Another cold snap, after a couple of days of the Met Office talking about ‘potentially disruptive snow’, and train companies preemptively cancelling services in case it turns out to be the wrong kind. Came across, and added to, a piece I wrote in Yorkshire in the lull between Christmas and New Year some years ago. The photographs were taken at a later date, when I was making a seasonal record of the place where I grew up. They are therefore unlikely to illustrate the meteorological conditions described accurately. Although they were in no way intended as an accompaniment to the writing, its prior existence could well have informed their creation.
The 50s semi where we lived till I was thirteen, 269 Staincliffe Road, has been extended to the extent that the daughters of doctors and bank managers I went to school with would almost have found it respectable. There was a field behind it, ‘my field’, the house’s natural extension for me, though it belonged to the next door neighbour, whose house is now also double its former size. Where my field was there are now nine smart ‘executive’ homes. If the field isn’t there any more, the view from it, still visible from the lane that runs behind, Scar End View, is better than I remember. It seems now to bear comparison with those in the supposedly superior Dales of holidays and Sunday trips. Now I’m seeing it through eyes that, unlike my octogenarian parents’, have looked at a lot of other places; seeing it through eyes too that have read Defoe’s respectful description of the North’s industrial valleys — eyes which perhaps first began to recognise this as their real home when reading Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britian before teaching it to students at a Scottish university. The view from Scar End looks just fine through the sub-zero haze of late December afternoons.
On each of these afternoons, between Christmas and New Year, I walk north along Scar End View. Bungalows are steeped up from the pavement on my right, the new executive homes above them, while an unfenced playing field, unsnatched by property people, slopes away from the left verge. Below this are more houses, the Moor End council estate, before land falls away across the main road, Heckmondwike Road, to pastures in valleys and moors rise to the centre of the country. In a couple of years’ time, a child who lives here will go missing and a temporary media camp will be established. My recently widowed father will welcome visits from the police to check his bins and garage.
I’m left in a state of something like suspension, like the year and the season themselves as I look out across the Spen Valley to the Pennine heights; in a recession, or maybe regression from the routines of my adult life. Then each day I take a slightly different route on Kilpin Hill, now my preferred destination on these walks, though a place I didn’t even really know as a child, despite its proximity, a little north and west of our home. My travels then always took me south and east, to dad’s bakery in Green Lane, to Grandma and Grandpa’s in Thornhill, to school in Horbury, for shopping in the town. I’m childlike now as I explore the lanes of millworkers’ cottages, artisans’ homes of millstone grit, now quite bijou and always somewhat magical, because it never seems possible to take the same route twice. Bower Lane, Robin Lane, Cawley Lane, Cresswell Lane, Occupation Lane. Walking daily this December within the bounds of the triangle between Halifax, Huddersfield and Heckmondwike Roads, drawn across Spen Valley’s eastern side, I learn more of the lie of this land, where paths known as ginnels run off the road and lead you as the crow files, while the lane takes the long route, or turns abruptly into a modern estate. In reality, there’s quite a lot of modern housing: bungalows and semis from every postwar decade fill the gaps where maybe meadows, fields like mine once lay between the cottages. It is still possible, though, to frame a view with no twentieth-century buildings, that could be forty miles further north, in a pretty dale that attracts the tourists.
What I’m drawn towards is the end of the hill, where you’ve crossed the boundary into Heckmondwike and reached Halifax Road road: no more lanes and unknown territory. I’ve usually turned back before then, to retrace my steps or discover a new way home, but today I’m compelled to continue to the end of the lane, though this promises only more of the millstone grit and postindustrial grime I remember from childhood and have glimpsed today between the gaps in the cottages of Kilpin Hill. I walk on the road because frost and ice have made the pavement treacherous.
A large building glows opposite the late afternoon, late year sun on the other side of Halifax road. I know it’s a nonconformist chapel because I half-remember it from childhood. It’s far larger in scale than the surrounding buildings but it hadn’t been cleaned up when I last saw it, so it wouldn’t have stood out quite so much as it does now, spotlighted by the low-angled orange sun. The facade is audaciously grand: Corinthian pillars and cupolas. Upper Independent Chapel is inscribed in large legend across the lintel. I can’t make out if it’s still in use, or if it’s now offices or apartments.
Some small disused chapels have become homes in more rural areas; medium sized ones in small towns like this have found ironic new life as Indian restaurants. Larger ones now house the new, non-geographically specific design and technology industries, just as old mill buildings have become retail spaces or art galleries. Design consultancies and architectural practices like to get their hands on buildings like these. Even when I cross the road, carefully — it’s slippery, although the gritter has evidently been out — I can’t see any sineage to denote the current use, so I assume that it is still the congregational chapel it always was. I could ask, but I don’t really need to know. There’s an unimposing modern door at floor level.
Back on the home side of the road, I turn round and it’s shining still, like a monument – mosque or temple – in an eastern landscape, oblivious to its context, where all other buildings still bear coming up for two centuries’ worth of dirt, not big or bright enough in themselves to be lit up by the setting sun. Even the hall next door, much larger than the domestic buildings, seems dwarfed. They’re all already benighted and forever grounded while the Upper Independent seems to float alone, a Mecca beneath the milky gauze of a day that has tried to be bright and clear but is simply too cold not to be hazy.
Next day and in very similar weather conditions, I go back, taking a slightly different route over the hill. An Asian family exit through the chapel door as I turn away, but I’m mindful of my forty minute walk back, during which time the light will be lost and the pavements iced. Whichever way you go back down, by Knowles Hill, School Lane or Church Lane, the hill is steep. I’m anticipating tea and Christmas cake in my parents’ warm lounge, and I fail to ask the Muslims about the Methodist chapel.
Almost obsessively, I seem daily to be re-treading, re-occupying my childhood. I think I’m finally beginning to re-route it. The day after it’s becoming cloudier and milder, and the view from Scar End more limited. No sun: it will be dark sooner, even though theoretically the days are already lengthening, the chapel won’t be glowing and I don’t want to see it dull. So I don’t go on to Kilpin Hill, but cut up onto Staincliffe Road. Just past 269 I take a left turn, into the grounds of the hospital. Staincliffe General Hospital, where I was born and three of my grandparents died. I was delivered in the old building, Victorian Gothic, off Healds Road, a few years before the maternity block, now the Bronte Tower, was constructed opposite our house. It was apparently snowing when I first made the short journey home, at this time of year, maybe even on this day. At regular intervals during my growing up one of my grandparents was admitted to the geriatric ward, a single-story sprawl between the old and new higher-rises, and didn’t come out again. I’d go with one of the living ones to the hearing aid clinic in Outpatients, in the room at the end of a long corridor where I also visited the orthodontist yearly. Approaching adolescence, in the couple of years before we moved down to the new house, I’d use the hospital grounds as a place to hang out with my friend Mark, one of the few local children I played with.
Now it’s the District Hospital, part of the Mid-Yorkshire Hospitals Trust. Other than in the context of NHS architecture, Mid-Yorkshire doesn’t exist. Both my parents have undergone minor surgical procedures here. Both are on a waiting list for a further operation in one of the new wards that extend far back, over fields and ginnels where I also played as a child, towards Halifax Road, which eventually passes the Upper Independent Chapel, and continues into Heckmondwike. Later my mum will receive chemotherapy at the Boothroyd Centre, named for the former Speaker of the House of Commons from these parts, and a year after her death I’ll come to the mortuary to identify my father’s body. From the other side, Westborough, where I’m now heading, the new construction isn’t so evident. Turning round to look back at the hospital from the playing field between Healds Road and Green Lane, what you see is the original Victorian building: grim, blackened stone rising to diminutive towers, as if from across an impoverished Magdalen Fields.
I’m heading, towards the new house, in the direction of places with which I was better acquainted as a child: the streets of Westborough, where dad had his bakery and shop, and Crow Nest Park. Park Road, Birkdale Road and West Park Street; Reservoir Street, Oxford Road and Stockhill Street, where girls I went to school with lived in architect-designed bungalows, or Victorian villas that were once the homes of the mill owners and managers. Where Staincliffe and Kilpin Hill have undergone some gentrification and growth spurts of new building, here there are signs of decay and of subdivision. Some are now HMOs; others home to extended Asian families.
I was walking around here, and along the park’s broad avenues on mild autumnal mornings a couple of months ago, when dad was having hernia surgery in a hospital 20 miles away and there was less time to explore further afield; missing my daily perambulation round Hunter’s Bog in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park. Next year he’ll be back in the Mid-Yorkshire Trust’s sister hospital at Pontefract for a hip replacement. He’d have needed to wait much longer to get it done in the hospital up the road. He’ll make a third trip along the M62 to Pontefract for a second hernia op a few months before his death from a heart attack when out shopping for a new radiator valve.
Today despite all the new building and the midwinter muddy playing field, there still is a lot of green — allotments, fields, parks — or there would be had the weather not toned everything down into khaki. Nearly everywhere you can see hills: the foothills of the Pennines, above valleys where the towns of heavy industry lie hidden, in the north, east and south; the high moors to the west where there are no more towns until you reach Greater Manchester. Despite its location near the hub of the industrial revolution, and its evident scars from that time, this still isn’t properly an urban landscape. I’ve lived in cities since I left here more than 22 years ago, and what I still miss is its openness and variety. Now it’s Scotland that I don’t want to return to. I will go back north tomorrow, but today I’m spending my first New Year’s Eve in a long time back here. I call in the Westborough co-op to buy a bottle of bubbly and head straight back down the hill.