The Lost Landscape of Roker Beach: “The Holy Rock”

Roker beach is one of the best assets in the city of Sunderland, and it’s one which with time has aged like fine wine. With the sprawling beach, the golden sand, the accompanying park, and the newly renovated promenade, there are few better choices for a day out in the city especially during summer.

The resort of course has been gradually built on a series of magnesian limestone cliffs, of which over the years have been carved out by the sea. If you want to see what this looks like naturally without human interference, then one can always visit Ryhope Beach. Roker on the other hand, was an area that following the end of Hendon Beach in the mid 1850s (following the building of the port) experienced rapid development and had to be subject to “modifications”.

As a result, once upon a time Roker seafront looked very different, and the cliffs where what is known as “the cat and dog steps” are located, before the modern walkway was built, used to be much, much larger than what they were today. This area, up until the late 1930s, became known as “The Holy/Holey” Rock, which once acted as a physical blockade between Roker and Seaburn.

A drawing of the Holy Rock in 1858

The Holy Rock was an enormous cliff feature which was named not because of any religious or historical significance, but because it had massive caverns and caves carved out of it which were bigger than anywhere else, giving it a unique appearance and interest as an attraction and as you can see from the drawing above, it was possible to go inside of them.

However, the constant force of the sea against these dissolvable rocks obviously means that they are prone to large-scale erosion, which means the Holy Rock, whilst a marvel to look at, was ultimately a huge liability and not save for what was obviously a booming seaside resort. By the mid 1930s, this had become a serious problem as it began to crumble.

Rare colourized image of the Rock

As a result, Sunderland’s authorities made the decision in 1937 to demolish the Holy Rock altogether. In doing so, they cut away the front face of the rock and built around the bottom the walkway we know today along with the cat and dog steps, connecting Roker’s beachfront in turn with Seaburn.