FINISH: Teesmouth National Nature Reserve, Hartlepool
DISTANCE: 7 miles
APPROXIMATE TIME: 3 hours
MAPS: OS Explorer 306
It was Bank Holiday Monday and unusually for a Bank Holiday it was sunny when I got off the bus at Middlesbrough Station. My destination was the Transporter Bridge where I had finished the last coastal walk (Coastwalk #18) and so from the bus station I headed through Middlesbrough Town Centre and then underneath the railway bridge near the town’s railway station. I was now in the historic heart of Middlesbrough.
If I was doing this walk 178 years ago I would have been journeying through a very different landscape to the one that exists now. Up until 1829 Middlesbrough consisted of a large farm on the south bank of the River Tees and was home to around 40 people. In prior centuries Middlesbrough had been the site of a Anglo-Saxon monastic cell belonging to Whitby Abbey, however this had been closed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537. In fact Middlesbrough most likely got its name (‘Mydilsburgh’) due to its location roughly halfway between the two holy sites of Durham Cathedral and Whitby Abbey…either that or some Anglo-Saxon bloke called ‘Mydil’ founded the settlement and decided to name it after himself.
Centuries of relative obscurity was all about to change in 1829 when the farm and its estate was purchased by a group of businessmen headed by Joseph Pease (whose father, Edward was behind the establishment of the Stockton and Darlington Railway). These businessmen set about creating a new port on the banks of the Tees to allow the shipment of coal mined in collieries in Durham to London and other markets around the country. This new port (named Port Darlington) would need new workers, and these new workers would need new houses and so a whole new town was built almost overnight on the site of the old Middlesbrough farm. By 1830 the Stockton and Darlington Railway had been extended to Middlesbrough and by 1841 the town’s population had exploded to 5,463, as had coal exports from the port which totalled 1.5 million tonnes in the same year. A new dock opened at Middlehaven in 1842 to handle the increasing coal traffic.
New businesses sprang up in the town including an iron foundry built by Henry Bolckow and John Vaughan who would soon become big names in the town. By the late 1840s the coal exporting trade was on the decline as new railways were able to move coals around the country much quicker than ships could, however Middlesbrough’s fortunes were set to rise even further. In 1850 iron ore was discovered in the hills in nearby Eston by John Vaughan and soon after the first blast furnace opened in town. A decade later there were over 40 furnaces in Middlesbrough, producing 500,000 tonnes of pig iron a year. The population of the town had spread even further. By 1861 it was over 18,000 and ten years later it was close to 40,000. More impressively iron forged in the town was used to construct railways and buildings across the globe.
Unsurprisingly Middlesbrough had replaced Stockton as the premier port on the Tees. A saying at the time showed how different settlements along the river had grown in importance at the expense of their more downstream rivals – ‘Yarm was, Stockton is, Middlesbrough will be’. Visitors to the town remarked on its remarkable growth including the then Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone (who would later become Prime Minister) who remarked in 1862, “This remarkable place, the youngest child of England’s enterprise, is an infant, but if an infant, an infant Hercules”.
By the 1870s steel had become Middlesbrough’s primary export and indeed its most famous one. Steel forged in Middlesbrough, like iron had been previously, was used in construction across the world including in the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle. A poem by North-East poet Ian Horn has been painted on a wall near the railway station and reminds us how much of Teesside’s iron and steel was used across the globe – “Where alchemists were born below Cleveland’s hills, A giant blue dragonfly across the Tees reminds us every night we built the world, Every metropolis comes from Ironopolis”.
“Ironopolis” refers to the nickname that Middlesbrough received at the height of its Victorian boom whereas the “blue dragonfly across the Tees” refers to the town’s most famous landmark – the Transporter Bridge, the start of today’s walk.
THE TRANSPORTER BRIDGE
It’s not hard to miss the Transporter Bridge as it can be seen for miles around. As I worked my way through the old historic part of Middlesbrough, now undergoing a massive regeneration scheme, the bridge towered above everything else.
Opened to great fanfare by Prince Arthur of Connaught on October 17th 1911, the Bridge has been ferrying people across the River Tees almost continuously ever since. Prior to the opening of the Bridge a ferry had been transporting people from Middlesbrough across to Port Clarence on the north bank, however as the decades passed and industry blossomed on both sides of the river, the ferry service was becoming increasingly unable to cope with the large numbers of passengers using it. As a result the townspeople of Middlesbrough look towards a bridge to solve the problem. The major issue with building a bridge on the Tees is two-fold. Firstly the banks of the Tees at Middlesbrough are relatively flat and with there being a large number of ships using the river then building a conventional bridge would not be a viable option and so a radical solution was needed.
Alderman Joseph MacLauchlan was the man who pushed for a revolutionary “transporter bridge”. This would basically involve building a huge metal frame across the river which was built high enough to allow large ships to pass unhindered underneath. Then a gondola would be suspended from the metal frame which would carry passengers across the river without disrupting the flow of traffic. Transporter bridges had already been built in Spain, France and the United States and by the time the Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough opened there were already over a dozen in operation across the world. The Bridge was built for a cost of £87,316 and even though there was a world famous bridge building company in nearby Darlington (Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company who would go on to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge amongst others) the Bridge was built by a Scottish company – Sir William Arrol & Co.
The Bridge was an instant success and by 1919 it was transporting up to 14,000 people a day across the Tees (for a total of 5.1 million passengers that year). As the years passed this number steadily declined due to new river crossings opening (such as Newport Bridge in 1934) and a decline in industry on both sides of the river. By the 1970s there were increasing calls for the Bridge to be shut down and demolished as the aging structure was in need of expensive repair works. One local councillor, Stephen Smailes, was a vocal critic of the Bridge saying it was only good for scrap and suicide attempts! However the Transporter Bridge has become Teesside icon over the years and as such has managed to resist all attempts to have it removed from the skyline especially as the cost of demolishing it would be too expensive (although there are still calls for it to be replaced by another bridge or a tunnel to provide a better link between Middlesbrough and Hartlepool).
In 2011 the Bridge celebrated its centenary with a huge firework display and an artistic performance to celebrate its history. Yours truly used the Transporter Bridge on its 100th birthday and I received a free complimentary booklet highlighting the bridge’s history. Since that time the Bridge has undergone a £2.6 million renovation scheme complete with a brand new gondola which I would use to cross the Tees.
Paying my 60p fare (which I think is an absolute bargain) I stepped into the gondola and ended up taking loads of photos of the Bridge. Even though its not too far from my house I’ve only ever been on the Transporter four times so I always think its a bit of a special occasion. I hope that the Bridge continues to ferry people across the Tees for as long as it can as it is such an icon in Teesside and it would be very sad to see it go.
The journey across the river takes about twenty seconds and was a very smooth ride despite the Bridge’s age. I disembarked on the Port Clarence side and followed a cycle path which headed away to the right of the Bridge. There was a great view up the river especially as I could see the Cleveland Hills from where I was stood, where all of the iron ore came from which powered Middlesbrough’s industrial boom.
I watched the Bridge’s gondola make its return trip across to Middlesbrough before continuing on my way along the cycle path. I headed underneath a railway bridge which led me into the eastern end of Port Clarence. The village of Port Clarence was once known as Samphire Batts. This changed in the early 19th century when a new railway – the Clarence Railway – was built from the South Durham coalfields to a new port on the north bank of the Tees. As a result the village was renamed Port Clarence.
With the arrival of the port, new blast furnaces and ironworks soon followed which brought thousands of people to Port Clarence, particularly ironworkers from Ireland. As with many industrial areas in the North East the village suffered massive decline in the latter half of the 20th century due to de-industrialisation and now suffers from some of the worst social and economic problems in Teesside.
My stay in Port Clarence was only a brief one as I had to follow Seaton Carew Road out of the village. The next couple of miles were a bit hectic as it involved walking on this busy road which links Port Clarence with the coastal town of Seaton Carew. Unfortunately the England Coast Path hasn’t even begun construction along this southern section of the Seaton Carew Road and I had no choice but to walk on the road itself. Luckily for me I could see far enough down the road so I had plenty of time to get out of the way of any cars.
By this point the sun had decided to go in and wasn’t seen again until I had finished my walk, which is just typical so it was a bit of a plod under grey skies as I worked my way along Seaton Carew Road. Through gaps in the trees I could see the heavy industry of the chemical works at Seal Sands to my right, and to my left I could make out the large lakes that form part of the RSPB Saltholme reserve.
Opened in 2009 the 380 hectare reserve at Saltholme is one of RSPB’s biggest reserves and is home to a variety of birds which visit at various times throughout the year including Common Terns, Lapwings and Peregrines. It is truly a fascinating place to visit as there are plenty of volunteers on hand ready to share their vast knowledge of the different birds that visit. I’m sorry to say that even though its practically on my doorstep I don’t visit RSPB Saltholme nowhere near as much as I should (in fact I think I’ve only been on two occasions, a situation I hope to rectify immediately).
As I neared the turn off to the reserve’s visitor centre a huge swan (right) came swooping over the road just inches above my head and landed in the large lake next to the road. I don’t mind getting up close to nature but not this close! The large lakes are what remains of the area’s Victorian salt industry where from the 1820s onwards vast underground reserves of salt were extracted by boreholes. Over time these boreholes have filled in with water and have created these large bodies of water which pepper the Saltholme site. Prior to the boom of the salt industry, the land in this area had been reclaimed from salt marshes to create agricultural land.
Passing the entrance to the RSPB visitor centre I was able to come away from the road for a short while as a newly built section of the England Coast Path was available for me to walk on. For the next couple of miles to Greatham Creek I had to walk on sections of the England Coast Path that had been fenced off but no gravel had been laid down to create the path. I stopped on a newly installed bench for five minutes to have a snack however it was actually quite cold under the gloomy skies so I didn’t stay for long and was soon on my way.
After a short while I soon came to Greatham Creek. I decided to divert off the main road here to explore the Seal Sands section of the Teesmouth National Nature Reserve. I had never been to this part of the reserve and so was keen to explore the area. A path led away from an old road which was closed to traffic when the Seaton Carew Road was re-aligned over a new bridge over the Creek. The path ran parallel to Greatham Creek and I soon got a view of the animal that gives this part of Teesside its name – a seal. I could see its shiny black head bobbing up and down in the water as it swam towards the sea. After a little while the seal realised I was watching it and quickly dived underwater to continue its journey to the sea unwatched by human eyes.
About a quarter of a mile later the path reached a wooden bird hide which looked out across Seal Sands. I thought I could see a few dark lumps sitting on the exposed mud banks in the distance which I assumed were some more seals but I couldn’t be 100% sure. I had a quick look inside the hide to look across the now mist-laden mud banks. It was an eerie scene with the calm waters of the Tees nearing their journey’s end into the North Sea along with the dark brooding shape of the nuclear power station which splits the nature reserve into two.
During the 19th century seals used to be a common sight along the Tees estuary, however by the 1860s they had disappeared due to pollution and overhunting. Over a hundred years later the seals had started to return to the area and by the 1980s common and grey seals were seen again on the estuary. Today there are well over a hundred seals at Seal Sands.
After a short while I continued along the footpath which now headed south towards another bird hide. This one looked out across a couple of tidal lagoons which were silhouetted by the numerous flare stacks that make up the oil refinery at Seal Sands. During the day these stacks aren’t very nice to look at but when they are all lit up at night they certainly make a spectacular scene.
Much of Seal Sands is man-made with most of the former mud flats and salt marshes having been reclaimed to build the huge chemical and oil factories on the north bank of the Tees. Fifty years ago the view from the second hide would have been much different from the one seen above as I would have been looking out across a much larger estuary.
After a short lunch break I retraced my steps back to the Seaton Carew Road and made a mental note to make sure I would return to Seal Sands. It certainly was a unique place to visit with nature mixed in with heavy industry producing an interesting contrast. Re-joining the road I crossed Greatham Creek and headed north-eastwards. Despite there being no path for most of this next section (again the England Coast Path hadn’t been put through here yet) there was a very wide grassy section which I could walk on without getting into any trouble with the speeding traffic.
My journey was coming to an end and I soon reached the road which led to the North Gare section of the Teesmouth National Nature Reserve. The road passed by the smoking hulk of Hartlepool Nuclear Power Station which was being very well guarded by the Police due to the country being on a high terror alert. At the end of the road I passed through a small car park and headed through the dunes where I completed not only this section of the coast but also managed to fill in the ‘missing gap’ between Redcar and Teesmouth. I had a great feeling of accomplishment as I had now completed the entire North East coastline, barring the last four miles of the Northumberland coast to the Scottish border which I would do in the next coastwalk.
With a bit of a skip in my step I walked along the beach towards North Gare, watching people who were up to numerous activities on the beach from walking their dogs to driving along the sands in wind-powered buggies (below). It was a beautiful sight, made even more better when the sun decided to come out. I had another couple of miles to go to Seaton Carew where I would get the train home and prepare for the next stage of the Coastwalk – Scotland!!
Allan, D. (2011), The Transporter: 100 Years of the Tees Transporter Bridge. Middlesbrough Council. Middlesbrough.