Priestley travelled from London to Southampton to Tyneside, via Bristol, Swindon, the Cotswolds, Coventry, Birmingham, the Black Country, Leicester, Nottingham, the West Riding, Liverpool, Blackpool and Manchester. He returned to London through eastern England – the Tees, York, Hull, Lincoln and Norfolk. Some of these places I’ve never visited. Others, such as Birmingham, the Cotswolds and York I have a fair acquaintance with. Whilst Bristol is a kind of second home and is a city about which I’d have much to say! I’d also like to make a detour to add two places, Sidmouth and Poundbury to this itinerary.
Sidmouth is my favourite town in the whole of Britain. Everything there is NICE! It seems that to live there you’d probably have to be a millionaire and at least seventy. Gentile, wealthy and exclusive, it’s a joy to be in such a place, devoid by in large of dismal, or slightly threatening, unloved and unlovely people. It retains much from its gracious hey day - the glorious ‘Esplanade,’ cricket and bowls played on velvet lawns, flower bordered parks, ‘Am-Dram’ at ‘The Manor Pavilion,’ ‘Fields Department Store’ (‘For Service As It Used To Be,’) and good old fashioned shops such as ‘Trumps ‘(‘Serving Sidmouth Since 1813.’)
Poundbury is the Prince Charles’ planned village and town just outside Dorchester. The village is fine, but the town a horrible orange and cream brick blot on the lovely Dorset landscape. It’s particularly awful when viewed from the slopes of nearby Maiden Castle hill fort. What could have gone so wrong here, founded as it is on the Prince’s noble architectural ideas and principles?
What will I find on my travels? Gone I’m sure, is the postindustrial gritty England of blackened fields, poisoned rivers and squalid towns such as Jarrow and Hebburn. I’m certain too that the Black Country is no longer black and doesn’t resemble ‘the smouldering carpet’ that Priestley saw from the ramparts of Dudley Castle. I expect these places to have the dull, soulless uniformity of mini roundabouts, inner relief ring roads, tower blocks, car parks, industrial estates and big name franchised shops, cafes and restaurants. However, I might be pleasantly surprised at something positive and good which will confound my expectations.
There have been changes in the past twenty years that I’ve noticed in my home town of Brecon, which I’m sure will be mirrored in countless other towns throughout the country. The first big change was when a splendid new inner relief ring road was built. Then the ancient livestock market was moved out of town to an industrial estate, which meant that the High Street and the indoor market, once so busy, went into decline, because farmers’ wives stayed away, now that their husbands were conducting their business elsewhere. Then three big supermarkets were built, with their car parks spread over the remnants of old orchards and gardens. The centre of town has also been partially pedestrianised and one by one, small independently owned shops have closed, to be replaced by dull franchised businesses and retail outlets of the big chains – the type you can find everywhere from Arbroath to Penzance. The commercial forces that drive these changes seem unstoppable, certainly not by groups of well intentioned, caring local people, nor the local council or The Brecon Beacons National Parks Authority. And so a once prosperous, gracious and elegant Regency county town is slowly turning into somewhere like Slough.
However, whilst most local towns have declined, some, like Hay on Wye, have prospered. There house prices have remained high and an almost complete ‘Nottinghillification’ of trendy, bijou shops and restaurants has occurred. Ten years ago, the town had a pub that was world famous for being frozen in a fifty year old time warp. Now, with new owners, it proudly advertises itself as ‘probably having the best food outside London!’