“Pomfret, Pomfret, O thou bloody prison….”
The words are Shakespeare’s, a gruesome vision of a grim northern fastness; a place of pain, fear, suffering, humiliation and death. That was 1591. Nothing has changed much since.
It says something profound about the character of a town when its worldwide renown rests upon an ancient remedy for constipation. And though Sir John Betjeman might once have waxed lyrical about “The Liquorice Fields of Pontefract”, the fields in question have long since been deposited onto the dung heap of history along with the Pontefract Cakes, Liquorice Allsorts and other assorted purgatives now made wholly from imported stuff. Betjeman also described “tanneries, mills and shuttered corner shops”, but now only the shutters remain. Here, regeneration is just something that happens to other people.
But at least the place is well connected. Surprisingly, for a modest market town just off the M62 corridor, there are no less than three railway stations. Conveniently, none of them are located anywhere near the town centre. The unwary visitor needs to take care lest, stepping into a welcoming ambience reminiscent of the Do Lung Bridge in Apocalypse Now (‘You’re in the asshole of the world captain….’) and negotiating the confusion that is the local transport hub, he or she should take a wrong turn and find themselves inadvertently heading into Pontefract.
Still, for hardy souls with a masochistic bent, there is a ruined castle (knocked down by Oliver Cromwell who, regrettably, stopped at that), alongside a couple of churches and a pedestrianized precinct dominated by an eighteenth century Buttercross. This attractive structure was once a market shelter for farmers’ wives and their baskets of dairy produce. It is now a place to meet, spit and swear while feasting cheerily on sausage rolls and pasties. (Notably, this town with one high street and a population of less than 30,000 can support two branches of Greggs.)
With the historic cattle market formerly known as Kiko’s discotheque now a mere empty shell haunted only by the shadows of the past (most of them drinking stale beer and going without knickers) options for an evening of entertainment are limited to what is generally reckoned to be the highest concentration of public houses per square mile in the country. Here one can sup local ales with muscular young men in unfeasibly tight t-shirts and engage in earnest philosophical banter– usually some variant of the following moral paradox: “Are you looking at our lass? No? Why, what’s up wi’ her?”
Mind you, cultural sophisticates who lack the stomach for drink-fuelled violence and obesity chic need not entirely despair. For even in Pontefract the throbbing pulse of multi-cultural metropolitan glamour is never all that far removed. Yes, Wakefield ’s only half an hour up the road….