Thinking along the Hallam Line (Leeds, Wakefield, Barnsley, Meadowhall and Sheffield)

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Leeds

Along with the Engineering of Leeds (my 4th town) into a (relative) economic powerhouse, there seems to have followed an almost identi-kit pasting of all the traits usually found in the big financial centres like the City of London, yet in a much smaller area circling the railway station (after which it begins again to look more like a typical post-heavy industry northern city, and a Yorkshire town).

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The swankiness; a desert to all retailers except the most upmarket of independent and chain stores. The speed of life in this colony-island of the global finance empire is much much faster than ten minutes walk either way. There is an expectation to be met with tuts if you take your time; you have to run across the street after actually casually stepping out, because a car, that in normal circumstances is a safe distance away, advances towards you with the speed of a motorway slip-road acceleration. Maintenance; you get on the train in your local town feeling pretty well dressed and tidy only to feel like a medieval peasant in contrast to those rushing back and forth from the train station. Homelessness; the homelessness in Leeds, in comparison with its size (irrespective of the wider urban area now dependent on it), is apallingly bad. You do wonder where they could have all possibly come from, as it looks too extreme – without forgetting the suffering such a existence must create, it does often look like a stage-set of a typical city scene, almost hyperreal, which could explain why people find it so easy to be indifferent to others’ suffering in such areas.

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Leeds is often seen as the capital of Yorkshire, and this is very true – certainly regarding the West Yorkshire Urban sprawl, as Leeds has increasingly become the only hub of this 2 million-plus area, as other large towns (especially Bradford) have seen gradual decline since their demise as industrial bases.

Wakefield

This may not include Wakefield (my 2nd town, living 8 miles from the centre), which does often seem to have something going for it now, quite possibly down to the needless construction of the outdoor shopping centre Trinity Walk and two international sculpture galleries (The Hepworth and Yorkshire Sculpture Park),which surely do deserve their place here with two of the most accredited sculptors of the 20th century originating from the borough.

But Wakefield, or the half of Wakefield mentioned so far, is if anything a suburb of Leeds, that seems to owe its ascendancy to what Leeds has become. This seems to be in an almost identical manner to the relationship towns such as St Albans, Reading, Stevenage have to London. This could well be because Wakefield is the only stop the mainline train line from London (which is so important in the ‘commuter-age’- which shrieks at the sight of snow on the tracks) makes in West Yorkshire on its way to Leeds.

In fact what has become more evident, since the observant eyes of the Southerner Owen Hatherley pointed it out in his book The New Ruins of Great Britain, is that Wakefield feels “like a southern city” (for which he did instantly offer his apologies for saying). But if you look at all the towns served by the East Coast Railway from London to Leeds, they all have a similar feel to them; all commuter towns, and they reek of modern industry, which to inhabitants of the old industrial areas of the north looks like the south (If you were that way inclined you could certainly feel a little bit of treachery, when seeing the a large London Underground map at the visitor service desk in Wakefield Westgate station).

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But there again, this beating organ dependent on the beating heart that is Leeds is only really one half of Wakefield. Wakefield really does seem to be two towns stitched together. One half of the city is the aforementioned town, served by the suits-and-ties-populated Wakefield Westgate station; the other half  is the remnants of a former mining town (culturally closer to Barnsley and Castleford than the other half of the town), served by the incredibly neglected Wakefield Kirkgate station, in a side of town that is full of sad sights, especially once the night draws in.

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This is the problem with Leeds in general, it is the hub of a larger Yorkshire urban area (which Hatherley suggested is a Supercity which possibly doesn’t know that it is), yet much of the urban area is neglected/ignored for the sake of Leeds, which itself is now nothing but a colony of the financial world-city. But there again, could the same not be said for Canary Wharf and its surroundings?

At one point Bradford was probably as big as Leeds, and Leeds would not have the gravitational pull it has without being less than 10 miles away from another large urban settlement. If West Yorkshire was recognised as the metropolis it more-or-less is, one would maybe begin to see a more reciprocal relationship between these already conjoined towns. What you get instead is each town (and this applies for all of England expect London) maintaining a provincial small-town mindedness, which results in London absorbing the lion’s share of (what remains of) alternative culture.

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(Emley Moor Mast, from the former Woolley Colliery pit site, between Wakefield and Barnsley)

I have always had a bit of a longing for West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire to be re-merged to reform the old West Riding of Yorkshire, which stretched from the Yorkshire Dales, down to Sheffield and Right across to York where it ended. It would mean an end to the ridiculous train fare hikes once you cross the South/West Yorkshire border to a town not 10 miles away. This has helped create a divide, with everything in West Yorkshire being Leeds-orientated and everything in South Yorkshire Sheffield-orientated. This is maybe a personal frustation due to being raised in an area right at the top of South Yorkshire, just a mile from West Yorkshire.

Because this area will always be what I call homeland I never really differientated between South and West Yorkshire. Yet there is certainly a gap in the continuity of human settlements around here, which does seperate the South Yorkshire mining-village-conurbation – which begins in Barnsley, heading down the Dearne Valley to join Rotherham, at which point becoming the Sheffield urban-area – from the West Yorkshire urban-area, which begins with Wakefield, Dewsbury and Huddersfield, just over a series of hills.

Barnsley

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There’s just enough of this gap in continuity to give the town of Barnsley (my nearest town) a more isolated location than the other (former) West Riding towns. Barnsley is a strange place. Defiant, proud, but confused about what it is actually defiant and proud about. It certainly has a sense of self (under of the banner of ‘tarn ‘n’ prard – meaning ‘town and proud’) big enough to match that of the much larger urban settlements around here. And I would argue that what has elavated this sense of self in recent years is that it is relatively more isolated and hasn’t become a suburb of the bigger cities, which is evidentially the case with towns such as Wakefield and Rotherham.

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But I would also argue that it stems from its identification as being the centre of the South Yorkshire Coalfield, possibly with more right to claim the east side of Wakefield, the mining villages within its borough, and the Dearne Valley than the actual townships these mining areas resided in. Despite the pomposity of the size of the construction at the time of its erection, perhaps the reasons for the construction of Barnsley town hall, upon a hill looking across the landscape, were for it be a beacon to all of the mining villages under its far-reaching gaze, like a benevolent Mordor overlooking its coal-ming empire(the clock at the top even looks like an eye). However, since a neoliberal agenda replaced the damaged and scarred physical landscape with a more invisible damaged and scarred mental landscape, the idea of what Barnsley is, and how it is still important has been shaken to the core.

The result of this has been an ever-more defiant sense of self with fewer and fewer decent sources with which to proclaim this sense of self; a culture obsessed with past because no real alternative identity has been found. ‘Professional Yorkshiremen’ such as Dickie Bird and Ian Macmillan have capitalised on this huge sense of self, magnified by the ridicule the rest of country deals the place, to the benefit of their careers, but unfortunately (I would argue – although not to completely slag them off, just that I observe this to be the case) it is to the detriment of the town – because by playing this parody back to the rest of the nation, they give it what it wants, which is beneficial to them no doubt, but unfortunately seems to have helped culturally stunt a borough that contains a quarter of a million people; a place where countless people have thrown energy into trying to help the place develop, but to no avail.

The culture of the area is difficult to build on however because of the lay-out of ex-coal mining areas. Barnsley, the town, probably only has 70,000 residents, but the wider borough (not even including the mining villages which are under town halls all-seeing-eye, but not in the town’s borough) has over 220,000 residents. But this village-after-village layout creates a village-culture that dominates the entire town. A village culture is very damaging to a town centre that still sees itself so central to these 220,00 plus residents. For this reason I did have some sympathy for architect Will Alsop’s idea for the town (not the one about having a giant Halo of light over the town, making it look like the class-clown of the north) to rehouse a greater number of the population within the town centre. True, the reality of this would be massively different, but I liked the idea on the grounds that I wish for something to generate life back here, even although the sell-by date for these Blair-year grand schemes has long passed.

The F.E. students, who populate the centre during term-time give some life to the place, and as much as Barnsley College has shrunken from what it was at the turn of the millennium (largely due to financial difficulties caused by corruption at management level) it still attracts many students from all over South Yorkshire, and parts of West Yorkshire. But they leave. Or merely give up on their dreams (not necessarily careerist ones, but also dreams of a different way of life) and return to their respective village quagmires, leaving an age gulf in the town’s culture; a gap that seems to begin at 18+ and end with 40 year olds. Most young people who don’t give up on their wish for something different, and have the (all important) means to do so, leave Barnsley, usually for Sheffield, but also Leeds, Manchester and London.

There is a new museum opening, and as much as museums are obviously about the past, that past doesn’t seem to have anything now to enhance the future of the place. Especially the romantacising of it. Of course there is plenty of unfinished business; the poverty left from the demise of the coal-mining industry and the police brutality dealt out in the strikes. But the centre of an empire of coal mining it isn’t now, unfortunately.

That centre was moved, perhaps with tactical intentions.

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Meadowhall

As much as Barnsley constructed its large Portland Stone town hall in the 1930’s seeing itself at the centre of the greater Yorkshire coal-mining area, this centre has been moved since the demise of the industry. The centre of South Yorkshire (specifically) is (and has been for 20 years) the Meadowhall Shopping complex.  Sheffield is a city with much to offer, and the only place that can really offer decent (again, what remains of) alternative lifestyles to the one just mentioned in Barnsley, but it is not the centre of South Yorkshire, it is more of an alternative within it; the centre is Meadowhall.

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This consumer paradise/hell on the north-east edge of the city is where all of what remains of the railways in South Yorkshire connect; it’s the hub that brings together all the scattered ex mining villages, and steel towns. It is the nearest connection the railway has with the M1 Motorway, and it is where all the coaches for Sheffield pull up. It certainly takes those villages away from towns like Barnsley, and one could certainly speculate that there were political means behind the locating of such a huge shopping centre here. South Yorkshire was once referred to as the Socialist Republic, as after the war it was the home of strong unions and home to a lot of very socialist-orientated housing schemes. It was surely a statement to the New Capitalism being drilled into us at the time to bury the epicentre of all of what South Yorkshire was under a palace devoted to consumerism/commodities (and just a few years after the defeat of the National Union of Miners in a battle at Orgreave just one motorway junction down from Meadowhall).

If you want to see the dominant culture of South Yorkshire, don’t go to Sheffield go to Meadowhall via the interchange. See the masses leaving the trains to walk the aisles (sometimes not even shopping, just going there because it’s where to meet people), people who have had all meaning ripped from under their feet, not future granted to them, save one of acquiring more and more consumer goods. The sight of all these people flocking here is far sadder than the sight of the characterlessness of such shopping complexes.

Sheffield

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The Majority of people in South Yorkshire don’t even get as far as Sheffield (my 3rd town), one finds the train completely empty for the final leg of the journey on the Hallam Line from Meadowhall to Sheffield.

Sheffield is certainly a far more attractive city centre than Leeds. Although apparently the opposite was true in the 1930’s when George Orwell visited it during the great depression. The centre is certainly my favourite urban area in the old West Riding, and is where I wish to relocate if I get the chance. The hillyness of it, and thus the areas of it unsuitable for development make it a relatively green and attractive city; the train station layout is incredibly attractive, being greeted with pleasant water features and walkways, the opposite of the grey,hustle and bustle outside Leeds station. The city has always seemed to be an important place for street art, and compulsive taggers; I like this, as for me, it almost seems to be an embodiment of the aforementioned unfinished business, and makes me imagine that an alternative to capitalism lies dormant in the rolling hills of South Yorkshire. The Supertram system, as it goes up and down the steep hills, has something really positive about it, just to see it, perhaps it feeds into the potentiality of the city to be something different from the others, looking more like a European city.

The city itself is as big as it’s more money-minded brother Leeds, but the wider urban area dependent on it is quite a bit smaller, and the Meadowhall shopping complex prevents it from having the level of consumerism seen on Leeds’ streets. Which, all in all, is definitely a good thing. Meadowhall largely takes the landscape of shopping bags and legs away from Sheffield, and as much as this has shrunk the city, it has opened up opportunities for the creation of many small independent art/music venues, something Leeds may have, but always seems pushed out of reach by the big money in the centre. Not to say that Sheffield hasn’t got all of these things mentioned here, and that Leeds hasn’t got alternatives to its finance, but they are both far less prominent features.

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But one thing that can easily go unnoticed, unless a concerned local tells you, is that the poorer residents of Sheffield have been by and large turfed out of the centre of the city into estates on the outskirts. One of these estates is Gleadless, which is a peculiar looking low-rise estate. Obviously real thought was originally gone into the layout; the buildings weave in and out of the steep green hillsides, and the views are quite leafy, and apparently architects from all over Europe came to view it when it was completed. But now it is a sad place to be. With exhibiting my work quite often in places in the centre (the city’s receptiveness to artist is one of the reasons I’ve warmed to it more than Leeds, for example) I was picking up something from a house down there one day. I just felt sorry for the residents, and realised that many of them are as abandoned and isolated within this city as people in the deprived mining villages are further out in South Yorkshire.

I will always have some kind adoration for the 1960’s brutalist Park Hill housing development next to the train station (whether is a morbid and more positive fascination, depends on my attitude towards the past and present), and I actually would have liked it if they have kept the other similar ones (Kelvin, and Hyde Park) that were demolished in the 1990’s, because the steep rise of the hills around there makes the buildings look so much more profound. But Park Hill is now nothing but a shell, much like the way that New Labour were nothing but a shell of the old Labour party. The original inhabitants of the then-run down estate were relocated, and then the regeneration company Urban Splash turned them into luxury pads for city workers/Young professionals, going for £95,000 each.

But in many ways the reason I do have more positives to say about Sheffield, is because it always makes me think of what Barnsley could be, and is often in dreams (sleeping dreams not daydreams) what it is (as Sheffield’s proximity to the Peak District, Woodland, and then almost immediately high rise, and factories, has an almost collage-like nature to it, usually found in dreams). One just wishes there was something that connected all these towns up better, and didn’t leave them to be the provincial small-town fortresses they seem to end up wanting to be.

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About John Ledger

A visual Artist, eternal meanderer and obsessive self-reflector by nature, who can’t help but try to interpret everything from within the tide of society. His works predominantly take the form of large scale ballpoint pen landscape drawings and map-making as social/psychological note-making. They are slowly-accumulating responses to crises inflicted upon the self in the perplexing, fearful, empty, and often personality-erasing human world.

One response to “Thinking along the Hallam Line (Leeds, Wakefield, Barnsley, Meadowhall and Sheffield)”

  1. Anon says :

    Interesting article. I grew up in the same area as you, Darton/Barugh Green to be precise, and have now been living in Manchester for over 11 years. I am still proud of my home town but a lot of what you say about it is absolutely true.

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