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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, January 27, 2006
    Enduring hardship is what builds a life
    The Romans built the road we took this morning, the A640, bouncing us above Scammonden Water and winding us gently across the 70mph chain gang of the M62 on the bridge by Owlet Edge.

    Yorkshire is used to incomers. Which was clear to us, as we travelled the A644 Huddersfield Road which runs beneath The College of the Resurrection (founded a century ago by missionary Anglo-Catholics with a desire to relocate from Oxford 'to grimy, smoky, industrial Yorkshire to live the monastic life.') Which was clear to us, as we stood outside Dewsbury Minster reflecting on the story of St Paulinus, who travelled all the way from St Andrew's monastery in Rome to make his home in the rugged North Country. And which was affirmed to us by the accepting glances of all those locals who we encountered on our two Dewsbury walks today, three clear outsiders led at pace by Jim with a West Yorkshire A-Z swinging inside his plastic map wallet up and down the old mill roads of this town which Rose George used to call Nearleeds, 'because no-one had actually heard of Dewsbury'.

    Clearly, this Yorkshire town was actually built by incomers. And is still being built by incomers. We could perceive this when walking round the predominantly Asian Savile Town, whilst noting that Dewsbury's ancestral family probably arrived from Sevielle, Normandy in the time of the Conquest. It seemed that the majority of people passing us in quiet, run-down Savile Town were building new lives in a new land - a woman in a black burqa holding the hand of her young daughter dressed in blue denim, men dressed in thobes moving between small shopfront businesses in streets dominated by views down to the vast white sheds of multinational chain stores. What you wear is who you are, notes Jim.

    Nothing threatening here, to us tourists. Though nothing need ever threaten tourists - we only stayed long enough for a couple of meanders punctuated by a pint of Black Sheep and a truly wonderful lamb casserole in the West Riding gastropub. Towns built by incomers must be full of tensions, and Rose George's article carefully details some of the things which must make it a challenge to anyone to be building a life in Dewsbury. But we enjoyed our day, loved the town-centre buildings and remnants of old mills created a century ago by industrialists who were proud of their place and bequested it some structures of lasting beauty, hated the cheap steel corporate eyesores (Asda, B&Q, CarpetRight...) which have colonised the valley in the years since Thatcher sanctioned the separation of capital gains from civic responsibility.

    Back in Liverpool Jim gave me something of his to read - Snapshots of the Eighteenth Century, a 28-page paper which documents in some detail some of the privations of workers the world over in that era. On the cover he has juxtaposed two pictures: one of West Indies sugar plantation workers, and the other of Coal Whippers working barges on the River Thames - brutal, backbreaking work for both sets of wage-slaves. It reminds me of one of our lines of conversation today - the old woollen mills may look beautiful to us now, but when they were working Dewsbury would have seemed like hell to those inside. Then as now, enduring hardship is what builds a life for incomers and natives alike.