (Sunderland Fanzine)
The Sunderland fanzine has its own SHOP! Talk about fanzine goals. This was another level. As long-time editor of the Blackpool fanzine, I couldn’t NOT visit my counterparts at A Love Supreme.
On my way in, I contemplated the cafe menu – I really was getting peckish now as it was approaching our usual teatime of 1700.
What an epic menu! Love the prices and the extensive chips section. But what was this famous ‘pink slice’ that I apparently had to try?
But no! We weren’t here to be tempted off the diet – we were here to explore the fanzine shop.
I could not miss this opportunity to look up that unfamiliar word I had found on our bathroom wall.
I made enquiries after the pink slice and was brought one to have a look at.
This was the first in a series of moments where I would successfully exercise restraint. I was offered a try of one. But cake + diet = nono so I politely declined.
I did, however, buy a copy of the latest issue of the fanzine, as I always do on the rare occasion I spot them on my travels.
This zine has been in existence for 30 years – and is printed in the building. ALS also run travel to away games for Sunderland fans. What an epic organisation this is. Bravo ALS – and bravo Sunderland for supporting your fanzine to become such a massive success.
If you’d like to support my fanzine, you can subscribe for the season for just £15 (for four issues) via the link below.
There was NO WAY I was not calling in here. Vaux were Blackpool’s shirt sponsors back in my first ever season supporting them (1990/91). Sadly that brewery closed in 1999 – however the name was resurrected with the formation of this new brewery twenty years later.
It would have been rude not to try one of their beers.
Here’s what else was on today.
That’s not to mention the fridge – oh the fridge!
The Vaux guys hadn’t appreciated the Blackpool link and suggested they might have done something to mark the occasion, had they known. They were all for doing something for the return fixture until I pointed out it was New Year’s Day. Maybe next season?
There was some delicious-smelling food on offer here, from the pizza place who were set up outside.
Come 1800 it was time to reluctantly leave Vaux (which I had finally learned to pronounce – VORX, apparently, not VOX or VOH). Had I stayed longer I could have got myself into a huge mess with that fridge and pizza (which I would, of course, have enjoyed immensely).
Sunderland v Blackpool
Did you know that the Stadium of Light is built on the site of a former mine?
We were due to meet Shaun outside the main entrance at 1830 and we were there a little early, giving us chance to admire our surroundings.
The team coach was just arriving (theirs, I thought at the time, although now I come to think of it, why would they be arriving via coach for a home game? Do they go for a pre-match meal or training together before the match?). Ellis Simms arrived on his own. I would later learn that he was only here on loan – I had thought they had bought him. This at least gave me a little hope that he might return to the seaside one day. He wouldn’t be playing tonight because he had a broken toe or something.
We had a nose in the club shop and check THIS out for a display.
Back outside, just as I pulled my phone out to message Shaun, he arrived with a friendly greeting. We had never before met in person, although we keep connected via Twitter and he did appear on one of our livestreams during lockdown.
‘I wasn’t sure it was you at first,’ he admitted. ‘I said surely she’s not that small? You look much taller on the telly.’
Shaun had kindly invited us into his company’s box for tonight’s match. He is one half of Fritidsklader, my official outfitters. They offer quality terrace wear at sensible prices. Here’s me in some of their casualwear.
We had a few flights of stairs to ascend to reach the box – although not as many as we would have had to face in the away end in the gods.
This was our view from the box.
I was introduced to our boxmates. I can’t remember any of their names but they were all sound.
I had been pre-warned that our hostess was quirky (‘you’ll see what I mean’). And the service was pretty quirky too. I was served a bottle of Doom Bar (yay ale) with the top still on. I tested to see if it was a screw top (despite knowing that’s not a thing). The lad next to me boasted that he could open a bottle with a piece of paper so we called his bluff…and he couldn’t. Mercifully a bottle opener was located so I could enjoy my beer.
The food was delivered to our table in large dishes: chilli, rice, Szechuan pork and noodles. I was very hungry but was waiting for someone else to dive in first so I didn’t appear rude. My hands were poised in front of me, clasped together as if in prayer. But it seemed like no-one else had even noticed the food was there. Had they all filled up on pink slices before arriving? Our hostess appeared at the door.
‘Well what are you all waiting for? Are you saying grace? Get stuck in.’
The food was delicious and my politeness went out of the window when I went back in for seconds and thirds. I should probably have had a mid-afternoon snack (the pink slice might have done the trick).
As kick-off approached, I made a strategic comfort break (excellent hand driers once again) before taking a seat next to Lee on the front row of the balcony. Oh this is the life!
And then the football started. And the day took a downhill turn. We couldn’t keep hold of the ball for toffee and quite how it was 0-0 at the break, I have no idea.
Dear reader, it took ALL of my willpower to resist this incredible looking cheesecake at half time.
The second half was pretty much the direct opposite of the first, with Sunderland now unable to keep hold of the ball.
The Blackpool fans – up in the gods behind the goal – did not stop singing throughout the match. It was a fine experience seeing and hearing them from a distance, as opposed to being in there with them. The home fans were far more in number – but, aside from the occasional ‘Ha’way The Lads’, there was little heard from them by way of chanting. There was, however, much grumbling in unison as they became increasingly frustrated by the match officials.
The game ended 0-0, which I suppose was perfect for us in that we were in a box full of Sunderland fans. They had been great company and hosts. And there were now pork pies on the table. I gifted Shaun with a couple of fanzines by way of thanks and look forward to hosting him for the return fixture on New Year’s Day.
Here’s Lee’s match vlog:
On our way out of the ground I was excited to spot Samson and Delilah, the Black Cats mascots. Much as we remain unsure what Black Cats have to do with Sunderland, we can see that they are a great marketing idea. Indeed there were soft toys of the Black Cats available to buy in the club shop.
On our walk back to the hotel, Lee was convinced we were going the wrong way, even though it was exactly they way we had come. He stopped walking and began checking Google Maps and wasn’t having any of it until I pointed out the phone box that had been ringing on our way past earlier on.
Back at the hotel I was soon in the Land of Nod after a long and tiring – but brilliant – day out. There was just one more thing to do before we headed home in the morning…
How could we not take a stroll down Roker Pier when it was literally just outside our hotel? We’d walked 18,640 steps around Sunderland yesterday but there was still room in the tank for a few more. Besides, Shaun had informed us that we might see dolphins from the pier, so this simply had to be done. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an actual dolphin.
The walk was longer than it looked. It made a change to walk along a pier without worrying about turning your ankle in a gap between planks. It wasn’t that blowy this morning and even at the end of the pier it wasn’t as blustery as you would normally expect. Alas there was no sign of dolphin action.
Now it was time to head home. On the playlist, Dave Stewart had led us to Shakespear’s Sister (who I enjoyed best) then Bananarama (Stewart was once married to Siobhan Fahey, who was in both of these bands), followed by dance tracks from the 1980s. My two Alpen Light bars hadn’t satisfied my hunger so we called in at some services for an emergency fruit stop. The journey home took a little over three hours. Sunderland is really not all that far away. I hope after reading the above you’ll take the time to visit and enjoy the delights and quirks of this passionate and wonderful football city.
Next Up: Blackpool v Watford.