Sunday 16th April 2023
With the knowledge that there are years of change facing the final few miles of the Teesdale Way I’d been thinking for some time about doing an ‘official’ review of the situation. So on a quiet Sunday with nothing better to do, and with the weather set fair, I packed my camera bag and drove south with Diane, to Middlesbrough, for a relaxed stroll to the seaside on what, for the record, is entirely on the England Coast Path national trail.
Because parking is free and easy to access we’d begin the walk well into Section 13, at Teessaurus Park, almost three-and-a-half miles from the start of Section 14 at South Bank railway station. This would allow us to see how the situation is around Middlehaven these days, an area which has been under development since I first visited the Teesdale Way there in 2013. The park itself is as compact as ever but has been given a facelift since our last visit creating a pleasant oasis for parents and kids. It’s the first of three features that stand out for me in an otherwise characterless commercial area dominated by the Port of Middlesbrough.
The second was a couple of pensioned-off shunting engines on display in a yard across the road, complimenting a remnant of railway line that remains intact. Finally there’s an impressive mural which was commissioned in 2022 by the port’s operator, A V Dawson. It’s dedicated to Timothy Hackworth, the famous c19th railway engineer who was a contemporary of George Stephenson. Although he’s primarily identified with the railway town of Shildon in County Durham (visit the excellent Locomotion museum to find out more) he’s also been adopted by Middlesbrough, a town that began its rise to prominence as Port Darlington when the railway came in 1830.
After a short distance on historic Vulcan Street you arrive at the iconic Transporter Bridge as predictable as ever and still separated from the trail by the lengthy fragment of orange-brick wall that once surrounded the salt works. Ahead is the distinctive four-sided tower with a clock on only three faces, now fully integrated with Middlesbrough College and the ever-tranquil Middlehaven dock. On the other side of the dock fortunes have differed for the two large structures that, as a pair, once dominated the area: the monstrous net of Anish Kapoor’s ‘Temenos’ sculpture remains while the long-serving giant gantry crane has vanished .
Beyond the football ground, the handsome signal box at Whitehouse which stood by the railway crossing next to the Navigation Inn has also gone as has the distinctive coke works at South Bank, spectacularly demolished on 27th June 2022 as part of the regeneration of the Teesworks development. This was (or still is) Europe’s largest brownfield site, soon to be home to a green energy manufacturing facility. Such is the extent of the clearance that the landscape on the other side of the railway now looks quite unfamiliar to me.
Although some of the features may have changed, the route is the same. Retained for the moment are the various tunnels and footways influenced by earlier industry as is the notorious waterlogged area between the railway reed beds, opposite the BOC works and Lackenby steel mills. Conditions on this occasion weren’t as bad as I’ve encountered in the past. I was wearing trainer-type trail shoes and, with care, just about managed to avoid getting my feet wet. It’s worth bearing in mind that you can still cut this out by diverting onto the adjacent road using tentative access points well before and after the boggy area.
Overall, the trail between the football ground and the nature reserve at Coatham Marsh has never been the prettiest of places and continues to be blighted by some fairly unappealing aromas of chemicals and processed foods in the area around South Bank. I’m sure that regeneration investment will also have an effect on these areas, but only time will tell.
A couple of sculptures have been added as part of the Tees Sculpture Trail: ‘Touchstone’ at South Bank Station and ‘Flame Flowers’, a short distance further east along the trail, opposite the site of the former coke ovens. They’re interesting but mistimed I think, an unnecessary distraction in an area that appears more in need of basic maintenance to help nature take its course. Diane felt that the area would be ideal for school community projects and I think she’s right.
Elsewhere, things are more or less as I remember them – the entrance to Coatham Marsh is slightly more ornate but that’s about it. The major exception came on crossing the golf course at Warrenby where, at the time of writing, an apocalyptic mass of tangled metalwork dominates the skyline. It was hard to imagine that this was the same blast furnace I’d photographed ten years ago, a monster spewing fire and steam; now it was dead and waiting for the scrap man.
We completed the route into Redcar following the posts along the edge of the golf course rather than continuing through the dunes to the beach which is dominated now by huge turbines belonging to the Teesside (or Redcar) Wind Farm and which was in the process of construction during my first Teesdale Way outing in 2013. Because we’d recently visited the town to research the England Coast Path link to the Cleveland Way, we decided to make our way directly to the railway station where we hopped onto a train just about to leave and fifteen minutes or so later found ourselves on the platform in Middlesbrough station having more or less retraced our route.
Over the years it’s become clear to me that many, if not more, people prefer to walk from the coast to the Pennines, possibly even to get this section out of the way first. I prefer it this way however, for many reasons. It will always be the FINAL section of the Teesdale Way as far as I’m concerned and is the one I have the most complex feelings about. Combined with the research I’ve done on the Weardale Way, I’ve had the privilege of interpreting the development and witnessing the demise of arguably the last industry to have created and shaped social history in County Durham and Teesside.