Hull, Hell & Halifax
When people I meet on the road ask me to describe my home town of Halifax, I usually respond with;
“Halifax is 80,000 people all saying “No” at once.”
What I mean by this is that, for me, here is a town with no aspiration whose mind was made up long ago and does not want to risk the introduction of new possibilities. If saying “Yes” is embracing life, possibility, and change then Halifax is its polar opposite embracing only stagnation. It doesn’t know and it doesn’t want to know.
The town center itself is built in a semi-circle set deep inside a valley flanked by two monolithic hills. Beacon Hill to the North West is particularly domineering acting as an oppressive prison wall and creating the impression of being hopelessly trapped within its shadow. There is literally no horizon here and the Pennine micro-climate ensures a perma-grey sky completing the perfect picture of misery.
Culturally the place is a complete wasteland and an evenings entertainment in the centre is limited to sinking discount booze in the many “all you can drink” town centre pubs followed by a street fight. This is something of a travesty because the town is actually an architectural delight with an abundance of spaces which are begging to be used as theatres, chic bars and venues. The town hall & All Saints church are neo-baroque masterpieces (designed by Charles “Houses of Parliament” Barry) and Dean Clough was once the largest mill complex in Europe. All of this recalls an infinitely more prosperous and hopeful age for the town but one which has now passed. The latest and final addition to the town’s skyline, the Halifax Building Society headquarters built in the 1970’s, is a triumph of modernity boldly fashioned from starched sandstone and glass. It fittingly serves as the towns last big hurrah as the Society itself has now all but collapsed into history existing only as a pet brand and trophy site of Lloyds Banking Group.
The countryside is very charming with sweeping moorlands on every periphery. The magical valley of Hebden Bridge (a monied, hippy town which emphatically amplifies its dissonance from Halifax despite having a HX postcode and 01422 dial code…) and the entire wider Calder Valley never fail to mesmerize visitors from the world over.
The, somewhat stark, the beauty of our towns countryside and industrial heritage has been recognized by British TV producers and Halifax is now the epic backdrop for two hit drama’s, “Last Tango in Halifax” and “Happy Valley”. Both do not merely use Halifax as a convenient set but instead somehow incorporate the town itself into the storylines and let its landscapes and energy shape the protagonists. For example, Happy Valleys lead villain Tommy-Lee Royce perfectly encapsulates the archetypal embittered, psychotic Haligonian. He routinely uses the term “that clever bitch” to describe Sarah Lancaster’s skeptical, pragmatic copper Catherine Cawood. Note, the emphasis in the delivery here sits firmly on “clever” rather than on “bitch” because in Halifax, the word “clever” is the arch insult in a town where intelligence is something to be only derided and feared.
“I felt like I was born a long way from where I was supposed to be and I was just trying to find my way home” – Bob Dylan
In short I am sure you can see why I decided to hit the road yeah?
But when the money ran out I needed somewhere to crash land and so I came back. Twice.
This appraisal (and I will admit roasting) of my home town has been inspired by an article I was recently commissioned to write for Poor Explorer. The theme of the article was backpackers returning home from long term travel and attempting to re-evaluate their home town and see it with fresh eyes as if for the very first time. I decided that the best way to gain this perspective was to quite literally find points of interest in my home town that I had somehow never seen and go and experience them along with the other tourists. It soon turned out that removing cataracts would, in fact, make me long to go blind.
The prominent attractions in Halifax are Eureka, an acclaimed children’s science museum, and The Piece Hall, a 17th Century market place which has been closed for repair for an age now. I had of course seen these things before so I had to find something else to do. In the end, I settled on (1) the towns Industrial museum. (2) “The Streets In The Sky”, a row of character terraced houses built into the grand Victorian central market and (3) Wainhouse Tower; a Victorian age “folly” which dominates the skyline for miles yet which I have never climbed.
You can read my article by clicking here. I will not repeat its content but rather today I write to share my meditations on what my research into the article taught (or reminded me) about Halifax. You can also read my post about Things To Do In Halifax.
From Hull, Hell & Halifax may the good Lord deliver us – John Taylor circa 1639
When I first contacted the local council’s tourism office about the article they were very supportive. They put me in touch with the relevant personnel at each of the sites and asked for their full support and co-operation. My first visit was to the Industrial museum where the curators spared 2 hours explaining the museum’s history, showing me around and providing a running commentary on both the industrial revolution in the north and Halifax’s’ rise, decline and transition from the industry. However, I also found out that vicious funding cuts have meant that the museum has been franchised out to a private trust who have a short grace period in which to make the site economically profitable lest it be closed down forever. It seems you very much can put a price on heritage in this Happy little Valley.
The market manager was also very accommodating in providing access to the Streets in the Sky. These Victorian character houses are novel properties. They form an actual street, one story above ground level, have a perfectly central location and yet retain a degree peace & privacy. Anywhere else they would be occupied by well-heeled Yuppie’s but in Halifax, they sit empty and derelict. It is an utter waste.
Finally, despite the early encouragement, I was not admitted access to the Tower. The management trust were unfortunately not willing to waive an £87 entrance fee (more than twice the entrance fee to Petra National Park in Jordan) which was apparently needed to cover the cost of somebody taking an hour to unlock the gate and so consequently I had to leave them out of the article. It seemed that free exposure on a popular travel website, with a DA of 30 and 40k views a month, (which is half the population of Halifax…) just wasn’t payment enough for them. For me this was Halifax perfectly encapsulated; short sighted at best and completely lacking in any vision whatsoever at worst.
It’s Grim Up North
We are not alone in this malaise. Following the collapse of industry and the decimation of the mines, most Northern towns these days are poor, parochial and unwelcoming. An afternoon spent visiting Rochdale, Oldham or Rotherham actually makes one very grateful to from Halifax because it really could be a whole lot worse. However, the fact remains that even after visiting the troubled towns of the occupied West Bank, the crime-riddled streets of Venezuela and the open sewer of New Delhi, Halifax still retains a special place in my heart as the place I would rather be anywhere else but there.
So why am I here? Whilst seeing my friends and family is important, the truth is that I was tempted back here purely by a short-term, well paying job which will help me save enough dimes & rupees to get me the hell out of here again. Once this blog starts paying the bills (10 more DA points and it should be there…) I may never come back.
Finally, if any of my caring readers are concerned that in writing this I have invited the wrath of a local lynch mob then worry not because they were after me anyway.
I am from it but I am not off it.
See you anywhere else.
Lowborn, Re-born, Freeborn Aiden