Last Saturday I went on a blind date, a meeting arranged as a consequence of football – Charlton Athletic versus Middlesbrough. My date was with the town itself, a place that gets an awful lot of bad press, and has been described as Britain’s worst town. I was going there early in the morning to spend the day sightseeing, and then go to The Riverside in the afternoon to see the football.
Determined to make the most of the experience I set out from London in the dawn, with an arsenal of conflicting information. What was I expecting as the train left Kings Cross, passing the Emirates Stadium, and out towards Hertfordshire’s frosted fields? Honestly, and I do apologise in hindsight for believing some of the media portrayals, I was half-afraid of what I’d find up there.
Reading some of the material on the Internet, I was expecting my day’s date to be like something that had stepped off the set of Channel Four’s grossly exploitative Benefits’ Street TV show. If you believed the stereotypes, she’d be a chain smoking single mother from a boarded up council estate. She’d be dressed in a shell suit, and be surprised that anyone lived in a world beyond the Tees. That, of course, was if I could see her through the endless haze of smog, or get past the junkies and beggars in the streets around the station which sounded like some sort of pre-tourism Amsterdam.
Coming through the freezing drizzle of Cambridgeshire, as the fog started to lift, I told myself that no matter what I found at the other end of the train journey, I’d have three hours of a trip through some of England’s most open countryside. There’s a rich history to the east coast, and an irony too that the road to the far north is paved in stops associated with so many famous Tories – John Major from Huntingdon, Margaret Thatcher from Grantham, and William Hague’s North Yorkshire constituency.
Getting to Darlington, the excitement was growing to a fever. Coming closer to Middlesbrough the first chimneys came into view, perhaps a power station, with a few clouds of smoke hovering above them – but nothing so totally different from what you might find in Trent Valley, or along the rivers of South Yorkshire.
Already I was getting a sense of an awful lot of misinformation and exaggeration where portrayals of Middlesbrough are concerned. On the train at Eaglescliffe, I’d noticed a Boro fan strike up a conversation with a Charlton fan of the same age about the game. Wearing their jerseys, it was obvious what teams they supported.
‘Okay,’ I figured, ‘this isn’t the kind of town where you hide your team scarf inside your jacket for fear of getting punched in the street.’
That, for a start, was a good sign as the train rolled into the station and I made my way out of a side exit to where the signs for the football stadium and the city centre were pretty clear. On a sunny Saturday morning, my blind date wasn’t half as dramatic as I expected. It was just a typical northern town in the sense of being steeped in visible traces of a rich heritage and bygone days. You can see it in the architecture, the old buildings across the road from the station, some red-brick as in Manchester, others white-stone as in Yorkshire. A bridge running across a busy intersection leads towards a walkway marked out in a poem that’s named ‘Ironopolis’. It tells the story of how once upon a time this town and the surrounding hills of Cleveland stood at the heart of the iron industry, not just for Britain but the whole world.
Following this walkway, I came upon Middlesbrough College which seemed to be having an open day, and would have been worth a visit if I wasn’t in a hurry, having limited time. I work in education, and this looked a place worthy of exploration. But it was that or looking at the shiny blue structure of the Transporter bridge, which again was worth far more of a visit all on its own.
This working bridge across the River Tees stands like a sculpture on the edge of the docks, framing a picture of industry in the gaps between its angles and cables. Again its imposing figure speaks of heritage and history, and fascinating stuff to discover. Looking up at it, I think of those Tories on the way here and wonder what is it about the word industry that England has become ashamed of. When did ‘industrialised’ become some kind of swear word or synonym for grim? Because that’s the word that many people use to described Middlesbrough – “industrial’.
Well actually, yes it is industrial and it wears its industry as a badge of honour, pinned to its breast in the form of this transporter bridge and its myriad of photo opportunities. Moving on from this, I passed along the dockside and towards the new Riverside Stadium to pick up tickets. Again I found the people friendly, perhaps a little confused by my Irish accent, and proud of their heritage – again evident in the gates of the old Ayresome Park that stand across from the entrance to the shiny new ground.
Heading back into town past the bridge once more I found a high street as ordinary as anything in Kent, Essex, Enniskillen, or Glasgow. Devoid of junkies, beggars, and single mothers I felt cheated out of the sinister edge I’d been promised. Maybe the David Lynch exhibition in the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) would give me a sense of the dark undercurrent I’d been expecting.
Setting off down the road I missed the turn though and ended up in Albert Park, a good fifteen walk away. There I discovered tree-lined pathways where people walked their dogs and children played on the benches close to the statue of one of the town’s best known sons. Brian Clough, football star and manager, appears at the entrance of the park with his boots slung over his shoulder, and not a single delinquent within reach of his famous sharp tongue.
By this stage I’m starting to form a theory about Middlesbrough, my date for the afternoon. It’s like a place I know in Australia – Machan’s Beach, a beautiful secluded suburb on the north coast where they have a notorious crocodile who keeps away visitors. Maybe Middlesbrough’s the same – create a false impression, put up an unflattering profile picture and keep the visitors away! As I made my way into the Dorman museum at the edge of the park, I’d seen nothing so far to put me off this town. Getting inside the museum, I did have one regret – that I hadn’t longer to explore this pearl of history if I also wanted to see the Mima gallery.
The Dorman has fascinating collections of materials, artefacts, and aspects of the history of Middlesbrough, everything from old bicycles to parts of a Church and a pub, right up, down and across to this amazing exhibition of seabirds and the eggs they lay. If you are into wildlife and seabirds, there’s enough to consume a whole afternoon looking and reading about the different breeds. There’s honesty too in the exhibition that’s refreshing.
Middlesbrough, creator of Brian Clough’s character, is a down to earth straight talking place and that comes across in its analysis of itself, in the exhibitions on the history of the town. It’s a new town, compared to some of its neighbours, born out of the rush for iron and the growth of industry in the 19th century. It’s never been rich but it has been proud and hard working, especially in its better days, and that comes across in the stories of its people and places.
Wanting to stay longer, I was unfortunately getting hungry at this stage – though not in the mood for scrambled or poached eggs! Leaving the birds behind I went to Dresser’s café, the little restaurant attached to the museum that is named after the Scottish designer Christopher Dresser who spent part of his life in Middlesbrough. There I ate a panini and had a pot of tea, as well as getting called ‘pet’, which of course is an essential part of the northern English travel experience. Again it’s a place where you could spend more time, relaxing, looking at the artefacts that surround you as you sit as if in somebody’s 19th century parlour.
But I was desperate to find the Mima and set off on my travels again, to where I found swans and a 30 foot sculpture of the ‘Bottle of Notes’ designed by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Swedish and Dutch artists respectively. Added to the sight of the Transporter Bridge and the Giant Butterfly Net along the docks, this has to be one of the most interesting sights of Middlesbrough. Again, though I hadn’t time, it offered a fantastic photo opportunity as kids got inside the bottle and climbed its walls. Whether or not they’re supposed to is another matter but it was a funny scene, as the afternoon sun lowered and the sky began to turn pink, telling me it was time to go inside, before football.
I did indeed find a David Lynch exhibition entitled Naming, but I found something else that I was far more interested in – an exhibition by the artist Derek Eland on the thoughts of soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Basically the exhibition comes from a Diary Room where the soldiers wrote down their random thoughts on pieces of blank card – then displayed in a collage on the gallery walls; talking about everything from showers in the open air to the first time they experienced seeing a colleague shot or wounded.
Though I am anti-war and have written a book touching on themes relating to this, I couldn’t help but feel the raw energy and emotion of Derek Eland’s work, and the way he humanised, even rationalised the terrible situation of these young men, and possibly women, fighting for something so vague so far away from home. I liked it that much I went back a second time on my way out of the gallery, and now felt surer than ever that the blind date I was expecting wasn’t going to turn up.
Middlesbrough, as I made my way back to the Riverside, wasn’t a day spent killing time in the company of somebody straight off the set of Benefits Street. It was actually an afternoon that I was sad to see the end of, because there was so much that was still left to see. This was a city with culture and a pride in its own heritage – more of a factory worker who goes to the theatre on weekends than slob who watches the Jeremy Kyle show, and that in itself is a terrible stereotype perpetuated by a media that doesn’t look below the surface.
I’m sure there are rough bits of Middlesbrough, and a cold, rainy day might have given me a different impression to a mild winter’s day of bright sunshine, but I feel like I’d have been a whole lot poorer if I’d believed the stereotypes and been put off travelling to this interesting town that everybody should visit once in a lifetime.
I’ll end with two points that sum up my thoughts on this town and how it’s portrayed. First if this is one of England’s worst towns then it’s no wonder there are thousands of people out there who want to come to live in this country. If this is the worst we can do as a society and a country, then I really understand why you’d cross half the world, never mind half the country, to get here. Maybe this really is a deliberate ploy to sell themselves short, like that fictitious crocodile in the Australian suburbs I mentioned earlier!
Second, going back to my blind date analogy, the best compliment I can pay the town is that if Middlesbrough were a woman my wife would have been awfully jealous when I got back to London because I never stopped talking about her the whole of Sunday!