I busked on what’s left of the old high street in Runcorn. A man striding by stopped, looked at me frowningly, then looked down at his watch like I was a large and unwelcome wood carving that had emerged from a Swiss clock and refused to go back inside. Three doors down, a ginger and white cat was watching me too. A small boy tried to pick it up, but it slipped through his fingers like liquid. The boy then aimed a kick up its arse, but sensing this, the cat turned and faced him, daring him to kick it in the face. The boy gently lowered his foot and ran off.
Men in high vis jackets began appearing, a few at first, then more until there was a constant stream, coming from the right and departing back again with pasties and bakes. They peaked around midday, food time for people who start early. This is the post-packed-lunch era now.
A bald, smiling man emerged from the furniture shop next door.
“Are you intending to play there all day?” It was a polite question, without edge.
“Well perhaps another half hour before I get some lunch.”
“Ah lovely. I know we all have a living to make.”
“Aye.” There was a moment of silence, as we both took a moment to appreciate the sunshine and the pleasant day.
“It’s just, perhaps after lunch, you could make yours over there.”
And he gestured to the other side of the road. Well fair enough. I did my half hour and had my sandwich.
Runcorn town centre is a shadow of its former self. The main street up to the canal basin is filled with substantial brick and stone built buildings, each with a chunky stone plaque hinting at a grand history. “The Mersey Power Co. Ltd.” or “Camden Buildings – 1810” and now home to a smattering of more modest tenants. Chinese takeaways, gas fitting shops, pizza. There are gaps, and the shrinkage of Runcorn’s centre has left it spacious and slightly incoherent. By the canal basin, the fine old Waterloo Hotel, now without the passing trade has instead become a Buddhist Temple. Down the slope towards the Mersey, rows of brick built terraces have been pulled aside to make way for the feet of the bridges.
The expressway, the first continuous road link between Widnes and Runcorn, via the Silver Jubilee bridge, cuts through and over the town, carriageway far above, its blocky concrete feet cleanly splitting apart rows of terraces. It’s closed now, for the foreseeable, now the new bridge is open further inland, and there’s a strange sort of silence about the area. An area that grew used to having no sound of its own above the roar of the traffic and hasn’t yet found a new voice to fill the void. An abandoned teddy bear lay face down by a scruffy brick wall, amid the cigarette ends and dust. My ears focused on the few sounds there were. Drips from the closed road above me, and the cooing of the occasional pigeon, the ones who hadn’t died in the netting that ran across the underside of the road. Presumably there to discourage pigeons, it had instead trapped and collected a great many carcases which were now in various stages of decay. Eventually, I suppose, a point must come where each has rotted down enough that it can fall through the net to the ground in a shower of desiccated lumps.
Out over the river on the bridge itself, even the workmen seemed subdued and at peace. Occasionally, the sound of a single percussion tool rang out, as if one workman had offended the gods and been doomed to the Sisyphean task of renewing this great structure alone and for all time.
Runcorn is a series of funnels to transport that is not there. The ferry long gone, same the transporter bridge, and the Silver Jubilee bridge closed until further notice. Roads lead to open water and closed bridges. The silence elevated the sounds that were present. The singing of metal as an electric train crossed from Widnes, the clunk of track joints you might have heard at one time replaced by the sparking howl of the continuous welded rail, the song of metal under tension.
I looked over the commemorative railings by the ship canal, causing a cormorant to honk and panic. Even going for a quiet walk here seemed like a thoughtless breach of the peace. Runcorn is once again adapting to another shifting in the course of its economic river.
Back in town I stuck my head in a charity shop. On a shelf were three ‘Big Mouth Billy Bass’ plaques in a row, the electronic singing fish that was briefly popular 20 years ago. Three was definitely much more fun than one, but I hadn’t made enough to justify that kind of purchase, and I’d tried to learn my lessons after the rubber duck episode in Brighton. I wondered if they would ever sell them. It seemed optimistic. 15 years ago, I’d have started all three off and run out of the shop quick, but age has reduced my bravado.
I couldn’t find a spot on the other side of the road, and the butcher made it clear he’d rather I didn’t start up near his shop, in the way that only a smiling and terribly polite man in a bloodied pinny holding a large cleaver can do, so I thought it better to explore Runcorn a little more instead. Designated as a new town in the 60s, Runcorn had suddenly doubled in size. The town hall was up the hill and I went to have a look. It looked like a New England colonial governor’s mansion. Round the back was a modern bit covered in ‘No Entry’ signs and a stiff, ceremonial garden.
Even further into the hinterlands is Runcorn Shopping city. The traveler emerges exhausted from the jungle, having hacked their way through dense trees and creepers for weeks, or having followed their satnav off the ring road and down into one of the car parks. Set in a natural bowl in the ground, fully enclosed and surrounded by mature trees, the shopping city has all the feel of a lost fortress in the jungle, perhaps in decline, shabby, but still very much alive and populated. Buses come in and depart on raised roadways, two stories above the ground. They might as well be drawbridges. From inside one of the bus termini, I could see how the natives might mount a successful defence of their city against invaders from Warrington or other vaguely rumoured foreign entities, only to later succumb to a terrible disease to which they had no resistance.
In this concrete tree-top world, the 1970s had not ended, but had instead been allowed to develop and bloom until it reached its natural pinnacle. This was the ultimate shopping centre, the purest expression of the form I have ever seen.
The shops are all on the first floor, above the car parks and delivery bays. You rise up an unmarked escalator to a lobby which has a sign of pure poetry.
This Entrance May Be
Closed Earlier Than
On Occasions Depending
The shops are arrayed in a large H formation, with busways at each corner, and elevated walkways leading to other parts of the new town, the police station, the courts, (Now closed) and the council offices. I think we can, after 5 decades, judge the new town of Runcorn to be a success. Old men met and talked, sitting at oversize lawn furniture in the central plaza, the ‘Community Square’. Some shops have been here so long they appear dynastic. Cafes and independents that have seen much come and go, and are rocks of stability to their customers.
I felt like I had when walking down the main street at Teotihuacan in Mexico, where an archaeological site was alive with people and pop-up shops. We get so bound up in the history that sometimes we miss the contemporary relevance of a place.
Our perception of place is so often linked to a contrived cultural sense of value rather than its actual utility, corporeal or spiritual. If a building is large, spacious and beautiful, we describe it as ‘Cathedralesque’. The Cathedral is our reference point, our number one. But why? Is it the perceived spirituality of the place implying a higher value? Cathedrals today are simplified places, reduced to an uneasy duality of worship and tourism. They are no longer naturally the heart of a community at a human level. This shopping centre could claim a far broader remit of human utility, and was every bit as remarkable a construction, forged as it was in the light of a new day dawning in our history where the aspiration of giving the common person a decent life was the motor that drove the concrete revolution.
Could one find spirituality in Wilkos? Maybe not in the truest sense, but the pursuit of money, and the best means to spend it are as coherent a doctrine for today’s society as the church’s message has been in the past. Here in the heart of the concrete temple, Wilko had a board outside the shop with this month’s suggested gardening activities, from veg, to lawn, to flowers. In the main square, staircases led to offices where security watched us and judged our actions. Those with the fob of admission the priests of our time. At 4.45pm, these high priests travel to the inner sanctum to turn off the WIFI so that the youths go home, their connection to god severed.
The one real problem with all this for me is that I couldn’t busk. The whole property is privately owned, and I have far fewer rights here than on a public street. I am bound by their code of conduct, to behave, keep quiet, and buy stuff. And I must leave at closing time. Of course I could just not come, but as more and more of places we might wish to visit are on land owned like this, that becomes a harder thing to do. I have no right of way here, no right to busk, no right to just hang around if they don’t want me here. Here those rights are left at the door of the temple like shoes. They’re still yours, but you can’t use them just now. The high street is a communal place, and the best of us understand that we should share it. The shopping centre is a monolithic space where we are subjugated by the act of our arrival. We are tolerated here, so long as we conform. The secular society took back rights from religion and handed them to citizens. One by one, we hand them back in return for a free parking space.
I left this concrete cathedral and drove across Runcorn to Weston Point, the residual docklands, where smaller, lesser ships heading up the Manchester ship canal unload their TEUs onto anonymous lorries that fan out across the North West. The Dockside pub was faded, the pub sign reduced by age and budgetary priority to an illegible oblong suspended above the pavement. Thankfully the dereliction and subsequent removal of neighbouring buildings had allowed them to paint ‘DOCKSIDE PUB’ in block letters down the openside wall. I lost my nerve and didn’t go in. I should have done.
Halton doesn’t really make sense. It’s a unitary authority of two towns that feel really very different from one another, and the shifting fortunes of the bridges have currently left rather remote. The new bridge is a masterpiece, confidently spanning the Mersey where it broadens out, not needing to find a pinch point. But it links the broader region together, not the towns. The M56 and M62 are flanked by massive logistics depots where the requirements of the North of England are meted and doled in countless equal HGVs. The new bridge serves them, those trails of diesel-powered worker ants that run from nest to nest and feed and furnish every home. Widnes and Runcorn seem somewhat secondary considerations, having lost their bridge, for now at least. A marriage of convenience living in unconnected wings of an over-large house, perhaps staring occasionally at one another from the distant ends of a preposterously long dining table.
But these are good places to live. There are jobs, friendly people, good shops, and if the culture seems a little lacking, Liverpool and Manchester are just down the road.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!