Monday, 7 June 2010

Going Down To The Sea Again


I've stayed in all kinds of accommodation on my journey so far, but few can have been quite as scuzzy as the hotel I stayed in last night in Bradford. It was dark, it was gloomy, and I was the only person staying there, which probably says it all.

It was like stepping back into the 1970's (my room had brown wallpaper...I mean, brown wallpaper) but I think that it was the heavy smell of 40 years of engrained cigarette smoke that was the most memorable feature. Unless you count the cooked breakfast, that is, which resembled a road accident and had my arteries actually howling in protest.

Now, this distressing preamble (distressing to me, that is.... I mean, just thinking about it...) serves to explain why I was at Bradford's new bus interchange quite a lot earlier than I expected to be. But no matter, I had a long way to go today so an early start was all to the good.

My 662 Keighley and District bus to, er... Keighley (where else) was waiting for me on the stand as I arrived so I leapt aboard. To my surprise, this relatively modest single decker actually had leather coach seats and a funky name – The Shuttle. There must some intense competition from other operators on this route for K&D to go to this expense to win or hold on to customers.

Bradford has 'Northern Greatness' in spades – you know, big Victorian theatres and town halls, palatial railway stations and the like. But move even a few feet out of the city centre and you'll see it all painfully mouldering away. There are empty shops everywhere, buildings with trees growing out of the stonework, abandoned houses, and dozens and dozens of take-away's (which I think is often a barometer of a neighbourhood's poverty).

Once out of the city – and through the more affluent outer suburbs – the road passes the superb planned community of Saltaire, with its mill just below it in the dale. This is a similar set-up to the model community set up by old man Cadbury at Bourneville in the Midlands , which only goes to show what money can really achieve when it is put to good use.

The roads runs up the south side of Airedale to Keighley, a busy, sooty little town lodged in a cleft in the dale with its houses scattered over the valley floor and the surrounding hills. Here I transfer to another K&D bus which will take me on to Skipton, which is much higher up the dale. The scenery is becoming much greener now, with broad buttercup meadows filling the valley floor, the sky becoming huge as the road leaves the deep tree-lined dale and the country starts to broaden out. Skipton sits against a backdrop of grey hills giving us our first clear sight of the Pennines.

I switch to another bus at Skipton's modest little bus station – this time it's the Ribble Valley Express, which sounds like it's been taken straight from a cowboy film (albeit one based in Lancashire). This will take me all the way to Preston over the Yorkshire-Lancashire border through Pendle, a part of the country I'd ever before visited.

From Skipton, our single decker (shame) is soon rolling along through big, grassy uplands with just the occasional mill chimney sticking up over the trees to remind us that we are still in a land once more famous for its industrial prowess than its farming. We go sweeping down the A56 at speed, admiring the fantastic moorland skyline of farms huddled under trees long lashed by the wind and miles of dry stone walls snaking over the horizon.

We enter Pendle – and Lancashire – at Barnoldswick, which from the road looks a small town filled with purple slate-roofed terraces swirling around a huge mill chimney, with the massive bulk of Pendle Hill just beyond the rooftops.

I'd somehow always assumed Clitheroe, the next town on our route, to be a place of smoke and industry, so I was genuinely surprised to find an attractive little town of narrow winding streets and a romantically ruined castle above it, with the ever-present moors and uplands at its shoulder. It's a smashing little place, and the whole area is a complete revelation. So many views, so many trees and meadows, so many hills and uplands, and I had no idea that any of this was here.

At Whalley Bridge the countryside begins to broaden out and slacken pace, even though the village itself appears to be sheltering under a hill which rises up almost vertically from the end of the High Street. The meadows are soon even broader, there are sheep and cattle to fill them, and you feel that you are at last coming out of the dale. All of a sudden you can see for miles and miles, and the fast level run into Preston has begun.

Wherever I go I always try to find something to like, be it the architecture, the scenery, the people, or even just the beer (just?). In Preston, I had to work very, very hard to find something I liked. And even now I'm not convinced.

Preston has the look of a town that was very badly bombed in the 1950's and then suffered the ultimate indignity of becoming some kind of practical examination for weird and challenging 1960's trainee architects and town planners. The words 'breakfast' and 'dog's' sprang to mind as I wandered around, which is a pity as it has a truly grand town hall and an amazing covered market (even if the actual market stalls themselves are slightly less than amazing).

And then, of course, we have the bus station...

The fact that it is lodged under a car park should give you some idea of its awfulness. It's sheer scale – it can handle over 70 buses all loading and unloading at the same time – gives it's awfulness a sort of heroic and monumental stature. It's cavernous, its filthy and unwashed, none of the information screens work, not even the clock worked, and finding the right stand for my bus was as much down to luck as personal persistence. As for the underpass used to reach it... sorry, I really can't talk about that, it's just too awful...

How can people let buildings like this - important public facilities, for heaven's sake - get into this state? Why don't they try to make it better, easier to use, more human?

I know there are many who would tear it down, and I can understand why. But actually that would be a pity. As a major transport interchange, it could be one of the best. And the car park above it doesn't look half as bad as some I know of (the infamous Get Carter car park in Gateshead, for example), so there's plenty to build on.

But is there the will?

I organised a sharp exit from Preston aboard the 68 to Blackpool, but this proved a tiresome affair. The roads out of the town were completely clogged by traffic lights and parked cars, and the bus driver had to repeatedly stop to allow oncoming traffic through. We therefore inched our way, in jerks and lurches, out of Preston and onto the flat, featureless coastal plain leading to tonight's overnight halt, Blackpool .

I'm not really a Blackpool person. It's all a bit daft and noisy for my tastes, but I'm here as part of my researches to sample a Blackpool guest house and to ride on the oldest tram system in Britain. And to buy a stick of rock. And eat fish and chips on the beach, and wear a 'my wife went to Blackpool and all I got was this crappy t-shirt' t-shirt, and a 'Kiss Me Quick – Squeeze Me Slowly' hat.

Well, you have to, don't you...

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