Some very short reviews of assorted cities in Yorkshire

The Hepworth, Wakefield. Image: Poliphilo/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Wakefield

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.

Leeds

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.

Huddersfield

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.

York

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.

Halifax

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.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.