Corus Scunthorpe and Tata Redcar Steelworks

Britain once had an enormous steel industry, with large steelworks all over the country. Consolidation of the industry in the 70's, 80's and 90's saw the works at Barrow, Workington, Corby, Irlam, Shotton, Consett, Ravenscraig, Ebbw Vale and several others close or reduce in size. In the 1990’s British Steel merged with the Dutch Hoogovens group to form Corus. In 2006, Corus was bought by Tata steel to become the fifth largest steel company in the world.

At this point, Britain had three large steel producing plants – Scunthorpe, Port Talbot in Wales and Redcar near Middlesbrough. Following the turmoil in the steel industry in 2015-2016, Redcar was closed, leaving only Scunthorpe and Port Talbot as the only two integrated mills left in the UK.

I discovered that at weekends, a heritage railway operates on the extensive internal railway network at Scunthorpe, so I went along for the ride. Strategically positioning myself at the back of the brake van allowed me to see, hear and smell the works in operation. The scale of the place took some comprehending (2000 acres) and takes up a large portion of the east side of the town. The internal railway has 100 miles of track for ferrying round raw material, molten metal and finished goods, and we spent several hours steaming round the site.

It was a most bizarre landscape. Although spread out over 12 square kilometres, one of the densest concentration of structures is around the blast furnaces. This melange of cooling towers, chimneys and blast furnaces makes for a dramatic backdrop to the site. It was also the easiest to photograph, as the enormous rolling mills were largely featureless sheds from the outside and while we did steam through one, it was only into a giant steel warehouse.

Redcar was a different proposition as it wasn’t possible to ride on the internal railway. However, it is much easier to see the operations from the sand dunes next to the perimeter fence. At the time (2009), the works was about to be mothballed due to a drop in demand. The plant was subsequently sold to Thai owners who restarted operations but circumstances intervened. China was effectively dumping cheap steel onto the world market and became impossible to complete. The plant was shut down again, only this time permanently, ending over 160 years of steelmaking on Redcar.