Once, on a research trip for the Rough Guide to Italy, I went to a remote hill-town with sensational views from the main square over a summer-parched patchwork of wheat fields below. There was a church, its doors locked, a few dusty side streets, and an old man sitting outside a nearby bar on a plastic seat at a rusty metal table. Thinking I might have missed something, I asked if there was anything else to see in town. He thought for a while and eventually replied,
“There’s the cement factory I suppose. Oh, and the lunatic asylum”, and then returned to his coffee and newspaper.
I was born in Ghana in West Africa but I come, if anywhere, from Huddersfield, which as far as I know has neither a cement factory nor a lunatic asylum. But it has a rough English charm and a handsome aspect – an old mill town set amid brooding Pennine hills in West Yorkshire, with some faded Victorian grandeur in its streets, an impressive railway station and a fairly lively student presence at the university. Methodist preacher John Wesley visited in 1757, when it was just a small moorland town, and was rather taken aback by the inhabitants – “a wilder people I never saw in all England”; going on to note that, while he preached, “only a few pieces of dirt were thrown”.
It’s still like that on a Saturday night to be honest.
Huddersfield to Hollywood
The town’s most famous sons? Prime Minister Harold Wilson (whose statue is outside the railway station) and Hollywood actors James Mason and Patrick Stewart (whose statues should be). All of which is entirely the sort of thing I might write in a guidebook, if Huddersfield ever made it into guidebooks, which – having written the Rough Guide to England for many years – it doesn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Huddersfield, where I lived from the ages of 5 to 18, and to which I have returned for family and for football (courtesy of the mighty Huddersfield Town) ever since. But it’s not really on the tourist map, and people make fun of it sometimes (mostly people from Leeds, it’s true), and if you’re a travel writer it’s a difficult place to recommend that people visit for their holidays. London, Stratford upon Avon, Oxford, Huddersfield – it just isn’t going to happen.
But I am a travel writer and I do come from Huddersfield, and while I’ve spent my whole life getting away from there in many ways, it’s probably about time I explored the reasons why I keep coming back (the mighty Huddersfield Town excepted). Because, as with that Italian hill town, even if you think you’ve exhausted the sights there’s always something to see, however unexpected. It’s the travel writer’s job to ‘make it so’ (Star Trek reference there, thanks Patrick).
The first thing I’d recommend is that you drive up to the splendid viewpoint of Castle Hill, a short way outside (and very steeply above) town. I grew up just below it, which is the least interesting thing about it, though in those days there was a pub at the top, and it was all downhill to the house. There was an Iron Age fort here – there are still dips and hollows that you can roll around in – and the elegant stone tower is a landmark for miles around, built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s jubilee. You can see the Huddersfield Town stadium, which is not the reason I’ve brought you up here, but enjoy! nonetheless, and the University, which was known as the Polytechnic when dad worked there. And you can see pretty much boundlessly in every direction, which seemed amazing when I was a kid and still does on boiling hot, ne’er may care, blue-sky days, which of course are limited in Huddersfield. Sorry about that.
East to the Urals and beyond
We were told at school that, looking east, Castle Hill is the highest point until you reach the Urals, which can’t possibly be true, but which I’m going to include in the hope that a guidebook repeats it some day. More incidentally still, it’s always been a great joy to me that there not only exists the job of ‘Castle Hill Ranger’ – there he goes, striding across the Huddersfield landscape, dispensing wisdom and rescuing kittens – but that it has been held for many years by one Julian Brown (no relation). I am still waiting for him to retire so that I can pursue the duties that are clearly mine by right.
Back in town, let’s pause a while at the Harold Wilson statue in St George’s Square, jacket tail and trousers flapping in a typical northern breeze. He’s striding purposefully away from our majestic railway station – a real Huddersfield man, fed up with the machinations in that thar London, no doubt – and into a square that, if it was in Manchester or Milan, would be celebrated for its style and harmony. Textile money poured into Huddersfield in the 19th century. Poet Laureate John Betjeman thought the railway station, with its ornate classical facade, “the finest in Europe”; there’s an actual golden lion above one of the other buildings; while in 1895 in the striking George Hotel, bluff northern businessmen met to form the breakaway Rugby League (which, if you’re not from Yorkshire, is a bit like Rugby Union, American Football or Aussie Rules but a proper sport played by men built like the Incredible Hulk who can run like Olympic sprinters).
The out-of-the-town-centre Tolson Museum ‘presents a vivid and intriguing picture of the local area and its people’, it says here on this leaflet, and to be honest it’s amazing it’s still going (we used to go with school) because it’s been threatened with closure for years. But realistically, our tourist visitor is not going to venture into the ‘burbs, so I suggest visiting the Art Gallery instead, above the central library, which has an early Francis Bacon and other works by L.S. Lowry, Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, which is pretty impressive all round for an old mill town.
Punk rock pub quiz
Pubs, bars and cafés, I’m afraid I can’t help you with, because everywhere I used to go when I was 18 closed down long ago – the White Lion, the West Riding, the Coach House Club, Studio 58 and many others. At another now defunct club, Ivanhoe’s, the Sex Pistols played their last ever UK gig on Christmas Day 1977, which surprising information might well win you a pub quiz one day. Huddersfield had quite the punk rock/new wave scene at the time and, if you were my impressionable age and had some safety pins and a ripped pair of jeans, you got to hear groups like Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Damned on a regular basis. We turned up once and paid a pound to get in to see two unknown bands wondering what on earth they were doing playing in front of pogo-ing Huddersfield teenagers – Talking Heads supported by Dire Straits, as it turned out. I should think David Byrne and Mark Knopfler still have nightmares about that.
There probably are some punks still around, while I’m thrilled that the longest-serving coffee-bar chain in town remains the ‘Merrie England’ – we tend to cling on to our heritage in the north. Don’t panic though, there are both Huddersfield baristas and Huddersfield hipsters, I’ve seen them, they definitely exist. There’s also a renowned annual Food and Drink Festival and some outstanding Indian restaurants; while if you want artisan beers and beards then the Grove Inn is the place.
Perhaps more extraordinary is what has happened over the last couple of decades as the university has grown – over 20,000 students now choose to come here every year (out of a total town population of maybe 150,000). There’s a student village of bars and cafés where there used to be dodgy pubs on dodgy back streets, while the layered, luminous arts and humanities building – lit up at night like the Mothership – speaks of pride and promise in an unsung northern town.
When he worked at the university, my dad brought the first Chinese students to Huddersfield, and what a culture shock that must have been for them. It’s still jolting enough if you come from Bristol, never mind Beijing. Now there are adverts in Mandarin on the side of the student accommodation buildings, and you can get a fantastic bowl of authentic noodles down Cross Church Street for a few quid.
So – am I suggesting you change your holiday plans and make straight for Huddersfield, the Naples of the North? If the alternative is going to Leeds, then obviously yes.
But what I’m really advocating is a deeper look at initially unpromising destinations – those places we all come from and try to escape, or those places we find ourselves living out lives while yearning for more.
There is more, there’s always more, but it’s often right under our nose – we just need to appreciate our very own cement factories and lunatic asylums.
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