Thanks for the memories of growing up in Stockton
PUBLISHED: 11:41 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 17:46 20 February 2013
Gems of Georgian architecture stud Stockton's streetscape but, as Gareth Dant (re)discovered, his childhood haunt is having to work hard to overcome less favourable legacies
I had not anticipated just how much of a journey into childhood memories revisiting Stocktons town centre would be. Could it really have been so many years since Id last experienced a childish thrill at driving up the corkscrew ramp into the rooftop car park above what is now the Castlegate Shopping Centre?
Time and time again during my 21st century visit, I was reminded of my 20th century self - from the flea market off Green Dragon Yard, where I recalled rummaging for Adam & the Antz seven-inch singles, to the site of the long-gone Dovecote Cinema where we went as teenagers. From the opticians where I first blinked through freshly prescribed spectacles, to the building society where I deposited my childhood savings for the first time.
In some ways, Stockton has not fared too well in the intervening years; the ravages of the most recent recession appear to have hit it particularly hard, if empty shops and some shabby frontages are taken as indicators.
But there are signs of renewal and bold self-confidence.
Stockton started out as an Anglo-Saxon settlement on a prime spot on elevated ground close to the Tees. It became a prosperous market town for the surrounding rich agricultural land.
The river unsurprisingly also formed a key role in the towns formative years and Stockton was the main port on the Tees by the 17th century, taking on that mantel from Yarm, further upstream.
Later, it helped fuel the post-Industrial Revolution era of ship-repairing, steel and chemical production.
Famous for forming one end of the historic Stockton and Darlington Railway, from 1825, the town is also said to boast one of the worlds oldest passenger railway station buildings - although it is hard to find evidence of this at todays halt. The railway supplemented the rivers arterial function, carrying coal from the collieries further inland.
Like almost everywhere else in the area, heavy industry gave way to service industries, and brave plans have been drawn up - predating the recession and Coalition austerity measures, it has to be said - for significant development along the riverside area between Stockton and Middlesbrough as well as the rivers north bank. Offices, leisure facilities and housing are all pencilled in.
Today, the river itself is occasionally a focal point for some eye-catching water sports, while a replica of Captain James Cooks HMS Endeavour is moored permanently on Castlegate Quay.
Developments that have already been completed include the Teesquay Millennium Footbridge, Durham Universitys Queens Campus, just over the river, and the Infinity Bridge, opened last year to link Stockton with the nearby vast residential behemoth of Ingleby Barwick.
Its fitting that I arrive on a Wednesday - market day. The place is heaving. It is also celebrating an astonishing 700 years of markets this year, having secured its charter in 1310. Stalls stretch for a long way up Stocktons broad, majestic High Street, said to be the widest in England.
It claims to be the North Easts biggest outdoor market, and is also open on Saturdays.
Not far from the High Street is Arc, a striking multi-million pound arts centre that has suffered ups and downs and even two years of closure since its opening in 1999. It still appears to struggle to sustain a niche for quality
arts provision in the area. On the day
of my visit, posters advertise a kick-boxing event.
The town centre has an unfair share of ugly modern buildings (the relic that is the Spencer Hall Market is a particularly striking example of 1970s hideousness), but it is also blessed with some lovely Georgian architecture, betraying its roots as a wealthy centre of commerce in centurys past.
The vast High Street is also extremely long - perhaps it suffers more than most in an era when people are unwilling to walk far to find their shopping or have limited time.
This is presumably why the more compact development of Wellington Square was introduced - it is effectively a fake high street rather than a mall-style cocoon. But its effect on the High Street is marked, such as with the flagship Debenhams store, whose main entrance is a rather sad-looking shadow of its art deco former self, while at its rear a shiny portal from the new development is much more inviting.
The neglect of the towns architectural treasures is epitomised by the former Globe Cinema, which although the subject of ambitious redevelopment plans, currently sits un-let and unloved at the north end of the High Street.
The Shambles Market Hall in the centre of the High Street houses a handful of small outlets, as well as the towns tourist information centre, but it remains a handsome building, as does the large 1735 town hall nearby.
Portrack Lane, to the east of the town centre and occupying a large site bounded by the A19, is a key retail destination in the area, a mecca for home furnishings and DIY. Also away from the town centre and with characters of their own are suburbs such as Hartburn and Fairfield.
Also worth a visit is Ropner Park. Born of a bequest in 1890 by shipbuilder and MP Sir Robert Ropner, it has provided a green haven for townsfolk ever since. It was refurbished and renovated between 2004 and 2007 thanks to a 2.65m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. A caf and regular events are run by the Friends of Ropner Park.
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