Stockton-on-tees, County Durham/North Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 10:21 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013
Brian Page revisits the past and discovers a promising future in Stockton
I have always had a fondness for Stockton. When we were children growing up in nearby Billingham we would take the bus into town to catch the cowboy films at the ABC Minors.I snogged my first girlfriend in the back row of the good old ABC - in the days when parents said kissing was what made your front teeth fall out. I got my first pair of football boots from Stockton's bustling market, along with my first 'parka' coat, which rather gives away my age.
Some time later, while at college, I worked as a barman in the Royal Oak pub for a fun-filled year - my first 'proper job'. It was with such golden memories that I approached the grand old lady of the Tees.
Had time been kind to her, I wondered? At first sight it appeared not. The ABC is sadly no more, its once-glittering exterior a sad crumble of faded majesty, a property to let sign creaks above the boarded up doors at which we once queued with such anticipation and excitement.
The town's high street - the widest in England, it is proudly claimed - was in the grip of bleak mid winter. Little old ladies in duvet-sized coats were tentatively tripping along and even the hard lads had put a jumper on over their t-shirts. The pawn and -stretcher shops were doing a good trade and it was with an ironic smile that I noted one of the pawnshops was two doors down from BetFred the bookies (a useful location if you haven't lost the shirt off your back).
The once-grand Tees House, home of Stewarts Clothiers and rebuilt in 1912, looked forlorn, its upper storeys vacant and its ground floor now home to a gaming arcade. Oh, dear. And yet. The town hall still stands high in the centre of the high street, pristine and proud, and still flying the flag of St George. And the market which flows around the town hall and down the street is still bustling.
There may be no football boots to be found today but just about anything else you could wish for can be had for the asking. Take a deep breath and we'll supply you a shortened list... fresh fruit and vegetables, home made fudge, coats and bags and trousers and shirts and ladies' cardigans (and underwear of both the big and tiny varieties), net curtains (for the twitching of ), military medals and coins (for the collecting of ) prams and pushchairs, toffee and toys and Chinese silks and dressmaking materials and billions of buttons to match... oh and a Santa hat.
It's enough to make you stop for a cup of tea and listen to the banter of the stall-holders and their customers. 'Morning petal dust, how are you today?' Dave Flower sings out from his fish stall. 'Still living,' the old lady customer replies, 'can't ask for more.' Dave laughs and serves her up a parcel of seafood. 'People are smashing here. It's a lovely market,' Dave says. 'That's never changed.' He should know. He's been working here in his family's market stall since he was a 10-year-old boy.
'That's 11 years,' he adds with a laugh. 'No, it's not. I'm 56 now - you work it out.' The market's not quite as bustling as it was 40 years ago, he says, but he still gets a buzz out of coming to work. 'People are going back to buying local and I source all my fish locally, Hartlepool and Redcar. Mind you, I don't know where they get it from. I've got Chilean mussels, Irish whelks and prawns from Greenland on sale here.' Local people returning to local produce ... now there's something.
And, once beyond the homogenous Wellington Square shopping centre, that could well be the key to allowing Stockton to retain an identity very much its own. 'Definitely,' says Andrew Marley, breaking off from slicing giant cuts of meat at Marley's butcher stall in the indoor Spencer Market Hall.
'I think people are beginning to realise they can get better-tasting meat at good prices, prepared by butchers who know what they are doing. All our meat is locally sourced and we bone it all out here in the traditional way.'
Andrew is another who has been trading in Stockton for decades - since 1973 to be precise. But, Andrew says, that's nothing compared to his father, Dennis. 'Now there's a man,' he says. 'He's been a butcher in Stockton since he was 14 and he still works here 14 hours a day and he's 76 now. The only reason he's not here today is that he has a bit of a chest on him.'
Local butchers, like all local food suppliers, Andrew insists, have the edge on supermarkets. 'How many of them will be able to do you a bag of bones or pigs' feet or wild rabbit? 'I think people are beginning to come back to the idea of buying local produce from local people. I know we have a lot of regulars who come from all over to buy meat here.'
And then he tells me the surprise big seller of the last few months. Tripe, he says - and he's not being rude. 'It's making a return is tripe,' he says. 'Maybe it's because people are going back to traditional foods.' Well, long may it last. Andrew and his father may be among the last of dying breed but there are several other fascinating butcher's shops a pig's trot away in the Castlegate centre.
In fact there must be very few indoor shopping centres in the country where traditional food shops sit cheek by jowl with clothing stores, electrical retailers and jewellers. At Harry Meynell's deli (licenced game dealer) you can buy wild duck, partridge and pheasant as well as local cheeses, hams and fresh cooked chickens.
And, a few doors down, Kitson's the butchers offer steak and stilton burgers ('absolutely delicious', I can confirm) and if you can't be bothered cooking them then there is Carly's cooked meat corner offering a delicious range of, well, cooked meats.
Mouth watering, we make our escape and head for a peaceful moment by the riverside. The Tees, source of Stockton's past prosperity - and its future fortunes. Stockton, like many North-East towns built on manufacturing foundations, has had its struggles in recent years but a series of regeneration measures along the Tees are in place which will, in the next few years, transform the banks of the river and Stockton town centre itself.
The first stages of this brave new world can already be seen. Standing on the Millennium Bridge at the back of the Castlegate centre you can look along the riverfront to where the snow-capped Cleveland Hills nestle in the background. Opposite are the smart new apartments, offices and university buildings which have grown from the wilderness of old engineering yards.
Just upriver is the 50m engineering marvel that is the Tees Barrage, which is changing the river in a number of ways. Not only is it home to a world-leading white water sports centre - a possible training ground for Britain's 2012 Olympic hopefuls - and water skiing venue, it is also a magnet for both local and those from further abroad.
In August alone 24,500 people visited what is now a picturesque part of the Tees Valley - with all the economic benefits that such tourism brings. What's more it has improved the quality of the water to the point where fish, including migratory salmon, are returning to the river. And the improvements haven't finished yet.
Stockton's North Shore will soon see another stage of redevelopment on a 56-acre site providing more waterfront housing, office and leisure facilities and retail projects including cafes, restaurants, bars and shops. As I look out over the full-size replica of Captain Cook's Endeavour, which rolls gently at her mooring next to the more modern pleasure boat the Teesside Princess,
I can't help feeling that Stockton has, and is still, changing from those good old ABC cinema days. Sure, it's a town with a past - but now it's also a town with a future.