Thursday 24 September 2015

Downward Spiral

Sometimes people say a tiny little phrase and it sticks in your head.  Sheffield residents Fiona and Ruth both refer to Sheffield's out of town megamall as "Meadowhell", and so I headed for it with some trepidation.  I was imagining a kind of hideous temple to Mammon, overstuffed, overlit, overpriced.

Instead it was a little time capsule of what shopping malls used to be like: the American model, shipped over wholesale and dropped on the edge of Sheffield.  I went to a large mall in Charlotte, North Carolina once, and Meadowhall gave me serious deja vu.  It was all there - the shiny marble floors, the pillars, the Roman Temple via Las Vegas decorations.  Two floors of shops with ample free parking.  And a dome, of course.  There's always a dome, so you can spot it from the motorway.  I've never been to the Trafford Centre, but I imagine it's just like this, only bigger.

I went up to the first floor, because the BF had asked me to get him a boiled egg slicer from Lakeland (don't ask), then back down again.  There was a waterfall between the escalators, its prettiness ruined by the heavy scent of chlorine.  I should imagine it was Meadowhell on a Saturday morning, when there were harassed mums and unwilling dads and bored teenagers hanging off the balustrades gobbing their chewing gum into the hair of passers by below, but on a weekday morning it seemed perfectly fine.  The main irritation for me was that it existed at all.  There were shops here that wouldn't open branches in Sheffield now; too close, too down at heel, too many hazards involving parking and so on.  I hope this kind of building is on its way out in this country as we rediscover the cities.  Liverpool One has shown how a new shopping centre can be open and attractive and an asset to the city without putting up barriers; the same for post-bomb Manchester.  America's malls are dying as shopping habits change, and this could be a real opportunity for Britain's cities to reassert themselves.

A brief pause at Greggs for a bit of lunch on the go - is it just me, or have Steak Bakes got smaller? - and then I headed out of the mall towards the Meadowhall Interchange.  That's a positive difference between Meadowhall and their US equivalents: if you don't have a car in America you just can't visit these shopping centres, and, to be frank, they don't want you.  I once tried to visit a mall in Charlotte on foot and it involved a dash across four lanes of traffic (there was no pedestrian crossing), a walk on a snow covered verge (there was no pavement) and a long trek across acres of vacant tarmac to get in (there was no footpath).  I was surprised they let people actually walk around the mall itself, and didn't just make the whole thing a drive thru.

Meadowhall Interchange combines rail, bus and tram into one super access point.  It could get even bigger if HS2 ever comes along; the plans call for Sheffield to have its station on the new line here.  That would be a mistake.  If HS2 goes to the fringe of the city then so will other services as a way of interchanging with it.  There will be a slow creep away from the main station and out to Meadowhall.  It'll cost more money and be more difficult to send the high speed line through the city centre, of course, but if the project is to really connect to northern cities it has to actually serve them, not a distant park and ride on the edge.  I hope the city council is pressing for there to be a change in the plans.

I was heading up the line to visit Swinton.  There are two Swintons on the Northern Rail map, and I'd always planned on visiting them on the same day.  However, the Farnworth tunnel works mean that the Swinton in Greater Manchester is just getting a bus service at the minute, and with no end in sight, I decided to just get South Yorkshire out the way.

The train slid past the county's last steelworks, now owned by an Indian conglomerate, and deposited me on an isolated platform.  Ahead of me was a woman and her daughter, arms full of bags from Meadowhall, already lighting cigarettes as they stepped down off the train.

I'll say this for Travel South Yorkshire, they're good at integrating their transport facilities.  Swinton had a generous car park and a turning circle for buses to use.  It also had, for reasons I couldn't fathom, a graveyard for dead bus shelters.

Years of reading Go Fug Yourself mean I have an automatic urge to write Swinton in all caps - SWINTON - as a tribute to acclaimed actress and demi-human Tilda Swinton.  It would certainly save any confusion over the two Northern Swintons if one was always written in caps, with the accompanying emphasis when you pronounced it.  Perhaps they could build a statue of Tilda outside, doing one of her regular activities - winning an Oscar, participating in a polyamorous relationship on a small Scottish island, communicating with her alien overseers.  Something like that.

I headed into SWINTON itself and found another of those ridiculously steep hills that South Yorkshire is cursed with.  There were not one, but two working men's clubs, the second advertising its bingo night with the phrase "bring yer dabber!".  A fine library had been turned into flats and was now "Carnegie House".  I felt like going back in time and telling Andrew Carnegie not to bother building all these educational establishments for the betterment of society; in a hundred years they'd just be flogged off and his investment would have been wasted.

Across the street, two women were walking a tiny dog.  As with most tiny dogs, it was yapping incessantly, until the younger one snapped and screamed, "shurrup, will ya!"  Surprisingly, this didn't placate it.

A dodgy looking Flat Roofed Pub (© Jon Dryden Taylor), a sports bar that advertised "credit crunch prices all day", a row of shops with one of the largest Bargain Boozes I've ever seen - SWINTON wasn't grabbing me.  Not even a house with a red phone box in its front garden could sway me.  Nor the fully dressed mannequin inside the phone box.

(That house is owned by a psychopath, yes?)

At the top of the hill, older SWINTON took over, with a charming chapel and an traditional pub with a sagging roof.  There was a pocket park with a piece of artwork in it that probably commemorated the millennium, or the Queen's Golden Jubilee, or something, but to me just looked like a load of metal they had left over from a real bit of art.

The road carried on uphill after that, and I realised I'd had enough.  It wasn't just that my aching ankle was nagging at me.  It was just all a bit miserable.  After the delights of Sheffield, this felt like a real comedown.  It didn't help that a couple of days before I'd been swooning over Hebden Bridge and Halifax, so the hangover was doubled.

There was a man over the road waiting at a bus stop, so I dashed over and, sure enough, there was a bus into Rotherham due any minute.  Since my ticket also covered buses - Travel South Yorkshire's commitment to integrated transport again - I thought, sod it, and jumped on board.

Incidentally, compare that with the picture of the Supertram I posted yesterday.  See what I mean about a bus on rails?

I'd not known it before I visited, but Rotherham was currently playing host to an important conference: The Annual Convention of Loitering Scallies.  Every street, every corner, came complete with a party of rough looking teens, eyeballing passers by and necking Red Bull.

I clutched my wallet close and did a circuit of the town centre.  It was in a bad way.  If Meadowhall had impacted a little on Sheffield, it must have been devastating for Rotherham.  There were pound shops, payday loan places, the lowest level of bargain clothes shops.  If you wanted anything better than a Bon Marche outfit, you'd have to head off to Meadowhall.  To make things worse, a huge Tesco Extra crouched on the ring road, right behind the bus exchange, giving you all your weekly food shop plus clothes, electronics, a pharmacy... You didn't need to go into town; you could get everything you wanted from that one store.

There were a few highlights: the impressive Minster, a couple of buildings that had been attractively preserved, a pretty square.  The rest was misery inducing.

I decided to cut my losses and headed for the station.  The River Don passes right through the town centre, and the addition of a canal behind it has created an island in the centre of town.  Anywhere else and this would be a huge asset, a spot for a restaurant quarter perhaps, or expensive flats.  Instead Rotherham turns its back on it: the roads don't shadow the river banks, and it was home to the town's Tesco until the Extra opened.  Now it's a car park.  The island's only asset is the fifteenth century bridge chapel, hidden away and ignored.

The station reinforces Rotherham's determination to be second class.  The main route from Sheffield to Leeds runs through the town, but at a distance from the centre so the station wasn't as well used as it could have been.  In the 1980s, a plan was drawn up to get the line closer to town, and a line was built branching off from the mainline to a new station by Forge Island.  The old station was then demolished.

The problem was, they left the old lines in place.  They'd made the Sheffield-Leeds line faster, by removing a station, and stuck Rotherham off over there.  A lot of the trains stop at Rotherham, but an equal amount of trains don't.  They quite literally sidelined it.

Even the station they built was inadequate; it only lasted 25 years before it was demolished and replaced with the current building.  The new one opened in 2010, and it's a good station - light and airy and a landmark.  You need a station to stand out.  People need to instantly spot it.

I headed down to the platform feeling sad about the state of the town.  It's hard being the junior partner in sister towns: being Bradford, not Leeds, or Birkenhead instead of Liverpool.  The best way to deal with it is to acknowledge your debt to the larger town and carve your own niche.  Rotherham was going about it the very worst way.  It was letting Sheffield take everything from it, like one of those vanishing twins who are absorbed by the larger foetus in the womb.

I needed something to cheer me, and once again, Sheffield came to the rescue.  The Refreshment Rooms at the station were abandoned in the 1960s, but a few years ago some investors took over the spot and refurbished it.

The result is the Sheffield Tap, a glorious real ale pub that serves wonderful beers in a fantastic setting.  I picked the Pennine Pale, pretty much at random, and immediately fell in love with its rich flavour.  You can buy cases of it here (also, it's nearly Christmas, JUST SAYING).

A pint of fine beer in a beautiful station pub.  To me, that's perfection.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

A Sheaf Of Happiness

Sheffield is just below Newcastle in its ability to make me swoon with adoration.  It's a wonderful place.  Step out of the station and you have that fantastic square, with stainless steel and fountains.  It's a city that's big enough to give you everything you want, to let you lose yourself, but small enough to feel fun and bohemian and friendly.

Just walking past the Crucible gave me a little thrill; my dad was snooker obsessed in the 1980s - there were bound copies of Snooker Scene on the shelf next to the telly - and so the Crucible is woven in and out of my childhood.  It's probably why snooker is one of the few sports that I find acceptable, even entertaining.  (Please note: while snooker is great, pool is an awful Yank abomination).  I remember being surprised to learn, somewhere in my teens, that the Crucible was a theatre.  I'd always assumed it was the Wimbledon of the game - it still feels odd to me that one week they're hosting an international sporting tournament and the next it's An Inspector Calls.

Across the way is another of Sheffield's tiny pieces of genius, the Winter Gardens.  It's just an arcade with a few plants in it, really, but it's such a wonderful idea.  It's a sheltered place for people to just... sit.  That's all.  There are cafes round the edge, yes, and a hotel and an art gallery immediately adjacent, but there's no obligation to spend.  If all you want to do is enjoy the trees and plants, you can, and no-one will stop you.  Such a refreshingly egalitarian concept.  There should be Winter Gardens in every city.  Instead of making us consume, make us enjoy.

Of course, this is all part of Sheffield's unabashed leftiness and dedication to the working classes.  The square outside its Town Hall - a Baronial confection that looks like it's sitting on top of the Batcave - isn't named for some Victorian entrepreneur, but is instead called the "Peace Gardens", while the fountains are dedicated to a Chartist rebel.  Sheffield does have a vested interest in promoting international brotherhood, given that it was ground zero for a nuclear attack in Threads.  I watched just the trailer on the train over and it's one of the most harrowing pieces of film in history; the actual programme makes you want to (a) find a nice comfortable corner somewhere to cry out all your bodily fluids and (b) donate all your money to CND.  It's absolutely horrific, and you should see it, although I wouldn't watch it if you're on any kind of anti-depressive.  Or you live in Sheffield.

One thing that baffles me about Sheffield is: how are there any overweight people in the town?  Up and down you walk, entire streets built at sixty degrees from the vertical, hills appearing from nowhere and rising straight up.  You think a building is perfectly normal, then walk round the back of it and find a sudden drop down to the car park.  I walked from the station to the City Hall at what felt like a constant uphill rise and I was drained when I got there.  The last time I was in the city for a wander about was with Diamond Geezer, and we'd been out wandering in the Peak District: that was a pretty dance among the flowers compared with the slog I'd just experienced.

That's Jessica Ennis' gold post box!  Seriously, it's becoming a new obsession.

I was crossing the city in search of one of Sheffield's other selling points: its trams.  Opened in the mid-90s, the network suffers from one of the worst websites in the world (seriously guys, it's 2015) and labours under the name "Supertram", but it's otherwise a real asset.

I headed out to the University of Sheffield stop.  I'd like to pretend this was because I wanted to experience the city just a little bit longer, but in fact it was because I completely missed the City Hall and West Street stops.  The northbound ones had shelters and grand signs, but the southbound ones just had a bit of metal stuck in the ground; I managed to walk right past them both.

It turned out to be for the best, because the University of Sheffield stop is right next to a tunnel exit, and you know how excited I get about tunnels.  Yes, I do know it's very Freudian, I have A-level Psychology.

On board, the trams are sort of... odd.  I'd been on the Metrolink only a few days before, and Manchester's network is the gold standard for British trams.  They're clean, efficient, fast, and constantly expanding.  Supertram is a weird bus on rails.  There are steps inside, for a start, which I'd seen before on the also disappointing Birmingham tram network.  The Stagecoach livery has permeated every square inch of the design, so it doesn't feel that different to a double decker.

You don't buy tickets from a machine before boarding, as on Metrolink.  Instead there's a conductor selling tickets from his little machine like it's 1935.  And all the stops are request stops.  The tram will only pause if you ring the bell, like a bus, though in practice the tram actually stopped at every single halt on the way.  So that was a bit of a waste of time for everyone.

Still, it was a thrill to be on board a tram, to hear that gentle electric purr as we whizzed through the streets.  After Fitzalan Square-Ponds Forge stop we crossed the road on a bridge - past one of the least enticing tourist signs I've ever seen, directing visitors to the Cholera Monument - and giving us a view of the Brutalist joy that is Park Hill flats.  The route was less attractive then, curving behind industrial estates and through deep embankments.  For a while we shadowed a canal, then there was the giant bulks of a retail park and a stop called "Valley Centertainment" which made me furious.

I got off the tram at Meadowhall South/Tinsley, and struggled to fit all of that in a sign pic.  A tram route in the UK is something we should treasure, but I feel like Sheffield isn't making the most of it.  There are tentative plans to build a new route to Dore, if HS2 ever gets this far, and a tram-train pilot to Rotherham that may happen one day, but beyond that nothing much.  The tram needs to work a bit harder if it's going to be as fabulous as the city it serves.

Sunday 20 September 2015

All This, And Lesbians Too!

As a sufferer of obsessive compulsive disorder (I have a certificate and everything) I have a complex relationship with train tickets.  As a general rule, a day out goes like this

  1. Buy ticket.
  2. Put ticket in safe pocket.
  3. About half an hour later, worry that it's fallen out of safe pocket.  Check.  Transfer to a pocket I consider even safer.
  4. Wait at station for train.
  5. Think "I'd best get my ticket ready."
  6. Check the first safe pocket for ticket.  Find it missing.  Panic.
  7. Check every other pocket I have.
  8. Find ticket.
  9. Put in an accessible pocket that is neither safe pocket 1 or safe pocket 2.
  10. Board train.
  11. Panic because I have already forgotten that I have transferred the ticket to a different pocket.
  12. Check every other pocket I have.
  13. Find ticket.
  14. Put in lap or on the table in front of me.
  15. Present ticket to guard.
  16. Put ticket in the first safe pocket.
  17. Get off train.  Wave train off.
  18. Panic that I left ticket on the train.
  19. Check all pockets.
  20. Find pocket in safe pocket.  Transfer to a pocket I consider even safer.
Repeat, ad infinitum.

Every trip out involves a steady stream of sweaty palmed pocket checking and regurgitating of their contents into my lap.  It's an agonising but familiar process.

Worse is a new stage I've added to this insanity: (21) Lose ticket altogether.  I lost my return from Manchester when I went with Ian and Robert, and had to spend twelve quid on another, and I lost my day pass on the platform at Halifax.  Obviously I didn't realise this until I was just about to board the train, so I didn't have time to run up to the ticket office and buy a replacement.  Instead I had to get on board and buy the ticket from the guard, facing his judgement and his assumptions that I was just trying to get away with a free ride.

The final element of my humiliation came in the form of my next station.  It wasn't somewhere nice like Todmorden or Walsden.  It was Mytholmroyd.  How the hell do you pronounce that?  If I had my day ticket, it would never have come up, but now I had to buy a ticket to some unpronounceable Yorkshire place.  I did my best.  "Single to Mithulmroyd, please."

The guard looked at me.  "Where?"

Shit.  "Erm... Mithulroy?  I'm sorry, I don't know how you say it."

"Oh," he said.  "My-thul-m-royd."  And he dished out my ticket while I hoped the train would fall off a viaduct and spare my shame.

I stumbled off the train at Mytholmroyd, suitably chastened.  The only other person alighting was a woman wearing stars and stripes leggings, a bright red jacket and a woolly hat: it was my first indication that this part of the world was a little... different.

There is a station building, but it's no longer in use for - well, for anything, actually.  It sits under the viaduct, forlorn, boarded up.  The local history group have sellotaped newspaper headlines relating to the railway on the closed off windows, but otherwise it's a terrible waste.  Surely some railway nerd wants to live in a house under a viaduct?  I'm tempted myself.

It's not like the rest of the village is off-putting or anything.  I crossed yet another of those picturesque Yorkshire bridges over burbling rivers and crossed the road by the war memorial.

Pubs, chip shops, a Sainsburys Local - the place was thriving.  I turned off the main Burnley Road to find the canalside and was surprised to find a modern estate of luxury waterside flats that wouldn't have looked out of place in Manchester or Leeds.

Taking a towpath to my next station is probably a bit of a cheat, if you stop and think about it.  I don't really get a flavour for the district's unique features and charms down by the canal.  One towpath is much like another: trees, water, ducks.

It's just so much more pleasant, particularly in hilly regions like this.  The high gradients mean that there's usually only one route through the valley, and trains, barges and cars are all sent through it.  Following the road means a busy artery packed with trucks.  Who wouldn't prefer a silent backwater where the only noise is the rustling trees?

I'm not sure why they need a sign given that the alternative is falling in the canal.

The canal went into a tunnel, driving me up to the main road to be able to carry on, and I saw a sign to let me know I was nearly at my destination.

Hebden Bridge is different.  It's not just that they chose a sign that talked about their creativity and their commitment to Fairtrade products, when most towns just want you to please drive carefully.  Hebden Bridge is alternative in almost every way, a town that turns left instead of right just because.

The previously silent canal was now thronged with houseboats.  Barges permanently moored, solar panels to power the TV, inspiring boat names like Kanbedun.  I peeped through the window of one and saw an easel set up in the cramped living room.  Every boat had flowers in pots on the roof.

I crossed a pretty bridge behind the Little Theatre and a Working Men's Club-slash-arts centre and entered the town centre.  On the surface, it seemed antiquated, a town that stood still.

Look in the window of the grocer, and there are signs for a loyalty scheme and internet deliveries.  The roads behind, meanwhile, housed ethical clothes shops, alternative remedy stores, cafes that advertised their commitment to single source coffee and locally sourced food.  In short, stick the word "earth" or "natural" in your shop's name and you were sorted for life.

It was charming and interesting, the kind of place where even the shoe shop is called "Ruby Shoesdays".  I nipped into a book store and found a huge selection of local books and gorgeous stationery that I just wanted to sweep up into my arms.  Hebden Bridge is proud to be quirky and unique; there wasn't a WH Smith or a Boots to be seen, and I suspect if Tesco tried to open a Metro here there would be a riot.

Squatters helped to make the town what it is.  With the closure of the mills, after the war Hebden Bridge was down on its luck and empty.  Artists from across the north began to drift here, attracted by its beautiful spot and plenty of good, cheap, sometimes free accommodation.  They began to rebuild the town and, in turn, attracted more people who wanted to live a lifestyle out of the ordinary.  Now it's one of the most desirable postcodes in the country; the pioneers who bought ramshackle houses for a few hundred pounds in the Seventies are now selling them for a few hundred thousand.

I'd thought it might get annoying, like that vegetarian at a dinner party who says they're absolutely fine with you having a steak then tells you it takes eight years for the meat to make its way through your colon.  A kind of, "we embrace all lifestyles, but ours is better" smugness.  There wasn't any of that though.  There was just a quiet pride in what they'd achieved here, and a real beauty to it.  It's hard not to love a town whose high street is home to a haberdashery.

A clothes shop called "The Closet" also hinted at Hebden Bridge's other claim to fame: lesbians.  For some reason, and no-one's entirely sure why, there are more lesbians in Hebden Bridge than anywhere else in Britain.  Turns out the capital of lady-loving isn't Soho or Brighton, but instead a little mill town in the north (I nearly wrote "nestling in a valley" there, then realised that sounded a bit rude in this context).

When I mentioned to the BF that I was visiting Hebden Bridge, his sole response was a strangulated "LESBIANS!".  If you want to hear the very worst kind of homophobia, just ask a gay man about lesbians; a lot of the time they've already got a whole routine prepared.  There will be a lot of disgusted scrunching of the nose and veiled references to vaginas (possibly with a little dry heave).  I've been guilty of it myself, on more than one occasion; only the other day I saw two ladies shopping together and smugly declared them lesbians when I saw them buying soy milk.  We manage to conveniently ignore that if it wasn't for lesbians, nothing would ever get done; they're the practical ones at gay events, organising entertainment and booking venues, while the men are too busy trying to decide what colour the posters should be.  They're the ones who put their heads down and get on with things, in the way women of all sexualities have been doing for centuries.  Men don't tend to do things unless someone notices them doing it, which is why you should never let a man hoover the carpet because you will never hear the end of it.

I'd expected it to be lesbian central, all rainbow flags and adverts for Mooncups.  It wasn't.  There was a higher number of sensible looking women about, retired headmistress types with short grey hair and walking boots, but let's face it no one wants to be wearing stilettos and a skirt on a cold September day anyway.  There was a disproportionately large stack of Sarah Waters novels in the bookshop, too.  I reported the relative lack of Ellen Degeneres lookalikes back to the BF at the end of the evening, and he looked a bit disappointed.  He suggested that maybe they were all indoors on their period, because: gay man.

I had a few hours to kill until my timed ticket home, so obviously I headed for the pub.  The first one I tried was the White Lion, which clearly fancied itself as a restaurant that just happened to have a bar in it.  The barman ignored me for a good minute in favour of his clipboard, and when he finally delivered my pint of Landlord, he looked distinctly unamused.

The second pub was the White Swan, which was far cosier - by which I mean, "tiny".  Appropriately, it was staffed by a diminutive landlady who could barely see over the top of the bar.  She was defiantly foul mouthed - when one of the patrons jokingly asked her, "what do you reckon's the meaning of life?" she replied, "it's all shit, isn't it?" - but warm too.  The customers clearly adored her.  But before you start thinking this was a spit and sawdust haven for the unreconstructed male, they had a poster up advertising a fundraiser for the local operatic society.

The third pub was the Shoulder of Mutton; it was large, but empty, which is how I like my pubs.  I hid in a corner and ordered a plate of nachos, which were delicious, and I had a couple of pints.  It had free wifi too, which was apparently a rarity in the town (the White Lion wanted to charge me four pounds for an hour's access!).  Why won't pubs stick wifi in everywhere?  I can't be the only one who'd spend all day in a place where I could surf the internet and drink alcohol.  Actually, now that I think of it, perhaps it's best if they didn't.

The gents' toilet also featured this advert for double glazing.  I bet the lesbians don't know about that.

Stuffed with good food and a bit drunk, I tottered out of the pub and out to the station.  As with everything else in the town, it insisted on being embarrassingly picturesque.  I crossed a narrow bridge over the canal to reach it and found a working ticket office housed in a pretty building.

On the inside, the tilework could do with a bit of a scrub, but otherwise: adorable.

Northern Rail's Purple Gang must have been frothing at the mouth to get their hands on the station.  It had been carefully, classily restored to look as it must have done in the past.  Not a single mauve lamp post to be seen.

Again, if you want something done right, get some lesbians in.  Any other town would have just rolled over and let the men from Abellio redecorate their station to corporate standards.  At Hebden Bridge, though, I imagined a group of formidable women blocking the painters and refusing to let them by.  They knew exactly how they wanted their station to look, thank you very much, and they weren't about to let a bunch of Dutchmen tell them what to do.

Great little shops.  Lovely pubs.  Good food.  A station to die for.  Dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians.