What to see
Hartlepool United return to the Football League after dropping out in 2017. This, then, is an update to Towns of Two Halves: you can order the book for £8 from firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on Hartlepool (shopping, eating out etc) there’s Explore Hartlepool, Culture Hartlepool or This is Hartlepool.
Towns of Two Halves update
By a wonderful coincidence, Hartlepool shares the distinction with Sydney of having port facilities named after someone called Jackson. Its water frontage is Jackson Dock; Sydney Harbour is on Port Jackson.
You start to look at Hartlepool through new eyes. The waterfront does have many inlets and branches, much like Port Jackson. And look, is that an exotic frigate built in Bombay (as was) tied up at a wharf as rectilinear as Sydney’s Circular Quay? In one respect Hartlepool even has the edge over Sydney: there are no sharks, equipped with either teeth or grinding plate, in Jackson Dock.
Naturally, then, the quayside may be what most visitors to Hartlepool will gravitate towards. Thanks to a lock bridge you can stroll all the way round, past swish marinas, smart new housing and plenty of bars and restaurants. If you were considering Hartlepool a like-for-like replacement for Grimsby in League 2, you might think this was not a bad swap.
Back at the town end, you’ll find the Royal Navy’s Hartlepool branch of its National Museum, the centrepiece of which is HMS Trincomalee. This vessel was built of teak and launched in Mumbai in 1817, retired in 1897, recently restored and is the oldest British warship still afloat.
The wharf alongside recreates an 18th century seaport. Behind the façade, the Navy Museum stages its own reconstruction of life on a fighting ship. In a series of tableaux featuring swarthy (the crew) and florid (the officers) mannequins, you are walked through the various degrees of misery offered by a life on the ocean wave in those days. The culmination, though necessarily static, is particularly effective: the gun-deck in a battle. The lighting flickers and flashes and the voiceover struggles to make itself heard over the cannonades. Your recorded guide, referring back to the press-gang, points out: “It could have been you.” Well, perhaps I was in an impressionable mood. When he explained the source of the expression ‘to toe the line’ – a punishment that involved standing still for hours – I began to get cramp in my toes.
The Fighting Ships exhibition takes about 25 minutes. It leads naturally to the Trincomalee itself, where the Covid-imposed circuit of the ship immediately takes you below decks. The need to stoop, and the dim light, reinforce the sense of the ship as a weapons platform rather than as a home to 315 human beings. You will look forward to coming back up through the levels and into the day.
Don’t hurry it, though. There are spaces worth spending time over, and one or two of the props are outstanding. An improbably cheerful rat sits on a table in the galley and a black cat the size of a small jaguar is curled up on a barrel.
In the same quayside buildings you’ll find the Museum of Hartlepool. At first you might mistake this for an annex of the gift shop, but it’s a source of delights in its own right. The exhibits are an occasionally baffling series of collections, but the main appeal is in the deployment of large cut-outs of eminent Hartlepudlians to present the various eras and aspects of their town.
To the north of Jackson Dock is another, older dock that served the original settlement. Beyond that, on a peninsula, is the Heugh Battery Museum and St Hilda’s.
The Battery Museum declares its site “the only World War One battlefield in Britain”. In December 1914 the battery’s guns engaged German warships shelling the towns of Hartlepool and West Hartlepool. Covid had closed it when I was there.
Unfortunately, access to St Hilda’s was similarly curtailed. Hilda was abbess of a monastery (founded by St Aidan) that is thought to have occupied the site in the 7th century. The church itself is generally believed to have been built by the grandson of one of William the Conqueror’s knights.
The tower of a second Hartlepool church provides one of the town’s three main landmarks. These are: the masts of the Trincomalee to find the waterfront; the floodlight pylons of Victoria Park for the football ground; and Christ Church to guide you to the railway station.
Christ Church last welcomed worshippers in 1973 but since 1996 it has been the home of Hartlepool Art Gallery. The building is the product of one of Victorian renegade Edward Buckton Lamb’s more subdued moments. He was called a ‘rogue Gothic revivalist’ and Christ Church has some trademark quirks: the roofline with 100ft tower and turrets, the patterned tiling, the slightly inconsistent symmetry.
Within, the gallery lines the walls and works around some of the earlier features. In the café, you may dine beside the pulpit. The locals clearly use this as a coffee bar and it has a lot of character. When I was there, a group of Ladies Who Lunch occupied another table; a business meeting seemed to be in progress at another; and in the background, a bustle of activity accompanied preparations for a new exhibition.
Elsewhere in the town, retail seems to be retreating into shopping malls, leaving the main streets abnormally quiet – although in the emergence from Covid, you can’t be quite sure of what might represent ‘normal’.
Odd Hartlepool sights? Some of the Victorian buildings are a gloriously rich cerise from the local brick. The side streets off Church Street proclaim themselves with arching iron nameplates at their entrance. Every so often, you will become aware that you are walking over a memorial: to Hartlepool Workers, for example, or a price list of refreshments at the Royal Hotel when beer was 2d a glass. In the old Wesley Chapel, subsequently a night-club, one of the most spectacular pieces of town-centre dereliction you’ll ever encounter. And in the next block along, did I imagine it or has the Grand Hotel lost its ‘G’? It could be worse. Rand Hotel still sounds more attractive than Gran Hotel.
Visitors to Hartlepool in late August – and that’s Walsall on 21 August and Carlisle on 28 – will find that it’s the Panto season. As league football returns to Victoria Park, live entertainment is back at the Borough Hall with Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs.
This is a chapter added to Towns of Two Halves, originally published in 2018. To order a copy, email email@example.com.