Saturday, 3 October 2015

Time for Tees

It has been a long distance week for Luton Town fans.  A home win last Saturday was followed by a trip to Morecambe on Tuesday evening - rewarded by another win - and then an awayday at Hartlepool today.  Just a cool 800 miles or so of travelling.

To add a bit more interest, I decided to start my Hartlepool trip with an overnight stay in Middlesbrough and the chance to explore an area that I don't know well.  I have previously explored the delights of Redcar and Saltburn as well as the stunning North Yorkshire Moors, but the area north and west of the town was uncharted territory for me.

The most distinctive feature of Middlesbrough's transport scene is the Tees Transporter Bridge.  You really can't miss it - it dominates the skyline from all directions.

For the facts and figures about this very unusual piece of transport infrastructure, I can do no better than to refer you to Middlesbrough Council's very informative web page.  In operational terms, a framework running on rails across the top of the bridge is propelled backwards and forwards across the river, and a gondola suspended beneath carries cars and pedestrians.

It feels like a huge amount of civil engineering for something that can carry nine cars each way across the river every fifteen minutes or so.  Maybe that's why there aren't more of them around the world.  But that doesn't make it any less fun!

The bridge forms part of what might be called the 'old' road between Middlesbrough and Hartlepool.  These days most traffic thunders up and down the A19 so this is very much a minor route.  No doubt that's why the operating hours are pretty limited - no evening service at all and weekend crossings finish mid-afternoon on Saturdays with nothing on Sundays.

Nevertheless, with a capacity of only nine cars I was expecting it to be busy.  I needn't have worried.  I crossed from Middlesbrough at about 10.00 on a Saturday morning and I was the only car and passenger on the crossing.  Nobody at all was waiting to go back so it returned empty.  Doesn't bode well for its future I fear.

The low demand meant I had pole position at the front of the gondola as I waited for departure.

I was soon joined by the two members of staff - one to marshal the traffic and the other to drive.

Just as we were about to set off, a loud horn announced the arrival of an approaching ship, and the guys explained that the bridge gives way to ships.  They felt they could easily make it across before the ship reached us, but apparently once it has blasted its horn at us we are obliged to wait.

And wait.

And wait....

Eventually, the Heortnesse - a locally based dredger - made very sedate progress across the front of us and we were able to leave.

At this point I expected our driver (not sure that's the official term) to disappear into a cab bristling with levers and buttons and crank the gondola into action.  Instead, he stayed hanging over the rails and pressed a button on his chest.  Look at the guy in yellow in this picture.  The entire driving cab is on that little box hanging round his neck.

To be honest, I couldn't work out whether this was amazing or disappointing.  Technically of course it's hugely impressive to think that such a vast contraption can be controlled from such a tiny box.  But it does take away some of the sense of occasion!

The crew were actually very friendly and happy to indulge in conversation.  It turns out that many of their dramas would be familiar to bus drivers.  A car crossing costs £1.30 but the guy who collected the money told me that last Monday morning the first two car drivers gave him a £20 and £10 note.  I suppose bus drivers don't usually have to give way to dredgers.

Earlier in this post I described the bridge as fun.  It definitely is that and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience even if the morning murk meant there wasn't much to see.  But it seems that the council is finding enterprising ways to generate revenue from the bridge, and others see it as a source of fun in ways I would never have imagined...

I'll leave it to someone else to sample the bungee experience.

A short distance upstream is the Tees Newport Bridge.  I feel a bit sorry for this bridge.  If the Transporter Bridge weren't there it would probably attract rather more attention, but clearly size matters and the Transporter Bridge overshadows its smaller cousin.  The Newport Bridge can lift its main deck 37 metres in the air to allow ships to pass underneath - although it was last used in 1990 - and is architecturally distinctive in its own right.  So I drove over it twice to make it feel better.

After that I set off for a short tour of the region, but not before making a shocking discovery.

I don't know whether Teesside has air quality issues, but clearly if you want fresh air there's only one place you can go...

If I walked into the local hospital and said I couldn't breathe, I wonder whether a local doctor might respond, "sorry mate, there's not much call for breathing round here.  If you want that you'll have to go to Oxygen Corner".

Having caught my breath I headed for Durham Tees Valley Airport as I'd never been before, only to find that there were no flights due in or out and it was so foggy you couldn't see the runway or any taxiways in any case.  So I had a quick look round Stockton instead and then continued my tour with a drive round Billingham.

In Billingham, this block of flats caught my eye...

Now of course Birmingham is famous for its Rotunda, and as a student at Aston University in the early '90s the sight of the Rotunda from the train window was always the moment you knew you'd arrived in an important city.  Yet here is a similar architectural wonder, unknown and unloved beyond the Billingham city limits.

I feel sure they're missing a trick here.

It's easy to get from Birmingham to Billingham - you only have to change two letters - so now that the Birmingham Rotunda has been gentrified and modernised and absorbed into a new shopping development I reckon Billingham Tourist Board should advertise the 'Rotunda of the North' as a rival attraction.  I'm sure visitors would come flocking.

I love a nice bit of heavy industry.  You can't beat a good refinery or a power station to get the adrenaline flowing.  What they lack in natural beauty, they more than compensate in drama and occasion - as well of course as making a vital economic contribution - so my journey on to Hartlepool took in as much of Teesport and Seal Sands as I was able to see from the public roads which, with the fog still lingering, wasn't very much at all.  But very interesting nevertheless.

For a complete contrast my next stop was Seaton Carew, which I loved.  An old-fashioned seaside resort, featuring such attractions as the "Talk of the Town" amusement arcade, it enjoys miles of superbly attractive coastline and on a nicer day would be a terrific spot for a longer walk.

With time marching on however it was time to head to Hartlepool for the football.  As with Morecambe on Tuesday, this was a new ground for me and I was really looking forward to it.  It didn't disappoint - a very characterful ground with the fans close to the pitch and an excellent view of the action.

But the first treat came as the Luton team kindly and unexpectedly timed their arrival to coincide with my own.

Having noted that both goalkeepers were in the party, I had to sadly accept that there would be no vacancy on the subs bench so I wandered off to have a look round the town.  Clearly however my presence to welcome them must have proved an inspiration, as we dedicated travelling fans were treated to an outstanding (if slightly flattering) 4-1 away win.

I like Middlesbrough.  It is a town about which it is easy to hold preconceptions that might not be totally favourable, but it seems to me to have some life and personality about it.  And the Transporter Bridge is great fun if only for the fact that it is so over-engineered for the role that it actually performs.

Seaton Carew was a very nice surprise and Hartlepool was also quite a neat little town.

Wherever I went I was struck by how friendly people were, whether greeting me at my hotel, serving in shops or even driving a vast Transporter Bridge from a tiny pendant hung round the neck.

I look forward to my next visit!


  1. When I lived in Teesside around 2000, there were sometimes opportunities to walk across the top of the Transporter for charity. Not sure if they allow it any more. It was hard work climbing up the stairs!

  2. Fantastic! Hard work indeed, but well worth the effort no doubt.

  3. Forgive me for relying to yet another post, but as you mention the town (Billingham) and area where I grew up, I couldn't resist! I understand that the Transporter has just been equipped with a lift to allow access to the top without climbing the stairs (I'm not quite sure whether I approve!). The control of the bridge from a pendant has presumably come about with the installation of the new gondola. I was once treated to a "cab ride" on the old gondola. The cab sat above the car deck and the bridge was operated with (as it looked to me, as a young boy) an enormous wooden handle.

    FYI, the final Sunday in April generally sees a vintage bus running day based on the Middlesbrough side of the bridge, organised by a group of which I've been a member for many years. Usually there is bungee jumping and abseiling going on from the top of the bridge on the same day (not organised as part of the running day, I hasten to add!), though, subject to weather etc., this is usually halted breifly in the afternoon to allow one of the group's vintage buses to travel over the bridge. Being on a bus adds an interesting dimension to crossing the Tees on the Transporter.