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.

Flotsam

In 1859 a great storm, which became known as the Royal Charter Storm, caused between fifty and sixty vessels to be wrecked within sight of the Tees Bay and Hartlepool. This tragic event was the catalyst for the construction of the South Gare. Work began in 1863 and was completed in 1888

The Creek

Filmmaker Warren Harrison captures the memories and experiences of people who grew up as part of a unique community at Greatham Creek, a salt-marsh near Hartlepool in the Tees Valley. One of those who’s memories are recorded is photographer Ian Macdonald whose haunting images of the creek are used in the film along with family photographs, archive film provided by the North East Film Archive and contemporary footage.

See the film here

Blast by Graham Vasey

Another one of Graham’s beautiful films. Filmed during a walk we took around the Bran Sands, using an ancient Ensign Auto-Kinecam camera and 16mm film hand processed in Ilford ID-11. The soundtrack was created by Greg Marshall

British Steel – South Teesside 1974

Mark Lawton very kindly sent me a scan of a book that he’d recently found. It’s a lovely snapshot from 1974 of the South Teesside Works when it employed 16,000 people.

You can download the whole book using the link at the bottom of the page