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Pennine Bus-Hopping — Huddersfield.

24 Jul

It all began when I read the unforgettable opening pages of J B Priestley’s great novel: “The Good Companions.” The reader hovers dizzyingly above the Pennine hills, which form the dark, “knobbly backbone” of northern England. Slowly, as if on some aerial computer image, we zoom in to focus on the central area of uplands, “where the high moorland thrusts itself between the woollen mills of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire.” We hear the lonely cry of the curlew, sweep over brooding, dark peat-bogs and catch glittering glimpses of the moorland tarns. Finally, we home in on a town, a large mill town, with its “host of tall chimneys” and “rows and rows of little houses “climbing up the steep valley-side. This we find is “Bruddersfield”, a thinly disguised amalgam of real-life Huddersfield and nearby Bradford. Priestly was born in Bradford in 1894. Chris and I decided to visit Huddersfield to discover the modern reality behind Priestley’s classic creation, since he wrote those evocative lines back in 1929.

It was the second of our “Hills and Mills” bus-pass trips, pottering around the old textile towns of the south Pennines, using our free travel-passes.( one of the few perks of being over 60!) In our first odyssey, in 2012, we had explored the hills, moors and mill towns of east Lancashire. This time we were to visit their West Yorkshire cousins. I rather like the idea of holidaying in places that are not recognised resorts. They are not full of people taking selfies in front of famous landmarks but just consist of ordinary people going about their everyday lives. I sneakily enjoy the look of incredulity on some peoples’ faces when we tell then where we’re going. I think it’s good to do something unpredictable and to test out my theory that every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it. So Huddersfield it was, followed by Halifax, Hebden bridge and Heptonstall ( all the H’s!)

Thus, on a fine Monday morning in July, 2016 we found ourselves standing at the bus stop at the end of our street waiting for the service 5A to Middlesbrough ( we live in Cleveland on the north-east coast.) Inevitably it was a tense 9 minutes late. We worried about making our first connection. A friend in her car stopped to offer us a lift ( We daren’t tell her we were going to Huddersfield!) We declined her kind offer as we were determined that this was going to be a proper, eco-friendly public transport trip with no cheating. We would see local life, perhaps have impromptu conversations with complete strangers and feel part of a place instead of isolating ourselves in our private metal box. Luckily the 5A appeared at that very moment and we were off. At Middlesbrough we swapped our bus passes for our senior rail cards to take the Trans-Pennine train to Huddersfield via York and Leeds. True to form, it was a half hour late.( signalling problems in the York area.)

Nearly 2 hours later we arrived at a rather grand Huddersfield station and, after grabbing a street map from the info centre, stepped out into a spacious square, surrounded by large, stately Victorian buildings, including the Grade I listed station itself, built in 1846-50. John Betjeman described it as “the most splendid station façade on England.” To picture it, think– classical, Greek temple. At the top of St George’s Square are fountains and a statue of Harold Wilson, Prime Minister in the 1960’s and 70’s, striding purposely forward ( but without his pipe!) He was one of Huddersfield’s most famous sons. To the left is the impressive George Hotel where Rugby League was born in 1895. The northern Rugby Union clubs decided to leave the Union because the largely more prosperous, public-school educated players, mainly from the south, had refused to allow payment of compensation for lost wages when playing. The split was acrimonious — an early example of the North-South divide.

On our first evening, we ate at one of the other grand buildings on the square: a former bank  which has now been converted into a very popular Kashmiri restaurant. it served one of the biggest nan breads I have seen!  So our first impressions were favourable. Maybe we had stumbled across a West Yorkshire version of Bath or Oxford full of historical, harmonious architecture? Second impressions quickly dispelled this however. We discovered the unattractive post-war buildings that took up whole swathes of the town centre. We saw, heard and smelt the road-works as a resurfacing operation was taking place. We experienced the heavy traffic grinding through parts of the centre near the bus station, and found the busy, noisy ring-road which encircled the centre like a tight, tarmac collar. We plunged down into a long, graffitied, concrete underpass! OK — I think you’ll have got the picture by now. The highlights of Huddersfield would have to be sought out — the “gems” amongst the “dross.” It was going to be fun! But first came the short trek to our guest house up the Halifax Road.

We couldn’t help noticing that most of the buildings on our road were substantial, fairly grand, stone mansions, sitting in their own grounds. Many had been converted to offices or hotels. One large, castle-like building was now a college, another a dancing school. Our guest house was in one of them, sharing it with a dental practice. Sadly, some of these mansions or villas are empty and in a state of neglect. It transpired that this area was once the comfortable, middle class district of Edgerton. It was a leafy suburb about a mile from the town centre on the Huddersfield-Halifax turnpike. The mill owners, merchants and other prosperous professionals would commute into town in their horses and carriages, before the age of the motor car. Sometimes there was a jarring clash of taste and style. One writer to the editor of the Huddersfield Courier in 1858 described Halifax Road as “too bewildering an affair to cope with; for you have Grecian temples, Swiss cottages, Gothic castles and Italian villas, all jumbled so closely together as scarcely to allow elbow room.” Many of these Georgian and Victorian residences were demolished to make way for a modern housing estate. ( I suppose they could squash a lot more people into the same area of land.) The survivors though, many in the neo-Classical style, are still impressive, bravely defying the relentless march of time, even though this once exclusive suburb has now been swallowed up by the town where all their owners made their money.

The wealthiest and most famous Huddersfield family was the Ramsdens.( nothing to do with the fish and chip shop chain, I don’t think.) They developed their huge estates agriculturally and then industrially, throwing up the textile mills that created so much of their wealth. They were responsible for many of the impressive civic buildings and also for the linking of Huddersfield to the burgeoning rail system as early as 1850. Later, in 1920, the Ramsdens sold their estate to the Cooperation for £1.3million, earning Huddersfield its nickname: “the town that bought itself.” Despite its large 160,00 to 170,00 population, Huddersfield is still only a town. It has never bothered to apply for city status, although it could easily do so. I read somewhere that it claims to be the largest “town” in Europe.

We started our heritage trail at the impressive, Art Deco, 1930’s Library and Art gallery. The art collection there is very good, including pieces by: Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and L S Lowry. ( Huddersfield matchstick people scurrying around in the shadows of the giant mills instead of Salford/Manchester ones.) Outside, by the steps are two  symbolic statues of a boy and a girl, representing the spirits of literature and art.(“Youth Awaiting Inspiration by James Woodford, 1939.) Near the Library is the richly decorated stone Town hall (1881) which doubles up as a concert venue. However, just opposite the lovely library is the controversial, modern Queensgate Market ( 1968-70) which is pretty ugly. Local people either love it or hate it. Surprisingly it is a listed building . Inside are 21 unique, concrete roof-umbrellas, looking like giant curving shells. I was all ready to be impressed and entered the market with camera poised. Unfortunately the concrete shells were mostly obscured by the mundane market stalls, crowded around them. So it was an anti-climax. I’m sure most of the people buying cauliflowers, potatoes or second-hand jewellery don’t even notice them anymore. On the outside of the Queensgate Market however is another surprise. Who would have thought we would come across the world’s largest ceramic sculpture? It consists of 9, brown-toned, large panels, covered in abstract swirls, entitled:” Articulation in Motion”, whatever that means. ( Fitz Steller, 1969.) Once again, these were largely ignored by the locals as far as I could see, especially as they face on to the southern section of the busy ring road.

I think it was brave of Huddersfield to try to embrace the “shock of the new”, instead of just falling back on to its Victorian heritage. The roof-shells and ceramic panels are not really my cup of tea but are certainly more stimulating than the bland diet of uniform shopping malls and chain stores that many town centres, including parts of Huddersfield itself, offer up. Huddersfield, in my opinion is a mish-mash of the old and new, the original and the mundane. It’s just like most towns really. Maybe one has to have the one, in order to appreciate the other.

We explored a couple of old arcades with interesting, independent shops and had a quick look at the Parish Church, even though its pretty gardens were frequented by quite a few unfortunate down and outs. This is a side of a town not highlighted in the tourist brochures. We enjoyed visiting the late Victorian Wholesale Market, like a vast car boot sale under a splendid wrought iron and glass, curving roof. The actual open -air market- place was interesting too, with its market cross featuring the Ramsden Coat of Arms. It’s surrounded by fancy, old Victorian and Edwardian banks. Their ornate stonework and statues contrast with the flickering screens of their modern cash points.

Another gem we found nestling amongst the everyday, was the Lawrence Batley Theatre on Queen Street, built in 1819. One side of Queen Street is stately Victorian buildings, whilst the other is unbelievable taken up by a multi-storey car-park! Going back to the theatre, it had originally been constructed as one of the biggest Wesleyan Chapels in the country, following a visit from John Wesley himself. Like Mary Queen of Scots, Wesley seems to have passed through almost every town in England, judging from the number of plaques I have read over the years. Lawrence Batley was a local businessman who helped pay for the theatre conversion and thus immortalised himself, at least in Huddersfield. Our jaws dropped as we entered the foyer because we were met by a wonderful display of colourful fantasy costumes created  by the graduates of the adjoining University for their Leavers’ show.

Contrary to the traditional image of the gruff, brusque Yorkshireman ( and woman), we found Huddersfield to be an open and very friendly place. In fact at times it was a bit too friendly, as when we had to make an excuse and flee from the Oxfam book shop because a man was regaling us with all the gory details of an argument he had had with his wife because he had spent £250 of the housekeeping money on 3 military medals in a display box! We also found Huddersfield to be quite multi-cultural. We found Persian and Lebanese restaurants as well as the usual array of Indian, Thai, Chinese and Italian outfits. In the art gallery we saw an exhibition of photographs of refugees from all over the world being welcomed to Huddersfield, something that was very heartening in post-“Brexit” Britain, with its sharp increase in racial and anti-immigrant incidents.

Priestley’s dark mill town, with its cloth-capped working men trudging en masse to the football ground, has now changed beyond all recognition. For a start the football matches now take place in a modern, all- seater, out- of- town stadium, constructed for the convenience of the car. The woollen mills have closed, their chimneys demolished. The trams have bitten the dust and many of the hill-side terraces have gone. The motor car has taken over. For many travellers, Huddersfield is now merely a convenient short stop-over, just south of the M62. Most of the hotels and guest houses are situated near to the motorway. I imagine the town is less self-contained than in Priestley’s day, with many residents  commuting to Manchester or Leeds for their work and their bigger items of shopping. However, the town’s glorious past as a wealthy centre of the woollen textile industry has not been totally extinguished. All those fine Victorian civic buildings remain, as do the mansions and villas on the Halifax Road. Then there are the atmospheric, early 19th century alleys and courtyards off King Street, restored during the construction of a modern shopping mall on the opposite side of the road. This juxtaposition of old and new, existing cheek by jowl, perhaps best sums up the contradictions of the place.

One thing that will never change is the town’s setting, nestling between the brooding Pennine hills and moors. As we walked back to our guest house on our final evening, I looked beyond the rooves of the immediate town, to two, prominent wooded hills beyond. On one hill was a dark church tower, probably blackened by the belching mill chimneys of the past. On the higher hill we saw the stone Victoria (lookout) Tower, built in 1899 to mark the Queen’s Jubilee. It’s a landmark for miles around. Back in 2012, we had trecked up to a similar tower in the Lancashire mill town of Darwin. However, the Huddersfield tower is much further away and we are 4 years older, so we just admired it from afar. All in all, it was an enjoyable and interesting visit and it whetted our appetites for Halifax, the next “H” on our bus- pass trip. Moreover, as soon as I got home, I searched the book shelves for my copy of “The Good Companions”, to re-read  that wonderfully evocative introduction to Priestley’s beloved “Bruddersfield.”

Stockton on Tees – “There’s Nothing There.”

9 Feb

When my friend, Ian, and I told people that we were planning to have a day out in Stockton on Tees in late January, I think we were thought of as slightly mad. After-all, we were authoritatively informed: “there’s nothing there.” However, it all depends on what one is looking for. What may appear to be “nothing” at first glance, may soon be revealed to be something interesting if one has only a cursory dig beneath the surface.
So why go to Stockton? At first there seem more reasons NOT to visit it. It’s a declining industrial town with its fair share of unemployment and poverty. The manufacturing industries that created its wealth — shipbuilding and engineering– have closed down. It’s once busy river port is no more. Many buildings are in a state of decay, or have been boarded up. Stockton sits in a largely forgotten corner of North-East England. It has even found a place in the top 100 of Britain’s infamous “crap towns” listed in the book: ” Crap Towns Returns: Back by Unpopular Demand.” So, plenty of reasons to avoid it then, but we still went and enjoyed it. Why? Is it that we are just plain perverse? No — our answer would be the same as that of a climber asked why he/she wanted to ascend a mountain. The answer is ” because it’s there!” I have a theory that every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it.
Places represent people and their everyday lives. Other people’s existances are always interesting. Add-in all the lives of past generations and past centuries, then you’ve let yourself in for a fascinating journey, linking the present with the past. Walking round a town equipped with : eyes, imagination, and a bit of research, can be really stimulating. And so it proved to be with Stockton. We armed ourselves with a town trail obtained from the local Tourist Information Centre and set off on our day of discovery.
Ask most general knowledge buffs about Stockton and they’ll probably come up with one famous fact: the World’s first public railway in 1825 ran from Darlington to Stockton. The line was built by the railway pioneer, George Stephenson. Its purpose was to carry coal from the Durham coalfields around Darlington to the important river port of Stockton in Tees, from where it could be shipped to all corners of the country and beyond. The line actually ran from Shildon to Stockton via Darlington. Initially, the trucks were to be hauled at walking pace by horses. However, Stephenson persuaded the Directors to experiment with the new invention, the steam locomotive. Stephenson himself drove his Locomotion No 1 on that first record breaking journey. The train consisted of a mixture of trucks of coal and flour and passenger coaches. Altogether about 600 to 700 people travelled on that very first steam train journey, clinging on in all sorts of precarious positions. The train featured the world’s first purpose built railway passenger coach “The Experiment”. Stephenson was ably assisted by his friend, fellow engineer and railway pioneer, Timothy Hackworth, who acted as the guard. At the head of the train for much of the 12 mile journey, walked a man with a red flag, an early example of health and safety getting in the way of adventure. Eventually the man with the flag was persuaded to step aside and the train picked up speed a little. However it still averaged less than 10 mph for the entire journey. It was hardly earth shattering stuff but was a dramatic “first”, and Stockton, that “crap” town, was at the centre of this world famous event.
Stockton is now surrounded by busy roads. The major trunk routes of the A19 and the A66 pass to the east and south of it respectively. Crowded 2 or 3 lane roads and busy roundabouts encircle the old town centre. In fact, a noisy dual-carriageway cuts off the centre from the River Tees, which used to be its life-blood. We had to climb up on to a pedestrian bridge to access the waterside. The once bustling port that used to feature 48 working vessels, is no more. All that is left is a pleasure cruiser used in summer and a replica of Captain James Cook’s “Endeavour”, used for entertainment and educational purposes.
Thus there are few hints that Stockton was once a thriving river port, and even fewer clues that it helped to give birth to the railways. A modern metal sculpture, on a grassy bank just outside the centre, depicts that famous first train, complete with the top-hatted flag-waver at its head. However, it significant that this is sited by a road not a railway. Stockton does still have a train station but it is a bit out of the town centre and sits on a branch line off a branch line. The full original line ceases to exist. It used to run along the quayside by the Tees to 4 sets of staithes ( jetties) where the coal was loaded on to ships. Today’s station is on the quiet Durham coast line which meanders its way between Thornaby ( near Middlesbrough) and Newcastle via Hartlepool and Sunderland. There is just one train an hour each way. The current building dates from 1893. It has two quite long platforms linked by a bridge, but it has no staff and no roof. The latter was removed in 1979 because it was in such a bad state of repair. The waiting rooms, booking hall and toilets have gone, to be replaced by a couple of plastic shelters with little perching seats.
Ian and I travelled to this slightly forlorn station from opposite directions. We were the only people to alight from our respective trains. The station was deserted apart from one confused foreign visitor, trying to get to Manchester. It was difficult to imagine that this was a world famous place in railway history. To be fair, the current Stockton station is not in the same location as the former terminus of the 1825 Stockton to Darlington railway. Was it completely devoid of its illustrious history? Well, not quite. As we left the station, we noticed that the old station buildings had been refurbished, added to and turned into apartments named after the railway pioneer Hackworth. It would have been nice if the approach road had been christened George Stephenson Way, but it wasn’t. Just before we headed off for the town, the London to Sunderland Grand Central express, passed through Stockton. It slowed down but didn’t stop. Stockton is now largely divorced from its railway heritage and has been shunted into an obscure siding.
Stockton today is an intriguing mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Although it is surrounded by some fairly depressing, run-down streets, the old medieval core is pretty impressive. (at least, we thought so.) We entered a wide spacious High Street which twice a week hosts North-East England’s largest open air market. The street is flanked by a selection of 18th, 19th and 20th century buildings now put to a variety of commercial uses. Some are neglected and run-down, but we could easily imagine how grand it must have been in its Georgian hey-day. In the centre sits a square, red-brick early 18th century Town Hall. It has 3 stories, an ornate clock tower, a red pan-tiled roof and four, large chimney stacks. Once it had a meeting room for the Mayor and the Aldermen with shops underneath. Nearby is a lovely, little market hall and sitting in-between is a tall, stone column crowned by a plinth and a mysterious monument that looks a bit like an urn. We never found an explanation for it. Maybe next time we should ask one of the locals. This area used to be the site of the medieval tollbooth and a communal smithy. Alongside was the “Shambles” where butchers slaughtered and sold their animals.
Today this big, wide area is being gentrified into a pedestrian plaza which eventually will have: seats, foliage, fancy street lamps and views through to the river. When we were there this January, it was a noisy work in progress with a workman employing a teeth-grinding, stone-cutting machine. Once finished, it will be a far cry from the days of blood and guts in the gutter and the dying moans of doomed livestock.
Stockton existed as an Anglo Saxon settlement but really got going in early Norman times when the town and the borough was founded by the Bishop of Durham in the late 12th century. Initially, it consisted of 12 farms and a Manor House. The latter eventually developed into Stockton Castle, which stood until 1652 when it was demolished on the order of Oliver Cromwell’s parliament. It had been a Royalist stronghold in the English Civil war and had later been occupied by the Scots. Today the site is occupied by the rather ugly Swallow Hotel and Castlegate shopping centre with its indoor market and multi-storey car-park.
When Stockton was declared a Borough, it meant that traders, craftsmen and other business people could move in and develop the land. It was no longer a purely agricultural area. It’s site was the reason for this significant development. It was on a major river and on main road routes heading north and south. In fact Stockton stands at an important crossing point of the River Tees. For many years it was the lowest bridging point of this major waterway. That honour was eventually stolen in the later 19th century by Middlesbrough’s Transporter Bridge, 6 miles further downstream. Stockton also marked the southern border of the Bishop of Durham’s considerable lands and the border between Yorkshire and County Durham.
Despite all of this, the town only developed very slowly in the Middle Ages. It was regularly ravaged by marauding Scots and was also badly affected by the Plague. By the early 17th century it was almost derelict. Then came damaging occupations by Royalist and Scottish troops during the course of the English Civil Wars. Real prosperity only came when a Charter in 1666 granted the town a weekly market and an annual fair. This attracted trade and more prosperous times ensued. By the 18th century the town was doing really well. This is reflected by the considerable number of once fashionable Georgian town houses that are still dotted about the centre today. In the 1700’s, Stockton became a successful ship-building centre, having four shipyards by the end of the century. Sail and rope making were lucrative spin-offs. Stockton by now was a busy river port, exporting lead and agricultural produce and importing wine, raisons, glass, coal and household goods. The coming of the railway in the early 19th century enabled Stockton to expand further. Its population increased from 3700 in 1801 to 13,000 in 1861.
However, this was not as big an increase as might be expected, considering Stockton’s prime location and its connections to important events in the Industrial and Transport Revolutions. Some nearby towns underwent massive population explosions in the same period. Perhaps a big reason for this relative lack of growth was that there was already an enormous cuckoo growing up very quickly in the Tees-side nest. That was Middlesbrough just down the river. It usurped Stockton and other Teesside towns in industrial development especially in the areas of iron and steel, chemicals and shipbuilding. Middlesbrough’s nickname: “Ironopolis” sums up its industrial importance. Hartlepool also eclipsed Stockton in the rapidity and size of its industrial development, including ship-building and engineering. Thus Stockton on Tees was left somewhat in the shade. Maybe however, this wasn’t such a bad thing and was a blessing in disguise from the modern Stockton’s perspective. Some of its grand 18th century buildings have survived instead of being swept away in an headlong rush for development. Thus, these can still be appreciated today. In that earlier prosperous period ( 18th century) the town acquired pavements so its citizens didn’t have to plough through the mud. A stone 5-arched bridge was also constructed to replace the river ferry in 1771. So the place wasn’t exactly an obscure backwater. The 18th century has still clung on in 21st century Stockton and is now once again being appreciated as a glorious chapter in the town’s history.
Two rows of mostly narrow-fronted properties line the wide market place and off it run historical side streets with interesting names :- Ramsgate, Finkle Street, Silver Street, Dovecot Street and West Row. The street names often reveal their original features. For instance, an open air sheep market was once held on Ramsgate. West Row included large warehouses, some of which have been restored. We found that one had been turned into a small shopping mall. ( Regency West Mall sadly was mostly empty.) Finkle, a common street name in the north-east, means a narrow, winding road with a corner or a bend in it. It’s an old Norse name. On Stockton’s Finkle Street we admired 16th to 18th century town houses, some with pilastered doorways. Halfway up the street is a narrow opening leading into the hidden gem of Green Dragon Yard. Stockton’s centre has a number of these old, hidden away 17th and 18th century courtyards accessed by narrow alleyways. Green Dragon Yard has a restored warehouse, a pub, a building converted into a recording studio and England’s oldest surviving Georgian Theatre. The theatre was built in 1766 on to the side of a medieval Tithe barn. It’s been lovingly restored and is an intimate venue for small-scale productions. It was fascinating to spot where the stone of the old barn merged into the small 18th century bricks of the theatre. We walked through more lanes and yards into Silver Street, complete with its row of tiny 18th century cottages. From there it was a short step down to the river.
We stopped for refreshments in a little, late-medieval tea-shop. It was friendly, warm and welcoming. We had been warned that there would be mostly greasy spoon cafes in Stockton, but in fact there was a whole string of tempting teashops. Our café was called “Quaint and Quirky” which is was. I had to carefully mind my head to avoid the low beams. The view from the window partly summed up our Stockton experience. We looked out beyond the ancient timber ceiling beams through the tiny, “Tudory” windows incongruously on to the concrete, circular exit ramp of a multi-storey car park. A constant stream of quietly growling cars descended it. It would have been much more satisfying to have heard the clip-clop of horses as would have been the case when the café building was first constructed. But that sound has now mostly faded into the past. Modern Town trails are full of these strange juxtapositions. At the top of Dovecot Street is a striking, modern arts centre, The Arc. Its all gleaming glass and bright, orange paintwork. Adjacent to it stands a lovely Georgian Friend’s Meeting House now converted into office space. Across the road, in place of a recently demolished 19th century building is a pop-up car park. It’s a confusing mixture that stretches the imagination but constantly stimulates the mind.
The most abiding memory of Stockton’s centre is of the wide variety of once grand Georgian town houses. Some are beautifully restored, whilst others are sadly neglected. Ian and I studied: classical doorways with columns and pediments, fancy fanlights over entrances, decorative motifs, attractive wrought iron balconies, ornate stone cornices and symmetrical sets of sash windows. Some had 2 stories and some had 3. We learnt that the first floor public reception rooms were the grandest ( so the people could impress their visitors) and thus had the largest, most impressive windows. Quite a few of these splendid buildings were on Church Road, formerly know as “Paradise Row.” This is where the rich and successful lived, showing off their status and wealth through their grandiose homes.
Nearby the Stockton mish-mash continued with a fine 18th century Church and ancient church yard facing an undistinguished jumble 1960’s/70’s municipal offices. On the other side of the beautiful old churchyard stood a derelict, abandoned pub.
The Stockton on Tees Trail gave us glimpses of a glorious past, much evidence of a long, sad decline and a few signs of hope and regeneration. It’s a slightly down- at- heel town which is starting to appreciate its heritage and move forward towards a positive future. The Arts Theatre with its cinema, concert space, workshop areas, bars and cafes, is thriving. The Georgian Theatre is up and running again. The Globe Theatre, once the popular venue for 1960’s/70’s pop acts such as the Rolling Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, Cilla Black and Roy Orbison, is now being restored and is soon to reopen. It famously hosted The Beatles in November, 1963 on the same day that President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Today, an attractive, eye-catching pavement display reminds us of its glorious recent past.
In Stockton’s centre there’s plenty to admire and hidden corners to discover. As we walked back to the train station, we felt that we had only just begun to scratch the surface. It was not a bad day out considering we were visiting one of Britain’s “crap” towns. Maybe we should revisit in the summer when the Stockton Riverside Festival is in full flow. Then we could discover yet more delights of the town where there’s “nothing to see.”

Looking For Hartlepool.

19 Apr

The plan was simple. Go to an old town, get a map and/or a heritage trail and have an interesting day exploring. My friend, Ian, and I had done this twice before at the northern towns of Darlington and Thirsk. Now it was the turn of Hartlepool, stuck out on the north-east coast. We had already been to visit the interesting Historic Quayside and the fantastic floating battleship, the Trincomalee, built in Bombay in 1817. Now we had returned to look at the actual town. But where was it? We wandered around the area near to the railway station but couldn’t find anything that resembled a busy shopping street, a market square or a central business district. We looked for crowds of people but couldn’t see any. It was all very confusing. On my previous visit, I had asked a railway employee at the station where to find the old, historical centre of the town and she seemed to indicate that there wasn’t one. She pointed us in the direction of the Historic Quay which is really just a tourist attraction rather than part of the real town. Where then was Hartlepool? Surely there was more to it than a few supermarkets, a collection of roundabouts, some busy dual carriageways and an indoor shopping mall? Churchill once described Russia as “a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.” Had we now stumbled across the same phenomenon on the County Durham coast?
The mystery took a while to unravel. First of all we discovered that there are actually two Hartlepools. The main town where one arrives is really the former West Hartlepool, a new town created in the 19th century to cater for the mass of people who flocked in to work in the docks, shipyards, workshops and factories of the Industrial Revolution. Old Hartlepool, sometimes called the Heugh or the Headland, is an ancient fishing settlement on a peninsula, sticking out into the North Sea, as much as 2 miles from the main town. The two Hartlepools officially joined together in 1967, but to all intents and purposes they are still separate. We walked from one to the other, expecting a short stroll but discovering it was quite a hoof along a busy road. We took the bus back! Once there, it was like entering another world, isolated and hidden on its headland and largely bypassed by modern times.
This original Hartlepool was once thought to be an isolated, tidal island covered with a thick forest. Large number of deer used to wander there and congregate at pools to drink. The medieval name for a stag or a deer in general is “hart”. Thus we get the derivation of the place name: hart-le -pool or deer in the pool. The Anglo Saxon name that probably preceded this was “Hart Eu” or Stag Island. This too referred to the large number of deer in that area or possibly to the fact that the magnesium limestone headland roughly resembled the shape of a stag’s head. In the 8th century the Venerable Bede recorded the place as “Heopru” – the place where harts drink. During 19th century excavations in an adjacent marshy area known as “the Slake”, trunks of trees from the ancient forest were found embedded in the clay, along with antlers and teeth from a large number of deer. Thus it’s not surprising that such an abundancy of game plus the fish in the sea, attracted people to live in the area from early times. This ancient version of Hartlepool is now long gone, its remnants buried beneath the ground.
As we neared the old settlement, the main road and most of the traffic veered off to the north and we entered the quiet of the Heugh. A curving promenade looks out to sea with great views up and down the coastline. A serpentine pier snakes out into the waves, crowned by a lighthouse. We saw a dozen ships all queuing to get into nearby Teesport. Further south we saw the wind farm off the coast of Redcar, the puthering, belching iron and steel works, and beyond them the cliffs, headlands and hills of Cleveland where I now live. The views are extensive and spectacular. At first it’s First World War History that leaps to the fore as one walks on to the headland. Not one but two large artillery batteries point out to sea. They were fired in anger when 3 German battle Cruises appeared off the coast in 1914 and subjected east coast towns from Hartlepool to Scarborough to a murderous barrage of 1150 shells. Hartlepool’s guns replied in kind and succeeded in damaging one of the enemy ships. However, 117 local citizens, men, women and children, died in the onslaught, little known early victims of the First World War. The whole story is told in the town’s museum, and in the Heugh Battery Museum on the headland. That era, although only a century ago, has now slipped into history, but I suspect there will be special commemorative ceremonies in Hartlepool of a war which most of the country believes was exclusively fought overseas.
I find that the best way to discover a town is through its history. By uncovering this, layer by layer, one slowly gets to understood the essence of the place, the things that make it unique. What makes the search confusing however is that these layers don’t appear in neat, chronological order. You encounter a mish-mash of different ages and you then have to try to make sense of them. But that’s part of the fascination. For instance, no sooner had Ian and I digested the 20th Century warfare stuff, than we encountered a sea wall begun in the late 14th century and a large Norman church from the late 12th century in a commanding position on the headland. So we had travelled back to medieval times. In fact, features on the south doorway of St Hilda’s Church show decoration from an even earlier Norman Church built by William the Conqueror’s local Lord, Robert de Brus.( One of his close descendants, Robert the Bruce, became King of Scotland after the Battle of Bannockburn.) St Hilda’s is a Grade 1 listed building and considered a gem of the Early English period of church architecture.
St Hilda’s Church is built on the site of an earlier monastery constructed in Anglo-Saxon times around the 7th Century AD. It was a dual monastery for both monks and nuns, who nonetheless led separate lives. Interestingly, in this age of women’s rights and sex equality, this religious institution was initially run by a nun, St Heu. She was later replaced as Abbess by Saint Hilda who later founded the Monastery Abbey at Whitby, just down the coast. Hilda gained her sainthood because she was associated with healing miracles. So it’s strange but fascinating to imagine that Hartlepool, mainly known these days for its docks and its ( declining) industries, was once a religious centre. In fact pilgrims travelled there from all over Britain and Ireland. They came by boat, taking advantage of the natural harbour just south of the headland. The monastery was finally abandoned during political troubles in the late 8th century when the Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria fell into decline. Viking raiders may have had a hand in the closure as well.
We came looking for one Hartlepool and found that there were many, all stacked up on top of each other. When workmen were clearing the ground to build houses in 1833, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, they discovered an Anglo-Saxon graveyard with burials unusually arranged in rows. Thus 2 eras of the town’s history suddenly came face to face across the centuries. Some of the grave stones were inscribed with names and crosses which dated the burial ground to the 8th century. Two more Anglo- Saxon cemeteries were subsequently excavated in the later 20th century, one by television’s “Time Team.” It’s not every town that can claim a strong Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Metal work, jewellery and decorations for book covers were also discovered from those times.
Walking round the headland today, one sees buildings mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries. Many are grade II listed buildings. There are lovely terraces and quiet squares. Some houses are painted in attractive pastel colours. More modern housing is dotted here and there as the place is not just a museum or a time warp. Afterall people need somewhere to live. This area of old Hartlepool also features a couple of grand Victorian buildings put up in the industrial heyday of the town. A very large Baptist Chapel dominates the top of Church Street. Sadly it looks empty and neglected. The era of mass church attendance is now over. Then, just below St Hilda’s, on Church square, is the Old Public Library built in 1903. It’s a grand, red brick construction with fancy ornamentation. it has Dutch style gables and delicate decoration. It later served as a Maritime Museum and is now Council offices. A move to demolish it was thankfully abandoned after a public outcry.
Thus we discovered Old Hartlepool and we found it to be a fascinating mixture of historical periods, both above and below the surface. However, we still hadn’t solved the mystery of where the current Hartlepool town centre actually is. When the bus arrived to whisk us back to what we now know used to be West Hartlepool, I thought up the “clever” ruse of asking the bus driver. Surely he would know. So, as I presented my pass, I asked him if he was going back to the “town centre.” He replied that he could drop us off near the Asda. He defined “town centre” as being the same as an out of town supermarket. The plot thickened. We were beginning to think that Hartlepool didn’t have a central business area at all. The bus deposited us just past the Asda. As we got off we naturally followed the main flow of our fellow passengers who turned right. Then it dawned on us. Suddenly the mystery of Hartlepool’s missing centre was solved. They were all heading for Middleton Grange Shopping Centre. The traditional cluster of shopping streets and squares had been replaced by one massive, late 20th Century mall! Everything was under that one huge roof. We entered it, desperate for the loo and then looking for somewhere to grab a coffee and a sandwich. All the chain stores were there and the chain restaurants and the chain coffee shops. They all fitted into neat boxes spread across two floors. People milled around and queued at the ubiquitous McDonalds, sheltered from the elements and soothed by the background sound of canned muzak. I don’t really like malls even though I recognise that they are comfortable and convenient places for retail therapy. The trouble is that they all look very similar. Once inside the mall, one could be anywhere in the UK. The Middleton Grange Shopping Centre is a clone of many other centres that I have visited up and down the country. It didn’t really have any distinctive features except one interesting mural that had been commissioned to show the town’s rich and varied history.
Therefore, the mystery was at last solved. We had found the heart of Hartlepool. A giant shopping mall has descended upon the old town centre like an alien space craft. The actual old shopping streets, I found out later, were centred on Lynn Street, a bit further east, near the railway and bus stations. I have seen black and white photos of: bustling street life, rows of distinctive shops and double decker trams trundling up and down. All that world was wiped out sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century. The old shops, banks, cafes etc were demolished to make way for modern housing. The tram-lines were pulled up. Older housing was also knocked down to make way for the modern mall. I read one sad entry on an Internet site about the building of the new shopping complex — a woman noted that the house and the terraced street where she lived was destroyed to make way for the new centre. She must get a funny, maybe nostalgic feeling every time she goes shopping. The current indoor shopping centre, opened in the early 90’s replaced an earlier, late 60’s pedestrian precinct made in the much-derided concrete “brutalist” style. One can imagine the pride in this ultra modern development quickly fading as the concrete became cracked and stained. However, I’d better end my attack on modern architecture before you begin to think I’ve turned into Prince Charles. Just by coincidence, the original modern shopping complex was officially opened by his sister, Princess Anne in May, 1970.
After a rest and repast, we went out into the proper streets, still searching for remnants of the real Hartlepool. The heyday of Hartlepool was in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. It had already become important in later medieval times as the official port of the County Palatine of Durham.( The extensive area controlled by the powerful Bishop of Durham on behalf of the monarch.) It was one of the busiest ports on the east coast. In the 1820’s a railway was brought in to connect the town to the Durham collieries. Hartlepool thus developed into an important coal port. The old Victoria Dock was joined by 3 other docks in the 1840’s and 1850’s as the industrial new town of West Hartlepool expanded rapidly. Shipyards, timber yards and sawmills were opened. A new railway connected the town with Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. Fresh fish from the Hartlepool docks could be transported quickly to the northern cities and towns, increasing the town’s trade and wealth. West Hartlepool grew quickly to over- shadow its neighbour on the headland. By 1900 it was the fourth busiest port in the country and the two Hartlepools had a joint population of around 75000. The 4 different shipyards built nearly 2000 ships between 1836 and 1963.
During this boom period for West Hartlepool, numerous grand public buildings, hotels, churches and shops were constructed. They reflected the wealth and status of the town at that time. However, as in many other places across Britain, the town’s traditional industries went into a deep and long decline following the Second World War. Economic hardship followed and the town is still struggling to reinvent itself for the 21st century. So, as we walked around, it was sad to see some of these grand buildings, standing forlorn and empty, shorn of their original purpose. They are like beached whales washed up by the inevitable tide of time. A large Greek temple-type building stands empty and semi derelict, many of its windows smashed by vandals. This used to be the main Methodist Chapel ( 1871-73), in Victoria Street. Hartlepool it seems was at one time a hot-bed of non-conformist worship. John Wesley apparently preached there several times. The ex Methodist Chapel is a grade II listed building and after it closed was converted into a night club! Wesley must have been turning in his grave! Now it’s empty again waiting for planning permission to convert it into a hotel, restaurant and bar. Next to it stands the equally large and impressive, red brick Grand Hotel. It is in the style of a fancy French chateau. It is still open and run by the Best Western group, although the rumours are that they are trying to sell it. The old showpiece Binns department store is now a one floor Wilkinson’s and in bad need of restoration. Another beached “whale” is Hartlepool’s Cooperative Society building built in 1913 -15. It features a distinctive dome and magnificent white stonework. It looked empty and abandoned. It’s hidden behind the Middleton Grange Centre next to the still working Cameron’s brewery. Two unusual and impressive Victorian churches also punctuate the Hartlepool skyline. They have distinctive towers with small spires attached to them. One, Christchurch, is now the town’s art gallery and information centre.
Various other Victorian or early 20th century buildings are strewn around but no longer make a cohesive whole as I’m sure they once did. Their time has passed and they still stand only because of our relatively recent conservation laws.
Looking for Hartlepool is like looking for pieces of a large jigsaw. Many pieces are unfortunately missing. The picture is further complicated by the fact that Hartlepool is in fact many jigsaws from many different eras. Pieces from different pictures are now mixed up haphazardly. It takes a special effort to try to piece it all together. This has been what this blog has tried to do!

“Lovely, little, dirty Darren.”

31 Aug

  Pick a town – any town. Now visit it. This was what Chris and I more or less did in the summer of 2012, when we travelled around North-West England by public transport. One of the towns we visited, almost at random, was Darwen in east Lancashire. On the map it’s a dot between Bolton and Blackburn. On the nearby motorway ( the M65) you could speed by it without realizing its existance. It’s simply a small town nestling in a Pennine valley.

  In 1878, the Darwen News printed a poem in local dialect:

                                                                              ” ‘Tween two hillsides, both bleak and barren,

                                                                                  Lies lovely little ” Dirty Darren.”

  In Lancashire dialect, the name Darwen is pronounced Darren and locals still refer to themselves as Darreners. The poem sums up the paradox of the place. Although it became known as a centre of industry with many polluting factories and mills, it is also in a beautiful moorland setting and is much loved by the people who live there. Darreners keenly guard their distinct identity especially against any enchroachment by the much bigger town of Blackburn just to the north. So it was to Darwen, Lancashire that we travelled, not Darwin, Australia, as some people had assumed when we told them of our “holiday” plans. What would this little town have to offer?

  Darwen might be a bit down at heel now but along with its neighbours it shares a glorious past by being an important jewel in the crown of “King Cotton.” Darwen was an archetypal cotton town. When I was a kid I used to imagine that such mysterious places were actually built from the soft material reserved for shirts and sheets! Now I know it’s a term reserved for places involved in Britain’s and the World’s first large scale industry — the manufacture of cotton ( and woollen) cloth. A perfect climate ( ie  wet!), the easy availabilty of raw materials, fuel and power and a nearby large market for the product, laid the foundations . Then came the invention of textile machines and the entrepenarial spirit of northern businessmen who concentrated the workforce, materials and equipment in one place to create the world’s first factory system. So, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the landscape of Lancashire and adjoining counties was transformed into a region of almost 300 factory ( or mill) towns, forming the vanguard of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. The industry went global and was the source of much of  Britain’s wealth and power in the Victorian era. Lancashire mill owners used to boast that they met the needs of the home market before breakfast, before devoting the rest of the day to lucrative exports.

  So, Darwen and its neighbours became “Mill Towns” dominated by huge, square topped, brick mills with their square towers ( for dust extraction) and their tall, circular chimneys. They dwarfed every other building. The church was no longer the commanding focus of these towns. Workers, including many women, flocked in from the countryside to work in these new cathedrals of industry. On a work day the overwhelming sound in the streets would be of clogs clattering on cobblestones as the mill-workers flocked to their jobs on the spinning and weaving machines. I learnt all about this era at school, both as a pupil and as a teacher. Thus I was fascinated by the idea of visiting Darwen and other ex-mill towns. We got there in the nick of time! Chimneys and mills once dotted Darwen by the dozen, but now only one remains. First the American Civil War of the 1860’s dried up the supply of cheap cotton, then later, in the 20th century, foreign competition and boycotts largely killed off a once spectacularly successful industry. It seemed that we had missed the funeral and were only just in time for the fag-end of the “wake.”

  Mill closures averaged almost one a week throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. Explosives experts such as “Blaster Bates” ( no relation) became briefly famous for blowing up chimneys. Films and records were even made of their exploits. I actually watched and listened to some of them, not realising that they were really about the destruction of part of our country’s  heritage. By the 1980’s the Cotton Industry in much of Lancashire, including Darwen, was a mere memory. The mills had closed and the campaign for clean air had gathered pace, such that there was no big objection to hundreds of chimneys and factories being reduced to rubble. Fortunately, the heritage/conservation movement came along at the eleventh hour. In the case of Darwen, it secured the preservation of the town’s most successful textile factory along with its impressive Venetian- style chimney. The India Mill still has a powerful presence in the little town. It has now been transformed into a modern business centre and stands as a lone memorial to the days of “King Cotton.”

  So what is Darwen like? Well, it’s an average northern industrial town. It is not particularly pretty but neither is it particularly ugly. It has a few grand civic and public buildings — the Town Hall, Market Hall, Library and Museum — all echoes of a more prosperous era. It has some very nice large houses on the edge of town near the countryside, while closer to the centre, the terraces built for the original factory workers, still march dramatically up the hillsides. Many are now being restored and modernised. Darwen, like many other similar places, is hanging on by its fingertips following the traumatic collapse of its main industry and source of income. It is trying to re-invent itself. The old market hall now has a modern shopping centre next to it, the old Victorian Art College is being converted into apartments, and as I’ve mentioned, the only surviving mill has been reincarnated as a business centre. Many of the churches and chapels that served the spiritual needs of the mill workers and the miners have now either closed or been amalgamated. We visited St Peters Church, which, as the warden, Bill, pointed out, is actually 3 churches pushed into one. He took great delight in telling us which features — the font, the pews, the pulpit etc — came from which church. I think he enjoyed having some interested “tourists” to talk to. But behind all the fascinating detail was the story of declining congregations which reflected the wider decline of the town itself. Even the dead have played their part in the re-invention of Darwen. In order to create a large green space in the middle of the town, something which is in short supply, the graves in the churchyard have been cleared and their inhabitants reinterred in the main cemetery. At first, when we asked about the absence of graves, Bill told us that Darreners were so miserable that they were too mean to die! That’s another good thing about the place — a dry sense of humour.

  Darwen is a friendly place. People are open and welcoming. Older residents were very happy to talk about  their town’s history, which they are proud of. Not only did it have the once thriving cotton industry, but it also had mining, a rail link and some of the first steam trams in the world. I tried to imagine them chugging up and down the hills taking the Darreners to and from their work. Now all this has gone. However the locals retain a strong sense of their identity and Blackburn is almost a taboo word. It must grate that their local Municipal council is now officially called ” Blackburn with Darwen”, rather than “Blackburn and Darwen” or just plain Darwen. People are determined to retain their town’s individual identity and to not just become a suburb of their bigger neighbour.

  One thing that everyone is aware of and proud of, is that the famous Indian independence leader, Gandhi, came to their town. The Mahatma visited Darwen in May, 1931. He had been invited up by local mill owners, the Davies’s, to witness the hardship caused by India’s boycott of British goods as part of its independence campaign. They thought Gandhi would be moved by the suffering throughout the Lancashire mill towns that had been decimated by the embargo. Gandhi got a warm reception. He empathised with the unemployed workers: “They treated me as one of their own.” It was as if the workers realised it was not India, but their own greedy and irresponsible mill owners who were really responsible for their plight. Although he was moved, Gandhi refused to change his country’s stance.  When some old weavers told him how bad things were, he simply replied: “My dears, you have no idea what poverty is.”

  The severe suffering of the 1930’s Depression has now gone but the pride of Gandhi’s visit lives on. Even the man serving us in Bolton’s Waterstones had heard about it! Blackburn may have once won the Premier League but it never had a visit from Gandhi!

  However for me it’s Darwen’s history as a cotton town and its magnificent setting beneath the high Pennine moors that make it special. As our bus chugged down Bolton Road into the centre, Darwen announced itself through two eye-catching landmarks on either side of us. To the left, on a high, bare hill- top stood Darwen Tower. This tall observation tower was erected to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 but also to commemerate the freeing up of the moors to public access. We climbed up to it later on in our visit and the views of the hills, moors, reservoirs and the towns in the valleys, are wide-ranging and magnificent.  Meanwhile to the right stood the 300 foot India Mill Italianate chimney and the giant mill itself. Surely this wasn’t right? Weren’t we supposed to be visiting a dingy little town devoid of charm and interest? It was a promising start to our mission to be tourist trail-blazers in a town virtually ignored by most other holiday-makers.

  India Mill was once just one of scores of others employing hundreds on its spinning machines. Opened in 1868, it was reckoned to be one of the finest in Europe. By some miracle it survived the wrecking- ball. It was actuaaly in operation until as late as 1991. The mill and its chimney are prime examples of the flamboyant confidance of the Lancashire Cotton industry in the middle of the 19th century. As its name suggests, it mainly served the Indian market. It was opened by a Marquis with many lords and ladies in attendance. A vast exhibition of art covered 3 floors including paintings by Gaindborough, Van Dyck and Durer. The ornate red-brick chimney took 14 years to build and cost £14,000. An ex-Mayoress of Darwen told us that they had a dinner dance on top of the chimney when it was finally completed, with food, equipment and people pulled up by pulley! It was in a bad state of neglect when it was inspected in the early 1990’s. A monumental pointing job was urgently needed! Today it looks splendid and is apparently the home of a nesting pair of Peregrine falcons.
  Places like the mill, the chimney, the Observation Tower, the Victorian public buildings and the ranks of terraced houses, give Darwen its sense of history and atmosphere. As well as Gandhi, it has  been visited by Charlie Chaplin who performed at the theatre in the early 20th century. The Beatles also played there in 1965, headlining “The Greatest Teenage Dance” organised by Darwen Baptist Youth group at the Cooperative Hall. George Formby found his wife there and it has been the setting for the TV sleuthing series ” Hetty Winthrop Investigates”. Now Chris and I have included it in our “Hills and Mills” bus-pass tour of 2012. So it has had more than its allotted “15 minutes of fame” It may never be the classic tourist destination and will not provide glossy pictures for magazines, but it’s still has quite a lot to offer for those willing to dig just below the surface. We enjoyed it anyway!

HILLS and MILLS by BUS-PASS — an Experimental “Holiday.”

20 Aug

 ” Are you enjoying your holiday in Darwen?” asked a cheeky kid, as Chris and I waited at the bus stop ( We were in Darwen, Lancashire, not Darwin, Australia.). When I replied that we were, he declared in a loud, mocking voice: ” I can’t imagine anyone coming to Darwen for a holiday!” His friends sniggered as they walked off. Obviously, growing up in this old Pennine mill town has led to a severe case of familiarity breeding contempt. These lads could not think of any reason why anyone would freely choose to visit their town, a place that is well off the tourist trail. However there we were. We were in Lancashire, not Lanzarote. We were visiting cotton towns not the Costas. Why? Well the answer is that this “holiday” was an experiment.

  I have this idea that nearly every place is interesting if one allows oneself to be interested. So, in theory, I could enjoy a holiday just about anywhere. Obviously I would avoid going to Chernobyl or trying to have a relaxing fortnight in the middle of a war zone. However with that important safety proviso in place, the sky’s the limit. Another point is that I believe you don’t have to fly off to an exotic, far-away destination to have a stimulating and enjoyable time. Fascinating experiences and interesting places could be waiting just down the road, round the next corner, without the need to endure airport queues or onerous security checks. It’s surprising how many people deliberately deny themselves potentially enjoyable experiences by refusing to consider a whole raft of destinations. They won’t go there because it doesn’t have a decent beach. They cannot go there because the weather is too cold. They don’t want to go there because the locals don’t speak English. They avoid visiting that place because it is not pretty and photogenic. This seems to me a blinkered way of approaching holiday planning. As I’ve said — almost every place has points of interest. All one has to do is seek them out. Some people might describe this as “thinking outside the box.”

  That is why this summer ( 2012) Chris and I decided to go on “holiday” to an area that is not featured in most tourist brochures, travel programmes or guide books. We went to the South Pennines on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border in northern England. According to the Rough Guide to England, this is a region which most tourists figure is “unlikely to offer much in the way of cultural promise or light-hearted diversion.” It mentions the historical signifance of the old mill towns but concludes that :” It’s still hard to propose a serious tourist investigation of the region.” It’s a mysterious place that resides in a gap between the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District and the Lake District. It’s an area one passes through while travelling from Leeds to Manchester or en-route between one National Park and another. It’s a sort of north of England no-man’s land. The National Park architect, John Dower, dismissed it as the “Industrial Pennines.” Thus, despite containing a lot of scenic beauty and historical importance, it failed to achieve National Park status or mainstream tourist recognition.

  So, what attracted me (us) to this largely ignored destination? Well I blame 2 famous writers, a well known artist and a history teacher. First of all, my teacher instilled in me a fascination for the early years of the Industrial Revolution which originated in the 18th and 19th century textile mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The moist atmosphere was ideal for handling and working thread and the fast flowing streams and rivers provided water power for the first machines. The thousands of sheep on the hills provided the wool and cotton was imported through the ports of Liverpool and Manchester nearby. Later the area was well placed to develop steam power because of the ready availability of coal, and huge chimneys were erected to get rid of the smoke from the furnaces. Later, I became a history teacher myself, and over the years the names and achievements of the inventors who kick- started the World’s first large scale industry achieved almost legendary status in my mind.  There was John Kay’s Flying Shuttle, Richard Hargreaves and his Spinning Jenny, Richard Arkwright’s Spinning Water Frame and Samuel Crompton’s Spinning Mule, to name but a few. These inventions led to mass- production processes in the textile industry leading to the World’s first factories ( or mills) and factory towns. These were the very places we were due to visit. These atmospheric mill towns scattered across the backbone of  northern England are beautifully described in the opening chapter of J B Priestly’s ” The Good Companions” and memorably depicted in the match-stick men pictures of L S Lowry. Priestly talks about ” the high moorland which thrusts itself between the woollen mills of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire.” This is an area where one can wander for miles without meeting a soul and hear nothing apart from the wind and the “curlews crying in that empty air.” Forming a blackened edge to these moors are the “host of tall chimneys, the rows and rows of little houses built of blackening stone, that are like tiny, sharp ridges on the hills.”

  Taking all this into consideration, it’s a mystery to me why this region is so neglected by travellers. There are so many startling contrasts. Juxtaposition is a good word to use here. I find it hard to resist a mighty mill with its giant chimney stack, juxtaposed against the majestic background of a bleak, bare hill. It’s like a living Lowry painting and obviously where he got a lot of his inspiration from. A short, sharp walk can take one from an old industrial town, heavy with historical atmosphere, up to the liberating, open moors, festooned with heather and sprinkled with shining reservoirs. Someone else who appreciated the wild escapism of the Pennine moors was Emily Bronte who lived in the cobbled mill town of Haworth. Thanks to her, these uplands will forever be associated with Heathcliff trying to connect with Cathererine and escape the suffocations of society, in the memorable novel ” Wuthering Heights.” Charlotte Bronte wrote of her sister Emily: “She found in the black solitude many and dear delights, and not the least and best was liberty.”

  Yet another writer, William Blake, immortalised the “dark satanic mills” of this region in his poem/hymn “Jerusalem”, comparing the World’s first centres of mass production, with their deafening clatter of machinary, clouds of choking dust and belching chimneys, with hell on earth, and comparing them unfavourably with “England’s green and pleasant land.” Well the old mills are mostly silent now, following the collapse of Britain’s once all-conquering textile industry in the mid 20th century. They stand there like ghosts from the past. Many have been demolished along with their iconic chimneys. Others hang on in a sad, neglected state, defaced by graffiti and punctured with broken windows. For a time, it looked as if the whole lot would be destroyed and the reminders of a whole era lost for ever. Thankfully, attitudes to conservervation changed just in time for some mills to be rescued, restored and preserved. They are now living out new lives as : museums, apartment blocks, warehouses and shopping malls.

  To me, this contrast between the giant mills, tall chimneys and wild, surrounding hills creates a unique and fascinating environment. It might not be conventionally pretty but it certainly serves up dramatic vistas, some man-made, some natural and others: an intoxicating mixture of the two.

  Another slightly unusual element of this vacation was that Chris and I chose to travel around on public transport. It would have been a lot easier and quicker to have used the car but we decided to leave it in the garage. We could also have gone on a coach tour and saved ourselved the trouble and worry of figuring out how to get from A to B. However, I thought that the car or a coach would act as a barrier between us and the local comminuty. Maybe we would get more of a feel for the place if we were waiting at the same bus stops as the locals. It worked like a dream! If we had simply jumped into the car or boarded a private coach we would never have chatted with the 95 year old lady who lived on her own and whose daughter lives in California and visited her just once a year, in September. She liked to get out for a change of scene and to meet people. She met us — at our very first bus stop! We would similarly never have talked to the ex-mayoress of Darwen who had gone down to the Palace to meet the Queen in the 1950’s and was now moving around with the aid of a wheeled zimmer frame, and still catching the local bus down the hill into town. She told us that she had enough stories to last all the way to Blackburn!

 Finally,  there was another important reason why we caught the local buses. One of the few perks of being over 60 years old is gaining a bus pass which allows free local travel after 9-30am throughout England. It’s one of that rare species — the Universal Benefit, ( along with the Winter fuel allowance and free prescriptions which I am also very grateful for.) More and more benefits are now being scrapped or means-tested by the cost-cutting Coalition government which came to power in 2010. Actually Chris and I were “lucky” to get our passes around the age of 60, whereas people hitting that age now have to wait longer and longer as the qualification age is being raised in stages up to 65 and beyond. A friend, merely 3 years younger than me, recently explained that he would have to wait until 67 before he got his pass ( if ever.)

  Ever since the austerity programme began with savage cuts in public spending, I have expected that the free bus pass system would be an obvious target for the Chancellor’s axe. However, by some miracle ( or pressure from Mr Clegg and the Liberals), Mr Osborne has not stopped it yet. Therefore, I had the idea of doing the bus-pass trip, now rather than later, before, like the mills, it passes into history.

  This then became the final ingredient of our experimental holiday. Chris kindly agreed to give it a go. Actually, I sold it to her more as an ” experience” than a “holiday.” We wouldn’t be doing much lazing around on sun lounges or diving into enticing pools. We were not to be pampered at a spa resort or being waiting on hand and foot at a luxurious, posh hotel. Instead, we would be waiting at dusty, draughty bus stations and trundling from one declining town to another in a rickety old bus. It’s not exactly the glamorous end of the travel trade! However, we did it. We travelled to an area that is avoided by most holiday-makers, and we used the most inconvenient means of transport available. But it was great! We met lots of interesting people, saw striking scenary and learnt a lot. What’s more, our bus-passes can now add Manchester and East Lancs to their lists of conquests. ( next time we plan to go to the Yorkshire south Pennines.)

  I think the experiment and the experience was a big success and much of it was for free. It’s not often one can say that these days. Now that we’ve done it, I have a great feeling of satisfaction. No future Coalition – cut can ever take away the fond memories of our “Hills and Mills” bus- pass odyssey.

CONCRETE OR FEATHERS?

25 Mar

It’s been a bad week. The Tory Chancellor has decided to take money away from pensioners ( I’m a pensioner) and give lots of money to millionaires.( I’m not a millioniare!)  Then my wife, Chris, and I found out that Wimpey’s want to build yet another housing estate on the quiet fields opposite our house. No doubt they will get their way as the Government, in its wisdom, has relaxed the planning laws that used to protect our countryside from insensitive over- development. Then we got the devastating news that the court case against an out- of- town superstore complex on another green field site, has been lost. So our small, friendly high street with its selection of independent retailers is to be put in serious jeopardy by the “alien” invader whose only interest is in making money rather than protecting local communities.

I moved to Skelton in Cleveland just over 5 years ago after living in the urban conurbation of Tyneside for 35 years. It was a big change. I exchanged the vast array of amenities and facilities of the city for the quieter more intimate life of living in the semi-countryside. Some would say I was now living in “the sticks.” I moved there when I got married and when I finally retired from the job that was tying me to Tyneside. Although it is only a few miles from industrial Teesside, Skelton is very close to the coast, the Cleveland Hills and the North York Moors. It is just up the road from the charming, old-fashioned Victorian resort of Saltburn- by- the- Sea. So we don’t have a huge array of shops, we cannot choose from a wide selection of films, plays and entertainments, we cannot watch premier League football, but we do have peace, calm and fresh air and we do have lots of lovely countryside on our doorstep. The village itself is friendly and down to earth. Everyone says “hello” and passes the time of day. In the village centre we often bump into each other at meeting places such as the little branch library, the Post office, the Coop or the pub. It’s not a particularly picturesque village. We don’t have a babbling stream or charming clusters of thatched cottages. But it a pleasant, friendly place and worth wanting to preserve. The High Street is situated on a hillside and inbetween the buildings , one gets distant views of the sea. We have a village green, the remains of a medieval whipping post, an old church ( along with a newer Victorian one), an old Board school, now converted into a house, and a selection of dwellings from the last 3 centuries. Skelton also has a castle but the original structure has made way for an 18th/19th century grand house set in extensive grounds. Up until the time of Henry VIII this was the baronial home of the powerful De Brus family whose relatives north of the border, spawned the famous freedom- gaining Scottish King: Robert the Bruce.

Unfortunately the present owner of Skelton castle seems largely to be an “absentee landlord” and has little connection with the local community. This is where our problem probably lies. The land owned by the castle estate is slowly being sold off to developers. Housing estates are now spreading down the hill like a stain. Green grass is turning into concrete. Wild flowers, insects and birds are being replaced by bricks and mortar and the inevitable cars. Ironically, the latest estate is called Castle View but most of the newcomers will just have a view of houses and double garages. One of our neighbours, lives in an older property called Woodland View. But the wood is nowhere in sight and the name of the house seems like a sick joke.

I know this post is now starting to sound like a classic piece of NIMBYISM. New houses and shops are fine so long as they don’t spoil my view and upset my status quo. I also know that change is inevitable. However, the questions have to be asked — How much development can one area take before it is ruined for everyone? The developers just want to make their money. Do they really care about destroying the peace, wiping out the wildlife or ruining the quality of life of the people who actually have to live in the place where they are building. Does our absentee Lord of the Manor really care about the people living in the village around his frequently empty castle? Changes and “developments” have to be sensitive and in keeping with the scale and nature of the area where they are taking place. I doubt if the Head of Wimpeys or the councillors on the Planning Committee would like to have a housing estate or an out-of-town shopping development stuck on to green field sites opposite them.

Which brings me to the pheasants. In our area we are lucky enough to still have a lot of birdlife. Even just in our garden we have a pair of blue tits taking up home in the nest-box, a pair of Turtle-doves cooing in the apple tree, and blackbirds, thrushes and sparrows regularly washing in the bird bath. The nearby fields often have pheasants and grouse wandering across them. Unfortunately many of them get mown down my motorists and end up as  colourful but sad feathery corpses for cars to negotiate around. The new Asda superstore, petrol station and giant car-park is to be built on one of these fields. Asda is part of the American Wallmart “family”. It makes it sound all cosy and friendly doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want a friendly family moving in next to them? Unfortunately the image will not match up to the reality. The tenant farmer who has been growing crops on that field has now been ordered not to sow any more. So it’s goodbye swathes of swaying wheat and hello polluting petrol pumps. The hedges will be uprooted, so its goodbye birds, berries and wildflowers and hello cars, noise and litter. A huge shed will rise on this green field site completely dwarfing all the buildings in the surrounding area. It will be goodbye pheasants, hello concrete. That retail shed will start to suck the trade and life out of our village. Independent retailers’ livelihoods will be threatened. Our village community life will be seriously at risk as people opt for the cheaper, big store alternative away from the High Street. This has happened and is still happening up and down the country. I hear Holmfirth, the Pennine town made famous by “TheLast of the Summer Wine ” TV series, is being menaced by a giant Tescos development. So is Hay-on-Wye in the south. My friend Vic from Brighton, is still depressed and devastated by the building of a large new football stadium and all its accompanying buildings and roads in an area of the South Downs designated as being of “Outstanding beauty” and ” Special Scientific interest.” I thought we had won the argument for protecting our  High Streets and countryside against car-orientated out- of- town develpments. But it seems I have been naive. Despite the intervention of Mary Portas, the government’s High Street “Czar”, it seems that our town and village centres are still under severe threat. Despite all the work of  Peter Scott and David Attenbrough, it seems our wildlife and beauty spots are still regarded by many as expendable. The argument for preserving the centres of our valuable communities is far from won. So is the one about protecting our precious countryside and wildlife. Apparently, our current Tory- dominated Coalition government wants to ensure that planning regulations no longer hold back economic growth irrespective of the cost to fragile environments.

In a sick PR stunt, our local council of Redcar and Cleveland, involved innocent local primary children in the naming of the lane that will lead to the green-field superstore development. The naive children decided to christen it “Pheasant Fields Lane”. It makes sense — as the field that the road runs alongside often has pheasants running and flying around in it. However, if the Councillors and developers get their way, there will be no more pheasants because there will be no more field. They will just be seeing a larger number of squashed birds on the road as the traffic vastly increases. As a writer to our local newspaper noted, maybe they should call it “Dead Pheasants Road” instead. In a contest between feathers and concrete there is only one winner. Unfortunately, the same has to be said about a contest between a small village High Street and a giant retailer. The landowner, the developers and the outside retailer will all make a heap of money but the people and wild-life of our area will be the ones who will pay a heavy price.