Lockdown Jottings – 02

Sinking In

Well, the big clear out of the diary continues apace: just about everything in my diary up to the end of April has been cancelled or deferred ‘sine die’, as the saying is. Some meetings are being switched to video conferencing while other matters are being cleared by email and telephone, but all the social engagements such as meals out with friends and trips to the theatre have been wiped from the diary. A couple of short breaks booked for May have also gone and it’s likely this trend is going to continue for some time yet.

All this is, of course, no more than a minor inconvenience when compared with what is happening elsewhere in the country (and, indeed, the world) at this moment. Spending so much time at home, it’s difficult to avoid watching the news. Minute-by-minute briefings on the numbers of people being admitted to hospital, being taken into intensive care and, in some cases, sadly dying, really do make one realise the enormity of the situation. It’s too early to speculate on how long this is going to continue, but there’s no obvious end in sight yet.

As I write this, it’s been nearly three weeks since, on 23rd March, the Prime Minister declared the country was going into ‘lockdown’. Although it had been much anticipated, the announcement still hit hard: it was important, it felt momentous, it was certainly going to be life changing. Suddenly, freedoms we have taken for granted were being curtailed by a government responding to unbidden events. At the time of the announcement, the call for people to stay at home was actually no more than guidance – new legislation had to be brought into effect to give it legal backing and confer powers on the police to enforce it, but I suspect most people could see the thinking behind the decision and I’m sure many would regard it as a sensible and necessary step, at least for the time being.

The full implications of the announcement take a while to sink in. Yes, social distancing means curtailing movement. Some of us are ‘old hands’ at this social distancing business having had a head start of a week or two by choice so it seems at first that it’s going to be more of the same. But this is different. What had been voluntary if recommended behaviour, now carried a government mandate enforceable in law (although it takes a few days for the paperwork to be completed, leading to some confusion, not just in the minds of the public but also, it seems in the instructions being given to some police forces).

We are urged only to leave home in certain prescribed circumstances – such as to shop for essentials such as food and for medical reasons, to exercise, to go to work but only if it isn’t possible to work from home. Businesses not regarded as essential have closed their doors, moving their business on-line where they can. Theatres, cinemas, restaurants and bars are all closed.

And when we do go out, we have to keep a distance of two metres from other people who are not members of our own household. Suddenly, even talking to neighbours over the garden fence is conducted at a ‘safe distance’, hailing each other in loud voices or waving to each other rather than chatting casually with our elbows resting on the fence.

The two-metre rule causes some interesting distancing manoeuvres at the supermarket. These days, we have to queue to go in. Despite markings on the floor every two metres to show people where to stand and signs showing that two metres is roughly equivalent to the length of two shopping trollies, there are some, it seems, who either have no understanding of how far two metres is or are just playing it very safe indeed. Gaps in the queue open up – what is two metres to you and me turns out to be closer to something around 15 feet to others.

Once inside the supermarket, where the aisles don’t really lend themselves to keeping the full two metres between shoppers, people try to observe the guidance: they wait politely for each other to make their selections from shelves, trying not to show impatience when someone lingers a little too long in front of the canned veg or tinned fruit (how long does it take to choose a tin of peas?). Then, items selected, they move on, continuing their elaborate cotillion, trollies pirouetting around each other at arm’s length as they mark out their territory.

Lockdown Jottings – 01

And so it starts

My ‘lockdown’ began a few days later than some, a few days sooner than most. For me, it started on the evening of Thursday 12th March.

My partner and I went out for a meal with an old friend (by which I mean long-standing, just in case she’s reading this) at Duchniak’s Restaurant in Wakefield, one of our favourite restaurants. We had a lovely meal and a delightful time chatting about this, laughing about that, as you do. But on reflection, the writing was already on the wall, so to speak, if not actually chalked up on the specials board. Other people, it was clear, were already deciding to stay home; we were the only customers in the restaurant that night.

The day hadn’t started like that. In the morning, I’d been out overseeing the fixing up of three blue plaques for Wakefield Civic Society – we use a professional builder for this work as I’m not trusted up ladders. In the afternoon, my partner and I had done the usual weekly shop at the local supermarket. Life was very much business as usual. There was no ‘panic buying’ back then and shelves were still full. Happy days! There was even a slight sense that those who’d already decided to distance themselves from others were, perhaps, just possibly, over-reacting.

The week had begun as normal. Being president of Wakefield Civic Society and chair of YHACS (the Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Societies), I have no problem finding things to do. My diary was brimming over with society commitments and social events as well as talks and walks I organise in my own name. I had a booking to give a talk about the Orient Express to a community group in Morley on the Monday morning, a meeting of the Wakefield Civic Society Design Award judging panel on the Monday afternoon and a talk to give to another community group in Netherton on the Tuesday evening about the blue plaques of Wakefield.

Wednesday proved similarly busy and even in the quiet moments between meetings, phone calls and talks, I had emails to deal with and respond to as well as keeping up to date with social media. I guess, thinking back, it was through Twitter that I first realised the mood was changing. People were starting to talk about the Coronavirus more and more.

By Friday morning, things really started to change. People were beginning to feel nervous; they were getting in touch to cancel events. In fact, I soon found I too was having to cancel events that I’d organised, both for Wakefield Civic Society and for others including myself. By the end of Friday afternoon, my diary was starting to thin out considerably – my social calendar felt more like a social colander as event after event and meeting after meeting just leaked away.

I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision or something that just dawned on us, but by the end of the day (somewhat inauspiciously it was Friday the 13th), we too were playing it safe. Yes, we were practising ‘social distancing’.

A week that had started out full of confidence and vigour was to end somewhat darker and more hesitant. We had become people who were not going out.

Well, well, well: it’s time to ‘drop in’ at The Pledwick

The Pledwick, Barnsley Road.

It’s been several years since I last dined at The Pledwick on Barnsley Road near Wakefield, so a recent change of ownership was all I needed to persuade me to go back there – oh, that and a deadline to meet for TopicUK Magazine who asked me to write a review.

Anyone who has travelled along the A61 Barnsley Road will be familiar with the pub. Despite having been extended over the years, the core of the building dates to the early 1830s when a much earlier pub, The Bull, was demolished and the Pledwick Well Inn erected in its stead. The name, of course, refers to the ancient well to be found in the grounds. As part of the parish of Sandal Magna (which is mentioned in the Domesday Book), the settlement at Pledwick goes back to at least medieval times. (The suffix ‘wick’ in a place name can often indicate Anglo-Saxon origins and has been ascribed various interpretations including that of farm, hamlet or settlement.) We do know that the pub was one of the lots offered for sale when the Kettlethorpe Hall estate was put up for auction in 1908 with the auction catalogue referring to the pub as “the well-known Pledwick Hotel”.

Since then, there have been numerous changes of ownership and licensee, the latest being in the spring of 2019 when it was taken over by The Little Acorn Pub Company, a Wakefield-based enterprise established by the Crecraft family. It was director Anna Crecraft who invited me over to have a look at what they’ve done with the place.

The Pledwick stands some three miles outside Wakefield city centre and will prove popular with both residents from the Sandal area and with people visiting the nearby Newmillerdam with its lake and countryside walks. I’m told that Sunday lunches at the pub are particularly popular.

If you’re travelling by car, you’ll be interested to know that the pub has a large car park. Entry to the building today is via a side door off the car park, the original front entrance having long since being closed off and replaced with a window. On entering The Pledwick, you find yourself in the bar area, which has a distinctly cosy, cottage-like feel, with a large fireplace and comfy seating. Walk through the bar area and you’ll find the dining area. It’s all open plan, so you can see who’s in and, if you like people watching, you can keep an eye on all the comings and goings. There’s also a large outdoor terrace where, in more clement weather, it would have been nice to sit out overlooking the garden, but it was a quiet Tuesday evening in November 2019 when my partner and I arrived at The Pledwick and there was a smack of winter in the air, so we hastened inside.

The pub looked inviting and we received a warm welcome from barman Brandon, our waiter Richard and bar manager Alex. Once our orders for drinks and food were placed, I took the opportunity to have a look around. The establishment boasts over 12 cask ales and draught lagers, as well as bottled beers & fine wines and a generous selection of spirits which includes many craft gins and premium cocktail ingredients.

Cosy seating area by the fireside

Now, I do need to flag up that, at the time of our visit, there were changes afoot! The Pledwick had appointed a new chef who was due to start just a couple of weeks after we were there, and a new menu was in the offing. What follows, therefore, applies to the menu we sampled – do check the website for details of the current menus. If the food is as well presented as it was when we visited (and I’m sure it will be!), then you’ll not be disappointed.

Being vegetarians, we always like to see a range of vegetarian options – having one vegetarian choice which never changes isn’t really offering a ‘choice’ – and with the increasing number of vegetarian and vegan diners, all restaurants need to think about the variety of dishes they serve. It was pleasing therefore to see that the evening à la carte menu offered three vegetarian ‘light bites and sharing dishes’ and a similar number of vegetarian starters. There was only one vegetarian main course on offer but, with a mix of side dishes and the starters and sharing dishes that could be combined, vegetarians won’t go hungry. However, the new chef might want to take note! Most of the dishes marked with a ‘v’ look like they would be suitable for vegans as well, but it would be worth checking before ordering.

So, what did we have? Well, for starters, my partner opted for ‘mushrooms on toast’ – actually, pan-fried button mushrooms served on grilled ciabatta (£6.95). In the interests of research, I did, of course, take a bite out of this myself and, it’s true, dishes don’t have to be complicated to be delicious! We both enjoyed my partner’s starter! For my part, I opted for the grilled asparagus served with a crispy hen’s egg (£5.95), also very good and there was no stinting on the asparagus!

Starter for one

For the main course, we both opted for the roasted aubergine (£11.95). This came with a spiced nut crust, ‘heritage carrots’ and sun-dried tomatoes. For the omnivores amongst you, there’s quite an extensive range of meat and fish dishes, including ‘pub classics’ such as home-made steak pie and fish and chips, as well as steaks and mixed grills. Prices for main courses start at £9.95 for sausage and mash and go all the way up to £55 for a 16oz Chateau Briand – ideal for sharing between two (but only served on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays).

And so we moved on to the dessert menu, with cheesecake for me and a sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream for him.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable evening – good food, comfortable surroundings and attentive staff. As regular readers will know, Wakefield Civic Society runs a monthly Dining Club for its members. I’ve already recommended that we should take our members to The Pledwick in 2020. What finer recommendation can there be?!

Kevin and his partner dined as guests of The Pledwick.

Need to know:

The Pledwick, 434 Barnsley Road, Wakefield, WF2 6QE

Tel: 01924 255599

Email: gm@thepledwick.com

Website: www.thepledwick.com/

Opening Times:

Monday – Friday: Open from Midday

Saturday & Sunday: Open from 11am

Lunch (Monday – Saturday) 12pm – 2pm

Sunday Lunch 12pm – 7pm

Dinner (Monday – Saturday) 5pm – 9pm (NB – A newly introduced Quiz Night means that no food will be served after 6.30pm on Monday evenings. Also, please note no food is served after 7pm on Sunday)

Is our future behind us?

53 Northgate, Wakefield, as it is today – Fino Pizzeria and Cicchetti, showing the new front added to this c. 15th century building in the 1990s. Before this, it looked like the building next door to the right of the picture but its appearance today is perhaps closer to how it originally looked.

I’m going to go out on a limb here; bear with me.

As President of Wakefield Civic Society, I often find myself being asked to comment on what sort of city Wakefield should aspire to be, particularly given the apparent decline in retail and the empty shops to be seen on the high street (a problem which besets many towns and cities, of course, not just Wakefield). We need to envisage what sort of place Wakefield could be and what it can offer for residents and visitors if it is to retain any sense of vibrancy and vitality.

Creating that vision for Wakefield isn’t quite as easy as it looks. In trying to think about the future, it’s only natural to think about the past. What makes the city unique and distinctive, certainly in terms of the physical fabric of the buildings and street layout, is steeped in its history.

We know that Wakefield has existed as a place of settlement for over a thousand years (it was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086). It made its reputation (and much of its money) through the textile industry, quarrying, coalmining and, of course, as a market town. It was a centre for both trade and administration and, in the 19th century, prior to the arrival and eventual dominance of the railways, it was a thriving inland port. In 1472, King Edward IV of England established the Council of the North, an administrative body created not only to maintain the king’s peace in the North but also to stimulate economic growth. The Council of the North was based in Sheriff Hutton and Wakefield (Sandal Castle) before finally moving to York. Later, Wakefield became the administrative capital of the West Riding of Yorkshire

Peter Brears’ book – the front cover features an illustration showing how the bread booths on Bread Street might have looked.

As such an important centre in both commercial and administrative terms, it is perhaps not surprising that the streets and yards were lined with some fairly impressive buildings. A new book, The Buildings of Tudor and Stuart Wakefield, by historian Peter Brears (£19.95, published by Wakefield Historical Publications) reveals just how fine those medieval buildings were. (The book is, incidentally, a really useful resource for anyone interested in the history of the city and one I can wholeheartedly recommend.)

The Black Swan in Silver Street, Wakefield

Sadly, many of those timber-framed buildings are lost to us having been demolished to make way for new properties more suitable to the ‘modern age’. Few examples remain but the Black Swan in Silver Street has managed to hang on, looking more or less as it might have done back in the day, while other survivors are a little less obvious, having been hidden by more recent stone or brick fronts. Such an example is the run of buildings at 53-57 Northgate which at one time would have been one house, according to Brears’ book, but which was subsequently divided into separate properties. No. 53 was given a replica front in the early 1990s to take it back to how it might have looked in the 15th century (plate glass windows notwithstanding) while its neighbours retain the stone fronts (see photo above).

Pastiche? Certainly. But people seem to love it and behind that relatively new front, itself now nearly 30 years old, their lies a genuinely old building, that dates back to at least the fifteenth or early 16th century. The year ‘1596’ moulded into the plaster ceiling of the upper floor is probably the date of an internal re-ordering carried out maybe a hundred years or so after the house was first built.

The former Golden Cock Inn, 31 Westgate, Wakefield. Demolished in 1963.

In Westgate, there stood the Golden Cock Inn. This early 17th century building stood for over 300 years, eventually being demolished in 1963 and some readers may well remember it, not as a pub but as a couple of shops. According to Brears’  book, the building was recorded in photographs as it was taken down and at least some of the timbers were taken into store by Wakefield Museum so that the building could be re-built at some point in the future.

Well, that rebuilding hasn’t happened – and I have no idea whether the timbers have survived. But what if they have? Could the building be recreated? Even if none of the original timbers survive or are usable, would it be viable to build a copy of the Golden Cock Inn and possibly other buildings that have been lost to us?

There is the problem of finding somewhere to erect such buildings. The Golden Cock Inn certainly couldn’t go on the original site – that is now occupied by modern shops – albeit of fairly undistinguished design, typical of the 1960s. So a new site would need to be found – but that shouldn’t be too difficult; there are plenty of empty plots in the city centre, many used as ‘temporary’ car parks.

The site of the Golden Cock Inn as it looks today.

If you follow the conversations about Wakefield that take place on social media, you will be aware that there is huge interest in the history of the city and its built heritage – both in the buildings that are extant and the ones now extinct. Many people, it seems, would like to go back to the past, at least for a poke around. Some very much regret the passing of the buildings that we have lost. Photos are poured over and memories shared. All too often, the developers, planners and councillors who presided over this post-war destruction of our city centre get the blame – sometimes a little harshly: the Victorians probably demolished as much of the city centre as did the planners and developers of the post-war period (although the Victorians replaced the buildings they destroyed with new edifices that are aesthetically pleasing and which have stood the test of time in contrast to much of our 1960s’ ‘cookie-cutter’ architecture.

Now, I don’t really want to suggest that Wakefield’s future lies entirely in the past. We need to be a thoroughly modern, digitally connected city that is outward looking and facing up to the challenges ahead. But we also need to create the sort of city centre that is attractive to residents and appealing to visitors. We should be looking to create, or more accurately, recreate, the local distinctiveness we have been in danger of losing in recent years: let’s make something which people will take to their hearts and be proud of; something in fact that they will not only want to see for themselves but will want to show off to their friends and family who have the bad luck to live somewhere else!

One way of doing this would be to rebuild perhaps just one street with replicas or reconstructions of some of the timber-framed houses and shops that would have once been so evident across the city. Whether they be used as museum pieces for people to explore or as premises for people to live in and work from I leave for future discussion. Done well (and avoiding what I sometimes call ‘the Disneyfication of heritage’ – none of this ‘Ye Olde Worlde’ nonsense please!), the project could have great potential to stimulate interest not only in our own history but in history and architecture more generally. There could be school projects linked to the enterprise; community workshops, writing and art classes and so on. Heavens, there might even be a TV series in it. Visitors would come a-flocking, I’m sure.

Now, I’m not usually one for suggesting we build old stuff (and if I was, I’d be recommending we go for something in Art Deco rather than medieval style), but horses for courses and as a learning and research project that could involve the community, I’m in.

If there’s anyone out there with the resources and enthusiasm to make this happen and the clout to make it a reality, I’ll be right behind you….

A Question of Identity

Identity (noun): the characteristics that determine who or what a person, thing (or place) is.

Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? We recognise people, things and places by their identifying and sometimes unique characteristics. While we might not spend much time thinking about it, we all, to some extent or other, shape our own identities not only as individuals but also as members of wider groups and organisations through the roles we take on.

What we wear, what we say and do, the values and beliefs we hold, the interests and hobbies we follow, how we vote, where we live, where we work: all are part of our identity. Some of these characteristics are mutable, changing over time with the passing fashions (as we give ourselves a bit of a makeover) or because of changes in our circumstances. Meanwhile, other aspects of our identity are such an intrinsic part of our nature that they just are: the colour of our skin, our eyes and the (natural) colour of our hair, for example. Taken together, all these aspects of our identity affect not only how we see and understand ourselves but also how others see, and know, us.

Developing brand identity

This is also true for organisations and businesses where branding, design and marketing play such a large part in establishing the identity and reputation of the goods and services they have to offer. However, in an increasingly global economy, making sense of a brand’s identity can be more complicated than it first appears. You only have to think of famous British car marques such as Rolls Royce, Bentley and Jaguar, none of which is any longer British owned, to see the problem. Does foreign ownership, and possibly foreign manufacture (even if only of some of the parts), make these brands less British? Do the name and brand transcend such factors as ownership and place of origin, or do foreign ownership and manufacture trammel any claim to Britishness?

Like for Like – but is it the same?

The loss of the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building to fire in June 2018, just a few months ahead of its scheduled re-opening following the earlier fire of 2014, was a terrible blow, not only to the institution and the city but also to anyone who admires the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). As we now know, some parts of the surviving structure were so badly damaged that they were deemed unstable and had to be taken down. The good news is that there appears to be sufficient enthusiasm (and presumably funding) to see the building rise from the ashes yet again. But will it be the same: will its ‘identity’ survive or will the new building and its contents be no more than copies of what was lost?

The Mackintosh Building isn’t the first ‘heritage asset’ to be damaged by fire and no doubt it won’t be the last. When significant buildings in the public eye are damaged, undertakings to rebuild and restore often follow, subject to money being found to cover the costs – and those costs will be substantial – vide Notre Dame Cathedral. Re-instating architectural features takes time and craftsmanship which can be hugely expensive; repairing, re-making or sourcing suitable replacement furnishings, fabrics and artworks likewise. Inevitably, people ask whether or not the expense is really justified, particularly when there are so many other causes that require funding and investment.

The National Trust suffered a major fire at Uppark in 1989 and initiated a major restoration project. When HM The Queen suffered her own annus horribilis in 1992 culminating in the fire at Windsor Castle, a restoration project was launched – and the result is possibly better than the original. However, after the fire at Clandon Park in 2015 (also National Trust), a decision was taken to rebuild and reimagine the property, rather than to faithfully restore it, at least in the short-term.  

While there is a strong case to be made for rebuilding and restoration after serious loss, we need to keep in mind that what we are left with after restoration work is completed won’t be what it was before. No matter how carefully the work is done and no matter the trouble and care taken to source authentic materials and to use original building methods, the newly restored building or artefact will to some extent be a copy of what was there before. It might look the same, it might even be better than what was there before, but it won’t be the same as what was there before. What does this say for the historical significance of the building (or an artefact) that has been restored? Can it claim to be what it once was? Is its identity intact or has it in some way been transmuted?

Antique or reproduction?

The antique trade is a mix of authentic antiques, copies (which may themselves be antique in origin) modern reproductions and, occasionally, fraudulent fakes. If you know what you are looking at, all is well, particularly if you’re thinking of buying it. The problems arise when modern copies (or fakes) are passed off as originals. Sometimes, a reproduction or copy will suffice for our needs, especially if the item is offered at a big discount over the cost of an original item. And copies can achieve their own identity: Michelangelo’s sculpture of David outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence is probably seen and photographed more frequently, despite being a replica, than the original which has been located in the Galleria dell’Accademia since 1873. Visit a stately home and it’s not unheard of to find yourself looking at a copy of an artwork, the original having been auctioned off to raise funds for the family that once lived in the house or to pay for restoration work to the property.

A new broom

There are different versions of this ‘thought experiment’ but they raise the same basic conundrum about identity. In the simplest terms the discussion can be based on what happens with a yard broom. If the head wears out and is replaced, it’s still the same yard broom and good for a few more years. But what happens when you eventually need to replace the handle as well? Is it still the same yard broom when it has acquired both a new head and then later a new handle? Is it the usage that gives it the provenance rather than the parts? What if you kept the old head and then attached it to the old handle so you had a second broom made of the original parts: which one is the more authentic yard broom?

Genius Loci

The identity of a place arises in part from its geography and location, and in part from its history and traditions, often made visible through its architecture, street layout and so on. People imbue a place with cultural and social resonance (and sometimes, dissonance): they give a place character, memory and personality. Collectively, these factors create what we might call local distinctiveness.  But such qualities change over time. As traditional skills and industries wain and perhaps disappear or demographic change occurs, our towns and cities change and evolve too. They always have, and they always will. Old buildings get demolished or repurposed, new housing gets built, sometimes on a massive scale, and new infrastructure is laid out.

Local versus Global

Within the civic society movement, I’d like to think that we have a role to play in shaping or maintaining the local distinctiveness of the places where we live – but it’s not getting any easier! Is it even possible to preserve the local distinctiveness when national housebuilders seem intent on using the same standard designs right across the land, or when high streets and retail parks feature the same identikit store chains, each with their own national and sometimes international branding? One Ikea warehouse looks very much like any other Ikea warehouse with their blue sheds and yellow lettering wherever they are built in the world.

In fact, as we accept the benefits of global consumerism, should we just give up on the idea of local identity and distinctiveness? Should we be prepared to forsake the notion of local identity and admit that the new vernacular isn’t local but global?

After all, the general population, and I count our civic society members among them, seems willing to drive cars that look the same across the world; to wear globally branded clothing; to rely on a few big international companies to supply their technology; and their tastes in food are increasingly cosmopolitan, as evidenced by the range of foodstuffs that are now available on the shelves of our supermarkets and the variety of restaurants in our high streets that offer culinary styles from around the world.

Yes, let’s make life easy for ourselves! Let’s abandon notions of local identity and, in accepting that we are all part of one human race, embrace an international design code, even if that means one town or city will increasingly look like the next? If all our towns and cities look alike, at least we’ll no longer need to travel to see them all, which should do wonders for our carbon footprint!

[This is an updated version of an article I originally wrote for the Summer 2018 edition of Society Insight, the newsletter of YHACS, the Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Societies.]