GOT 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.
I’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.
There 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.
Searching. 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)
Circling 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.
On 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.
I 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?
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.