TRAVEL / A Writer's Britain: Iron in the soul of the North: Not even a century and a half of industrial frenzy could spoil Cleveland for Jane Gardam. With its dramatic sea and long blue hills it is her ideal of beauty

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YOU CAN get thoroughly sick - if you're truthful - of Keats's beakers full of the warm south, and so might he have done today among the crowds of his quaffing compatriots all reading the Guardian in Gubbio. You can get sick of the novel of fornication and sunshine among the vines and the television films about noble peasantry with bunches of herbs in all their rafters, just like home. You can get sick of English station bookstalls covered with paperbacks showing a fondant-coloured Midi. Nancy Mitford, who was no English provincial and even chose to live in France, thought nothing of these drowsy places. 'There are countries where you sweat,' she said, 'and countries where you think. I like thinking.'

I like Teesside.

Yes. And don't think I haven't been about much; oh, dear me, no. I have danced beneath the Southern Cross. I have suffered sinusitis on the Dneng plateau of central Java where the people have broad faces like Eskimos and sinusitis too, and the lakes are boiling hot and surrounded with rolling thickets of deep blue hydrangeas. I have beheld the rare Himalayan langur reclining against a rickety bridge over a torrent in Bhutan, combing its long grey hair.

But I like Teesside. Cleveland, England. No tourists, no sweating, no sinusitis. Icy cold and windy I like it, and often under silver curtains of rain. There I wake up and feel alive. My mother's family, who also had very broad faces like Eskimos, have lived there for hundreds of years and all of them until they are 90. I like the kindness and the welcome and the jokes and the wit and the vigour and the fierceness and the loyalty when once given and the regard for truth and the comic reportage in a place so geographically and historically unlucky that you would be ashamed to give way to any internal wars of your own.

It is so beautiful there. Cleveland, Teesside - famed for its desolation, pollution, unemployment, crime, child abuse - is so beautiful. Not necessarily the cancerous estuary sprawl, though Middlesbrough is fine. It has great railway architecture and proud industrial buildings rather like ancient Rome, and two amazing steel bridges.

Not necessarily Grangetown either. I'd not go there for a honeymoon. It is said to be the unhealthiest place in England with the housing entangled in the entrails of the foul old Works. Nor would I go to mournful South Bank, nor grim little Warrenby for all its wonderful seabirds and salt-marsh flowers and rare plants like the bloody cranesbill, which usually grows in limestone country but here flowers bright crimson by the sea, its seeds brought down in the limestone flux used in the blast furnaces and dumped in giant rolls along the dunes.

But the land around is beautiful. After 150 years of rape and frenzy, neither iron nor steel nor this century's chemical invasions have been able to get at the compelling landscape and the dramatic sea or the ragged inland plain or the rippling long line of the blue Cleveland Hills.

Cleveland means the land of cliffs and they are the highest in England: great red-brown warriors standing out one behind the other as far as you can see, with silvery grass to their brink. A toytown railway, the alum line, wanders along the top, sometimes looping inland towards the purple North York moors.

On the edge of the south cliff at Whitby stood St Hilda's abbey, so holy that no bird would fly over it. St Hilda was a 7th-century Teesside girl much abused as a child. She was running for her life for years until the family was finally broken up when her father was poisoned by a relation. She found refuge in Hartlepool Abbey as a nun and then abbess, and the quays where her ships tied up are still to be seen embedded in the harbour wall. Later, as the magnificent Abbess of Whitby, where she ran an establishment for both monks and nuns, she steered the early English church in the direction of Rome. She discovered and supported Caedmon, the first English poet, who was one of her farm labourers. He wrote a great song of the Creation. And she died after years of fever at what was then a great age, praying for peace within her church. Alas.

The hard sands between Whitby and the Tees are the finest in England. Seven silken white miles of them curve between Saltburn and the estuary, flashing with shallow pools and sparkling with long feathers of sea coal. The sea is cold, with long crocodile rocks and often a wreck. It can shine translucent aquamarine and I've seen it twice rose pink all round the bay. Sometimes I've seen the Northern Lights and if you stamp your feet on the sands in the dark red sparks fly out.

The sands are huge. They are the sands of the Walrus and the Carpenter. Lewis Carroll stayed at Croft, just south of Darlington, and wrote the poem after a day at Marske, north of Saltburn. Here and there a stream meanders over the sands from a cleft in the dunes. At Skinningrove, a sinister place full of folklore and magic where they once caught a merman and kept him in a cave eating fish until he escaped 'back to his own element', the stream thunders through the village. It runs bright red like blood from where it rises up on the high moors. You can pick up the ghorr - rubbery soft red ironstone - in your fingers among the wind-blown sheep. And along the coast at the foot of Hunt Cliff you can pick up fossils and strange coloured rocks and pyrites.

Hunt Cliff, the noblest bulge of all along the Iron Coast, was once famous for its seals and a kind hobgoblin who cured babies of the whooping cough. The seals, incidentally, became a nuisance when they began to fancy the Saltburn women. Saltburn men used to hunt them, dressed in women's clothes.

Saltburn is a sweet Victorian town. There is a little cable-car with buttoned leather walls in which you glide between the higher and lower promenades. The lower town is ancient and scant. There is a smuggling inn, a Bronze Age burial mound, a nice seedy funfair and a wonderful 'unimproved' iron pier which used to have a theatre on the end of it, until it blew away. The upper town is 19th century and designed by the Quaker philanthropist Sir Arthur Pease, who wanted to create the city described in the Book of Revelation and called the streets Diamond Street, Ruby Street, Pearl Street, Amber Street.

There should have been a Jet Street. The coast is not solid iron ore. There is a 25ft seam of jet, the only one of its kind, embedded in the rock near Whitby cliffs like a layer of hard black treacle. The Romans stationed on Whitby cliffs (where Hilda was to build her abbey) used to send bits of it home and around the empire as presents, like seaside peppermint rock. (Maybe it was the origin of peppermint rock?) Medieval Yorkshire used it in church ornaments and it turns up now and then in crucifixes far from home. A necklace of more than 150 pieces of jet has been found in a moorland barrow, lying scattered in dust.

The region is full of heroes. Captain Cook was born a very poor boy at Ayton where the squire sent him to the village school (you can view his hat peg) and then to Staithes to learn to be a draper. At Staithes he saw boats and then it was the sea forever. Cook learnt his seamanship off Whitby and its lee shore, having mastered which, it is said, you need fear no other sea. Staithes is a scrambling cliff village where the Victorian artist Frank Meadow Sutcliffe photographed his wild shrimp girls kilted up in the waves, and old salts mending nets. It's an odd place. Staithes folk are very talkative and all have black eyes - or so we were always told. The Staithes fisherwoman's bonnet with a long flap down the back and a high ruched top is supposed to be derived from the Spanish mantilla. An Armada ship, they say, came crashing up the creek.

William the Conqueror nearly lost his life on Coatham marshes, in a sea mist. He was fighting the last, fiercest and most nearly successful pocket of resistance in Britain. Until the other day Coathamians spoke of 'swearing like Billy Norman'. I always thought it must be some lewd old comedian and I rather think they did, too. William ethnically cleansed Cleveland in terrible revenge and it lay waste for 100 years. He repented on his death bed - but too late for Cleveland. He had cut it off from its genetic past and maybe it never recovered.

Robert the Bruce's family settled in Cleveland, from Normandy. Scotland came later. They built the great castle of Skelton, inland from the sea above Redcar. Magna Carta was drafted here. The castle - rebuilt several times over the centuries - stands hidden from the village across a great lake of lawns. Various great and sometimes peculiar families have lived in it. A delightful and peace-loving descendant now takes tea on the terrace above a grassy moat so huge it wouldn't disgrace the Tower of London.

Inland is the remains of Guisborough Priory, once 'glorious as York Minster', and the little village of Kirkleatham, which is Cleveland's jewel. It has some of the finest architecture in the country (quite the best almshouse architecture) and it sits like a tiny Venice in the shadow of the cooling towers of the chemical city of ICI. Its 17th-century 'hospital' still looks after 10 old women and 10 old men. The 'ten poor boys and ten poor girls', with their blue coats with brass buttons, blue dresses with yellow petticoats and grass-green aprons, left for the last time in 1940. There are two rows of charming little houses, a marvellous courtyard, a richly decorated chapel full of treasures and beautiful wrought-iron gates and screens, all designed by James Gibbs, some say at least influenced by Wren. A lovely, gentle statue of Justice stands in the quiet courtyard, holding golden scales. The parish church has a famous family mausoleum where double life-size marble statues stand dreaming in a circle and marble angels weep. This is for the Turner family, dark people from Herefordshire who inherited the scrappy and undistinguished little village in Tudor times and beautified and cared for it and its inhabitants devotedly until this century.

I can't recommend many hostelries or gtes or quaffing houses in Cleveland because I always stay with my relations or in my stone tent above Richmond. Food is not a speciality and since the monks left the abbeys and priories and took the secrets of their stills with them, drink has been robust rather than discriminating. Once there were magnificent hotels looking out to sea, but in the depression of the Twenties and Thirties they almost faded away, even the Zetland at Saltburn which had its own station platform, still visited though in ruins by railway enthusiasts. In the Fifties there were still a couple of chambermaids with mob caps left in the lovely Alexandra Hotel next door and breakfast was brought to your room on a massive trolley covered with silver dishes. All are apartments now. I think.

Inland at Richmond there is a small exclusive, almost secret hotel where the food is as delicious and beautiful to look at as I've seen anywhere in the world. It is very much booked up and no one who likes sitting in a vest need apply for they would not enjoy it. Up Swaledale is a guest house where you can be in utter peace and eat a lighter and more orangey Queen of Puddings than you'll ever see in the south, and certainly than in Gubbio. There is a delicious place to rent at Fyling Hall, an 18th-century pigsty built like a Greek Temple. For years after the pigs left it was used for hanging game and onions from the estate and they looked like votive offerings on a Greek hillside. Now it as been converted into holiday accommodation. Again, I think this one is much sought-after.

Turning back from Richmond towards the coast are the Vale of Mowbray and the Vale of York, rich farmland, big red farmhouses, huge fields, fat hedges, herds of golden Simmenthal cows. The haunting ruins of Mount Grace Priory lie beneath hanging woods that guard a holy well, and dotted around are the last of the 18th-century halls and manor houses. Watercolour places, rather battered but still going strong, as are their owners, who have the old Yorkshire manners and accents never seen or heard on television.

There is an excellent restaurant at Moulton, just outside Darlington, but it's a bit swanky and full of town suits and people off the London train. Moulton is more interesting for having two great country houses standing side by

side in the lane like gigantic twins. Each has an almost identical great staircase, turning and turning, thickly carved with an Eden of fruits and flowers a foot deep. What can it all have been about? A 17th-century family feud? Then there is Ormesby Hall with its 19th-century plasterwork ceilings of waving acanthus boughs and an oval panel of a plaster goddess of bounty floating over Teesside and blessing the hills and crops and industrial wealth laid out below her. Behind the hall is the church and vicarage where in 1617 a nice parson with plenty of time wrote some little books about cooking and gardening and family medicine and, for the young girls of his parish, the earliest instructions yet found written in English for women only. The good Rev Lawson invited his girls to walk with him in the vicarage garden and learn about herbs and beekeeping and fruit trees, take note of his 'Feberries, Raspberries, Barberries, Currans', and gaze at the roots of his trees 'powdered with Strawberries Red, Green and White'. He advised for their general fitness 'a bowling Alley or . . . which is more manly and more healthful a pair of Buts to stretch your Arms'. 'And there shall run a pleasant river with silver streams where you might angle a peckled Trout,' he says. 'A Vine overshadowing a seat,' he says, 'is very comely' but 'Grapes with us ripen but slowly'.

The garden now is covered in Tarmac but the silver stream where he grew his watercress and kingcups and caught his peckled trout still encircles the old house. Down the road we are back in Middlesbrough again and behind it the chemical chimneys rise up with little flames floating from their tops like lurid flower petals, and some of them like slippery, flopping golden hair. They send their poison across the land and sometimes out over the sea to furious Scandinavia, which they coat with bitter red dust. Whatever would the lyrical priest have made of them? Quite a lot, probably. He was rather keen on science. He would have found much to deplore and would have shouted loud about it. It is still too sharp for vines to ripen but he would be delighted to know that there are streams still running clear.

'The Iron Coast: Photographs of Yorkshire', by Jane Gardam, photos by Peter Burton and Harland Walshaw, is published in June (Sinclair Stevenson pounds 25).


WALKS AND PLACES TO VISIT: The Langbaurgh Loop is a 38-mile circular walk taking in Saltburn, Upton, Guisborough Wood, Roseberry Topping, Eston Nab and Beacon Moor. It follows sandy coastal paths over the cliff tops into rugged moorland thick with heather, dense pine forests and ancient woods rich in historical interest, from Bronze and Iron Age burial mounds, sites of Roman lookout posts, Viking villages and Norman strongholds.

Guisborough Priory - a 12th-century ruin with a beautiful garden and octagonal dovecot. Location: Guisborough; the entrance is off Church Street.

The tiny 12th-century church at Upleatham is 17ft 9in by 13ft. Location: on the B1268 Saltburn to Guisborough road.

Hartlepool's Historic Ship Centre, at the corner of Jackson's Dock (1852), has a wealth of restored ships, including HMS Trincomalee, which was built in Bombay in 1817 and was active in the Pacific during the Crimean War.

Saltburn was a stronghold for smugglers in the 18th century before becoming a popular resort in the late 19th century. A water-balanced cliff railway, opened in 1884, which links the pier with the town, has preserved Saltburn's distinctly Victorian atmosphere.

Boulby Cliffs, at nearly 700ft, are the highest on the east coast. Further down is the tiny fishing village of Staithes, where Captain Cook went to work at the age of 17.

The Stockton & Darlington Railway was the first commercial public railway in the world and Cleveland is full of railway memorabilia. The Castle Eden Walkway follows the line of the former Stockton-Castle Eden railway for most of its 3.5 miles from Thorpe Thewles, just north of Stockton on the A177, to Wynyard. Now a nature reserve, it is home to a wide variety of wild flowers and wildlife. The old station building at Thorpe Thewles house is an information centre with interesting railway relics.

HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS: *McCoy's, The Cleveland Tontine, nr Northallerton, North Yorks, tel: 0609 882 671. Hotel: eccentric, decadent and on Egon Ronay's 'One of a kind' list. Double room pounds 100. Restaurant and bistro: excellent food ranging from the exotic to steak and chips.

*Grinkle Park, Easington, Loftus, nr Saltburn, Cleveland, tel: 0287 640 515. Elegant hotel set in beautiful parkland. Double pounds 80.

*Chapters, 27 High Street, Stokesley, North Yorks, tel: 0642 711888. Newly refurbished hotel. Double pounds 59. Restaurant and bistro with delicious seafood.

PUBS AND INNS: *Black Bull, Moulton, nr Richmond, North Yorks, tel: 0325 377 289. The Black Bull has a reputation for superb bar food and a restaurant in the evening.

*Milburn Arms, Rosedale Abbey, nr Pickering, North Yorks, tel: 07515 312. Fantastic views and extremely comfortable bedrooms. Double pounds 70.

*Listed in Egon Ronay Guides.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Northumbria Tourist Board, Aykley Heads, Durham DHl 5UX, tel: 091 384 6905. Isobel Hunt

(Photographs and map omitted)