Soundtrack to Slow Ways: the North East


Sam Fender, Florence and the Machine and George McCrae: Saira shares her Slow Ways journey in the North East through song

For my first Slow Ways journey of the year, I decided to head up to Sunderland. I had never been to the North before. My choice of location was in part inspired by the Sam Fender song Wild Grey Ocean. I’d listen to it on repeat while gazing out onto the English Channel while living in Brighton. I wondered what ocean Sam was talking about. Then one evening, I watched the music video on YouTube and subsequently got sucked into reading the comments underneath it. Many northerners shared micro-stories: of love, longing and heartbreak. They shared memories of growing up by the North Sea, the Wild Grey Ocean, in the towns that existed on its shores: North Shields, South Shields and, further down, Sunderland.

I knew very little about the areas I was planning on visiting. I’d read that the North East had the highest suicide rates and amongst the highest child poverty rates in England. I’d read that the area had a strong religious past, and a rich industrial heritage. I’d heard stories of monks, and miners. I vaguely associated the region with football, the fishing industry, distinct accents, and varying dialects. I knew of notable people that hailed from the area: actor Rowan Atkinson, film director Ridley Scott and radio DJ Lauren Laverne.

During my short time in the North East, I came to know Sunderland as a small, proud and friendly city – a place that seemed both foreign and familiar. I came to know the neighbouring places (South Shields, Whitburn, Seaham, Durham) as places of mystery and wonder.

Here’s my journey through song.

The War on Drugs – Thinking of a Place

I love The War on Drugs’ music. Their songs are often evocative, steeped in nostalgia, coloured with metaphors and imagery. I listened to this track on the train to Newcastle. It was still dark when I left London; I watched the sun rise from the train window as it flit further and further away. Hours later it pulled into Newcastle, passing the iconic Angel of the North. The sun was blinding in the bluer-than-blue sky. I wandered around the city, through Quayside and over Gateshead Millennium Bridge and back around over the swing bridge. After some time, I got the bus to Sunderland from outside Newcastle Castle.

I’m moving through the dark ~ Of a long black night ~
Just moving with the moon ~ And the light it shines ~
And I’m thinking of a place ~ And it feels so very real ~
Just moving through the dark

The War on Drugs – Thinking of a Place

I arrived in Sunderland a few hours before sunset. My home for the next week, I wandered around, in attempts to orientate myself. I took in the towering housing blocks, the streets that made up the town centre, the busy McDonalds. It was frenetic, noisy, and cold.

I always get this strange feeling when entering a new place, a blank canvas waiting to be filled. It’s a mix of anticipation and uncertainty, disorientation and freedom.

There’s a line in this song that gets me, it’s a simple line: “I’m thinking of a place.” A place… a place. What makes a place? I often wonder. Those fleeting moments – fragments of experience. A series of images, of sounds, and feelings: these are the things that create a place, or rather a picture of a place and when we think of that place, we piece them all together. Slow Ways journeys often feel like nostalgia in the making.

Years from now, what will I think of, when I think of Sunderland? A flash of the river Ware, the moon, shadows on sheets, teenagers congregating outside the shopping centre, the council estates, the colourful community board with Sunderland words on it…

Would I think of that hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeaway; everyone who worked there was of a different background, a different ethnicity and age and it was filled with warmth and laughter. Would I think of the guy behind the counter whose northern accent was so strong, that I was too embarrassed to ask him to repeat what he said for the third time and ended up taking away a meal that I didn’t order.

Sam Fender – Wild Grey Ocean

Sam Fender’s Wild Grey Ocean, the song that drew me to the North East. I listened to it as I walked from Whitburn to South Shields. The sky was overcast. The ocean was raging. It was wilder than wild. The cliffs were diminishing, as the sea edged closer and closer to the path.

Wild grey ocean buried in my eyes ~
The coast town muscles through weekdays and nine to fives ~
I finish work and compartmentalise ~
With the wild grey ocean buried in my eyes

Sam Fender – Wild Grey Ocean

I love this song. It tells a story. In part, I think it’s about feeling stuck in a place (a physical place and a place in your life). It’s about waiting, longing, and feeling left behind. It’s about love lost and ‘good time’ friends – it’s about being a ghost in your hometown. The ocean exists as a backdrop to the story. The ocean: a witness, a catalyst, a fierce living entity eroding memories as it sweeps away a world.

A remote route, on a nowhere winter’s afternoon – at the start of a new year. I walked by horses on a mount, the path was muddy and wet. I love the saxophone riff towards the end of the song. I passed by a labyrinth, it looked otherworldly. I wandered down to the beach at Marsden Bay.

The song reminds me of King Krule’s Rock Bottom. Filmed by the Kent Coast, near the Isle of Grain, the song permeates a stagnation, a sense of feeling stuck in a place you don’t want to be, doing something you don’t want to be doing. It signals repeating the same cycle – maybe a cycle of poverty, of unrest, of emotional turmoil.

I grew up in a working-class household in South London with my six siblings. I started working at seventeen and over the next decade job-hopped from place to place, feeling a deep sense of frustration and restlessness; ever-dreaming of an escape. The words and sentiments behind both songs spoke to me.

And I’m sick of working dead end jobs with lame pay ~
And I’m tired of being hired and fired the same day

King Krule – Rock Bottom

The stretch of coastal landscape towards the Isle of Grain and South Shields both feel desolate in their own way. There’s a sense of being at the edge of everything, where only the ocean remains. There were also derelict artillery forts and pill boxes on both trails, burn scars and graffiti, remnants of industrial and urban activity alike.

It started to rain as I got to South Shields. I wandered into the town centre, took in the high street, town hall and shops. I settled in a Subway and drank tea as the sky outside darkened and condensation clung to the doors…

George McCrae – You Can Have it All

It was a beautiful day. I set off early to check a route from Sunderland to Seaham. The sun rose as I trod through the back roads of the city, into the suburbs and then further out onto the coastal path. It was bright, and light and I felt jubilant. I bopped along to You Can Have it All, an upbeat number by American soul and disco singer George McCrae as I went. Unlike many of the other songs I listened to during my trip, this one was markedly joyful and energetic. I fell into step with the rhythm of the song.    

You can have it ~ You can have it ~ Have it all ~ Have it all

George McCrae – You Can Have it All

It was a stunning walk, it mostly followed the coastal path. On the way, I stopped off at a beach. It felt like a hidden gem, a well-kept secret. With every step I took, I drifted further away from the city, the marshy path felt as though it stretched endlessly. I walked out of Sunderland and into County Durham.

Sticking to the route, I bypassed the Glass beach. I kept on walking after I reached the end point of the route, the train station. I walked into the centre of town, explored the shopping centre and the high street. I had a cup of tea at Costa and carried on to Nose’s Point, the start of the Durham Heritage Coastal path, where I settled on the grass and looked out at the bay.

Eventually, I wandered back into town and got the bus back to Sunderland. As I watched the world from the bus window, I wondered if I could live in Sunderland. I wondered what my life would look like. I could go for daily walks by the sea, read in Waterstones in the shopping centre, I could go to the library often, and the beautiful winter garden filled with palms next door. I loved visiting the koi fish in their pond. Working at Slow Ways, I’ve come to believe that there are a lot of places I could live, places I could learn to call home.

Anoushka Shankar & Karsh Kale – Sea Dreamer (feat. Sting)

I listened to Sea Dreamer as I walked from Sunderland to Whitburn. It was grey and cold and damp. I wandered over the bridge. I passed the University of Sunderland, the National Glass Centre and Sunderland Marina.

Wish that I could build a bridge across the sea ~
And the secrets of the moonlight would carry me ~
Where the sun meets the water and the sky breaks free ~
That’s where I’ll be

Anoushka Shankar & Karsh Kale – Sea Dreamer (feat. Sting)

I stopped off at Roker beach. I looked out towards the lighthouse and the boundless sea. We’re on an island, water surrounds us and there are so many sea dreamers: fishermen, lighthouse keepers, swimmers, walkers… all drawn in by the pull of the tide.

Sting (Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner) the musician and actor, is from the North. He was born and grew up in Wallsend. In one interview he admitted he hated growing up in the region and spent his youth “plotting to escape”. We don’t get to choose where we’re born. We’re defined by our turning away from places, from escaping them as much as we are for staying. The boundless sea, a symbol for freedom and openness could just easily make you feel stuck: landlocked and claustrophobic. I enjoyed this route’s cold wind and sea views.

Florence and the Machine – St Jude

I took the bus to Durham. I’d intended to check a Slow Ways route but I arrived at midday and knew it would be getting dark soon. So instead, I wandered around town. There were eldely Christian preachers preaching by the bridge over the river Ware. A young girl sung karaoke out of tune. I walked to the river, I walked up and down a stretch of it. The light was beautiful. The city was beautiful.

And I’m learning so I’m leaving ~ And even though I’m grieving ~
I’m trying to find a meaning ~ Let loss reveal it ~
Let loss reveal it ~ St Jude, the patron saint of the lost causes

Florence and the Machine – St Jude

I walked up to Durham Cathedral. It was closed to the public as the graduation ceremonies were taking place. The green outside it was packed with crowds of students from all walks of life dressed in long robes – all around them proud parents and siblings beamed. I snuck into the cathedral for a wander. It was spectacular.

Later, I went inside the cathedral shop. I read about St Cuthbert, St Hilda and St Bede. I’d always been interested in saints and the lives they led. Saints are recognised as having an exceptional degree of holiness or closeness to God. I’d always wanted to visit Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, St Cuthbert’s later hermitage. I hope I’ll have a chance next time I visit the North.

On my last day, I went back to Roker Beach for a walk. I looked for shells and glass and seaweed. I then went back into town, and settled upstairs in Waterstones where I enjoyed a cup of tea and listened to people chat. There’s something so enjoyable about being a stranger in a new city, a city that very quickly becomes familiar.


I’d intended to review all the Slow Ways routes in Sunderland during my trip. Unfortunately due to train strikes and an awful bout of food poisoning that knocked me out for a few days, I only managed to check a small number!

Music kept me company, in the days when I was walking on my own on quiet paths and on the nights when I was stuck in my room, sick. It allowed me to connect to the places I travelled through, and although I don’t listen to music on all my Slow Ways journeys, often the right song gives me a boost of energy or comfort when I most need it.

Do you ever listen to music while out checking Slow Ways? Share your #SoundtracktoSlowWays or #WaylistPlaylist

Saira Niazi
For as long as she can remember, Saira's loved wandering around, discovering new places, talking to strangers and recording her adventures. When she was in school she would often bunk off and end up exploring markets, museums, city streets and suburbs. She leads wandering tours, writes, and is Slow Ways' Community Story Lead.