Day 74: Heysham to Preston

‘Without them, this town would be shut down.’ – taxi driver, Blackpool.

Have you woken to the sound of pure electricity flowing above your head and this fragile polythene sheet that some would call a tent, and others a place of rest? If not, then strive for it, even if it means sleeping in the most exposed and strange of waste grounds in Heysham, near Morecambe. Where are either? Then you haven’t lived. These pylons sound like rain, their voltage dangerous and yet strangely tranquilising, even for all the shouting during the night nearby, as drunken kids raced up and down the road right by my tent. Thankfully I was not discovered, but it adds to the night’s strangeness.

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I head out towards Lancaster, along a slightly busy road that eventually leads to a nice pedestrianised greenway. It’s a fine morning, and the route threads into central Lancaster, a small but pretty old town, as pleasant as its historic name suggests. I pass the thin river Lune and the derelict ruins of a factory facing it, Canes of Kendal. There’s a Millennium Bridge that strikes a white bow over it, pleasant but not meriting the ambitions of the name, and I push up a hill towards the town’s portentous priory and nearby castle. The castle still deals in discipline, now set up as a law court, imposing upon the slopes. Both are cast in a large and gloomy stone once yellow, now grey, with obligatory cobbles retained.

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I head into the priory, a large church which one would easily mistake for a cathedral. A volunteer inside is talking to a tourist. It’s a ‘living church’, he tells him, but betrays a certain impatience with the touristic uses of the old building. ‘The amount of times people ask if there’s bodies underneath the stones. Sometimes I want to put their bodies underneath em!’ He’s oddly harsh and impatient, overtly proud. Such things I’ve seen with people in the tourist trade. A lack of language can be mistaken for a lack of intelligence, a cynical attitude towards tourists hardens into callousness. Outside there’s a sleeping statue with head and hands missing, casting a funereal yet uncanny presence over a valley-landscape of light industry, chimneys, and a half-hearted attempt at suburbia.

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Lancaster’s castle and priory stand on a hill overlooking the small town. I descend down and find a small coffee shop inside the visitor centre where I use the WiFi to catch up with things. Whilst there I get talking to a local girl who really likes Lancaster, recommending particularly the pubs and the local Thwaites ale. ‘Though none of my girl mates drink it, I like it!’ Lancaster’s a relatively small town, and it feels that way to her, but compared to other nearby places I list, she says the quality of life is good. Another local man peers over my laptop screen as I write and asks me about my studies. Most people I meet tend to think I’m about ten years younger than I am! He smiles and shares with good humour his affections for Lancaster.

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The remainder of the town is well integrated into this castle and cathedral, and there’s a series of high street retail-dominated streets with a bog-standard mall plonked in them. It’s early afternoon on a Saturday, and there’s a demonstration on about the Israeli attack on Gaza, with males and females of many ages and backgrounds giving out leaflets, holding flags and placards, one banging slowly on a military drum. I talk to Valery, an older lady who is very friendly and open. She tells me about the plight of the people in Gaza, of hospitals, schools and refugee camps being bombed. It’s a war crime, a genocide, as she independently puts it.

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‘And the world is doing nothing?’

She tells me of the Spanish boat full of Red Cross workers recently arrived in Gaza, of the millions of pounds of aid given by the British. She tells me of very recently meeting some Palestinians who had come to the nearby large university. They’d seen her giving out leaflets, and thanked her deeply. ‘Sometimes it’s important to show that people in the world care. This is one little place being destroyed by a military superpower. They appreciate that people care, and stand with them.’

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I follow down out through one shopping street, and stand by a grand monument and nearby neoclassical hall with Doric columns. I take a road out of town and follow a series of gentle , a quiet trail through some immensely flat Lancashire countryside. There are few trees and fierce winds knocking against me, but the ride is just lovely. Farmlands, fields with mown yellow wheat, cattle grazing sleepily, a fresh breeze and the occasional whack of manure – superb. I pass by Cockerham, then detour off the southern road to reach Preesall and Knott End, a small and touristy seaside settlement.

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There’s a queue of bikers stood by the edge of a jetty, next to an old feller with a malfunctioning scooter. Together us motley crew are in a queue for the ferry to Fleetwood, a stone’s throw on the other side of the water. A large group of lads join the queue decked out like members of a boy band, clutching bottles of lager and making cheeky jokes. Families join us, most local, here to take a trip over to Fleetwood and then back for the experience. We squeeze on, and I chat with the lads. ‘You doing the Tour de France mate?’ ‘You’re a Londoner!’ Cue slightly funny but mostly awful accent impressions. ‘No, you can’t’ve gone round on that!’ ‘What you got in them bags?’ and the rest. They refuse to believe how far this cycle’s travelled!

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There’s another cyclist on the boat who hears me explain my trip, and he awaits on the other side at Fleetwood, a small former fishing village which now seems to serve as the end-point of the Blackpool promenade, mostly touristy. His name’s Andy, or ‘Swifty’ to his friends, and he asks me about my travels whilst rolling up a cigarette.

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Together we cycle down the long promenade that runs from here to Blackpool pier, a nine mile stretch, with relatively deserted beaches flanking us to our right. We pass some classic seaside: stalls that sell cups of tea with a slice of cake; deserted, overpreened lawns and gardens; lidos with the odd lilo; and the odd Art-Decoalike café. Kids chase each other along the promenade alongside pensioners pursuing each other in scooters, time-zones overlapping. As we ride along, Andy tells me about his work in Accrington and his love of cycling at the weekend. ‘You can do it when you don’t have family’. He’s a modest and friendly man, and he tells me about his love of the Yorkshire Dales, and that real cycling involves hills! He names each one in his vicinity like old friends.

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We start to approach Blackpool, the first of its three piers coming into sight, and its surprisingly tall tower consuming more of the horizon. ‘Blackpool is the armpit of the universe!’, Andy warns. What looks like a large concrete block like a prison turns out to be the castle hotel, a huge crass hotel that greets one’s entrance. Then there are some early 20th century terraces, red-bricked and tasteful, the kind of structure that Blackpool ought to be proud of, were pride still in its collective emotional lexicon. After that it’s cut-price fish and chips, a cut-throat competition between dozens of small stalls and shops. That, and just gangs of drunken stag and hen parties, roaming up and down the busy promenade from one heavy-security god-awful karaoke joint to another. Hail Blackpool!

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Andy makes his escape, and I venture further into the maelstrom. I still have some cash notes from the Isle of Man which no business will take. But I try everywhere, which gets me talking to business-owners everywhere. One person directs me to Shenanigans Bar on the strip as the best joint in town – an Irish boozer decked in green colours and perhaps the largest receptacle I could spot for pished pre-wedding parties. In one chip shop I encounter the kind of pessimism that I would expect of such a noisy resort: ‘I’ve been here 12 years, and I’ve seen the place go down. I don’t like it’, says one worker, a Scottish lady from the borders. Her co-worker’s from Kent I think, based on the accent, and doesn’t find it so bad.

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There are groups of police standing about all over the place. Club music blares out, and despite it being the early afternoon people are already pretty wasted. The town centre itself is very dated. Its sprawl has been poorly managed, and the streets are cluttered with depopulated clubs, chip shops and poundshops. Nowhere seems to be making much money. ‘Not what it was’, is something I hear again and again. There’s a plethora of punk rockers about though, casting a bit of charisma and colour to the town, Cockney Rejects and Killing Joke tees, Rancid patches and glued-up mohicans in primary colours.

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I talk to a cabbie in a taxi queue. He’s been doing this for some time as well and, also thinks the town has changed for the worse. Not so the casinos – Blackpool reached the national news a few years ago for embracing a boom of supercasinos which, on the ground, haven’t added much in terms of presence or social fallout – but the decline in families staying. ‘On Saturdays I might be busy, but it’s Monday, Tuesday. I don’t make much, but it’s enough to live.’ He feels the place is now dependent on stag and hen dos to keep going, a desperate dependence which seems unlikely to last.

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But this afternoon Blackpool’s booming. The streets and strip are packed with families out for fun. I wander down the promenade, passing one gypsy palmist stall after another, each looking like a surprisingly sophisticated venture. The strip’s chequered in amusement arcades and discount shops. I get a remarkably cheap and tasty ice-cream at Parma’s, a seaside café whose décor hasn’t been tinkered with for at least forty years. Next door is a joint with ten pound per night beds, the lowest price accommodation I’ve encountered on the British Isles, including campsites. One can only imagine…. But that’s the charm, in a strange way.

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The girl working here is from the town, and speaks positively of it. ‘You not here tomorrow?’, she says. There’s an air show on, but she doesn’t give much away about life in Blackpool as a worker. I carry on, passing the middle pier, keeping the large Pleasure Beach in the distance. The social composition of the town is very multicultural, with west African, British Asian and white British families all out this afternoon, distracted by the amusements, junk food and general hubbub.

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There’s no helter skelter or Punch and Judy, but in every other respect Blackpool’s representative of the modern seaside experience: noisily demotic, unapologetically hedonistic, and cheap and cheerful. I reach the large amusement park by the south pier, Blackpool’s famous Pleasure Beach with its Big One rollercoaster. I’m game for a ride, but there’s a two and a half hour queue. That’s a little too long even for a man happy to people-watch for hours, and so I head out of Blackpool, exploring the shabby residential streets behind the promenade, before heading out east.

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This is the road to Preston. On the way I start to pass signs warning about plans to frack the area. They’re funny, articulate and alarming in equal measure. I make a mental note to investigate, when I then pass a large field full of tents. A wizened-looking man with a bucket hat, white beard and golden tan beckons me in the distance as I pass. Haroo! Intrigued, I turn around. Silver Fox welcomes me into their anti-fracking protest camp.

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There’s a fire starting, and the mothers and grandmothers who set up this camp are starting to serve up food. ‘Any vegetarians?’ they shout, serving up platters of veggie skewers. The tanned feller who greeted me, Silver Fox, invites me over for a cup of tea. I’m quickly welcomed in. ‘Where you staying? Come and stay with us’, they offer gracefully. And I would, the positivity I receive from these people, had I not arranged something up the road. But while I’m there, I’m told about the dangers of fracking whilst local people and travelling protesters trade tales of scuffles with police, local government treachery, and the kind of quasi-justified paranoia that one often encounters with committed protesters. There’s around twenty or so tents at the moment, and the camp feels busy and alive. Prospectors plan to test the ground beneath, but similar tests in this part of the world back in November 2011 caused minor earthquakes in the area.

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The sheer dangerousness of fracking is growing in unpopularity as people realise just how devastating it can be to areas and communities. ‘The government says, “well, it was bad in the US, but it’ll be alright here”, and we’re like, “Hello!”’. There’s so much potential in wind, solar and hydroelectric energies, particularly for an island like this abundant in natural forms of energy, yet the domination of energy companies over government policy is leading to a catastrophic, profit-seeking Ponzi scheme. When figures like Lord Browne is a director of Cuadrilla and a member of the cabinet – that same myopic scumlife whose report whacked up university tuition fees and initiated the marketization and decline of UK higher education – trouble’s afoot. But opposition’s growing across communities. Speculators won’t be able to access these field. I hear of an effective popular struggle being fought back through illegal direct action and through careful legal struggles, challenging council decisions, planning permissions and so on. It’s inspiring. As I leave, one local man, Bob, hands me a ‘Frack Off’ wristband. I hope to return here.

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I rejoin the road to Preston. It’s now early evening, and the road passes in an uneventful blur of hedgerows and post-Blackpool traffic. There’s some memorable names for settlements like ‘Newton with scales’, a fine name for a fledgling indie band, and an abundance of used car forecourts and other retail warehouses that line the road. Eventually I reach the City of Preston, a town that comes to stand out for its dusty yet still intriguing red-brick Victorian industrial and commercial premises, and an impressive covered market at its centre. I discover all this very quickly, as the town isn’t large or that eventful, save for the market at the centre, and the guildhall and public gallery by it, and a central square with a disused funfair, populated by boy racers and bored teenage goths.

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This is a modern market town, and despite the general decline in the high-street, still seems to have something about it. It’s in part aided by the University of Central Lancashire based here, which brings in plenty of students for most of the year except the summer months. The streets are filled with Eighties décor Chinese takeaways, e-cigarette shops and bargain booze stores, signs of low rents. As Owen Hatherley wryly and all-too-rightly puts it, its high street is ‘the kind of high street that only England seems able to conjure up: miserably scaled, shabby, pinched.’ But it’s not as bad as that, certainly when one compares the general scale of affluence here, or across the north-west, to the more serious unemployment and decline in the north-east, in the towns around Tyne and Wear, or across county Durham. Preston is coherent, to a degree, but just not that pretty. Its in-betweenness architecturally, geographically and economically stands as a cipher for the state of England more broadly.

An extraordinary, ambitious and far too large bus station also graces Preston, a Brutalist behemoth built by Building Design Partnership between 1968 and 69. Some kind of lunar space station has landed here and taken the form of a coach depot. It’s a remarkable and strange building, though in its own way highly useless, far too large for its purpose and, being now grade II listed, having no boards inside or any kind of modern convenience which would aid its original intention. Still, it’s unforgettable.

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Preston’s pleasantly surprising, more abuzz than I’d imagined. I cycle out to Deepdale, a suburb close to Preston’s football ground, where I meet Carl and Andrea, a lovely couple from different parts of Northern Ireland who I’ve met through the Couchsurfing website. Carl’s a football analyst, currently working with the Welsh women’s team to improve their performance. Andrea’s hoping to be a vet, but is currently lost in the bureaucratic rigmarole of the student loans company. Without a loan she can’t afford to train, but being a little older than the average university undergraduate, she’s fallen between the cracks. Their home is wonderful, absolutely full of cats and dogs. We drink beers, talk about travelling and our lives, then start to dress up for a night out on the town.

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In the Black Horse we meet with Frankie and Boydy, Carl’s mates, with similar experiences behind the scenes in football. We’re laughing and joking, nothing too serious, having a cracking time. We head out next to the Attic, a club with neon lights, smoke machines and cheesy pop. Eventually enough liquor’s consumed to have us all jiving on the dancefloor – well, in that head-nodding, foot-tapping, shoulder-shifting way popularised by fathers across the land. Beers become spirits, we find some maracas, and eventually we’re all about on the dancefloor, pulling shapes and singing aloud.

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We head next to the Old Dog, where I lose a pint-downing content with an enterprising hippie with the right gullet-guzzling technique, before heading onto Lofty’s, a dodgy club in the centre of town. Over the most minor of improprieties, one of our number is kicked out and we follow, pissed, a bit sore but mostly fine. I’m not sure how we got back – I’m guessing Carl or Andrea had a hand in it, but my word, there’s fun to be had in Preston.

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