Day 17: Sheffield to Wakefield

‘There’s nowt round ‘ere ‘cept call centres’ – Rory, Barnsley.

In my journeys across the towns of the Midlands and the north I’ve encountered a recurring problem among young people. It’s about unemployment and low pay, about a lack of affordable housing and a feeling that the future is frightening, uncertain, and out of one’s control.

This isn’t an experience shared by middle-aged and older people I meet, on the whole. There’s a more common experience there of growing up in a labour market where work was easy to come by, and apprenticeships, skills training or university studies were available if you worked hard, regardless of the income of one’s family. Today these people enjoy what would seem a culturally middle-class life. They own their own property, even if it once belonged to the council. They can afford to work part-time or are retired. They are able to regularly holiday to warmer climes, and they enjoy a standard of domestic life that would have been beyond anything their grandparents could have imagined.

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They are also a little complacent, in my view. I have heard about the problems of low pay among older people, but I’m surprised that I haven’t encountered an attitude of stewardship so far. I have not heard talk of a generational responsibility to provide support for the young, even where in practice middle-aged and older parents are financially supporting or providing a bedroom for their adult children. It is easy to underestimate how Conservative-minded the majority of people are, as being a Conservative voter is, like being in favour of the monarchy, a somewhat embarrassing fact. But among the people I meet, those who tell me or indicate that they vote conservatively, I have not once heard the realisation that their voting choices have led to governments who have willingly dismantled the social infrastructures for the young which gave these now older people the quality of life they enjoy. I find it a little hypocritical, but I am not here to judge.

I have slept well. Allie walks me through a pretty wood near Dore in south-west Sheffield, and we eventually make it to a bus-stop and catch a ride into town. The bus fares here are more expensive than London, £2.20, and it surprises me that local people tolerate such extortionate fares. The deregulation and privatisation of buses has turned a public right, like transportation or water, into a malfunctioning mishmash of greedy operators and poor service that has largely been left unchallenged.

On the bus, Allie presents a cultural quandary well worth sharing. She describes meeting two elderly women recently at a bus station. The snowy winter had cancelled all services, so they share a cab home. They told her about their amateur dramatics group and the volunteering they’ve been doing. Their social structures struck her as being so different to ours today. Hobbies or interest groups back then would often meet in churches. Volunteers would make sandwiches, biscuits, and prepare a large pot of tea, which everyone would share. There were no special requirements, no personalised cappuccino with the extra shot or pop of syrup one never knew one wanted. Everyone got the same.

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I am what some sociologists would call one of ‘Thatcher’s children’.

My generation have been wholesale dismissed by some Marxist academics as being intrinsically neoliberal. Writers like Bifo Berardi issue out the most absurd fogeyisms that someone like me has a reduced attention span, is largely incapable of abstract thought, and is a passive dupe of consumer capitalism, from the clothes I wear to the technologies I use. I reject this kind of thinking, because I believe that most people are more intelligent and self-aware than most political theoreticians might expect.

But there is a difference in how I was socialised compared to someone born in the 1940s or 50s (though this can’t be called ‘our’ fault). Whereas industries supplied continuous employment and wages sufficient that one parent could stay at home, and churches and pubs supplied a regular social structure and homogeneity that could form and bind together communities, today work is insecure and precarious, many pubs have shut down, and the importance of the church has largely collapsed (except, most recently, as a place of foodbanks). The extraordinary growth in standards of living was matched by a youth popular culture from the 1950s which connected rebelliousness and an anti-establishment politics with consumer spending, individual expression and a belief that success was self-made. This leads to today.

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Town centres have now been largely repurposed towards shopping, unless some out of town mall has turned the high-street into a patchwork of charity stores and betting shops. Allie wonders how we could ever get back to sharing a large pot of tea and abandon our individual and narcissistic attachments. Along my journey today I’ll find out a kind of answer to this.

I pick up my bike from Bike Rehab in Sheffield. They’ve done something quite extraordinary. The chain and parts were in a particularly bad way, and the old age of my bike means that replacement parts are difficult to find. Instead, Andy has added on a whole new set of gears, bringing my battered Raleigh Pioneer into the modern age. I now have 15 gears instead of 10, good for climbing up those back-breaking hills I scaled the previous few days. The bike has had a quick service too and everything is very smooth. I’m grateful for the work done, but I wonder whether this compromises the DIY ethics of my journey. In the last three days I’ve spent £130 on bike parts to a thing worth £70. I’ve paid for my amateurishness, it’s true. But perhaps if I’d done all my research with bicycles, I’d have set off on a sleek little thing sold at the price of a second-hand car. If I’d done all my research with my destinations, I wouldn’t’ve stumbled across half the people or odd little towns I’ve come across. But am I compromised? I’ll let you judge.

Before I leave Sheffield I follow up one final tip. Close to the City Hall is a now derelict 80s office block on Holly Street. At its front, on Division Street, is the former Sheffield Waterworks Company office, now a Wetherspoons pub. It is in this auspicious location that the National Union of Miners were based from the early 1980s, and where Arthur Scargill managed perhaps the most effective and bitter campaign of political opposition to a sitting government since the Suffragettes.

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I slink into the ‘Spoons and get a pint in and start writing. Around me are other solitary drinkers, nursing European lagers and donating their coins to the nearby fruit machine. It’s a sad fate for a site of such political significance, and it’s a fitting place to start my day of travels around sites of the Miner’s Strike.

I leave and, after getting lost a few times, first reach the Wicker Arches, where Nick told me about the Blackshirts getting beaten back here. I take it in, then get even more lost on the ring roads, eventually finding my way well out of town along a dirty bike route to Handsworth. Cycling through here and down Orgreave Lane, I start to recognise some of the background houses from the Battle of Orgreave of 18 June 1984. The lanes roll towards green fields where I recollect images and bloody-faced picketers and vicious policemen on horse.

I ask a passing couple where the British Steel coking plant once was where the battle took place. They shake their heads, and point me further down the hill towards a new housing development. They’re not from the immediate area, and are reticent about giving any information about the community.

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The Battle of Orgreave was, to my mind, the most significant event of the Miner’s Strike. The Strike had begun in early March 1984 after the Thatcher government announced they would close 20 coal mines, with a loss of 20,000 jobs. Between 1979 and 81 around two million manufacturing jobs had already been lost, and Scargill rightly sensed that the secret long-term plan was to close around 75 mines. At the time, Ian McGregor, leader of the National Coal Board, wrote to every NUM member to claim this was a fabrication, but recently-released Cabinet Papers indicate that the government and McGregor planned this all along. It is just one of many instances of governments and police deceiving and lying to the public during this era, as with Hillsborough.

Previous miners’ strikes had rocked Ted Heath’s 1970-4 government, and Thatcher’s Conservative government had this time prepared to take on the miners. One MP, Nicholas Ridley, produced an internal plan in 1977 to beat future strikes from nationalised industries. Ridley cannily proposed that coal stocks should be built up, non-union workers should be employed by haulage companies, a large police force should be trained to tackle rioters and pickets, and the economy should shift to importing energy from non-volatile foreign countries. By the time Thatcher announced the closures, the government were well prepared.

Though Scargill fought passionately during the Miner’s Strike, the union were outmanoeuvred on a number of levels. On the one, the union itself was infiltrated by M15 to a degree it is difficult to speculate on. The plan to picket the Orgreave coking plant was leaked to authorities through such channels, allowing the police to prepare a huge force of men from ten counties to attack the picketers. The union was betrayed by many of its local leaders who colluded with the government.

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Other unions also failed to support their cause. Scargill described the capitulation of NACODS (National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers) as a major turning point in the strike. They had initially agreed to support the miners, but a last-minute about-face completely undermined the struggle. The reported reason is that the union were worried that the mines would geologically deteriorate and became unoperational, but this seems a little unlikely and some external coercion is more probable. In any case, the mines were quickly closed when the strike was abandoned in March 1985. Other major unions could have cooperated to produce a general strike, but again short term interests hampered cooperation and solidarity. The Labour Party leadership under Kinnock also failed to back the strike, as they have failed in most other charged moments of social change.

Scargill’s union activities were declared unlawful by the British government, leading to an esoteric scheme to bankroll the union during the strike through some fairly strange financial channels. It is these which have led to the subsequent slurring of the NUM as a corrupt union stockpiling funds for the gain of leaders by the popular press.

Orgreave is the overriding symbol of the struggle though. Government infiltration hampered the initial picket, whilst police, many from London, ran rampant, beating and badly injuring the picketers. Scargill said in a recent Bishopsgate talk that the miners should have stuck it out at Orgreave, as they had at Saltley. It’s hard to imagine how they could have. Communities still remain divided, families not speaking to other families who were considered scabs. It’s sad that blame was foisted on other miners, often struggling with very little money, instead of the government, or police, or the failure of other unions to come together and lead a general strike. Florence Reece’s 1931 song-line, which side are you on? haunts the place, and Ken Loach’s film of that name is a superb place to start to understand this struggle.

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Thatcher called the miners ‘the enemy within’, and it’s an unusually transparent reminder of how governments will crack down on any cause of social transformation or collective rights. As Scargill put at the time, the ‘intimidation and the brutality that has been displayed are something reminiscent of a Latin American state’. Everything was thrown against the miners. Seumas Milne has written a superb history of this period. As he rightly puts it, it was ‘about class and power, not fuel’.

Today there is very little at Orgreave. The area has been rebranded as ‘Waverley’, and at a busy bus-stop, only one French African young man is able to tell me where the coking plant might be. Even local people are unsure. There is a huge luxury housing development on its site. Nearby is a vast series of snaking roundabouts with science parks and business warehouses. There is no plaque or evidence I can find, no nearby pub to quiz older men about their involvement. It is quite saddening.

‘The north will rise again, but it will turn out wrong’

Mark E. Smith of The Fall seemed to have a pre-cog of the miner’s uprising of 1984 when he chanted this on the final track of Grotesque of 1980. There are indeed signs of their defeat, in the luxury housing properties here, in the retail parks and malls built over the remains of former industries that once employed thousands and bound together communities. There’s a dark and bitter legacy here. It appears as part of the raw matter of David Peace’s Red Riding quartet (1974; 1977; 1980; 1983). Though they tackle the bungled investigation into Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, they each tell the stories of different individuals struggling in vain to bring dark and unspeakable truths to light. They are like ancient Greek tragedies cast in 1970s and 80s northern idiom where, despite heroic struggle, these heroes are ultimately powerless to overturn the bitter and malevolent forces of the gods.

‘Welcome to the north, where we do what we want!’

Events like Hillsborough and the Miner’s Strike gel together with the police’s incompetence in finding the Ripper (countless men were interviewed, including at one point my late granddad), or the failure to ever investigate the near-public child abuse of Sir Jimmy Savile.

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I cycle on, passing through what remains of the industries and working-class communities of Tinseley, before reaching Meadowhall, a huge mall built over an old steel-works. I’m told that the building had an alternative purpose in mind, to function as a prison in case of need. It seems pretty likely today.

I pass through the motorway roundabouts and snake in. There are no places for bikes, and after improvising something, head in to watch the people.

It is a consumer fantasy zone. Compared to the depopulated and empty communities I’ve been passing through, Meadowhall is heaving with custom on this Friday afternoon. People of all ages dawdle along, eyes glued to each passing store, often entirely unaware of each other’s presence. Children test new smartphones whilst young men pop into toy stores to buy products that remind them of their childhood. People clutch at jewellery, rub and sniff clothing materials, and drift about in a somnambulant state amongst high-street stores predictable and safe. It is a world of adult toys.

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I buy myself some shower gel after leaving some behind at a previous stop, and wander over to McDonalds to get a milkshake. The queue is huge and the environment very noisy with the oppressive beeping of food-heating machines and the chatter of children. Despite the places I’ve come through, this is perhaps the point where I feel most far removed and lost from the rest of the world. I just can’t slip my mind into this environment. Everything is on sale and says that it will fulfil me, complete a lack in my life. But that’s a false view of human nature. We do not lack, and our desires are things we express. The more we desire, the more we feel: it is an exercise in pleasure that expands our interest in other things. But these products seem based on neediness. I must have this or that, I want one of those. I start to think about love and its absence, and realise I’m better off heading out.

I cycle down to Rotherham next, not too far from Meadowhall. The town centre has clearly been devastated by the popularity of the mall, and I see a number of closed down little shops, often bookmakers, pubs or discount food shops. I start talking to Asghar, an old gentlemen who has lived in the town since 1966. He used to work in steel, the main industry of the town. He says you could get jobs there ‘like nothing’. Slowly jobs started to disappear from the 1980s, he tells me. He had a motorbike accident which resulted in losing a leg, and after losing his job in steel has been unable to find anything else. Today he is diabetic, a little worn out, but happy. ‘There’s good and bad everywhere’, he tells me, smoking a pipe.

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He asks about me, and tells me something which might indicate people’s reticence to my questions today. ‘London? Very bad. People just want money. They won’t talk to you’. I ask him how Rotherham has changed, and he starts to talk about the decline of industry. He gives two reasons: the first is greed, and he repeats again ‘the people wanted money’, referring to rich factory owners. Second, ‘Thatcher wanted to get rid off the unions’. With that he laughs, but his conversation seems to blame London for this culture of greed and cutting back on jobs. ‘They only care about money’ down there. I do my best to persuade him, but it seems to explain something broadly.

Rotherham does have a very pretty town centre though, with a nice church and some lovely public buildings. Some of these are now derelict and being converted to new purposes. The council’s offices are becoming a Tesco. As I stand out, an Indian guy approaches me and asks about cycling. As we talk, my ear trains in on a bunch of cheeky lads chasing about on BMXs, terrorising the local girls and raising a hullabaloo.

I get a little lost again leaving Rotherham, and the cycle path I’d planned to follow is too overgrown to use. I take an A-road up instead, passing through Wentworth, Hoyland and Birdwell, where the architecture and accents start to change, the red brick of Rotherham being replaced with a far more sooty yellow stone. As I reach Barnsley, I come across a particularly fuzzy kind of Yorkshire accent. Round here they nickname people from Sheffield ‘de-dars’, because of the fast and round way they pronounce the typical thee and tha’ which characterise the Yorkshire brogue. In Barnsley this thee and tha’ is much clearer, but the accent is much more clipped and dense, and difficult to follow.

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Like Rotherham, the town is also pretty down at heel but a little larger, and with more shops. The place is too poor to hold up a British Town Centre style series of chain store brands, and the shops are full of depopulated pubs, closed up caffs and little independent stores. I ask one man in an England shirt what he thinks about the place. He’s awkward talking to me and walks off a little rudely, but says it’s alright. I meet another local man about my age, Rory, who is more informative. A little typically, he begins by telling me how much better Barnsley is to the nearest town Rotherham, where he works in a betting shop. What’s it like here today?

‘The mines were’t big thing, now they’re gone. People’t just go around’t different towns trying t’t get jobs.’

Today the only jobs opening are in call centres, many based in the nearby Dearne valley. The online clothes retailer Asos has a large warehouse near Wakefield too. Burberry still has a large factory outside Leeds, but I’m told by another local that it mainly employs Polish people. He’s unsure why, but tells me that it was cheaper for managers to be trained to speak Polish than to train the workforce in English. These stories may well be apocryphal but they present at least the truth of a feeling, that many feel excluded from even mainstream forms of work.

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Looking for work, one has the choice of either warehouse assistant, call-centre customer service or working in a shop. ‘Ain’t much round here’, Rory tells me. He likes the town centre but warns me that the outlying areas are a bit rough. As we look around, I see pretty Victorian buildings in a depopulated city centre that, in a good era and in good weather, would make for a fine and relaxing place.

He’s from the area (and the accent’s a little tough to follow), and tells me that there isn’t much housing. Many young people have to live with their parents. But, I tell him, it’s the same in London, and everywhere else. Low pay, a lack of jobs, and a shortage of housing are bundling together in a generational whirlwind of poverty and a missing future. Instead of it being ‘grim up north’, that old cliché about the North’s unique claim to destitution, there’s a more common experience emerging. Unfortunately the cultural meanings that ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ take today mean that trying to bridge divides through ‘class consciousness’ seems ineffective. I feel we need something else, like a demand for a set of common rights, for well-paid and dignified work, housing, and so on.

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Before I leave I ask if he knows Dodworth. He laughs and shakes his head. I follow a road out of town towards Dodworth, getting helpful and detailed directions from one couple, and later, a drunk man with a Burberry cap accompanied by three bright sons. ‘It’s near the library!’ they shout in unison.

What is? I’m here finding out about the collieries that once defined the area. Barnsley has a particularly strong association with the mines, and the National Union of Miners has its headquarters based here, albeit for a massively diminished union membership. There’s a memorial here for miners who lost their lives over the course of various accidents, and nearby is a miners’ welfare charity. By the monument is a moving poem, and these lines are particularly stirring:

‘So remember the toil and strife
These men endured to give us light’.

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Working in mines was extremely difficult. Men had to walk miles and miles underground to reach the coalface, where they then drilled and dug away in cramped and hot conditions for very little pay. They worked in the dark and in conditions that would seem unearthly and hellish to my mind, and George Orwell writes about their heroism as he sees it in The Road to Wigan Pier. But it was a stable job, easy to get, and it formed together lasting and caring communities. I’ve not read of miners complaining about the work or grateful to be relieved of it when collieries were closed. There are still coal reserves in this country in these mines. Though the form of energy it produces is very dirty, I would have no problem with mines being reopened in the future, providing a kind of living more dignified and better paid than call-centres or warehouses.

I leave Dodworth and head up to Wakefield. The sun is setting and there is a marvellous view of the rolling hills in the distance. I pass the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Bretton, a superb place I’m told, where Ai Weiwei has an exhibition on. I follow another road towards Wakefield, where I take a detour to Horbury, a suburb to the west of the town. I’m here to look around the town where Stan Barstow was born, a young writer who emerged in the late 1950s with a particularly demotic and northern style of written expression. His A Kind of Loving (1960) tells his own story of falling in love with Ingrid, having and losing a child, and the pressures on relationships and young people growing up during the 1950s. It is a work at times funny, sad, and moving.

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‘People talk glibly of being in love. Magazines and films are full of it. But there’s a difference between that and loving. You can be in love with someone you hardly know – all romance and rapture and starry eye. … But you don’t love a person till you know him or her inside out, until you’ve lived with them and shared experience: sadness, joy, living – you’ve got to share living before you can find love. Being in love doesn’t last, but you can find love to take its place.’

Love takes on the form of a greater transcendental meaning, a sense of completion. It’s a moving tribute to love, but Barstow also idealises it, as many do, to the extent that it becomes an impossible standard. The main character seems to realise this towards the end. Perhaps they ‘might find a kind of loving to carry us through’, but the ambivalence in his voice represents another side of the past, that it was not an idyll even then. There were very few opportunities for education or a career, and relationships came with intense social pressures that any possible romance we might expect was often extinguished by the burdens of child-care, work, and social responsibilities. As he concludes,

‘the secret of it all is there is no secret, and no God and no heaven and no hell. And if you say well what is life about I’ll say it’s about life, and that’s all. And it’s enough, because there’s plenty of good things in life as well as bad.’

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It’s a sentiment shared by Asghar in Rotherham earlier. ‘There’s good and bad everywhere’. It’s a comment I’ve heard a couple of times now. Perhaps it represents a common attitude, one of toleration for others, one that is circumspect, sceptical, and unwilling to judge? I’m unsure yet, but there’s something there.

I get myself a huge dinner from the supermarket, pizza, garlic bread, salad, ice cream, and beers. I can’t wait to reach Nick’s over in Sandal, but I take time to detour through Wakefield. I pass bustling pubs where live music rocks out onto street corners, and by bands of naughty lads on bikes, shouting through traffic cones and making a racket.

‘Wot y’t got in’t em bags?’

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It’s a fun night. I find in this cheery exuberance, and in the desire for love in Barstow, a kind of cultural counter-agent to the bitter stories I’ve come across today. As I crash out at Nick’s, I eat a full dinner for the first time in a while, and let my thoughts roll about. The north could rise again.

I speak to my partner on Skype and see in my own expression how worn out and tetchy I’ve become. I make a second new rule to myself, which I’m sure will soon be broken, like the first. It’s to ride a little slower. Let’s see where such slowness takes me tomorrow.

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6 thoughts on “Day 17: Sheffield to Wakefield

  1. you have wonderfully captured the essence of South Yorkshire, and with a clear political context of ‘how we got here’. I ‘escaped’ the North East 25 years ago, and feel fairly depressed whenever I briefly return to visit family & friends. I’m looking forward to reading your take on that part of the world.

    You’re a great writer, I really enjoy your mix of personal narrative and socio-political analysis. Keep it up ! I’m avidly reading from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

  2. The first half of this segment was hard to get through. From your narrative, I see a city of great promises fallen to hard times, or is it their window of opportunity has already closed? I share the same sentiment of places of historical importance converted and forgotten in our chain-store, commercialized 21th century. That’s not the England in books, of either green dales or bustling metropolis?

    • Sheffield’s a remarkable city even unlike its neighbours, and with a very different air to Bristol, Oxford, London, York or the England in books spaces. I felt overwhelmed by it when I arrived, and there was so much to account for and make sense of that, I agree, hinders the narrative here from getting going! Sheffield was a relatively wealthy industrial city until thirty years ago, when many of its major industries, which employed many, were left to collapse without government support during the early 1980s in an economic downturn. Sheffield’s also quite an important and loaded city politically, especially on the Left, with the mixed legacies of workers’ struggles (NUM, Battle of Orgreave), left-wing municipal socialism (the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, ‘regeneration’ of Park Hill) and the demonisation of working class culture (Hillsborough). It’d be hard to think of an American equivalent, but I’m sure one may come to mind. The feeling I encountered was that the city, like many others nearby, was forced into decline because of its traditional support for labour politics and working class power. People were angry, but proud and passionate too. And there is a lot that is brilliant – great universities and nightlife, very beautiful town centre, and some of the most friendly people you’ll ever meet.

      • In my limited exposure to politics, even American, I should say left wing politics is sort of the equivalent of labor rights & minority rights movement, and relevant ones come to mind immediately: Black Lives Matter, gay rights. Not sure if that’s what you were referring to? Regarding the friendliness of north Englanders – are they generally more approachable or was I given the posh Londonesque treatment in Bristol? haha. Just wondering.

  3. They’re much friendlier than people from the South! The North – as in Nottingham and above – feels like a completely different country. Different set of accents, buildings, histories, landscapes, and generally much warmer to strangers. For a Londoner it’s a surprise, but a good one (London has a bad reputation all round the island for its expensiveness and unfriendliness – 75% deserved!). I recommend taking a tour to Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and one of the old seaside towns, like Scarborough, if you ever get the chance. Like Bristol but even more convivial and laid-back.

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