Saturday, 9 January 2016
Outwood. It sounds like a kind of gay outward bound course, or perhaps a festival. A Burning Man for homosexuals, all tepees and henna tattoos and rebirthing to discover your chi.
Or maybe I'm just reaching, trying to find an interesting angle on a very ordinary suburban station in West Yorkshire. Two platforms, two shelters, a couple of chirpy ticket inspectors stationed on the Leeds-bound side to scare the heck out of fare dodgers. I picked my way through the parked cars in a side access road, the tarmac going bald to reveal wet cobbles beneath, and found a sign for my selfie.
It was a dreary, depressing day, the first trip in 2016, and more or less my first time out of the house since New Year's. Wet mist clung to the rooftops; my breath appeared then vanished into it. I turned onto the charmingly-named Potovens Lane by a row of suburban shops; a mini-market at one end, then a succession of places to grab a quick bite - sandwiches, Cantonese, fish and chips, the "Curry Pot".
Beyond it, semis stretched into the mist, bare trees poking out of front gardens. As I passed, some of them still had tinsel in their windows, Santas and fairies, each one looking sad and unloved now. It's like January 1st brings with it an inch of dust and a scowl; all those harbingers of joy to all men suddenly look miserable.
It's January's fault, of course. January's awful. The only time people enjoy January is when there's a good snowstorm, a big swathe of white to make the country sparkle. Otherwise it's grey and wet, a parade of low moments until we get to February and can say "oh well, at least it's a short month." My birthday is in January, and any kind of gathering to celebrate it is inevitably filled with people forcing themselves to be amused and jolly. They've had enough of being happy, they've got no money, and then this idiot turns up and asks them to help him glorify another year of his pathetic existence? I've given up on parties.
I'd got to Outwood from Leeds, and though it was the next station on the line, it was actually over the border in Wakefield. I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time in Wakefield's suburbs over the course of this blog. More than I've spent in places I'd actually want to visit.
The Going Loco train shop made me smile, and I once again wondered whether I should knuckle down and build a model railway in my cellar. As usual, I realised that I don't actually have the patience or the dedication to build my own model railway, and what I really want is for someone to build me a huge extensive layout and then let me play with it. I dodged a van delivering cat litter to the pet food on the corner, the driver hauling huge bags of it over the pavement and looking annoyed at people using the path to, you know, walk on, then took a left onto the Leeds Road.
I soon realised that I'd entered a no-man's land between Leeds and Wakefield, a kind of Neutral Zone between the two councils. The semis had dropped away. Instead there were sheds and trailers, garages. Compounds with metal fences. Banners draped over the spikes advertising cafes with full English breakfast and part-worn tyres. The buildings were ramshackle, split into a mish-mash of uses - the engineering firm downstairs, the dog grooming parlour up.
A golf course on one side of the road and horse paddocks on the other should have provided a moment of greenery, but again, it was scraggy January, and the recent heavy rains had turned the grass to mud.
Lofthouse crept in then. A pub with a skip outside, its hanging signs empty; the Royale Chinese restaurant, because what better says fine Oriental dining than a French word? Another pub, with its bay window full of sports trophies, and then the "Lofthouse Millennium Green". I passed through the gate and had a look at the patch of green, a pleasing bit of open public space.
It was hard to enjoy the quiet beauty when you had the M62 literally running alongside; the Millennium Green occupied the spot where Lofthouse's cricket pitch used to be until the motorway sliced through. There was the usual "welcome to the green, now here are all the things you can't do" sign, but under No Ball Games they had added the M62 motorway runs alongside the green. I suddenly had images of a terrible pile up caused by a cheap plastic Star Wars football being accidentally kicked into the windscreen of a petrol tanker.
I crossed the motorway myself, experiencing that familiar tug of vertigo that turns my stomach inside out, and reached Lofthouse proper. There were cottages and a stone church, and I felt a moment of sadness for how the village must have been before progress smashed a constantly humming highway right through their yards.
It wasn't much past ten, the dog walking hour. Owners marched firmly down the pavement with excitable pups at their side. I turned a corner and found three people trapped in a sort of triangle of dogs; their pets sniffed excitedly at one another while the owners stood by, a little embarrassed, not really knowing where to look and when to drag their spaniel away. I crossed into Cemetary Lane and found Council workers trying to back a flatbed truck into the graveyard. I became momentarily terrified that they'd knock one of the headstones down, but with a decisive wrench of the wheel the driver managed to swing the truck into a narrow space and stopped.
A plastic sign attached to a lamppost with cable ties advertising a farm shop let me know that I'd reached an area of note; yes, I was in the Rhubarb Triangle. The heavy wet soil of this stretch of West Yorkshire is perfect for rhubarb, and over the centuries its cultivation has become an art in this part of the world. It's first grown in the fields, then taken into giant sheds to be "forced" - deprived of light, they use the carbohydrates inside to continue growing, making the rhubarb far sweeter. I remember reading somewhere that their growth in the sheds is so rapid, you can actually hear the stems expanding - a thrillingly ghoulish idea.
There were leafy plants in the muddy fields across the road, but I couldn't really tell if they were rhubarb or not; again, my lack of country skills let me down. I'm not really a rhubarb fan. It's too sharp for my taste. Now and then I'll have a crumble, but let's be honest, anything is palatable once you've slathered it in Taste the Difference custard. It's not a glamorous - wait, is rhubarb a fruit or a vegetable? It's sweet, and it's in desserts, so it seems fruity, but it's basically red celery. Excuse me while I Google.
It's a vegetable.
Anyway, to return to my original point, rhubarb isn't a glamorous vegetable is it? There's Protected Designation of Origin status for Rhubarb Triangle rhubarb, giving it the same caché as Camembert and Champagne and Melton Mowbray pork pies, but I can't imagine the farmers getting invited to the same parties as Gorgonzola cheese and Arbroath Smokies. Rhubarb has a slight air of wartime need to it; it carries with it the greyness of rationing and make do and mend, the kind of food that the British ate under suffrance because we couldn't get bananas any more. It's semolina instead of Eton Mess.
Carlton's unabashedly devoted to rhubarb, though, sticking it right on the entrance to the village; either that or they've got a really good darts team. I walked into the centre past the football and rugby clubs, finding a village that had clearly been thrown up randomly over the centuries. It had evolved haphazardly, with houses at strange angles to the streets, and terraces going away from the road.
I passed the social club, advertising its 130 seat function room that was available free of charge unless you were holding a children's party, in which case it was twenty quid. I imagine that's for the decontamination crew who have to be brought in afterwards to hose the jelly off the ceiling. A skip across a couple of junctions, and then I was climbing the hill into Rothwell.
I took a small diversion into the centre of the town, because I was dying for a wee and there was a Morrison's. When I came back out, I found a busy little high street, lined with local butchers and bakers and not overwhelmed by chain stores and charity shops.
I bought a pasty from a bakery, mainly to warm my cold fingertips, and ate it as I walked.
Rothwell town centre butts up against Springfield Park, and I followed its outskirts. I could see tennis courts and playgrounds, and a cafe. Further along there were wide stretches of green lawn given over to rugby and football pitches.
These weren't just sports facilities - they were flood plains. I'd not seen much evidence of the flooding that had struck Yorkshire over Christmas - this area wasn't hit as badly as others - but the churned up mud and sodden roads still carried the scars of the downpours. Now and then I'd cross a culverted river and it crashed under the road, still angry, while downstream I could see wrecked trees and islands of rubbish left there by the receding waters.
Crossing a roundabout - one of its exits marked with (M1): The NORTH, because apparently Leeds isn't the proper north - I was surprised to find a Tudor house, sitting right next to a dual carriageway.
The beam over the top lists the owner - Edrus Tailor - and the date - Apr 10 1611. A four hundred year old building, just sitting by a roundabout, untouched. I love this country.
I entered Oulton by a bunch of flowerbeds with sponsored signs explaining they were part of Oulton in Bloom - given the dead stalks beneath them, the signs looked sarcastic - and carried on up the hill. Oulton was modern and undressy; there was a Domino's Pizza and a Lidl. I passed what must have been my third or fourth deconsecrated church of the day, converted into flats, though the Methodist Church was still hanging in there with a coffee morning sign outside.
Oulton merged into Woodlesford with a corporate coloured Co-op overshadowing its historic building. The stonework above the main entrance listed the date of opening; I wish the Co-op would be more sensitive to these historic, pioneering stores. Over the road, the Clown House was a grim cinema conversion. The font tried to be jolly, but the grey pebbledash fought against it.
The road sloped down the hill, and soon I saw two words guaranteed to make me smile:
For years, the only way to cross between platforms at Woodlesford station was via a barrow crossing right over the tracks. A barrow crossing is theoretically perfectly safe, but unfortunately, people are idiots, and often don't notice several tons of locomotive bearing down on them at fifty miles an hour, so in 2010 the council put up a footbridge.
I say that the council put up a footbridge; given the many ramps, steps and arches, it might actually have been thrown together by a four year old playing Mousetrap.
I crossed over to the Wakefield platform and sat on a damp bench to eat my cheese rolls. January is a filthy, miserable month. Sometimes you need to get out and about to cheer yourself up.