The Tees is the river that gives we Teessiders our name and our identity yet weirdly it is all too often overlooked or taken for granted. The river is viewed as a geographical and political divider rather than the unifying reason behind Teesside forming and developing. Tosh Warwick and Jenny Parker have produced a book that should start to change all that. The two have produced a wonderful and enlightening new book that follows the river from its Cross Fell source into the sea at Tees Mouth and looks at the way our river has been a gateway to commerce and trade and an industrial driver through the ages.
I posed some questions to Tosh Warwick to get a flavour of what River Tees From Source to Sea is all about.
We live on Teesside but do you think Teessiders take their river for granted in some ways?
The River Tees has a fascinating history with stories of Roman forts, world-renowned bridges and I think perhaps the book provides a way to appreciate the role of the Tees in the past, in the modern day and in the future of the area. Much of what we do is defined by the river – many identify as Tees-siders, live in the Tees Valley, work in Stockton-on-Tees, shop at Teesside Park or study at Teesside University.
I think particularly with the decline of traditional industries along the Tees having vastly reduced the number of people who engage and encounter the river on a daily basis has inevitably reduced familiarity, turning it into something that for many has ‘always just been there’. It has become historicised and profiled as something that is part of a bygone era of great uncles who worked on the cranes of Middlesbrough Dock, grandfathers who loaded cargo at Dent’s Wharf or ancestors who were brewers or tanners in medieval Yarm. Of course the idea of the Tees as something consigned to the past, not relevant to the twenty-first century, is not true – AV Dawson, located at Dent’s Wharf, are one of the region’s leading multimodal firms, Middlesbrough Dock is now surrounded by education, leisure, training facilities and acclaimed public art, whilst the Yarm riverside is populated with high quality housing, heritage and leisure space.
There has of course also been, and continues to be, long-term interest in and appreciation of the River Tees from groups and organisations including River Tees Rediscovered, Tees Archaeology, Tees Nautical Studies and Tees Wildlife Trust.
Are you telling us to look again at the Tees in Teesside?
I think for those from Teesside, the book offers an opportunity to celebrate and highlight some of the important aspects of the Tees, a means by which to discover or rediscover the ‘steel river’. I remember when starting work on the Transporter Bridge project watching a DVD from a reminiscence project centred upon the Bridge, on which Rob Nichols commented that there was a perception that the town had, in a sense, turned its back on the River Tees. That observation really hit home with me and I think in looking to the Tees and celebrating the unique structures that span it, the natural beauty along its banks, the landmarks of industrial heritage, the important role the waterway plays in the region’s economy today and the potential for learning, leisure and regeneration in the future can help allay those concerns. The book highlights that, in fact, there is very much an increase in interest along the river and it has much to offer across a wide variety of interests. There is a lot to celebrate and be proud of.
I also hope that River Tees: From Source to Sea will encourage people to explore some aspects of the River Tees beyond those with which they are familiar. Jenny and I would love nothing more than for readers to then head down to a new part of the Tees or seek to find out more about something that they have encountered in the book.
What particular topics do you look at in depth?
The book is not intended to be the definitive book on the Tees. It is there to introduce readers to explore some key themes about the River Tees and attempts to provide something of an overview on the story of the Tees. Jenny has delved into charting the river in looking at the ‘Tumbling Tees’, taking readers on a journey from source to sea and exploring the origins of the Tees’ name, exploring some of the communities, features, folklore and towns along the way before turning attention to ‘The Natural River’. As Jenny acknowledges ‘for most of its length the Tees is strikingly beautiful and a delight for nature-lovers’, and it was important that the historic romantic tourism of the Tees, its geology, flora, the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, farming and fishing, nature reserves and saltmarshes received attention when celebrating the Tees.
My own background is in the heritage and history of the industrial areas along the Tees and I have focused on some of the industries along the river, ranging from well-known iron, steel and chemical companies to some of the less familiar interests along the river over the centuries. Thus alongside the stories of ironmasters, ship builders and steel magnates, Yarm’s foreign trade links with Flanders and France, Stockton’s shipping of butter and a brass furnace at Billingham are explored. We have also been very lucky in drawing upon some unique material held at Teesside Archives from the more celebrated firms along the Tees, including world-renowned firms such as Bell Brothers and Dorman Long.
Bridges of course feature in the book as an important part of the story of the Tees, its rich history and remain important today. We look at the stories of bridges that remain today, some of which are world-renowned such as the Transporter Bridge, but also profile the history of some lesser-known, lost bridges, such as the collapse of Yarm’s ill-fated Iron Bridge in the 1800s, the daredevil bridge jumper Tommy Burn’s dive from Victoria Bridge in front of 4,000 spectators in 1890 and the tragic fall from Yarm Viaduct of a local farmer who mistook the parapet wall for the train station platform and plunged into the Tees.
We also consider the ways in which the Tees’ bridges have become iconic and have changed in their use and relevance over time from major parts of the industrial infrastructure to tourist attractions and extreme sports locations. This is part of a wider look at the ways in which the Tees also has a lot to offer today for learning, leisure and the future of the region with the fantastic developments ongoing in recent decades with various education, learning and regeneration schemes which have included the opening of the Riverside Stadium, installation of Temenos and the establishment of world-leading further and higher education facilities close to the Tees.
Did you learn a lot through your research for this?
Researching the book has been a fascinating experience that has included delving into unique archival collections, sifting through historic photographs, speaking to those with knowledge of the river and also getting out and seeing the Tees ourselves. It has been fascinating to discover new information about the role of the Tees in the civil wars, nineteenth-century riots at Stockton Stone Bridge on the issue of tolls and also to find out about the variety of activities ongoing along and on the Tees today, ranging from Tees Wheelyboats to the fantastic work carried out by Tees Wildlife Trust.
Do you think the river has a big role in the future as well as the past for Teesside?
We hope that whilst not shying away from the vast changes that the region has faced in recent decades which have changed the relationship with and role of the River Tees, we hope that the book also highlights the ways in which the River Tees continues to play an important role today and offers huge potential for Teesside moving forward. It can unite the whole area and with the ongoing projects which celebrate and explore its importance and uses, and we hope that River Tees: From Source to Sea might contribute to this process.
River Tees: From Source to Sea is published by Amberley Publishing and available in paperback now from https://www.amberley-books.com/river-tees.html and bookshops throughout the region. The book will also be available on Kindle, Kobo and iBook formats.