Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

Dear Reader, much as I love taking you around my beloved Red Rose county, I ought to confess that I occasionally enjoy trips across the Pennines to Yorkshire. They brew such delicious beer over there, you see. It was in Sheffield (ahead of a Boxing Day match) that I first discovered the delights of real ale and I’ve had a weakness for Yorkshire-brewed ales ever since. So with Blackpool playing at Bradford City, I decided a wacky weekender in West Yorkshire was in order. 

The secrets of budget travel are starting to come back to me and I was thrilled to find return travel from Birmingham to Leeds was only £10.10 via Megabus (with my student discount). Armed with a bagful of healthy food, I boarded the bus at 1515 on Friday afternoon and settled back in my seat. The bus was due in at 1840 and I was hoping it would be on time so I could go and see an old school variety show at the City Varieties Music Hall, hosted by Billy Pearce (aware that’s a very Blackpool thing to do). Sadly, the M1 (being closed) had other ideas…and I landed in Leeds closer to 10pm, after six-and-a-half hours on the bus. By now in no mood to play out, I retired straight to my hotel, determined to make the most of tomorrow. 

I bounced out of bed early on Saturday morning, opening the blinds in my ninth-floor room to reveal a panoramic cityscape of Leeds. I messaged my friend to arrange our rendezvous and plotted my route to her hotel on Google maps, looking out of the window to see the 3D map. To kill a little time before heading out, I turned on the tv. Now I seldom turn on tvs in hotel rooms, preferring instead to listen to music as I dance about getting ready for bed or ready to head out; however I was now sick of my Adelitas Way playlist, having played it to death on my long bus journey. After I had finally managed to figure out the remote (equally as difficult as working a hotel shower or closing a Travelodge window), I flicked through the channels in search of the ‘normal’ terrestrial channels. But could I find them, dear reader? I found Babestation and Gay Rabbit, neither of which were not quite the Saturday Morning Kitchen type thing I had in mind. Russia Today, BBC News… Now I fully expect this sort of channel weirdness in overseas hotels…but this was Leeds for goodness’ sake! This sort of thing might have affected my vote in the referendum. We want our tv back!  That aside, the hotel was surprisingly pleasant, despite uncomfortable pillows – and, as I’ve mentioned, the view was excellent. 

It was a beautiful morning (not too warm but not cold) and I smiled as I passed some delightful examples of architecture, including the John Lewis building and the Corn Exchange. I found myself whistling as I walked, fully aware that I was feeling Mighty fine today and in good mental health now I’ve got Blackpool FC (love of my life, my muse) back in my life. During the wilderness years I felt so low, eyes always down on the ground, crying on bus journeys (I’d have been disconsolate with yesterday’s debacle), lost and alone. What was life without my Blackpool, my world, my inspiration? I wasn’t inspired to write (my other great love in life) and my head was filled with stress and disenchantment. I certainly wasn’t whistling or noticing the beauty in everyday surroundings. 

Now my eyes were drawn to The Cat’s Pyjamas, an Indian street food and craft beer place http://www.thecatspjs.co.uk. It wasn’t open yet but I made a mental note to factor it in later if possible. I arrived in the reception of Leeds City Travelodge early and browsed through their Yorkshire tourist literature before messaging my friend to let her know I had arrived. A few minutes later I received a call asking where I was. Well I’m in your hotel reception as arranged. But apparently I wasn’t. There are two Travelodges called Leeds City and apparently she wasn’t in the one surrounded by Thai massage parlours (which I had been planning to query with her). So off I trotted back across town to meet at the revised rendezvous point of Leeds railway station. 

We finally met up in Marks & Spencer on the station, where we stocked up on food for the day. Diets are far more easily managed, I find, if you are armed with healthy food at all times. We checked the departure board and strode off to board a new shiny train to Shipley, home of our pre-match entertainment for the day. I just had enough time to eat my salad before it was time to disembark. 

We were heading first to Salts Mill (http://saltsmill.org.uk) – a former textile mill now converted into an art gallery, shopping centre and restaurant complex. We took a pleasant 20-minute walk along the Leeds Liverpool Canal from Shipley to the mill in Saltaire. After an Earl Grey in one of the many cafes in the complex, we proceeded to explore the galleries and shops at leisure. We enjoyed David Hockney’s work in the 1853 Gallery, including impressive works with the most beautiful colours of spring, created on an iPad. We also enjoyed learning about the history of the mill and could only imagine how hot it must have been in here for the mill workers, the walls being over a foot thick. The building itself is a mightily impressive massive structure and well worth a visit. 

Whilst we could have stayed here all day, the pub and our friends were calling, so we strolled back along the canal to Shipley. We had arranged to meet in The Fox (http://www.thefoxshipley.co.uk), the local of one of our Yorkshire Seasider friends. Yet Shipley is also home to the Saltaire Brewery Tap (http://www.saltairebrewery.com) – and I am particularly partial to their Triple Choc(oholic). Hmm decisions decisions. We headed for the Fox of course to join our fellow Seasiders. And what a delightful little pub this is. There were a good selection of handpulls, including beers brewed onsite in the Beespoke Brewery. Our host Chris Bee is a Blackpool man, this being another good reason to support this fine hostelry. I chose the Beespoke Bopperlula bitter, which was so delicious I had to have a few to check it kept its flavour as the barrel emptied (it did). They even put a buffet on for the visiting Seasiders, which was a lovely touch. Unfortunately our lifestyles have caught up with many of us these past few years, and we didn’t quite manage to polish off all the pork pie, which would have been wolfed down in the pre-wilderness years. Goodness knows we’ve even taken up running since we were last at a match. How much we had all changed over just a few years. 

Here we were surrounded by friends from across the UK (and Thailand) and it was delightfully easy to relax into the familiar company of friends not seen for years. Perhaps I am not the only one guilty of assuming we would simply always have this community and have in the past taken that for granted. Having not had this for a good few years I don’t think any of us will ever take that for granted again. Today I made sure I took the time to speak with everybody and found the experience all the richer for that. I’ve bloody missed my Seasiders football family. As usual we talked about anything but the football: kittens, Cards Against Humanity…and what we’d all been up to these past few years. Some of us found a football fix elsewhere, others finding other hobbies to immerse themselves into, such as music; and others carried on going to matches. What mattered now was that we are all back together now; this special community has reformed and bonded closer than ever before. Every cloud…

We caught the train to Bradford Forster Square then made the short walk to Valley Parade. Outside the ground stood a fanzine seller, offering back issues of the legendary City Gent for a bargain £1 each, so I bought two. I edited the Blackpool fanzine, Another View From The Tower (AVFTT) for many years, spending hours collating material and funnies, before selling them in all weathers outside Bloomfield Road. Consequently I have every respect for fellow fanzine editors/sellers and will always buy one (or two) if I see them. 

There was a long queue at the away turnstile for those not having purchased their tickets in advance (which would have saved them a fiver). I was kicking myself for not checking if they offered student discount on tickets – they do, which could have saved me another fiver. I’m so out of the habit of paying to get into football matches now, I think I need retraining. 

The concourse was filled with familiar faces and it was just as if we had never been away. Heading up into the stand, I scoured the crowd for my friend, who I had lost whilst chatting on the concourse, and was greeted with the beaming face of yet another good old friend who was waving at me frantically in greeting. It sure was great to be back. Another friend pointed and mouthed ‘she’s over there!’ and I found her in good time for kick-off. 

Now. I don’t know if you’ve discovered Mascots Minute Silence on Twitter (@MascotSilence) but I urge you to check it out. That said, it completely ruined/made today’s minute’s silence for me, as I found myself inadvertently chuckling at the Bradford City mascot Billy Bantam as he took place in the solemn line-up dressed as a big chicken. 

The match was a delight to behold. It was end-to-end stuff, with good skills on display from each side. I’m beginning to know the players (although appreciate that will take time) and today particularly delighted in Jay Spearing’s pinpoint long-range passing. I also liked the look of Marc Bola – I always did have a soft spot for an attaching full-back (a Blackpool tradition, after all). Christoffer Mafoumbi excelled in goal and saved a penalty (his specialism, I hear). The atmosphere in the away end was electric, the Blackpool fans singing throughout, lifted by the team, who were in turn lifted by the singing fans. It seems the bond between fans and players is beginning to form. 

Ian Holloway has been slated for saying he would have stuck with the club and got behind the team during the years of troubles. In reality that would not have been easy. Indeed I found it impossible – not for political NAPM reasons, but because of how it was making me feel: crying inside grounds, no longer looking forward to going to matches, indeed almost dreading them – and feeling displaced, unwanted, unloved. Ollie was naive in his comments. After all, did he stay to see it through? And yet I understand where he was coming from – viewing the situation from the perspective of the dressing room. Having worked in football myself these last couple of years, I have begun to view the game from different perspectives. Players are sensitive human beings and want the love and support of the fans. This trouble has affected us all in many different ways.  How hard must it have been for them these past few years? Of course it has never been easy playing for Blackpool, battling with the high winds and the hellhole that is Squires Gate for training. But how much harder must it have been for them, with such little support from the stands when they have only been trying to do their jobs? And how strange must it be for them now we are all back and experiencing this love-in, rekindling friendships and making new pals, and them possibly not feeling part of that? Are we so busy high-fiving and embracing each other that we are in danger of forgetting the players and the manager and getting down to our job of supporting them?  Today we sang familiar songs, but why sing about Ludo Sylvestre and not Armand Gnanduillet-rhymes-with-Madame-Cholet?

Duly exhilarated after a rampant 4-1 victory, we skipped back to the station, where we boarded a train back to Leeds. Of course a post-match victory pint was in order, which was enjoyed in The Pack Horse in the form of a Theakstons Old Peculier. This was quite a loud pub (yes, dear reader, I’ve got old since we were last acquainted!) but the natives were friendly, as one has come to expect in the North (even on this side of the Pennines). One man at the bar offered to buy me a pint if I could down mine in one. Not being 100% certain that there would be a working toilet on my bus journey home, I declined his kind offer with a laugh. 

I stocked up on food in Marks & Spencer in case my bus journey turned into another seven-hour epic (the journey is getting longer every time I speak of it, so expect it to have taken 12 hours the next time we meet). That couldn’t happen again, surely? Well this time the bus took its usual route, via Manchester…and the M6. Which was shut. It was all going so well until we hit Stafford, where we slowed to a crawl for the best part of an hour. At least this time I was semi-prepared and immersed myself in a couple of episodes of Professor T, an amusing Belgian crime drama which is worth checking out on Walter Presents on All 4. 

Of course I missed my last bus home from Birmingham but there’s no point crying about these things so I boarded a bus that would take me part way, before ordering an Uber – oops no, the app was down…best jump in that black cab over there – and arriving home only half an hour later than I was expecting to. Boy was I tired after all that travelling – but it had been an epic weekend back in the fold. And all was not lost on the variety show front, either, as the following day I attended (and performed at) an open mic night, which included singers, musicians, poets, a dancer and even a magician! So, despite the hours spent (not wasted) on motorways this weekend, I still make it a win – and I already can’t wait for the next one. #UTMP

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