Challenge The First

My Home Area

Can I suggest a topic – an easy one – tell us about your village/town. What’s to do. What the countryside is like. Your community? Any disadvantages.

I am suggesting this only because I love being able to visualise where bloggers are in their day to day lives!

If you’ve been keeping up with my challenge to write about new topics (if you have no idea what I’m on about, look here and here), welcome to the first result! Barbara suggested this topic for me and I’ve spent a while thinking about which angle to take, as our home area has many different aspects that I love and probably nearly as many that I hate. I’m sure you are exactly the same. In the end I’ve decided to interpret the question literally, so here you are: The Whirlwind MyLittleNotepad Guide to County Durham & Teesside.

If you want to place where we are exactly, picture the map of Britain. See the border with Scotland? If you go down a bit – a bit more…bit more…there, that’s it – you get to Newcastle. This is probably the closest big city to us. Now, go down a wee bit more. Durham and Middlesbrough are our next two large centres, although calling Durham large is stretching it a bit. It’s a beautiful city, and crammed as full of history as you can get, but you can’t call it large by any stretch of the imagination. Middlesbrough is…well, it’s bound to have a few good points. To be fair, it does have Captain Cook. He was born in Marton, a suburb of Middlesbrough although it was Yorkshire. That’s Middlesbrough for you – one of its few claims to fame was stolen from another county.

I may have been a little scathing so far, but the truth is I am actually quite fond of our little, often-overlooked corner of the world. Most people know Newcastle (coal-black ex-miners drinking ale and supporting a football team who are, shall we say, up and down in their fortunes) and Durham, if mentioned, will probably bring an image of the Cathedral to mind. Did you know, by the way, that the Harry Potter films were filmed in the cloisters here? Or that the Cathedral was one of the first places in the UK to be recognised as being of Outstanding Universal Value when it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1986? It attracts 600, 000 people a year. Rather more, I imagine, when the film crews are in for Mr Potter. Yarm, a mile from where I live now, was an important site in the development of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the first public railway in the world, and my home town has a little-known fairytale spot that shelters the oldest surviving railway bridge in the world, Causey Arch. I used to spend magical hours here as a child, walking up to the bridge, looking down into the gorge and making up all sorts of stories in my head.

And of course, we have the Angel of the North, overlooking a notoriously busy stretch of the A1 dual carriageway. This pretty much sums up the area – a piece of art covered in scars from its industrial heritage.

One thing this area doesn’t do particularly well is prettiness. Our bordering county to the south is North Yorkshire, which is full of more pretty villages than you can shake a stick at. North of us is Northumberland with its castles and beautiful coastline and more pretty villages and towns – Alnmouth and Alnwick are particularly worth a mention (and of course Alnwick Castle is another Hogwarts location). To the west over the Durham Dales you come to Cumbria – I do not need to tell you how pretty the Lake District is. But Durham and Teesside? Not so much. There are nice bits. Quite a few green, flat bits, and the Durham Dales are lovely. We do have a couple of pretty villages but mostly we are left with the remains of the Industrial Revolution, consisting of brick terraces and town centres that were ‘improved’ in the 70s and not since. This is true throughout Durham and Teesside, and my own home town is a prime example.

Stanley, in the north of Co Durham, is an ex-mining town and if you can picture the description I just gave, you can picture Stanley. I have a kind of love-hate relationship with this place. There is virtually nothing to do – for most regular entertainments such as cinema, bowling, decent shopping, you need to go to Newcastle, the Metrocentre (the largest shopping centre in Europe, by the way) or Durham. We have a small but surprisingly decent library, a moderate supermarket (with a Tesco monster on its way) and a few pubs and working men’s clubs. If you’ve got small children, there’s a pretty good little play park (Oakey’s Field, I believe on the site of a former mine) and a nice enough swimming pool. There is a multi-purpose hall that serves as a theatre for a cluster of pantomimes around Christmas, the occasional local production and the odd touring production. This place, recently renamed the Lamplight Arts Centre in testament to the town’s mining heritage, is a source of sadness to me – I was in several amateur productions there when I was growing up and revisiting it lately it is unfortunately clear how little investment has gone into it. The seats are faded and even damaged, and the equipment has been depleted by other local venues. Ah well. Back to Stanley. As I reached the end of my teens, I couldn’t wait to leave. The town seemed to represent deadness and a lack of hope. I still can’t spend more than a few days there without remembering why I was so glad to leave. But it is my town, and it will always have a tiny, irrational pull on my heart.

One of the best things about Stanley is Beamish Museum. This is a large site with various areas set up as a town, a colliery village, and a farm (all set in 1913)

and a manor house, set in 1825. Almost all the staff are costumed, and trams and a replica bus take you from one area to another. It’s a really magical place, and has extra special associations for me as I met my husband when we both worked there for a season (11 years ago now!). The buildings are relocated from their original homes around the region – for example the Town street was a terrace in Gateshead, and the Co-operative store is part of the Co-op that was originally in Stanley, that my dad remembers visiting as a boy. It makes me imagine what Stanley was like in its heyday, when the town was living and busy and had a purpose as a community. It is also set in a lovely bit of countryside – drive along the outskirts of Stanley and you look down over a green valley that drops down into Beamish then sweeps away towards Newcastle and, far in the distance but just visible on a clear day, the North Sea.

There is more that could be said about the area. The people have problems like any other community in the Western world, but they are among the warmest, most passionate people that you could meet. There are still heavily industrialised areas such as Teesport, a few miles east of where I live, but a quick drive along the River Tees brings you to Teesdale which is wild and woodland and windy dale, a retreat from the real world. But this was a whirlwind tour after all, and although this is the end of the first post of my challenge, I may expand on the topic another time.

What is your home area like in comparison to mine? Anything you can identify with, or anything wildly different?