START: Redcar, Redcar & Cleveland
DISTANCE: 14.5 miles (Total – 202.6 miles)
APPROXIMATE TIME: 5 hours
OS MAPS: OS Explorer 306
Having reached Berwick-upon-Tweed in a previous coastal walk (see Coastwalk #16) I wanted to say that I had been able to walk the entire North Eastern coastline from Scarborough to the Scottish border. However, I couldn’t truthfully say this, not with there being a big gap right on my doorstep in Teesside. Back in 2013 I had done a short hop along the coast between Redcar and Saltburn (see Coastwalk #2) followed the year after by a walk from the Teesmouth National Nature Reserve (NNR) to Hartlepool Headland (see Coastwalk #3). This meant that there was about a twenty mile gap between Redcar and Teesmouth NNR via Middlesbrough which needed to be filled in.
I had been waiting to do this walk for a good while, however I hadn’t really been looking forward to it as a good portion of the walk would be away from the coast and would involve a long sludge through unattractive heavy industry. Another problem was that there wasn’t a clear and safe route to follow, especially between Middlesbrough and Teesmouth NNR. There would be little problem walking from Redcar to Middlesbrough as the England Coast Path had recently been opened between these two towns. The main problem was that on the northern side of the Tees the England Coast Path was still mainly in the planning stages, therefore I would have had to walk alongside the busy A1178 road which links Middlesbrough (via the Transporter Bridge) to Hartlepool. Not a very pleasant journey.
Therefore I waited for the England Coast Path to be put in place. In the Spring of 2017 the River Tees Rediscovered Twitter page put photos on their Twitter feed that work had started on the England Coast Path along the A1178 road, so I was hoping I wouldn’t have to wait too long for the path to be finished, however after reaching Berwick I wanted to say I had definitively walked the North East coast before continuing on into Scotland, therefore I decided to plough on with filling in the twenty mile gap even if there wasn’t a path in place.
The twenty mile walk would take two days to do. On the first day I would walk from Redcar towards the mouth of the River Tees at South Gare and then continue inland towards Middlesbrough through the vast industrial zones that take up most of the land between the coast and Teesside’s largest town. On the second day I would cross the River Tees via the Transporter Bridge and then make my way through an area known as Seal Sands, which is also dominated by further heavy industry, before finally reaching Teesmouth NNR, and so the gap would be filled.
And so on day one I stepped off the bus in Redcar town centre and made the short journey to the start of the walk outside the Redcar Beacon. The £1.6 million “vertical pier” was opened to the public in 2013 and has received somewhat of a mixed reception since then, with one local councillor claiming it was little more than an 80ft high toilet block. A few locals wondered why a traditional horizontal pier couldn’t have been built instead to replace the one demolished in 1980. I have to admit I like the Beacon. I think it’s different and it should be something that the good people of Redcar should celebrate. It’s certainly been popular with visitors to the town. In it’s first year of business the Beacon welcomed 200,000 visitors.
It was a bit of a dank day when I arrived in Redcar and it was very misty out at sea. Heading westwards away from the Beacon, I soon came to the Regent Cinema (above) which is all that remains of the old Victoria Pier. Originally planned to be 2000ft in length, this was shortened by 200ft during construction when the Griffin and the Corrymbus crashed through the Pier during a storm in December 1874. Eventually opening in 1875 the Pier had two pavilions – one for band concerts and another for roller skating. The Pier was reasonably successful, however continuously suffered from storm damage and also had further bad luck when another ship – the Birger – caused a 300ft breach in October 1898, which led to the majority of the pier being demolished. The following year the company which owned the pier went bust and the pier was sold for scrap. The roller skating pavilion survived, however in 1910 it was demolished and replaced by a glass shelter called rather un-imaginatively as ‘the Glasshouse’. This too in 1928 was replaced by a new pavilion called (equally unimaginatively) the ‘New Pavilion’ which was then rebuilt as the Regent Cinema in 1964.
Just past the Regent Cinema was a ramp which led down from the sea wall on to the beach itself. In the distance I could just about make out in the murk the steelworks near South Gare. Filmgoers might just recognise the view below as this beach along with the old Victorian buildings along the seafront was used in a scene in the 2007 Oscar-winning film Atonement. During the summer of 2006 this part of Redcar was meticulously transformed into wartime Dunkirk and also adorned with thousands of extras dressed in military uniform to represent the uncountable numbers of Allied soldiers waiting to be evacuated to safety. The film, starring James McAvoy and Kiera Knightley, grossed over £129 million at the box office, won an Oscar amongst a number of other awards and most importantly put Redcar on the map.
Fortunately there weren’t thousands of film extras to wade through on this particular day. In fact the beach was almost deserted. It was a nice walk along the sands towards South Gare, despite the gloomy weather. Out at sea I could just about make out a large ship approaching the mouth of the River Tees at South Gare and from where I was stood it looked like the ship was about to plough right into the breakwater. Fortunately it was just an optical illusion and I could see the top of the ship glide by South Gare’s lighthouse as it made its way upriver towards Teesport.
On approaching South Gare I could begin to make out in the murk what looked like a giant oil rig a couple of miles out at sea. As I knew the oil rigs to be over a hundred miles out in the North Sea I assumed this too was just another optical illusion, however it wasn’t until I got home that I saw on the local news that the top part of an oil rig was being towed towards Seaton Carew on the world’s biggest ship where it would be broken up by Able UK.
The walk from Redcar to South Gare didn’t take too long and by the time I reached the breakwater the sun had come out and was blazing down. I climb a set of steps cut into the giant slabs of concrete that make up part of the massive man-made breakwater. Taking 23 years to construct from 1861 to 1884, 5 million tonnes of slag from local blast furnaces and 18,000 tons of cement was used to create the two-and-a-half mile long breakwater, which was eventually opened in 1888.
A lighthouse was built at the tip of the breakwater in 1884 and was in use the day I was there, guiding ships safely from the fog out at sea into the safe harbour of the River Tees. A gun battery was also put in place at South Gare in 1891 as part of a system of coastal defences designed to protect the mouth of the Tees and its hugely important maritime trade. Parts of the old battery structure still exist just down the road from the lighthouse, along with a few gun emplacements now crumbling into history. A number of pillboxes are also dotted along South Gare and the surrounding areas highlighting the strategic importance of the breakwater and the nearby heavy industry during World War Two.
I had a little break at South Gare and just took in the scenery for a few minutes. There was a cracking view down the coast towards Redcar and the sun was doing its best to burn some of the mist away. After a few minutes I decided to start off walking again as there was still plenty to do. I walked round the back of the British Sub-Aqua Club hut to get a view across the River Tees. The sun was beaming down on Seaton Carew, however its larger neighbour of Hartlepool was still drenched in mist rather than bathed in sunlight, and I was struggling to make out Hartlepool Headland further up the coast.
Working my way back on to the road, I walked past the Tees River Pilot building where the passage of all ships in and out of the Tees is controlled from. A little further on I walked past the old Teesmouth lifeboat station. There has been a lifeboat station at Teesmouth in some form since 1829 and the most recent station was founded in 1911. After saving dozens of lives over the years the station was eventually closed in 2006 as lifeboats from nearby Hartlepool and Redcar had been covering Teesmouth making the existence of a lifeboat here impracticable (at least according to the powers that be).
I continued on down the road, making sure to get out of the way of a number of cars who were arriving at South Gare in increasing numbers, no doubt buoyed by the arrival of the sun. Down to my left in a little hollow amongst the dunes, silhouetted by the looming steel mills down the road was a large number of small fishermen’s huts painted in green (below). Ever since I was a child I’ve always wanted one of these charming fishing huts at South Gare.
The sun was starting to go back in as I continued down the road, having had its thirty minutes of fame. I passed a small harbour to my right called Paddy’s Hole, so named after the large number of Irish navvies who helped to construct the breakwater in the 19th century. Paddy’s Hole was littered with a large number of fishing boats resting on the river bed, waiting for the tide to rise so they could head back out to sea. I could also make out the dark smoking shape of Hartlepool Nuclear Power Station across the other side of the river. I would pass this in two days time on my way to Teesmouth NNR.
I continued down the road as it threaded its way through the dunes towards the steelworks. The looming steelworks are now silent, having been closed by Thailand-based steel company SSI in 2015 following a global slump in steel prices. Over 2,000 jobs were lost as a result of the closure. As I approached the steelworks, they were eerily quiet. Every time I’ve been to South Gare I’ve passed the steelworks which were always noisy and in full flow. This time everything was deadly quiet, matching the dreams and fortunes of local people who have been left devastated by the closure of the steelworks. It was a sad sight to behold and I only hope that the closure of the steelworks is not permanent.
It took a little while to make my way around the edge of the steelworks. The wind was blowing through the giant steel plant making an eerie sound. As the sun had gone in too it made the scene very strange and a little spooky. I could see the railway lines which once transported large wagons of freshly created steel to markets both domestic and foreign now rusting and overgrown.
Eventually the road came to the little village of Warrenby after passing over the remains of an old level crossing which still had the old rails connected to crumbling wooden sleepers. This marked the old railway line which once passed through Warrenby (which had its own railway station until 1978) until the line was diverted to allow for the expansion of the steelworks.
Warrenby village itself is unusual in that it no longer has a permanent residential population (with the exception of Marsh Farm House at its westernmost edge.) Warrenby was originally known as Warrenstown (so called because of the thousands of rabbits who lived on the site prior to construction) and was set up to provide homes for workers at the new ironworks nearby. By 1881 over 700 people lived in the new village which soon boasted a hotel, a school and a church. The small village received a huge shock in the summer of 1895 when a massive boiler explosion at the ironworks killed 11 men. As the decades passed the village became more and more dilapidated. Even by the 1970s many houses were without modern conveniences such as electricity or inside toilets. Many of the houses were demolished during the 1970s and by 1983 when the last house was demolished, all of the village’s residents had been moved into more comfortable housing in Redcar. All that is left nowadays is modern industrial units and the dilapidated remains of the old school and St Mary’s Church (which is now used as a car repair workshop).
About halfway through the village, just before I got to the old church, was a footpath sign which pointed towards Coatham Marsh. Managed by Tees Valley Wildlife Trust since 1982, the 54 hectare nature reserve is home to 200 species of bird and a large variety of wildflowers despite its proximity to heavy industry. It is certainly a nice place to walk through as I followed the path through the reserve (which was also the start of the Teesdale Way), passing by a couple of lakes which had a number of wildfowl swimming on them. The reserve isn’t entirely natural. The lakes are man-made, created by the extraction of large quantities of soil used in the nearby steelworks to cap mounds of furnace slag. Small mounds which are dotted throughout the nature reserve are also believed to mark where salt extraction took place during medieval times.
The reserve is split in two by the Middlesbrough to Redcar railway line and I had to cross over the line via a metal bridge to reach the southern part of Coatham Marsh. A short walk through this part of the reserve eventually led me to the main Trunk Road which runs between Middlesbrough and Redcar. The next mile and a half was fairly non-descript as I followed the footpath next to the road. A little further on the road crossed over a goods railway line and a group of industrial pipes. At the end of the bridge was a memorial to seven RAF servicemen (right) who were killed on the night of the 17th December 1942 when their Lancaster bomber was mistaken for enemy aircraft and shot down by an anti-aircraft gun near Warrenby. The plane crashed 200 metres to the west of this memorial plaque.
THE BLACK PATH
Just past the bridge was a sign for the Teesdale Way (now part of the England Coast Path) which pointed down a set of steps and then continued on alongside the goods railway line. This was the start of what is known locally as the Black Path. The next few miles are, in all truthfulness, probably the most unusual strength of the England Coast Path. The path for the most part is wedged between a railway line and a long line of gas pipes, passing through one of the most heavily industrialised parts of the UK. To say the scenery is interesting is stretching things a little.
The Black Path was once a well-used route linking Middlesbrough with the iron and steelworks near Redcar. Not so much anymore. I didn’t pass a single soul on this entire stretch of the walk. The next couple of miles passed without much in the way of interest. I should have continued further along the Black Path towards Middlesbrough however a sign just past the Tees Dock Road stated that the footpath was closed due to the demolition of a factory and therefore I would have to divert through Grangetown and re-join the Teesdale Way at South Bank railway station. This added an extra couple of miles on to the walk which I didn’t really need at this point as my legs were starting to get tired. Unfortunately I couldn’t argue with the sign so I trudged down the Tees Dock Road towards Grangetown.
After crossing the unusually quiet A66, which is normally teeming with traffic, I followed a footpath through a small wooded section of land and quickly ended up in Grangetown. Grangetown owes its existence to the discovery of iron ore in the nearby Eston Hills in 1840. This newly mined iron ore needed to be processed and so a whole new plethora of foundries and factories were built on the bank of the Tees in the subsequent decades. Of course these new foundries and factories needed workers to operate them, and so in the 1880s Grangetown came into being to house the new ironworkers and their families. By 1914 Grangetown was a large community of 5000 people, the majority of whom (well those of working age anyway) were employed in the iron and steel industry.
Following the Second World War Grangetown had gained the name ‘Cardboard City’ from residents of neighbouring South Bank (which was known locally as ‘Slaggy Island’) as a result of the numerous pre-fabricated houses built in the 1950s. Since the decline of the iron and steel industry, along with the nearby docks in the latter half of the 20th century (a story all too familiar in the North East) Grangetown’s fortunes have declined too. Unemployment has been rife. As has crime. Streets of dilapidated Victorian housing have been demolished and replaced with nothing, just empty roads leading through wasteland to nowhere. I got a strong sense of this by just walking down one street through Grangetown – Bolckow Road (so named after Henry Bolckow, a Victorian industrialist responsible for the development of the iron industry in Teesside). House after house had boarded up windows. Litter lined the streets. People were sat outside their houses with nothing to do. It was a shame as I’ve heard about the strong sense of community the people of Grangetown once had, but this has almost been completely sucked out of them by decades of neglect.
At the end of Bolckow Road, I turned right on to Church Lane. This road soon reached the A66 which had to be crossed before I could continue on my way along Eston Road through another industrial estate. In the distance I could make out an old Dorman Long coke oven tower. Dorman Long, once a local firm but no longer located in Teesside, are internationally renowned for their bridge building expertise. Founded in 1875 in Middlesbrough by Arthur Dorman and Albert de Lande Long, Dorman Long were responsible for building with Teesside iron and steel many iconic bridges throughout the British Empire and beyond. From the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle (built in 1928) to the Sydney Harbour Bridge (built in 1932) there is Teesside steel in various places around the globe. By the start of the First World War Dorman Long employed 20,000 people and were also responsible for opening the steelworks at Redcar in 1917. In 1967 Dorman Long along with 13 other steel merged to form British Steel. The company still exists in some form today. Although it is now based in Northamptonshire, Dorman Long Technology is still helping to build some iconic buildings across the world including Wembley Stadium in London.
After another mile or so of traversing through the industrial estate I eventually came to South Bank railway station where I could re-join the Teesdale Way. The next couple of miles were also fairly nondescript as the path was wedged in between the Middlesbrough to Redcar railway line and a large bit of waste ground. All was not grim however as I could see the Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough in the distance which was my destination for today’s walk.
After a while the Teesdale Way followed Ormesby Beck, which was flowing a bit sluggishly in a man made culvert next to the path. Soon the path came to a pub, the Navigation Inn, where I had to turn right along Marsh Road and cross the railway line. This led me on to Dockside Road which I followed until I reached the Riverside Stadium (below), home of Middlesbrough Football Club since 1995.
MIDDLEHAVEN DOCK – I passed through the stadium’s empty car park and then crossed a bridge over the old cut that led into Middlehaven Dock. The dock was empty today, however not long ago this would have been a very busy place, filled with dozens of ships loading and unloading their cargos. When the dock first opened in 1842, Middlesbrough was still a brand new port with Stockton further upstream being the premier port on the River Tees.
The building of the dock wasn’t quite straightforward as people were expecting it to be. The contract for excavating the dock was handled by a Joseph Briggs, whose son divided it amongst a group of sub-contractors. One of the sub-contractors, Peter McKenna, faced problems from a number of English navvies who refused to work for the low wages on offer, so Mr McKenna employed Irish navvies instead. On their first day of work on 23rd March 1840 the Irishmen were immediately set upon by the furious English navvies who pelted them with stones in order to drive them off site. A week later the same happened again, however when the Irish navvies fled they were pursued by a large group of 800 angry people who were brandishing a variety of weapons including spades and pitch forks. Many of the Irishmen were severely beaten and left for dead. The remainder of the Irish navvies sought refuge at a nearby farm where the farmer, John Parrington, held the mob at bay with a pistol until the Police arrived.
Over the years as ships increased in size and the volume of cargo handled at the dock grew, so to did the dock itself. Middlehaven Dock was extended a number of times throughout its history to meet growing demands, however by the latter half of the 20th century the dock was too small to meet modern shipping demands. Like Middlesbrough had replaced Stockton as the premier port on the Tees in the 19th century, the brand new Tees Dock further upstream opened in 1966 replaced Middlehaven as the main port on the river. Middlehaven muddled on for another fourteen years, however by 1980 the writing was on the wall. The dock was losing money rapidly and was badly in need of modernising. The decision was made to close the dock and the last boat left in July 1980, followed later by the demolition of the majority of the dockyard buildings.
From the mid 1990s onwards the former dock area underwent a massive regeneration programme. Parts of the old dock were filled in and a whole host of new buildings have been opened such as the Riverside Stadium and Middlesbrough College, bringing new life into one of the more historic parts of Middlesbrough.
TEMENOS – Leaving the dock behind I immediately came across a massive blue structure which looked like a large fishing net. This is in fact Temenos (left). Opened in 2010, the £2.7 million structure was supposed to be part of a large artwork project across the Tees Valley which would see four other giant sculptures being built in each of the boroughs that make up the Tees Valley. Unfortunately funding ran out so Temenos is the only one that has been built.
DOCK CLOCK TOWER – A little further along from Temenos I came across an old brick clock tower. There has been a clock tower on this site since 1847 although the current one dates from the late 19th century. Even though the clock tower has four sides there are clocks on only three of the tower’s faces. As the clock tower was paid for by subscription the local shipyard and ironworks refused to pay for a clock as they didn’t want their workers to clock watch whilst they should be working.
The unusual design of the tower with its large base and narrow clock tower top is in fact down to its original dual use as a clock tower and a water tower to provide hydraulic power for the docks gates and cranes. The water was housed in the tower’s bulky bottom.
VULCAN STREET – Following the clock tower I walked along Vulcan Street. Just before I got to the Transporter Bridge there was a large decorative brick wall next to the roadside which was the remains of the southern wall of the Cleveland Salt Works which used to exist on this site and dates from 1887.
Past the wall I rounded a corner and finally reached the Transporter Bridge, the destination of today’s walk. The Bridge had closed half an hour before so rather than crossing it as I originally had planned to do, I walked back into Middlesbrough Town Centre where I could get the bus home.
Whilst it hadn’t been the most scenic walk I had ever done, it was certainly one of the more interesting ones. I got a taste of the industrial history that makes Teesside what it is today, from medieval saltworks at Warrenby to modern steelworks in Redcar. It has been interesting to read up about the stories of entire communities which were built up around these factories such as Warrenby and Grangetown. Middlesbrough too owes its very existence to the burgeoning iron industry in the 19th century.
Next up on the coastwalk was to fill in the remainder of the “missing gap” by crossing the Transporter Bridge and then trying to find a safe route between Port Clarence and Teesmouth Nature Reserve via Seal Sands. I was looking forward to this next walk as it is a part of Teesside which I’ve never really bothered with and I was hoping it wouldn’t disappoint. In two days time I would find out whether it would or not.
The Black Path