Back in the days of swashbuckling lore, a legend was born. In 1782, Jack Bates (who later became known as Jack the Blaster) used dynamite to blast a large cave into the side of a coastal cliff in Marsden Bay located in South Shields, Tyne & Wear, England. Not only did he create a built-in, rent-free home, he also secured the perfect location for smugglers and pirates to hide their never-ending contraband.
Because of its odd, precarious locale, the dwelling turned into something of a tourist attraction. Bates and his wife capitalized on the structure’s newfound fame by charging patrons and serving refreshments.
From there, the Marsden Grotto was born … and remains one of Europe’s only “cave bars”. Over the centuries, the bar changed hands countless times. The only constant? Jack the Blaster’s ghost – which lives on in infamy. “A lot of people want to know if ghosts of the grotto have been active recently,” said Dan Flint, Manager of The Grotto. “The legend of Jack the Blaster says that if a drink does not get left out for him at night, he is not happy … and he would trash the bar area for staff to wake up to a mess!”
The Grotto’s popularity exploded in the late 50’s & throughout the 60’s – when pub-happy patrons would spend lazy summer days enjoying a pint and breathing in fresh, sea air. A state-of-the-art lift was built in 1952 to shuttle patrons from the car park several stories up. Before that, guests would have to use an elaborate zig-zag staircase to maneuver down to the grounds. The Grotto’s first restaurant opened in 1960.
Over the years, the evolution of the Grotto’s underground lair has included the addition of an Inn, an all-day café and a wrap-around beach bar with some jaw-dropping views of the North Sea. “When the tide is in, it feels like you are on a ship and when the tide is out the beaches are good enough to rival any in Europe,” said Flint. “It’s exciting when the dolphins are chasing the mackerel. They can be seen in pods playing right out of our restaurant windows.”
Many locals find it a family-friendly getaway. “Look at that view! This is my setting,” said Kevin Moore of Sunderland. “Rain, snow or blow … it’s all about natural beauty. Plus, the beach and the rock climbing keeps the kids entertained.” It still remains a draw for tourists – including incoming cruise ships that can often be seen dotting the horizon.
The heritage of the Marsden Grotto is seeing a resurgence since undergoing new ownership earlier this year. “I grew up coming here and The Grotto is iconic,” said Mark Fisher of Cleadon Village. “For a few years, it fell in to disrepair, but now it’s been spruced up. Talk about raising the bar. They’ve done a great job of finding the balance between new and nostalgia … pub and posh.”
Grotto owners have unveiled a spirited, new cocktail list as well as revamped their seafood-centric menu – one that includes tried-and-true pub favorites like battered cod mingled alongside updated offerings like paella, garlic mussels and seafood flatbread. “The cod is the size of a small whale on your plate,” added Flint.
Up next? Updating the first floor of the Grotto to a cozy 10-room boutique hotel which is set to open later this summer. Along the way though, the new owners are determined to keep the Grotto’s sentimental charm intact. “Locals are very keen for the Grotto to thrive once again like it did in the 60’s,” said Flint. “Times have changed and the Grotto has to change with them, but – let’s face it – you can’t get much closer to the North Sea.”
Coast Rd, South Shields NE34 7BS, UK
Open 10am-10pm daily
Other nearby fave places:
Goa Exemplary, 5-6 Queens Parade, Sunderland SR6 8DA, UK
As the Brits say, “Fancy a curry?” Well, this upscale Indian restaurant not only offers spectacularly spicy Indian cuisine, but sports some gorgeous North Sea views from its second story locale | SAVE PLACE*
Sunderland’s endless seafront buzzes with activity in July when one of Europe’s largest, free air shows roars into action. There’s plenty of fun for spectators overhead as well as down at ground level.