Carved into the 112-foot cliffs towering over Marsden beach, is arguably Britain’s most unusual restaurant. And the history of these caves is as turbulent as the North Sea washing onto the pebbled beach. With characters such as “Jack the Blaster” and “Peter the Hermit” – and a smuggler’s ghost to boot – the stories around the Marsden Grotto abound.
It Is Either 119 Twisting Steps Down Or…
Driving along the coastal road to the Marsden Grotto, one wouldn’t know there is a wonderful delight hidden under the rocks. From road level, all that is visible is a square tower and an arched entrance.
We parked and walked to the cliff’s edge. The steps down looked a bit slippery (it had been raining earlier) and rather steep. Thankfully, we didn’t have to navigate the 119 twisting steps down to the beach. The Grotto has a lift! 😁
Walking through the tunnel to the lift is an experience in itself – it feels as if you are about to step into something very different – another world, maybe. I felt strangely excited, and we hadn’t even set foot in the caves yet!
We Can’t Pay Rent, So Let’s Live In A Cave
In 1782, “Jack the Blaster” was working as a lead miner at Allenheads. He lived with his family in nearby South Shields but ran into financial trouble. As he could no longer afford the rent on his house, he moved his family to Marsden Caves. Here he built steps down to the beach and made the natural cave, a home.
As you can imagine, Jack’s home was frequently flooded with seawater, so it could not have been easy living there at the time. Jack however, made the best of the situation. He enlarged the cavern to make it more comfortable – his mining experience certainly came in handy. 😉
People from nearby South Shields and Sunderland heard about the family living in a cave, and it became a bit of a spectacle. Locals would come out to Marsden to see for themselves how the cave dwellers lived. And Jack was quick to make a bit of money from it. Visitors could buy refreshments from Jack and his family, while they ogled this strange set-up. There were rumours though, that Jack made money via other avenues too – smuggling. Jack died a fairly wealthy man, ten years later.
Peter “The Hermit” Moves Into The Caves
Thirty years after Jack’s death, Peter “The Hermit” moved into the caves at Marsden. He took excavations to a whole new level, creating a 15-room house with a large ballroom and dining area. Peter raised the place from a bleak, deserted rock to that of a unique yet comfortable place of entertainment.
Crowds of holidaymakers came to the caves at Marsden. Peter and his family provided music, food, entertainment, and the place became a sought-after getaway spot.
The Smuggler’s Ghost
Sitting in the lounge enjoying drinks before dinner, we watched the waves break onto Marsden beach. The peace and tranquillity were remarkable. The only noise was from the seagulls outside and whispered conversations from other patrons. It is truly a place to relax and reflect, as I’m sure Jack the Blaster and Peter the Hermit did before us.
Over drinks, locals shared the story of “Jack the Jibber” – yet another colourful character from Marsden Grotto’s past. Jack the Jibber was one of the many smugglers who used the Marsden caves as a hideout. The story goes that Jack the Jibber was hoping to gain a reward from the government, so he betrayed his fellow smugglers to the coastguard. Customs men raided the cave but were unable to find any evidence of smuggling.
For many years afterwards (so the story goes) horrifying moans were heard from the cavern. It is said that these lamentations were that of Jack the Jibber who was caught by his betrayed friends, placed in a tub, and hauled up by a rope. He was left there to starve to death. It is said that Jack’s ghost can still be heard when the wind whips through the caves on a stormy day.
Food, Food, Food
Hearing the story of Jack the Jibber didn’t do anything to cause a loss of appetite. On the contrary, I was very much ready to eat!
Via an arch, carved through the solid rock, we entered the inner cavern. High vaulted ceilings, carved and blasted out of the cliff, topped the large dining area. The cave certainly didn’t feel cramped or claustrophobic, as I had expected. It is specious and tastefully decorated, with a marine theme, as can be expected.
The food – sirloin steak for me and sea bass for my partner – was juicy, tasty, and expertly prepared. And the service was exceptional – friendly and helpful.
This evening was so much more than just having dinner at any old restaurant. This was a true gastronomic experience – the food was excellent, the setting almost unreal, the history behind the venue fascinating and the service out of this world.
If you are looking for a real foody experience with fabulous history thrown in, the Grotto in Marsden would be my recommendation 😉