Redcar navigates the choppy waters
PUBLISHED: 08:31 02 July 2010 | UPDATED: 11:50 28 February 2013
The seaside resort of Redcar helped produce a notable upset in this year's General Election in the wake of significant job losses. Gareth Dant takes a look
The surprise trouncing of Solicitor General Vera Baird in Redcar provided one of the more memorable moments of this years General Election.
The defeat at the hands of LibDem Ian Swales - subsequently blamed in large part on a collective failure to save hundreds of jobs at the towns vast steelworks - also represented the highest swing (22 per cent) against a Labour candidate of Mays poll.
The fight to save Corus Teesside Cast Products works was a major issue in the run-up to the election.
The plant itself is a distant but significant presence to the north of Redcar, looming large and highly visible from much of the lovely long sandy beach that stretches for miles in front of the town.
Not everyone is a fan of industrial landscapes, especially when they muscle in so obviously on leisure time vistas. But on a fantastically sunny early summers day, with the beach sprinkled with families enjoying the school holidays, the Corus plant is less a dark satanic mill, more a humbling reminder of the regions hardworking heritage.
It certainly presents a more impressive skyline than that offered when turning south to face the towns sea front.
Fellow fans of Britains seaside towns will be familiar with the faded elegance and echoes of Victorian glory days so often present - think crumbling grandeur and flaking majesty.
But Redcar is no such relic.
Id been reliably informed that its act had been cleaned up significantly in recent years. Nevertheless, the architecture of the Esplanade itself has a real shortage of character.
Parts of the beach at Redcar were famously transformed to resemble wartime Dunkirk during the making of the hit 2007 film Atonement - it could just be that some of that cinematically-imposed bleakness has rubbed off.
One of the Esplanades most interesting buildings is also a museum, housing among many exhibits the worlds oldest surviving lifeboat.
The Regent Cinema, which squats out over the beach on the site of a long-gone pier, is also a prominent, if slightly shabby curiosity.
The main high street, set back from the front, also has little in the way of style, in terms of its buildings, but it does provide a broad, pleasant area to stroll and peruse Redcars broad offering of shops.
The borough council has made a brave attempt at dressing up vacant commercial properties by sticking colourful facsimiles of attractive looking shops and restaurants to their boarded-over windows.
But if I paint too negative a picture of the town, I am being unfair. We are, after all, in the teeth of grim economic hard times, and Redcar - no stranger to hard knocks - is understandably reeling from massive job losses.
And there are bold rejuvenation plans afoot. Early in June, a multi-million pound regeneration scheme was approved by Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council.
The two-phase, 36.9m scheme will include an arts and media centre, a new leisure centre and pool and a new library. Work is expected to start next year.
A fishing town founded in the late Middle Ages, Redcar flowered as a seaside resort with the arrival of the railway from Middlesbrough in 1846. This more or less coincided with the discovery of iron ore in the nearby Cleveland Hills, and industry and tourism combined to fuel its growth.
Tourism remains a highly seasonal, but important part of the towns economy, although even some of its seafront slot machine amusement arcades appear to have shut up shop.
The donkeys on the beach stroll on, however, and a modest in-shore fishing fleet still puts to sea.
A line of trusty veteran tractors park up in Fishermans Square, their lovingly cared-for and brightly painted cobles sitting on trailers behind them.
Billy Weldon, 49, divides his time between joinery and fishing.
Its a quiet time of year this, so many people take the opportunity to paint up, he explained, as he sands down the hull of the Bagpuss.
Echoing the gripe of those from many walks of life, he complained: Theres that many rules and regulations - and thats before you even set out to sea.
But leaving behind such 21st century cares, I stroll back out onto the beach in the early evening sunshine.
Buckets and spades have been packed away - and far too much litter left by lazy day-trippers.
Looking out to the huge container ships and tankers in the distance, its hard not to savour some of the romance of the sea that has captivated Redcar folk down the centuries.
Daring tales of 500 lives saved at sea
A must-see in Redcar is the Zetland Museum on seafront Esplanade.
Home to the worlds oldest surviving lifeboat, this listed building houses a reconstruction of a traditional fishermans cottage and other elements from the towns maritime history.
The Zetland was built in 1802 and her crews saved more than 500 lives off the North East coast during her 78 years of heroic service.
Long before the RNLI was formed, local fishermen clubbed together to help raise the 200 needed to construct the clinker-built, double-ended 30ft boat, which was crewed by between 13 and 20 oarsmen.
Retired structural engineer John Chambers got involved after he saw an appeal for museum volunteers while walking past one day.
I had a very happy childhood at Redcar and have the heritage of the towns maritime history in my bones, he said proudly.
Mr Chambers explained how the Zetland sprang from an urgent requirement towards the end of the 18th century to stem the huge loss of boats, their cargoes and crew off the stormy North East coast.
South Shields lifeboat pioneer Henry Greathead won a competition to come up with a suitable design - Zetland was number 11 of 31 built to his design and is the sole survivor.
Zetland takes its place among a select few vessels - among them HMS Victory and Cutty Sark - which represent the special core of the National Register of Historical Vessels.
These boats are essential to the maritime heritage of Britain, enthused Mr Chambers.
The museum is open until October from Tuesday to Friday, 11am to 4pm and noon to 4pm at weekends and on bank Mondays. Admission is free, although donations are welcome. For details, call 01642 485370 or visit rnli.org.uk/zetland.
The best kind of donkey work
For more than a century, donkeys bearing visitors have been led up and down Redcars beach by members of the Burniston family (motto: "Entertaining Redcars kids for donkeys years").
The latest in this long line of lead rein clutchers is Daniel Kelvie, 17, who is spending his summer on the sands. Four of the hardy four-legged stalwarts - Zippy, Peanuts, Sonic and Mini Me - are based in Redcar, with five more making their way up and down the shore at Saltburn, further south.
Daniel estimates that he helps ferry up to 150 delighted children on a good day on the beach, charging 2.50 a time.
Our animals are well trained and looked after, he said. We look for animals that are hardworking and nice with kids.