I'm writing this from my sick bed. Not literally from my sick bed - I'm sat at my desk - but I have caught one of those rotten spring colds that has made me sniffle and cough for what is now five days. It's no fun. And yet, I persist with writing the blog, because I love you, my readers, so much. Also this thing has dragged on for far too long, and I haven't even got to the really interesting bits yet.
When last seen, I was leaving Thornaby station on my way to check into my new hotel in Stockton-on-Tees. What followed was an hour of walking round industrial estates and cutting through a caravan park which I will gloss over, not least because I was absolutely dying for a pee the whole time so my recollections aren't so much what a scenic vistas! but was more is it possible for your kidneys to actually explode?
It wasn't until next morning that I was able to fully evaluate my surroundings as I headed back to Thornaby for a day's train travel. I'd checked into the Premier Inn, because I'm cheap, and in the weak morning sunlight I got a great view of the Tees Barrage.
Built in 1995, the barrage was constructed to control the waters of the Tees and, by the way, create a bridge and a white water course. It was mainly a tourist initiative, and though it's impressive, I can't help thinking there should be a better reason for blocking off an estuary than "we can go kayaking now". Still, the barrage did mean that large swathes of the river were able to be regenerated, so it's done a good job from that perspective.
It was still early on a Saturday morning, so the streets weren't exactly buzzing; an exercise group were limbering up beside the lock, and a couple of dog walkers wandered by. I crossed over to the south bank. This area used to be the Tees shipyards, and they've been replaced by a variety of new buildings, housing businesses, a campus for Durham University, and apartments.
It's also quite easily one of the dullest areas of the United Kingdom I have ever passed through. I've built towns in SimCity that had more humanity to them. Long empty boulevards were lined with four and five storey brick buildings that were quite astonishingly bland. Each road - named after Ivy League colleges - was now and then broken up by a roundabout to stop you from nodding off en route. Durham University has built a considerable campus here, with sports facilities and a medical school, and the architecture is on a par with a lesser Tesco Metro. It's soul-crushingly bad.
I crossed the railway line to Thornaby station, a remnant of the old Teesside behind a retail park. My plan for the day was to cut a swathe across the network round Middlesbrough and wipe out the last few stations I had to collect round here.
I collected the Whitby Line from Nunthorpe onwards a couple of years ago; I got Redcar British Steel (still probably my finest hour) and Redcar Central at the same time. My plan was to spend the day collecting the last eight stations along the lines, starting at Saltburn.
The process of travelling over railway lines so you can cross them off your list is known to trainspotters as line or track "bashing". I'm not a proper basher, because I'm more interested in the stations than the stuff the trains travel over, but I'd be covering the length of the Bishop Line from Thornaby to Saltburn that day, and the stretch to Darlington the next day. One could say that I spent the weekend bashing the bishop.
Oh, please yourselves.
A little over half an hour later my train pulled into Saltburn's terminal building. Or rather, it pulled in adjacent to Saltburn's terminal building. The platforms, and therefore the station itself, are no longer connected to the fine building constructed in 1862.
The station building has been turned into a shopping arcade, and a Sainsburys has been built over the rest of the site. A couple of coffee shops and a bric a brac store take up the space where there used to be waiting rooms and ticket offices. A miserable bit of A4 in the window of one shop said Anyone playing ball games outside will be reported to the police!
It's a shame, because from the front Saltburn station is magnificent. Small, but perfectly formed.
It provides a fine gateway to the town, and there are still some features that have been preserved; there's an NER tiled map on one wall, and the windows beneath those arches are grand and attractive. Unfortunately all the trains are off to one side.
I stopped to take my sign picture. As I snapped away, a builder suddenly appeared from the side of the station and shouted at me. "What are you doing? What are you taking a picture of?"
"Erm... the sign," I stammered, suddenly aware of how ridiculous that sounds.
"Oh," he said. "I thought you was taking a picture of my van." He pointed to a truck rammed up against the front of the station, all over some double yellows. "We're doing work. There's nowhere else to park." I smiled nervously and beat a retreat.
I wanted to walk round the town, rather than getting the next train out, so I headed down to the front. Saltburn-by-the-Sea was laid out by the developers of Middlesbrough as a refined resort. With the railway station at its centre, streets were laid out in a grid to enable the maximum amount of sea views. The Zetland Hotel - now a development of apartments - was built to luxurious standards, even having its own railway platform so that first class passengers could head to their rooms without fuss.
One problem for holidaymakers was the distance between the town and the beach. Saltburn is on top of a cliff, so the only way down would be via a long series of steps. The solution? A cliff-lift or, as it's also known, a funicular railway.
Like its bigger brother at Scarborough, the Saltburn cliff lift was powered by water, the displacement lowering one car and raising the other. I craned my neck to see the track but sadly, it wasn't running: I was too early in the season, and it was still closed for winter. Instead I had to scramble down a series of concrete steps to the beach.
It was gorgeous. The bay was sheltered by grand cliffs, curving round in both directions. In the centre was a promenade, with beach huts and a Victorian pier. I ordered a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea and sat outside, watching the waves break on the sand.
Saltburn has redefined itself in the 21st century in two ways. One, it's played up its Victorian heritage to an almost comical degree. The cars on the cliff lift were "heritaged-up", their aluminium bodies being painted and refurbished to make them look antiquated. There's an arcade at the end of the pier, but that's it, and a series of beach huts are tucked into the cliffside. Even the standee for having your photo taken doesn't let you look like a fat lady or a weedy man but instead turns you into the perfect Victorian family.
Not as much fun, let's be honest.
The second way Saltburn has remained relevant is by embracing modern water sports. I saw a couple of surf shops in town, and a man was setting up his windsurfing board on the beach. The winds whisking in from Norway must give you some great waves.
I finished my tea, chucking half of it over the table - is there a way of using those little tin teapots without spilling most of it? Am I just really thick? - and climbed back up the steps to the town. My legs were soon screaming for mercy, so I paused on a flat landing to take a picture of the vista. A woman coming down the steps grinned at me. "Best view in the world!"
I made another circuit of the town centre, past a church hall that was holding an already busy bring and buy sale, and down the central avenue to the station. It was a lovely little town. I could picture myself retiring here.
Marske station was a complete contrast. Climbing up the steps to the overbridge I had a farmyard with noisy chickens on one side of the tracks, and the red roofs of a suburban housing estate on the other. There wasn't a charming station building, just a load of purple metalwork.
As I left the station a black cat darted out of the bushes and away down the street. Is a black cat crossing your path lucky or unlucky? I can never remember.
Yes, that is a Doctor Who t-shirt. The emotion you are feeling right now is "envy".
I left the station close through a development of sheltered housing and turned onto the main road by the Zetland Hotel. There were bus stops and terraced homes with bay windows filled with children's toys. Enormous dolls houses and playsets and ovens in bright blue plastic blocked out the light. Beyond that were shops, takeaways, a lovely 1960s precinct.
I was following an extremely fit DILF with a pushchair. It wasn't deliberate - we just happened to be going the same way - but it pepped up my walk. It was interesting to note the difference between a man with a pushchair and a woman. The mums sauntered, chatting to each other, to their babies, while the dad used it as a battering ram. He marched down the street parting the pedestrians with his Maclaren, using it to claim territory. At a pedestrian crossing, he practically ran over the road.
Almost too quickly I was approaching Longbeck station, past an old fashioned industrial estate. While today there would be an identikit mass of metal sheds, this was more ramshackle, with concrete and brick buildings peppered randomly around. At the end of the road was the station, although according to the signal box, it should be called Long Beck.
The station was already busy. It'd reached that point on a Saturday morning where the teenagers had managed to drag themselves out of bed, and now the platform was thronged with youths off for a day hanging round the shops in Redcar or Middlesbrough. Three girls in lurid colours occupied the bench, rolling their eyes and giggling behind their hands at passers by like a gang of Plastics. I pulled my jacket tight over my Doctor Who t-shirt.
(I feel I should explain the hair. When I left the hotel that morning my hair was still damp from the shower; the wind whisking across the Tees whipped it up into a bouffant and it dried that way. I wasn't deliberately going for Simon le Bon circa Rio).
A quick whizz along the line and I reached the suburban idyll of Redcar East. From our position on top of the viaduct I could see rows of semi-detached homes arranged along straight avenues with trees and grass verges.
The elevated position also meant that my sign picture was a bit less up-the-nose this time.
Four roads met by the station: Laburnum Road, Chestnut Avenue, Hawthorn Road and Lilac Grove. I picked Lilac Grove at random, crossing by a red post box and entering a length of low bungalows. It was built for the retired, a nice home by the sea. At the end of the road I could spot the oil tankers on the horizon. It was also home to railway workers, as the plaque on a couple of bungalows showed:
They were marked as "NER Cottage Homes", houses built by the North Eastern Railway for the benefit of former employees. They're still managed as housing association properties today, though living there is open to all.
At the end was the Coast Road, running alongside a patch of dunes and sand known as The Stray. An excited schoolgirl was petting some horses feeding there, their riders answering her rapid fire questions with grace. A cafe-hut was doing a sterling trade in teas and coffees for the many walkers out getting their constitutionals.
I followed the road, and soon the dunes turned into rocky sand. Seaweed scarred the yellow, while in the distance, a huge field of wind turbines churned lazily.
Last time I'd come to Redcar I'd arrived from the opposite direction, past parks and terraces of boarding houses. This end of town was less refined. There were some arcades and cafes, and a horrible house with a blue plaque marking it was stood on the site of the old pier (demolished in 1981). There was a truly hideous new building called the Palace Hub, which seemed to be a kind of gallery-cum-community centre-cum-whatever you want. It was grossly oversized and, judging by a quick Google search, is grossly underused.
Also hideous is the Redcar Beacon, the "vertical pier" I saw on my last visit. This time I decided I'd actually go inside and have a drink in the cafe, so I could get a better idea of what it was for.
The Seasons cafe was deserted. There were two couples in there, perched on the high stools and facing away from the sea views. I soon found out why - £2.75 for a bottle of ginger beer?!?! I'd been paying less than that elsewhere in the north for actual beer. Those were silly prices, and I decided I would drink up as quickly as possible. The other patrons seemed to have the same idea, and soon I was the only person in there.
The chef came over to me at one point with a plate of pieces of Bakewell tart, offering me a free sample. I declined, because I'm not a big fan of almonds, and he turned to the woman behind the counter. "See?" he said. "Can't even give it away!"
I walked into the town centre, killing time until my train. There was a Masonic Lodge on the High Street, and a stand of UKIP supporters handing out leaflets. I decided that perhaps waiting on the platform wasn't such a bad idea.