Earlier this year I shared a post from author Paul Breen about his visit to my hometown of Middlesbrough. It really struck a chord with a lot of readers – and it seems that the town struck a chord with him too.
Paul recently came back for a second visit and shared his thoughts below.
I’m sure you know that feeling of going on a second date – the sense that everything’s bound to be different to the last time now that the fascination has worn off. Well if that wasn’t bad enough, I was bringing the wife with me this time to meet the mistress who I’d written about one Sunday after my first visit to the side of the Tees.
On Saturday 28th March, I left London once again for a trip that this time would last a whole weekend rather than the single day of a football match – wondering what my wife would make of this place that I and then the local papers had painted as her potential love rival. At least this time I had a better sense of what to expect!
Getting into the station, the omens were good – finding myself greeted by a giant heart on the opposite side of the platform, a big red balloon that seemed to have floated out of a song from the 80s.
Set against the iconic figure of the Transporter Bridge, this image rose up against a background of moonlight and the town’s silhouette, as imagined by local artist Mackenzie Thorpe.
What a romantic gesture I thought – the town putting up a giant Heart of the North to show that our feelings were mutual.
But no – I’d landed back in town on the weekend of the artist’s return to his birthplace for an exhibition in Hudson Quay to celebrate the display of these Station Posters, which are going to stay up there for a couple of years.
It was fitting then that Hudson Quay was my first destination, just across from the Riverside stadium, and facing out on the bridge and the traces of industry that give Middlesbrough its distinctive character. But as they often say the way to a man’s art is through his stomach. Even though I’d built up an appetite for Mackenzie’s work, having travelled four hours on the train, I was hungry and stopped off in the Hudson Quay brasserie where the views are almost as good as the food – and that says a great deal for the quality of the cuisine. There’s something about the waterfront that reminds me of modern day Woolwich, and indeed the bridge does the same function as the famous Woolwich ferry that away supporters sometimes use on route to the Valley, home of Charlton Athletic, my local club.
Again, sitting in lovely surroundings, looking out on fine exhibitions of sculpture combined with traces of past industry and future hopes for education in the shape of the sparkly new 6th form College, I was quite taken with the town on this sunny spring afternoon.
Tasting my first beer in Middlesbrough too, as my wife Sarah had a wine, I raised a glass to my mistress. Then I went into Mackenzie’s exhibition with the warm glow of mild intoxication and good food in my stomach. There, alongside Sarah, I got so many glimpses into Middlesbrough’s industrial past and its ever-present aesthetics, such as the figure of Roseberry Topping forever standing in the background – much as they have the Cave Hill in Belfast.
As I have said before, Middlesbrough reminds me a lot of Belfast, or maybe the Belfast that existed during its first stages of regeneration. Then, it would have been laughable that Belfast could be considered a location for vacation, a hub for city breaks that now rivals Dublin.
It was in Belfast that I had my stag party in 2011 and have had many visits with my wife, usually on our way to and from the city’s airport. On one of those visits, when we were first dating, I remember that my niece bagged first choice of being bridesmaid if we ever got married.
Now I know it’s wrong to be thinking of marriage on a second date – but again as Claire Wordsworth and Rob Nichols showed me around the city, another image came to mind. This was inspired by their story of how Middlesbrough had tried for city status a couple of years before, and not been accepted, which seemed a little unfair to me.
Yet, why I mention the bridesmaid image, is that they say every bridesmaid usually gets to have her own big day, just as my wife did a couple of years after all of our dating.
So Middlesbrough’s turn will come at some point in the future!
And here we were almost four years after marriage dating once again – wandering the streets of Sarah’s love rival, passing a Saturday evening at the Tees Barrage out near Stockton, and then back in again to the centre, before preparing for a Sunday visit to the coast.
Those visits to the sea came about on a morning that was too cold for an ice cream in Redcar and then an afternoon when the sun came out over Saltburn. Sarah’s grandfather used to come here years ago for the race days at Redcar, so we weren’t the first southern tourists in this part of the world, and hopefully won’t be the last because we’ll be back again to try the cable car that wasn’t working on the day.
On the Sunday night I then did a book reading and made plans for a sequel at some point that might feature half-fictional characters from Middlesbrough! Next day started and finished with a football theme, visiting Ayresome Park’s remains with Rob Nichols in the morning and then the England U-21 game at the Riverside in the evening.
My wife wasn’t with me for either of those trips as she had gone back to London by this stage, but she would have enjoyed the part that was sandwiched into the middle. And since I’m fond of metaphors, if this was a sandwich filling it would have to be an exotic fruit and seafood cocktail combined with an under layer of crushed ice.
No, it wasn’t another trip to the Brasserie on Hudson Quay or one of the fantastic sandwiches we ate in The Thistle Hotel where I stayed. This was a trip to The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Stewart Park, where Phil Philo – Senior Curator of Middlesbrough’s Museums – provided a tour and ship loads of information along the way.
A lot of his stories and the artefacts gathered in the museum had particular resonance with me because I spent time in Cairns, Australia a few years back and also live close to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The Birthplace Museum combines features and elements common to these two places, with its naval and nautical emphasis from the early days of Captain Cook’s life and then the more scientific, travel-rich escapades of his later days.
The story of his life is told in an incredibly holistic and human way through the exhibitions and the tales that staff can provide and elaborate on at length. From the very start he becomes more than a man in uniform and you get a sense of who he is and what he achieved in his life, and the great struggles he faced on his voyages.
But it’s the small extras and linkages that make this an even more fascinating place to visit – such as the information on the role of the albatross in sea-faring folklore, and the way that Captain Cook’s voyages have a direct connection with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s seminal Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Such connections are everywhere, lurking in the background like the ships’ cats snuggled on ropes and rafters throughout the early stages of the story.
Moving through the rooms, you’re almost crossing continents with Captain Cook on his voyages of discovery, in his conquest of Canada from 1758 to 1763, and then his three great expeditions between 1768 and 1779. You see the animals and icebergs he encountered along the way, and almost feel as if you’re back there for the couple of hours you could spend moving through the rooms of this museum.
There’s no doubt this is a hidden jewel of Middlesbrough, the kind of place that many visitors probably stumble upon in the way that Cook himself stumbled across so many places and in particular Australia.
Part of me wishes that there was a direct connection between the Transporter Bridge and this museum, that you could get in a car and cross the river, as I did on the Monday morning, and find yourself landing on the shores of Captain Cook’s story. But then maybe it’s fitting that there’s some effort required to get to the slightly out-of-town location of Stewart Park. After all that’s how many of his own voyages took shape, stories born out of a desire to navigate a path to hidden corners of the world – some that didn’t even actually exist!
Of course it has to be said that it’s not quite so hard to get out to the museum if you are driving, and it’s well worth the effort. I’d personally say that this has the potential to be for Middlesbrough what the Titanic Museum is for Belfast – and it took them almost a hundred years in Northern Ireland to realise the potential of that!
There’s also plenty to do in the surrounding Stewart Park, and very soon there’s going to be a fantastic sports’ facility just down the road.
So that brought an end to the second date and it was even better than the first, with the added bonus of giving my wife a sense of the town as well. However I do get a real sense that we are meeting Middlesbrough in her bridesmaid years, much as if we’d gone to Belfast in the 1990s at the outset of that city’s regeneration.
There’s nothing to stop Middlesbrough from being a city and then benefitting from the tourist potential that this opens up.
Looking out the window of The Thistle Hotel on our evenings there, I was often struck by how interesting the view is, much like the working parts of the Thames River in London. Facing out on the sculptures and the industrial backdrop to the Riverside stadium, I could see lots of regeneration work taking place at the same time as preserving the town’s character in a way that Mackenzie Thorpe has also tried to capture in his posters at the station.
They were the last thing I saw on my departure from Middlesbrough station on the Tuesday morning, acting both as an expression of greeting and an expression of goodbye – two things at once – good art on the surface and a deeper story beneath. I’m glad to have a got a deeper sense of Middlesbrough these past couple of months and hope that other tourists and visitors get to do the same at some stage.
So, overall the second date went well, and Sarah’s quite happy that I have good taste in rivals! Only one thing – going back to my first article – I still haven’t worked out where you are hiding that chain-smoking single mother from the Council estate that I was initially expecting. Maybe you’ll all let her out again at some point – at the very least if Middlesbrough one day is afforded city status!