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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.”

STRANGE GOINGS ON IN AUTUMN.

15 Nov

Autumn can be a strange and disturbing time. Darkness descends much sooner every day. The weather gets cold and damp. The leaves fall from the trees and most of the flowers die. Many insects disappear, while numerous birds fly away, vanishing from our skies for months on end. Meanwhile people, including young children, start to dress up in weird costumes and go around the streets trying to scare others or even threaten them with mischief on their own doorsteps. In this same disconcerting season, bonfires are lit and 17th century-style effigies are burnt on them. Explosives are set off creating a cacophony that sounds as if war has broken out, frightening both animals and people of a nervous disposition. Adults indoctrinate their children into an irrational hatred of Roman Catholics as if they were still living in the 16th or 17th centuries. This results in a well known Catholic man from the past becoming a hate-figure and being symbolically burnt to a cinder on countless ritualistic bonfires. Yes, autumn in Britain can be a mysterious and disturbing time.
Of course, I’m talking in particular about the festival of Halloween and the British tradition of Bonfire Night, on October 31st and November 5th respectively. They are both very popular traditions, and if anything, their popularity is on the rise. People spend increasing amounts of money in order to take part in them. I read recently that Britons have spent in the region of £330 million on pumpkins and other Halloween party goods this year (2014). For the whole of October 31st, social- media sites were taken over by pictures of people and their children daubed with frightening face-paints and sporting costumes that transformed them into: ghosts, ghouls, skeletons, monsters or characters from horror movies. It seems that such activities all have to be exhibited online these days. I went to the supermarket to get back to normality, only to be welcomed by a she- devil and served by a skeleton. Later on in that strange day I switched on the TV to find that the barman in the Eastenders pub had a large bolt through his neck as if he was a character from a horror movie. Knocks came on our door after dark and we were greeted by neighbours’ children dressed as ghosts and zombies threatening to play tricks on us if we didn’t give them a treat. In the past, when asked the question ” Trick or treat?” I’ve always asked for a treat but never got one. I was just met with bemused looks as if it was me who was the crazy one. It was a strange, unsettling day.
It’s funny because when I was a kid we never did much at Halloween. Some of my mates referred to it as “mischievous night” and went around threatening to throw people’s gates into the middle of their gardens unless placated with a reward. But, being a law-abiding citizen, I never joined in on that. The festival seems to have taken off in recent years and become a very big event. I suppose the influence of mass media , advertising and social networking has a lot to do with it. I imagine that people come under great social pressure to conform and not to be left out in the cold. This is especially so for people with children. The value of “pester power” should never be underestimated.
But what is all this dressing up, trick or treating and partying all about? It would be interesting to conduct a survey of all those participating in Halloween and see how many understand why they are doing it. Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows Evening”. “Hallows” are saints. On the evening of October 31st, people in the past remembered the dead, including saints and martyrs. However, I haven’t yet seen anybody dressed up as Saint Christopher or Joan of Arc, have you? Christians traditionally prayed for the souls of the recently departed, to help them make it through purgatory and get to heaven. Have you seen anybody praying at Halloween? It seems that the original reasons for the festival have now been largely lost in the mists of time, such that we are now left with a celebration without a reason, a tradition that has lost its roots. I think lots of our festivals and celebrations have been separated from their original meanings. Christmas is a case in point. It’s now largely a time of material consumption, present giving, parties, family get-togethers and much eating and drinking rather than being about Mary, Joseph and the birth of their baby: Jesus Christ. The festival and the original reason for that festival seem to have become disconnected.
I suppose a few Christians might still pray for the souls of the dead or light candles on graves in the churchyard at Halloween. However, for the majority that’s sounds pretty boring and terribly serious. It’s much more fun to dress up and have a party. The connection with the souls of the dead seems to have been reduced to dressing up as a ghost or a skeleton. I’m talking mainly about the UK, the USA and other countries of the so called West. I know that celebrations in Mexico have a much stronger connection with the actual dead and in places like New Guinea , coffins are dug up and paraded through the streets so that the departed can take part in their own festival. Maybe that would be considered too upsetting in the West where people don’t normally like to think about death, corpses or coffins. In the past people used to bake soul- cakes to commemorate the deaths of loved ones. Mummers ( singers) in disguises would sing, recite verses or pray for the recently departed in exchange for being given these cakes or other food. This tradition has now disappeared. Trick or treaters don’t sing, recite or pray anymore. They just turn up in fancy dress with a candle-lit lantern and are rewarded with the ubiquitous sweets and candies. For instance, a three year turned up on my sister’s doorstep and immediately grabbed a handful of sweets as a reward for dressing up. I wonder if that little girl knew that her scooped out pumpkin is called a Jack o’ Lantern and is supposed to represent the soul of a deceased person? I doubt it.
I’m not against people having fun although you might get that impression from the above paragraphs. It’s great to have fun- times especially when you are a child. What does concern me is that most of the serious reasons for the Halloween festival are mostly forgotten or ignored. It is no longer about thinking of departed loved ones or paying respect to saints and martyrs. That depth has largely disappeared. It has become another one of our frothy, superficial festivals devoid of real meaning. As is often the case these days, the driving force behind it is big business, trying to get us to spend our money. When I Googled Halloween on my laptop, the list of references that appeared read: costumes, decorations, games, ideas, pictures. There was nothing about saints, souls, praying , singing or lighting candles. To be fair, it’s not a festival that is totally devoid of meaning. Rather it has simply acquired new meanings. I suppose, being generous, one could say that nowadays people use humour and ridicule to confront the power of death. It’s strange how people love scaring themselves and others. It is thought to be great entertainment. However, does the modern version of Halloween really tackle the sombre subject of death or does it merely provide us with yet another fun-filled distraction that helps us to avoid actually thinking about our own mortality? Meanwhile the shops and the manufacturers rub their hands in glee at the prospect of another consumer spending spree. The pressure to join in and not be left out is very powerful, especially for those with children.
Meanwhile, hot on the heals of Halloween comes Bonfire Night, a peculiarly British festival. But what is this festival about? It celebrates the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. A group of Roman Catholic plotters planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament when King James I was due to make a speech there. They hired a soldier called Guido Fawkes to handle the gunpowder which they had hidden in a storeroom below the parliament building after tunnelling through there from an adjoining house. They were disappointed that King James, the first of the Stuart monarchs had decided to keep England as a Protestant country instead of restoring Catholicism as the official church. The burning at the stake of leading protestants in the reign of Mary I ( “Bloody Mary”), the attempted invasion of England by the Catholic Spanish Armada in 1588 and the numerous plots to replace Elizabeth I with her Roman Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, had all led to Roman Catholicism becoming very unpopular in mainstream Britain. This post Reformation era had seen many examples of religious ( Catholic v Protestant) strife across Europe. The Gunpowder plot of 1605 was just the latest example. The plotters had planned to replace King James with a Catholic ruler and put Britain back into the arms of the Pope in Rome. So when the plot was discovered and the plotters executed or killed while trying to escape, it was a great cause of national celebration. Guido (Guy) Fawkes himself was captured, tortured and then hung, drawn and quartered. He was never actually burnt on a bonfire, the fate of many a religious “heretics” in those far off days.
So that’s what Bonfire Night is all about. But the momentous events of 1605 are now over 4 centuries ago. Why are we still celebrating them today? Roman Catholics have been allowed back into the fold and religious freedom and tolerance are practised in modern Britain. ( except a Roman Catholic would still not be allowed to be our monarch.) Why are we annually trying to stir up religious hatred and intolerance, and indoctrinating our children with the same out-dated prejudices? I remember watching a TV programme which showed how the rest of Europe viewed the British tradition of Bonfire Night. They portrayed us as a nation still living in the past, constantly reviving old hatreds and prejudices such as the holding of Tudor and Stuart era anti-popery demonstrations. Is this true? Are we are a nation that clings on to negative prejudices from the past? Or is it really that it’s just another excuse for a party and a celebration? Bonfire Night is another occasion when people gather together, have parties, eat and drink special dishes and generally have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. Indeed Bonfire Night, like Halloween and Christmas is an important occasion that brings our nation together. It is a unifying force in an increasingly disparate nation. However, I still suspect that Bonfire Night has become a festival divorced from its original meaning. This disturbs me and I don’t really know why. I know all about the story of Guy Fawkes and King James I because I taught it every year in school. However, I wonder how many people building bonfires, setting off fireworks and burning “Guys” actually know and understand the real story behind their celebration? Also, is it right and proper that our country should annually stir up such ancient and poisonous prejudices?
I enjoyed Bonfire Night as a child. It was one of the highlights of the year. It brought our local community together. But is it now a tradition that is way past its sell-by date? Maybe, if we love firework shows so much, we should just use them to celebrate New Year?
This is the blog of a non-conformist. I hate to be a slave of tradition. I dislike being pressurised by the media and by society into doing the same things at the same time as everyone else. Christmas is always a time of mixed emotions for me. What I hate most of all is being subjected to intense commercial pressure. I don’t mind spending my money if I see a point to it. I like buying presents for my loved ones. But how many people spending large sums of cash on Halloween costumes and Firework displays really know why they are doing it? How many know the real origins and meaning of the festivals they are supposed to be celebrating? Are people really trying to get in touch with their departed loved ones or celebrating the saving of King and Parliament from murderous plotters, or are they taking part because they don’t want to be left out or called a killjoy? Lots of subtle pressures are constantly trying to persuade us to be an accepted part of the crowd. Facebook pages on Halloween or glossy Christmas adverts on TV that have already begun in the first half of November are just two of the more obvious examples. Yes it’s been a strange, slightly disconcerting autumn for me, but then it always is!

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!

HONG KONG — More than just a stopover.

27 May

Hong Kong is a relatively easy but highly exciting portal into the “Chinese world.” It’s a cosmopolitan, international city where east meets west. However, it’s still a very Chinese experience where Cantonese is the first language of most of its teeming inhabitants. 96% of the population are ethnic Chinese. It provides an intense and fascinating experience for the visitor. The fascination comes from the many contradictions and striking contrasts. The overcrowded pavements and streets of the CBD contrast with the green mountainsides above and beyond the high-rises. Modern technology exists side by side with ancient traditions. You can step out of a state of the art, multi-storey shopping mall( of which there are many), walk round a couple of corners and be confronted by an old Buddhist or Taoist temple. Equally, you can be cruising through hi-tech electronic stores one minute and in the next be viewing massed ranks of dried sea creatures used for traditional food dishes or Chinese medicine. We leapt from the latest cameras and lap-tops to jars of ginseng and the ingredients of birds’ nest soup. It is a bit mind boggling.
My wife, Chris, and I stopped over in “Honkers” on our way to visit Chris’s son in Australia. However, we soon discovered that the city is much more than a mere stopover. We spent the best part of 6 stimulating days there and there’s still plenty more to see on a return visit.
I had previously shrunk away from visiting China because of its appalling human rights record and brutal occupation of Tibet. So it’s ironic that I should finally visit Hong Kong which, although now part of China, is mostly associated with the British Empire with its equally bad human rights abuses and bloody conquests. Putting this to one side for the moment, Hong Kong is a very good compromise for those wanting to experience a Chinese city but not give their full stamp of approval to the Communist regime’s abuses. It is officially part of China but still separated from the mainstream due to its long-term British connection, which only ended in 1997, and its status as a Special Administrative Region. Capitalism still rules and the visitor wouldn’t get any clues that they were in a totalitarian, Communist state. Hong Kong is a great example of the Chinese leadership’s doctrine of ” One country, two systems.” Of course many other Chinese cities have embraced capitalism with open arms and are developing at break-neck speed. But Hong Kong was the prototype due to its role an an important port and communications centre in the British Empire.
The story of how Britain came to acquire Hong Kong does not make pretty reading for anyone of a sensitive disposition. Following in the wake of the Portuguese who established Macau as their main Chinese trading base, the British were also keen to acquire goods from China. From the mid 18th century onwards there was great enthusiasm in Europe for Chinese commodities such as: tea, silk, ceramics and other luxury items. Unfortunately for the British and other western traders, China insisted on being paid in silver. It was not interested in any of the European goods being offered in exchange. Thus the balance (or inbalance) of trade was weighted heavily in China’s favour.
Incredible as it may seem in today’s moral climate, Britain’s answer to this problem was to smuggle the addictive drug Opium from India into China. The Chinese government’s attempts to stop this evil trade were nullified by the corruption of local officials and by British military force. We are used to reading about the war on drugs, but in the mid 19th century Britain went to war in order to peddle drugs on to an unfortunate victim. The health of Chinese citizens and the independence of their government were both trampled into the dust by this unscrupulous trade. When the Chinese authorities destroyed 20,000 chests of mostly British opium in Canton, a British military fleet was despatched from India to attack Chinese forts that had been set up to protect their coast from smugglers. The Chinese defeat in 1842 led to them having to open up 5 ports to foreign trade and to cede Hong Kong island to the British “in perpetuity.” Later a second Opium War in which the British were aided by the French, led to more land being annexed by Britain, including the Kowloon peninsula opposite Hong Kong Island.
The main attraction of the site was its sheltered, deep-water port, still called Victoria harbour today. Britain developed Hong Kong into an important port, international communications centre and industrial city. To create more space, land was reclaimed from the sea and the tops of the surrounding hills were chopped off. Apart from the Japanese occupation during the 2nd World War, the British ran the territory until 1997, when it was formally handed back to China following an agreement made in 1984. The powerful post- war China could have easily taken it back anyway but preferred to bide its time as it was enjoying the foreign trade and revenue that the port brought in.
The centre of Hong Kong today, conveniently named “Central”, is just as I imagined it — big, busy and choked with traffic. Our shuttle bus took an age to fight its way through from the airport. We crossed striking suspension bridges and plunged into tunnels, all the time being held up in jams at the frequent bottle necks. Later we learnt that the roads are probable the worst way to travel around the city. The local rail system, the MTR, is quick, clean and efficient. The ferries and hydrofoils constantly ply in and out of Victoria Harbour from the outlying islands. Charming old trams trundle across the top of Hong Kong island, providing a cheap and easy way to see city life, especially at night when the centre is a dazzling riot of neon. Finally, if you wish to explore on foot, there is a web of well-signposted, elevated walkways in the central area, which keeps one away from the noise and fumes at street level. These walkways link up shopping malls, banks and office blocks, providing an easy, convenient way to negotiate the city. At first we tried to avoid the malls because they just replicated what we have back home in the west. However once we realised that they represented an air-conditioned, quiet and safe way to get from A to B, without having to fight the traffic below, we looked forward to entering them. At one point the walkways link up with the Mid-Levels Escalators. These connect the business areas with residential districts up the hill. The escalators cut up the hill side for 800 metres, the longest continuous escalator system in the world. They carry 30,000 commuters a day, running downhill in the morning and uphill in the afternoon and evening.
The harbour is the raison d’etre of Hong Kong and it is what first caught our eye. Our hotel was opposite its western end. Boats of all shapes and sizes constantly come and go. Both shores are crammed with a spectacular array of sky-scrapers which provide a memorable light show at night. We crossed the harbour from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon by the old 1950’s Star Ferry. Its old, wooden interior provides an atmospheric ride, and the views from the top deck are stunning.
It’s obvious why Hong Kong has so many high rise buildings as space on the ground is at a premium. However, skyscrapers are particularly thick along the shoreline because a waterside location represents very good feng shui. This Taoist concept states that buildings must be positioned so as not to disturb the spiritual attributes of the surrounding landscape. It is believed that wealth is borne along by water; hence the sky-high value of harbour-side real-estate.
This beguiling mix of old and new is what makes Hong Kong so interesting. One cannot imagine new buildings in London or New York being dictated to by the ancient principles of feng shui. A particularly interesting example of this is the HSBC HQ in Statue Square, designed by Sir Norman Foster in 1985. At the time it was the world’s most expensive building. It is a huge steel and glass structure built on top of 8 groups of giant pillars. These pillars raise it above ground level which remains an open, public space. Thus one can walk right underneath it and gaze up at the cavernous glass atrium above. The reason the building has been raised is to fit in with the feng shui idea that the old centre of power ( Government House) should be connected by an uninterrupted line to the original place of arrival ( The Star Ferry pier.) The HSBC Headquarters has been lifted up so as not to break this line and this rule.
Statue Square has only one statue left but its gardens and fountains are a pleasant oasis. It is surrounded by soaring skyscrapers but at its heart sits an old colonial building from the late 19th century which is home to the Legislative Assembly. Its stone dome, pillars and portico are in sharp contrast to all the streamlined glass and steel shooting up around it.
Another great place to view the spectacle of Central’s skyscrapers is up at the top of Victoria Peak. This is the big hill that rises up behind the CBD. It is very popular with tourists who flock up it on a 1.4km funicular railway started in 1868. Unfortunately because of the tourists, the peak has 2 tacky malls full of souvenir shops, cafes and amusements. It even has a Madame Tussaud’s up there. The rest of the Peak offers quiet wooded walks, glimpses of exclusive properties and sensational views over the city and harbour.
Although the skyscrapers and striking modernity seem to dominate the city, it was the older, more traditional aspects of Hong Kong that I enjoyed the most. The quaint shops in Sheung Wan, the old ferries, the street markets and the temples. The Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road nestles in an area of expensive antique and art shops. It is dark and atmospheric inside, only lit by lanterns. Built in the 1840’s, it is decorated with items from mainland China. It is festooned with large, smouldering, sandalwood, incense spirals that hang like weird lamp shades from the ceiling. Some take up to 2 weeks to burn through. The Taoist deities are represented by garish statues and sit in shiny shrines, in front of which the worshippers bow and wave their incense sticks. In contrast to western congregations and their set services, worshippers here come and go as they please. Man,the god of literature, wields a pen and is dressed in red. Mo, the god of war, holds a sword and wears a green robe. Most of Hong Kong’s population are Taoist or Buddhist.
A popular Buddhist pilgrimage is to Po Lin monastery and the Big Buddha on the wooded, mountainous island of Lantau to the west of the centre. It is also popular with tourists who often outnumber the devotees. The monastery was established by monks in the early 20th century and the big bronze Buddha was erected in the 1990’s. One reason for its popularity, despite being in a remote area up a mountain, is that a cable car has now been built to connect it to the nearest town Tung Chung, which, in turn, is at the end of the MTR line from Central. The cable car is a spectacular ride with 360 degree views over wooded mountains and the sea. This new accessibility has led to a rather tawdry tourist “village” being set up next to the monastery. This rather detracts from the spiritual atmosphere. You can even buy t-Shirts featuring Buddhist quotes and have a coffee at Starbucks! The monastery is still interesting to visit ( though you cannot actually go inside), and going up the long flight of steps to view the Big Buddha is an exciting experience. When we went, the giant Buddha’s head was often obscured by swirling cloud. He sits on a huge lotus flower and is flanked by Buddhist saints or Bodhisattvas. The trip out to Lantau island also gives one a chance to get out of the crowded city and note that Hong Kong has quite a bit of countryside. It has beautiful quiet beaches, traditional fishing villages and empty wooded mountain-sides. I just hope that all this is not swamped by the increasing drive toward commercialisation. Ominously, Lantau island now hosts the airport and the Asian branch of Disneyland. Fancy going all the way to China to walk down “Main Street USA” or meet Donald Duck!
The place we probably enjoyed the most on our all too brief visit was Hong Kong Park. It seemed to summarise many of the attractions and contradictions of this fascinating place. It is beautiful and peaceful with: ornamental lakes, waterfalls and terraced gardens. It’s a favourite place for Hong Kong brides to pose for their wedding photos. The lakes are stocked with colourful carp and terrapins cluster together on rocky islands to soak up the sun. There is a café, a conservatory and a wonderfully exotic, walk-through aviary that recreates an area of rain forests, complete with colourful parrots and Minah birds. There is an interesting Museum of Teaware which sounds very dry but isn’t. It is set in a cool, elegant colonial house from 1844 and tells the story of China’s 200’s year love affair with tea drinking. And all this is surrounded by a girdle of soaring skyscrapers which make for exhilarating photography.
So, if I was writing some tourist blurb about Hong Kong, I wouldn’t be short of cliches. ” A fascinating mix of old and new, where east meets west and capitalism cuddles up to communism.” It’s less of a stopover and more of an outstanding destination in its own right.

Quakers and Railways — A Day in Darlo.

26 Mar

 For many people, Darlington just means an intermediate railway station on the East Coast mainline between London Kings Cross and Edinburgh Waverley. Passengers travelling to bigger and more exciting destinations may glance out of the coach window, see a fairly nondescript industrial town and then quickly return to their books, newspapers or i-Pads. I had visited it a couple of times to see football matches featuring my home town team of Chesterfield. But the football ground is stuck out on the ring road so I did not get a chance to see the town. I did however, wonder why the local team was nicknamed “The Quakers.” A bit of history to unearth there I had thought.

 But the main reason I ever went to Darlington for many years was because of the railway. As well as being on the mainline, the route of the “Flying Scotsman”, it also has links to Bishop Auckland to the west and Redcar and Saltburn- by- the- sea to the west. Darlington is the mainline link for the much bigger town of Middlesbrough, which is stuck out on the Saltburn branch line. Although I have just referred to it disparagingly as a mere branch line, this route is actually that of the world’s first public railway: The Stockton to Darlington, opened in 1825. It, in fact, went on to Shildon, a few miles to the west. The main idea was to move coal from the south Durham mines around Darlington to the river port of Stockton on Tees, where it could then be shipped further afield. However, passengers were also carried on some trains and so it became a trailblazing world first. This is why Darlington, far from being an anonymous intermediate station, has been christened “The Cradle of the Railways”. Initially, horses pulled the waggons and coaches, preceded by a man walking with a red warning flag in his hand. Then it’s builder, George Stephenson, introduced one of his first stream locomotives, “Locomotion No 1” to pull the trains, gaining speeds of up to 20 mph, which was frighteningly fast for the time. Stephenson is sometimes known as the “Father of the Railways” so it was very apt that he was standing proudly by the “cradle” as public railways were “born.”

  The original Locomotion No 1 is still displayed at Darlington’s “Head of Steam” railway museum, which has taken over most of  North Road Station, the town’s earliest rail stop. The main station now is called Bank Top, which as the name suggests, sits on a hill above the centre. Some towns are overlooked by a castle or a cathedral, Darlington has its railway station. It’s tall clock tower and long, curving glass and iron roof are impressive and can be seen from many parts of the town centre below.

  It was the railway connection that brought my friend, Ian, and I to Darlington one day in March, 2013. We intended to visit the aforementioned “Head of Steam” museum, following in the footsteps( or railtracks) of the popular TV railway traveller, Michael Portillo. However we had not our research properly, and found to our dismay, that the museum was closed on the day of our planned visit. It seemed we were really stymied! We were now faced with a whole day in Darlington, a town not noted for its tourist hot spots. However, I have a theory that just about anyplace is interesting if you are willing to be interested in it. And so it proved with Darlington, or “Darlo” as the locals call it.

  We walked down from the rail station and once we had negotiated one of the busy roads that encircle the centre, we entered the more tranquil environment of  St Cuthbert’s churchyard, by a little river, followed by a sloping, impressively large market square. We picked up a Heritage Trail from the library and proceeded to have a very interesting potter round the town, punctuated by cafe stops.

  Darlington has spent most of its history as a small, market town. It was founded in Anglo-Saxon times and was originally called Dearthington– the settlement of Dearth’s people. Much later, it became an important centre for the wool and linen industries .It specialised particularly in bleaching and material was sent from as far away as Scotland to be processed there. The wealth generated by this enterprise enabled local businessmen to invest in other industries such as: mining, iron, engineering and, most significantly of all: the fledgeling railways of the early 19th century. Many of the most notable and influential businessmen were Quakers or members of the Society of Friends. So that’s where the football team get its nickname from! At the centre of the town, next to the Victorian market hall stands a statue of Joseph Pease, the UK’s first Quaker MP. His father, Edward Pease, was the main instigater and backer of the Stockton-Darlington railway. Edward neatly personified and brought together the two things that came to symbolise the town — Quakerism and railways. It was he who employed the Tyneside engineer, George Stephenson, to build the ground-breaking railway.

  The Society of Friends is a non-conformist church founded in the mid 17th century by a religious visionary, George Fox. They dressed plainly, addressed each other as “thee”, refused to swear oaths, opposed war and slavery and were strict teetotallers. They had to endure discrimination and persecution right from the start as they were seen to be subversive and challenging the foundations of society. ( ie the Establishment.) In Charles 11’s reign laws were passed stating that everyone had to swear an oath of loyalty to the crown ( which the Quakers refused to do) and that worship was illegal in any place but the Anglican Church. So Quakers got thrown into prison, had their meeting houses seized or destroyed and were generally made to feel unwelcome. Even in Darlington, up to the 1830’s, they were discriminated against and excluded from many areas of public life. Although their first meeting house in Darlington was built in 1668, they generally had to meet secretly in private houses , risking harsh penalties. I imagine this is why they formed such a close-knit and supportive community and why they developed into such strong, determined characters. Football managers use this scenario to make their teams strong in character — it’s called developing a “siege mentality.” I wonder if Alex Ferguson has Quaker roots?  On second thoughts — probably not!

  Successful Quaker businessmen in Darlo, such as the Pease and Backhouse families employed Quaker architects to design their business premises and modest houses. They also linked up with Quaker bankers to finance their projects. Both Barclays and Lloyds banks were founded by Quakers. Quakers became major employers in the Darlington area, and important philanthropists. Joseph Pease’s statue has on its plinth 4 panels illustrating the key causes that he and his family were heavily involved in. They were: politics, industry, education and the Abolition of Slavery. Near to the statue stands the prominant clock tower which Pease donated to the town.

  Thus it can be said that Darlo in the 19th century was as much a Quaker town as a railway town. Evidence of the Friends’ presence is still common. There is the simple Georgian Meeting House. There is the more ornate Backhouses bank which looks like a Venetian palace. ( a bit un-Quaker like.)  James Backhouse and his sons were prominant Quaker bankers and commissioned the famous Quaker architect, Alfred Waterhouse, to build their impressive bank which still stands proudly in High Row, one of Darlington’s main shopping streets. Waterhouse also built the Victorian Market hall as well as more famous commissions such as Manchester Town Hall and The Natural History Museum in London. We picked up our town trail from the Edward Pease Free Library. It’s a striking red-brick building paid for by a £10,000 bequest in Peases’s will.

  The most memorable Quaker location in Darlington, in my opinion, is their traquil and beautiful Burial Ground. It is hidden away down a narrow lane off Skinnergate. Neat rows of small, identical, rounded headstones sit in a quiet, grassy space shaded by trees. The spring sun shone as we entered and we were far enough away from the traffic to hear the birds singing. Lovely clumps of snowdrops decorated the areas between the graves. Along a retaining wall was a collection of graves belonging to the Pease family, including Edward and Joseph. It was a calm and peaseful place, if you’ll excuse the pun.

  Another impressive place with a Quaker connection was the Imperial Centre, which was originally a Temperence Hotel from the mid-19th century. This was when the Friends dominated the town and drinking was frowned upon. The battle against the “evil drink” was lost however as it is now a restaurant and bar!

  The most interesting and atmospheric streets in Darlington, in our opinion, were High Row, Skinnergate and the narrow, cobbled lanes that connect them. These are known as wynds or yards. There are 4 of them. To be corny for a moment, entering these lanes was like stepping back in time. The wynds and yards contain buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries with no modern intrusions. They have a strong medieval flavour and many buildings are listed. The upper stories were built wider than the ground floor so as to create more space which wasn’t available on the ground. Some have kinks or finkles halfway along them. “Finkle” is the Scandinavian word for “elbow” or “bend”. The name is a reminder that Darlington has a Viking heritage as well. Another clue is all the street names ending in gate, such as Skinnergate, Bondgate, Priestgate, Northgate etc. This comes from the old Danish word for street ie “gata”. In Clark’s Yard two buildings facing each other have been chamfered or scooped out at ground level to allow horse-drawn carriages to pass down the lane. It’s a nice historical scene to conjure up.

  Street names often conjure up evocative images from the past. For instance Darlington’s Horsemarket and Salt Yard give us a strong clue as to what used to happen there. Similarly Bakehouse Hill reminds us of the days when towns and villages had a communal oven. The Pennyweight Pub now stands on the site of the 18th century common bakery. People would bring along their loaves and pies to put in the oven and they would pay by weight. Hence came the term: “penny weight.”

  What is fun about doing these town trails is spotting buildings that have changed their functions over the years. Sadly you also hear about the ones that have been demolished, to be replaced by a modern equivalent, in the interests of “progress.” Those that have survived are not always in the best of “health” or in their original format. For instance, the 1902 Todds Brothers Drapery and Soft Furnishings with its eye-catching, large display windows and decorative external tiles, has now metamorphasised into 3 separate business premises — a clothes shop, a cafe and a barbers. This artificial division of a once fine building looked strange. We had a drink in the cafe and to our disapointment, found that the original late-Victorian decor had been buried under a false ceiling, plastic panelling and modern lights. Any sense of history had been wiped out. Still they served a nice cappaccino. I wonder whatever happened to the Todd brothers?

  In numerous places, brash modern shop fronts clashed with a Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian building above. In one insensitive case, a gaudy shopping centre and amusement arcade had taken over the ground floor of a wonderful Art deco building from the early 1930’s. At least they had not knocked it down but it was sad to see a once proud building looking neglected and partly vandalised.

  Of course towns cannot stand still and exist solely as historical theme parks. Darlington is no exception. The Great North Road no longer runs through its centre and horses no longer clip-clop across its cobbles. The coaching inns have had to reinvent themselves as pubs, clubs and restaurants.  Great animal markets no longer feature in the centre of town. One red-striped modern water feature was supposed to remind people of the blood of the animals that used to be slaughtered there. Now the same streets are full of shoppers enjoying the relative peace and safety of the pedestrianised centre. So “progress” has banned the cars as well as the farm animals, so cannot be viewed as a wholly bad thing. Inevitably there is a Mall, the building that is now ubiquitous across the western world. OK — malls keep you warm and dry in winter and are very convenient, but it’s a shame that they often lack character and end up making every place look the same. To be fair, Darlington’s Cornwall Shopping Centre  tries to blend in with the surrounding older buildings. However, when we went inside ( to use the facilities), it was the usual mix of High Street stores. franchised food-chains and bland canned music. We could have been visiting “Anytown.”

  Ian and I finished back in St Cuthbert’s churchyard by the River Skerne.( a tributary of the Tees nearby.) The Grade 1 listed church itself was closed, no doubt to avoid theft or vandalism. But we did notice an interesting Boer War Memorial from 1905. I thought the helmet on the soldier looked different! Then we tracked back up the hill to Bank Top station, the building which best represents Darlington in the eyes of the outside world. Darlo was one of the World’s first railway towns but now that I’ve actually got off the train and explored it, I know there’s a lot more to it than just a stop on the east coast mainline. I realize now that all the railway pioneering and industrial success was built on a firm foundation laid by hardworking, clean living and forward thinking Quakers. Seemingly unassuming Darlington was the place where industry, entrepreneurship and religious non-conformism  combined to produce a World first!  Darlington’s football team may have been relegated to the lowly Conference league now, but their nickname provides a constant reminder of their town’s proud history.

CHAPEL FOLK.

11 Feb

My childhood Sunday in the 1950’s : deserted streets, closed shops, roast dinners and church — or to be more precise: chapel.

  I come from a chapel family. Chapel folk are Christians but they don’t go in for the : fancy ceremonies, colourful robes, chanting or incense wafting of the Catholics or the Anglicans. As they refused to conform to all the High Church stuff, they broke away and were dubbed the Non-Conformists. This all happened in the later 18th Century. Their places of worship were small, simple buildings, mostly devoid of rich decoration or fancy ornemants. The non-conformists consisted of several different groups, the main ones being: the Methodists, the Congregationists and the Baptists. Their chapels sprang up all over the north, the Midlands and Wales, attracting bulging congregations.

  My family, on the maternal side, came from the Methodist tradition. Methodism had been founded in the 18th century by the brothers. John and Charles Wesley. It attracted an enthusiastic following partly because of its rousing, evangelical-style preachers, who travelled round the country delivering open-air sermons to huge crowds. John Wesley was one of the most popular. While at Oxford University, John and Charles formed the “Holy Club” which systematically tried to set out the “rules” for a Holy life. They were branded “methodists” by some fellow Oxford students, who derided the methodological way they ordered their lives. I suspect though that this was a clue to their popularity with many people, including my family. Instead of having to struggle to figure out how to live a decent life, all the church members have to do is follow the rules and regulations set down by others who are claiming to be speaking on behalf of God. This is a feature of most of the main religions. Their followers just have to submit to the rules, supposedly laid down by God, in order to live a good life and go to heaven, or whatever the after-life is called. For example, “Islam”, one of the World’s biggest faiths, literally means “submission” ( to the will of God or Allah.) Methodists are not Muslims, but they still willingly submit to the rules. This is easier and more convenient than trying to figure out everything for oneself.

  I grew up in a coal-mining and steel making area of North-East Derbyshire, near the town of Chesterfield. It was classic non-conformist territory. In the large village where I was born, New Whittington, there were at least 3 Methodist Chapels back in the 1950’s. They were all built from imposing red brick. We attended Wellington Street Methodist Chapel, a few doors up from my grandparents, Tom and Alice. A few years ago, faced with a dwindling congregation and rising costs, it was demolished. I vividly remember the shock waves that shuddered through my family, including myself, when we surveyed the sad pile of dust and rubble. It was as if an important part of our history had been wantonly wiped out!

  My grandad used to dominate much of that chapel’s life in its hey day. He was: the organist, the choir master, a hymn composer and a preacher. One of his sons, my Uncle Victor, was also a long-serving lay preacher as was my dad, Maurice, when he married into the family. Later, my younger brother, Graham, carried the family tradition of lay- preaching into yet another generation.

  Although they rejected much of the ritual and ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, the Methodists were not short of rules and restrictions. These tried to control what chapel members could or could not do, both in and out of the chapel. It wasn’t just a religion but more like a whole life-style choice.

  When my dad joined the Methodists, having got hitched to my mum, one of the first things he had to do was to sign the “Pledge.”  This was a solemn undertaking not to touch a drop of the evil drink and become a life-long tee-totaller. The non-conformists churches had close links with the Temperance Movement which was also very strong in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Alcohol was identified as being at the root of much that was wrong in society. I’m fairly sure that before he signed up, my dad used to enjoy a few pints in the pub with his mates after work. But after he became a Methodist he didn’t touch a drop, except for a small glass of port on Christmas Day, diluted by lemonade. Methodists don’t even have real red wine when taking the Sacrament, their version of Holy Communion. They substitute blackcurrent or grape juice instead, to represent the blood of Christ.

 I recently watched a documentary about the days of the Commonwealth, the 1650’s, when Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, governed Britain and his Puritan Church set the rules for the nation. In order to “purify” the country from unspiritual and sinful pursuits, the Puritans banned many entertainments and amusements. I think they even banned dancing round the maypole and tried to abolish the festivities of Christmas. I think the Methodists partly took up this mantle two or three centuries later, although not pushing it to such extremes. Fun and entertainment were largely not approved of on Sundays. This was the case in my childhood. Sunday was a religious day devoted to worshipping in church ( chapel) and for us youngsters to go to Sunday School. For my sister, Glenys, and I, these special rules for Sunday made for a fairly miserable time. It was as if our much looked forward to weekend had been truncated to just one day. Most of our rest, relaxation and fun had to be crammed into Saturday. Then, on Sunday, it was back to being serious, wearing formal clothes and being forced to do things that we didn’t want to do.

  It must be remembered however that in the 1950’s and 60’s, when I was young, the Sunday Trading Laws were still strictly enforced. The churches and religious pressure groups still had power and influence. So practically all the shops and places of entertainment were closed on Sundays. It wasn’t like the free and easy regime of today where Sunday is almost like a full-blown Saturday and the main thing being worshipped is materialism. Back then, town centres were dead on Sundays and the streets mostly deserted. We didn’t even have a bus service on Sunday morning and a very restricted service after lunch. There were no professional football matches and no “Super Sundays” on Sky Sports. Therefore, even without our Methodist strictures, it would still have been a potentially more boring and empty day with fewer opportunities for entertainment.

  However, my family took all this up a few notches thanks to the puritanical-style rules of the chapel. My sister and I were forbidden to play out out on Sundays. We could not see our friends. We were not allowed to have an ice-cream on a Sunday even when the chiming van drove temptingly down our street. We could not play any sport or even watch it on TV. In the 1960’s, ITV’s football highlights show “The Big Match” was screened on a Sunday afternnon but I wasn’t allowed to watch it. We had to go to morning Sunday School, afternoon Sunday School and then the evening service. When I got older I even got sent to Bible study class after the service finished.

  All day I would have to wear my Sunday best clothes, including shirt and tie. My father would ritually dollop Brylcream on to my hair and then comb a rigid parting into it. To this day I still have an aversion to hair-cream or gel! The rest of the day was spent: singing hymns, praying, listening to Bible readings, having Sunday School lessons and enduring long, boring sermons delivered in artificial, churchified voices. If the preacher had spoken to us in a normal, conversational voice, it wouldn’t have been quite so bad. For a long time I couldn’t understand the sermons and coped by having a day-dream or by wriggling restlessly in my chair until told to sit still by mum or dad. When I got older, I found that many sermons were about us being sinners and that if we didn’t mend our ways, we wouldn’t be allowed into Heaven, know as The Kingdom of God. We in fact risked the eternal fires of Hell if we got tempted by Satan to leave the “straight and narrow.” Surviving the sermon became one big endurance test. Sometimes it went on for half an hour – a whole 30 minutes of being preached at. Even though Methodist services had been stripped of ceremony and ritual, they followed strict guidelines. A typical service consisted of: hymn, prayer, Lord’s Prayer, hymn, Bible reading, hymn, notices, collection, sermon, hymn and benediction ( closing prayer.) Sunday School was more relaxed but still felt like an unwelcome extra day of lessons just before we had to go back to the real school.

  Of course, church was not all gloom and doom. It would be unfair of me to paint too black a picture. I enjoyed some of the rousing hymns, especially when my grandad or my Uncle Ernie were belting them out. At Sunday School we enjoyed singing jolly little ditties with actions to go with the words. My favourites were “Happy, Loved and Saved” and ” Now Zacchias was a very little man.”  I met some of my friends at chapel. We had parties at Christmas and pea and pie suppers. I went to the chapel youth club where I learnt to play table tennis and kiss girls. Yes, my first girlfriend, Santia, was a Methodist! I met her at a chapel Valentine’s Day dance. Every year, we children received the gift of a book to reward our Sunday School attendance. I enjoyed reading these except for one year, when they presented me with my own Bible instead of the book about a Second World War bomber pilot for which I craved. ( “I Flew With Braddock.”) My parents kindly bought it for me later. Then there were the annual Sunday School Anniversaries when we were all kitted out in smart new clothes and proudly sat on a special tiered platform in front of our friends and families. We sang special hymns and recited special poems. The sermons on these occasions were especially child-friendly such that we could actually understand them. I used to perform duets with a boy who was tone-deaf. It was difficult keeping in tune but everyone praised him because they thought he was singing a complicated descant!

  I also enjoyed Christmas at church with its candles, carols and nativity plays. Once it was my turn to be one of the Three Kings and proudly wear my dressing gown and  tea-towel head-dress as I carried my shiny pretend- gift up the aisle. Then there were the Toy Services for kids in Children’s Homes and orphanages. We also sold books of childrens’ photos called “Sunny Smiles”. The proceeds went to the homes. It felt good to be helping others, which, to be fair, is one of the main teachings of Christianity and other religions. Yes, Church wasn’t all bad!

  Despite all this, a typical Sunday increasingly felt like donning a strait-jacket. My freedom was drastically curtailed and I was compelled to follow the church’s rules and routines. It all seemed a frustrating waste of my valuable time. I stopped going to chapel as soon as I left home to go to college at the age of 18. So did my sister. We have never gone back except for occasional weddings, christenings and funerals, plus the odd carol service to please our parents.

  Mum and Dad still go to their local chapel every Sunday. They still believe they are destined to enter The Kingdom of God. Who’s to say that they are not right? The church has given their lives shape and structure. The other members of the congregation are their friends and provide them with a social life and support. To them it’s like a cosy club of which they are long term members. In some ways the church tells them how to live their lives and even what to think, especially in the spiritual sphere. This, I suppose, is the Methodist way.

  I have chosen to try to work out my own spiritual path. I have studied the beliefs of other religions, had many discussions on this subject and have read books about spiritual matters such as M Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled” , “The Anatomy of the Spirit” by Caroline Myss and “The Celestine Prophecy” by James Redfield. I have talked ideas through with Christians, Buddhists, agnostists, athiests and Humanists. I suppose I am a product of the 17th and 18th century’s “Age of Reason” and of “Enlightenment.” At that time, the black and white medieval sureties were challenged by science, philosophy and scepticism. For some reason I feel I ought to question rather than just accept. It’s not an easy process and I’m still not sure what I believe. However it’s an increasingly important task as I grow older and I become aware of questions to do with the Meaning of Life and issues surrounding Death. I don’t believe that I can solve my personal conundrums by adopting an off-the-peg religion which tells me what to believe and how to live my life. I don’t want to be told to exercise blind faith instead of actively seeking out enlightening evidence. Unlike church goers, I do not believe everything I read in the Bible.

  Church and chapel congregations have drastically dwindled over the last 50 years. The UK is still officially a Christian nation, but as well as the growth of other religions, there has been a big drift towards a secular society. I have been part of this movement away from organised religion. Many churches have been knocked down or converted into museums, warehouses, shops or even homes. Despite largely rejecting my religious upbringing, it still makes me feel sad to see an abandoned, derelict or converted church. I still feel sharp pangs of loss when I recall that pile of rubble where my grandad used to preach. I suspect it might be a block of flats by now.

  I left Methodism many moons ago but it has still left its mark on me. I have never been a big drinker or a going-down-the-pubber. I rarely swear ie -using the Lord’s name in vain. I love singing and am a member of a choir. Although it is not a religious one, I enjoy singing Gospel songs and Christmas carols. Finally, I strongly believe in: love, compassion, charity and forgiveness, all of which are major strands of the teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s just that I don’t feel I have to attend a church or chapel to put these into practice. Neither do I have to smear on Brylcream! Hallelujah and Amen.

The Circle Game.

20 Jan

Another one of my friends has very sadly died. Brian was 67 and I sang with him in Whitby Community Choir. He was a fellow bass and a lovely person to know.

 As they carried his flower-decked coffin into the packed chapel, they played Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” It’s a song that I know and love, but up to that moment I never fully appreciated what the lyrics meant. I had vaguely thought of it as being about the passage of time, with the seasons constantly turning round. However, I didn’t quite grasp, or didn’t wish to grasp, that it’s also about the inexorable process of ageing with its inevitable conclusion in death. The most chilling lines, I think, are:

       ” We’re captive on the carousel of time,

          We can’t return, we can only look behind

          from where we came….. ”

 It is the fatalism expressed here that is so dispiriting, I feel. It’s depressing to realize that we are trapped in an unalterable process. When I first heard these words, in my early twenties, I didn’t think about them too deeply, as I was armed with the arrogance of youth. I had my whole adult life still before me and didn’t want to get depressed by thinking of the inevitability of my demise. Death is something we largely avoid thinking about in our Western culture, unless we are suddenly confronted by the passing away of someone close to us or we fall victim of a life-threatening illness. Then we shed tears, and get sad, upset and depressed, even though we have known all along that death is one of the few certain aspects of life. What disturbs me is the fact that we have no control over this process. It’s just nature taking its course. As Joni says: we are “captives” of time. Our personal clocks are constantly ticking.

  At Brian’s funeral there were rousing hymns, prayers and eulogies. Even though people were crying and had sad, sombre faces, the service was billed as a “celebration” of his eventful life. Anecdotes, quotes, stories and songs, all brought Brian back to life again as we remembvered our times with him, and appreciated all the lives he had touched. Even though he wasn’t physically amongst us, he was still a powerful emotional presence. We were connecting to him once again through our warm memories. This served to lift the mood of sadness and fatalism that had accompanied me at the start of the service.

 The concept of a circle is very appropriate in thinking of our lives and deaths. First of all, there is the natural cycle of us returning to the earth from which we came via the burying of our bodies or scattering of our ashes. In this way, by enriching the soil, a death can lead to new life.

  Another circle, believed by Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, is the cycle of the soul — in other words the process of reincarnation. Here death is not the end, but merely a prelude to a new beginning. The circle turns again as the soul leaves one spent body and enters another one in order to live a new life. This constant rotation will only end, it is believed, when a person can finally shed his/her ego and unite once again with “God.” Believers in past-lives also subscribe to this notion of birth-death- and rebirth. This idea sees life as cyclical rather than linear.

  Yet another idea is that of the ” social circle.” Most of us reside in the centre of a constant, swirling circle of social interactions. These encounters can be both direct and indirect. They can take the form of : one to one meetings, telephone conversations, letters, texts and emails. On a wider, less personal scale, we also interact with people who we have never met. Thus we may read a book that someone else has written, listen to a recording of someone else’s song or even cook a meal devised by a chef we have necer met. TV programmes, films and plays also contribute to our wider circle of interactions with others. Our lives consist of constant encounters with others that spread from the centre. It is only when this whirl of interactions stops that we can say that life has finally ceased. However, as we experienced at Brian’s funeral/ celebration, not even the apparant finality of death can prevent this circle of connections from rotating, because it continues to turn in the memories of those left behind. Whenever I listen to a String Quartet by Beethovan or read a novel by Jane Austin they live again even though technically they passed away a long time ago. Similarly when I look at a photo of my Grandma Alice or recall visits to her house when I was a child, she returns to life in my mind.

  So, although in a purely physical sense we are all “captives on a carousel of time”, in another sense, through the recollections of all those we interact with, directly or indirectly, we can defy the clock and live on indefinitely. This is especially true if one is a particularly social animal. Brian met many people through his teaching, singing, choir leading, play writing, acting, cycling and charity working. So he lives on in the minds of all those he taught, entertained and helped as well as in the hearts and minds of his family. Brian’s personal participation in the circle game has now sadly ended, but the circles still surround him like  ripples in a pool — circulating memories activated by the many memory-joggers that he left behind. I made the same point about the importance of memory when I wrote about the death of another friend, Clive, a couple of years ago. That made me realize why ancestor-worship, was/is so prevalent in Ancient China and South-East Asia. By keeping pictures and mementoes in family shrines, a family can keep the memory of their departed relative alive.

  This is perhaps why a funeral is traditionally followed by a “wake” in our culture. I’ve never thought about that word before — “wake.” Now it seems obvious. The friends and family of the recently departed, resurrect or wake-up him/her through their shared stories and memories. Perhaps death is not just one big full- stop afterall. The circle game swirls on and on and on. From being depressed about the inevitability and finality of it all, I now find it all quite comforting and reassuring.