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My Wakefield by John Beckett

I think it was always on Mondays that the soap suds blew across the Calder Bridge at the bottom of Kirkgate in Wakefield. It might have been Tuesdays, because it took a full day for all the washing water to drain into the Calder. This is because Monday was washing day.

Still, that was the late 1950ís, and that was me as a child marvelling at the suds blowing on to the bus windows as it clattered its way up to the bus station, and past the Chantry Bridge Chapel. Nobody bothered about the suds, but it did have its magical side. The world appeared grey then, but when you are a kid you pick up on these things.

I was on my way to school from Kirkthorpe, via Heath Common, daily into the centre of Wakefield. It was great being allowed to travel on the bus on your own aged under 10. You could make concertinas with your different coloured bus tickets if you folded them correctly, especially if you had the nerve to scramble about on the floor of the bus, or raided the Used Tickets box. You could even go upstairs for grandstand views. Then you whistled Elvis tunes to show you were up to the latest trend, though Lonnie Donegan was bigger than Elvis in Wakefield then.

 

Wakefield Cathedral

Upstairs on the bus you looked out on Kirkgate, up the side street next to Boot's The Chemist, where Almshouse Lane Baths were, The Cathedral, The Bull Ring, which was at least a roundabout then, where you were told that in medieval times bull baiting took place, and then finally into the bus station. Then a five-minute walk to school.

Sometimes you got off the bus early and walked past the Cathedral into the Springs where Mum always bought sausages at Redmans and Zieglers. Your destination was the Old Market Hall, where you noticed the stallholders setting up inside and outside. You passed the Cathedral School for bigger kids very quickly to avoid the bullies, the vegetable market, and then arrived at St Austinís on Vicarage Street.

This was a special place to me, an all through age 5-15 pupils School, with fearsome teachers and nuns whom you admired, a school linked to your Parish Church about a mile away up Northgate, near the Art Gallery even now, and fairly near Queen Elizabeth Grammar School.

Our school was neatly sandwiched between the Wakefield slaughterhouse, the Vegetable Market and the Iron Foundry (if you sneaked over the 6 foot boundary wall at dinnertime, you could get valuable pieces of sandstone - highly prized - to take home), and Jacobís Well Lane, a complete mystery to me as to what well was found there, though there was a pub.

At school on Mondays you paid 5 shillings dinner money, and then you had school bank, before the Catechism from the visiting priest. Playtime was great fun at the school, but you always declined an offer of a bullís eye from any kid, what with the slaughterhouse and all.

You collected Brooke Bond tea cards, had PE in the Territorial Army Drill Hall, where the teachers threw medicine balls at you, and you ate dinners served from large silver tins.

Yes, Wakefield was a different town then, more funÖI know now that it had hardly changed since the 1920ís and 30ís. Cars were unusual. Everybody walked or bussed it, and it was always raining, adding a special quality all of its own. You knew your way around the back streets then, the quick way to the library on Drury Lane - where you went twice on Saturdays, having read your regulation two books at a time. Later I discovered the reference section, and even the stack where you could read newspapers, which came out on the day you were born.

Wakefield was my universe then. You had everything. Wakefield Trinity were top of the world, the best team ever, and even 'This Sporting Life' was filmed there, no need for Hollywood even. We even had our own skiffle band at school - some big lads came round the classes and played.

I liked to delay my journey home from school to go to the Wakefield Museum on Wood Street, a street which had special stone faced buildings like the town and County Hall and the Assizes Courts - made such a change from black smoke covered red bricks.

The Museum was an amazing place where you saw a bust of a Roman Emperor, occupying a plinth on the stairs, though he never came to Wakefield apparently.

 

This led me to Rome later, but it was in that Museum I learned about Wakefieldís greatest treasure - its castle at Sandal, its link with the flow of English history, its battle in 1460, fought beneath its walls, and the death of Richard Plantagenet for losing the battle in such a foolhardy manner.

In the museum you could see the castle as it was, and this allowed a better appreciation of the topography of the site, which remains.

On Saturdays, you could go with your mates to Sun Lane Baths - all day - end up with wrinkled fingers and a hot cup of Bovril, having dared yourself to jump off the top diving board, and failed - all for a couple of bob. Or you could go roller-skating at the rink in the old Corn Exchange on Westgate. I like Westgate in particular for the two cinemas- the Playhouse and the Essoldo, though I was an ABC Minor for a while at the Regal on Kirkgate. It was in Wakefield I saw 'The Ten Commandments', 'Ben Hur' and 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' for the first time with my parents.

I remember my first residential school visit - at Wakefield Seaside School at Hornsea - itís still there. I went when Del Shannon was at number one with 'Runaway'. Everything changed after that trip. I left St Austinís for the Grammar School in Leeds, even the bus left without me, as my parents were picking me up in the car. I distinctly remember it. And I remember Wakefield very fondly. It made me.

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