It was the middle of August 1996 and i was about to start a long adventure, one that would take me around the country and back again, but in August 1996, there was only one journey i was about to make. I left home about the 11am train from Market Harborough, via Sheffield (a regular stop), Darlington (cold) and Thornaby (cold and bleak) to arrive in Hartlepool at about 7pm that evening.
Hartlepool was the destination chosen for me, decided by an organisation called The Oasis Trust, for my gap year, to work in a church with 3 other 18-20 yr olds. I must admit, as a midlander, I wanted to be sent to London, city of bright lights and all that, but no, Hartlepool it was, in fact when i got the letter in May, telling me the destination i had to find a map. Fast forward a few months and I remember so clearly that train ride in August. I had grown up with midland main line intercity 125’s, and from Darlington, it was what i called then, A BUS! Actually it was one of the Pacers. If you go to Darlington now – its still one of the Pacers.
As it weaved around Teeside, the industry, the walls of grafitti, the litter – but also the river tees, the transporter bridge, the north sea i shed many a tear for what id left behind and where i had arrived. Yet as i arrived in Hartlepool, it was warm, it was sunny and it felt, even from that first moment, like home.
It was a tough year that year, the team had its ups and downs, so did life in the church. So did trying to work with young people with limited knowledge of processes, skills, approaches, just doing what we knew, what we knew from where we came from. I made many mistakes, we all did. Yet every sunday, and most weeks the church people would have us out for meals, or fill up the food box. The young people would generally love us and were desperate for us to like them, understand them. So much so that one of them went out of their way to give us a list of words and Phrases in the Hartlepool dialect, so we could understand them. (I referred to this in ‘Here be Dragons’ pp103)
There was the moment during the ill thought out sleep over at one of the church leaders houses whereby we took the difficult young people who terrorised the whole house and i ended up walking them back through town at 6am. It was the wrong thing to do to take them, but we did. It was an idea conceived for them, and to build relationship, not to start one.
There was the hope that because we thought we were cool and amazing that loads of young people would turn up at our events. They didnt. But thats ok.
There was the day we spent walking around the community, prayer walking was being done even then, beginning to ‘feel’ the areas of the community that seemed hopeless. If only we’d known about detached youthwork, but thats ok, what it did was cement the sense of affection for me for Hartlepool.
I had a few choices at the end of this gap year, and i would contemplate them walking around up and down one of the towns gardens, the Burn Valley.
There really wasnt a choice, because staying in Hartlepool seemed the only right thing to do. It had got under my skin. I had left one home i was pretty desperate to leave from, and found almost immediately another. During most of the year, the time id be away, id be desperate to get back- even taking earlier trains just to do so.
Theres a road that you can go on to leave Hartlepool, it heads up over the golf course and towards Hart. From there you can see the whole landscape of the town spread out before you, a hotch potch of council estates, new estates, industry and Teeside in the distance, the docks, the football ground lights, and beyond it all Seaton, the beach, and the North Sea. Its Hartlepool, and when I left here a few years later, I took with me my wife Lynn, another midlander who’d adopted Hartlepool as her home. We moved away a few miles for a few years, then Scotland & Devon, and now back to this funny, not so little place, that often gets a kick in, thats misunderstood, full of history, quirkiness, known for not taking itself too seriously, Hartlepool.
The other thing i fell for during my gap year was the confirmation that being involved in the lives of young people was a challenging, sporadic and chaotic reality, existing outside the planned, or programmed. As we walked around our estate, wed have conversations, or be accosted by kids playing, or they’d knock at our door. Or they’d ruin our club, or there would be issues outside the church when a service was on. It involved a different approach, one that I didn’t know, and one that none of us did. But its one of my deepest regrets that in one year we got to know, but couldn’t find a way of maintaining being involved with some of the most challenging young people, because they didn’t fit in. I guess what i fell for, was the need that a young person might have is worth investing in, in their time, space and request. I do wonder where some of those young people are now. Maybe they walk around Hartlepool like i do, but 20 years later they might be more difficult to spot.
It was 20 years ago this year that i set foot for the first time in Hartlepool, back to where place and vocation seem to be inextricably linked. Last time I was here i was sent to work, and experienced formational experience and training- for which i am thankful- then drifted away. This time we have moved to stay. To give and to serve, to love this town back.