Having grown up in the shadow of the landmark Dorman Long tower on Teesside, PETER BARRON takes a view from South Bank on the 'heritage versus eyesore' political storm that gathered over its demolition...

TO be honest, we never took that much notice. It was just always there, standing tall above the dust clouds at the steelworks where our dads and grandads worked – part of the backdrop to the mountainous slagheaps that were our playground.

And, since it was brought crashing down like an assassination in the dead of night, I’ve been feeling guilty that I haven’t been as angry as others who have been so publicly outraged by its destruction.

I get angry about lots of things: children going without school meals; racists on football terraces; cowardly bigots hiding behind pseudonyms on social media; Dominic Cummings, backed up by our Government, taking us all for idiots with that complete cobblers over his trip to Barnard Castle at the height of the pandemic.

But I couldn't get angry about the demise of the Dorman Long tower and, as a son of South Bank, that didn't feel right – like wondering why the grief hasn’t hit harder when a loved one dies and everyone else is sobbing.

The debate had increasingly become shrouded in politics. Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen insisted the tower had to go to make way for cleaner, greener jobs.

“Our heritage does not lie in a rotting coal bunker, our heritage lies in the people that built this great region,” he declared, swiftly rejecting the tower as a blot on the landscape.

Meanwhile, his opponents on the other side of the political tracks were railing against his “industrial vandalism”, accusing him of an indecent haste, failure to properly consult, and lack of artistic vision for what might have been.

One minute the tower had been given emergency Grade II listed status by Historic England, the next it had been condemned by Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, just hours into her job.

Local MP, Jacob Young, having initially campaigned to save the tower, shifted his position, coming to the conclusion that it was no longer structurally sustainable after all.

Amid the gnashing of political teeth, I confess I found myself torn. On one hand, why spend lots of public money preserving something redundant, unattractive, and potentially in the way of new developers? On the other, the tower was a symbol of our proud industrial past – the reason for the community’s very existence.

The politicians had had their say – but what about the people of South Bank? Where did they stand on the heritage versus eyesore debate? I went to find out.

Sisters Christine Henderson and Barbara Emmerson, waiting at the bus stop after doing their shopping at ASDA, had plenty to say on the matter.

They recalled how their grandad, Fred Kneeshaw, had been given a “job for life” at Dorman Long when the bosses had closed the Eston ironstone mine, where he’d earned a living by looking after the ponies.

“It was our landmark – they’ve taken everything away,” says Christine without hesitation. “It’s part of our heritage and they should at least have kept the lettering. I know new jobs are coming but it’s a big site – surely they could have found room for the tower. They say it’s ugly, but I never thought it was.”

Barbara agrees: “Hopefully, the new jobs will breathe new life into the place, but it still seems a shame to lose the history. When we talk to our own grandkids about what our grandad did, there’s nothing to show them, is there?” she says.

“It didn’t half stink at times but so does that KFC over there, and no-one’s knocked that down, have they?” she adds, glancing over her shoulder at the fast-food outlet on the other side of the car park.

Daniel Thompson’s walking past during a break from work, and he also thinks it’s a shame that the tower’s gone: “It’s probably wrong because, in ten years’ time, it’ll be a tech park and all that heritage will be lost. It’s good that new jobs are coming but it’s a massive site, so surely it could have been accommodated.”

However, Mark Dunn, who’s lived in South Bank for 33 years, has a very different view: “Ah, good riddance to it,” he says, with a dismissive wave of his hand in the direction of where the tower once stood.

“We have to accept that Dorman Long’s finished, and you can’t live in the past,” he says with all the bluntness of a man who’d have happily volunteered to press the detonator for Ben Houchen. “It’s no good to anyone, so what’s the point? You have to look to the future – it’s time to move on.”

Across at South Bank station, where as kids we used to set off for days out at the seaside at Redcar, there’s only one person on the platform, and he’s not there to board a train.

Barry Gill is a courier driver, delivering a range of goods from Newcastle, and is using his break to indulge in his lifelong passion for photographing the country's railways.

“The tower was part of Teesside and, sometimes, things need to be left. It’s a shame to see it go because it’s been there so long,” he says.

Barry cites The Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art – created out of an old flour mill up in his own neck of the woods – as an example of how industrial heritage can be put to good use with a bit of imagination.

“We’re proud of the way that’s been retained and maybe the Dorman Long Tower could have been incorporated into the new development that’s coming here,” he suggests.

His train of thought is broken by the growl and hiss of an approaching freight engine, delivering steel slabs from Scunthorpe. They may no longer be making steel at South Bank these days, but it’s still coming in from elsewhere.

“I hope they get the investment they're talking about, but maybe they could have given the tower a bit more thought,” adds Barry before returning to his lorry to continue his deliveries.

As the dust settles, there’s clearly no consensus. Even within the local community of South Bank, they’re on different sides of the tracks.

We've said ‘so Long’ to the Dorman Long tower, but I’m left with a definite sense that it was rushed through, with a lack of sensitivity.

Hopefully, the politicians will reflect and give renewed consideration to how local people want their steelmaking heritage to be remembered.

Yes, of course, we desperately need the cleaner, greener jobs that we're promised will bring future prosperity – but we must be bold in showing how proud we are of our towering past.

ON a lighter note, a little extract from the excellent newsletter from All Saints in Hurworth-on-Tees, under the 'Church notices that didn't come out right' section.

"The men's group will meet at 6pm. Steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, wine and dessert will be served for a nominal feel."