It’s time to save the Club Bongo International sign

Back in the 1980’s I was a young seafarer. The habit of seafarers is generally to frequent bars that have been recommended by other seafarers. These bars and clubs were places where people of all nationalities could meet and have a good time. I visited many of them in the UK and abroad. When drink began to flow, conversations would start. Generally the first question would be ‘where are you from?’ I would say, Middlesbrough and the person I was speaking to would often smile and reply ‘Club Bongo’. The Bongo had an international reputation amongst the seafaring community. The Bongo was not just a club for seafarers, it was for everyone and was woven into the fabric of Middlesbrough for over 50 years.

I walked out of Middlesbrough railway station today and noticed that the club’s neon sign is looking in very poor condition. I hope that I am wrong but I think it is generally accepted that the club may never reopen.

The Bongo is an important part of Middlesbrough’s social and multicultural history, that alone makes this unique neon sign worth saving and preserving. It could be restored, protected and left in situ as something far more interesting and site-specific than a generic heritage plaque. If this is not possible then it should be removed and placed in a public space where it would serve to remind us all that the Club Bongo International and its founder, Abdillahi Warsama, played an important part in the social history of modern Middlesbrough.

Read the history of Club Bongo International here

The Old River

…Who shall say

That the river

Crawled out of the river, and whistled,

And was answered by another river?

A strange tree

Is the water of life …

Ted Hughes. Visitation. 1981

When Stockton was the principal port of the Tees it could take ships up to two days to travel from the river mouth to the quays. To improve the river, and decrease the travel time for ships, two great loops were cut out of the course of the river. The first cut, the Mandale, was opened in 1810 followed by a second cut, the Portrack, which was completed in 1831. A brief history of the straightening of the river can be found here.

Carl Mole and I decide to follow the course of the Old River Tees around the Mandale loop.

The mouth of the old river meets the Tees just opposite Blue House Point. The old river has been channelled into a culvert that runs across the nearby railway marshalling yards.

In the river, a large seal keeps a lazy eye on us, a group of Arctic Terns are noisily quarrelling, they’ll soon be on their way to Antarctica.

The river runs beneath the Wilderness road and the A66 dual carriageway, it then flows beneath an unused bridge onto Teesside Retail Park where it is hidden from view behind a large embankment. The shoppers and cinema goers are largely unaware of its existence.

Beneath the Teesside Park bridge, a secret galley, hidden from the busy world above.

A sunken fleet of shopping trolleys are revealed by the midday sun.

Upstream, the river is tidal, run-off water dilutes the salty river, tiny fish swim around the mouths of the culverts.

The river, canalised within concrete walls, runs beside the dual carriageway.

Concrete gives way to beautiful reed beds, we watch as dragonflies flit over the water. The river divides into two, the Fleet heads south to become the Stainsby and Blue Bell Becks, the old river heads west to Thornaby, its flow drastically reduced by a large sluice. Beyond the sluice the tide has no effect on the old river.

The path follows the course of the river to passing Teesdale Park home of Thornaby FC who play in Northern League division one. The team has a Bermudian player, Quinaceo Hunt, ‘Q’ keeps goal for his national side.

We follow the course through the Harewood pleasure gardens, it’s hard to believe that masted ships, bound for the Port of Stockton, used to pass along here. All that remains now is a muddy bed barely two strides wide.

This image of a single-masted sloop was etched onto a piece of lead removed from the church roof at Haughton Le Skerne. It dates to the 18th century and gives some idea of the type of ships that were plying their trade along our coasts and rivers.

The narrow, dry, beck valley disappears into a forest of elder and brambles on the edge of the A66, there are no further traces.