West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Memories and Recollections

MY EARLY IMPRESSIONS OF
PONTEFRACT


SHEILA M.K. RICHARDS

As I came to Pontefract when I was nine years old in 1936, my early impressions are those of a child and so not perceived by an adult. In many cases they are just little things. To understand my impressions, you need to know my background.

I had lived in a residential suburb of Birmingham, so was used to a big city. Coming from a big city to a small, northern market town was a big change. Lots of things were strange, confusing and yet in some ways magical.

My mother and I came in January by train from New Street Station, Birmingham (a large, busy, covered station) to Baghill Station. My first view was of my father greeting us, standing alone, on a bleak, open to the sky platform, covered by ice and lines of frozen snow. As we stepped out of the train, I thought we’d come to the North Pole – it was so icy and bleak. This was emphasised on our journey home, for I noticed that lots of the footpaths had encrusted snow on them. We did have snow in Birmingham, but it never lasted long and was soon cleared away. I realised, after about two months, that snowploughs came to clear the roads, but they pushed the snow to the side and up onto the paths. Strange, because there weren’t many vehicles, but lots of pedestrians. Another strange feature for me were the chains on car wheels.

The lack of trees on the roads added to the image of the North Pole. I was used to trees all around, with lots of red squirrels – here there were no squirrels and only recently have grey squirrels come to Pontefract.

In the house mother and I discovered that the dust (we were used to easily dusting away) had become an ogre of greasy soot. The water was so hard it didn’t remove the dirt. However, the good thing was that the hard water made delightful tea.

When I started getting out and about and speaking to people, I thought I was in a foreign land, as I could only understand half they said. My contemporaries said ‘wier’ and ‘theer’. What did that mean? Strangest of all, when the grown ups finished a sentence, they called you ‘love’!

To me, Yorkshire people had loud, harsh voices and I wondered why so many of them shouted. Looking back, I realised that I was used to the softer, sing-song speech of the Brummies.

People asked me "What do you think of Pontefract, Sheila?" As I was brought up to be honest and polite, I couldn’t say that I thought I’d come to the North Pole, so I said, "I think it is a funny little place." Proud Ponfretians were taken aback by this response and my mother was very embarrassed. Eventually, she advised me otherwise. Of course, what I should have said was "Well it is very different from the big city of Birmingham".

As I began to explore my environs and Pontefract town, the magic and mystery began. We lived on Carleton Road, so on a walk to town the names of the roads amazed and fascinated me. I was used to roads being named according to the destination, like Worcester Road or City Road.

The first path down the hill across the fields was called Crankey Pin. The first side road was Mayor’s Walk, so I could imagine the Mayor walking along there. Then it was Button Park – where were the buttons and this was not a park. Carleton Road then became Mill Hill, but where was the mill. Off Mill Hill was Dark Lane - yes, dark, twisting and exciting. At the bottom of the hill on the right hand side was a steep drop to the valley, whose slopes had orchards, and at the bottom, the unique liquorice plant was grown. The view into the valley and indeed, the various open views from Pontefract impressed and delighted me. On the left hand side in the middle of the road was the War Memorial. I couldn’t understand why this was in the road at a busy junction. Here also was Southgate, a road which made a great impression on me, for in those days it was a very narrow road with a footpath only about two feet wide. I had to go along Southgate, because it was the way to Pontefract General Infirmary where my father was secretary. A lot of heavy lorries used this route, coming from Hull Docks and taking goods to the West Riding woollen industry. These lorries came so close to the footpath that they covered one with mud. The nearness was really frightening. At the side of the footpath was a high wall, so one felt imprisoned and threatened.

My impressions of the town were of a place with a great variety of small shops. The ones that made the most impact on me were Heckingbottoms on Ropergate because it always had rabbits and game hanging outside, Miss Jennings (hats and ladies fashions) because I wasn’t used to a shop having the name of a single lady. England’s and Wordsworth’s, both ironmongers side by side seemed strange, Vaux Brothers because of the lovely smell of coffee beans being ground, Bon Marche (A P Smiths) because of the deference shown to their customers, the Coop Café and Wordsworth Café because they were close to each other and quite extensive cafes, and Baileys (baby clothes) because it had an arcade and a pleasant round, outer display window.

The street names mystified me – Southgate, Ropergate, Northgate, Newgate, Micklegate, Gillygate – where were the gates? Horsefair and Beastfair – I couldn’t see how these animals could be in town. I could accept Corn Market as I could imagine these commodities being sold there. All the narrow passages called ‘ginnels’ fascinated me but what an odd name!

Some of the public buildings were unusual to me. The Buttercross stirred the imagination, but where was the cross? I found the Town Hall balcony exciting as I could easily visualise the parliamentary election result being announced from there. As I was used to churches having steeples, the octagonal tower of St Giles’ Church was odd, as was the tower of All Saints’ Church. When I discovered that there were four cinemas I found it amazing for such a small town – quite out of proportion. Likewise, the numerous pubs. The Barracks was an enchanting building, rather like a fairytale fortress.

At that time there were two liquorice factories actually in the town area – these were Hillabys and Dunhills. I gathered that these factories produced Pontefract Cakes, made of liquorice. I imagined something like a chocolate cake and was utterly amazed to discover that the so-called Pontefract Cakes were actually like small flat buttons, only half an inch across.

Town seemed to me a great mixture of things – shops, banks, public houses, factories and bus stops. I was more used to trams and buses that came every fifteen minutes instead of one every hour. I suppose for us this infrequent service didn’t matter, because the distances to the shops, work and school were so small that we walked almost everywhere.

Like the four cinemas for such a small town, another anomaly that intrigued me were the three railway stations at Baghill, Tanshelf and Monkhill. I found the historical side of Pontefract quite magical. I had heard of a local author who wrote the book ‘Pontefract – The Town of Crooked Ways’, and thought this meant exciting underground passages. My father had taken me down the ‘Hermitage’ and I felt sure there were underground passages from the castle to the town. This promised to be very exciting and I looked forward to discovering the whereabouts of these passages from J.S. Fletcher’s book. Naturally, I was very disappointed when I read the book some years later and discovered the real meaning.

Pontefract people kept extolling the Park, but when I went there it was so different what I expected. I was used to the Birmingham city parks, full of flowerbeds amongst sheltered winding paths, whereas here, the Park consisted of rather wild, open green areas around an extensive lake. Similarly, the land behind our house was called Carleton Park, but it was just a large field.

My impressions of the people were that they were helpful and friendly, but whoever one spoke to was part of a related family, so one had to be very careful what comments one made regarding other people. Of course, this family intertwining is typical of a small place as compared to a big city. I was not used to being in a coal mining area, so when I first saw the miners with dirty faces, I thought Pontefract had an unusually large number of chimney sweeps! Also, these ‘chimney sweeps’ had long, thin, sad looking dogs called greyhounds!

Overall my early impressions of Pontefract consisted of strangeness, confusion on the one hand, and on the other, excitement, fascination and magic. From being a nine-year-old ‘foreigner’ who thought she had come to ‘a funny little place’ at the North Pole, I grew to appreciate the friendly people, loved the magic of the place and after about fifteen years, became an adopted Ponfretian. Now I am proud to stand up for Pontefract at any time.

Sheila M. K. Richards


 

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