An adventurer, storyteller and writer with an insatiable curiosity for the fresh, the bizarre, the brilliant. Exploring life in North East England and elsewhere.

Cat Arrives in Teesside — is it really “the worst place to live in the UK…”?

Cat Arrives in Teesside — is it really “the worst place to live in the UK…”?

“Location, Location, Location” — a TV show whose presenters apparently once claimed that Middlesbrough — my dear neighbour a.k.a. Smogland — was Britain’s worst city to live in. A much debated, outdated statement?

Well, here’s a snippet or two of how a lone cat, blown by an African heat wave across the Atlantic, almost straight into the River Tees, has experienced it so far. Snippets that might enlighten those still smothering in the heat of Southern Africa or might provide some amusement to better-knowing locals.

1. Being a Vegetarian Never Felt this Good

The first time you know something is different about a place is usually when you enter the thrilling world of supermarkets. Coming from a country where braaiing (the slow obliteration of a piece of raw animal flesh on a grill over hot coals or wood) was a quasi-religious activity (that excluded women — very surprising), the first thing I noticed walking around a capsule M&S at the airport terminal was the vegetarian-friendly food. My hand inevitably reached for the roasted falafel and spinach wrap while my eyes devoured the salad selection.

The best was yet to come as the very next day, after stumbling into the Tees Valley, I visited The Waiting Room in Eaglescliff. A tiny restaurant with bohemian flair where waiters led customers either to the airy front room or the darker back room (also known as the “conservatory” — where the music happened), and menus spilled all sorts of organic dairy products, own-label beers, craft gin and slow-cooked vegetables onto your lap.

Puzzling over the word suet on the menu, it occurred to Cat that she’s just arrived in Vegetarian Paradise.

[For more on the South African ritual of braaiing check out this insightful clip South African Braai Etiquette on YouTube or watch the riveting reality show The Ultimate Braai Master.]

2. Death by Christmas Carol

(This has nothing to do with Christmas carols except by the end of my first Christmas in the UK, I thought I would die if I heard another Christmas song, and it didn’t even help changing the radio station as they all seemed to be using the same playlist.)

The Christmas jumper — yes, Cat was introduced to the English tradition of the Christmas jumper. She always thought it was an invention of Helen Fielding. Like Cat, you might have imagined that Darcy’s ridiculous Christmas jumper in Bridget Jones’s Diary was a clever joke, think again …

Cat has found her new fetish and can’t wait for next December!

3. What Shoes Not to Wear in English Woods

The Wynyard Woodland Park is no doubt a charming spot for taking a stroll in the woods or doing something more vigorous like running or cycling. Traces of its history as a railway line carrying freight to ports along the River Tees are visible everywhere: the derelict train next to a picnic spot, the station house, now transformed into a visitor centre and tea room, the actual railway forming a route interlinked with various footpaths. It is indeed the stuff that fairytales are made of … or ghost stories.

We all know about Little Red Riding Hood’s preference for her red velvet hood but do we ever read about the shoes she likes to wear as she treads through the woods with her basket of goodies? Don’t suppose she liked All Stars?

Quest 1: Find Wellingtons

Quest 1: Find Wellingtons

Squelch, squelch, splosh. It was the wettest December England has known in years. The white December Cat longed for was smeared with mud …

4. ARC Theatre - The Telling and Untelling of Stories ...

Cat walked into the ARC to watch a play. She filed with the rest of the small audience into the auditorium and stood uncertainly aside as she watched them line up at the tea station. She looked at the large round table dominating the stage, scattered with objects — a treasure pot of tiny books as she would later discover — and a miniature model of the Leeds Library. Everyone served themselves tea or coffee. Casually, awkwardly. A man and a woman dressed alike in black suits smiled invitingly and guided each member of the audience, cup in hand, to a seat around the table.

The man in black proved to be a gracious host and supplied Cat with a Reader’s Ticket — her ticket into the library where stories are apparently (not) set in stone. He pointed to the coaster and biscuit across from her seat. It proved to be a play unlike like any other where the audience became the cast and the actors became the audience …

The mesmerizing voices of the actors transported everyone to the world of stories encapsulated in the whiff of coffee and the feeling of being surrounded by books, the illusion only broken by the ding of a desk bell.

Theatre suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

[Keep an eye out for my full article on (The Story is Not) Set In Stone, a production by Matthew Bellwood and Alison Andrews in association with LittleMighty, performed 28 January 2016 at the Stockton Arts Centre.]

5. ... discovering my Soulmate Pub

Leaving the smell of coffee and books and the echo of tragic ballads behind in the ARC theatre, I stumbled upon a pub. When we arrive in the land of pubs — great pubs, crowded pubs, scruffy pubs, quaint pubs, shady pubs, quiet pubs, hipster pubs — we do not expect to find that very special pub, our soulmate pub (because everyone’s got one), without even having to look far:

The Teesside Valley might not strike everyone as the Promised Land. Yet, it is most definitely not the worst place to live in either.

[Middlesbrough rated No. 10 in a recent poll on the worst places to live in England (dropping from its No. 2 spot since last year) — can it be that the tables are turning?]

Dissolving the Boundaries of Theatre — Cat's First Play at the ARC

Dissolving the Boundaries of Theatre — Cat's First Play at the ARC