Pictured: Coming out onto High Street West from Church Lane, routes in Sunderland that have existed for over a thousand years.
The town of Sunderland emerged in the early modern era as a Coalesce of a number of smaller villages. While there was Monkwearmouth to the north, and other areas further afield, central to this effort was the gradual merging of the settlements of Bishopwearmouth and the original “Sunderland” village situated to the East, brought about by an explosion in population and urban growth led by industrialization.
It would be in the year 1835 that the first combined “Borough of Sunderland” was created, formally and administratively binding the settlements together, which would continually expand hereafter. But before this, there was nothing but open land situated between this area of Bishopwearmouth (where the Minster stands now) and the village of Sunderland to the East (where Holy Trinity Church stands).
These small villages were linked by a number of roads which have stood the test of time over the ages. One of these oldest and most consistently important roads, is what we call “High Street” today, which acted as the primary thoroughfare from Bishopwearmouth Parish to the Sunderland village, a route in which people would have travelled to church every week. Although the general shape and route of the road has not changed significantly the course of a thousand years, at the time it was known as “King’s Road”.
The change of the street’s name to “High Street” is something which occurred in the modern era, particularly as the road evolved from a rough route linking two settlements to a cohesive street within one larger town. Although in modern terminology we use the term “High Street” as something descriptive to denote the premier shopping area of a given city, in this context the name “High Street” in Sunderland was derived from geography. It was the street which was “Higher up” on the riverbank, and existed in parallel with what was also known as Sunderland “Low Street”. The name King’s Road simply became obselete.
Despite this, High Street remains one of the oldest continuous routes in the city of Sunderland. It goes along with three other main routes which also existed in the early Middle Ages, that being 1) The Durham Road 2) Chester Road 3) Hylton Road (then called Newcastle Road as Hylton was the easiest crossing point). When you look at it at this angle (as you can see from the map above), the road structure of Sunderland has actually not changed much overtime. The town built itself around pre-existing routes.