Saturday 29 August 2015

Pub Crawl

I did try to find something else to do in Snaith, honestly.  I wandered the streets.  I stroked a cat on a wall.  I sat on a bench presented by the Snaith Young Wives in November 1974.  I followed this sign:

but I never found what it was pointing to.  Or maybe I did, and it just wasn't what I expected.

I lasted until about twelve-thirty, and then I decided, no more.  Snaith has five pubs and it would be rude of me to not check them out.  It would be an insult to its fine history of being a centre of drunkenness.  It was my duty.

Pub #1: The Brewer's Arms, Pontefract Road

At first, the Brewer's Arms looked like a traditional pub.  A little threadbare - the furnishings were a bit old-fashioned, the type that twenty years ago would have cigarette burns on them - and there was an all-pervading scent of deep fat frying.  The Brewer's Arms had an extensive menu, and was somewhere between "pub grub" and "gastropub"; selling the basics, but trying hard to make them better.  Not totally successfully - a woman trying to order fish and chips is informed that they've run out of fish, so she has to settle for a ham sandwich - but they're doing their best.

It was only after I'd sat down with my pint of Blonde Bombshell (£3) that I realised the owners were insane.

I was sat in a back room that seemed to be based around Buffalo Bill's home in The Silence of the Lambs.  On the ceiling were fishing rods and nets - fair enough.  They're close to a river.  But that charming mural about "Wild Field Sports of the Orient"?  Well, who doesn't want to stare at a picture of elephants crushing a tiger underfoot while they drink their pint?

It's not the only example of elephantine psychopathy - in another panel, they were mauling a hippo, while a deer was riddled with spears and about to get torn apart by dogs on the bottom row.  There were other pictures around the walls of hunting violence.  Redcoats riding with their hounds amongst terrified looking foxes.  A Victorian drinking scene, seemingly benign, apart from the man on the right gutting a fish in the middle of the bar.  This monstrosity:

That was just the paintings.  I haven't even started on the taxidermy.  A fox head mounted on a plinth.  Owls leaping out of baskets.  And two niches devoted to stuffed wildlife, arranged in a tasteful tableau.

I particularly like the owl in that case, looking straight at the viewer like Miranda Hart.  "Can you believe this squirrel and his shit?"  In the other nook there was a pouncing stoat, its fangs bared, and I was forced to wonder where the landlord escaped from.  The last time a committed taxidermist was allowed to run a hotel it was Norman Bates, and we all know how well that turned out.  Not even a blackboard advertising that the theme for New Years' Eve would be Casino Royale could convince me the owners weren't psychopaths.  (Plus, these Casino Royale themed parties are usually a con: I went to one, and after I cut a hole in seat of the host's dining chair, stripped naked and asked someone to hit me in the balls with a carpet beater I was asked to leave.  I WAS JUST COMMITTING TO THE THEME).

Shame, because the Blonde Bombshell beer was really nice.  I managed only two pints before the dead staring eyes creeped me out too much and I left.

Pub #2: The Bell & Crown, Market Place

I'd actually intended to go into the Downe Arms, across the road, but as I stepped into the porch I saw a stepladder and a load of paint and I assumed it was being refurbished.  As I turned away, though, I spotted people sat in the window, but I'd already committed to not going in by then so I headed into the Bell & Crown.  The barmaid looked vaguely surprised to see me, so I took my pint of John Smiths (£2.70) and found a quiet corner to hide in.

It seemed to be vaguely sporting-themed.  Amusements were in every corner.  A dart board, a pool table, a projector ready to show the Saturday football.  The men at the bar were talking about those contentious traffic lights that the funeral director had got so steamed up about; clearly this was a real hot-button issue in Snaith.  "I shall contact Barack Obama," said one, and his mate replied, "he'll do fuck all."  Of course he won't, I thought, until I realised they were talking about the local MP.

The Bell & Crown didn't make any pretensions at being anything other than a pub.  There weren't any menus on the tables.  The closest they got was a blackboard advertising stuffed crust pizzas for a fiver - somehow I doubted they had a chef out back tossing dough.  A woman with skin the colour of well-worn brogues came in to order two vodka and tonics - "slimline, 'cos I'm watching my figure."  She was followed by a tiny man who was probably born during the Korean War; the regulars at the bar let out a cry, "Mind your backs!  Hold your wallets!  We was wondering why you was late - was it the blonde or the brunette?"

He blushed.  "I couldn't say."

Pub #3: The Plough, Shearburn Terrace

Dammit!  The third of Snaith's pubs was closed.  A sign on the front invited potential landlords to call and make their dreams come true.  I followed the road round, a little annoyed, until I happened upon the back entrance to:

Pub #4: The Downe Arms, Market Place

The people I'd seen in the window earlier had gone, leaving me as the only patron in the whole pub.  By now I was three pints down and starting my fourth, so I thought it was about time I ordered some food. It was only afterwards that I thought a prawn mayonnaise sandwich may have been a bad choice.  It wasn't that the pub was dirty; it's just that seafood requires a little bit more effort in its care and preparation, and I wasn't sure if they had the commitment.

Are "fun pubs" still a thing?  They were everywhere in the Eighties and early Nineties.  Places that had a DJ - one who looked up to Pat Sharp as a career goal - and a big wooden dance floor.  I seem to remember Alec Gilroy wanting to turn the Rovers into one.  They had sort-of classy pictures on the walls, and offered cocktails alongside the pints and the ciders.

I'm asking because the Downe Arms seemed like it was trying its best to bring the fun pub back.  Everything about it screamed "seventeen year olds hoping they don't get asked for ID while ordering a Cheeky Vimto".  A poster for "The Habit - back by popular demand!" The Jack Vettriano pictures on the walls, the odd bit of exposed brick, the sign in the loo saying "alcohol doesn't cause hangovers...waking up does!", which is basically positing that the best way to avoid a hangover is to die in the night.  It was all very 1980s, an impression not helped by the jukebox randomly pumping out one of Samantha Fox's lesser hits called Do Ya Do Ya (Wanna Please Me).  It was no Touch Me (I Want Your Body).

My prawn baguette arrived as the decorators went back to work.  There were two of them, a man in dungarees who consulted at length with the landlady about the job - it was taking longer than she expected, and as someone who still has scaffolding up outside his house, I can sympathise - plus a tiny woman with enormous glasses who looked like Jeanette Krankie doing a "character".  She clambered all over the bay window, sanding down the wood, while I pushed my way through the worst prawn baguette I have ever eaten.  Somewhere along the line, they'd made a mistake with the mayonnaise recipe, and put way too much vinegar in it.  That was all I could taste, the thick sting of acetic acid burning through every mouthful.  Maybe they'd left the Hellmans in the sun for too long.  It was a slog to get through, but because I was the only customer and the landlady was in sight, I felt obligated to eat it.  Social anxiety is a terrible affliction.

Pub #5: The Black Lion, Selby Road

The first thing to hit me as I entered the Black Lion was the smell.  It was the scent of a teenage boy's bedroom, tied up in a sweaty jock strap and left behind a radiator for six weeks.  It was the smell of perspiration and it was overwhelming.  I guessed it might be coming from the pair of trainers that sat, unexplained, on the floor of the bar.

Alternatively, it could just have been the regular clientele.  While the Bell & Crown had aimed for the sporty viewers, I felt like the Black Lion actually got the sporty participants.  The barman was a bear of a man, blonde and bulky, and I could see this being the watering hole for the local teams.  Saturday morning soccer, Sunday morning rugby; they'd finish up on the pitch and roll into the Black Lion still covered in mud (no showers at these tiny sports grounds), and they'd celebrate or commiserate.

I'm not sure where Charlie Chaplin fits into this though.  The Little Tramp was everywhere; photographs, posters, lamps where he gazed up at the bulb with big sad eyes.  I don't like Charlie Chaplin.  Silent comedy is enough of a slog as it is without chucking a load of big-eyed sentimentality into it.  I feel like I should watch The Great Dictator sometime, but just the publicity stills of him "larking around" with a giant globe make me sigh.  Give me Harold Lloyd dangling off a clock any time.

The TV had been playing the racing channel, and no-one had really been interested.  When the barman changed the channel to BBC Two, halfway through a repeat of 'Allo, Allo!, the bar perked up.  Suddenly there was laughter, real, raucous laughter.  It may not be sophisticated or classy, but 'Allo, Allo! is undeniably funny.  The crowd sniggered their way through wartime based filth, parroting back Officer Crabtree's smutty mispronunciations, and when it finished a man sucking on an e-cig proclaimed loudly, "best programme ever made!"

The door burst open, and a tiny, adorable toddler rushed in, followed by his granddad.  All those cynical boozehounds immediately perked up, calling out "Alfie!" like it was an episode of Cheers.  The barman swept the little boy into his arms and talked tenderly to him, and a set of ovaries I didn't even know I had began melting.  A giant rugby hunk playing with a small child?  Goodness yes.

Alfie spent the next half an hour running up and down the pub, often accompanied by one or two of the customers.  I thought how nice it must be to be a kid growing up in a pub.  All these regulars who coo and pet you, who treat you as the centre of the universe every time you pass through, who slip you a packet of cheese and onion as a treat.  There would be horrible downsides - the hours, the fights, the vomit - but you'd never feel lonely.  You could wander down to the pub and just sit on the end of the bar with a Coke and talk to grown ups.  Such a confidence builder.

I drank my pint of John Smiths (£2.95) and decided the Black Lion was my favourite of Snaith's pubs.  It was earthier than the Downe Arms, busier than the Bell & Crown, less insane than the Brewer's Arms.  They just need a decent extraction system to get rid of the stench.

Not a pub: Snaith Railway Station, Selby Road

A bit frazzled round the edges, I finally rolled up to Snaith station for the train home.  I had half an hour until it arrived but I was so afraid of missing it I couldn't leave it any longer.  One train to Goole a day, remember.

There was nothing to it, of course.  A single platform with a shelter.  A couple of bike racks, that unsurprisingly held no bikes, and a remarkably busy car park.  It should have been filled with commuters, but instead was being used by visitors to Snaith.

I settled down in the shelter - please note my feet are not actually on the seat there - and sipped a bottle of water.  It had been a long, long day, and I'd only collected three stations.  All that time and expense and I'd barely touched the map.  Sometimes station collecting is a whirl of names and trains.  Sometimes it makes you do a pub crawl.  I'm not sure why more people don't do it.

Thursday 27 August 2015

A Change of Plans

I stared at the heap of eggy bread, cheese and bacon in front of me, my mouth still wet with tea, and thought, "thank goodness I changed my plans."

I wasn't meant to be in the delightful Kitchen tea rooms in Snaith.  I'd made meticulous plans before I'd left Merseyside, and according to them, I should have been experiencing the delights of Goole.  The problem was, I'd come to the conclusion that there were no delights in Goole, and so at the last minute I'd changed my mind.

The line between Pontefract and Goole gets a terrible service.  One train from Goole to Leeds in the morning.  One in the evening.  And one train in the opposite direction in the evening.  (It goes without saying that there is no Sunday service).  It essentially means that if you get the 07:04 from Goole, you've got about eleven hours until you can get a train home again.

I figured the best way to get round this would be to get the early train to Rawcliffe, walk back into town where I could get something to eat and maybe a bit of culture, and then walk out to Snaith in the afternoon to get the train back.

Goole was, however, a place that didn't reward loitering.  I'd arrived the previous night and found less a town, more a husk.  There are some places that have been kicked in the nuts, and when you visit you can feel it trying to get its breath back.  Goole, on the other hand, had been kicked in the nuts, thrown in a skip, then gone home to find that its wife had run off with its brother.  And its dog was dead.

It was a town filled with utter sadness.  It was one of the country's premier inland ports, built to process coal from Yorkshire's mines, but now it doesn't seem to have much of a purpose at all.  There are still docks, but they can't handle the giant vessels the coastal ports manage, and there aren't any coal mines any more.  Instead there are heavy metal fences and wide parking areas for trucks that don't seem to want to arrive.

The main shopping street, meanwhile, is a parade of banks, cash for gold places and charity shops.  One empty shop, It's Incredible!, flouted copyright law by having the logo from the Pixar film on its shop front.  Meanwhile, the elegant script of the Victorian Times Printing Company was overshadowed by the Cancer Research shop that now occupied its premises.  There's a retail park off to the side, along with a huge Asda, but the anchor store there is a Boyes; this isn't a mecca for shoppers.  At 6:30 in the morning it was bare and soulless.

Outside the station I saw the town's favourite landmarks, two water towers nicknamed the "salt and pepper pots"; the view was slightly ruined by the Super Pound Plus Store in the foreground.

Goole station's had a bit of money spent on it, with a new ticket office and plenty of paving outside to form a "gateway".  At that time of the morning it was still closed.  I saw the station master arrive, and let himself in, but he absolutely refused to open the waiting room until seven o'clock.

The new building has been grafted, inelegantly, onto the Victorian ironwork over the platforms.  Step behind its bright orange fascias and you get intricate metal roofs and a working station clock.

I took a seat on the dew-covered bench and decided: I didn't want to come back here.  I'd not seen anything in the town that captured my imagination or my attention.  I'd just end up sitting in my hotel room, watching daytime telly and counting down until it was time for me to walk back.  I decided that instead, I'd walk along the river from Rawcliffe to Snaith, and hope that it was an improvement.

By the time the train reached Rawcliffe, a mist had descended.  I could see only a hundred yards or so across the fields from the train; the rest was blanketed in a thick white veil.  Now and then there'd be a hint of a pylon, or the ghostly arms of a tree, but mostly it was obscured.

I stepped off into this ethereal world, my mood already improved.  A nice heavy load of mist might have improved my opinion of Goole, too.  There was a station building, now a home, but no sign; I'm guessing that the service levels are so embarrassing they don't want to get people's hopes up by advertising a railway station.  I settled for one of the platform signs.

After a quick check of Google Maps, I trekked away from the station and on towards the village.  The only flaw in my new scheme was I hadn't eaten at all that morning.  My hotel room included breakfast, but that started serving at seven so it was no use to me.  It hadn't been a problem when I'd planned on being back within a couple of hours, but now I had a five mile trek  on an empty stomach.  I hoped I wouldn't pass out and fall in the river.

Station Road was a straight line between fields.  Occasionally big ugly houses would swim out of the mist, over extended and too tall, with pretentious names and automatic gates to stop people from stealing their 4x4s.  There was a school for autistic children then, on a bend, a care home seemingly built out of prefabricated blocks.  It was getting simultaneous visits from a dust cart and a food delivery service.

The odd spacing around the "is" in that final line is an entire story in itself.  I can imagine hours of heated debate over the correct grammar for the sign:

"Well, August is singular, so it should say 'there is no meetings'."

"But meetings is plural, so it should say 'there are no meetings'."

And then they debated some more, possibly wheeling out copies of the OED.  Someone ordered the sign, with "are no meetings" on the bottom, and then the bewhiskered Colonel stamped his foot and shouted "It should say 'IS', and I refuse to move from this parish meeting until it's changed!", and so they changed it, even though everyone was pretty sure it was wrong.

(Still, it's better than an office block I spotted in Goole which went under the name of Pheonix Chambers).

The village green was a wide triangle of grass, only slightly spoiled by Do Not Park On The Green notices every ten yards (I blame that Colonel).  The post office was closed, and was in the process of being refitted; inside there was no plaster on the walls and bare floorboards, but a Post Office Savings Bank sign still clung on above the door.

There was an informative board outside the parish church, telling me that Rawcliffe was nicknamed the "Queen of Villages" in the 19th Century because of its low unemployment and high living standards.  There was information about its history, including an entry from the school's log book from January 1878:
A boy called Frank Earl was punished for using bad language to a Miss Hepworth as she walked home the previous evening.  Frank's mother came at noon in a very excited state, and as she would not see reason, was left to talk to the walls.
That's surprisingly sassy for a Victorian log book.  For some reason I'm seeing it being written by a trim school master who never married but did share his cottage with a very nice gentleman who did flower arranging.

I'd hoped there might be a little cafe where I could get some breakfast, but even the Costcutter didn't open until 8:30, so instead I headed down a side street to the river.  Ahead of me an old farmer type, grey whiskered and wearing wellies, walked behind an excitable collie.  There was a sturdy red brick wall with steps in it, and I climbed up to find myself on a ridge above the water.

The flat land in this part of the country means it's susceptible to flooding, and so to try and avoid this, a high ridge has been built along the length of the Aire.  It shadows every turn and twist, giving you a bird's eye view down to the water, but taking away some of the joy of a riverside stroll.  I felt separate from the landscape.

The ever present mist didn't help.  Yellow fields turned sepia under it, and I couldn't admire the scenery.  Instead I trudged, the path opening itself to me in stages and reminding me of that "fog of war" you get in strategy games to encourage exploration.

I'd been avoiding cow pats all morning, and I finally found the herd responsible.  They took time out from their busy cud chewing to stare at me, slightly bewildered.  Apart from one who decided to pose with some flowers; I think she saw my cameraphone and decided she was going to be a star.

Finally I stepped off the river bank and past a row of cottages.  An elderly woman was sweeping her front step, as she had no doubt done for sixty years or more.  Beyond was the bridge over the river that had been key to Snaith's prosperity for years.  There was a toll bridge here for centuries, holding up traffic, until finally in the 1920s the council intervened and built a free one.

I turned south, avoiding the heavy plant machinery that was repairing the flood defences, and headed into Snaith itself.  The mist lifted as I got away from the fields, and I found a pretty, vibrant village.

The High Street still had local businesses on it, plus there was a library and a fire station.  Tucked alongside the church were the lock ups, 18th century cells that were used to give drunks somewhere to sober up.

The High Street looped back onto the Pontefract Road, where yellow Council signs advised traffic to find an alternative route while work was carried out on a nearby bridge.  Temporary lights had been erected to try and control the vehicles as they passed through the Market Place.  Most pleasing of all were the signs erected in the window and car park of J Punton & Sons, a combination funeral director/DIY store.  Because who doesn't want to arrange the send off for a loved one and buy rawlplugs without having to park twice?

I would strongly encourage you to read all three pages of carefully thought out maths about why the Council have introduced traffic lights to the village as a means of JUST BEING REALLY ANNOYING.  It's brilliant.  I love a good nutcase.

Chuckling to myself, I headed to Kitchen so I could finally get the cup of tea I craved.  It was just gone eleven, and I still had another seven hours until my train back to Goole.  I loaded up Wikipedia's page on Snaith to see if I could find something interesting to occupy my time.


Thursday 6 August 2015

(I've Had) The Tyne Of My Life

I'd been to Newcastle before, of course.  Many times.  I'd even spent a few nights staying here.  But I'd never ventured into the city itself.  I'd always had trains to catch, or I needed sleep, or I'd gone for a pint to a bar round the corner.  I'd never "done" Newcastle.  It didn't help that the station was being redeveloped every time I visited, and I wanted to wait for that to be finished before I collected it.  See it at its best.

I am furious with myself for this.  Because it turns out Newcastle is bloody fantastic.  Just wonderful.  I wandered around the city with a dizzy, ecstatic smile on my face.  Everything about it was perfection.

Dramatic sandstone buildings curving along ancient streets.  Impressive vistas along busy roads.  Tiny moments of staggering beauty.

In Liverpool, the river brushes right up against the buildings.  The Tyne is far more dramatic, sitting in a gorge that puts the city high above the river.  It's crisscrossed with half a dozen bridges, each as interesting as the one before, each one different.

I went down to the dockside, where the Tyne Bridge soars over the streets like an ironwork Godzilla.  I could have stood there all day and just marveled at it.

I found the Bigg Market, notorious as a centre for depravity and wantonness, and found a reasonable little square with a few drunks.  Not the sodom I'd expected.  Of course, it was Friday afternoon.  Probably around 1 AM it would have been different - the posters for Cocktail Buckets: £5 didn't point to refined entertainment.  (No, that's not a bucket filled with bottles.  It's a bucket filled with booze).

Sadly, the Rupali, legendary home of the late Lord of Harpole Abdul Latif and made famous in Viz, has closed, so I couldn't experience the "Curry Hell".  Instead I found an ancient church and a plaque commemorating the first place The Blaydon Races was performed (that song again!).

And the people!  Obviously the Geordie accent is the sexiest one in the country: that is a stone cold fact and I will not be persuaded otherwise.  But they're also gorgeous.  My eyes regularly alighted upon yet another male model with cheekbones you could slice ham on, or a girl poured into a tight dress with more curves than a mountain road.  They were happy and sexy and laughing and I wanted to do rude things to all of them.  They were also kind; at one point I was so busy being gobsmacked at the city that I tripped over the kerb and went sprawling.  A young woman ahead of me turned round, stopped her conversation on her mobile, and checked that I was ok.  In most other cities she'd have kicked me while I lay on the floor.  She certainly wouldn't have stopped talking.

In amongst all this finery, there's the railway station of course.  It's huge, but not as busy as it used to be - local services were pretty much all redirected onto the Metro (the Metro!  Oh, I love the Metro!  There will be a whole separate post gushing about the Metro).  But it's still Newcastle, and it's still wonderful.

The redevelopment - which still isn't quite finished - filled in the porte cochere to create more space for coffee shops and ticket machines.  It's been done well, in glass and copper, and allows you to appreciate the station more.

Rather than biding a while at Caffe Nero I went through the huge entrance doors into the station itself.

Long curved glass reaches over shiny-floored platforms.  The whirl of trains passing through, always progressing, to London and Scotland and all points in between.

The twists in the roof make it feel like the building itself is moving, helped by the open ends.  There's a thrilling feeling of excitement.  Trains can't linger long because there's always another one behind waiting for its space.

I love it.  I love everything about it.  I needed to recover, and I staggered into the Centurion Bar.  Not just a bar though; the former first class lounge, now open even to plebs like me.

Astonishingly intricate brown tiling above soft seating.  Heavy marble fireplaces under huge elegant mirrors.  Artwork that you'd expect to find in a museum.

I sat down with a Newky Brown - even the city's drinks are superlative - and tried to take it all in.

I'm sorry Newcastle.  I wish I'd visited you sooner, I wish I'd visited you longer, I wish I'd known just how bloody fantastic you are.  But rest assured: I'll be back.