I Must Go Down to South Gare Again . . .

south gare 2GOT my boots on. Clump clump. And I’m marching through an industrial estate on the outskirts of Redcar. A less charitable person might describe it as rundown and shabby. It is not the most picturesque of locations, but the low-budget car dealers are offering interesting bargains and there’s a colourful sign outside a scrapyard advertising a cafe – but there’s no cafe. I feel a bit out of place because I’m not wearing one of those high-visibility jackets or a leisure top with a sportswear company name emblazoned across the front. Does that sound a bit snobbish? Sorry, but I can’t worry about that because I’m searching for something . . .

Beyond the last security fence and misplaced traffic cones lies the steelworks. The blast-furnace and associated towers, chimneys, pylons, smoke spires and orange flares dominate the sky-scape. There is no denying this is an ugly place. But when viewed from the seashore with sand-dunes in the foreground, it assumes a surreal beauty. There is beauty in the ugliness. If that sounds like a cliché it’s because it probably is.

south gare 30I’ve just reread that last couple of sentences and they’ve made me laugh. They remind me of a line from Peter Chelsom’s wonderful film Here My Song, where nightclub entrepreneur Micky O’Neill says: “There are givers and there are takers. I find a kind of giving in my taking.” To which an old Irish matriarch called Grandma Ryan says: “Bollocks.”

Despite its fringes, Redcar’s a fine town. If you’ve seen Joe Wright’s splendid film Atonement, starring Keira Nightley and James McAvoy, and admired the people of Dunkirk for allowing their seafront to be blasted to bits a second time by German bombs and retreating Tommies, admire them no more because it wasn’t Dunkirk it was Redcar. That’s two films plugged in as many paragraphs. You’d think I was being paid for this.

What am I searching for? I’m not sure really. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

south gare 3There are no mountains or expansive moorlands in today’s itinerary. I’m heading down a potholed track past the steelworks to another country called South Gare, then ambling back to Redcar along the beach. South Gare is a place I discovered by chance back in the 1990s. Lucy stepped through a wardrobe into Narnia. I stepped through a gap between stacks of pallets and ended up at South Gare. There are no fauns.

Beyond the steelworks the track runs through scruffy dunes past the occasional abandoned mattress and pile of detritus from someone’s life. There’s a scattering of cars parked up with lonely men sitting in them. Am I selling you this place? Don’t go yet. A bleak line of telegraph poles cuts across the flatlands, seemingly dragging the track towards the mouth of the River Tees. It’s cold and visibility is hampered by a thin winter mist drifting in off the North Sea. And at the end of the road and the end of the river – and the end of solid ground until you reach Holland and Denmark – is South Gare.

south gare 5 south gare 6Searching. I’ve decided there should be more to life than going to work for a salary that’s decreasing in real terms every year – but I don’t know what it is. Climbing mountains is part of it, but there’s a bigger picture. There’s an answer out there as sure as there is dark matter and unseen fluff under the bed. So I’m at South Gare searching for an answer. I won’t find it – but I know I’ll find a clue.

Beneath the potholed road lies a sheltered creek in the southern bank of the cold grey Tees. The square outline of Hartlepool nuclear power station is just visible away to the north. Are you warming to this place yet? Boats bob in the creek. I don’t think they’ve moved since the last time I was here.

(By the way, you can click on all pictures for high-res versions. The following three have been converted from slides taken in 2001)

south gare 12 south gare 10 south gare 11Circling the creek is a collection of sheds built from boats, spare planks, second-hand windows and doors, tin sheets, felt, roofing laths and packing cases. Each shed has a stovepipe poking through the roof. I catch a whiff of smoke from the nearest hut and fight back an urge to walk through the open door and make myself comfortable in someone else’s battered armchair. Will the owner invite me inside if I stand here long enough? I’ll promise to remove my hiking boots and leave them on the step. I need to sip tea, eat biscuits and listen to the shipping forecast while his stove warms my soul and I relax in the rhythms of his recycled world. Because I think he’s found something.

south gare 7 south gare 8 south gare 9On the other side of the road, in a hollow in the dunes, is a settlement – it cannot be described as anything else – run by the Fishermen’s Huts Association. Each tidy green hut has a stovepipe and its allotted space. Each has its privacy while being part of a community. It looks ramshackle and primitive. But so far as I’m concerned, this is heaven on earth.

south gare 1south gare 14south gare 17 south gare 15 south gare 16I wander between the huts. Again I catch the scent of coal fires while Tammy Wynette sings Stand By Your Man on someone’s radio, the flares shoot skywards from the steelworks and the North Sea rolls on the beach. From the open window of one hut drifts the aroma of onions being fried. Is there a more delicious smell in the world? No there is not. Onions, coal smoke, salt on the wind and Tammy Wynette. Peace, nature, ugliness, beauty, wildness, isolation, earth, sky and ocean – all merging in this melting pot called South Gare. I said before that this is another country – and it is.

These people have found something. It’s not necessarily what I’m searching for but I think it’s a lump of it. It’s not the full jigsaw but it feels like a piece – or should that be a peace? Does that sound like another cliché?

The mouth of the Tees. Turn left for Tyne, right for Humber, straight on for Dogger, Fisher and German Bight. After that you hit Denmark

The mouth of the Tees. Turn left for Tyne, right for Humber, straight on for Dogger, Fisher and German Bight. After that you hit Denmark

south gare 18

A past tragedy

A past tragedy

Wartime gun emplacement

Wartime gun emplacement

The end of the road – and another misplaced traffic cone

The end of the road – and another misplaced traffic cone

I wonder if Marian and Stewart are still together

I wonder if Marian and Stewart are still together

I follow the tideline back towards Redcar. The beach is stained with streaks of sea-coal and oystercatchers peck in the shallows. In the sand I find the bottom of a very old green bottle – perhaps a codd bottle – embossed with the word “Middlesbrough”. It’s drifted down the Tees, washed out to sea, and been thrown back on the beach where the abrasive sand has smoothed its edges. It’s been on a voyage, and now it’s going home to sit on my shelf.

south gare 4 south gare 19 south gare 24 south gare 25 south gare 26 south gare 27 south gare 28 south gare 29 south gare 31 south gare 32Perhaps that’s what life’s about – there is no big picture, just bits of this and bits of that thrown together in a jumble that makes no sense but gets you through. I’ll have to think about that one.

south gare 33

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About McEff

Alen McFadzean. Journalist. Recently made redundant from The Northern Echo when my job was transferred to Wales to be done by people on lower wages. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climb mountains and run long distances to make life harder. Gravitate to the left in politics just to make life harder still.
This entry was posted in Environment, Hiking, Industrial archaeology, Life, Recycling, South Gare, Teesside, Walking and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to I Must Go Down to South Gare Again . . .

  1. rthepotter says:

    I like the sense here of other little worlds which They have overlooked – like the embankments of motorways, or the scruffy bit at the bottom of the garden, one finds unintentional refuges for plants, creatures and people. And if you can get into a different world you can sometimes see a question in your mind from a different angle. I’m glad you found something to take home with you.

    • McEff says:

      Hello Mrs Potter. Yes, I like the little worlds idea. I’ve just, this morning, travelled up the East Coast mainline and seen railway sidings with buddleia growing in them, and although they looked drab in this frosty weather, come summer they will be a picture of colour with butterflies flitting through their branches. And little sheds tucked in the corners of fields and saplings growing in the roofs of old buildings (which, if I recall, you are partial to yourself).
      It struck me that the majority of people don’t notice these things because nearly everyone on the train spent the entire journey poring over their touch-screen mobile phones. That’s their loss.
      Thank you for your comment, Alen

  2. O.M. says:

    We once spent a Winter’s afternoon in Redcar with No2 Daughter and her boyfriend who were, at the time, in the process of breaking-up. It was a bitter sweet occasion which a better man than I might have captured in a song or a short story.

    • McEff says:

      There’s a certain pathos in that tale, which a winter’s day in Redcar makes all the more tragic. A song, a short story, even a television play could be crafted from the bare bones of the picture you have sketched here, OM. It brings to mind Michael Palin’s marvellous film East of Ipswich. That’s another film plugged.
      Cheers, Alen

  3. Greg. says:

    I too love exploring the hidden places in familiar locations. There are interesting areas around Workingtons harbour mouth. The sheds look great and probably appeal to me the same way tents do! Great writing that Alen, you should write a book or some articles for TGO. It could do with an infusion of talent. I’d get your boots cleaned first mind.

    • McEff says:

      Greg, I’ve tried several times over the years to get my foot in the door at TGO, only to receive polite though disheartening replies. But perhaps, now you’ve mentioned it, if I cleaned my boots my foot would stand a better chance.
      I don’t know Workington harbour at all, but I used to work just down the road in Whitehaven and that’s a great place. Happy memories. The fish and chips are excellent too.
      Cheers, Alen

  4. scott says:

    Ah, that was a particularly good read. I’m jealous of your bottle bottom, as it were.

    Oddly enough, I was reading about the Carbeth Hutters just the other day, and your story made me think about the whole thing again. There’s a certain feel about that as well, I suppose.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Scott. My bottle bottom has been lightly polished and placed in a prominent position, you will be pleased to hear. I used to collect old bottles (in the days before marriage), my main source being a Victorian tip which now lies very inconveniently beneath the wallaby enclosure of the South Lakes Wild Animal Park. But at least the wallabies seem happy.
      I’d never heard of the Carbeth Hutters until I followed that link. What a splendid way to spend your life. And there’s even a national hutters association! I’ve a feeling there’s a whole new world out there waiting to be explored and embraced. Thanks for that.
      Cheers now, Alen.
      PS. I’ve just realised that I walked past those huts on the West Highland Way. A quick glance at Bing maps and the penny dropped.

  5. It’s years and years since I was down in South Gare – don’t think those huts were there back then. My friend came from Redcar and I used to visit her parents with her regularly. Your beach shots are lovely and I think the light on those scanned slides is something special! :-)
    Carol.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Carol. Thanks for that. I don’t know how long the huts have been there. The first time I visited South Gare was in the late 1990s, and they were there then. Huts can age very quickly, mind. My garden huts certainly do.
      Thanks for the comment on the scanned slides. The process on my Konig scanner seems to be very hit and miss at the moment, but I’m quite new to this sort of thing. If they were half as good as yours I’d be pleased. I shall persevere.
      Cheers, Alen

      • Scanning takes a while to get used to. One tip I had to give out recently, which was the most useful tip ever given to me about scanning, was to ensure the ‘Unsharp Mask’ was ticked/selected. Before I did that, all my photos were unsharp (the prints weren’t, just the scans of them).

        It would have been the 1980s when I was going to Redcar and South Gare…

        • McEff says:

          Thanks for the tip, Carol. Ah, Redcar in the olden days. I hope you took some pictures on the Zenith.

          • LOL – the only photo I’ve got is of my good ol’ Cortina (which I’ve still got and still runs) in the street outside my friend’s house there. I didn’t really carry a camera around much in those days.

  6. Hanna says:

    You’re out with heavy artillery, and you’ve hit Denmark even without the Wartime gun, Alen.
    Did you see, that I was waving the white flag?
    I’ve been at ‘South Gare’ several times, and will probably pass by again.
    It is a condition that is built in life. The cool thing is that you can choose to use the puzzle pieces, as a spice for the choices you make, combined with a well-defined set of values​​.
    You went to South Gare to find something, but do not worry, you carry it within you. The fishermen’s primitive settlements is attractive from the outside. Maybe it reflects a desire for an uncomplicated life. I have read about the movement called Simple Living-
    I am also known as The Oracle!

    I love the scene with the quote: “There are givers and there are takers. I find a kind of giving in my taking.”

    I wish you a Happy Easter!
    Hanna

    • McEff says:

      Hej Hanna. So you’ve been to South Gare too. And here’s me thinking no one would have heard of it.
      You are correct in thinking I harbour a desire for an uncomplicated life. Perhaps most of us do, and that’s why we climb hills and tramp through the countryside, then discuss our adventures on the internet in the way we do. Speaking from a personal view, I believe there is also a huge dissatisfaction with the way we are conditioned to live – and I don’t think this is a modern phenomenon, I think people have always felt this way.
      Happy Easter to you too.
      Cheers, Alen

  7. David says:

    There is something strange about the places where heavy industry, people and the sea meet, especially so when there are still echoes of an older way of life. They seem to encourage you think and ponder about all sorts of things. You have ignited a few memories with your article Alen, so thank you for that. The last time I was at South Gare was seven years ago. I then drove around to what I suppose will be called North Gare and watched an almost apocalyptic sunset over the power station and the industrial area behind. http://www.bluestoneimages.com/_photo_142057.html

    You have got some interesting pics there as well. The huts with the industry around them definitely appeal. Time for another visit.

    • McEff says:

      Hi David. I’m glad I’ve ignited a few memories, because you’ve just stirred a few of mine with what you said about heavy industry, people and the sea. I’ve mentioned before before that I walked the Cleveland Way about ten years ago. All manner of industries existed along that coast from Teesside down to Filey at one time or other. I recall passing a bay where grooves had been cut like tramlines across beds of flat rock so that cartloads of alum (I think) could be hauled to boasts. Hardly any traces of that industry exist now, but it was huge in the 18th and 19th centuries.
      That’s a splendid sunset picture, by the way. Hauntingly beautiful. Industry surrounded by the magnificence of the natural world.
      Cheers, Alen

  8. Paul says:

    Hi

    I can only mirror what Greg says in that you have touched on a subject & portrayed it in your own words… I’m not sure if ‘subject’ is the right word but I think you’l know what I mean.

    One of your finest Alen, I’m going back to re-read it again.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Paul. Thanks for that. I’m glad you enjoyed it – but I must admit I always feel a pang of guilt when I write about walks like this that I should, really, have got up earlier and driven over to the Lakes to do a proper walk across the high fells in snow and biting wind. Perhaps it’s an age thing. Or am I just lazy and making up excuses?
      Cheers now, Alen.

  9. Jo Woolf says:

    Goodness, Alen – less John Clare and more T S Eliot! I can sense what you might have been searching for there – have you decided whether you found it?

  10. We visited Greatham Creek and walked Seal Sands during Easter. South Gare is very much on my list of things to do. Without doubt one of the most captivating post I’ve ever read on line. Stunning images. Ticked every box.

    • McEff says:

      Wow. Thanks for that, Keith. Hope you have a good day at South Gare. I’ve never ventured north of the river so I’m long overdue a wander around Seal Sands.
      Cheers, Alen

  11. Diana Rutland says:

    Hi there,
    I visited South Gare yesterday ,to open up my very dear old uncle Jim hut as he recently died .
    He was the rent man for the fishermens huts for a very long time , the huts have been there since the war as they where built to house soldiers as part of the defense,
    The huts are all 12x 8 feet all have to be painted ” ICI ” green ,
    the comaraderie the chaps have is totally amazing ,bartering , giving ,swopping ,borrowing ,
    the fun Jim and his pals had playing musical instruments ,singing , after a “few” cans of beer , eating a big dinner, which would be cooked by the old army chef , and the jolly laughter ,
    many of the men are old singles , widowers or just want to have time away from the wives ! Doing boys things fishing , sailing, mending ,walking together sitting and chatting about times gone by ,
    it is a little private world down there , family and friends do come along , and the children learn about nature and life.
    we spent many incredibly interesting days with uncle Jim , as did my children , cups of hot tea made with dried milk , by the old whistling kettle , tunnocks tea cakes, wafer biscuits ,
    We ran over the sand dunes poking the beach with sticks ,
    hope you get the picture ,
    Once past the bleak ugly industrial sulphur smelling works, there is a peaceful little haven that these chaps do enjoy , and no man should change ,

    • McEff says:

      Hiya Diana. What a wonderful picture you paint with your memories. When I visit South Gare I do so as an outsider, but I still find it a very peaceful and interesting place – a community in itself, tucked away from the rest of civilisation.
      I knew nothing about the history of the fishermen’s huts, so you have enlightened me there. It all makes sense now, that they were built for soldiers, because there are several ruined gun emplacments and pillboxes along that stretch of coast – so thank you for sharing that piece of information.
      That made me laugh, the bit about the huts being painted “ICI green”. I come from near Barrow originally, where most of the people were employed in the shipyard and, at one time, half of the houses were painted battleship grey.
      Thanks for your comment, Alen

  12. Margaret Grant says:

    Spent many a happy hour here as a child in the 1950s whilst my dad fished ‘off the gare’ – it could be quite a dangerous hobby in wet or wintery weather. We were given the task of ‘digging for sandworms’ which kept us happy for many an hour along with hunting for fossils, crabs and the like.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Margaret. It’s a great place and I was just thinking that I must have another walk down there. We used to dig for sandworms too, over in Cumbria where I grew up. It must be one of those things kids have to do.
      Cheers, Alen

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