‘I dunno, it’s all different’ – Tom, talking about British identity, Grimsby.
These journeys are starting to take me out of my comfort zone, and out of all sense of location or place on this island. I’m starting to pass my days and nights in places I’d never heard of until a couple of days before. I left home with a set of names of towns I wanted to see. The night before each ride, I normally check a route on my phone. This utterly random process is delivering some delicious findings and throwing me against peoples, cultures and accents I would never otherwise have come across.
I’ve become totally dependent on the conversation and goodwill of random strangers. And I haven’t once been let down.
Looking back at my mindset before I left home, so many of my ideas about the Midlands and the North were so small-minded and stupid. Parts of south and east London still hold the crown for the worst poverty, degradation, and abandonment. Yet I’d gone out with an eye to finding the pockets where the ‘recession’ was really happening, which I suspected was everywhere except London and the south-east. I’m actually discovering that there’s a far greater shared experience of low pay, bad housing and lack of opportunities across the regions.
Younger people are far more affected than their parents or grandparents, though the signs are not always obvious. Casual retail work, access to credit, living with a parent, perhaps the slightly higher class culture that can come through a university degree, all lurk in the background for a generation of people born largely in the 1990s (and to a degree, 1980s) who have far less material or social securities than perhaps any generation since the end of the second world war.
I’m also discovering things that are delightfully odd and still unaccounted for by any other passer-by. Why do people in the north call rolls breadcakes? Why does almost every Chinese restaurant in small towns north of the Severn offer up ‘Chinese and English food’? Why are chips served with curry over rice? And shouldn’t there be a public restriction on naming your terraced house ‘oak lodge’ or ‘rose cottage’ when a trillion other domiciles in the land share that same name?
So I fell asleep in a dark and bumpy field somewhere near the Humberhead Peatlands. I awoke glad it hadn’t rained, as a large hole has appeared in the tent above my head, and quickly packed up my things. I’d picked a great location, discreet and surrounded by what seemed to be rhubarb. Earlier Nick had told me in Wakefield about the ‘rhubarb triangle’, a nine mile area of West Yorkshire between Morley, Rothwell and Wakefield where the wet winter climate is ideal for this Siberian native. At its peak, over 90% of the world’s rhubard was grown in West Yorkshire. Though the stuff is forced-grown in sheds during winter, it was a pleasant surprise and another curious reminder about the stories hidden within the land.
I sneaked out of my field and cycled south, first passing through the small ex-industrial town of Moorends. It’s a pretty unremarkable place at first sight, consisting of a long street full of early 20th century housing with a few back-roads. This part of the world hides its secrets well though. There’s a colliery here with at least fifty years’ worth of coal in, I’m told. Though flooded in 1956, millions were spent refurbishing it from the 1980s on. In 2002 the final stages of the refurbishment were abandoned due to costs, despite the project being near-complete. The pit-heads were exploded in 2004. Nearby here is Hatfield colliery, one of a handful of mines still open. Coal stocks remain in this country.
I travel along into Thorne, a small and friendly town with a largely middle-aged or retired, homogeneously white British population. It’s the first town I see with two TV repair shops, a good sign, perhaps reflecting an older generation’s preference for fixing broken items rather than replacing them with new purchases. I start talking to Bob, who is sat outside in a communal square of sorts. He used to work for the local government, and answers my annoying questions about the area.
‘They used to make ships, believe it or not’.
He’s born and bred here, and has seen unemployment blight the area. These days most people travel south to Doncaster for work, but the loss of industries and mining has hit the place. I hear a similar story when I talk to Claire in a nearby shop.
‘It’s close-knit round here. Everyone knows each other. People look out for each other.’
To some urban dwellers, this may seem the very stuff of hell. Yet as I absorb the quiet town, I notice how most people greet each other by name. People are friendly and warm to me, and tell me that it’s ‘alright round ere’, that use of understatement suggesting a far more sincere fondness. She was not tempted to live in bigger cities, and Leeds was enough. ‘London’s too fast’.
It makes me draw out a common preference for living in small towns which becomes manifested in these absurd rustic touches to the suburban houses that I sometimes a little cruelly abused in my past reports. Each speaks a preference for living among a community, where people are genial and friendly to each other, and take an interest in the welfare of their neighbours. Those DIY-store bought flourishes are fair attempts at expressing some kind of individuality. Are these such bad things? Could these things not be factored into a new kind of urban design, which built new communities as communities?
At the same time, there are few jobs, Claire tells me. The only going at the moment are in a nearby food factory. This will be a common picture. I get a ridiculously cheap scone at the Archdale bakery and hear more warm words about the place, then head out. As I pack up my gear, a friendly old fellow in a brightly coloured shirt asks about my bike. I tell him about my escapade and he laughs and slaps me on the shoulder.
‘Wish I’d done it when I were young. Me and the wife retired early, me 57, her 59, we went all round the world. Now we’ve got nowt!’
He gives me a rich, deep smile, and we both recognise that neither of us regretted it.
I leave Thorne and take the road east, eventually leaving south Yorkshire and entering North Lincolnshire. As I pedal, I realise that this strange landscape shouldn’t exist at all. Great swathes of it were once partly underwater, and much of it was reclaimed from marshland held in common and converted into cultivable land by Cornelius Vermuyden, during the mid-16th century. This Dutch engineer was also responsible for reclaiming Canvey Island from the muds, one of my favourite places so far on these travels, and in part for reclaiming the vast Fens of Norfolkshire and Cambridgeshire. Around Canvey and Essex there are still Dutch names about, and even in North Lincolnshire there’s a little village called New Holland. The Romans had attempted to drain and irrigate these lands before though. I’m again struck by the much longer history of human engineering with the natural environment. Even these gentle rolling fields and running waters by me are products of reclamation, irrigation, canals, industrial agriculture, as well as the roads and electricity pylons anywhere. I don’t know what kind of ‘nature’ we ever expected to see out in the country.
The road to Scunny is a little dull, and the wind blowing against me doesn’t help – having a wind against you is a little like cycling up a mild hill. Rain clouds lurk in the distance behind me, and the forecast is bleak. I see some pretty bombastic local football graffiti which wakes me up, and I follow the road into town.
I pause for a break, and get talking to Jim. He’s a Londoner like me, and gives a surprised chuckle to find another in these parts. He ran away from Woolwich with a woman who is now his partner, and got a job working in steel. His eyes show the signs of long-term damage from blast-furnacing. ‘Good job, though not many people liked it’. I ask him what happened to the steelworks which once employed people here. He’s unsure on the details, as most former workers seem to be, but when I mention Tata Steel it connects things together in his mind.
Entering Scunthorpe, I see signs for the cheapest pint of beer so far on my travels: £1.45 at the Blue Bell Inn, for a pint of Tetleys or Carlsberg I think. You couldn’t get a half in London for that rate. Please, readers, if you do anything with this blog, message in with evidence of cheaper pints!
Scunny’s in bad shape though. There’s an obvious number of totally strung out men slumped on street corners. There’s a long high street in the ugly town centre, but most of the shops are charity stores, poundshops, or pawnbrokers/jewellers with obviously impoverished people peering in. I take in the view. After a little while, I notice a man watching me gently, in a certain pensive and curious manner which suggests he must be a writer. I get talking to Andy, who is honking on a pipe for the final time: he’s just been told he’s got gum disease. He laughs and bares his teeth.
Andy tells me that the area’s ‘rough’. There’s a big drug problem, and a lot of unemployment. The town had more prestige as a shopping district in the past. He had a drug problem himself until 15 years ago, and now feels compelled to write some kind of book that can persuade young people not to make the same mistakes. He’s a fan of poetry and we talk about Shakespeare, and he tells me about the libraries in the area, and the creative writing on offer. He encourages me with this project, and we pass ways amicably.
I leave Scunthorpe, a place whose poverty and social problems are becoming harder to conceal, and pass by a huge steel-works, now belonging to Tata Steel. As I found out earlier, more steel is being produced in the UK than ever before, and this is largely due to automated lines. It leads to a question, then, of how we can combine automated production with a good quality of life for all people? Work has become the supreme moral quality. Welfare-recipients are demonised. But what is all this work for? I’ve argued in this before, and others have too. We have automated steel, retired workers, and two generations of young adults working flat-out in zero hours service-sector jobs, in areas that are either useless or even harmful to a community’s common interests. How can we combine the two?
This may seem naïve, but it also makes me wonder about how steel was initially nationalised, like coal. Under government nationalisation these industries became more productive and better places to work. But this wasn’t a walk-in. The demands of the second world war, and the threat of a large mobilised army, helped to force these industries into public ownership, before gradually being sold into private, profit-making hands again. Clearly public ownership results in a superior service: better managed, more accountable, not sacrificing quality for profit. In something as basic as healthcare or security this should be obvious. It seems that most people I come across are opposed to instances of privatisation, but the initial arguments that establish it are accepted, or insufficiently challenged. What if a popular movement were simply to demand that the better societies are those which act in the interests of all? It would get as far as every other political sprouting. Putting industries into public ownership was necessarily violent and coercive on behalf of the people. The establishment won’t abandon ship just at the behest of morality or reason.
The road east gets me eventually to Brigg, a small market town with a cosy, traditional-style town centre. It’s a little quaint but lacking in character. I wander about a little but there’s not much to see today. On Thursdays and Saturdays there’s a market here, but I don’t get the impression from local people that it’s something spectacular. Such markets were features of many towns in the past. Today many seem to have lost their gusto, selling knock-off versions of things which globalised industrial exploitation can now ship in to Primark or Asda for the same rate. Of course, some markets are superb and full of character: Kirkgate in Leeds, or the covered market in Sheffield. It’d be intriguing to visit the horse market at nearby Appleby, a huge Irish traveller social occasion. I loaf about Brigg a little before heading on.
I have a fair way ahead of me, but I’m keen to ride on before the rain hits me hard. Dark clouds lurk menacingly behind me, and the wind’s increasing its desire to turn me round. No! I decide to take a break from the A-roads and follow what seems to be a cycle path. At first this works out well. Varieties of birdsong increase, and I even spot a great bird of prey hovering above me with a bright blue flourish in its brown coat. Following Google’s advice, I make a pretty random detour up a place called Somerby Top. A big section of the path is flooded, but I push on and eventually discover a beautiful little forest. So far, so good.
I spot signs for the national Route 1 and give that a go. I seem to be roughly heading east, so I let my judgement slide a little. Those rainclouds are bringing with them some storm, and I hear great claps of thunder behind me, like the slow progress of a military invasion. Alas the route takes me some way away from my destination, and desperately I back-track up various hills before pelting it along a busy road. I decide to make another new rule: no cycling on cycle routes.
For real. They’re so often badly sign-posted and poorly maintained. Thorns, nettles and weeds grow out into the path, seeking out human injury. Surfaces are either made up of gnarled and sharp stones, ready to dislodge the hapless rider, or are often so muddy and flooded that anyone nearby is sprayed with soil. Most of my bike’s injuries have been from the battered paths and obstructive gateways that are deemed bike-friendly. They go every way except the most direct route and seem to be a conspiracy by motorists to free up those comfortable, smooth main roads from the use of cyclists. They confirm cyclists as second-class road users, rather than equals on the road.
And with that rant boiling up in my brain, I make it to Great Grimsby.
So, how can you tell when you’re entering a new town? I’ve been entering quite a few now and I think I have a checklist:
- Are there totally unnecessary traffic warning signs appearing from nowhere?
- Is the road suddenly becoming filled with potholes?
- Was that a retail park/mega supermarket you just passed to your left or right?
- Is that a sign for a park and ride scheme whose existence seems unlikely?
- Are you immediately surrounded by very large but extremely cheerless suburban houses?
- Is that an unloved but still high church tower in the distance?
- Are the first shops you see selling things no-one could possibly want?
You are probably entering a small British town then.
I ride through Grimsby and head towards the centre. It seems like an interesting enough place. There are few historical buildings I spot, so I catch sight of a blandly-titled large mall building and zoom into that. I’m soon in the town centre, close to a fishing monument. I pop into a supermarket and buy some plastic tape to cover up the holes in my tent, before wandering back into the centre. I ask one man about the place.
‘It’s very bad, turn around!’
Why? ‘Too many people eating too much and drinking too much round here’. He looks as cross as he sounds. I try three young to middle-aged women: ‘It’s alright here.’ ‘Not much culture!’ ‘The town centre’s safe at night, there’s lots of young people from the city college and university. You should ask people your own age!’
Don’t worry, I will. One tells me that fishing used to employ most people. Not only could it bring in a livelihood for the fishermen, but the rest of the family would be drawn in through helping to make baits and nets. Today the fishing’s gone, as fishermen in this stretch have overfished the seas for decades and depleted the fish stock, resulting in EU-imposed restrictions. Today Grimsby is a huge centre for packing fish, such as Young’s, which now comes from largely from Icelandic trawlers. ‘Lots of food packing factories, fish. There’s a lot of unemployment’. Perhaps a common picture of the north-east is emerging.
I pop into the Parity pub, lured in by a thirst for beer and the offer of free wi-fi, handy when you’ve been wild-camping and need to charge your phone. I ask the young barman about the place.
‘It’s horrible! Nothing good round here!’
But he laughs, and there’s a certain pleasure in hating. ‘There in’t much, ask him, he’s new’. He points me to his bar-mate. ‘I like it round here. I’m from Macclesfield, near Manchester. It’s like a ghost town. At least round ere there’s jobs…’ ‘if you work hard!’ says the other. They’re firm but friendly, and I order in a £1.50 pint of John Smiths, probably the cheapest pint I’ve drunk in all my life.
As I find a seat, a great rain storm unleashes its woeful and wretched self on the poor shoppers of Grimsby. Many have come out lightly-dressed. I lurk in the pub for a couple of hours, hoping that the storm will stop.
A group of very drunken men are shouting and messing about on the other side of the bar. I hear another barman shouting at them and struggling to impose some order. Suddenly one shouts ‘Tommy! You’re a film star!’ They become less aggressive, and I’m curious, particularly when the town and voice click together.
This is how I meet Tom Turgoose, the very talented young actor who stars in This is England and Somers Town. As I put my order in he jokes that ‘you’re probably the youngest person I’ve ever served John Smith’s to’. I repay his compliment by expressing an enthusiasm for his films, and finding out what he’s up to. He’s a warm, friendly and laid-back guy, honest, inquisitive and sharp, like his characters. This is England 90 will be filmed soon, but in the meantime, it’s this. It makes me realise the huge gap between London and elsewhere. In London, an actor like this would have secured themselves some kind of arts funding pot or job producing new theatre shows. They’d be paraded, interviewed inexhaustibly. In Grimsby they work shifts in the local rough and tumble boozer. It’s unjust.
I head out of Grimsby during a rain amnesty, and take the road north. I pass through shabby suburban backstreets and allotments, and after the landscape gets increasingly industrial. In the sunset, the effect is quite remarkable. Distant oil refineries burning intensely but with a majestic serenity, with a similar power to the Drax plants the day before. I watch their titanic power in the distance with the same admiration and ignorance as seeing a developing star on a TV science show. The pillars, vats and burning chimneys appear as colossal and ancient as mountains. I can hardly imagine what the effect on local people would have been when these structures were first built, but by the time I reach Immingham, they seem a part of the fabric. The town itself seems like the arbitrary leftovers of a once more interesting seaside fishing centre. Today it is remarkably full of takeaways and the odd pub.
My Dad had called a little earlier and advised I eat better. With that in mind, I found a pizza takeaway and resisted the temptation to order a baked bean pizza in favour of something with actual vegetables. While in there I got talking to another man queuing for his dinner (I should say ‘tea’ in these parts), covered in tattoos and carrying a frank but fair manner, a common quality to this area. He works as a security guard at a nearby power station. He tells me there’s ‘not much here’, but that it once was a huge dock. He’s a fan of Scunny. Fair play. He tells me about working as a cover-fireman during the recent firemen’s strikes over pensions and pay in London. I asked him if he felt bad crossing the line. He thoughtfully ruminates on it and is unsure. He asks me, ‘would you want 53 year olds lifting you out of a burning fire? They should be station managers.’
The problem is that ‘should’, or the priority of making a reasonable choice in the best interests of all, has never been a feature of our political arrangements. Again, it’s hard to connect up people’s actions and their motivations. Was he paid well, and did he have an opinion on the strike before? What if they crossed his line? I have to be honest and say that in most of these situations I don’t push it too much. These questions come to me after.
I leave Immingham with a pizza strapped to my bags, and pass some more extraordinary looking power stations, with a graceful and Martian style of built design which seems spectacular in this flat and bland North Lincolnshire countryside, matched by its flatter, blander, franker and more direct local accents.
A little further on towards Goxhill the landscape changes again, becoming remarkably rural and peaceful. It is a pleasant if tiring ride north to my final point, and I’m a little worried for the rain. I follow rolling paths in the setting sun, and start to think about a place to bed.
There is something quite exciting about this kind of wild camping. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever done. As you rove along the empty dusky roads, your eye trains on each passing field and narrow lane. Is it flat? Is it dry? Is there sufficient shelter so that the local farmer won’t spot me? Are there are any scary animals nearby? Will it be noisy?
It feels like real camping. There are no lamps indicating the paths or toilet blocks, just a bush of nettles and whatever’s left in your plastic canteens. It’s free though sneaky, and breaks local laws and rules of custom. But it’s also a unique chance to experience isolation, in a good sense. After a little while I found a small uncultivated bit of wasteland at the back of a power-station near some houses being built in Barton. As I set up in that field behind a hedge, all I could hear were animal sounds, like foxes rutting and ducks arguing, a nearby swishing river, and the rustling of the wind.
I won’t lie, there were also a lot of mosquitoes buzzing about. I’ve not regretting bringing insect repellent, but the bastards manage somehow to feast on my upper waistline.
But it’s worth it all, for these kinds of moments, gazing out at the sunset and entirely on my own, just a small amount of clothes, some tools, toiletries, and the bike. Without all the unessential fraff, the world of news or the adult toys which so many of us spend our waking hours clicking and poking. When have you had an experience like this?
As I drop off asleep, the rain begins to gently fall, and my crude piece of plastic tape manages to hold out the weather. Dozing off to the pattering of the drops, I begin to feel like I’ve found a new world.