Hartlepool. The butt of a hundred club comedians’ jokes. Marooned without hope at the bottom of the Football League. And don’t even mention that old tale about the hangman’s rope and the monkey…
So far, so clichéd, then. But don’t start laughing at the back when I say I’ve just enjoyed one of the most interesting days out for a long time in the old North Sea port.
Hartlepool’s fortunes were founded on the sea and now it has turned to that maritime heritage to seek its share of the tourism pound.
The town’s visitor offering is built – quite literally – around HMS Trincomalee, Britain’s oldest warship still afloat (rather than propped up in a dry dock as with HMS Victory or Cutty Sark).
Launched in India, in 1817, the sail-driven frigate returned to Hartlepool – her home port from 1862 to 1877 – 170 years later for a major restoration job which, nevertheless, has left 60 per cent of its original fabric intact.
Around the dock has been built an authentically atmospheric facsimile of an 18th century port with its chandlery, sword-maker’s workshop, tavern and captain’s residence, the whole venue being marketed as Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience.
It’s possible to access the dockside and Trincomalee directly – but to get the most out of those two aspects of the experience it’s well worth passing through a highly-realistic audio-visual reproduction of life ‘below deck’.
Both there and on the ship itself are fascinating facts to be learned at every turn. For example, despite all that wonderful old rigging, there’s actually only a couple of feet of rope on the ship – the length which rings the ship’s bell.
Everything else, you see, is cable, the nautical term for any rope once given a specific role – from suspending a hammock to holding up one of Trincomalee’s three masts.
Although it’s not usually on offer to visitors, I had the privilege of scaling the main mast rigging to a wind-buffeted perch on one of the ‘tops’ – a platform designed to brace the rigging away from the mast and to serve as an observation and gun-firing post.
It was worth the cold for the view: the town, the old and new docks, shipping out to sea and, beyond the impressive array of industry along the banks of the River Tees, the cliffs of the Yorkshire coast right down to Whitby.
Normal body temperature was restored courtesy of lunch in the captain’s cabin – beef a la mode (stew) and jam roly-poly to contemporary recipes – then it was across to ‘old’ Hartlepool and another museum with a military theme, the Heugh Battery.
This is a 19th/early 20th century fortified gun emplacement and lookout post, close by the streets where 110 civilians were killed by a German naval bombardment in December 1914.
Now it holds an impressive collection of arms, from 18th century muskets via Second World War anti-aircraft guns to a 1970s Chieftain tank, all within earshot of the waves.
If you fancy making a weekend of it then at least two representatives of the usual budget hotel chains could be spotted from up the rigging.
However, we were lucky enough to stay somewhere rather more elegant, at Wynyard Hall, former home of coal barons the Marquesses of Londonderry and now a four-star hotel.
Having enjoyed a fine dinner, we retired to the library where wine, whisky and a crackling log fire brought on the warmest of winter glows.
There’s much to enjoy in Hartlepool, then – and I’m not joking, either!