At last, we finally walked the entire length of the Black Path from Middlesbrough to Redcar at the start of the month, following various closures over the last 4 years caused by unsafe footbridges and the closure of the South Bank Coke Ovens. It’s a walk that takes you through the heart of industrial Teesside, on a path once used by sailors to reach their ships as well as thousands of steel and iron workers commuting between home and their shifts. Even families followed its cinder covered route to take them away from tightly packed terraces to Bran Sands and Redcar for fresh air, sand, sea and cockling.
The landscape has changed dramatically over the last 150 years, possibly more so than any other stretch of the river. Once close to the high tide mark, the path once took people through saltmarsh dotted by farms, hamlets and the remains of an ancient salt making industry near Coatham. When the industrial revolution took hold of the region, ironworks, ship building yards and chemical industries all sprang up along the river frontage as land was reclaimed from the tides and put to work. The railway came and forced the path to move to its current line, passing many train stations which have now closed down, including Grangetown station which served the industrial giants and now stands empty and deserted.
And yet this isn’t just a picture of industrial decline. Businesses still thrive along the river, the tugboat company Svitzer (once owned by the local Crosthwaite family with its seahorse insignia), BOC, supplying industrial gases, the huge Northumbrian Water sewage treatment works making sure all our used water is safe to be released back in to the river. Teesport with its huge cranes and warehouses, the Lackenby steel rolling mills, the wind turbine maintenance ships, all part of today’s industrial Tees Valley, providing local jobs and products and services renowned across the globe, all visible from the Black Path.
Wildlife also thrives in this most unlikely of settings; the steel slag which makes up a lot of the path foundation enables a diverse and unusual flora and fauna to develop and thrive. The soft pink cushion flowers of Crown Vetch from the Mediterranean covers the brambles at South Bank station in the summer, we spotted the strange dried flower heads of Carline Thistle through a security fence, another lime soil specialist and Red Valerian, a garden escapee, was sprouting green leaves from the most unlikely of places, soon to be topped by heads of pink, red and white flowers much loved by moths and butterflies. There was fragrant water mint growing in Dabholme Gut, the brazen yellow flowers of Coltsfoot preceding their hoof shaped leaves and even the blackened hawthorn bushes were speckled with sprigs of green as buds burst forth.
So, a walk back through history but also a walk speaking of a new and renewed future as the South Tees Development Corporation’s Masterplan takes its first tentative steps towards a brighter and sustainable industrial future, with business living cheek by jowl with a surprising wildlife community to be cherished and admired. We hope to run the guided walk through this unique landscape in May so keep an eye on our Facebook page and website for details on how to book your place.