83% in one suburb of Middlesborough voted to Leave the EU. But Graham Williamson sees self-sufficiency and a new spirit despite stereotypes of ‘Northern Towns’.

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My dad and I were drinking in central Middlesbrough when something caught his eye outside the pub. “What are they celebrating?” he asked, pointing to the rows of colourful lights trampolining around in Storm Dennis. 

The answer is probably themselves. It takes a lot to make people in Middlesbrough feel optimistic. A 2019 report from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government placed us in a tie with Blackpool for the most cases of child poverty. Yet right in the middle of town there are two streets — Bedford Street and Baker Street — which are jammed full of independent, locally-run businesses. There is a shaft of light here that has nothing to do with the street decorations.

Say what you will about the artisanal cupcake makers, but they’re sticking around.

The businesses include vintage clothes shops, charcuterie restaurants — even an artisanal cupcake store, which is almost stereotypical. There are murals here, which is not unusual in Middlesbrough — but they normally feature the Transporter Bridge. The mural on Bedford Street is of the American indie film-maker and author Miranda July.

It’s not as if Middlesbrough has suddenly become Shoreditch-on-Tees. Politically, my hometown is what you expect of a Labour town in the age of Brexit; Middlesbrough Central’s MP, the shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald, kept his seat with a reduced but still comfortable majority, but many surrounding wards are now Conservative. Its Thorntree suburb still gets the odd journalist nosing around as a bellwether of Eurosceptic sympathies; there, a record-breaking 83% of residents voted Leave.

There’s been plenty of attempts to modernise the town over the years, few of which have stuck. Between 2004 and 2009 a string of plans were drawn up to regenerate the town’s historic Middlehaven district, many of which now resemble a parody of New Labour civic planning at its most vacantly fanciful. A string of huge artworks by Anish Kapoor were announced, along with a theatre shaped like a giant toaster and a casino. 

The toaster proved to be an omen: the global economy rolled snake eyes, and the plans mostly fell through. Some were built, leaving streets where reflective-fronted ultra-modern buildings abruptly give way to Victorian terraces, the tide-mark of the age of easy credit.

When I first noticed these new businesses, I feared they’d go the same way. As in the rest of the country, the last decade or so has been difficult for Middlesbrough’s pub trade. Baker Street alone has three pubs and a cocktail bar. How can this be successful? How has it got past the ingrained suspicion in a lot of Northern towns of new, “hipster” things?

The barman at O’Connells, Bedford Street’s more long-standing pub, admitted to some initial unease at the new arrivals. The benefits soon revealed themselves. Previously, he said, they were reliant on a regular crowd, so much so that a regular’s illness or holiday could hit their profits. Now there’s an influx of new faces, especially when the streets host an open-air market during spring and summer. He widens his eyes as he talks about how hectic the pub can get on market day. “But,” he noted, “it brings the money in.”

The question is, for how much longer? In October The Curing House, the first restaurant to open on Bedford Street in 2016, went into liquidation. It had been operating on reduced hours for a year or so, blaming “an extreme lack of footfall”. Even so, most people only realised the scale of the problem when they saw the little, defiant sign on the door: “Closed but still awesome”.

Still, the factors that first attracted shops remain. The streets still have their desirable position in between the main university campus and the town centre, and business rates are a tenth of what they are in a comparable part of Newcastle. And it is still attracting new ideas.

The newest business on Baker Street, Dr. Watsons, opened two months after the Curing House closed. Its owners, Sarah and John Paul, realised there was a niche on Baker Street for a more traditional pub serving the over-35s. Yet as they planned something different, they also wanted to fit in.

There’s the name, for starters. Baker Street has an inevitable number of bars called things like Sherlock’s or — slightly slyer, this — Rafferty’s. But there’s also the spirit it operates in. Placed at the end of the street, Sarah hopes her pub can be a conduit, funnelling their more affluent clientele – who tend to work in nearby solicitors’ offices – into the town centre. Co-operation, rather than competition, is the ethos.

A year earlier Sarah and John Paul bought Doctor Browns, a pub in Middlesbrough town centre. It had a reputation for live music that had faltered after some ill-advised comments on female musicians from a former owner. Sarah and John Paul partnered with a local indie record label and opened the first floor for young people to rehearse, record and seek mentorship. 

“It’s not like a youth club”, Sarah notes, aware that ‘Let’s get kids off the streets and into the pub’ is a rallying cry that’s open to misinterpretation. But she’d seen the decline in spaces for arts and leisure targeted at young people, and she wanted to offer them something. These pubs are still fulfilling a pub’s essential remit as a space where the community can gather. It’s just a different community with different needs.

It remains to be seen whether Baker Street and Bedford Street can ride out any future economic shocks arising from coronavirus, Brexit, or some factor as-yet unimagined. Their ethos, though, seems to have taken root. These shops may not be to everyone’s taste, but they were built by Middlesbrough people, and we understand and value that. In the event of another financial crash, the multinationals will abandon us, as they did before. Say what you will about the artisanal cupcake makers, but they’re sticking around.


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