Returning to Places I Have Known

There is always something quite unsettling about returning to a place you once knew.  In addition to a slightly poignant sadness, as you process the inevitable realisation that things you once knew will never be the same again, the march of progress and change causes you to find that even solid, tangible things – buildings, roads, familiar places, might have altered or even disappeared completely.  And so it was last week, when I returned through my work to Huddersfield, a place where I spent my carefree student days, and where I also lived for some years after those halcyon days. 

Huddersfield, for those of you based too far south to know these things, is a handsome town which, according to all the guide books that can be bothered to mention it, ‘nestles in the foothills of the Pennines‘ betwixt Leeds and Oldham.  You may pass it while traveling on the M62 motorway, but you probably won’t realise it.  There are a couple of visual clues – the landmarks that stand out these days in the town’s environs are the Emley Moor transmitter, which can be seen as far away as Barnsley, and Castle Hill, a stone monument sitting atop a hill overlooking the town.

A few days ago, I arrived by car at one of the more anonymous hotels on the very periphery of the town.  Being part of the West Yorkshire conurbation, you actually experience a massive urban and sub urban sprawl for some 20 odd miles starting in the east in Leeds, and then following loosely along the M62 artery through Batley, Dewsbury, the southern fringes of Bradford and Halifax, and then out along the dark green waters of the canal towards Marsden.  Because of this vast built-up area, you don’t really get much sense of being anywhere in such hotels; however it was convenient and close enough for me to contemplate a run or two to see some sights.

Like many towns in Yorkshire, Huddersfield sits in a valley, surrounded by hills of varying sizes.  To its south and west lie the fringes of the Pennines – the presence of both water [two rivers, the Holme and the Colne, joint here] and hills being the two factors that would help to shape the town’s character when the Industrial Revolution started off.  It is a compact and handsome town really; like many places the initial view you get really depends on which direction you approach it from.  My tendency is to arrive by Wakefield Road, which after a vertiginous approach [downhill, of course], lands you in the southern suburb of Moldgreen, a tidy area of Victorian stone built terraced housing in the shadow of its rather more upmarket neighbour, the genteel village of Almondbury whose exclusivity is hinted at by the steep hill that separates the two enclaves.

When the top-hatted, sideburned and frock-coated Victorian industrialists commenced their impressive, if rather serious and lacking in fun drive to build the world’s fastest growing economy on the back of good, honest hard graft, towns like Huddersfield found themselves at the epicentre of things.  Possessed of the aforementioned natural resources of plentiful water, hills and a large and willing workforce, the town became a key component of the burgeoning textile industry which was also responsible for putting Huddersfield’s northern neighbours Halifax and Bradford on the World map.  Not to mention, of course, Manchester – a couple of hours’ slow canal boat ride to the west, separated by the bleakness of Saddleworth Moor.

And that fact is important, because as you may already be aware, the canal was the M62 of its day.  Long boats pulled by horses before the invention of the combustion engine were the only means by which it was possible to transport bales of textiles from the mills to the ports on the west coast.  Given the natural barrier that separated Huddersfield from towns to the west, high moorland which allowed no possibility of effective road transport,  it became viable, indeed essential to blast a tunnel to route the canal through at Marsden.

Without wishing to get carried away on a history lesson, but at the same time wishing to put you firmly in the picture dear reader, I will only observe that the early 1800s saw some pretty impressive feats of physical engineering in the name of improving commerce, and by association the long-term prosperity of the folk of such towns as this one.

In 1811, some sixteen years after work commenced on the Standedge Tunnel project, it was declared complete; it is said that a party of invited guests entered the tunnel at Diggle on the western side, and completed the journey to Marsden by canal boat in one hour and forty minutes. The tunnel had cost some £160,000, and was at that time the most expensive canal tunnel built in Britain. It has three parallel cousins, two of which now carry trains on the Trans Pennine railway.

With a viable trade link that wound its way, via the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, to Ashton-Under-Lyme and hence eventually to Manchester and Salford docks [and then, by way of the Manchester Ship Canal, to the Mersey and the New World], Huddersfield enjoyed the fruits of its new position as one of the main textile towns in Britain.

Mills, some compact and others palatial, sprang up all over the town, built in red brick or sandy Yorkshire stone.  Soot soon blackened the rows of terraced housing built to house the no doubt flat-capped and be-clogged workers.

However, reading the history books makes you realise pretty quickly that the industrial boom came at a pretty high price for the average Huddersfield worker. Firstly, the traditional rural weavers were forced to watch helplessly as their trade was pretty much snuffed out overnight by the advent of the new automated machines.  Secondly, the average mill worker was sold pretty short on the industrial relations front.

So bad were the conditions at the time that the Luddites turned their destructive attentions on Huddersfield’s big mills, an uprising which would see several mills completely destroyed and would eventually result in 1812 in the murder of one William Horsfall, a mill owner whose treatment of both his own workers and the Luddites he so despised would make him the focus of this great and righteous rage.

Perhaps this episode in the town’s history would forge a unique political stance in the future; Huddersfield is also known to this day as a place with liberal traditions.  And, as you will see by the presence of the statue in St George’s Square outside the railway station, home of Harold Wilson.

And what a railway station it is; described by John Betjeman as ‘the most splendid station facade in England‘ second only to that of St Pancras in London, its six vast columns evoke ancient Greece and the sheer scale and beauty of the building’s facade leave you impressed and appreciative of the sheer ambition of the town and its people.  It was designed to show off the town to the best possible degree, whether you were arriving or departing.  As you descend the steps, you are confronted by the grandeur of St George’s Square, surrounded on all four sides by impressive buildings, but the station dominates the square effortlessly.  It really is one of those sights that makes me get all nostalgic and ‘Daily Mail’ – ish, and I struggle to resist letting out a sneaky ‘they don’t make them like this any more’.

I took a solitary wander through the town on an evening and the following rainy morning, the former after a long walk down the leafy affluence of Halifax Road.  I had gone in search of two things for which certain institutions in town are famous – good beer and good curry.

Due to the need for manual labour in the mills, workers from former colonies such as Pakistan came to the town in the mid 20th century and settled in the cheap housing in areas such as Thornton Lodge, Springwood and Birkby, all within walking distance of the town centre.  And with them they brought their unique cuisine – in my opinion there is no better place to go in the whole country for a ‘proper’ curry.

In almost no time at all I was sat, filled with anticipation as I flicked the pages of a good book, at a stripped wood table in the saloon bar of The Grove.  On the table in front of me, with white suds slowly slipping down the sides, sat a pint of gloriously bitter, hoppy ale, one of eighteen on hand pulled tap in this unique pub.  The Grove, for years a small and unremarkable local roughly opposite the town’s Bus Station, has been taken on by enterprising new owners and turned from an ailing boozer into a must-experience destination for anyone who appreciates British beer.

The local crowd, made up of a few middle-aged pals discussing drinking-related antics, an impossibly optimistic young father trying to keep charge of two very young and lively girls  and a few solitary drinkers like me, were very clearly only here for the beer.  This pub eschews the current mode for gastro-related food and its revoltingly aspirational sameiness, preferring instead to concentrate on maintaining an impressively high standard of beer keeping.  So taken with the concept was I that a couple more pints were necessary in order to avoid giving the impression that I was some clueless waif who had wandered in expecting to buy a glass of nondescript wine and a lamb shank.

photo by Tim Pogson

Then, sated and only slightly wobbly, I took my knapsack, packed away my book and handed my empty glass back, making my way unsteadily under the fragrant subway and eventually up the creaking stairs to Shabab, quite possibly the oldest established curry house in town.

Now, going back to my initial thoughts on how things can change over the years, I have to observe that I used to dine at this restaurant twenty odd years ago, and I am forced to contradict myself by stating that in some cases, some things never change.  Exuberantly tasteless decor that seems to take every Indian restaurant you have ever been inside and condense them all into one space assaults you as you walk through the door.

I took my solitary place, brought my book back out [the menu doesn’t really bear extended reading once you have ordered and I find myself consumed by self-consciousness when sat alone in a restaurant, as if my fellow diners will inevitably be cooing quietly to one another – ‘poor chap, he must have been stood up….’], and summoned forth a generous draught of Indian lager.

The food, cheap by southern standards, was good, hot in both senses, and possessed of the richness of taste that they only seem to be able to do in Yorkshire.  However, when I came to pay, my offer of a credit card met with an embarrassed expression from the proprietor who informed me that the card machine was broken, but ‘cash machine outside’.  Two minutes later, and plagued with only the mildest sensation of guilt at having considered ‘doing a runner’ when out on the street, I was handing over my payment, the relieved and grateful owner only just able to resist offering to shine my shoes for me as he pocketed the cash.

The next morning, finding myself with a few spare hours, I came again into the town centre, a slight hangover gnawing at my senses as I noticed with some displeasure that a generous volume of soft rain was now falling onto the streets.  My sense of looming disappointment was only worsened when I found that a whole matrix of little back streets which contained some memorable night time institutions [the Coach House night club and the Silver Sands reggae club spring to mind, which only goes to show my strange sense of priority] has been subsumed by a giant, neon-lit aberration known apparently as Kingsgate shopping centre.

The presence of this vile, sprawling monstrosity probably accounts for the vast number of ‘To Let’ signs that now adorn the facades of the many independent shops that used to line the streets.  These indentikit, Americanised ‘malls’  depress me – I began to think that if only the spirit of the Luddites of the 19th Century could somehow manifest itself again in the townsfolk, then perhaps they could rise up and destroy the bright, soulless shops like they did the dark, satanic mills.  But, judging by the locals I saw, contented by burger bars and mobile phone shops as they shambled along clad in their sweatshop made tracksuits [what is it about unhealthy, generally overweight and sedentary people that makes them want to wear clothes designed for sport?], I concluded sadly that the term ‘revolution’ made sense only as the name of the Vodka bar on the wet street outside.

Before I left, I also wanted to visit St Peter’s Building.  Not, as you might imagine, the former home of biblical characters but in fact a rather brutalist 1960s edifice which is significant to me because, after it had served time as the YMCA in the town, it became a student Hall of Residence, and in 1986 I took my first, faltering steps to independent living in its hallowed corridors.  The sheer ugliness of the structure always fascinated me: forgive me if I get a little Bill Bryson-ish for a moment, but what would possess an architect to think to themselves ‘I know, here is a space adjacent to one of the most dramatic street scenes in the town, presenting an impressive vista rising up past an array of handsome sandstone buildings to frame a wonderful view of the railway station in all its’ be-columned finery.  I think a nine- storey concrete and brick slab that looks like a Russian collective farm would really add a certain something, you know’…….. You can make your own mind up by looking at the picture below, but here is what the architects who are working on the redevelopment of the site said:

“The St Peter’s building is an extraordinary structure entirely out of scale with its surroundings and unsympathetic to the neighbouring Methodist Church – a former YMCA. However it has been mellowed with age and accepted by the people of the town. “

Mindful of the significance of that last sentence, partly because I suspect that the townsfolk had little choice but to accept 10,000 tons of brick and concrete being slapped in the back yard of their Methodist Chapel, and partly also because of the well-documented tendencies of their forebears to raze to the ground local buildings that displeased them, I circled the giant structure respectfully.  It reminded me of a great ship, beached and awaiting the breakers’ torches.

Never the most salubrious part of town, at least there was always activity as students came and went, whilst the ground floor shops in the building served as a Housing advice centre and a Chinese restaurant.  But now, the whole structure appears to have lain redundant and empty for years.  The top floors, where male and female students were billeted in segregated districts, now show jagged shards of broken glass where windows once were, as the cold rain blows in and soaks the rooms.  Reading the local newspaper later revealed to me that the building has been sold to a development company with a view to it being demolished and the site redeveloped as offices and luxury flats, although because of the recession, this has been put ‘on ice’.  And so it is that poor old St Peter’s sits in limbo; neither alive nor dead, but simply decaying slowly while the bureaucrats haggle over money, watching impassively as the world passes it by.

I paused for a moment, remembering the innocent times spent inside this unlikely temporary home, the friendships formed, the relationships that blossomed [and ended], but my reverie was ended when I quickly realised that a grown man taking photographs in by now quite generous rain on a Thursday morning in Huddersfield must have presented a somewhat suspicious appearance.

And so, somewhat disillusioned, a state I prepared you for in my opening gambit, I trudged wetly back to my car and thus, out of Huddersfield.  It was very much a case of mixed feelings, really.  On the one hand, it was good to see familiar sights; the stunningly bleak beauty of the nearby Pennine hills, the comfortable, compact feel of the town centre, the sense that history is all around you.  On the other, and maybe it was just the weather, I felt that this was becoming a town of two halves in a more acute sense than ever before.  The University seems burgeoning, with impressive new glass fronted buildings and ‘student villages’, whereas the once engaging streets of small, independent shops for which the town was known have been almost entirely lined with the gaudy advertising signs of modern day pawn brokers such as Cash Converters.

Harold Wilson, looking out from his impressive brass monument on St George’s Square, must wonder what kind of socialism it is that has created a need for such companies on the main street.  But, undeterred, I shall no doubt follow him again in the future as he appears to stride out of the station and into the handsome square.

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One response

  1. been to huddesfield a couple of times before, walked along the canals and had s few pints in a pub which I can’t remember the name of. Very picturesque surroundings, and friendly locals. The epitome of British rural life. Good read there Paul.

    May 20, 2011 at 8:01 am

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