There is a suburban rural delight to Great Ayton, a paradox of semi-detached houses set amongst green grey mountains. Cottages and stone bridges. The first show is at the Velveteen Rabbit Luncheon Club, diners eat their starters and mains before heading down into the basement for my first set. People sit in respectful silence, some doze, others are drunk. Dessert upstairs and then a shortened second set where the audience has dwindled and the sleepy eyes of those who remain tell of some fine food and drink consumed and the cosy friendship found in a Saturday evening meal. My billet is the spare room in Elaine Palmer’s house, it’s a room where I strangely sleep best. The enveloping mattress combined with the clean paint and angular corners relax my mind. The next day I get out of bed about 9am – unprecedented for me.
We weave our way across the North Yorkshire Moors to Lastingham. Mist draws heavy and thick across the road. Pilgrim crosses of sedimentary rock stand like ghostly figures to the side, abstract monoliths of stone jut out from the ground further into the bracken (it’s impossible to tell if they are ancient or modern from the warmth of this speeding car), sheep with their heads down chew industriously and oblivious on the short grass. The autumnal weather is perfect for our arrival at the Butcher’s Arms and the ensuing roast dinner. We explore the church opposite after our lunch. A celebration of the northern saints is emblazoned on portable triptychs explaining the roles of Patrick, Cedd, Chad, Aiden, Columba and Cuthbert. The tenth century crypt is peaceful and illuminated by the flicker of votive candles. I find the cold ruins of what can classically be described as Celtic crosses, Saxon in design but suggestive of a Viking acceptance. The remnants of a huge Celtic Cross sits against an ancient funeral bier and it is vast, greater than the span of my arms outstretched. I am struck with an earthy and primal feeling, I think of the moors we have just crossed, the damp and the cold; I think of Cedd leaving Lastingham for the coast and his sea journey to Bradwell in Essex and his church that still stands there, built on top of a Roman fort purloined by the pirate Carausius centuries before, so many histories interconnected and woven into place.
A dash back across the moors to Middlesbrough. Elaine drives us through Marton into the city centre where kids congregate around police cars in empty petrol station forecourts. The rain is persistent and heavy and it’s dark. The lights from the University of Teesside logo splash briefly onto the Westgarth Social Club. Reminiscent of a Russian doll we enter into a small atrium and walk up a set of stairs into a dark and empty social club before walking up a narrower set of stairs into an attic bedecked with fairy lights, books and bunting. The collective that is Spooker Rekkids have created a transcendental space, it’s a beautiful dream and reflects what can be done when people want to create with their communities. I warm the room up for Elaine who plays her best.
I sleep well again and am disturbed in the morning by the rag and bone man walking down the street calling out. At first I think he is mentally ill until it is explained to me that he walks an alert around the neighbourhood before the van shows up. In Essex they simply ring a bell as they drive around the streets.
I have a whole day to kill before I need to be in Leeds. First stop is Stokesley in the Ridings of Yorkshire. I exhaust what the market town has to offer in less than two hours. I drink a costa coffee and read my book, the barista keen to chat and find out my story. I mooch around a couple of charity shops, James Herriot is branded here and there. Everyone in the street is older than me by twenty years or more, I pick up on the rhythm of the day here in Stokesley. A half an hour drive and I enter Boroughbridge, skirting Thirsk in favour of a battle site. I have recently read a book on Roger Mortimer, the First Earl of March in which the Battle of Boroughbridge was mentioned. Edward II faced the Earl of Lancaster at the Bridge here and the grim detail of the Earl of Hereford being stabbed in the anus by a Welshman with a halberd from underneath the bridge is forefront in my mind as I watch the River Ure tumble and froth below me. It’s raining heavy but I linger on the bridge, a retirement home sits on the banks, elderly ladies in the warmth are being served tea by a blue jerkined carer.
I move further into the high street. People aren’t smiling and the elderly man in the tourist office, some form of sarcoma on his temple, looks wary when I offer my surprise that there is a Roman fort here in Boroughbridge too. “This is Yorkshire”, he says without a hint of humour, “we have everything”. He does point me in the direction of three ancient stones (2700 BC) called the Devil’s Arrows. I head off and am met with a bewildered non-committal response by the local butcher when I enquire if I am near them. “I don’t know what they are” he says. The sausage roll is excellent however. Five minutes’ walk from the butcher, in a claggy field by the motorway, stand three obelisk like stones with deep striated grooves. Two of the stones stand barely a hundred metres from a new housing development proclaiming 3, 4 and 5 bedroom houses. The contrast flaws me, the most ancient against the most modern, never have I felt so in the present. I kick around Boroughbridge a little longer, the café I sit in is silent and there are stern faces all around. The rain gets heavier, the atmosphere more claustrophobic. It’s liberating to leave.
I fritter another two hours in the car park at Weatherby Services reading a magazine. For once the journey into Leeds is easy and I sit in my car waiting for the ticket machine to turn over to 6pm for cheap parking. I’m in the gay quarter and I watch a drag queen cross the road in a silver sequined dress with a foot high purple beehive. This place is frenetic and the energy constant. A Monday night in Leeds, wilder than most weekends in Southend for sure. The show at Oporto goes OK. It’s muted in the performance space, the opening act struggling with a dead guitar, the second act equally struggling with a dead lead while the bar area is alive with the loud chatter of students on the Monday night lash. My friend Tre turns up to take me home and I nearly drive us both into oncoming traffic by jumping a red light I didn’t see.
I sleep terribly, I fall asleep around 2am only to be woken at 3.41am and there I lay in state listening to the neighbour shut the side door of his van at 4.09am and drive off to wherever. The white noise of traffic becomes busier around 5am and I swear someone puts their wheelie bin out around the same time, there is no other explanation for the thud I hear and which draws me to the window to check my car is OK. At 6am a dog walker with thick West Yorkshire accent harshly whispers below the window to his errant dog, ‘git here, cumon’. So many thoughts turn over in these hours and in these strange rooms. The next morning is a struggle and after a cooked breakfast at Enzo’s with Tre, bleary and tired, I punch through the ring road of Leeds and into the country below.