I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I live in the North East of England. It’s true. The region can be roughly divided in to four: Tyneside (where I am), Wearside (South of Tyneside), Teesside (Note the double s) and the Countryside (including much of Northumberland, County Durham and some of North Yorkshire). This is a very urban-centric view of the area, but that’s my perspective.
The towns and cities of the region dominate the area to such a great extent that, to many of us, our rural areas become forgotten as places of life and work, remembered only as places for weekend recreation: A walk along Hadrian’s Wall, a paddle in a lake at Cragside, exploring the Roman streets of Corstopitum. It feels like a region of conurbations separated by English Heritage properties.
Although, on a macro level, there is a great degree of unity across the region – stemming from the pride in not being a Southerner, from having access to some of the most beautiful, clean, unspoilt, landscapes in the country, from a rich cultural and social history coursing through our veins – there is often an odd disconnect between the areas. It becomes especially noticeable as you pass through.
The first difference between the areas is landscape. Tyneside, punctuated by bridges, is a low, red sea of brick: terraces of the famous, ubiquitous Tyneside flats; Teesside is punctuated by chimneys. Not the chimneys of houses, although this is a huge residential area, and not the brick chimneys of old industry: that has fallen where it stood. Modern, concrete chimneys: Chemistry lives well here.
Every time I pass through urban Wearside I have observed naught but decay. Maybe that is the bias of the Tynesider, but I do try to look upon the area with the same dispassionate eye as I look upon my own. I don’t always succeed. Some parts are more vibrant than others: Durham, literally a world heritage site, has featured in a recent Marvel film; it is a picture perfect aberration amid the decline.
Middlesbrough is as well known for its petrochemical industry as Newcastle is for its coal exports. However, while Newcastle’s old industry died, and was replaced by service sector comforts, and the listless hinterland of business parks, Middlesbrough seems to have modernised, mechanised and become the beating heart of a fairly niche industry. At least it creates jobs, its townsfolk scream.
Wearside had no such luck, its once thriving industries gutted by Tory economics, and the area left to die. Its peeling paint too rotten to carry the continental insouciance of French and Italian decay. It feels too broken to be neglect; it smells of dead lives. If Newcastle is the public face of Tyneside, so Sunderland should be of Wearside. Eclipsed by its own suburbs, a walk along the bustling seafront at Seaburn, up in to the verdant heart of stately Whitburn, makes Sunderland feel like a lifetime away.
Middlesbrough, to me, is a metaphor. Like a Chinese Nail House, Middlesbrough refuses to budge. It has found its role in this world, and it will carry on. I have worked with people like that: people who can’t tell that the world has changed, and that they may – if they wish – lay down their torch: pass it on to the next generation. Middlesbrough will not do that: it has too many hungry mouths to feed.
That’s not to say I wish to see the end of ‘Industry’ in the UK: that way madness lies. I’m just surprised that no one abroad has offered to do Middlesbrough’s job any cheaper, and so forced the hands of the pay masters. As with the old English car plants and mines, it may only be a matter of time.
I like Teesside, and I always have, however, its propensity for shortening place names is a difference which amuses me every time. For example, you will rarely see a signpost for Stockton, but S’ton is a common sight. M’boro – the majestic double contraction of Middlesbrough – is almost ubiquitous.
Middlesbrough seems almost hell-bent on shortening its name out of all recognition; I spent a few hours there yesterday and, with the exception of the very lovey Middlesbrough Theatre, I rarely saw the name on any sign, taxi or business. What I saw instead was Boro. I had thought that this was largely a football-based contraction – and it is often joined by the emblem of the local football team – but it seems to have been adopted by businesses throughout the area. Not on Tyneside, however.
This ‘Cleveland Shorthand ‘ even suffuses out in to the neighbouring portions of County Durham: The lovely market town of Bishop Auckland is rendered Bp. Auckland; Peterlee, a town requested to be established by its own people, is P’lee; Hartlepool is given the Cleveland Shorthand H’pool, which is an improvement, in my opinion. D’ton, however, loses the melancholic romance of Darlington.
Public transport is my favourite measure of cohesion. Within North Tyneside, for instance, it is easy to get from one point to another, even to suburban Newcastle, by Metro or bus, within an hour. Just across the river lies South Tyneside. To get between a town in North Tyneside to one in South Tyneside requires either the use of Newcastle as a hub, or the use of a ferry and a great deal of shoe leather. Travelling, like I did yesterday, the 40 miles from Whitley Bay to Middlesbrough takes under an hour by car. Public transport would take over two hours, a train, two buses and three stints of walking. It should be much easier than that. Imagine that kind of journey in South-East England.
That, I think, is one of the reasons that, although we are all very close physically, the areas of the North East of England feel so very far apart culturally: It is just so hard to get between them. Yes, the road links are superb, and improving all of the time: the problem is that young and poor people do not always drive; they get to places under their own steam. That is where the barriers between the areas are formed. Once physical separation is a given, cultural separation will invariably follow.