Remaking Middlesbrough: How hipsters are regenerating the town post-steel

Posh pubs, cool cafes, and digital start-ups are turning Middlesbrough into the Shoreditch of the north. But will a bevy of hip independent businesses be enough to regenerate this deprived industrial town?

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 18 Sep 2016

Photography by Julian Dodd

Beneath a ram's skull at a makeshift bar, a wispy-moustached hipster in a bowler hat and a faux-vintage Adidas T-shirt sups a pint of Blue Moon beer. Around the corner, a couple sip Salvadorian Finca Bosque Lya coffee. Later, up the road, trendy twentysomethings pore over a menu of 20 gins and 12 tonics.

No we're not in Shoreditch or Soho, but the industrial north-eastern town of Middlesbrough, more famous for its petrochemicals and parmos (the local delicacy - breaded chicken, flattened and smothered in bechamel sauce and cheese) than its cocktail bars and single origin espresso. These hip new businesses are the product of an initiative to regenerate the city centre in the hope of offsetting the long-term decline of its traditional industrial base.

Teesside is a region built on steel. In the 1850s, the discovery of iron ore in the nearby Cleveland Hills led to an industrial boom and massive population growth. In its heyday the sprawling steelworks in Redcar employed more than 40,000 people. But in 2015, after years seemingly on the brink, its blast furnace was finally extinguished after SSI failed to find a buyer willing to take the site off its hands.

There remains a substantial chemicals industry on the north bank of the Tees, but long, slow industrial decline has left Middlesbrough with high levels of unemployment and poverty. Half of its council wards are among the 10% most deprived in the country. For all the talk by politicians, the 'Northern Powerhouse' seems yet to make its presence felt here and the town is in real need of a private sector recovery.

That's why the council has been encouraging the proliferation of these trendy businesses around Baker and Bedford Streets, a part of the town centre that used to be partially derelict. After starting out with a couple of vintage clothes shops a few years ago, it's now home to three micropubs, a charcuterie restaurant, a sourdough pizzeria, a skateboard shop, a cocktail bar, a loose-leaf tearoom and a speciality coffee house.

One of the pioneers was The Twisted Lip on Baker Street, a pub clad in Victorian decor that serves a range of unusual real ales and posh pub grub like camembert bonbons and 'gourmet' scotch eggs. 'We're doing really well now,' says landlady Erica Saul. 'It took a while for people to get their head around what was going on. They'd walk in and not recognise anything because on tap there's not your generic Carling and Foster's. But they liked the change and saw we were doing something a bit different.'

Erica Saul is landlady of the Twisted Lip.

Initially the council took a bit of convincing. 'Another drinking area in the centre of town that could be a strain on the resources of police,' she adds. 'It was a big thing for us to convince them that this wasn't going to be a generic place where people would get drunk and have fights and cause a load of chew (Teesside slang for aggro).' But it eventually opened its chequebook, sprucing up the pavements and streetlights, commissioning street art and helping to convert the next road across, Bedford Street, into the shops and restaurants that are there today.

Another local that got in on the action was Dave Beattie, who used to work as a chemical engineer for BOC, one of Teesside's largest private employers. After he quit his job and travelled the world, Beattie decided to start his own business roasting imported coffee beans in Rounton, North Yorkshire. A coffee shop on Bedford Street followed soon after. 'What we wanted to do was showcase the coffee in a way we would like,' he says. 'The only way of doing that was by opening a coffee shop ourselves.' It's not been a walk in the park - 'I've lost three years of my life, I may as well have been in a coma,' he says. But now, 'we're getting busier every week, we're seeing new people coming and it's been well received.'

The cluster isn’t contained to the council’s planned regeneration area, either. It spills out onto nearby Linthorpe Road, where you’ll find upmarket barbershop Rude Grooming, ‘speakeasy’ Alchemy & Co. (you’ll need a secret code to get in) and Pixies Diner, which serves pulled pork, hotdogs and all manner of milkshakes.

‘We’ve doubled or tripled the turnover,’ says Stephen Field, who used to run a construction company but bought Pixies Diner last month and has extended the opening hours and started selling craft beer and cocktails to draw in an evening crowd. ‘I think the council need to help more,’ he adds. ‘On Linthorpe Road, there’s quite a few of us starting up but business rates are sky high.'

And it's not just profit-seeking shops and restaurants that have been springing up. Down the road Keren Pearson (pictured) has converted the town's old post office into The House of Blah Blah, an art gallery and events space, which hosts edgy gigs and record launches and is run as a Community Interest Company. 'I had no business experience at all, so I've learnt as I've gone,' says the art graduate. After doing a short course with the Prince's Trust, she managed to persuade the council to give her use of the building. 'It was really derelict at the time. I know it's a bit derelict looking now but then it was really bad,' she says.

These businesses might strike a nice contrast with the branches of BrightHouse and Ladbrokes that lurk around the corner. But they don't exactly cater to everyone in the town. Passing through North Ormesby, where 58% of children are eligible for free school meals, one doesn't get the sense there's much of an appetite for Bedford Street's £17 Gressingham duck breasts and £8 G&Ts.

And you don't have to be an economist to realise these cool new shops won't on their own be enough to revive Middlesbrough's private sector. Not every laid-off steelworker can retrain as a barista or a mixologist, and one imagines many wouldn't want to either - low-wage hospitality work is no substitute for the technical and rewarding jobs many had in Redcar.

It's a familiar problem across the country as workers in formerly thriving industrial towns have found themselves on minimum wage, jammed into call centres or running around fulfilment centres picking and packing orders. Just look at the former mining town of Shirebrook, many of whose residents now toil in Sports Direct's 'Victorian Workhouse'.

But the idea is that the regeneration of Baker Street will help support a broader rehabilitation of the town centre and enhance Middlesbrough's appeal to the wider world, helping entice a greater number of advanced manufacturing, creative and technology-driven businesses to the area. Back in June, MT's owner Lord Heseltine set out his vision for the region's regeneration. While it suggested there was great potential in the Tees Valley, his report also said there were 'severe shortages of people with the right skills in certain sectors - particularly those which are new and innovative technologies'. Teesside University draws in a few thousand new students per year but when they graduate there haven't been many incentives for them to stick around.

'What we're trying to do is first of all attract students and secondly keep graduates here afterwards,' says the town's mayor, Dave Budd. 'People want more than a cheap place to do business, it's got to be more than that. It's got to be, "What do I do when I'm not at work, where do I live, where do my kids go to school, where do I shop, where do I go to enjoy myself?".

Boho has recently become home to several digital start-ups

Two such grads that did decide to stay put are Jonathan Waters and Shaun Buckle, who launched web design agency Eighty8. They're based in Boho Five, a co-working space for digital and creative companies in Middlehaven, historically Middlesbrough's literal 'wrong side of the tracks', that's also been experiencing its own regeneration of late.

After working together at a marketing company, the pair decided to go it alone. 'We did a bit of research and talked to people and found there seemed to be a lot of support (for new businesses),' says Buckle. 'And it seemed like at the time there were quite a lot of success stories of young people setting up businesses and making it so we just thought we could give it a go.' Many of their clients are local, including the council and MIMA (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art), but through a tie-up with web marketing firm Viral Effect they've landed a contract with national giant Costa Coffee.

Jonathan Waters and Shaun Buckle set up design firm Eighty8 after leaving university

They're both enthusiastic about the changes that have taken place around Baker and Bedford Streets, too. 'It's really cool, we've needed stuff like that for so many years,' says Waters. 'I think the town is being more open-minded to things like that as well, where it seemed a lot more closed-minded in the past,' adds Buckle.

It could certainly go a long way to help overcome the town's undeniable image problem. 'It's challenging to keep people - we've got a difficult job because of the perception of Middlesbrough and how they portray us,' says Lisa Holt, who owns and runs The Creative Alchemist, a marketing agency also based in Boho. 'Yes, we're industrial, we make amazing things and we should be proud of that but it doesn't define everything that we do.'

It's also hoped this new wave of businesses can develop a degree of interdependence. 'The flow of money in the local economy, it only happens through independent businesses, it doesn't happen through national corporations where the money just disappears into an offshore bank account,' says Beattie. 'All the major coffee shops, what do they care? They're just interested in shareholders and profit.'

The Mocha Choca Porter that's on sale in The Twisted Lip is brewed with Beattie's coffee, for instance, and The Creative Alchemist designed the logo for The Curing House charcuterie restaurant on Bedford Street. 'The people involved in some of the businesses in Baker Street are the same people that will go to one of the quirky art galleries that have appeared, they will have family and friends working for the digital businesses,' says Mayor Budd.

Middlesbrough seems to be moving forward, as its official slogan almost reads. Last year, the Enterprise Research Centre named it among the most entrepreneurial areas in the country, based on the proportion of businesses that made it to £3m in turnover within six years of launch.

The town's famous transport bridge seen through Anish Kapoor's Temenos sculpture

But the town has been here before. Beside the old harbour sits Community in a Cube, an eccentrically designed block of luxury apartments by the renowned architect Will Alsop. It looks lonely. That's because it was meant to be just the beginning of a massive construction project agreed in 2006 that would have meant 2,500 new homes and 20,000 square metres of commercial property. Middlesbrough College opened a big new campus nearby and a giant Anish Kapoor sculpture, Temenos, was unveiled on the dockside. But after the financial crisis hit, the developer walked away in 2011 to focus on London. Now that Britain has voted to leave the EU, there is a danger the rug could be pulled away again.

Middlesbrough backed Leave by almost two votes to one, and it's not that difficult to see why. In one of the most impoverished areas of the UK, warnings that Brexit would undermine Britain's 'shining recovery' rang hollow. The government's foolish decision to blame the demise of the steel industry on EU state aid rules will hardly have helped. But pinning the town's ills on Eurocrats is unlikely to prove wise and many of Middlesbrough's new entrepreneurs are worried about the impact leaving could have.

'I'm concerned at the moment because that uncertainty is there,' says Holt. 'This fantastic building (we are based in) was built with ERDF funding and so was Boho Five. I've also worked on projects that have been funded with European money that have made this town better and where is that money going to come from in the future?'

Not everyone is so concerned, though. 'I'm a conspiracy theorist and actually think it's smoke and daggers (sic) - I think the economy will be absolutely fine,' says Beattie. 'It's market makers and people manipulating the price of the pound to make it appear as if we've made the wrong decision.'

It's certainly not yet been enough to kill the relentless optimism that now seems to pervade the town. 'I've lived here my whole life and it's been depressing at times,' says Waters. 'But at the minute there's plenty of things popping up throughout the town centre, which gives the whole place a better feel. I am definitely confident.'


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