Looking For Hartlepool.

19 Apr

The plan was simple. Go to an old town, get a map and/or a heritage trail and have an interesting day exploring. My friend, Ian, and I had done this twice before at the northern towns of Darlington and Thirsk. Now it was the turn of Hartlepool, stuck out on the north-east coast. We had already been to visit the interesting Historic Quayside and the fantastic floating battleship, the Trincomalee, built in Bombay in 1817. Now we had returned to look at the actual town. But where was it? We wandered around the area near to the railway station but couldn’t find anything that resembled a busy shopping street, a market square or a central business district. We looked for crowds of people but couldn’t see any. It was all very confusing. On my previous visit, I had asked a railway employee at the station where to find the old, historical centre of the town and she seemed to indicate that there wasn’t one. She pointed us in the direction of the Historic Quay which is really just a tourist attraction rather than part of the real town. Where then was Hartlepool? Surely there was more to it than a few supermarkets, a collection of roundabouts, some busy dual carriageways and an indoor shopping mall? Churchill once described Russia as “a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.” Had we now stumbled across the same phenomenon on the County Durham coast?
The mystery took a while to unravel. First of all we discovered that there are actually two Hartlepools. The main town where one arrives is really the former West Hartlepool, a new town created in the 19th century to cater for the mass of people who flocked in to work in the docks, shipyards, workshops and factories of the Industrial Revolution. Old Hartlepool, sometimes called the Heugh or the Headland, is an ancient fishing settlement on a peninsula, sticking out into the North Sea, as much as 2 miles from the main town. The two Hartlepools officially joined together in 1967, but to all intents and purposes they are still separate. We walked from one to the other, expecting a short stroll but discovering it was quite a hoof along a busy road. We took the bus back! Once there, it was like entering another world, isolated and hidden on its headland and largely bypassed by modern times.
This original Hartlepool was once thought to be an isolated, tidal island covered with a thick forest. Large number of deer used to wander there and congregate at pools to drink. The medieval name for a stag or a deer in general is “hart”. Thus we get the derivation of the place name: hart-le -pool or deer in the pool. The Anglo Saxon name that probably preceded this was “Hart Eu” or Stag Island. This too referred to the large number of deer in that area or possibly to the fact that the magnesium limestone headland roughly resembled the shape of a stag’s head. In the 8th century the Venerable Bede recorded the place as “Heopru” – the place where harts drink. During 19th century excavations in an adjacent marshy area known as “the Slake”, trunks of trees from the ancient forest were found embedded in the clay, along with antlers and teeth from a large number of deer. Thus it’s not surprising that such an abundancy of game plus the fish in the sea, attracted people to live in the area from early times. This ancient version of Hartlepool is now long gone, its remnants buried beneath the ground.
As we neared the old settlement, the main road and most of the traffic veered off to the north and we entered the quiet of the Heugh. A curving promenade looks out to sea with great views up and down the coastline. A serpentine pier snakes out into the waves, crowned by a lighthouse. We saw a dozen ships all queuing to get into nearby Teesport. Further south we saw the wind farm off the coast of Redcar, the puthering, belching iron and steel works, and beyond them the cliffs, headlands and hills of Cleveland where I now live. The views are extensive and spectacular. At first it’s First World War History that leaps to the fore as one walks on to the headland. Not one but two large artillery batteries point out to sea. They were fired in anger when 3 German battle Cruises appeared off the coast in 1914 and subjected east coast towns from Hartlepool to Scarborough to a murderous barrage of 1150 shells. Hartlepool’s guns replied in kind and succeeded in damaging one of the enemy ships. However, 117 local citizens, men, women and children, died in the onslaught, little known early victims of the First World War. The whole story is told in the town’s museum, and in the Heugh Battery Museum on the headland. That era, although only a century ago, has now slipped into history, but I suspect there will be special commemorative ceremonies in Hartlepool of a war which most of the country believes was exclusively fought overseas.
I find that the best way to discover a town is through its history. By uncovering this, layer by layer, one slowly gets to understood the essence of the place, the things that make it unique. What makes the search confusing however is that these layers don’t appear in neat, chronological order. You encounter a mish-mash of different ages and you then have to try to make sense of them. But that’s part of the fascination. For instance, no sooner had Ian and I digested the 20th Century warfare stuff, than we encountered a sea wall begun in the late 14th century and a large Norman church from the late 12th century in a commanding position on the headland. So we had travelled back to medieval times. In fact, features on the south doorway of St Hilda’s Church show decoration from an even earlier Norman Church built by William the Conqueror’s local Lord, Robert de Brus.( One of his close descendants, Robert the Bruce, became King of Scotland after the Battle of Bannockburn.) St Hilda’s is a Grade 1 listed building and considered a gem of the Early English period of church architecture.
St Hilda’s Church is built on the site of an earlier monastery constructed in Anglo-Saxon times around the 7th Century AD. It was a dual monastery for both monks and nuns, who nonetheless led separate lives. Interestingly, in this age of women’s rights and sex equality, this religious institution was initially run by a nun, St Heu. She was later replaced as Abbess by Saint Hilda who later founded the Monastery Abbey at Whitby, just down the coast. Hilda gained her sainthood because she was associated with healing miracles. So it’s strange but fascinating to imagine that Hartlepool, mainly known these days for its docks and its ( declining) industries, was once a religious centre. In fact pilgrims travelled there from all over Britain and Ireland. They came by boat, taking advantage of the natural harbour just south of the headland. The monastery was finally abandoned during political troubles in the late 8th century when the Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria fell into decline. Viking raiders may have had a hand in the closure as well.
We came looking for one Hartlepool and found that there were many, all stacked up on top of each other. When workmen were clearing the ground to build houses in 1833, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, they discovered an Anglo-Saxon graveyard with burials unusually arranged in rows. Thus 2 eras of the town’s history suddenly came face to face across the centuries. Some of the grave stones were inscribed with names and crosses which dated the burial ground to the 8th century. Two more Anglo- Saxon cemeteries were subsequently excavated in the later 20th century, one by television’s “Time Team.” It’s not every town that can claim a strong Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Metal work, jewellery and decorations for book covers were also discovered from those times.
Walking round the headland today, one sees buildings mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries. Many are grade II listed buildings. There are lovely terraces and quiet squares. Some houses are painted in attractive pastel colours. More modern housing is dotted here and there as the place is not just a museum or a time warp. Afterall people need somewhere to live. This area of old Hartlepool also features a couple of grand Victorian buildings put up in the industrial heyday of the town. A very large Baptist Chapel dominates the top of Church Street. Sadly it looks empty and neglected. The era of mass church attendance is now over. Then, just below St Hilda’s, on Church square, is the Old Public Library built in 1903. It’s a grand, red brick construction with fancy ornamentation. it has Dutch style gables and delicate decoration. It later served as a Maritime Museum and is now Council offices. A move to demolish it was thankfully abandoned after a public outcry.
Thus we discovered Old Hartlepool and we found it to be a fascinating mixture of historical periods, both above and below the surface. However, we still hadn’t solved the mystery of where the current Hartlepool town centre actually is. When the bus arrived to whisk us back to what we now know used to be West Hartlepool, I thought up the “clever” ruse of asking the bus driver. Surely he would know. So, as I presented my pass, I asked him if he was going back to the “town centre.” He replied that he could drop us off near the Asda. He defined “town centre” as being the same as an out of town supermarket. The plot thickened. We were beginning to think that Hartlepool didn’t have a central business area at all. The bus deposited us just past the Asda. As we got off we naturally followed the main flow of our fellow passengers who turned right. Then it dawned on us. Suddenly the mystery of Hartlepool’s missing centre was solved. They were all heading for Middleton Grange Shopping Centre. The traditional cluster of shopping streets and squares had been replaced by one massive, late 20th Century mall! Everything was under that one huge roof. We entered it, desperate for the loo and then looking for somewhere to grab a coffee and a sandwich. All the chain stores were there and the chain restaurants and the chain coffee shops. They all fitted into neat boxes spread across two floors. People milled around and queued at the ubiquitous McDonalds, sheltered from the elements and soothed by the background sound of canned muzak. I don’t really like malls even though I recognise that they are comfortable and convenient places for retail therapy. The trouble is that they all look very similar. Once inside the mall, one could be anywhere in the UK. The Middleton Grange Shopping Centre is a clone of many other centres that I have visited up and down the country. It didn’t really have any distinctive features except one interesting mural that had been commissioned to show the town’s rich and varied history.
Therefore, the mystery was at last solved. We had found the heart of Hartlepool. A giant shopping mall has descended upon the old town centre like an alien space craft. The actual old shopping streets, I found out later, were centred on Lynn Street, a bit further east, near the railway and bus stations. I have seen black and white photos of: bustling street life, rows of distinctive shops and double decker trams trundling up and down. All that world was wiped out sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century. The old shops, banks, cafes etc were demolished to make way for modern housing. The tram-lines were pulled up. Older housing was also knocked down to make way for the modern mall. I read one sad entry on an Internet site about the building of the new shopping complex — a woman noted that the house and the terraced street where she lived was destroyed to make way for the new centre. She must get a funny, maybe nostalgic feeling every time she goes shopping. The current indoor shopping centre, opened in the early 90’s replaced an earlier, late 60’s pedestrian precinct made in the much-derided concrete “brutalist” style. One can imagine the pride in this ultra modern development quickly fading as the concrete became cracked and stained. However, I’d better end my attack on modern architecture before you begin to think I’ve turned into Prince Charles. Just by coincidence, the original modern shopping complex was officially opened by his sister, Princess Anne in May, 1970.
After a rest and repast, we went out into the proper streets, still searching for remnants of the real Hartlepool. The heyday of Hartlepool was in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. It had already become important in later medieval times as the official port of the County Palatine of Durham.( The extensive area controlled by the powerful Bishop of Durham on behalf of the monarch.) It was one of the busiest ports on the east coast. In the 1820’s a railway was brought in to connect the town to the Durham collieries. Hartlepool thus developed into an important coal port. The old Victoria Dock was joined by 3 other docks in the 1840’s and 1850’s as the industrial new town of West Hartlepool expanded rapidly. Shipyards, timber yards and sawmills were opened. A new railway connected the town with Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. Fresh fish from the Hartlepool docks could be transported quickly to the northern cities and towns, increasing the town’s trade and wealth. West Hartlepool grew quickly to over- shadow its neighbour on the headland. By 1900 it was the fourth busiest port in the country and the two Hartlepools had a joint population of around 75000. The 4 different shipyards built nearly 2000 ships between 1836 and 1963.
During this boom period for West Hartlepool, numerous grand public buildings, hotels, churches and shops were constructed. They reflected the wealth and status of the town at that time. However, as in many other places across Britain, the town’s traditional industries went into a deep and long decline following the Second World War. Economic hardship followed and the town is still struggling to reinvent itself for the 21st century. So, as we walked around, it was sad to see some of these grand buildings, standing forlorn and empty, shorn of their original purpose. They are like beached whales washed up by the inevitable tide of time. A large Greek temple-type building stands empty and semi derelict, many of its windows smashed by vandals. This used to be the main Methodist Chapel ( 1871-73), in Victoria Street. Hartlepool it seems was at one time a hot-bed of non-conformist worship. John Wesley apparently preached there several times. The ex Methodist Chapel is a grade II listed building and after it closed was converted into a night club! Wesley must have been turning in his grave! Now it’s empty again waiting for planning permission to convert it into a hotel, restaurant and bar. Next to it stands the equally large and impressive, red brick Grand Hotel. It is in the style of a fancy French chateau. It is still open and run by the Best Western group, although the rumours are that they are trying to sell it. The old showpiece Binns department store is now a one floor Wilkinson’s and in bad need of restoration. Another beached “whale” is Hartlepool’s Cooperative Society building built in 1913 -15. It features a distinctive dome and magnificent white stonework. It looked empty and abandoned. It’s hidden behind the Middleton Grange Centre next to the still working Cameron’s brewery. Two unusual and impressive Victorian churches also punctuate the Hartlepool skyline. They have distinctive towers with small spires attached to them. One, Christchurch, is now the town’s art gallery and information centre.
Various other Victorian or early 20th century buildings are strewn around but no longer make a cohesive whole as I’m sure they once did. Their time has passed and they still stand only because of our relatively recent conservation laws.
Looking for Hartlepool is like looking for pieces of a large jigsaw. Many pieces are unfortunately missing. The picture is further complicated by the fact that Hartlepool is in fact many jigsaws from many different eras. Pieces from different pictures are now mixed up haphazardly. It takes a special effort to try to piece it all together. This has been what this blog has tried to do!

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