When you’re only visiting a city for a few hours, you can’t realistically hope to understand every nuance of social or economic history, or understand what it’s like to live there. There’s only so much you can learn.
One of the things you can learn, however, is what it’s like to visit the place for a few hours. So, since I spent several days this summer shuttling between different bits of Yorkshire, I thought I’d write some brief reviews of the cities I visited.
I’m sure these won’t get me into any trouble whatsoever.
On one side of the Doncaster Road you’ll find the Hepworth, a gallery whose architecture and setting are as beautiful as any work of art it contains. On the other, you’ll find a medieval bridge over the river Calder, alongside the ancient Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin.
These things, alas, lie either side of a god-awful dual carriageway, a depressing and inconvenient half a mile walk from the city centre. You know that thing about not hiding your light under a bushel? Wakefield hides its light besides the A61.
That’s my overriding impression of Wakefield: depressing streets and genuine treasures, all mingled up together at random. The Cathedral looks good, there’s some decent public realm in the “civic quarter” near town and county halls (this was once the capital of the West Riding), and there are a lot of fine buildings in the network of ancient, narrow streets behind Marygate, too.
But the main shopping centre dates from the ’80s with all that implies, Westgate station feels unloved and Kirkgate forgotten, and chunks of the city feel shabby to the point of decay. Oh, and there are too many massive bloody roads.
Loads of past glories on show, but the place needs... not even love. Money. It needs money.
I’ve been to Leeds three times now, and I still feel oddly like I’ve never seen it. This is frustrating because most people I know who’ve ever lived there swear by the place.
So on this trip, I tried to explore a bit further than I had in the past, crossing the river to the regeneration area on the south bank of the Aire, and taking buses up to the student areas of north Leeds and back. And I did see a couple of things that grabbed me: the Corn Exchange, which I’d somehow managed to miss before, is stunning, as are some of those Victorian shopping arcades, and the area around Woodhouse Moor is gorgeous, especially when viewed from the top of a bus.
Insider the Corn Exchange. Image: SteveCadman/Wikimedia Commons.
And yet, still, I just don’t get it. There’s a load of great stuff in Leeds, but I just can’t quite get a handle on what the place is like as a whole, in a way I’ve not found with Liverpool or Manchester or even poor, unloved Birmingham.
So what am I missing? Is it just that I can’t shift the impression left by that horrendous bit in front of the main station? Am I just broken in some way? Tell me.
How can I not love a place where the first thing you see on arriving is a statue of Harold Wilson, and where the station looks like this?
Huddersfield station, with Harold Wilson. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.
Huddersfield boasts a frankly incredible amount of fine 19th architecture: the town hall, the George Hotel, St Peter’s Church, and always the sight of the Victoria Tower on Castle Hill looking down on the town. It’s one of those places where there are so many fine buildings, the authorities genuinely don’t seem sure what to do with them all.
On the other side of the balance sheet is the bus station, and the buildings where the council offices are housed, and the fact this fine centre is fenced in by one of the worst ring-roads I’ve ever seen. But nowhere’s perfect. This is one of the few places from which commuting to both Leeds and Manchester is equally plausible so, in the event we ever solve this whole north-south divide thing, I’d expect Huddersfield to boom.
Chocolate box. Beautiful, obviously – the Minster! The walls! The museum gardens! – but with a lingering sense that the place is now more for those who visit than those who live there.
The Shambles. Image: Peter K. Burian/Wikimedia Commons.
What the city really reminds me of is Oxford and Cambridge. It’s a beautiful medieval city, with insanely high property prices, overly tight green belt and a ring road, where you can’t turn your head without bashing it into someone taking a picture of a building that they think they know from Harry Potter. The university has even divided itself into colleges and sent its products out to conquer the British media. No one has yet tried to coin the phrase “Yoxbridge”, but it can only be a matter of time.
The Railway Museum is a reminder that there was another York – a grittier, more industrial one – but these days it’s all tourists and students and London ex-pats smug they can afford the house prices.
Why has nobody ever told me to visit Halifax? Why is it not competing with York for that lucrative tourist market?
The Piece Hall. Image: Tim Green/Wikimedia Commons.
It should be: it’s glorious. The 18th century Piece Hall looks like something that got lost on its way to Renaissance Italy. The covered Victorian Borough Market is less unexpected, but just as beautiful. And the whole place lies on the side of a valley, overlooked by beautiful Pennine Hills. It’s stunning, and no one had ever mentioned it to me.
So why isn’t Halifax a destination? I fear that geography may play a part: its Pennine location means Halifax isn’t on the main north-south routes, and even the main east-west railway lines skip it, running instead via Huddersfield (today) or Bradford (should they ever build HS3). But it’s gorgeous, and the municipal authorities should start trying to sell it as a Christmas destination pronto, and you, personally, should go, right now.
Go on then.