Sunday 24 June 2012

It's Grim Up North

I could live in Rishton, I've decided.  Perhaps when I retire.

The station was neat and tidy and had a footbridge, which was a first on this trip.  It was tucked away at the end of a suburban street.  There was an old-ish pub next to the platform, but on the other side of the street were modern bungalows.  Their gardens were aflame with blooms.

As I approached the village centre, the houses aged, turning into neat cottages with painted fronts.  Rishton originally made its money from weaving, and the homes had the pride and distinctiveness of a community based on a trade - people who built good houses for a decent job.  I could hear the screams and laughs of children at the local primary school, an old-fashioned Victorian hulk, with red bricks and separate entrances for boys and girls.

The town centre, meanwhile, was interesting and varied.  Local shops, a couple of small chains, some pubs.  Women with buggies and pensioners.  A bus turned up and carried a couple of people off towards Preston.  Small town life.

I was charmed and happy.  I headed for the bridge over the canal, passing through a gate built for the Queen's last Jubilee, in 2002.  Down there were walkers with dogs, a couple throwing bread into the water for the ducks.  The houses had landing stages built at the end of their gardens.  I'm not sure if they ever actually had a boat moor there, but it made a good spot for their barbecues and sun loungers.

The fishermen gave me a slightly different perspective.  A group of middle-aged men, casting their lines, a couple of mates with them.  All very pretty and Countryfile, until I got close and saw they were drinking White Ace cider from the bottle.  These weren't professionals taking a day off to enjoy the sport; they were jobless men looking for a purpose, something to occupy their time.  Rishton wasn't completely perfect.

The other downside was the incessant burr of traffic.  Somewhere, carefully concealed among the hills, the M65 was passing.  Landscaping, plus the natural rise and fall of the hills, meant I couldn't see it, but I could seemingly hear the engine of every passing truck, car and van.  It was a constant arhythmic throb beneath my scenic walk.

I let the sunshine bake me a bit more as I lingered on the towpath.  A girl passed on a bike, hair an unnatural shade of magenta, a phone clamped to her right ear.  She was barking loudly into it with one fist on the handlebars.  I was severely tempted to give her a little push in the direction of the water.

The noise of the motorway was getting louder, but it wasn't bothering the little chain of swans and cygnets up ahead.  With stately grace, they advanced along the canal, as arrogant as a bird can possibly be.

It was then I experienced a surreal moment.  I realised why the motorway was so loud; I was actually above it.  The stone wall to my left wasn't just another farmer's enclosure - it was the side of an aqueduct carrying the Leeds and Liverpool Canal over the M65.  I peeked over the top and saw this beneath me:

Then I turned back and saw this:

It was a paradox my head couldn't quite take on board - a scenic waterway one way, six lanes of buzzing traffic the other.

The path turned away from the canalside to head for Church (the town, not the place of worship).  I passed a jogger whose subtle tracksuit couldn't take away from one of the mightiest weaves I have ever seen: I wanted to stop her and congratulate her.

My concern for my iPhone's battery stopped me from tweeting "I am in Church" as I stepped into the town, but rest assured I was thinking it.  It was a different world to Rishton.  While the spectre of unemployment and misery was below the surface there, in Church it was front and centre.  The fishermen were there again, but here they jeered as I passed.  The streets were grim and ugly.  And as I approached a church, a skinny man with a carrier bag suddenly leapt up and bellowed at me from the graveyard.  I couldn't understand him - I'm afraid his Northern accent was too thick for me, and yes, I know how Margo Leadbetter that makes me sound - so I kept my head down and pushed on.

Underscoring it all was the constant grinding, banging, beep-beep-beep of reversing vehicles at a massive depot behind the houses.  The noise of the industrial plant almost drove me mad in the brief time I was in the town, so God knows what the residents must think of it.  I suppose you become accustomed to it.

I hurried on to the train station, the brilliantly named Church & Oswaldtwistle.  "Oswald Twistle" sounds like a character from an Alan Sillitoe novel, railing against unemployment in black and white.  It's not so much a station as a passing place on a viaduct.

I'm posting that picture up there now, so you know I was in fact at Church & Oswaldtwistle station.  Because when I took a pic using the crappy front of phone camera, the name completely vanished.  I promise I was there.

Excitingly, the station had an ALF!  Well, a demi-ALF.  I had no idea what Oswaldtwistle Mills were, but I assumed it was something supremely exciting - a key moment in the history of the Industrial Revolution, perhaps.  Imagine how let down I was when I got home and found out it was another fucking craft mall with, yes, an Edinburgh Woollen Mill.  Even the fact that it's home to the World's Largest Pear Drop couldn't stop my disappointment.

My feeling of general sadness continue to Accrington.  I got off the train and saw this:

I have no basic objection to Tesco.  It's a shop.  People like to shop.  It just happens to be better and more efficient at giving people what they want than other shops.  You shouldn't really blame Tesco - you should blame the people who flock to it.

In this case, I'm going to blame Accrington's local authorities.  They've allowed Tesco to build a behemoth of a store right in the centre of town, yards from the rest of the shopping centre.  It's got a car park, two floors of merchandise, handy access from the train station.  It's got everything.  And in the process it has royally fucked over the town centre.  The locals basically strung up their own noose.

I guess they got a new railway station out of it - all local stone and elegant curves.  Anywhere else I'd be pleased with it.  Here, I just felt sad.  The town had whored itself for some money.

Like hundreds of other people, I didn't bother with the town centre, and headed out of town.  In the process I passed under a mighty piece of engineering - a viaduct, right in the centre of town, built for the railway.  If it had been a motorway overpass, it would have divided the town, but the high elegance of this structure added to the town.  There was even a coffee shop built into one of its arches.

Two things around the viaduct made me think that perhaps Accrington wasn't in the greatest shape.  The first was a man in his fifties with a carrier bag of snacks.  He walked past me, to the grass verge by the McDonalds, sat down and took out a bottle of Coke.  He was setting up for a picnic on a patch of land next to a roundabout.

The second was a man who stopped me and asked for a pound.  I apologised and said I didn't have any coins (which was sort of true; I only had a five pound note and some five pences - I didn't fancy asking for change).

"Go on," he said.  "I'll give you me watch."  He offered forward a large, elegant men's watch that didn't match the rest of him at all.  And he wanted to offload it for a quid?  Hmm.  I apologised again and walked away.

My next station was on the outskirts of town, and there was a road which could have taken me there directly.  I didn't fancy that though.  As I was in Accrington, I simply had to see an icon of the Eighties.

Everyone at school did that voice.  Everyone said "EXACKLEY!".  I couldn't come into the depths of Lancashire and not see them.

Unfortunately, Accrington town centre's in a valley, and the football ground's on a hill.  I found myself trudging upwards, reflecting that I was probably going to be doing a lot of this as I crossed the North of England.  This wasn't going to be a series of gentle strolls along smooth level lanes.  I was going to have to cross moors, hills, even the Pennines.  Whose idea was this again?

The plus side was the architecture; a series of softly shaded villas, with their front gardens penned in by  iron spikes.  It was elegant and subtle, and certainly made the walk a lot more pleasant.

The Crown Ground, Accrington Stanley's home, is on a small side street.  Walking up to it I could almost see inside the stadium.  There was a tiny car park, with a portakabin housing the offices and the club shop.  A sign on the shop door said When shop is closed, please ask at reception.  It was sweetly local.  I don't have much time for football but I admired the people who came here every Saturday to watch lower league rambling.  That's dedication.

I turned around and followed the road out of town.  It became a gravel road, then a path, then I was on soft soil between fields.  A pony trudged over to the fence and meekly allowed me to stroke its nose.

I came out at the side of the road next to a caravan park.  For a minute I thought I was back in Wales again.  This wasn't a bunch of holiday homes for weekending townies, though.  For starters, it was clinging to the side of the hill, right above a grim industrial plant and a series of warehouses.  The entrance was unmarked - there was no sign showing you had reached the "Happy Hills Holiday Park" or some such.  I realised that this miserable patch of side road had been allocated to travellers.  A little girl cycled through the centre of the compound on a tricycle, her wheels spinning on the grey mud, while a dog barked over and over.  The air smelt thickly of chemicals, like the inside of a Rustlers hot dog.  I didn't envy their existence in this patch of sadness.

There wasn't a path by the side of the road, so I balanced myself on the grass verge as eighteen-wheelers bombed past.  The earth was rough and pitted with litter; I kept imagining myself pitching to one side and falling in front of a truck.  Perhaps reaching out towards the fence on my fall, and managing to lacerate myself on the barbed wire.

By the time I reached Huncoat, I felt miserable and downbeat.  Passing an RSPCA rescue centre on the way didn't help - my concrete heart is always melted by the yelping of abandoned animals.  My mood had managed to plummet over the course of the afternoon, cracked by each successive town.  My ecstasies at Rishton seemed like a long time ago.

Huncoat's an old mining village; I passed a sign for the former colliery site, now given over to nature, but with stern warnings not to, you know, fall down a pit or something.  It's also the place where Diana "The Claw" Vickers grew up, which gives you an insight into why she was so keen to win The X-Factor.

I'd planned on doing a couple more stations before I went home, but I'd had enough.  I was tired and sad.  I didn't fancy moving onto another town that had seen better days.  I installed myself on a bench to wait for the train.

I love living at this end of the country.  I really do.  I don't regret spending nearly half my life the "wrong" side of Birmingham.  But my trip was reminding me that I was going to see a lot of poverty, a lot of unemployment and depression on my journeys.  This wasn't all going to be fun.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

Lancashire may be a depressed economic area, but there's plenty of work for graphic designers, judging by the number of logos the county council seems to have had.