Belle Vue rendezvous
BILL HARTLEY laments the waning of Wakefield
In 1873 during the era of Muscular Christianity a young curate formed a rugby team. His legacy lives on since the club retains the name of his church and they are still known as Wakefield Trinity. Someone though must have had a sense of humour when they named the club’s stadium ‘Belle Vue’, since until a few years ago the most notable landmark on the horizon was the local power station. The demolition of its cooling towers marked the de-industrialisation of the district surrounding the rugby ground.
Many cities have their neglected quarter, and Belle Vue lies in the midst of Wakefield’s. To reach it you cross the River Calder where incongruously perched on the old bridge is the chantry of St. Mary’s, said to be the most beautiful of England’s four remaining bridge chapels. There was a murder outside the chapel a while back. You can find the details in part three of Shakespeare’s King Henry VI. The hapless Earl of Rutland was stabbed to death there by the Lancastrian Lord Clifford, while trying to seek sanctuary following the battle in 1460.
On the other side of the river lies an attempt at cultural reclamation; the grim outline of the Hepworth Centre. This is a gallery opened in 2011 as an attempt to bring art to the masses and pump prime waterside living by the banks of what used to be known as ‘the hardest worked river in England’. Unfortunately it has never really taken off. At the rear of the Hepworth stands the massive abandoned mill which used to house the Double Two shirt factory. Developers seem unwilling include this in the waterside living experience and the few warehouses which have been turned into apartments huddle alongside what might make a good location for a television crime thriller.
Actually the Hepworth does fit in rather well since the building is clad in a battleship grey material. It runs down to the water’s edge and visitors using the footbridge for access can get a whiff of the river’s odour as they cross. The much abused Calder still gives off the stink of its industrial heyday.
Belle Vue is a short walk from the Hepworth and lies in the midst of cheap housing thrown up during the Victorian boom years. Back then there was the need to accommodate workers at the nearby engine sheds which provided locomotives to haul trains out of the nearby coalfields. One can still see the social gradations reflected in the terraced properties. Clearly the builders were well versed in the hierarchy. At the top of the pile are those with a small stone tablet inserted in the gable announcing that this is a ‘villa’. Further down are residences fitted with bay windows and a tiny square of garden to provide a modest air of gentility. Most though have front doors which open onto the pavement.
The railway workers left long ago and the demographics of the streets around Belle Vue have changed. Many properties are let and have that air of neglect which suggests the landlord assumes the tenant will care little for the property; so why spend on anything more than essential maintenance? All the Victorian social gradations have blurred into a uniformity of decline. Most of the old working class have long since moved on to be replaced by incomers.
Until recently the ethnic minority population of Wakefield wasn’t that large. The first wave of immigrants from the sub continent who settled around the rugby ground was drawn there by the cheap housing. This correlated roughly with the decline of local industry. The engine sheds were relocated to a distant marshalling yard and although textiles manufacture still goes on, the Double Two Company left the mill for a modern industrial unit on the other side of the river. Until recently a kind of balance was achieved but then came a new wave of migrants mostly from Eastern Europe. Whilst the Asians had a stake in the district and acquired some of the vacated shop premises, the most recent arrivals bring a sense of transience. The terraced streets are crowded with aged vehicles some carrying Polish or even Latvian number plates. There seems to be a correlation between this kind of population and the number of fast food outlets. In a single hundred yard stretch of the main road is a choice of three pizza outlets.
However on every second Sunday during the season something changes. For a few hours the district is reoccupied by people who see Belle Vue as the sporting heart of the city. Rugby League still has a close connection between spectator and player which has vanished from football. Until recently it was a semi professional game and the man who worked next to you might well be on the field of play come the weekend. People who once lived or worked close by played for the club. Neil Fox statistically the greatest player in the history of the game worked at the power station. Wakefield Trinity has known better days but they still compete in the European Super League and can attract 5,000 supporters. On match day every establishment selling alcohol is packed. There is even a Conservative club in the shadow of the ground pointing perhaps to an allegiance long gone. Despite the city returning a Labour MP and the memory of the miner’s strike, supporters pack its conveniently situated bar. Kick off is usually mid to late afternoon allowing plenty of drinking time beforehand and this continues during the game, since there is no alcohol ban at rugby matches. Despite the large amount of drink taken Rugby League fixtures are lightly policed and the constabulary mix easily with the crowd.
Belle Vue stadium is in a poor state and the Super League management are unlikely to tolerate this much longer. There are plans to relocate to a new out of town site next year, conveniently close to the motorway network. This is the modern approach to sport with the assumption being that most spectators will arrive by car. Doubtless the authorities will view this as a more efficient approach but with demise of the old stadium something will have gone from the city: a mainly working class crowd making their way on foot to the place where this hardest of team sports first established itself. When this ends Belle Vue will be another shabby and anonymous district on the outskirts of a northern city.
BILL HARTLEY is a Yorkshire-based freelance writer