Part two of the Bishop Auckland branch: part one is here.
New Towns seem like a very Southern England concept to me. Growing up near Hertfordshire, with plenty of aunts and uncles in the county, places like Stevenage, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City were familiar destinations. I was well aware of their colour coded streets, their fondness for avenues instead of roads, their innovative tourist attractions (dry ski slopes! Multiplexes!).
Most familiar of all was Milton Keynes, just up the M1, whose shopping centre was spoken of in tones of reverence by my parents. Compared with the dull Luton Arndale, with its pink flamingos and dark oppressive ceiling, Milton Keynes' mall (the Americanism imported unselfconsciously) seemed bright and airy. Also, it had a Habitat and a John Lewis, hopelessly aspirational stores my mum and dad loved to wander round even if we couldn't afford anything.
There were northern New Towns as well, though. Skelmersdale is probably the most familiar to Merseysiders, but Runcorn, Warrington and even Preston all benefited from the New Towns Act. With Darlington behind me, I was now headed to one of the north-east's created communities, one whose name gave you a clue to its provenance: Newton Aycliffe.
Heighington station, on the southern tip of the town, predates the town by over a hundred years. It was opened along with the initial stretch of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, and for many years served a munitions factory. It was this factory that then formed the core of Newton Aycliffe - after the war the land was given over to factories.
The station building here has been turned into a pub, the Locomotive No. 1, but that's the only feature of interest. I let the train pass then crossed over the tracks for a picture of the station sign.
Heighington today now mainly serves a colossal industrial estate, one of the largest I have ever seen. The planners concentrated all of the town's businesses to the south of the centre, and the result is a dizzying wander through a bland landscape. White box after white box , neatly set back behind a grass verge and some car parking, with large signs on the side declaring Countdown conundrum-named occupiers. None of the factories seemed to be keen to tell you what they did; their contents remained a mystery, unless you could deduce what RTFD or SSUN stood for. Trucks rolled by, broken up by the occasional empty bus, but there were no other pedestrians.
The roads were named in the most perfunctory way possible. Heighington Lane - that's ok I suppose. A bit on the nose. The tedious Grindon Way was followed by the dully-predictable Millennium Way and then the nadir: Fujitsu Way. A salutary lesson to planners everywhere, as Fujitsu promptly closed their factory and left it as an embarrassing fossil; the town extended Millennium Way on the maps but the road sign is still there.
I was trekking round the estate in search of a Big Giant Head. Not William Shatner (though wouldn't that have been ace?), but instead a piece of art called In Our Image, by sculptor Joseph Hillier. The piece was commissioned as a landmark for the entrance to the town, a symbol of its industrial might. I'm not quite sure how that works - are people meant to come off the A1 and say "ooh, they've got a big metal person on a roundabout - let's relocate our assembly line here!".
It's actually a pretty interesting piece of work. The smaller men crawling all over it are meant to imply that the head is still under construction, as a tribute to workers from the town. I should imagine it's much more impressive in summer, when the trees hide the spindly support poles, but it's still gloriously incongruous; a bit of Iron Giant in the middle of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist.
I could have gone back through the business park, but it was frankly depressing, so instead I made a long loop round through Aycliffe village. This was the original settlement that Newton Aycliffe has eclipsed, and it has a prickly relationship with the larger town. They weren't even keen on it taking their village's name, and referred to them disparagingly as "them up the road".
The village is nice enough, I suppose; nothing special. It didn't have that effortless beauty that the best English villages have - it was, after all, still a place whose residents were mainly munitions workers. There was a pretty church, and a couple of pubs, but soon enough I was back on the main road to Newton Aycliffe.
It was an incredibly dull road, straight and empty. I began to feel the tiredness hitting me - I'd been awake for nearly eight hours at this point, and I'd slept badly the night before. Each step seemed to drag. I felt like I'd wandered miles away from anything interesting.
There was a big junction, and I was back in Newton Aycliffe.
I like the full stop after "Sweden". It implies a tidy mind.
Unfortunately, I was still in industrial estate-land. These were much older factories though, from the forties and fifties, and they housed less glamorous looking businesses. In the distance, chimneys churned out black smoke from an old-school plant. I followed the curve as it slowly gave way to more human sized businesses - garages and tyre sellers, a funeral home with We proudly support our troops overseas on a board outside, which seemed a bit tasteless, as though they were canvassing for business from the grieving families of soldiers.
The "blue bridge" is a local landmark, and marks the point where the factories give way to the residential districts. There used to be a railway here, linking up the two Darlington lines that pass either side of the town, but now it's just a foot and cycle path. Beneath the bridge, proud stone buttresses commemorate the unveiling of the bridge and the town's position in the Durham diocese.
Beyond, gently arcing roads thread between solid red brick houses and blocks of flats. There were huge quantities of trees, cycle lanes, crossing spaces - everything you'd want from a decent, civilised town.
Soon I reached the town centre itself. I crossed by the parish church and the war memorial, and entered the Thames Shopping Centre. I was immediately disappointed. The tiny mall was lined with horribly down at heel retailers - charity shops, pound stores, a pub that was built purely for people to get drunk in. There were stalls in the middle of the aisle, making it feel messy and disorganised.
I passed through hurriedly, and into the precinct. I'm using that term deliberately; you couldn't get more "shopping precinct" if you tried. A concrete square surrounded by half-filled shops, with a second, mostly empty row above. It was a tired, grey place. No-one particularly wanted to be there. It felt like a one-two punch of a down hearted populace and the recession had knocked any enthusiasm or cheer from the precinct.
I later found out that there was a Tesco Extra a couple of streets away, which explains a lot. No wonder the Woolworths sign is still there, nearly four years after the shop was closed.
I headed up the ramp to the second floor, lured in by a sign promising me The Finest Coffee In The World, Probably! It was lunch time and I was still craving that cup of tea, so I went inside.
In retrospect, all the signs were there. The cakes in the chiller were luridly coloured and reeked of e-numbers; the sandwiches looked oily and unpleasant. I was too embarrassed to turn around and go out again so I stood politely at the empty counter and waited for service.
A huge woman came out of the back with a plate in each hand. She was solid, rather than fat, like an ogress made of solid granite, and she fixed me with a stare before bellowing "THIRTY!". The customers waiting for their order, two pensioners, raised their hand, and she deposited their plates of brown on their table before returning to the back. There was another pause then, where I stood smiling hopefully, as though being polite to the till would get it to take my order, before she reappeared.
I ordered a tea and a cheeseburger, on the basis that it was the simplest meal on the menu and the least likely to get wrong, and she stared at me again. "LIZ!" she yelled, and a tiny grey haired woman came out and asked me what I wanted. I ordered it again, and paid (only a couple of quid, to be fair), while the ogress poured hot water into a stainless steel teapot. She dropped it on the counter in front of me. It took me a while to realise that I had to collect my own mug and milk from the pile off to one side, and then I sat down as she prepared my order.
My heart sank as I heard a "ping" from behind the drinks cabinet. My cheeseburger was being microwaved. She brought it over and dropped it on the table in front of me. My stomach flipped inside me.
It smelt. It stank of rancid, dead souls, of dirty clothes, of unscrubbed changing rooms. It smelt of agony and misery. It smelt of cheapness and age. I nudged it, almost as if I expected it to spring to life, and the thin film of cheese slid sideways towards the plate.
I didn't want to eat it. I didn't even want to look at it. But I was hungry, and I didn't know when I'd next get a chance to eat. Plus I'd paid for it, and I resented throwing my money away.
It tasted so bad. The floury bap crumbled in my mouth on the first bite, collapsing into a frothy mess of gluten that churned in my mouth. I tasted limp onions, the sharp twist of processed Cheddar, and then my teeth hit the stodgy flesh of the burger. It was like chewing on a washing up sponge. A slab of gristle and filler, nothing like meat, nothing like food, swilling around my mouth in lumps. Blobs of greasy pink ketchup, oily from the microwaved cheese, dripped onto the plate.
I felt sick. I gulped at the tea - at least you can't get tea wrong - letting it ferment in my mouth, swilling it round behind my teeth to wash out all the aftertaste. I ate the burger in three huge bites, trying to minimise the amount of time I'd have to keep it on my tongue, wiping the disgust off my fingers. They would smell of onions and red sauce for the rest of the day, no matter how many times I scrubbed them.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Coffee Pronto probably isn't home to the finest coffee in the world. It all came out of a machine, for a start; there was no barista-ing on display. I looked around at my fellow customers, all pushing their way through heaps of food with sad faces. The food was awful, but there were large portions. That's what you want when you're a pensioner, or you're unemployed, or you're a harrassed young mother with a hyperactive toddler. Just food, and as much of it as you can get.
I left quickly, trying to get back out in the open air fast to try and calm my rebellious guts. I needed to get out of this town.
The station's out on the edge of the residential district, giving me more time to walk along manicured avenues and neat verges. I wondered why New Towns had this feel of deadness to them. Why do they often look like the leftover homes in a post-apocalyptic drama? Part of it is because this is a place where people lived on their own. There weren't families and connections in the town, just individuals with no loyalty or pride. People just live in New Towns. They moved there because it was clean and better than what they had, but their hearts weren't there. Over fifty years later these places are still without souls. We're into the third generation of residents now, but people don't love Newton Aycliffe; the population never reached its projected figures, and businesses have struggled. It's become a place of despair and deprivation.
There's something in the British character that likes a bit of chaos, and I think the New Towns are too regimented and thought out for us. Those long clean avenues are a bit too formal and plain, not like the messy, unplanned streets of our favourite cities. London is a hopeless mess, but we love it; Milton Keynes is built with its residents right at the top of its priorities, and it's a national joke. The game between MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon last weekend personified this - the New Town that simply bought a football team, shipped it in wholesale, gave it a brand new modern stadium and claimed it as its own, versus the one that was loved and cherished by its supporters and its community. AFC Wimbledon were scrappy and operated out of a dinky ground and everyone liked that. Did anyone actually want the MK Dons to win? No. We wanted them to be obliterated. We wanted their cold, tedious, franchised legs broken, to teach them a lesson about true spirit. New Towns have everything you could want except that spark of passion.
It's very badly signposted, Newton Aycliffe station. I mean, it's fine if you're on the road, but they've built the pathways a fair way away from the tarmac. It suffers from that compulsion town planners occasionally get to make pedestrians go out of their way. "We'll give the people with a combustion engine the quickest possible route," they think, "but the pensioners, young mums and people with heavy shopping would love to stroll all around the place rather than head straight home." My path went up a slope, then down into a dip beside a flooded underpass, in what I can only assume was a twisted architect's secret plan to make the absolute best place for a rapist to lie in wait.
Newton Aycliffe station, at least, is half-decent. It was only opened in 1978, and has two platforms, though someone skimped along the line and built them out of wood. False economy, I think. Still, there's a footbridge and a shelter, which is better than anything else I'd encountered on the line so far.
A man settled into the shelter opposite with a pack of chips, which he began to devour eagerly. I eyed it jealously. And wished I had a breath mint to get rid of the nasty taste in my mouth.