HARDY people dusted off their Christmas cobwebs yesterday to brave the North Sea in the name of charity.

Hundreds of bathers plunged into the icy waters along the North-East coast, but were told by coastguards not to venture out too far because of rough sea conditions.

Giles Bolitho, of Middlesbrough Teesside Lions Club, which organised a charity dip at Redcar, east Cleveland, said it was the first warning the club had received in 30 years.

"It didn't seem to affect the event though, it went really well," he said. "I have never seen such a big crowd for a long, long time.

"I would have said that the crowd was probably between four and five thousand people. Although it was cold, the sun was shining and that probably got a lot of people there."

The Mayor of Redcar, Councillor Vilma Collins, and Mayor of Middlesbrough, Councillor Patricia Walker, cheered on the dippers - many of whom wore fancy dress - from the relative comfort of the Esplanade.

Dippers give two-thirds of the cash they have raised to their chosen charity and the rest to the Lions Club Charity Account.

It is thought this year's event will have raised between £5,000 and £6,000.

Further up the coast, charity dips also took place at Seaton Carew, near Hartlepool, and at beaches in Sunderland.

The traditional Boxing Day Dip at Seaburn, organised by Sunderland Lions Club, has been running for 27 years and is believed to be the biggest sponsored sea dip of its kind in Europe.

More than 700 fundraisers in fancy dress raced across the beach to plunge into the North Sea.

Provisional figures showed that £39,000 has been pledged in sponsorship. It will be shared out between scores of local charities.

Dippers take the plunge for good causes of their own choice. Last year, 59 organisations received money from the event.

Paul Jones, of Sunderland Lions Club, said: "We believe our dip is the largest in Europe and that has not been challenged.

"It just gets better every year and some of the fancy dress outfits are tremendous.

"People must spend hours getting ready for this and we can't thank them enough.

"My car thermometer gave the temperature as minus three, so for people to plunge into the North Sea in such conditions is amazing."

The figure of 706 dippers, while not a record, is up on last year's event and the £39,000 in pledges is a record for the dip.

A smaller event on the County Durham coastline attracted a large crowd to watch 27 hardy souls take to the water at Seaham Harbour.

The 15th annual Boxing Day plunge, organised by Seaham Sub Aqua Club, brought out the extrovert in participants, with a range of costumed dippers.

Gary Hepple, of the club, said it was an excellent community event, despite his "disappointment" that Seaham Town Council was not involved this year due to an on-going disagreement with Northumbrian Water.

Following the dip, the competitors, who raised several thousand pounds for local charities, were "refuelled" with hot broth and other refreshments at the nearby Duke of Wellington pub.