Having a good time in the UK’s worst places is easier than you might think. Unless you’re thinking about any of the towns listed below, where travel writer Tim Moore struggled hardest to justify the title of his new book about unloved Britain, You Are Awful (But I Like You).
The town was wreathed in freezing fog when I went there, which didn’t do much for its looks, and may explain why I missed the restored and apparently 100% unhorrid quayside area. As it was, I found myself driving through a semi-demolished ghost town: street after rubbled, empty street of roofless, frontless back-to-backs and red-brick inter-war estates. The first and only gathering of townspeople I encountered was a crowd of females, old and young, piling purposefully aboard two coaches parked outside a civic centre. It looked for all the world like the evacuation of the womenfolk, first phase of full withdrawal from a town deemed unfit for purpose.
When at last I did find some men, they were standing in the road taking turns to belt each other with maces made out of baseball bats, cricket balls and gaffer tape.
Slough is like a what-not-to-do showcase of everything that made post-war British towns so very hard to love. Giant concrete cereal boxes stacked around stagnant, stinking rivers of gyratory traffic, the casting down of the pedestrian into a forlorn and sinister netherworld of wind-tunnel underpasses. And the default tendency to offset these massive wrongs of old with ever more massive superstores: the Pentagon-sized Tesco rearing up behind the bus station once ranked as the biggest in Europe. Now, just seven years later, it isn’t even the biggest in Berkshire.
All that said, I was rather sad to learn that a few weeks after my visit, the monolithic and almost thrillingly hideous Brunel bus station – star of The Office’s title sequence – was knocked down to make way for a flimsy and insipid metal-roofed wave of a structure, which in the architects’ sketches recalls a pair of Bacofoil flares hanging out to dry on a windy day. I think we can be certain that this will become a dated embarrassment even more quickly than its predecessor, but at least when that time comes it will be a lot less bother to knock down.
For much of the 18th century, Merthyr Tydfil was the world’s dominant producer of iron, and comfortably the largest town in all of Wales. Merthyr’s history is entirely fascinating: from 1831, when a local uprising gave the red flag its first outing as a rallying symbol of the working class, to 1992, when a local GP trialling an angina drug recorded the conspicuous side effects that saw it rebranded as Viagra. But it’s a history best appreciated from afar: Merthyr has been in decline for almost 200 years, and was indeed almost wiped from the map in 1939, when the Second World War interrupted a plan to demolish the whole place and relocate its despairing inhabitants.
Today the place feels like a town that’s faked its own death, with trees growing out of the old cinema’s roof, and half the high-street windows soaped up. Merthyr suffers astronomical unemployment, with almost a third of residents claiming incapacity benefit – there’s not much to do here but find new ways to express idle hopelessness. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the pub I spent the evening in, turned out to be full of terrifyingly drunk old men, though I was when one of them tried to sell me drugs (not Viagra).
The approach to most of my bad places meant an air of ratcheting dread: the grotty ring road, the squat housing blocks, the brownfield wasteland. Not so Methil, up the top of the Firth of Forth and a place I’d only ever previously encountered of in the lyrics of Letter From America. One minute it was all heathery brae and crofters’ cottages and villages called Milton of Balgonie. The next… well, here’s how Wikipedia’s overview of the town begins: ‘Immediately adjacent to the mouth of the river is Methil power station, which is now unused and awaiting deconstruction.’
A few months before I’d found some 1960s home movies on YouTube, showing Methil’s heaving prime in jerky, luridly coloured silence. A logjam of railway trucks massed by a quay full of smoke and funnels, a sea of sensibly trimmed heads packed into a football stand, bunting strung across a crowded, sunny street. I thought of them as my Austin Maestro bumped through the dockside desolation towards East Fife FC, breakout star of Sky 3’s Football’s Hardest Away Days, and came to a halt between two upside-down sofas.
Never before had the chasm between vibrant past and bleak present yawned more hugely. To one side stood the abandoned power station, its soaring concrete chimney an attempt to disperse the noxious aftermath of the slurried waste-coal burned there. To the other a sprawl of pebble-dash and rubbled nothing: a town whose own residents had proposed twinning with Kosovo, Beirut and Uranus.
‘I remember passing through Methil some years ago with the Queen,’ wrote the Duke of Edinburgh in 1995, in response to an unusually proud local, ‘but am quite sure I never described it as “a dump”.’ One pictures him passing the envelope across a footman’s proffered tongue, then turning to address his wife: ‘“A steaming cack-heap”, wasn’t it, dear?’
If you’ve ever played Sim City, you’ll have seen Goole before: it’s what happens when you leave a game running in fast-forward mode for 150 years, having set all the civic maintenance budgets to zero, and shot the mayor. And if Goole doesn’t sound bad enough in its own right, consider its etymology: the inland port in East Yorkshire is named after the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘open sewer’.
I actually gasped at the townscape that sprang up the moment I crested the box-girder bridge over the Aire and Calder canal. Squinting at the fuzzy, sodium-lit skyline, all I could see was a scrappy void occasionally punctured by a twisted section of gantry, or a gasholder, or a silo, or a water tower. These weren’t the outskirts: this was downtown Goole. In fact, this was the whole of Goole.
My mind chose this moment to retrieve an entry I’d come across in a regional internet forum, contributing to a collation of fond local memories. ‘I married a lass from Goole. Sadly, she died in an industrial accident at the luncheon meat factory some years ago.’
I bumped over a series of level crossings and was offered a glimpse of inert high street, devoid of humanity and lavishly puddled with the morning’s rain. Then it was off down a road of boarded-up, bring-out-your-dead terraces, past disembodied walls bearing ancient hand-painted promotions for drapery stores and distemper treatments.
Even the inevitable post-industrial retail invaders – Netto, CarpetRight – looked more like dumpy little prisons, each a windowless, metal-shuttered fortress sitting in its razor-wired, flood-lit tarmac compound. Some pictures paint a thousand words, but a photo I came across restricted itself to a pithy seven: a boarded-up garage daubed with the legend ‘Welcome to Goole – we kill smack dealers.’
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