Hartlepool is a tale of two cities – and one letter. The change of name of its football team from Hartlepools to Hartlepool United in the 1960s was not some groovy PR ploy like the one that made Keith Richards more marketable.
The original club had a plural name because it represented both the Hartlepools: the original historic settlement on the headland and the busy dock and railway hub created by Victorian ingenuity in the mid-1800s.
With the two consolidated into one borough in 1967, the s in ‘Hartlepools’ was dropped. As if by magic, United won a first promotion from Fourth Division to Third – ironically, the season after Brian Clough had left his first managerial post here for Derby County.
Post-war decline had limited the economic prospects across both communities and levelled the differences in identity. West Hartlepool had sprung up almost overnight, from a single farmstead to a thriving port of 30,000 people, nearly three times bigger than the adjacent fishing community that had grown around a 7th-century monastery described by the Venerable Bede.
The older settlement, exposed on a promontory sticking out into the North Sea, was protective and suspicious, its folk famously said to have hanged a monkey accused of being a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars. West Hartlepool was young and industrious.
The young and industrious of the Victorian era loved team sports. The sport West Hartlepool chose was rugby.
West Hartlepool RFC were formed in 1881, by dockers and rail workers originally from the rugby heartlands of Wales and Yorkshire. Five years later, the club bought land from the local railway company and built on it the Victoria Ground, named in honour of the monarch’s 50th anniversary.
At the same time, West Hartlepool also had a soccer team, who slowly gained prominence after joining the Northern League in 1898. A rivalry was soon struck up with nearby Darlington when the league was streamlined into one division. The earlier dominant Middlesbrough Ironopolis had already left to join the Second Division.
Several clubs from County Durham had shown their worth by winning the nationwide FA Amateur Cup, including Stockton, Bishop Auckland and Crook Town. In 1905, West Hartlepool joined this elite, going down to London to beat Clapton 3-2 in the final at Shepherd’s Bush.
Overshadowed, the rugby club waned and duly folded. With the Victoria Ground vacant and soccer popular, prominent locals saw an opportunity to create a single, professional football club. Taking players from West Hartlepool but representing both communities, in 1908 they formed Hartlepools United, nicknamed The Monkey Hangers.
The Victoria Ground, overlooking the harbour between the two settlements, was shared by the amateurs for two years before they, too, folded.
Fortified when Napoleon threatened, industrial Hartlepool was an immediate German target during World War I. Bombarded from the sea in 1914, causing 117 deaths, the town was blitzed from the air by Zeppelin in 1916, causing the destruction of the main stand at the Victoria Ground.
War reparations from the Germans not forthcoming, it was replaced by a temporary stand that stood here until the 1980s. The Victoria Ground was renamed Victoria Park.
On the pitch, United revived under Cyril Knowles in the early 1990s then came within 30 minutes of a place in the second tier in 2005. Off it, the nearby Marina has given Hartlepool a new lease of life – something not granted to the unfortunate monkey whose likeness sits on the modern-day waterfront.
Hartlepool’s nearest airport is under-used Durham Tees Valley outside Darlington, 34km (21 miles) away, with hardly any public transport links – not even the adjacent rail stop functions. From the nearest station at Dinsdale or from Darlington itself, a train to Hartlepool (£6.50) 1hr away requires a change at Thornaby.
Newcastle’s is 61km (38 miles) away. It’s a direct hop on the metro every 12min from the airport to Newcastle Central Station (24min journey time, £3.30). An hourly train to Hartlepool (£8.50) takes 45min.
From London Kings Cross, there’s an occasional direct service to Hartlepool (3hr, cheapest ticket £25). From Birmingham, change at York or Darlington/Thornaby, from Manchester, York or Thornaby.
Hartlepool station is close to both town and ground.
Buses around old Hartlepool, aka The Headland, are run by Stagecoach North East. A dayrider pass (£3.45) covers a wide area around the town.
Based close to the station, long-established 23 Taxis (01429 23 23 23) has online booking.
As the ground is in town and near the station, there are plenty of convenient choices for accommodation, hotels and B&Bs, some with great sea views.
Slap opposite the station, the 26-room Hillcarter Hotel makes a great, affordable choice if you fancy a few drinks as well. Stunning vistas at breakfast, too.
Just along the train tracks towards the sea, the Travelodge Hartlepool Marina opened fairly recently, wallet-friendly rooms overlooking the waterfront, near the ground. Round the corner at the shoreline stands another budget chain, the Premier Inn Hartlepool Marina.
The closest hotel to the ground, the Best Western Grand needs a bit of TLC to match its former glory – standard rooms sit above the Hartlepool-themed 1908 sports bar with three large screens and 13 TVs. An Indian restaurant on-site, too.
Nearby, the Douglas Hotel is surprisingly comfortable for the price, with 17 en-suite rooms.
The main choice on The Headland, the Cosmopolitan Hotel has five rooms with shared toilets in the corridor – you may be better off just using at as a pub, with televised football, pool and darts.
There’s another hub of lodgings slightly further down the coast in Seaton Carew, where Victorian properties such as the 28-room Marine Hotel and the Staincliffe trade on their sea views – the Marine wins over, easily, for comfort.
Right in the town centre, Cameron’s Brewery is the biggest independent producer in the North East, supplying Strongarm bitter to the masses, owning scores of pubs and sponsoring Hartlepool and Middlesbrough over the years. Brewery tours include a visit to the in-house Brewery Tap pub.
Alongside, The Causeway is ever lively and popular, with regular live acts, TV sport and a pool table. A beer garden in summer, too.
For a real gem of a pub, tucked away down Hopps Street off Hart Lane, the Nursery Inn has sport on TV, a dartboard and most of all, atmosphere – plus regular live entertainment.
Traditional boozers dot The Headland, a 15min walk from town or a hop from the Grand Hotel on the regular No.7 bus. The honest-to-goodness Fishermans Arms has a bar counter lined with hand-pulled ales while the historic Duke of Cleveland is named after the Whig MP who enjoyed his summers here in the early 1800s. Once the Conservative Club, this is now a family-friendly pub and eaterie. Note the limited opening hours in winter Thursday through Sunday only.
Right on the sea, The Pot House is great for TV football, fish & chips and Moretti beer, plus the odd night of entertainment. A local landmark, it stands next to another, the statue of comic-strip character Andy Capp, created by Hartlepool’s Reg Smythe.