Friday 1 January 2016

Bringing St. Hilda's back to life - more from Middlesbrough

I was born and brought up in Teesside. Redcar is my hometown and I went to secondary school in Middlesbrough. I spent many Saturday afternoons in the town centre, browsing the boxes in Alan Fearnley's record shop on Linthorpe Road, Hamilton's on Newport Road and Dean Wycherley's in the Cleveland Centre. Much time was also spent in the Wimpy Bar with my mates during my early teens before we graduated to drinking in the town centre pubs and then Mandy's and one or two other town centre clubs. It is many years since I lived in the north-east, 31 to be exact and every single one of these places is now gone. 

The River Tees - clean at last!
Despite spending lots of time wandering around the town, there was one place that we never went to - St. Hilda's. Known as "over the border" due to its being on the opposite side of the railway line from the rest of the town. It was a tough area, home to many people who worked in the ship building and steel industries or in jobs connected to the port and the river generally. There were a number of pubs and at least one club - The Bongo - that had what my friend describes as a "fearsome reputation" and people generally gave the area a wide berth. That friend and I both worked for the Council's library service and she reminded me recently that when the small local library housed in the original town hall (once painted by none other than L.S. Lowry) needed relief staffing, that male staff were usually sent because we "didn't send young girls to work there". 

The Transporter Bridge seen from the former salt works wall.
Middlesbrough has changed tremendously over the last few decades and like many northern towns has struggled to recover from the economic downturns of the 80's, 90's and recent years. It has also not been able to secure the kind of investment and regeneration that some of the larger northern cities have benefitted from. The haunts of my teen years and early twenties have disappeared but so has almost the whole of St. Hilda's - demolished in stages over a long period, in some cases to provide better housing (which was then in turn demolished) or to make way for developments that sometimes never happened. On a recent visit to Middlesbrough I decided to take  a stroll through this part of the town to see the changes and was pleasantly surprised at what I found - although there is still much to do to bring this area back to life.

In his great little book St. Hilda's, Araf Chohan sets out the history of the area and also details some of the developments that were proposed and never realised including a fantastic master plan adopted in 2004, partly the work of architect Will Alsop, which would have delivered what Araf describes as "…iconic structures, unique for this part of the world…" and which would have included offices, shops, hotels and restaurants as well as many new homes. Sadly only one set of offices and one residential block were built before the master plan stalled due to failure to secure enough investment.

The old Town Hall
The Captain Cook pub
Former port building
In 2014 another plan appeared, reinventing this part of town as "Middlehaven" and pretty much the whole area was cleared in preparation for this. Some progress has been made with Middlesbrough College and the 6th Form College now having substantial presence as well as the Riverside Stadium, home of Middlesbrough FC. This is all good but perhaps the most encouraging thing is that a number of heritage features have been retained including the once notorious (but apparently listed - hooray!) Captain Cook pub, the former Town Hall (which I am told is to be brought back into some use - although it is currently boarded up), the old Dock Clock Tower and other buildings connected with the river. I love the idea of the pub being brought back into use, which will hopefully include cultural activity as well as drinking whilst the old Town Hall would also be a great venue for music, exhibitions and other activity. Progress has already been made with the "Boho" project which has created space for business start-ups and digital business in a number of both heritage sites and new builds including the beautiful former bank close to the Albert Railway Bridge.

Former bank now used as part of the Boho project
Wall of the former salt works
The Transporter Bridge
As well as having links with steel, docking and shipbuilding, St. Hilda's was also home to a salt works that closed in 1946 and was then  demolished. Part of the wall of the works has been restored in Vulcan Street. The barred windows make for great views through to the iconic and much loved Transporter Bridge - a real symbol of the town. It would be great to see the local authority take advantage of the remaining, rich heritage of St. Hilda's to attract both visitors and serious investors to really bring this part of town back to life. And on the subject of being brought back to life, I was amazed at how clean the once filthy River Tees now is at Middlesbrough. The loss of the heavy industries meant many people lost jobs but it has also meant that industrial waste no longer goes into the river. I was surprised and delighted to see a group of three swans on the river in the red coloured reflection of a visiting ship. Beautiful - and unthinkable not so many years ago. Here's hoping new life can come to the rest of the area too.

Visiting ship and installation by Anish Kapoor
Swans on the River Tees at Middlesbrough

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