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.