Blog of Justin Cheuk, home to writing on London, Hong Kong, Studying Abroad, Trains and Travels.

Dayout on Impulse: Middlesbrough

Justin Cheuk: When HK Meets UK

The concept of a spontaneous holiday has always fascinated me. After all, wouldn’t it be a dream to simply jump onto the next departure for a getaway? Unfortunately, the constraints of time and money have ensured that these dreams remained nothing more.

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Nevertheless, who is to say these roaming destinations has to be somewhere “exotic” or foreign? Even just around us, there are many places that we routinely miss due to familiarity. If we employ a different attitude, we can easily see them in a newer light.

This is all a long justification. The starting chapter of my post-exam shenanigans was, therefore, a trip to Middlesbrough. Yes, Middlesbrough.

For me, the name ‘Middlesbrough’ has always signified a football club first and foremost, thanks to their relatively recent spell in the Premier League. What I didn’t know though, was that it was also the “Ironopolis”, the town that helped created cities around the world.

The tale of ending up in Middlesbrough is fairly comical. As the early finisher of exams in my house, I eagerly looked for excuses to leave so as to not catch the wrath of my remaining housemates, still battling with their books. At a stage where my stay in the North East could be coming to a conclusion, I thought it best to burst out of the Durham bubble to have a look at the region that’s I’ve called home in the past three years. I was going to walk into Durham bus station, hop onto the first bus that departs and go on a little adventure.

There was only one problem. The first scheduled departure was an X12 to Stockton. Luckily for me, the X12 does not actually terminate at Stockton: armed with the information I’ve just googled, After 45 minutes of County Durham villages and a cameo appearance by the Queen’s Campus, I found myself pulling into Middlesbrough.

The first impression was “business as usual”. For the constant talk of industrial decline, Middlesbrough town centre looks just like any other towns and cities across Britain, lively but ordinary. There’s that 80s’ concrete-clad shopping mall stocked with your phone and fashion shops, and that pedestrianised bit of the high street again with the familiar brands. There were noticeably more shoppers than Durham, but that’s also understandable considering its status as the largest town in Teesside. Only when I checked Google Maps did I notice somewhere mildly different: the streets are straight and a clear grid pattern exists.

That’s because Middlesbrough was a new town spawned during the industrial revolution by one thing- Iron.

Ironopolis, by Ian Hearn

Where alchemists were born below Cleveland’s hills

A giant blue dragonfly across the Tees

Reminds us every night we built the world,

Every metropolis came from

Ironopolis

As the collieries searched for a new dock to export their coal, the railways were extended from Darlington in the 1830s and the town of Middlesbrough was then founded. However, it was the discovery of iron ore nearby in the 1850s that really pushed the growth of the town exponentially. At its heyday, Middlesbrough was the standard of world prices in iron and steel, while the entirety of Teesside produced almost a third of total British steel output by the turn of the 20th century. As the British Empire expanded so did Middlesbrough’s steel: it was used to many major infrastructure projects around the world, such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

(Steel isn’t totally a thing of the past, though. Teesside remains home to the second largest blast furnace in Europe, and the steel they churn out continues to contribute to major infrastructure projects such as new Wembley or Heathrow Terminal 5.)

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Middlesbrough’s industrial heritage provided perhaps its most famous landmark: the Tees Transporter Bridge, located about a 10-minute walk North from the railway station. A transporter bridge is a hybrid structure between a ferry and a bridge, used to cross navigable rivers with frequent maritime traffic. It’s an uncommon design with only a dozen or so remaining worldwide. That alone warrants a visit.

The Tees Transporter Bridge was one of two that survived and remained in use in the UK (the other is in Newport). It’s a truly magnificent bridge. The travelling ‘gondola’ can carry up to 200 people and 9 cars at a time and cross the Tees in 90 seconds. Disappointingly though, the bridge was closed due to high winds on the day of my visit, so I didn’t get to traverse the river. Well, there’s always next time.

While it has been decades since the industrial decline in the North East, many of its cities are still struggling to recover and improve its image. Middlesbrough’s town centre has indeed returned to relative prosperity, yet only a stone’s throw away can one find derelict, boarded-up streets with dilapidated buildings. Fortunately, many encouraging signs have emerged too: major regeneration projects are ongoing in various parts of the town. The area surrounding the Transporter Bridge, in particular, has almost been levelled for new developments, save for an isolated old pub that has yet to be teared down. Perhaps the town will look completely different in my next visit?

After a walk around town, I returned to the town square for my next destination- the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA). The largest contemporary art gallery in Teesside, it is perhaps best known as the stage of the automobile exhibition hosted by the (ex-) Top Gear crew a few years back.

I know very little about art in general, but I’ve always been fond of modern art because of the opportunities to imagine. It’s always interesting to see who people approach everyday things in a completely different way.

The gallery does not have a permanent display but instead host revolving exhibitions. Perhaps it was a weekday afternoon, the gallery was largely quiet yet remains very friendly. The atrium of the gallery doubled as a community space for children and schools to use as a dance studio; there were textbooks and explanations to art (in general, and not just about that particular exhibition) readily available for the visitors. Sitting at the gallery cafe and writing this, it is very difficult to link this space with all the negativity that one is usually accustomed about the Middlesbrough or even North East. Slowly but surely, the North will no longer be grim.

Yes, I went to Middlesbrough for a day-trip. And I’ve really enjoyed myself and will recommend if you’re interested in things ranging from industry, bridges to art. If we allow our minds to wander, there are always interesting things around his, waiting to be discovered!

Further Reading

More about Middlesbrough 

Made in Teesside 

MIMA

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