Friday, 26 August 2016

Lovely things to do #3: nature amongst the industrial desolation at Seal Sands

There's a bank holiday coming up! The weather forecast is (mostly) looking decent! You need to get out there and do something, but what? What the heck will you do?! Well fear thee not, for right here at Patchy Growth we have, as they say, got your back. Yes, that's right, brace yourself: it's time for a Lovely thing to do!

You might think that a flat slice of estuary bang slap in the middle of the grimly industrial hinterland that joins Middlesbrough and Hartlepool doesn't sound like the most likely spot to gawp at a bit of nature and, well, you'd be right. However, based on my own actual experience, I'm here to tell you otherwise. We've been off work for a bit you see and have thus had the chance to do some of the stuff that you never get round to, which has been great. This included, just a couple of days ago, a visit to Seal Sands.

I have no particular wish to offend any Middlesbrough folk here, but I do think it's hard to overstate just how shockingly dystopian the landscape is round here. And yet there's something about that which I find perversely appealing. It's as if, while the rest of the world has found a way to mostly obscure the worse ravages of industrialism, Middlesbrough just hasn't bothered, which is an admirably honest tack to take. Factories, chemical works and god knows what petro-chemical else cling sullenly to the marshy landscape, lazily belching out emissions, joined by vein-like pipes that stretch out into a distance obscured by heat haze. I find the whole area a thought-provoking totem of our impact on this planet. And yet, here among the Blade Runner-grade grimness, nature is happy to make a home.

This is testament to the fact that, despite initial appearances, the whole area is vastly less polluted than it was throughout the majority of the last century. The population of approximately 100 Harbour and Grey seals that call this home is still well down on pre-industrial levels, but happily well up from the more or less zero that was their nadir. We visited at a fairly high tide and took the ten minute walk from the carpark (TS2 1FB in your satnav, then look for the car park just south of the bridge over Greatham creek) to the handily placed hide.

Having gotten (quite pricey) boats out to the Farne Islands to see them in the past, it felt all the more odd to be able to observe them so close up in this environment, for nowt. My camera doesn't have a zoom lens to speak of so you can't really tell from these pics, but you're close enough get a great look as they scoot around in the shallows, slither over the mud or just sunbathe. A decent set of binoculars and you've got a superb view of them, including those characterful faces that make them so entertaining to observe. These were, I think, nearly all the smaller harbour seal rather than the larger grey.

And yet it isn't just seals that bring naturalists here. The fact that the land land between the various facilities is left, ironically, to its own devices, means that various species of flora and fauna do well here. As we walked to a sea facing hide, we noticed that the abandoned road we were on, between where the weeds had begun to reclaim it, was festooned with fragments of seashell. I'm guessing seabirds must use its surface to crack them open, the clever buggers.

We saw redshanks, lapwings and various other waders and seabirds whose names I would have probably known when I was about 11, had memory for such things and was member of the YOC. There was also a really interesting range of plant life and a whole host of vibrantly coloured and unfamiliar butterflies, none of whom would sit still long enough for me to get a picture, so you'll just have to imagine them.

A Cormorant stands guard over Hartlepool Power Station

We walked as far as it seemed that we could, out to a hide that looked over the Seaton on Tees channel. Every now and then a hooter would blast or an announcement could be heard from one of the distant facilities, puncturing the otherwise still afternoon. I felt like I had unlocked a hidden "nature-watching" level in Half Life 2. Weird, but great.

If you're really into birds, RSPB Saltholme is just minutes away to the south. We plan on returning there when it isn't the school holidays and when it isn't the middle of the afternoon- the place was rammed. Unlike Seal Sands, most of which we had to ourselves, which only served to accentuate the post-apocalyptic feel of it all. If you want to know what nature spotting would feel like in a grim future in which humanity has all been wiped out, this will get you close to it. Highly recommended.

Lovely thing to do rating: I'm going for 9/10. Would've probably been a ten if we'd seen any cool birds of prey. Coming here really made me want to get a camera with a cool zoom on it too. Pro-tip: bring a bit of a picnic, and a morning or afternoon's entertainment is yours for absolutely free. No charge even for the car park.


  1. I have been absent for a while so was trying to catch up and what a lovely post for me to encounter. Where exactly is in no sat nav points as I don't have one.. Seems like a wonderful place to visit....can you walk dogs there too?? Thanks for sharing your day out...I really enjoyed it.

  2. It's Seal Sands, just north of Middles brough.


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