Feb 28 2010

Hebden Bridge

Our train steams past clusters of Staples superstores and mega bowling taverns, past TK Maxx’s and derelict houses, moors and lakes, grids of post war houses and McDonalds, a town hides deep in a valley with housestumbling down a semi-mountain then a long dark tunnel. Then Hebden.

You have probably heard of Hebden Bridge. Renowned for hippies, fair trade and an alternative culture. Well, this is what happens when alternative culture grows up, has babies and a disposable income. Well, it’s probably a recyclable income here. It is a beautiful place in a beautiful setting. A valley, canal, woods, steep looming houses and the occasional long chimney, a remnant of its mill town past, probably the only one apart from the occasional estate agent sign advertising penthouse living in a converted mill. The photographs of minimalist rooms with white leather sofas don’t seems so terribly Hebden-and yes, Hebden is an adjective.

Hebden is more wind chimes, cute kids in cutely clashing layers, Non Yorkshire accents, whole food, homeopathy and dogs. Lots of dogs. And white haired lesbians in Millets clothing. And natural fabric, which looks expensive. And cheerful confident bonhomie. It’s lovely. But does not seem sustainable (ironically) to this northerner on minimum wage. Where is the money sourcing from and where are the jobs? It is such an enchanted Nirvana in the midst of the more earthy neighbours such as Accrington and Blackburn, the places where the press go to take a stock shot of the impoverished north and its miles of back-to-back identikit terraces with washing fluttering in the alleys from the train windows.

Hebden Bridge started as milltown, then when that died and the workers moved away, became a sort of commune, a place where the squatters fled, where they could afford a patch of land, a tiny terrace and from there grew a community of like minded souls. Now, there are still battered vans driving by, men with purple flowing capes and long hair wander the streets and are not mocked-narrow boats line the canal and hey, you get the message. But I wonder how the oasis gets its water.

House prices are reasonable-we lick the windows of estate agents where a lovely terrace can be purchased for a hundred grand and rent for a house can be less than four hundred quid a month (far more than neighbouring Halifax). But we wonder about jobs. So lovely to have independent shops and children’s homoeopathists. But this is a small town in the midst of Yorkshire and I suspect that jobs are hard to come by.

There are lovely places to eat and drink and they all seem to be full. On a Saturday. So many veggie cafes and the like, it is like manna from heaven from this veggie, saturated on the generic spicy bean burger option. It is not cheap. It is not that expensive. But in general recession bitten Northern terms, it’s a fucking miracle, never mind an oasis.

Feb 21 2010


There is dog shit everywhere. Literally everywhere and I mean literally in the true sense of the word, not the bastardised ‘I literally blew up with anger’.

Coils of mesmerising size, shape and variety line the alley leading from the train station into town-we point amazed, strangely impressed-constipated dogs, dogs with diarrhea, big dogs, little dogs, dogs who have clearly eaten something green-all have chosen to empty their bowels here, untroubled by owners with little shovels and small warm plastic bags.

An auspicious start. It gets better once we reach the high street-it is amazingly busy-this is a rather isolated town in the Yorkshire dales, an old town built mostly of grey and it blends in with the winter sky. But where you normally on a February Saturday expect the general shuffling Saturday shoppers, Skipton is bustling like Armageddon has just been announced on North West Tonight.

Throngs of people of a certain age merrily bustle down the narrow high street lined with worthy independent shops-there is a National Trust shop and despite the recession, people are cooing at bird feeders and books about castles. Clothes shops sell either windproof , waterproof and fashion proof coats or smart two-pieces -yesterday’s fashions at tomorrow’s prices.

As usual, after an hour on a train, sitting doing nothing, I am filled with a ravenous hunger. Skipton has a lot of places to eat. They are all full. Full to brim, bursting, saturated. I was keen to go to a veggie café; Wild Oats in the high street-there is an earnest polite queue leading down the staircase into the whole-foods store.  The Italian we try is also full -all around me people eat, shop, eat, shop. And oh so smugly. I decide I hate Skipton. My companion and I have the normal argument over where to eat but then find in a fork of the high street, an Italian called Brodys with a sign advertising pizza, garlic bread and salad for two for a tenner. It is in an ornate Georgian building with a white wedding cake ceiling  filled with ladies who lunch and well-fed wholesome families. The service and the food are excellent and I like Skipton again.

After lunch, the urge for a walk -and suddenly there is dog shit everywhere again. We try to look up at the castle but are too fearful for our shoes. The castle from the canal looks disappointingly well kempt-almost as if it has double glazing-I prefer my castles wild and windswept ruins with chunks of falling masonry, blood and rust stained irons but Skipton castle looks as smug and well cared for as the women in Brodys. My roof is in worse condition. I would have liked to go inside but we have little money, it having gone yet again on pizza and train fares like some low rent Mafioso.

We are on  a winding little path by the canal-a little waterfall appears and some charming little houses and beyond we can see fresh countryside, the sort that looks like it is virginal especially compared to the dog shit and litter but we have little time to stretch out into the unknown due to the haphazard train service.  Maybe one day though.

The Royal Oak  is nearby, near an apparently very famous pork pie shop (‘well, you would think the pies could be hot, at least,’ someone bitterly complains outside in the aggrieved tones you would expect of someone who had found her first born Sweeney Todded in crisp pastry)

I ask in the Royal Oak for a glass of red wine. ‘No, sorry, w haven’t got any’, says the woman in friendly co-miseration. Next to the Royal Oak is an off-license. I can see wine from here.  It is a nice looking pub though, all wooden floors and sofas but the rugby is on loud on a big screen and the only paper is the Daily Mail. Outside someone is dressed as a Christmas tree.

We decide to oh so carefully wind our way past the Tesco’s, Morrison’s and the dogshit and go back home. Good night Skipton-you are a rather lovely place but I don’t think I will be rushing back somehow-and it’s not you, it’s me.  And the poo.

Feb 21 2010


I have decided that I don’t like it here-it is foggy, I am hungry and there appears to be nowhere to eat apart from very very expensive places or places with laminated menus and pictures of burger and chips combos. Or Tea Shops filled with silver haired people and the smell of cinnamon.  Exciting looking shapes loom out of the mist and I want to walk, to see Buxton in all its unfamiliar glory but the impenetrable fog continues to snake in, my hunger rumbles and I yearn for a soft chair and a large house red.

It begins to snow.  My companion and I have an argument for the pure sake of it, rejecting each others choice of eating establishments and their menus with scorn, loathing and derision until finding an Italian restaurant, St Moritz sitting on a  rather busy road  but with that much revered signage of ‘Two course 6.95.’

It is strangely an Italian cum Swiss joint with fondues and Swiss named pizzas and pastas and is packed with red-cheeked Buxtonites on this grim Tuesday February afternoon. I have soup and pizza, both perfectly agreeable and my partner has bruschetta and pasta, the pasta being somewhat reminiscent of a child schools dinner, slippery tubes of penne in an oval china bowl loaded with stringy cheese but its certainly agreeable, there are ooh, chocolates with the bill, breadsticks, wine and thus my spirits lift with the fog.

And talking of spirits, I read in the ever affable Stuart Maconie’s book, Adventures On The High Teas, that Buxton has a bookshop with a ghost and we go back up the hill of disappointing eateries and into an Alice In Wonderland bookshop where stairs go up and up and down and down in a wonderfully discombobulating way-there is a little Victorian museum in the cellar amongst the piles of toppling unloved books who’s time is so clearly past but no ghost-the handwritten poems about the ghost ruin the ambience somewhat-when the word ghost is chirpily refrained with toast, a sense of mystique and terror is gone forever.  But one can have a cup of coffee here in this crumbling soothing part of a vanishing world, listen to the traffic outside and wonder how much longer such lovely places will continue in the modern word where everything is free,  downloadable and does not smell faintly of rot. The real ghosts are embedded on the fly leafs of the books-faded yellow copperplate wishing dear Edward a happy 21st from Auntie Gertrude and you realise from the date that they are both dead now. Only this remains of them, an antiquated three-pound novel in a dusty plant filled bookshop and it is both upsetting and exciting.

Back down the hill, an undrinkable glass of wine in the otherwise lovely The Old Sun Inn’s understated antiquity and one could easily imagine they were Charles Dickens blagging a drink in return for dashing off some prose if it were not for the fact that the radio is playing eighties pop classics, clashing horribly with the quiet old men and old quiet stone.

The high street is pleasingly adorned with independent shops-the charity shops are filled with sensible clothes for the older person but I find a pleasingly impractical cardigan which in no way serves to warm me from the invasive chill coming down from the peaks and you can see how easy it would be to feel trapped here.  A few hoodies walk their pit bulls and attempt to look menacing but they just look rather chilly and you expect a ruddy-faced lady to tell them to pull their trousers up. I would not like to be young here.  It seems a happy conservative well heeled sort of place where small vandalisms would be talked about with horrified fascinations for weeks afterwards-a hermetically sealed part of little England which is however slowly becoming unwrapped.

The Buxton museum is great-delightfully shambolic with tables devoted to learning about pearls next to abstract art and information on the mining history of Buxton. There is a replica Victorian library which reeks of disapproval and must and then a time travel tunnel (we go through accidently backwards and come out as cavemen) with rather surprising hyenas and bears along with a real skeleton and the normal bits of annotated wood and the like. Middle class children run amok, being somewhat loudly over excited by history-it’s all very very jolly indeed.

I decide I have warmed to Buxton.

Outside there is a classic car auction next to the botanical gardens and the Opera House (who says culture is dumbing down-Charlie and Lola are playing next week-the children of Buxton are surely spoilt) Everyone looks like Lovejoy and talk so poshly I think they must be being filmed. Old Jaguars are fondled with sheepskinned-gloved hands. It’s hard to reconcile such Englishness with England anymore but there is still a queue outside Greggs and people are still talking in surprised and somewhat annoyed tones about the weather so we are still here after all.

The park is magnificent and with a joyfully spurting fountain-a rare occurrence. There are strange looking birds, kind of like multi coloured ducks which mingle with the suddenly drab and austere mallards, miniature lakes and it is easy to step back in time here, to imagine parading through with a parasol, delicately revealing an ankle and looking around, things do appear as they used to be except for the boarded up crescent of the Pump Rooms blazoned with EU funding posters.

And then misty eyed with a genteel vision of yesteryear, we step back centuries. The Old Hall Hotel is straight out of an MR James story. We retreat inside for a glass of wine before the train and it is magical. A guest book is opened on a month and a year in the eighteenth century and you wonder about the assignations, adulteries   and secrets it contains with people’s comments that had faded even before Aunt Gertie had even been born.

Apparently Mary Queen of Scots stayed here and it is reputed to be the oldest hotel in England. I can well believe it-it reeks of faded grandeur and lily of the valley yet has retained a vestige of youth with its wine bar and contempory food menu-a newspaper rack has the Guardian and the Daily Express nestled side by side-unlikely bedfellows.  Another amazingly well spoken elderly gentlemen is languidly chatting in the corner-would make David Attenborough look like someone out of Shameless and a hassled car dealer from the auction is talking into a mobile. It is warm, well lit and utterly fascinating-empty parlours and other bars and rooms are dotted around the place, it is a veritable thickly walled maze, a piece of true history and I want to stay the night here, ensconced in an armchair by the fire with my MR James book and a brandy listening out for one of the ghosts that must surely frequent this island in the past. I would feel like an exhibit in the roped off Victorian room in the museum.  But I have no money left and the train is nearly approaching so I shrug unhappily off this warm shroud of the past and step into the freezing neon glow of 2010.