Middlesbrough: A centre for design lovers

Guest post by Sarah Laurenson.

In October 2014, a group of historians and researchers visited Middlesbrough for a conference, titled ‘Victorian Cities Revisited’, to explore and share knowledge and ideas on place, space and industrial heritage. Sarah Laurenson, a doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh with a background in design and craft practice, reflects on her experiences during the visit.

When I stepped off the train from Edinburgh late at night, I knew very little about Middlesbrough. I was attending the conference as part of my research into nineteenth-century craft and design, which involves thinking about how industry and production shaped everyday life in Britain’s towns and cities. I was expecting to hear some interesting papers, and maybe meet a few like-minded folk.

© Sarah Laurenson

Over the next two days, I was utterly charmed by Middlesbrough itself. I discovered a fascinating town steeped in history, and packed with interesting examples of design. My first taste was seeing the Victorian architecture on my morning walk through the heart of the town to the Gothic Town Hall, where the conference was held. One of the first things I learned was how Middlesbrough rose from almost nothing to become a major industrial centre in a very short period of time. In 1801 there were four houses and about 25 people living in the area; just 90 years later, the population had grown to around 90,000 as a result of the rise of the iron industry. The whole town is a product of nineteenth-century industry.

c/o Teesside Archives. CB/M/E 24In the afternoon we took a walk to the Tees Transporter Bridge – one of several trips organised as part of the conference, including tours of Teesside Archives – and learned about its design and construction. The landmark is one of the longest of its kind, and is still fully operational more than a century after it opened in 1911. It carries vehicles and passengers across the River Tees on a gondola suspended on steel wires from a rail system 160 feet above the water. We also came to understand how the Transporter has become iconic of Middlesbrough and the surrounding area as a great blue steel monument to a rich history of industry. Currently undergoing major renovations as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund supported project, the Bridge will reopen with a newly renovated Visitor Centre in the near future.

On the second day of the conference, I took a walk to the Dorman Museum to see the Christopher Dresser Collection. Often named’ the father of modern design’, Scottish-born Dresser (1834-1904) is considered to be the first independent industrial designer and was a household name in his lifetime. Dresser is known for embracing the machine, in-keeping with his ideas that good design should be simple, functional and affordable, at a time when other important designers looked to the past and ancient hand techniques. The exhibits of Dresser’s own designs – wallpapers, textiles, ceramics, glass, metalware and furniture – along with objects that inspired him during his travels to Japan, document Dresser’s life, work and travels.

Dresser © Sarah Laurenson Dresser © Sarah Laurenson

Baker Street  © Sarah Laurenson

Arriving back at Centre Square (but not before I had a look in a few of the lovely independent shops on Baker Street), I headed into mima to discover one of the finest collections of contemporary jewellery in the UK. The newly-opened jewellery gallery has 200 pieces on display by designers including Wendy Ramshaw, Felieke van der Leest and Gijs Bakker. An exhibition charts the growth of a movement known as ‘New Jewellery’, which began in the 1970s through collaborative working and exchange between artists and designers from Britain, Holland and Germany. The movement was centred on the use of new and old materials and techniques to challenge the very concept of jewellery. The gallery is an absolute must-see for any budding jewellery designer. In fact, I think it will become a place of pilgrimage and an important learning resource for designers and makers of all sorts of things. It blew my mind.

mima © Sarah Laurenson mima © Sarah Laurenson

The keynote lecture of ‘Victorian Cities Revisited’ was delivered by Professor Robert J. Morris, Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh’s School of History. Titled ‘Place and memory in the industrial city’, Morris’s talk gave insights into his own experience of Middlesbrough (including his first job as a pay clerk in the very Town Hall in which we were sat). He spoke of how this ‘town without a history’ invented an identity based on a sense of its huge achievements. Over the next hour, we considered the ways in which other industrial centres have transformed unused plant and mills to create new spaces for hotels, design studios and museums, and the exciting possibilities for Middlesbrough to continue redefining itself through its many assets: the bridge, old coke furnaces and the water front.

I spent my last hour in Middlesbrough back in mima’s jewellery gallery before returning to Edinburgh feeling more than just a little bit fond of this unassuming gem of a town. It is a centre for design-lovers of all kinds – students, researchers, designer-makers, craft workers, fabricators, engineers. I’m certain that my first time in Middlesbrough certainly won’t be my last.

Sarah Laurenson visited Middlesbrough as part of her PhD research on the Leverhulme funded project, ‘Artisans and the Craft Economy in Scotland, c.1780-1914’ led by Professor Stana Nenadic at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh.

Victorian Cities Revisited: Heritage and History Conference’ was a two-day conference organised by Tosh Warwick of the Heritage Lottery Fund supported Tees Transporter Bridge Visitor Experience Project and the University of Huddersfield. The conference was funded with support from the Economic History Society and Middlesbrough Council.

All images © Sarah Laurenson, except Tees Transporter Bridge, which is courtesy of Teesside Archives (ref:  CB/M/E 24).


John Nicholson: Boro Crime Writer

If you are searching for Christmas gifts here is an author writing about Teesside and the Boro in a very different way. Boro crime writer John Nicholson sets the first of his Teesside crime novels against the back drop of the Boro’s epic UEFA Cup run. Now that is what I call an interesting idea. Box it up for Christmas.

Back in October Fly Me To The Moon and Discover Middlesbrough combined to host a pre-Boro match talk from Three Boro Writers John Nicholson, Harry Pearson and Daniel Gray. The fabulous setting of Middlesbrough Reference Library was pretty much packed to hear the trio talk Boro and books. I thought I would follow this up by throwing several questions in the direction of one of the guys, John Nicholson. Football 365 blogger, author of Footy Rocks, Who Ate All the Pies (longlisted for 2010 William Hill book of the year) and now the man behind a popular series of crime stories, set in Teesside.

Boro fan John Nicholson lives up in Edinburgh these days so I sent him a few questions by facebook and he was good enough to reply the very next day.

Q: John tell me a little where the idea from this Nick Guymer series of crime novels came from?

JN: The very first idea I had was inspired by my dad dying in 1987. I had to go the house 48 hours later and sort everything out. Everything was as he’d left it right down to his last mug of coffee. It was very spooky even though we weren’t close. He lived alone in the house I’d grown up in and I began to wonder what I might find out about him and how I’d feel if it turned out he had a life I’d never known about or that he was a totally different man to what I thought.  So I used that as a leaping off point for the first book. Once I’d written one, I just loved the main characters of Nick, Julie and Jeff so much that I wanted to know what they were going to do next and I’ve not been able to stop writing about them ever since.

Teesside StealQ: We’re you nervous at all making the leap from a successful football writer?

JN: Yeah, people tend, quite naturally, to pigeon-hole you and after 14 years, I’m quite well established as a football writer, so I did wonder if people would take me seriously as a novelist. As it’s turned out, it hasn’t been an issue and in fact I’ve garnered a whole new audience of fiction readers who didn’t even know anything about my football writing.

Q: I think it is fantastic that you have set a series of thrillers set on Teesside. Did you enjoy using so many landmarks that we know well but others won’t know?  

JN: I was inspired by Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawki novels which are set in Chicago. They paint the city so well that you feel like you’ve been there. I wanted to do that for Teesside, so I do love to set some incidents around landmarks such as Roseberry Topping, Corporation House (as I still call it) or the ICI prilling tower and I also set stories in real places, on real streets. For example a major incident in Tyne Tees happens on Prince Regent Street in Stockton. Local people seem to really enjoy this aspect of the books but, of course you don’t need to be from Teesside to appreciate them. It was always my aim to celebrate the area in some way, to really put it on the map in popular fiction, and I will not rest until I’ve done that!

Q: Do you find Teessiders and exiles very receptive to the books?

JN: Very much so. We all know Teesside is ignored by the mainstream media unless they want a story about decay and deprivation. Most people don’t even know where it is and certainly can’t tell the difference between a Teesside and a Geordie voice. We’re an exotic, obscure breed, so the fact that the area is being recognised in a series of novels has been totally embraced by Teessiders at home and across the world. It’s been very gratifying for me. I sell a lot of books on Teesside but also in Australia and to people living in and around London who love to be transported back via my books, to the streets they grew up on.

I do think when you’ve moved away, you see the area in a different way to residents. Stuff you take for granted when you live on Teesside seems much more exotic to me when I come down to visit because I live in Edinburgh. For example, the way you can see industry like ICI Billingham in the foreground with the Cleveland Hills in the background is incredibly striking but when I lived in Stockton, I never even really noticed it. Roseberry Topping is a backdrop wherever you go but I just used to take that for granted too. That blend of hard industrial architecture and wild nature is very much Teesside’s unique character, I reckon. It’s the grit that makes Teesside’s pearl.

Q: The main character seems to share a few characteristics with yourself, is that fair?

JN: Well, Nick is more me than anyone else, yeah. It’s an open secret that I use him as a form of psychological therapy. His feelings are mine. His worries are my worries. His states of mind are also mine. In fact in almost every way he is really me… or more accurately, how I think I am… which might not be the same thing as how I actually am. I’m no good at filtering myself out of novels. You can tell what sort of man I am by reading them, I think. In that regard, they’re quite confessional and honest. I pretty much mine my own life and lay it bare on the page one way or another. The only major difference between us is that Nick is much more likely to hit you in the face. I’d never do that, not unless I’ve been drinking brandy and you’ve nicked me parmo, anyway.

Q: You have some very strong female characters as well. Was that important to you?

JN: Growing up in Stockton and living in the north of Britain most of my 53 years, I’ve always experienced women to be, what is often rather patronisingly called, ‘strong’ (as though most women are weak). Northern women are generally tough and nobodies fool. That’s just how most women I meet and know are, so it was important to me to reflect that in the books but it’s not like it’s a political decision I’ve consciously made.

Nick Guymer booksQ: Nick is flawed in many ways, he has issues with depression, not the usual hero figure then?

JN: Nick isn’t a hero at all, really. He certainly wouldn’t see himself that way. He’s just a somewhat dysfunctional bloke who gets caught up in situations which he then has to sort out. He’s a football writer, not a cop. He’s just getting through whichever way he can, as we all do, really. He’s got a strong moral compass but finds it hard to see how what he says and does affects other people. His relationship with Julie is the cornerstone of his life, but like many of us, he falls apart sometimes and finds life and people hard to deal with. I wanted to give him some depth and not just be a crash-bang-wallop action hero. As the series progresses he evolves and changes so that readers go on a journey with him. He’s not static as a character and I hope that’s one of the things that keeps people reading the novels.

Q: You have used Boros UEFA run as a backdrop to one drama. If you had scripted that would people believe it plausible?

JN: Well, that’s why I used it in Teesside Steal. I couldn’t have made up something more dramatic. It occurred to me, even at the time, that if it had been written for a TV show, no-one would have believed it. To come back against such overwhelming odds to triumph is the stuff of soap operas and only goes to prove that fact is often less plausible than fiction.
Q: Do you have your plots all meticulously worked out or do things evolve as you dive into the plot?

JN: Oh god no. Not at all. I am a great believer in improvising and just writing from the heart: letting it all pour out without inhibition. I usually have one basic idea to start with, but plan almost nothing, so that as I write it, it’s all a surprise to me. I think this keeps the writing fresh. I never know who has done the crime until the last 30 pages and it can always go either way. It means after the first draft, once I know who has done what to whom, I do a lot of back writing, dropping in clues, red-herrings, details and themes. I’m a big fan of the ‘fix it in the mix’ approach. I want my work to have emotion and passion in it, and to me, planning is the antithesis of both those things, so that’s why I avoid it, plus, I don’t have a logical mind and I’m naturally ornery, even towards my own plans, so there’d be no point in planning out anything as I’d only depart from the plan at the first opportunity.

Q: Am I right in thinking you make yourself work and write as if you were doing a normal job?

JN: I treat it like job, yeah. I believe in hard work. Really hard work. I believe in putting in a lot of hours and not moaning about it. Get the bloody job done. I can’t be doing with an airy fairy, artsy approach to writing. I don’t sit around waiting for my muse to descend, I just get grafting because, for me, it’s 99% perspiration in order to get 1% inspiration. Writing stories and characters is my job, it’s what I do every day of the week and I love doing it. I put in 12 hour days and most days I write at least 3,000 words and sometimes as much as 8,000. I really live the stories and get totally absorbed in them and by doing that I find I can write a lot, very quickly. I see it so clearly, it’s like describing a movie that’s playing on my TV.  The idea that it might take a year or two to write a book horrifies me. The way I see it is, perhaps controversially, if it’s taking you a year or more to write a normal length novel of commercial fiction, as opposed to high falutin difficult literary fiction, then you’ve not committed enough time to it or you’ve not got enough ideas. Maybe it’s my background growing up on Teesside, but I can’t let myself indulge in being an “artist” and I fear being pretentious at all times. Maybe that’s why I prefer to see it as labour rather than art. It allows me to do it without feeling massively poncy and self-indulgent. I am not, thank god, part of the linen-jacketed literary middle-classes who spout off pretentious bollocks about their art, darling. Sod that. I’m an insecure, chippy, northern grafter and perversely sodding proud of it.

Nick Guymer seriesQ: Do you think your blog experience helps you to write like this?

JN: No, not really. Nothing I’ve done in the last 14 years of football writing has been a lot of help in writing fiction because it’s such a different discipline. The only thing writing blogs and columns online gives you is a thick skin to withstand criticism – which is hugely important – and an ability to express ideas without waffling. But really, in writing novels, you want to stretch out and explore ideas and emotions more, so the brevity you learn in one genre is not often useful in the other. Like I say, it’s a very different discipline.

Q: When will the next book be out?

JN: The 7th Nick Guymer will be out in late January and is called High Tees. The first draft is done, so now I know what has happened and who did it, I can go back and make sure all the pieces of the jigsaw fit. I’ll write four novels in 2015 – that’s the plan, anyway. It might seem a lot but remember, other writers are just lazy! Ha!

Q: Do you fancy Boro for promotion?

JN: Controversially I never want us to get promoted from the second tier. I’ve always enjoyed our seasons in the second tier much more than in the top flight, going right back to the 1973-1974 season. I don’t really like the Premier League that much and I hate the idea of winning eight games in a year and then trying to draw enough to not get relegated which, I fear, would be our fate. I think we’ll make the play offs but I’m not sure we’ll go up. I reckon McClaren’s Derby will beat us to second place.

The Nick Guymer crime series has been described as “the best thing to come out of Teesside since the Parmo.” 

Here’s how the very first book, Teesside Steal opens, Nick Guymer’s life is a total mess. His dad has just died, he’s being made bankrupt, he’s getting evicted, his girlfriend has left him and Middlesbrough are 2-0 down in the UEFA Cup…

If you like the sound of this and the interview then why not order a book online or three for Christmas.


There is also a stand of John Nicholson’s Nick Guymer’s books in WHSmiths at Teesside Park.

John Nicholson


Rede House student accommodation a boost for the town

Image © Fortis

Looking out of the window across Middlesbrough, lounging in the cinema room or hitting the free gym, it’s hard to believe that this is student accommodation. Rede House, which had previously been unoccupied, has been transformed by Fortis Student Living into high quality, self-contained studio flats. With the contemporary furnishings and colour schemes, it is unrecognisable from its former incarnation as a dowdy office block.

Providing accommodation for 240 students from Teesside University and students from Durham University’s Stockton campus, there are options to suit every budget, from economy-sized studios to one bedroom apartments. Included in the weekly rental prices are water, electricity, gas and heating, and the building also benefits from free broadband and wifi, and a twenty four hour laundry facilities.

But it’s the additional features offered to residents which make this development truly special – students and their guests can enjoy the cinema room, the communal flat screen Sky TVs and a pool table, or the free onsite gym for something a little more energetic. Some rooms benefit from views over Centre Square, mima and the Bottle of Notes, while others look out over the Transporter Bridge and the dockside developments at Middlehaven.

Image © Fortis

Image © Fortis Image © Fortis

The modern interior complements the world-class teaching facilities already available at Teesside University, and the location is ideal for access to the shops, restaurants and entertainment venues of the town centre. Plus the independent retail district Baker Street is just a five minute walk away.

In a year which has seen several of the town’s large long term vacant units occupied, including those on Linthorpe Road taken over by The Purple Pig and Sticky Fingers/Steven James Guitars, it’s great news for the town that such a large building has not stood empty for long.

For those keen to invest in this up and coming student hotspot, there are two vacant retail units on the ground floor of Rede House which are available to rent. The first unit, closest to Gurney Street, is 266.4 sqm, and the second, closest to Rede House reception, is 165.2 sqm. Contact Barry Greenbank, Commercial & Utilities Manager at Fortis Developments Ltd., for more information, either by email to barry@fortisdevelopments.com or by phone at 0161 8385670 / 07805 041869.

Image © Fortis


Adventures in Monahan Land

He’s wowed millions of people on TV and played more than 300 gigs all over the world this year, but Middlesbrough Town Hall is still Patrick Monahan’s favourite place to play.

And now the Teesside funnyman is defying the Teesside winter and donning the shorts and sunglasses as he looks forward to playing the Town Hall Crypt on Saturday 13 June next summer.

“I think I need a scarf more than sunglasses at the moment,” said Patrick. “But I’m already looking forward to playing the Town Hall next summer.”

It’s been another incredible year for Patrick, who won ITV’s Show Me The Funny in 2011.

He’s played over 300 gigs this year, including all over the UK and Europe, a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe, plus far-flung hotspots including Dubai, Bahrain and Costa Rica.

And a busy TV year included getting his feet wet on ITV’s Splash, and appearing alongside the legendary Dame Edna Everage on Celebrity Squares.

“It’s been an amazing year really,” said Patrick. “The TV stuff was great fun to do, and I was probably more nervous about meeting Dame Edna than actually doing the show itself. You could see that everyone on the show was transfixed by her, and you could almost forget the cameras were on you too.”

Patrick’s Boro date adds to a growingly impressive Town Hall comedy line-up for 2015, with Dara O Briain (Weds 15 April), Alan Carr (Sun 19 April & Thurs 30 July), Jimmy Carr (Sat 28 March), Katherine Ryan (Sat 16 May), Kevin Bridges (Thurs 16 July), and Dave Gorman (Sat 21 November) already confirmed for Teesside next year.

“I play literally hundreds of gigs a year,” said Patrick, who grew up in Redcar and Stokesley. “But the Town Hall is the gig that always stands out a mile for me.

“It’s a proper homecoming gig as far as I’m concerned, more like a massive party and a huge catch up amongst friends.

“And when you look at the line-ups that the place keeps putting together … it’s a real testament to the Town Hall and the audiences that the big comics keep coming back for more.

“I know from speaking to other comics that they think the Town Hall is a great place to play, and I’m really looking forward to jumping in for the gig next summer.”

Now my interview with Patrick in the sanctuary of the Olde Young Tea House on Grange Road.

Q: Patrick on a cold day when people are scuttling around town trying to secure Christmas bargains what on earth possessed you to be standing next to the Christmas tree in Middlesbrough centre in your t-shirt and shorts?

PM: I tell you what. You say it was a cold day and you came wrapped with three jackets, and two scarves. I thought, he looks like he has just been to Matalan, how many tops has he got on? It must be about seven.

Q: I was dressed for December. I would say you weren’t.

PM: Yes. The guys from the town hall all said I am coming to do my tour show in Middlesbrough Town Hall on June 13th it is almost the last date of my tour. (In the summer). They thought what is the best way to celebrate Christmas and get ready for the summer tour. Come and sunbathe by the Christmas tree in Middlesbrough. I think that could be the opening 5 minutes in any stand up tour. I wouldn’t be surprised if I get heckled in June for that. “There’s that nutter.”

It is almost like a 50 date, 2015 of my new show. Normally I like to do the Town Hall somewhere in the middle. I never like to do it first because even though the show has already been written and I have done it at Edinburgh for a month, I like to get it really tight. When you come back to Boro it is like your homecoming gig.

People often ask me do you get more nervous when you come back? Not really. I used to be petrified but I suppose it is like the football teams. At first they can play better in the crucial games away from home because of the pressure. It was like that for me when I first did it. When you first come back. There are people who want you to do well but there are so many. It is great. You handle the nerves. It is now become as case of I love it, I look forward to it and it is actually not that nerve racking now.

The audience here are so giving. Even before you walk on people are screaming and they want hugs as opposed to if you doing a Town Hall or Arts Centre somewhere where people might have only come because of word of mouth. They might sitting there saying is this guy for real? Why is he touching us? Why is he still hugging people? Why is he not on stage.

Whereas in Boro, I always come from the back of the Crypt. Everyone wants a hug. It will be. Oh I remember you from last year, you are from Billingham etc. You are from Stockton. It takes me about 12 minutes before I can get on stage and it is so nice.

So, that is why in 2015 it is near the end of the tour and it will be bouncing. I will have got it nice and tight. I always do a bit extra here because the people are so up for it.

The reason why we did the shoot today is we thought get in there early. People are doing Christmas shopping. People are sick of being in shops looking for bargains they would rather be outside looking at a Teesside comedian in shorts freezing his monkey bits off by the Christmas tree.

People did stand and watch while we were having our picture taken.

Q: No one joined you.

PM: No but people looked and I think that is the difference. If you were a singer at the Town Hall doing that people would go Oh God look at them but whereas if you are a comedian people will say, oh yes they are nutters, that is what they will do. No one would expect anything less.

But that was pretty much the blokes but the women would be probably just be looking going we wear less than that on a Saturday night.

I am not stereotyping about the women here, they are lovely but we have seen them. But I don’t know how they do it. I had my legs out but women do that Friday and Saturday night but they’ll do it standing outside queuing up to get into a club and it is snowing and wearing a little top and shorts and I am thinking, I would be freezing. I don’t know how they do it. So I should be getting stockings on my legs, that is what I should be doing.

Q: Maybe you will have to turn the idea on its head in June and wear a Santa suit.

PM: Yeah. Good idea. A big Santa suit and three fleeces.

I remember doing a Christmas show once in May. We had carols. Some people were confused…

Q: If you were playing abroad Christmas could be in summer.

PM: I was overseas last month and I was in Central America doing gigs. It was all open doors because it was so hot and they had a Christmas tree and we were all in shorts etc. To them it is so natural, Christmas is in summer. They would probably have a heart attack if they came here. They would be thinking why do these people even come out of the house in this weather.

Q: Have you considered, dare I mention it but Middlesbrough are doing pretty well. There could be a promotion celebration when you are playing in June.

PM: Yes. We always do well up to Christmas don’t we. I always see us win on Boxing Day. But to be fair I think this year is slightly better because we are often in a play off position but we could easily be top two by Christmas.

This is the difference I think there is something about this year where if we can go in with that confidence and spirit and build momentum. We always lose that in the past. We will see what happens and by Boxing Day I will be able to tell you a prediction, definitely for sure.

I think this year we will go up in the top two spots not the play offs. It will either be top two or nothing.

  • Patrick Monahan: Adventures in Monahan Land. Middlesbrough Town Hall Crypt. Saturday 13 June 2015. 8pm. Age: 14+. Tickets: £14.00 / £12.00 concs, onsale now from Middlesbrough Town Hall Box Office on 01642 729 729 or online at www.middlesbroughtownhallonline.co.uk

Frozen on the Big Screen this weekend

© Disney

Frozen fans are in for a treat when the multi-award winning film premieres on the Big Screen this weekend. For the first time in forever, on Saturday, December 13th at 2pm, Centre Square will be ringing with the all-important question, do you want to build a snowman?

The film tells the epic story of princess Anna, who sets off on an epic journey to find her sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter. Teaming up with rugged mountain man Kristoff, his loyal reindeer Sven and a hilarious snowman named Olaf, Anna races against time to save the kingdom.

Viewers are encouraged to let it go and dress up as their favourite character from the film, with prizes awarded for the best costumes. There will also be the opportunity to meet and have a photograph taken with the Ice Queen herself between 2 – 2:30pm.

A second Frozen screening will take place on Saturday, December 20, at 2pm, and both are free to attend.
Limited seating will be available on a first come, first served basis, and films will be shown with subtitles. The cold may not have bothered Elsa, but viewers are reminded to dress with the winter weather in mind and bring their own blankets.

Frozen fans have more to look forward to next year, with special singalong screenings of the film at Middlesbrough Theatre on Saturday, February 28 and Tuesday, April 7. Tickets are available from the theatre box office by calling 01642 815181.

For more information about Middlesbrough’s Christmas programme, visit Love Middlesbrough.