“It’s all around the town, this hard ring of iron. There’s smoke up in the sky, there’s smoke that’s black and chimney stacks as far as the eye can see. There’s shipyards to the north, chemicals to the south, factories, stills and rolling mills right down to the river’s mouth.”
These lyrics are from the song The Ring of Iron written by Graeme Miles, the nationally acclaimed and hugely influential songwriter who produced numerous songs about the beauty of industrial Teesside. Another Teesside legend, the folk singer Vin Garbutt included the song on one of his earlier albums, Eston California. Sadly, both these stalwarts of the Teesside folk scene are no longer with us and one can only wonder what they would make of the changing Teesside skyline.
Over the next twelve months nineteen separate demolitions will take place on the former SSI steelworks site on the south bank of the River Tees. Included in this will be the iconic Redcar Blast Furnace. This magnificent structure which opened in 1979 was the largest in the UK and once the second largest blast furnace in Europe. In its heyday, the banks of the Tees had ninety-one blast furnaces and was responsible for producing iron and steel for some of the world’s most recognisable bridges and buildings. The structure itself now stands idle, rusting and creaking battered by the harsh North East coastline. Despite this, it remains a monument to the proud history of iron and steel making on Teesside, as tall as St Paul’s Cathedral and just as recognisable to the people of Teesside. Soon this will be gone, and the distinctive skyline eradicated and washed from the horizon with the incoming tide.
There can be little argument that from an environmental perspective, the changing skyline will be better for the area: less pollution, contaminated soils cleaned, nature reclaiming the land it once occupied. From a human perspective, there are several generations who worked hard and toiled away in the steelworks who may well be glad to see the back of the site. A great deal won’t be so keen. The shadow of the furnace on the horizon stands as a reminder of the once proud industry. That hulking giant is what they got out of bed on a morning for, it is what made them who they are and bonded them with workmates for life.
The recent release of tickets for bus tours of the steelworks site were snapped up almost immediately. Social media posts have been humming with numerous suggestions to be considered before the demolition. There is a strong demand to preserve as much of the steelworks as possible for future generations. We could argue that this project is shortsighted, and echoes the previous mistakes made by Middlesbrough town planners with their destruction of numerous Victorian buildings to make way for the A66. This dual carriageway cuts right through what is now classed as Middlesbrough’s Historic Quarter conservation area.
This juxtaposition of heavy industry against the serene beauty of the Teesbay has been attracting photographers, artists, poets and songwriters for decades. The area has an allure that is hard to explain. When Sky Arts producers searched for stunning locations for Sky’s Landscape artist of the year, landscapes such as Stowe, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal water gardens were obvious choices however not many outside of Teesside had heard of South Gare steelworks or Paddy’s hole.
The artist Len Tabner often cited as one of the greatest painters of our time, who was born in South Bank, not far from the steelworks, shares the view that history mustn’t be wiped from the horizon. In 2016 he unveiled an ambitious vision to create a national museum of Iron and Steel industry on the site, with an art gallery, cafes and balcony views of the furnace. Unfortunately, the complexities of site ownership never saw this vision get off the ground.
No matter what your views are of the steelworks, one thing is certain, that when it is gone the skyline will be changed forever, for better or worse.
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