Travel

The Road to Hull is Paved with Good Intentions

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“Where are you up to?” I hear you ask.

Coast to coast walk – New Brighton (like Brighton but without the refinement, and sun) to Spurn Head (a mobile, transient kind of shoreline for our times) via Liverpool, Manchester, Huddersfield and Hull – 200 miles duly walked. Booker Prize winning narrative, first and second drafts completed. J K Rowling style publishing contract still a work in progress. Filming rights under negotiation; George Clooney in frame to play the part of “me” but content of Oscar acceptance speech may prove stumbling block.

I travelled on the Mersey ferry, on a ghost train and by narrow boat through the Pennines. I attended a liquorice festival in Pontefract, a Super League game in Castleford, a gathering of brass bands in Saddleworth (sadly Tara Fitzgerald no longer plays solo flugelhorn with Grimley Colliery band)….

… a whole assortment of museums and theatres, Edwardian swimming baths and a wildflower centre (in Liverpool!) I was made welcome at the finest cat hotel in Dewsbury or anywhere else, at a bingo night in Hull and a pub quiz in Liverpool. I stayed in splendid old railway hotels, hostels, welcoming B&Bs and some distinctly ordinary pubs. I ate more curries, scouse, spam fritters, home-made ice cream, Hull potato patties and full English than you can shake a black pudding at. There was snow and torrential rain on Merseyside and heatstroke on the Humber. I hung out with the Pankhursts, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Wilberforce and Philip Larkin. And Kay Kendall.

Yorkshire folk, they’re not like other folk…

And I was privileged to visit some of the most exciting conservation schemes and heart-warming community and social projects you’ll encounter anywhere, meeting volunteers and staff making huge efforts to preserve and enhance the social and environmental soul of the country – with little reward beyond the knowledge that their contributions are greatly appreciated by those who benefit from them. While public services continue to be sacrificed to the false gods of austerity and tax cutting, the nation owes a huge debt of gratitude to those who unflinchingly put their fingers in the dyke and strive to stem the tide.

All I need now is the book.

I’m grateful for your suggested alternative titles.

“John”, sensing the value of wordplay, gave me “To Hull and Back”, adding the proviso that it would only work if I turned round on reaching the North Sea and did the whole walk in reverse. We haven’t spoken since…

“Keith”, seeking a musical link between my start and end points of Merseyside and Humberside, posited “Hull hath no Fury, but it does hath Ronnie Hilton and David Whitfield”. Mm.

I think I’ve got the dedication sorted, along these lines:

To the taxi drivers of Yorkshire for your unequivocal advice, thank you. I wouldn’t have grasped the subtleties of Brexit or Hull, City of Culture without your help.

Well, it’s a work in progress…

I am very pleased to have help from Jennifer Barclay, a real travel writer with a website and everything, in honing my magnum opus, accepting the excessive grumblings of a knackered cross country walker and reminding me that I don’t have permission to use song lyrics or quote extensively from eminently quotable sources.

As it happens, I have now been given permission by Alison McGovern MP to quote from the lyrics of her grandfather, Pete McGovern’s In My Liverpool Home:

 “We speak with an accent exceedingly rare,

   meet under a statue exceedingly bare,

   if you want a cathedral we’ve got one to spare

   in my Liverpool home….”

… which is cool.

I still need the nod from Gerry Marsden, Philip Larkin, Anthony Gormley and the authors of Crap Towns but it’s surely only a matter of time.

To create an illusion of narrative merit I’m also delighted to say that Polly Toynbee (nowadays mainly The Guardian), Dr Helen Pankhurst (very much a Pankhurst and as helpful as one could possibly imagine) and Fiona Reynolds (National Trust, CPRE, writer and much besides) have all kindly supplied words of endorsement for the cover. Which may give you a flavour of how it will read…

Even before it comes off the presses The Road to Hull has had the benefit of press coverage. Back in the spring of last year this blog was approached by a student journalist from Sussex University asking for an interview about the Great Trek for a piece to be offered to local papers. A meeting was arranged to fit in, for the sake of convenience, after an appointment I had made with the local foot doctor to examine some seriously walk-battered toenails. A quick examination revealed that these couldn’t all be saved and, after a swift toenailectomy while I bit down on my newspaper, I crossed the road to a café for our meeting.

My interviewer asked why I was doing the walk, how many miles I hoped to do each day, how it had gone so far, what was still to come. It was gratifying to share my thoughts and experiences with someone who was interested. I gave it my best shot, threw in plenty of anecdotes and told him where I’d been immediately before our meeting.

I picked up a copy of the local paper later in the week to see if I was in there. There was a big article with a photo under a bold headline:

66 Year Old Chiropodist Patient Plans Coast to Coast Walk

To help me in my endeavours Mrs Blog has bought me a fine writer’s hat.

That at least is how she described it when persuading me to buy one at the Bruges Christmas market. It may have been what she thought I needed to keep my head warm and dry but I prefer to believe in its special creative qualities. Without his hat Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have been just a short fat bloke from Portsmouth stood in front of a pile of chains. Without his hat Indiana Jones would have been some supply teacher of archaeology with a frown and a bullwhip fixation. Without a writer’s hat this blog would be just some bloke with a cold; but don his new, size 7 literary headgear and he is transformed into a bloke with both a cold and a hat. And with those anything is possible.

…but, even with a hat, some people are beyond help

Mrs Blog and I will be taking a break in April with a cruise line owned and frequented by Americans. She has instructed me not to mention, or respond to, or think about, the T word. I promise nothing…

But before that this blog has an appointment in London on Saturday 25 March with tens of thousands of others, the ones who’ve looked into the chasm that is Brexit and are sore afraid. I attended a “What happens next?” panel event last week featuring our MP and spokespersons for the other parties. The MP’s position can reasonably be represented as:

  1. She voted Leave in the referendum
  2. She saw the chief benefits as being able to trade with the US to take advantage of their lower standards of food safety and environmental protection, and with China so we can improve their human rights record, and ensuring that Filipino nurses should have the same opportunities to seek work here as French nurses. (She’d had, presumably, nine months to come up with those.)
  3. While a 52/48% split for Leave was highly significant in the national vote, a 52/48 % split in favour of Remain in her own constituency on the other hand meant we were split down the middle.
  4. However obvious and appalling the economic and other implications of Brexit were now becoming, she would – now that parliament had, against the wishes of the government, been given a say — support “Article 50”.

And we used to think we had a sophisticated democracy…

Join me in London on the 25th!

 

 

 

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Travel

Earning one’s corns and appreciating the shoddy

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The good news in May was that the local paper here in Sussex ran a nearly full page piece about my coast to coast walk and included a link to my BHF sponsorship site as well as a rather fine photo of my rugged Bear Grylls like visage. The slightly less heartwarming news was that the article opened with the words, “66 year old chiropodist patient Steve ….”

Now, how would you normally describe yourself to a stranger or in a lonely hearts advert? “First and foremost I have always seen myself as a motorist”, or “an out of work poet…” “Moderate drinker and mild dandruff sufferer Mr. Blog said today…”  “Madman Boris Johnson opened the debate…”   Sets the tone doesn’t it?

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“90 year old hat wearer faces difficult choice”

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“52 year old urinary tract infection patient Nigel ponders next racial slur”

My mood wasn’t helped by my heroic journey – from the Mersey to the Humber, remember – being headlined “East to west trek”.  (This may not mean much to a Satnav generation but it didn’t go down well here in Blog Towers.)

So, stage 3 of the trek began in Saddleworth on Whit Friday for the annual gathering of brass bands – nearly a hundred of them. Sometimes I think I’m turning into my father, who truly loved band music. Indeed, while some people’s dads whistled, mine used to wander round the house and garden making a kind of cornet sound which involved puffing out his cheeks. Like bagpipe music it may be better heard outdoors. The loss of old bandstands in the local park is to be regretted – I’m surprised that Brexit has not yet, as far as I’m aware, laid this decline at the door of the EU, along with the demise of the groat and the Jubbly and the spread of “simulation” (diving) in football.

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Two more British icons that Brexit says we could preserve by leaving the EU

Those who have seen the film Brassed Off starring Tara Fitzgerald, and probably featuring some other people – but mainly, as far as I’m concerned, Tara Fitzgerald – may recall a scene where Grimley Colliery Band, with the eponymous (that’s a word I’ve always fancied using so I hope it’s the right one) colliery about to be closed and its members put out of work, drink more than is strictly appropriate for an outfit competing at Saddleworth. SPOILER ALERT: the band recovers from this low point to achieve national fame at the Albert Hall, where band conductor Pete Postlethwaite gets to utter the immortal line, “I used to think that music mattered. But does it? Bollocks! Not compared to how people matter”. (A line borrowed, as fans of Chumbawamba will recognise, for the intro to their hit Tubthumping – “I get knocked down, But I get up again, You’re never gonna keep me down” — which you may wish to note down for quiz purposes.)  And, did I mention, Tara Fitzgerald is really good in the film…

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What a player…

With the sound of brass in my ears, and with a visit to the National Coalmining Museum near Huddersfield due a few days later, my research threw up a stage version of said Brassed Off which seemed to chime with the Zeitgeist (another word on the Brexit “to be abolished” list) of my trip. Unfortunately the timings of various performances of the play around the coalfields of the north didn’t fit well with my itinerary. However I was delighted to discover that the hotbed of industrial strife, social unrest and anti-Thatcherism that is East Grinstead in West Sussex was due to host a performance by local strolling players effecting indeterminate provincial accents on a day when this Blog was but a short clog’s stride away – and I wasn’t about to pass up on that. The evening proved highly enjoyable, especially when cast members passed among the arriving patrons in the bar before the performance and invited us to join in with the placard waving and slogan shouting – I think it fair to point out that this Blog made a better fist of that than most.

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End of the working day, East Grinstead High Street

Other highlights of this stage of the walk included a two hour trip along the Huddersfield Canal through the Standedge tunnel beneath the Pennines (the only bit of the entire coast to coast journey which won’t be undertaken on foot, though I did keep walking up and down the narrow boat for the sake of appearances); Huddersfield’s wonderful railway station; and the outside (sadly, it’s currently boarded up) of the Grade 2 listed George Hotel in Huddersfield where the sport of rugby league was invented – specifically, where 20 northern rugby clubs decided one day in 1895 to break from the posh southern clubs over the issue of professionalism, which in those days wasn’t necessarily viewed as a positive concept.

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“HP sauce fan and Gannex wearing former prime minister outside Huddersfield station”

Stage 3 of the walk ended in Dewsbury, famed, as per my school geography text book, for its manufacture of shoddy and mungo, comprising the recycling of woollen waste. Inferior to the original wool, it isn’t difficult to see how the word shoddy has come over the years to take on a wider meaning. And Dewsbury turned out to be yet one more northern industrial city whose surviving architecture so clearly reflects the civic pride that the Victorians felt and which is so rarely seen today when “keeping the rates down” appears to be almost the sole requirement of a local authority.

Only a few short days passed before I took Mrs. Blog for her summer holiday, in Liverpool. (She’s not always so easily palmed off but she does have Barbados to follow soon after.) It seemed only right to share with the head of the household some of the highlights of my coast to coast journey – and clearly, walking wasn’t going to be one of them.

There does seem to be a definite buzz about Liverpool these days and, with five days of continuous warm sunshine, the city was looking its best. We took the ferry journey across the Mersey and were not altogether surprised to be accompanied on our journey by the strains of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ second most famous hit. We met up with an old university chum of mine who, having worked for several years in a corner office of the Royal Liver Building overlooking the river, queried the delight of hearing on the hour, every hour, the immortal lyrics:

 

So ferry ‘cross the Mersey
’cause this land’s the place I love
and here I’ll stay
and here I’ll stay
Here I’ll stay

 

We visited both cathedrals – to be balanced, you understand. Here’s some more geographically informative lyrics for you to chew on:

 

In my Liverpool Home, In my Liverpool Home 
We speak with an accent exceedingly rare,
Meet under a statue exceedingly bare[1],
And if you want a Cathedral, we’ve got one to spare[2]
In my Liverpool Home

 

Now I don’t claim much knowledge of cathedral architecture, and I have had no religious belief since my fervent prayers relating to Elizabeth Shufflebotham and being picked to play for Liverpool FC went sadly unanswered, but I would say this – and Mrs. Blog is in agreement: Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral is awesomely huge; the interior of its RC cathedral is simply awesome.  If I had any plans to acquire a faith, which I don’t, I’d be more likely to see the light in, well, a light, airy, colourful modern building than a dark, austere one seemingly devised to intimidate. But that’s just me.

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The Anglican cathedral is really really big…

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                                                                                                                           Awesome interior

We also took in the magnificent, renovated Albert Dock complex, its Slavery exhibition and Beatles Story; the Titanic hotel in another vast converted rum warehouse (why is everything so big in this blog); Anthony Gormley’s hundred mega (there you go again) reproductions of the male form on Crosby beach; the gorgeous Philharmonic pub and to my embarrassment, as a pseudo native, an open top bus tour.  (Mrs. B felt she’d undertaken the latter under false pretenses once she discovered it had no free wi-fi.)

We also took the opportunity to return to the Florrie (Florence Institute) in Toxteth, one of the undoubted treasures of my journey so far and the birthplace inter alia of the musical career of the aforementioned Gerry (of “and the P” fame), without whom who knows what we would have been singing at Anfield for the past five decades – your suggestions are welcome. A great building (and yes, a huge one), a history of great philanthropy, committed and lovely people restoring it to life and making it work again today for the local community. Here’s their website:

http://www.theflorrie.org/

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No Florrie, no Gerry Marsden — Anfield’s Kop Choir tackle a Handel oratorio

Mrs. B, who has previously restricted her appearances in the city to the occasional football match, says she now “gets Liverpool”. And that’s fine by me. Wonderful what five days of sun can do….

While in the north west we also popped across to the Manchester area for repeat visits to the Lowry arts centre at the Salford Quays (another highly successful waterside regeneration project) and the Imperial War Museum North which faces the Lowry and the BBC studios across the Ship Canal. The latter is currently running an exhibition and programme of events called Fashion on the Ration which features inventive make-do-and mend from the 1940s, like how to make a nice jumper out of dried egg and old bits of shrapnel. I particularly enjoyed the matching bra and pants made from maps of Occupied Europe printed on parachute silk.

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Just a week earlier these outfits formed the gun turret of a Sherman tank

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The Lowry

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Imperial War Museum North

 

Next stage on the coast to coast walk will be back in Yorkshire, from Dewsbury to Goole. Can’t wait.

Thanks to people like you my sponsorship fund for the British Heart Foundation has reached £800!  Please help to keep it growing:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Stephen-Ankers-the-Road-to-Hull-is-Paved-with-Good-Intentions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Lewis’s department store (not to be confused with the posher John Lewis chain) is adorned with a very well-endowed nude male sculpture on its main street frontage. So well-endowed that “under the man at Lewis’s” has long been a traditional meeting place even on rainy days.

[2] Agnostic or atheist singers may prefer the use of “two to spare” at this point.

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