A Grand Day Out

BILLY'S CONTRACT waxes both lyrical and heretical

A few weeks ago The Bride mentioned that it had been Giddy Yonks since we last took the car out for a spin in the countryside. There was a time when most weekends we would rev up the motor and head off for the Dales or the Yorkshire Moors or even venture as far as the Lakes for the day.

Our preferred day of travel would normally be a Saturday as T3M's ...The Mindless Moronic Millions - would be in the towns, busy doing their shopping, thus leaving the Queen's highways relatively quiet and clutter-free, of them and their traffic.I recall on one particular trip over The Moors to Helmsley many years ago and hearing on the radio the sad news of Cyril Knowles death.

I must admit that I fancied a ride out myself and told the Wifey that the following Sunday (Saturday was out, as 'Pools were at home!) we would head off somewhere nice. The plan was to go to Masham via Thorpe Perrow Arboretum (a place with a lot of trees near Bedale!) to view the trees in their magnificent autumnal colours. That was the plan. However, as it was absolutely tanking it down on the day we changed tack and ended up in of all places ...DDDDDDDD Darlington!
"we eventually ended up in a multi-storey which would not have looked out of place in a Ridley Scott film."
It must be the best part of 30 years ago since I was in Darlington town centre, which was unusual in itself as for 15 years or so I lived in Eaglescliffe, seven or eight miles from the Darlo, preferring, as an exile to do my shopping in Hartlepool, keeping my money in the town and thus keeping fellow Poolies in employment, so they in turn could spend their money at the Vic.

It took some time to find a place to park; we eventually ended up in a multi-storey which would not have looked out of place in a Ridley Scott film. Worse was to follow - no free parking on a Sunday - so I was one English Pound down on the day before I had even set foot in the town centre!

As she who must be obeyed had a House of Fraser voucher from last Christmas she wanted rid of, we wandered down the High Street to Binns, to dispose of it. The first thing that strikes you about their main shopping thoroughfare is that it harks back to a bygone age, with lots of small shops and independent traders. It consists of not one but several shopping areas linked together by side streets, alleyways, or as they say in Yorkshire 'Ginnels'. (what a great word Ginnel is, straight out of an Alan Bennett monologue).

In some ways Darlington would put you in mind of Lynn Street and Musgrave Street in the late sixties, which is much more preferable than walking around the standard fare shopping centres that blight most British towns. I'm not wishing to blow their trumpet, but in Darlington they have a music shop that sells a wide range of musical instruments. They have a proper indoor market, albeit closed on the day, with a lovely Victorian fa├žade. They actually have a proper bookshop, and I am not talking of a W H Smith or even 'The Works' here, in the form of none other than the country's foremost bookshop, Waterstone's.*

I must admit to having a passion for reading. I spent a good hour in here browsing at various book titles and making a note of their names ...so that I could order them on line from Amazon at half the price later on in the day.

Although I did not see one, I bet somewhere in Darlington that they still have a 'Suit's You' style tailors or two that would make quality made-to-measure suits.

I think it says a lot about a town's population if the town they live in does or does not possess a bookshop or a tailors. If it's somewhere like York, which does have such emporia, you think to yourself of a well-read, smartly-turned-out populace. If it doesn't you think of scruffy illiterate rabble.

Far from being a throwback from the past this Quaker town does actually boast its own modern shopping centre, The Cornmill. However you could easily walk past it thinking that the entrance belonged to a small independent store.

It has to be said that once you set foot inside, The Cornmill is a bit like the Tardis: small on the outside, large on the inside. All the usual suspects are there: Boots, Primark, Burger King et al. But the most notable difference between The Cornmill and Middleton Grange is that in the former there are no vacant units, which is refreshing and makes for a more vibrant shopping experience. Middleton Grange take note: Cut your rents. (N.b. Mary Portas asked me to include that.)

Though the toilets were spotlessly clean our visit to Binns proved disappointing. The interior resembled a department store I once visited in East Berlin prior to the wall coming down. This was because all the internal ducting, piping and extraction hoses etc., which are suspended from the ceiling and visible to the naked eye, gave the impression of being in an industrial facility of some description. Furthermore my wife returned home with her House of Fraser Voucher intact. Come to think of it I only spent a pound in the two hours that we were there, and that was for the privilege of parking.

As we headed back down Route A66 in the trusty Skoda, with the Hartlepool United stickers having being reinstated in rear window.(I did not want to upset the locals), my Wife said that we should come back here again to have a good look around the place, as there was a wider choice of stores than in God's Own town by the sea.

I partially agreed with her saying that in its own way Darlo had a lot going for it. They had better shops, more of them, a better all-round layout, and it was relatively clean. "But," I said, "There was one important thing that was obviously missing".

"What was that?" said The Bride.

"A league football team" I replied.

(* I'm sure Foyles in London or Blackwells in Oxford might dispute that, as would anyone who's ever been in Blackwells' Norrington Room, which has 3 MILES of shelving, and is only slightly smaller than Victoria Park. Ed.)