Wednesday 8 July 2015

Pit Stops

I like Leeds.  It's a proper, well-built, historic city.  It feels lively, it feels thrilling.  It has that ever pounding pulse that all the best places have.

Having said that, it's not so good when it comes to more modern buildings.  Bridgewater Place, the tallest building in the city, is horrific: a lumpy mess that unfortunately towers over everything else.  The area around the river is lined with interesting warehouses and the blandest developments you've ever seen.

Then there's Quarry Hill.  For much of the 20th century, this was home to Quarry Hill flats, a giant circular piece of landmark social housing, modeled after the successful European designs.  When it was constructed in the 1930s it was astonishingly modern and progressive.  It wasn't maintained though, and like Sheffield's Park Hill flats, it became notorious, before being demolished in the late 1970s.

Surrounded by dual carriageways, Quarry Hill is now a sort of cultural island on the edge of the city centre.  The West Yorkshire Playhouse, the BBC, the Northern Ballet have all relocated to the site.  They don't feel like a part of Leeds though.  They feel like they've been parachuted in to bring some culture to the citizens, but they don't want to get too close in case they catch something.  Cultural districts need to be lively and vibrant.  There were too many service entrances and car parking spaces and dead ends.

The most heinous edifice on the island is Quarry House, home of the Department of Health and a grim Stalinesque lump.  It's like Terry Farrell's MI6 building, only more oppressive and frightening.  There is zero engagement with the street below, and the trees in front don't soften it; they just look scared.

I happily turned my back on Quarry House's gaudy ugliness and instead headed onto the busy throughway of York Road.  Just a little further on, it turned into a motorway, but here it was just an astonishingly large and traffic-filled road.

I was heading out to Cross Gates, a station in the suburbs.  This was actually my third attempt at collecting this station.  The first time, in January, was torpedoed by my own stupidity.  I booked the tickets for one day, but put it in my calendar as the next day; fortunately I realised my mistake before I got to Lime Street (I got as far as Conway Park).  So that was a nice waste of money.

The second time, in spring, I was ill, and couldn't even leave my bed.  I was starting to wonder if there was some kind of gypsy curse stopping me from ever getting there.  As I walked along York Road, I was half expecting a juggernaut to suddenly plough into me, crushing me up against the buildings behind in a Final Destination-type scenario.

There were hefty blocks of flats either side of the road, social housing highlighted in primary colours. An Irish centre advertised music from Paul Weller (in small letters: Tribute) and Sunday carveries.  A red and white striped former cinema, now a Thai boxing academy.  Wynsors World of Shoes advertised "we stock wellies all year round!"  Presumably it was an attempt to collect the festival market, but on a bone dry day with the sun scorching my face, it seemed sarcastic.

I managed to avoid being run over by a man in a mobility scooter.  I'm all for extending accessibility to the disabled, but really, they need to take note that pavements are mainly for pedestrians.  The path had narrowed into a narrow strip between the road and a row of red brick shops.  They'd been built long before the road, and now they found themselves staring out at a never-ending stream of unstopping traffic.  They were home to ethnic grocers, cafes, an off-licence.

The next road junction was ludicrously over engineered, with flyovers and flyunders and deep cuttings.  The houses around it looked nervous, as though they were trying to work out how they ended up on a motorway.  Pedestrians were herded onto a footbridge, which induced a minor vertigo attack, but I was soon on the other side.

The newer developments of the sixties and seventies gave way to back to backs, long rows of red brick terraces with a street running behind the yards.  It was easy to imagine the streets looking this way for decades, only the clothes of the residents giving you a clue to what era you was in.

I crested a hill, passing a Vesper garage that could have accommodated various Quadrophenia cast members, and started heading down into the green valley of the suburbs.  The pavement was being churned up for Leeds' own cycle superhighway - to go with the guided busway in the middle of the road - and I had to take long detours past sweltering workmen manhandling tarmac and grit.

The heat ramped up with the morning.  It was relentless and baking, frying my exposed skin, but I was still smiling.  It was easy to enjoy a long walk on a day like this.  I sipped my water as I passed the clock tower of Seacroft Hospital; frustratingly, it wasn't working, the hands permanently set to midday.  Even worse, the hospital used the tower in its logo.  Have a bit of pride, for goodness' sake!

A right hand turn, and I was on Crossgates Road, a fine avenue with a green central reservation being mown by a lad in a high-vis jacket.  Trees provided me with a little shelter, at least until they turned into rows of shops.  At a vast roundabout, there were curved 1930s shop fronts leading to a tall cinema turned bingo hall.  The centre of the Cross Gates district had been marked on the roundabout with a piece of pleasingly literal artwork.

Cross Gates had all the hallmarks of a fine city suburb laid out between the wars.  Around the roundabout were shops, a library, a pub; then, a little further on, a 1960s precinct that was busy with shoppers.  Old ladies gossiped on the pavements, while young mums pushed kids around cursing the heat.  They wore crop tops and shorts and the older women's eyes followed them judgmentally.

The benches at the front of the Station Hotel were already busy, even though it was barely eleven o'clock.  I snapped the sign picture as quickly as possible, aware that the patrons were watching my attempts, then scurried down the ramp to the platform.

All the shade was on the Leeds-bound platform, leaving our side to cook in the heat.  I managed to find a square foot of black beneath a tree and I stopped there to refuel, polishing off my bottle of water.

A fellow passenger had found a different way to beat the heat: he took his shirt off.  Why is it that the only people who take their shirts off in public are the ones you really wish would cover up?  His pasty belly dangled over the waistband of his jeans, his LUFC tattoo stretched after years of boozing.

Garforth is a relatively small village, the other side of the M1 from Leeds, but it's been blessed with two railway stations.  Garforth station itself was pleasingly old fashioned, with a footbridge straight out of the 19th century.

At the road level, there was a station sign, but it had been wedged inconsiderately inamongst some bushes on the side of the street with no pavement.  It was almost as though they didn't expect people to want to take their photo with it.  How odd.

Yes, I was wearing a hat now.  I'd packed one into my backpack that morning and forgotten about it.  I'd only discovered it on the train, too late to shield my enormous Tefal head from the sun on the long walk out of Leeds, but at least I'd get a bit of protection from the worst of the heat.

Aberford Road ran between the backs of houses and an industrial estate.  Heavy trucks pounded by, belching diesel, along with a steady stream of cars and buses.  I was glad to turn off it into the much quieter environs of the village.

At first it was as I'd expected it to be; some standard terraces, a bit run down, a chippy.  Sturton Lane turned into New Sturton Lane, though, and suddenly it was suburbia.  I could have been in any town in England.  Wide driveways alongside green lawns.  Roads with names like Braemar Drive and Bodiham Hill curled sedately into the distance.  One - Dunrobin Avenue - carried unfortunate overtones of a home for retired burglars, but otherwise it was all very polite and neat.

It was astonishingly dull.  One of the worst crimes of modern town planners is their love for cul-de-sacs.  It means that the main roads - the ones most people actually use - are lined by high fences and walls protecting back gardens.  There's nothing to see.  I walked down deserted roads, the silence occasionally interrupted by a saloon cruising by.  The only life I saw was a thrush, hopping around in the shade from a tree with a worm in its mouth.  The bird panicked when it saw me coming, torn between its survival instinct and its need to stay where it was cool.  Eventually it dropped the worm and scurried to the bush, keeping one eye on me as I passed.

East Garforth station had clearly been built to cater for these middle-class commuters, to give them easier access to the city and to stop them from having to go to Garforth at the common end of the village.  It was wedged in behind the houses, accessed by a narrow alleyway,  More backs of houses.

I was the only one on the Selby-bound platform, but the Leeds one soon filled up.  Two pensioners with rollie-suitcases fussed over their tickets.  They'd printed them off their computer, and it was clear that they didn't entirely trust it.  They took turns squinting at the page, and I imagined a patient daughter explaining that, yes, that was their ticket, no, they didn't need a bit of orange card.

Finally the woman tucked the paper into her handbag with a harumph.  "We'll just have to see, won't we?"  I suspected there was a part of her that secretly hoped they would get told off by the ticket inspector, and then she could tell her daughter exactly why she was wrong.

It was getting to lunch time, so I figured I'd have something to eat in my next stop, Micklefield.  It was another small village, just off the A1, so I thought it might have a little country pub or something.  I didn't want anything fancy, just a sandwich, maybe a pint.

Micklefield wasn't that kind of village.  It was a former coal mining village, and so it was a lot more Billy Elliott than country idyll.  A development of new houses was called "Miners Mews", sited on "Pit Lane"; people here had more important stuff on their mind than a prawn baguette with a side salad.

I did a bit of a circuit, not wanting to get too far from the station, but there didn't seem to be anywhere I could even buy a packet of crisps.  When I saw a faded sign advertising a mobile chippy every Tuesday, I realised I'd have to be hungry a bit longer.  This was a village that couldn't even sustain a fish and chip shop.  The pit closed in 1984 and it still seemed to be mourning.

A little sadly, I went back to the station to wait for my train into town.  Micklefield felt hollow.  I wanted to go somewhere with a little more life.

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