Stockton on Tees – “There’s Nothing There.”

9 Feb

When my friend, Ian, and I told people that we were planning to have a day out in Stockton on Tees in late January, I think we were thought of as slightly mad. After-all, we were authoritatively informed: “there’s nothing there.” However, it all depends on what one is looking for. What may appear to be “nothing” at first glance, may soon be revealed to be something interesting if one has only a cursory dig beneath the surface.
So why go to Stockton? At first there seem more reasons NOT to visit it. It’s a declining industrial town with its fair share of unemployment and poverty. The manufacturing industries that created its wealth — shipbuilding and engineering– have closed down. It’s once busy river port is no more. Many buildings are in a state of decay, or have been boarded up. Stockton sits in a largely forgotten corner of North-East England. It has even found a place in the top 100 of Britain’s infamous “crap towns” listed in the book: ” Crap Towns Returns: Back by Unpopular Demand.” So, plenty of reasons to avoid it then, but we still went and enjoyed it. Why? Is it that we are just plain perverse? No — our answer would be the same as that of a climber asked why he/she wanted to ascend a mountain. The answer is ” because it’s there!” I have a theory that every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it.
Places represent people and their everyday lives. Other people’s existances are always interesting. Add-in all the lives of past generations and past centuries, then you’ve let yourself in for a fascinating journey, linking the present with the past. Walking round a town equipped with : eyes, imagination, and a bit of research, can be really stimulating. And so it proved to be with Stockton. We armed ourselves with a town trail obtained from the local Tourist Information Centre and set off on our day of discovery.
Ask most general knowledge buffs about Stockton and they’ll probably come up with one famous fact: the World’s first public railway in 1825 ran from Darlington to Stockton. The line was built by the railway pioneer, George Stephenson. Its purpose was to carry coal from the Durham coalfields around Darlington to the important river port of Stockton in Tees, from where it could be shipped to all corners of the country and beyond. The line actually ran from Shildon to Stockton via Darlington. Initially, the trucks were to be hauled at walking pace by horses. However, Stephenson persuaded the Directors to experiment with the new invention, the steam locomotive. Stephenson himself drove his Locomotion No 1 on that first record breaking journey. The train consisted of a mixture of trucks of coal and flour and passenger coaches. Altogether about 600 to 700 people travelled on that very first steam train journey, clinging on in all sorts of precarious positions. The train featured the world’s first purpose built railway passenger coach “The Experiment”. Stephenson was ably assisted by his friend, fellow engineer and railway pioneer, Timothy Hackworth, who acted as the guard. At the head of the train for much of the 12 mile journey, walked a man with a red flag, an early example of health and safety getting in the way of adventure. Eventually the man with the flag was persuaded to step aside and the train picked up speed a little. However it still averaged less than 10 mph for the entire journey. It was hardly earth shattering stuff but was a dramatic “first”, and Stockton, that “crap” town, was at the centre of this world famous event.
Stockton is now surrounded by busy roads. The major trunk routes of the A19 and the A66 pass to the east and south of it respectively. Crowded 2 or 3 lane roads and busy roundabouts encircle the old town centre. In fact, a noisy dual-carriageway cuts off the centre from the River Tees, which used to be its life-blood. We had to climb up on to a pedestrian bridge to access the waterside. The once bustling port that used to feature 48 working vessels, is no more. All that is left is a pleasure cruiser used in summer and a replica of Captain James Cook’s “Endeavour”, used for entertainment and educational purposes.
Thus there are few hints that Stockton was once a thriving river port, and even fewer clues that it helped to give birth to the railways. A modern metal sculpture, on a grassy bank just outside the centre, depicts that famous first train, complete with the top-hatted flag-waver at its head. However, it significant that this is sited by a road not a railway. Stockton does still have a train station but it is a bit out of the town centre and sits on a branch line off a branch line. The full original line ceases to exist. It used to run along the quayside by the Tees to 4 sets of staithes ( jetties) where the coal was loaded on to ships. Today’s station is on the quiet Durham coast line which meanders its way between Thornaby ( near Middlesbrough) and Newcastle via Hartlepool and Sunderland. There is just one train an hour each way. The current building dates from 1893. It has two quite long platforms linked by a bridge, but it has no staff and no roof. The latter was removed in 1979 because it was in such a bad state of repair. The waiting rooms, booking hall and toilets have gone, to be replaced by a couple of plastic shelters with little perching seats.
Ian and I travelled to this slightly forlorn station from opposite directions. We were the only people to alight from our respective trains. The station was deserted apart from one confused foreign visitor, trying to get to Manchester. It was difficult to imagine that this was a world famous place in railway history. To be fair, the current Stockton station is not in the same location as the former terminus of the 1825 Stockton to Darlington railway. Was it completely devoid of its illustrious history? Well, not quite. As we left the station, we noticed that the old station buildings had been refurbished, added to and turned into apartments named after the railway pioneer Hackworth. It would have been nice if the approach road had been christened George Stephenson Way, but it wasn’t. Just before we headed off for the town, the London to Sunderland Grand Central express, passed through Stockton. It slowed down but didn’t stop. Stockton is now largely divorced from its railway heritage and has been shunted into an obscure siding.
Stockton today is an intriguing mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Although it is surrounded by some fairly depressing, run-down streets, the old medieval core is pretty impressive. (at least, we thought so.) We entered a wide spacious High Street which twice a week hosts North-East England’s largest open air market. The street is flanked by a selection of 18th, 19th and 20th century buildings now put to a variety of commercial uses. Some are neglected and run-down, but we could easily imagine how grand it must have been in its Georgian hey-day. In the centre sits a square, red-brick early 18th century Town Hall. It has 3 stories, an ornate clock tower, a red pan-tiled roof and four, large chimney stacks. Once it had a meeting room for the Mayor and the Aldermen with shops underneath. Nearby is a lovely, little market hall and sitting in-between is a tall, stone column crowned by a plinth and a mysterious monument that looks a bit like an urn. We never found an explanation for it. Maybe next time we should ask one of the locals. This area used to be the site of the medieval tollbooth and a communal smithy. Alongside was the “Shambles” where butchers slaughtered and sold their animals.
Today this big, wide area is being gentrified into a pedestrian plaza which eventually will have: seats, foliage, fancy street lamps and views through to the river. When we were there this January, it was a noisy work in progress with a workman employing a teeth-grinding, stone-cutting machine. Once finished, it will be a far cry from the days of blood and guts in the gutter and the dying moans of doomed livestock.
Stockton existed as an Anglo Saxon settlement but really got going in early Norman times when the town and the borough was founded by the Bishop of Durham in the late 12th century. Initially, it consisted of 12 farms and a Manor House. The latter eventually developed into Stockton Castle, which stood until 1652 when it was demolished on the order of Oliver Cromwell’s parliament. It had been a Royalist stronghold in the English Civil war and had later been occupied by the Scots. Today the site is occupied by the rather ugly Swallow Hotel and Castlegate shopping centre with its indoor market and multi-storey car-park.
When Stockton was declared a Borough, it meant that traders, craftsmen and other business people could move in and develop the land. It was no longer a purely agricultural area. It’s site was the reason for this significant development. It was on a major river and on main road routes heading north and south. In fact Stockton stands at an important crossing point of the River Tees. For many years it was the lowest bridging point of this major waterway. That honour was eventually stolen in the later 19th century by Middlesbrough’s Transporter Bridge, 6 miles further downstream. Stockton also marked the southern border of the Bishop of Durham’s considerable lands and the border between Yorkshire and County Durham.
Despite all of this, the town only developed very slowly in the Middle Ages. It was regularly ravaged by marauding Scots and was also badly affected by the Plague. By the early 17th century it was almost derelict. Then came damaging occupations by Royalist and Scottish troops during the course of the English Civil Wars. Real prosperity only came when a Charter in 1666 granted the town a weekly market and an annual fair. This attracted trade and more prosperous times ensued. By the 18th century the town was doing really well. This is reflected by the considerable number of once fashionable Georgian town houses that are still dotted about the centre today. In the 1700’s, Stockton became a successful ship-building centre, having four shipyards by the end of the century. Sail and rope making were lucrative spin-offs. Stockton by now was a busy river port, exporting lead and agricultural produce and importing wine, raisons, glass, coal and household goods. The coming of the railway in the early 19th century enabled Stockton to expand further. Its population increased from 3700 in 1801 to 13,000 in 1861.
However, this was not as big an increase as might be expected, considering Stockton’s prime location and its connections to important events in the Industrial and Transport Revolutions. Some nearby towns underwent massive population explosions in the same period. Perhaps a big reason for this relative lack of growth was that there was already an enormous cuckoo growing up very quickly in the Tees-side nest. That was Middlesbrough just down the river. It usurped Stockton and other Teesside towns in industrial development especially in the areas of iron and steel, chemicals and shipbuilding. Middlesbrough’s nickname: “Ironopolis” sums up its industrial importance. Hartlepool also eclipsed Stockton in the rapidity and size of its industrial development, including ship-building and engineering. Thus Stockton on Tees was left somewhat in the shade. Maybe however, this wasn’t such a bad thing and was a blessing in disguise from the modern Stockton’s perspective. Some of its grand 18th century buildings have survived instead of being swept away in an headlong rush for development. Thus, these can still be appreciated today. In that earlier prosperous period ( 18th century) the town acquired pavements so its citizens didn’t have to plough through the mud. A stone 5-arched bridge was also constructed to replace the river ferry in 1771. So the place wasn’t exactly an obscure backwater. The 18th century has still clung on in 21st century Stockton and is now once again being appreciated as a glorious chapter in the town’s history.
Two rows of mostly narrow-fronted properties line the wide market place and off it run historical side streets with interesting names :- Ramsgate, Finkle Street, Silver Street, Dovecot Street and West Row. The street names often reveal their original features. For instance, an open air sheep market was once held on Ramsgate. West Row included large warehouses, some of which have been restored. We found that one had been turned into a small shopping mall. ( Regency West Mall sadly was mostly empty.) Finkle, a common street name in the north-east, means a narrow, winding road with a corner or a bend in it. It’s an old Norse name. On Stockton’s Finkle Street we admired 16th to 18th century town houses, some with pilastered doorways. Halfway up the street is a narrow opening leading into the hidden gem of Green Dragon Yard. Stockton’s centre has a number of these old, hidden away 17th and 18th century courtyards accessed by narrow alleyways. Green Dragon Yard has a restored warehouse, a pub, a building converted into a recording studio and England’s oldest surviving Georgian Theatre. The theatre was built in 1766 on to the side of a medieval Tithe barn. It’s been lovingly restored and is an intimate venue for small-scale productions. It was fascinating to spot where the stone of the old barn merged into the small 18th century bricks of the theatre. We walked through more lanes and yards into Silver Street, complete with its row of tiny 18th century cottages. From there it was a short step down to the river.
We stopped for refreshments in a little, late-medieval tea-shop. It was friendly, warm and welcoming. We had been warned that there would be mostly greasy spoon cafes in Stockton, but in fact there was a whole string of tempting teashops. Our café was called “Quaint and Quirky” which is was. I had to carefully mind my head to avoid the low beams. The view from the window partly summed up our Stockton experience. We looked out beyond the ancient timber ceiling beams through the tiny, “Tudory” windows incongruously on to the concrete, circular exit ramp of a multi-storey car park. A constant stream of quietly growling cars descended it. It would have been much more satisfying to have heard the clip-clop of horses as would have been the case when the café building was first constructed. But that sound has now mostly faded into the past. Modern Town trails are full of these strange juxtapositions. At the top of Dovecot Street is a striking, modern arts centre, The Arc. Its all gleaming glass and bright, orange paintwork. Adjacent to it stands a lovely Georgian Friend’s Meeting House now converted into office space. Across the road, in place of a recently demolished 19th century building is a pop-up car park. It’s a confusing mixture that stretches the imagination but constantly stimulates the mind.
The most abiding memory of Stockton’s centre is of the wide variety of once grand Georgian town houses. Some are beautifully restored, whilst others are sadly neglected. Ian and I studied: classical doorways with columns and pediments, fancy fanlights over entrances, decorative motifs, attractive wrought iron balconies, ornate stone cornices and symmetrical sets of sash windows. Some had 2 stories and some had 3. We learnt that the first floor public reception rooms were the grandest ( so the people could impress their visitors) and thus had the largest, most impressive windows. Quite a few of these splendid buildings were on Church Road, formerly know as “Paradise Row.” This is where the rich and successful lived, showing off their status and wealth through their grandiose homes.
Nearby the Stockton mish-mash continued with a fine 18th century Church and ancient church yard facing an undistinguished jumble 1960’s/70’s municipal offices. On the other side of the beautiful old churchyard stood a derelict, abandoned pub.
The Stockton on Tees Trail gave us glimpses of a glorious past, much evidence of a long, sad decline and a few signs of hope and regeneration. It’s a slightly down- at- heel town which is starting to appreciate its heritage and move forward towards a positive future. The Arts Theatre with its cinema, concert space, workshop areas, bars and cafes, is thriving. The Georgian Theatre is up and running again. The Globe Theatre, once the popular venue for 1960’s/70’s pop acts such as the Rolling Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, Cilla Black and Roy Orbison, is now being restored and is soon to reopen. It famously hosted The Beatles in November, 1963 on the same day that President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Today, an attractive, eye-catching pavement display reminds us of its glorious recent past.
In Stockton’s centre there’s plenty to admire and hidden corners to discover. As we walked back to the train station, we felt that we had only just begun to scratch the surface. It was not a bad day out considering we were visiting one of Britain’s “crap” towns. Maybe we should revisit in the summer when the Stockton Riverside Festival is in full flow. Then we could discover yet more delights of the town where there’s “nothing to see.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: