SUNDERLAND once made a quarter of all the world’s ships in its famous yards.

A home for the maritime sector, the River Wear was an industrial mainstay for hundreds of years.

Black and white pictures capture such halcyon days, as huge vessels, some pulled along by tug boats, leave the region’s waters to cheers and applause from gathered onlookers.

Loading article content

In one, a crowd flout strict no parking signs to line their Rovers, Corsairs, Vivas and Hillman Minxs alongside the water’s edge to get a better view.

The fanfare was more than justified.

Sunderland was once called the biggest shipbuilding town in the world, with records showing yards date back to 1346 when Thomas Menville opened in Hendon.

By the 1900s, more than 12,000 men, a third of the town’s adult population, were down by the river.

However, by 1988, the sector, which had employed 7,500 people just a decade earlier, collapsed under Far-East competition, neglect and short-sightedness.

A year later, shipbuilding on the Wear was simply a memory.

Today, the area has a different complexion.

Where once mighty seafaring vessels were born, the University of Sunderland’s St Peter’s campus and the National Glass Museum dominate the scene.

But that different outlook still retains a familiar feel.

Across the water, opposite the university and glass sites, ships are docked at the Port of Sunderland.

Giant yellow cranes and accompanying forklift trucks rule the quayside, busily lifting and carrying a delivery of pulp bales from Sweden.

The cargo arrives in the North-East before going off to firms to be transformed into kitchen roll and toilet tissue.

Nearby, a large bucket pivots from wagon to ship, picking and dropping grain ahead of exportation, while elsewhere, subsea equipment is being prepared for departure.

Watching from the glass centre, the activity is framed perfectly, with our room’s three windows offering a view into the differing activities.

Matthew Hunt, the port’s director, smiles as he looks on, squinting against the bright, low watery sun.

The port, which covers about 265 acres, is a crucial cog in the region’s economic wheel.

In 2014, it helped import more than 520,000 tonnes of goods, while total cargo for the year stood in excess of 690,000 tonnes.

Within that, the port has now processed its one millionth tonne of pulp for Swedish partner, Sodra, an organisation that represents more than 50,000 forest owners in southern Sweden.

It’s a major achievement and one Mr Hunt is keen to celebrate.

But it’s a delight tempered by outside influences, and Mr Hunt is honest enough to admit the port is facing challenges.

The offshore sector is struggling against a prolonged lull in the value of oil.

It means operators are suffering project cancellations and in some cases redundancies, and it is one reason why the port, which provides employment for hundreds of people both directly and through the supply chain, is striving to build its presence.

Diversification, says Mr Hunt, is critical, giving a nod towards the window to the pulp and grain work to emphasise his point.

He said: “We are celebrating with a small c, because market conditions are a little bit hard at the moment.

“A lot of us have been around for a while, and our port and the supply chain have had some good times.

“But we are in a situation and there are challenges around traditional markets, such as oil, gas and renewables.

“The biggest impact we have seen is the reduction in project work.

“We have always had project work in our back pocket year-on-year, and some of that has been unbudgeted, which was our Brucie Bonus, if you like.

“But some of that is drying up.

“However, we have been around the block a few times and we will cast our minds back to how we got through before to do it again.

“We need to focus on diversification and the pulp and grain are testament to that.

“We are much in the development stage of this asset and we are in it for the long-haul.

“The pieces of the jigsaw are coming together.”

Mr Hunt says that puzzle is being made all the easier thanks to bosses’ foresight.

Where it may have been easy to sit back and wait for the energy sector to regain its previous market intensity, the port’s growing footprint is evidence of the exact opposite.

By acting now, says Mr Hunt, a platform will be laid that should allow further expansion when oil and gas disorder subsides.

Its vessels aside, the port provides premises and land for companies to carry out work and store goods.

That focus was enhanced by a £1m investment to deliver hardstanding for its Jubilee and Greenwells quays, a move Mr Hunt says created more space and could lead to further businesses using the site.

The port has also revitalised its rail link, and is again connected to the main line after a near 15-year hiatus.

Once again, the move is designed to stretch the port’s attractiveness to potential investors and allow it to secure new work.

For Mr Hunt, the short-term gains will deliver long-haul achievements.

He also said the port will benefit from the nearby Wear Crossing, which will be first bridge built in Sunderland for more than 40 years when it opens in 2018.

He said: “We have a big estate here that contains some real value.

“£1m is a lot of money and when we spend something it is big bucks and it is a big investment.

“Energy markets are in the doldrums at the moment, but they will come back.

“We are getting things ready for when it does, and it will offer us more at the port for project laydowns and storage.

“But we have to have an eye on diversity, and that’s why the port is loading grain, unloading pulp and handling subsea equipment.

“We have got an awful lot of good things going on in Sunderland at the moment, which includes the new Wear Crossing.

“That is going to be an iconic landmark for the North-East, and will allow greater connectivity in and around the city centre.

“With the bridge comes better road connections; they are already pretty good, but this will make it better and open up more commercial opportunities for the port.

“For us, we have got to continue developing our infrastructure, such as the cranes, warehousing and forklifts.

“We can now receive into the port from the main line and have a port and a rail line in a city centre.

“All the parts are ready to go.”