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SPECTRAL CITIES...

Updated: Mar 5

With these almost daily visits to my mother in Wakefield, I'm finding an opportunity to see parts of the City that have strong, personal resonances for me. This was where I was born in the late 1940s and grew up through childhood, teenage years and on into early manhood.

Sadly though, Wakefield has become something of a ghost town for me, though not in the sense of an abandoned, empty, tumbleweed place. The town is populated heavily enough, yet to this 71 year old kid from yesteryear, it is tragically haunted by the ghosts of buildings long demolished, remodelled or cowed into dusty corners by tall modern architecture and circled by restructured, re-directed roads. Inevitable, I guess...

Driving through the City is a strange, almost dreamlike experience as it seems so familiar yet also weirdly alien at the same time. Things appear displaced or 'not quite right.'

For Wakefield’s inhabitants, born in more recent eras, this will not create such a pronounced effect I guess, but for me it feels sad and somewhat disturbing.

I drive past what was once the location of Marriot’s Buildings on Westgate End where I was born, but now see only a flat roofed early 1970s block of nondescript, scruffy shops, though the narrow passageway that ran down the side of Marriot’s Buildings from my Grandmother’s house onto Westgate End still, miraculously, exists.

As do the old buildings to the left of the passageway, including what, in the 1940’s and early 50s, was once a grocer’s shop that sold, amongst other things, dead wild rabbits, hung up on hooks, displayed outside the shop, glassy eyed and forlorn. These unfortunate creatures were sometimes bought by my grandmother to cook and eat, once they had been skinned and cleaned, a procedure she often carried out whilst sitting on her back door steps, outside the stone floored kitchen.


It was a house which had neither electricity, nor hot water, nor any indoor sanitation whatsoever. Marriot’s Buildings was not just dark but a relic of a darker, early industrial time.


Further up Westgate, at its junction with Ings Road, once stood the textile mills of Stonehouse’s and George Lee’s, the latter mill being where my grandmother worked for many years. The site is now a row of ‘Sofas For Us’ and ‘Poundstretcher’ type stores, but in my imagination I can still see the ghosts of female workers clocking in to their shifts in the noisy interiors of the mills, where machines and looms rattled and shuddered in the steamy, hot and noisy gloom.

Only a few yards from where these mills once stood, just a little further along Ings Road, is the site of Ings Road Secondary Modern School, where I was a pupil in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. The school has long gone now, of course, demolished and replaced by the inevitable chain company outlets such as ‘Curry’s’ and the now defunct ‘Toys R Us’.


But it was here, on this spot so many years ago, that I gave my very first public performance as a fledgling guitarist at the school’s Christmas party concert, along with fellow pupil Ian Parkin. We called ourselves ‘The Strangers’ and later ‘The Cosmonauts.’ But the school’s hall, where we nervously performed, is now nothing more than a drab car park.

So too is the Woodwork classroom of the school, (where I constructed the beginnings of an electric guitar but never completed it,) an outbuilding which once stood close to the railway bridge on Ings Road, beneath the railway embankment where we, like many other young boys in the ‘50s, stood in awe as powerful steam locomotives, ‘Streaks’ and ‘Windys’, steamed majestically past, pulling carriages full of people travelling from London into the nearby Westgate Station. The names and numbers of these steam engines were ticked off in our Ian Allen Locospotter’s books which we always carried, stuffed into our school blazer pockets or brown leather satchels.

Ghosts...ghosts everywhere.

The site of Wakefield’s old, Victorian Art School building, where I spent several happy, enlightened and influential years alongside fondly remembered fellow students, well, that building is also now long gone. Initially replaced by a modern engineering educational annexe to Wakefield’s Technical College, but even that has been done away with and a brand new ‘Business Studies’ Centre now occupies the site. (Or something along those lines, I’m not entirely sure of its real purpose.)

Throughout the town there are locations like these: The site of the old Corn Exchange, a wonderfully imposing building, demolished heartlessly in the 1960s, its heritage seemingly ignored and disrespected by an indifferent City planning department. At the time though, we were all thrilled by the C+A store that took its place for a while. For a while...

The site of Wakefield’s Mecca Locarno ballroom where, in my early and later ‘teens, I enjoyed sitting on the balcony of the dance hall, close to the venue’s big Altec Lansing speakers, thrilling to the sounds of Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, and later dancing to Chubby Checker, or Little Eva, or Junior Walker and The All Stars, or Wilson Pickett, or even The Dave Clark Five’s ‘Glad All Over’.


And yes, that building, which played such an important part in my life, is now no more, nothing but a ghost, lit by remembered mirror balls, conjured up by the phantom smells of cheap Brylcreem hair oil, Old Spice aftershave, fried onions, hot dogs and Coca Cola syrup mixed with water served from a shiny machine at the Mecca's coffee bar. It was here, amidst the seemingly ‘grown up’ atmosphere of the dance hall, that I met my first serious girlfriend, Lynne Holiday, (though the relationship lasted only a few years, despite our vow to become engaged.)

The space the Mecca ballroom once occupied was eventually taken over to accommodate Wakefield’s ‘The Ridings’ centre, a large shopping mall, though already now an anachronism, struggling to live up to its initial promise, and even to survive as a viable retail outlet. How quickly the revisions of the past transition to ghost town status.

There are so many more examples I could mention: the demise of the old Regal Cinema, the demolition of the Sun Lane swimming baths, the once thriving and magical Wakefield market, the 1950s architectural style of the old bus station, so many lost shops, lost meeting places, lost memories, nothing but ghosts now, faint echoes from my personal past.

Everything becomes ghost-like eventually, even the latest, most brilliant things fade and pass away in time. Nothing is permanent, nothing can be held on to, except, perhaps, in memory...and even memory fades to emptiness in the end...

We all live in spectral cities, walking the streets of our past, haunted and haunting, shadows in the rain...


© Bill Nelson 2020

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