Saturday 31 January 2015

Jump Back In Time


"How dare you!  That's none of your business!"

Still, I suppose after my adventures in Penistone, it was only fair I paid the reproductive organs of the ladies some attention as well.

I'd risen up the social scale at Wombwell.  The houses stood well back, with long drives and grass verges at the roadside.  The verges were unsullied by car tracks, the way they are in some places; the people here had double garages they could store their second car in, so they didn't need to churn up the public highway.  Behind the homes the trees of Wombwell Woods swayed in the wind, giving the homes a vaguely fairy tale air.

It was exactly the kind of street you could picture children being snatched from and taken off to be murdered in the woods.  If you have a twisted imagination like me.

While the road turned right, I turned left.  I immediately regretted not being in my walking boots.

The ground had been sodden and had frozen and then had melted again, leaving the mud sticky and moist.  The surface was like walking on wet clay.  I skidded and slipped, trying to follow the places where it had been churned up - the cycle tracks, the dog paw prints - but most of the time I just minced.  Tiny, delicate steps, quickly placed so I didn't sink, tapping over the field.  I imagined a farmer turning up on a tractor and just watching me with bemusement.

A concrete footbridge over a dual carriageway gave me a moment of firm land - and also a fine view of the local hills - but then it was back to the sludge for a last dash across a field.  Finally I was able to stagger up a slope behind some new houses, where I kicked off the worst of the mud.

The path continued as an alleyway, before opening up into Jump Park.  That's not a local council trying to get its citizens healthy and active with an exercise yard; I was actually in the village of Jump.  Obviously that goes straight into my top ten of placenames.  How lovely it must be to say "I live in Jump."  The only way it would be better would be if there was an exclamation mark at the end: Jump!  Why should Westward Ho! get all the plaudits for having punctuation in its name.  The residents should start a petition.

Walking around, though, I soon realised that the residents of Jump had more important things on their mind.  It was a sad, downtrodden place.  Terraces of old houses with broken windows.  The remnants of a bus stop, reduced to its footings.  A relatively new row of townhouses had patches of grass out front that were little more than rubbish tips.  Some of it came from the houses themselves - boxes for a new stereo, the remnants of Christmas decorations - but most of it was litter kicked into the yards from the street.  I couldn't help noticing the high number of cheap beer cans.

I headed down the hill by the Flying Dutchman pub, its chalkboard still wishing us Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and past a brand new Sure Start Centre.  It was surrounded by high razor wire, giving the impression that the children inside were in some way feral.

It brought to mind the great Yorkshire poet, Jarvis Cocker.  As I left Jump, heading into the countryside that separates it from its neighbour at Elsecar, the words of Common People popped into my head:
You'll never watch your life slide out of view 
And dance, and drink, and screw 
Because there's nothing else to do
What else was there to do for a teenager in Jump besides sit at a bus stop necking budget lager?  There wasn't an easy way out.  I imagined it could be a horribly lonely and isolated place.

I headed further into the valley, then under the viaduct and into Elsecar.  I had nearly an hour until my next train so I decided to take a circuitous route instead of heading straight to the station.  I walked through some of the quietest streets I have ever known.  There were no cars, no people, no sound.  The only noise was me (my trainers had developed an irritating squeak).  I didn't see a soul.  It was eerie.

I was almost deliriously happy to reach the main road and see actual traffic.  Elsecar was, like most places in this part of the world, a mining village, and down by the River Dearne there were Victorian terraces and workshops.  Now they were extremely desirable, despite the busy road outside; the gardens here were well tended to and neat, unlike their Jump counterparts.  The only objects scattered over their lawns were garden ornaments.

There were larger homes, plus a pub that had been converted into flats: it still had the Saloon stained glass over the door.  A woman came out of the building to get into her Land Rover and, even though I was a good six feet away, I could smell her incredibly strong perfume.  The inside of her car must have been like a gas chamber.

Elsecar's sexy and it knows it.  The industry has been replaced with tourism because it's such a pretty example of a Yorkshire mining village.  It's the cleaned up, polite version of course; no-one wants to see filth in the streets or children with rickets, but it's the sort of place that would turn up in an inspiring Sunday afternoon film.  One where the grumpy but old-fashioned mine worker - with a moustache and a flat cap - finally acknowledges his son's desire to move to That London and get a fancy university education with a hard-pressed smile.  Then they sing a Lionel Bart song, and the people in the street outside do a dance with their thumbs jammed in their braces.  Or something.

I walked past the church, which featured some frankly terrifying Victorian angel statues (damn you Moffat!) and down towards the Elsecar Heritage Centre.  The former ironworks have been turned into a visitor attraction.  Note that I say "visitor attraction" rather than actually describing what it is, because to be honest, I couldn't quite work it out.  There was a courtyard with a little cafe, as you'd expect, but then there were a load of shops.  They were artsy, crafty shops, yes - interior designers and antique dealers and places selling charming little tchotchkes - but they weren't exactly destination stores.

It was, basically, somewhere to go of a Sunday afternoon.  It didn't really have any reason to exist rather than there were some nice old buildings no-one wanted to see go to waste and there are a lot of desperate parents out there looking for something to do with their kids at the weekend.  On a weekday it was deserted.

Its main selling point is the Elsecar Heritage Railway, a preserved steam line that runs from the centre.  I walked round to the back and found a lovely clapboard station, with preserved engines and carriages waiting alongside.  Someone, somewhere, was working on an engine, and I could smell the smoke.

At the moment, the line is a cul-de-sac.  Trains can run as far as the Hemingfield basin, then they have to reverse and come back again without passengers getting the chance to alight.  They've recently raised enough money to construct an extension and a new halt, to make it into more of an experience.

There was a museum carriage, too, but I didn't have time to visit it.  My leisurely strolls meant that I now had only fifteen minutes until my train left, and I still had to get up the hill to reach it.  I had just enough time to do one thing:

I did also have time to stop outside the pub by the heritage centre and take a photo of one of the most wonderfully naff pub signs I have ever seen:

I sincerely hope the landlady was pregnant when they painted that, otherwise I'd want my money back.

I passed an old garage, still advertising Austin Morris cars and flying a tattered Union Jack, then pushed up the hill towards the station.  This part of the village was less scenic, but still seemed like a good place to live.  There was a tiny cafe, the Cottage Kitchen, with a poster saying Pea and pies served TONIGHT!, and a couple of solid pubs named after dignitaries.

Elsecar station used to have a ticket office, but it was closed a long time ago.  The building remains, decaying, the goods yard turned into a builder's merchant.  Decisions about what is and isn't worth preserving on the railway sometimes seem so unfair.

At the platform level the station had been refurbished and modernised, with plenty of ramps for the disabled and bike racks and electronic notice boards.  The tannoy system was in full flow.  Someone at Northern - and if I ever find out who it is, I'll kick them to death while wearing football boots - has decided that just having safety announcements isn't enough.  That's boring.  There are the terrifying children making announcements that I recoiled from at Marsden a few weeks ago, but even when it's a grown up it's no less irritating.

Earlier, at Barnsley, I'd heard "Any unattended items will be removed and possibly destroyed - no matter how nice they are!"  Now I got "Ooh, smile!" - the oooh pronounced in a way Barbara Windsor would have deemed over the top - "You're on camera!" , followed by the actual legally mandated notification about CCTV.  Worse was "Mind the gap between the platform and the train.  This is not a place you'd want to visit!"  That one doesn't even work.

Stop it now.  This comes under the same category as smoothies that describe their ingredients as "yummy strawberries" and comedy menus.  Treat us like adults.  If you want to write a sitcom, go off and do it; Carla Lane's had loads on telly, so it can't be that difficult.  Leave our safety announcements and our information boards unvarnished and ordinary.  I was ecstatic when the train arrived and I no longer had to listen to the endless mithering.

Chapeltown was my final stop for the day, and it felt like I'd reached the city.  Though it's technically a town in its own right, separated from Sheffield by countryside, it seemed like I'd hit the suburbs.  There was an Asda superstore and semi-detached homes stretching into the distance.  Down at street level, I found a small shopping precinct and a busy roundabout.  I also found this sign on the railway bridge, which I loved:

It's the "fast" that really sold it for me.  It's a deliberate two fingers to the drivers trapped in a jam underneath it.

I should have had a proper walk round the town, appreciated its sights, its ambiance.  I had an hour until the train back to Huddersfield after all.  Unfortunately, right outside the entrance to the station was a Wetherspoon's, and I am weak.

I'm very sorry.  Actually I'm not.  That Newkie Brown was gorgeous.

Monday 26 January 2015

Ice Station Yorkshire

I didn't actually see a Common in Silkstone Common.  I did look.  It made me think that perhaps it was a nickname that had somehow become official; that it was the place where Silkstone residents sent the working classes to live.  I pictured Victorian parlour maids and chimney sweeps trudging up the hill to go and work in the Downton-esque kitchens of the proper Silkstonians.

Still, the commoners got the last laugh, because that railway station is a lot more valuable in the 21st century.  It was only built in 1984, explaining its single platform and slightly cheap furnishings - the Eighties in South Yorkshire were not a time of great riches.  There had been a station here before, which closed at the end of the fifties when local services were withdrawn.  It's funny how, in 2015, we're told that closing railway stations is far too expensive and difficult to get through the legal processes, when fifty years ago they seemed to close entire swathes of the network without anyone really giving a monkeys.

Silkstone Common seems to be a thriving little community, judging by the notice board outside the Station Inn.  The British Legion, a Parish Council, a call to arms to fight the withdrawal of the mobile library.  There was a schedule for the "Good Companions", an organisation that provides entertainment for the elderly: it included "Tony and Heather entertain us with songs we know" and "The Maria Penrose School of Dance come to entertain us".  I dread being infirm and trapped in an old people's home already; don't make it worse by making half a dozen Shirley Temples do the dying swan to Bad Romance when I'm too old to run away.

The village was arranged along the edge of a hill, the railway line above us, then a steep drop below.  Large detached homes were built as high up as possible so they could get a good view over the valley.  Most of them were charming, but here and there they'd been augmented by tacky extensions and grandiose features to try and make them more impressive than their neighbours.  One home had added fibreglass columns to try and impart a bit of classical grace onto their 1950s residence.  Now that was common.

A little development of new, identical houses signaled the end of the village.  The only thing separating the homes was the colour of the front doors - one green, one blue, one cream.  I wondered if they'd had a conference about who got what colour.  A fraught discussion in one of the front rooms, hissed claims for each shade being made over the rich teas.  A red rejected as too outre; yellow simply out of the question.

The cleared paths stopped at the edge of the village as well.  Beyond habitable lands you were on your own; walk at your own risk.  I trod gingerly, wearing only a pair of trainers.  The lace on my walking boots had snapped that morning, so I'd just grabbed the first shoes I saw.  A mistake as they had no grip at all on the icy pavements.

(It has literally just occurred to me, as I typed this up, that I have a perfectly good pair of Dr Martens boots that I could have worn instead.  Fool).

The view was fantastic though.  Fields stripped with white filtered through bare trees; a soft violet sun breaking through swirling clouds.  I had to keep stopping just to take it in.

Over a rise in the road and then there were farmhouses.  Cows huddled inside their sheds, close together to keep warm.  The farmer kicked his way through the yard, followed by his dog, an Irish Wolfhound that looked bigger than the cattle.  At the next farm, I couldn't see the livestock, but I could hear them, wails rising up out of the buildings.

I was surprised by the whinney of a horse from across the road.  The steep slope meant that it was hidden from view, just a head poking up over the top.

The noise and smell of the dairy farm reminded my of my Great Uncle Ted and Charlie's farm when I was growing up; Charlie had died the week before so he was on my mind.  He'd worked on the farm all his life, right up until the end, even though he was in his 80s.  Visiting the farm as a child was always a thrill, the huge cows looking down at us through gentle eyes, the piles of straw to leap on.  Ted and Charlie came as a pair - two brothers who lived together and worked together, at least until Ted passed away a few years ago and Charlie carried on alone.  They never married; had no need to with a battalion of sisters willing to take care of them.  My nan would cook their dinner for them, and Auntie Elsie would come up from London at the weekends to keep house.  We'd be visiting on a Sunday and suddenly the living room door would open and one of them would appear.  I never got straight in my head which was Ted and which was Charlie.  Both were stout blocks of men, faces permanently darkened through hours outdoors, a flat cap squat on top of their head.  Ted or Charlie would always press a coin into my little hand with thick black fingers, unmovable dirt embedded beneath the fingernails.  Gone now.

The little trip into my past had carried me into the fringes of Dodworth.  I reached the village centre, a crossroads marked by a Budgens, a bookie, and a war memorial of a proud soldier.

I passed the Dodworth Central Social Club, which was advertising an upcoming performance by "Sophie's Choice".  Seriously, just do a little Googling before you name your band.  Not much, just enough to find out where that phrase stuck in your head originated.  Naming yourself after a gut wrenching Holocaust drama starring Meryl Streep and her latest Amazing Accent is not really suitable.  Unless I'm completely wrong, and Sophie's Choice are an anti-Semitic punk band whose name is a deliberate slight on the death of millions at the hands of the Nazis, in which case, have at you.  Either way, I won't be buying a ticket.

I walked up to the station, trying to ignore a sinister looking cat with a moustache who watched me out of the front window of one of the houses.  Two doors down, a pug did the same thing; that's a hilarious sitcom just waiting to be written, isn't it?  I found a seat on the platform at Dodworth station to wait for my train south.

I got out my lunch.  It was about that time and I'd been on the go since seven.  I'm trying to be healthy at the moment; cutting out alcohol and carbs, doing more walking.  It's a bit of a strain.  Fortunately the BF is doing the same thing, so there's an element of competition to it.  Never underestimate the power of being able to feel superior to someone else because you only had a celery stick for lunch and they had celery and some peppers.

That day I had a healthy salad with the barest glimpse of vinaigrette.  It was clean living, gluten free, paleo friendly, and utterly tedious.  I crunched through the leaves with a complete lack of enthusiasm until I was too bored to eat any more.  Then I pulled out the mini packet of pretzels I'd got from the First Class attendant on the train that morning and ate those.  Pretzels are sort of healthy, aren't they?

The next stop was Barnsley.  Sorry, no: the next stop was Barnsley Interchange.  The Council went to great efforts to rebuild the railway station and the bus station next to one another, and they renamed the resulting building.

The station didn't seem anything remarkable to me.  It was good to see a town with modern transport facilities, with a well cared for platform area and a ticket hall with members of staff.  There was even a public toilet (20p to use it, but at least it was there).

Climbing up and over the tracks it became clear that the railway station was very much the junior partner in the interchange.  While the Northern part had the vague air of a leisure centre, the bus station was grandiose and loud.

I ended up on a sort of floating balcony above a multicoloured barrage of noise and flash.  Escalators carried you down to a shopping mezzanine - the smell of Subway sandwiches filled the hall - and then onto glass fronted gates for bus services.

There was something of the Millennium Dome to it all; the high roof, the bright incursions into the space, the feeling that it was just that little bit too big for its purpose.  If there had been a giant pink model of the human body and befuddled Japanese people trying to work out what it was for I wouldn't have been surprised.

I left through the grand main entrance and entered Barnsley town centre.  I was immediately greeted by some lipstick on a pig.

I understand that a giant empty office block, particularly one whose best days are long behind it, is not the best first impression to give new arrivals to the town.  Those coloured windows though... They didn't work for me.  They were so bright, they made the concrete building look even dowdier.  It also smacked of a temporary fix, like the council were just killing time until they could demolish the building.  Embrace it!  Put your arms round its ugliness and love it!

There was, it has to be said, a fair amount of ugliness in Barnsley town centre.  At some point in the past they'd tried to improve life for the residents by covering it with a huge concrete roof and pushing the market hall and shops inside.  There were footbridges linking the buildings, footbridges that served no purpose any more other than acting as a place to hang Christmas decorations and Happy Diwali signs (even though it's January).  The markets had hung a sign outside, "STILL over 200 stalls inside!" which made it sound like they were dwindling all the time.

It was ugly and unfashionable, and yet, further up the road, was a 1990s version of exactly the same building - the Alhambra Shopping Centre, another soulless mall that sucked shoppers off the main street and sealed them inside.

I followed the hill round, up to the town hall.  An open space had been laid out at one corner, complete with a piece of rusting metal modern art and flower beds that hadn't quite taken yet.  A sign urged me to "Experience Barnsley"; it turns out "Experience Barnsley" was actually the name of the town museum and art gallery.  I think that name promises more than it could possibly deliver.

I rounded back to the Interchange for the sign picture.  There were grand signs on the front of the bus portion but it wasn't quite what I was after.  I headed over to Schwabish Gmund Way (named after the twin town; there's a Barnsleyer Strasse in Germany) and found the more traditional sign by the level crossing.

Inside the bus terminal I bought a cup of tea to insulate me against the Yorkshire chill.  And a steak bake.  Steak bakes are healthy, right?

Back over the footbridge to the railway station, past a terrifying Orwellian poster from the South Yorkshire police about CCTV ("MY EYES NEVER BLINK") and then down to the platform to eat my pastie and drink my tea.  Three more stations done on the Penistone Line.  Three more to go.