My bike had been safely secured in a sort of underground vault at the Travelodge overnight, but when I retrieved it I discovered that my front tyre was punctured. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to fix it myself, especially now that I was carrying so many spare inner tubes. But a quick online search established that there were two cycle shops within walking distance, so I decided to act the role of the ‘idiot who rides an expensive bike but doesn’t know how to maintain it’ and get it fixed properly. In any case, the chain hadn’t felt like it was engaging properly since it was looked at by the young lad in the bike shop in Bangor, and that was probably worth attending to at the same time.
I struck lucky at Cycleworld. Paul (aka Rocker) and Stephen (Fibes) listened patiently to my sob story about the bike not having felt right for the last two weeks, and how I’d managed to burst two inner tubes in minutes the previous time I tried to fix a puncture. They despatched me to a cafe for breakfast, and within the hour the tyre was sorted, brakes were tightened, the slack in the chain had gone and everywhere that needed it had been greased or oiled. They wouldn’t take a penny, having established that I was cycling the coast for charity, and said they ‘hoped it made up for the crap experience in Bangor’. They’d even planned out a revised route for the next ten miles or so, having warned me against the straighter, off-road route I had planned, on the grounds that it was boggy and slow going. I salute them.
My AA Book of the Seaside didn’t have much to say in Seaham’s favour, but I rather liked it. Coffee shops, tapas bars and boutiques line the seafront road, and between the beach and shops, palm trees and tropical plants have been neatly planted within broad grass terraces. It’s what an estate agent might call ‘up and coming’. Seaham has seen a lot of regeneration funding in recent years, although I think it’s fair to say that there’s some way to go, and that the funding hasn’t yet penetrated much beyond the seafront.
Seaham is another town whose nineteenth-century growth was due largely to the export of coal. The first harbour here dates to 1828, but it had to be deepened and enlarged substantially before being officially reopened in 1905. There was a lighthouse at Red Acre Point, just to the north of the town. Built in 1835, it was designed by William Chapman, and showed two lights – a fixed white light with a revolving red light underneath.
When the harbour was enlarged in 1905, a new lighthouse was built on the end of the new north breakwater, and the light at Red Acre Point was decommissioned. It continued to serve as a daymark until 1940, when it was demolished so as not to assist enemy bombers or invaders.
The lighthouse on the north breakwater has a cylindrical cast-iron tower, thirty-three feet tall, with lantern above. It is painted in alternate bands of black and white, and displays a flashing green light, which is visible for eleven miles.
On the south breakwater opposite, a simple red-painted metal pole displays a fixed red light. There is a similar pole light on an inner breakwater, and well as fixed red and green lights on short poles marking each side of the dock entrance.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) July 21, 2015
For the first couple of miles between Seaham and Hartlepool, NCN Route 1 followed the line of an old railway. It was beautiful to look at, but an absolute sod to cycle along. The track had a layer of rocks and stones that would have challenged a small 4×4, and I couldn’t decide whether this was the ballast that had lined the railway tracks, or the foundations for a stretch of the cycle route that was in the process of being re-laid. The effect it had on my backside was the same either way, making this a purely academic musing. After Shotton, however, everything changed, and I was rewarded with several miles of pleasant, easy-going tracks.
I knew very little about Hartlepool before I arrived, and when I hear the town being mentioned, I only every think of Peter Mandleson, the town’s MP between 1992 and 2004. There is a story often told about him, untrue as it turned out, that he once mistook a Hartlepool chip shop’s mushy peas for guacamole dip. It came to symbolise Mandleson’s partiality for the London lifestyle. Personally, I have never referred to mushy peas as anything other than guacamole since.
Tracking down the town’s three lighthouses, I quickly established that Hartlepool has several distinct identities, and feels a bit like three towns in one. There’s the old town, centred around the limestone headland called the Heugh. Then there’s the massive, modern Hartlepool Marina complex, opened in 1994, which was built on the area that was formerly docklands. And finally, there’s West Hartlepool, the principal shopping and residential part of town. It’s as if the town isn’t certain about quite what it is trying to be, and who it is trying to attract or appeal to.
Hartlepool grew as a port throughout the nineteenth century, and became heavily industrialised with an ironworks and numerous shipyards. In fact, by 1913, there were forty-three ship-owning companies in the town. Like the other ports in the north-east, Hartlepool also had a healthy coal export trade.
Pilots Pier, on the west side of the harbour entrance, has an unusual square pyramidal wooden lighthouse, thirty-eight feet tall, which is painted white with two narrow red bands. It was built in 1899 to replace an earlier light here. The lantern has a rotating radar on top of it, and the lighthouse displays a flashing green light every three seconds, with a white sector indicating the deep-water channel into the Old Harbour and docks.
After coal exports dried up, and with the demise of shipbuilding in the town, the docks were closed and filled in. By 1993 they had been transformed into a substantial marina and leisure complex, with berthing capacity for 500 boats. There are a pair of basic traffic control lights at the entrance, as well as a light mounted on the balcony of the harbour master’s office.
Of much more interest is the sixty-two-foot tall, circular stone tower on a square stone base, in the heart of the marina. Missing its original lantern, it was once the High Light of a pair of leading lights at Seaton Carew, about a mile south of Hartlepool. After the construction of the lighthouse at South Gare, close to Redcar, in 1884, the Seaton Carew lights became obsolete. The Low Light was demolished, while the lantern at the High Light was removed, and the tower fell into disrepair. Following the opening of the new marina in Hartlepool in 1993, the old Seaton Carew High Light was acquired, dismantled stone by stone, and re-erected here as a war memorial.
The first lighthouse on the Heugh had a tall sandstone tower, and was built by Trinity House in 1847. It was powered by natural gas, and its light had an occulting white light which was visible for eighteen miles. A German raid on Hartlepool in December 1914 brought about the demise of this lighthouse. Its tower obstructed the line of fire of the defensive guns at the Heugh Battery, and so it was dismantled in 1915.
The lantern and lens were salvaged, and mounted on a temporary wooden lattice tower, which served for twelve years.
It was replaced in 1927 by the current lighthouse, a white-painted cylindrical steel tower, fifty-four feet tall. It is noteworthy in that it was designed to be able to be dismantled in the event of war, so as not to encounter the same problem as the original lighthouse here.
From the start, the 1927 light was powered by mains electricity and fully automated. Its light displays two white flashes, every ten seconds, which is visible for nineteen miles.
Lighthouse at The Heugh, Hartlepool. This light was designed so that it could be dismantled easily, but it never has! pic.twitter.com/sQRYnDhwut
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) July 22, 2015
Some speedy research tracked down an extraordinarily cheap hotel in Redcar, but to reach it, there was no avoiding a substantial ride inland to cross the River Tees at Middlesbrough. The city seems to have more roundabouts and dual carriageways than any other I’ve visited, and for every minute of progress I made, I spent another stopped, waiting for the green light at any number of cycle-specific crossings. At least I felt safe.
Before finding my hotel in Redcar, I noticed the left turn which I was confident led to the South Gare breakwater and lighthouse, at the mouth of the Tees. Looking at the map, I decided that the ten-mile round trip, along the South Gare and Chatham Dunes, would be a pleasant way to end the day. I had been hoodwinked, however. There may have been patches of sand and dunes to my right, but the skyline alongside the road was completely dominated by the Teesside Steelworks, and the air was pungent with the smell of industry. It was tough to breathe at times, and I thought about the effect it must have on the people who work here, day in day out. I didn’t know then that the steelworks would be mothballed barely a month later.
There is nothing really at South Gare other than the breakwater and lighthouse. I passed a chap walking his dog on a long lead, which seemed a little pointless to me, given that he was the first person, or sign of life, I had seen for five miles. The dog, a handsome German Shepherd seemed happy enough though.
The lighthouse at South Gare was built in 1884. When the breakwater here was built four years later, providing shelter for ships entering the River Tees, the lighthouse was incorporated into it.
It’s a cylindrical, white-painted cast-iron tower, forty-three feet tall, with small porthole windows on the north and south sides. Originally there were keepers’ cottages further back on the breakwater, but these were demolished when the lighthouse was automated in the 1960s.
These days it flashes a white light, every twelve seconds, which is visible for twenty miles. It also displays red sectors to each side. In 2007, it was the first lighthouse in the world to be powered by a water-cooled hydrogen fuel cell, which was deemed more reliable than mains electricity along the exposed breakwater in stormy weather.
South Gare breakwater light, Teeside. Also took long lens shot of the modern pole light within the oil plant opposite pic.twitter.com/DxMyFXI9hI
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) July 22, 2015
Before heading back to Redcar, I needed to spend a good ten minutes with a long lens looking for the pair of lights on the opposite bank of the River Tees at Teesport. It’s a mass of heavy industry, with factories, power stations and at least one oil refinery all sporting towers and chimneys that could be mistaken for a lighthouse. It felt like a live action version of Where’s Walley?, all the more so when I realised I was looking for a red and white striped tower.
I found it, eventually, a circular, cylindrical steel tower, painted with red and white bands. It’s on the waterfront opposite the entrance to the Tees estuary, and not far behind it is a tall metal lattice tower that serves as the Rear Range. Both display high-intensity fixed red lights.
Back in Redcar, my hotel was good value, but a bit bleak. The entrance hallway was adorned with an impressive display of certificates and awards, although by the time I had made it up three flights of faded and slightly stained stair carpet to my room, I wondered whether they were in any way connected with this establishment.
Tuesday night was steak night at The Plimsoll Line, the Wetherspoon’s pub on the High Street. I had long since learned that at a Wetherspoon’s, the more food and drink you order in one go, the cheaper it all seems to be. I wasn’t taking any chances, and ordered a couple of pints of Saltaire Brewery bitter, a glass of house red, steak and chips and a warm chocolate brownie: £12.70.
Between pints, I was alarmed to discover that Redcar itself has a pair of range lights that I had clearly missed. They were listed online, but I could find no details in any of the guidebooks I was carrying. Before heading back to the hotel, I made a detour to the ridiculously accurate grid reference listed on the website I had found. I smiled with relief the moment I saw them. The Front Range is a single red lamp, attached to a white pole alongside a shipping container that had been converted into the town’s lifeguard station. The Rear Range is … wait for it … a single red lamp mounted onto the front of Marks and Spencer.
I could relax.