A Huddersfield Bestiary – with Kingfisher

 

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the handsomest by far of all the factory towns in Yorkshire and Lancashire

Friedrich Engels

In hindsight, it was perhaps inevitable. Brought to this town by a Wolf(f) and a Cow, (1) the animistic world was transmitting subtle messages within seconds of walking out of the station.

Directly opposite the grandiose railway building, that could easily masquerade as a town hall, a lion prowls the rooftops, frozen in time since 1853.  Those Victorians loved their symbols of Empire and the earthbound relative of our rooftop dweller, gazes out imperiously from the entrance to Lion Chambers.  A small winged dragon sits above on the keystone. Possibly a symbol of Victorian industriousness or, as Ruskin would have it, a more sinister, ‘satanic’ motif of rampant industrialisation. Or perhaps the dragon is simply hiding from St George.  I have just walked across a square that bears his name.

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I find out later that the present rooftop lion is a fibreglass copy of the original which was made in Coade stone, a ceramic stoneware popular with Victorian and Edwardian architectural sculptors. Other Coade stone lions and decorative statues can be found at Kew Gardens, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Bridge, the present home to London’s Red Lion a.k.a The South Bank Lion.

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WP_000772Minutes later I turn a corner to come face to face with the Emporium Dog. All eager eyes and panting tongue. I half expect him to bound up on hind legs to his full height – “Buy Me, Buy Me, Buy Me”.

I pass him a few times over the weekend. Always looking happy, as dogs invariably are, when outside in the fresh air. Locked up for the night, he takes on a melancholy countenance, looking out wistfully from his glass cage under the red neon.

Caged

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I imagine taking him out for the day, navigating on and off trains and buses. A window seat obviously, top deck right at the front. Squeezed into the passenger seat of a car, head out of the window, licking the breeze.

 

These transmissions from the non-human world became a feature as I wander through Huddersfield over the next few days. I walk up a street named Beast Market and regularly see magpies and crows flitting around the small grid of Victorian streets, perfectly at home in their urban environment.

Above what is now a nightclub bar called Sin, two fine horses catch the eye. Even with the stone weathering you can see that one is elegant, poised and groomed with a manicured mane.

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The other is wild and untamed. Encased in its stone alcove since the 1840s, you can sense its desire to break free and run.

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Encased Horse Huddersfield
I find out that the building was originally built as a military riding school in the late 1840s and was the headquarters of the 2nd West Yorkshire Yeomanry Cavalry.  DSCN0519It subsequently became a music hall in 1905, aptly named the Hippodrome which must have made our wild horse dream of running around the racing stadiums of ancient Greece.  Perhaps our groomed stallion was more suited for hippodrome chariot racing. I wonder what our horses make of the carnivalesque ambiance of the nightclub bar. Passing outside at night, the dull, techno thud-thud conjuring up the Taraxippus – or ‘horse disturber’ – a ghostly presence blamed for frightening horses at the hippodromes throughout ancient Greece. The current ‘To Let’ sign on the building must create future uncertainty for our equine friends and in a town bristling with the fading lions of Empire, the horses must always remain vigilant.

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One thing quickly becomes apparent about Huddersfield. Walk in any direction from the centre of the town and you will soon find that it is completely encased in a ring of traffic.

On a Saturday afternoon and with a bit of time until the next concert, I manage to break through the A62 ring road and head down towards the old industrial mill district, passing the winged lioness and griffins of the Gothic Milton Congregational Church on the way:

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I’m drawn to a fairly nondescript, light industrial building. Shuttered and silent it’s a colour which has a kind of luminosity, casting light on the road. A premonition of blue?

Premonition of a kingfisher

I’m heading to Bates Mill to see Carlos Casas‘ audio-visual installation Avalanche:

Exploring the interrelation of landscape, soundscape, music and ethnography, Avalanche is an audiovisual meditation about a village and its traditions on the way to disappearance. One of the world’s highest inhabited villages, Hichigh is located in Tajikistan’s mysterious and fascinating Pamir mountains, home to many archaic and well-kept traditions. The film depicts Hichigh at a time of literal and figurative dusk: on the cusp of becoming a ghost village, just before its stones and mud houses are eaten by the mountain again.

It is a powerful and poignant piece, with the multi-screen environment enhanced by a Phill Niblock score. Depicting a culture barely surviving at subsistence level, they are clinging on to existence on the side of this high mountain landscape and yet, life goes on.

Standing in this space, you cannot help but reflect on the building where this is being exhibited. This old textile mill where the skills, traditions and culture of the yarn spinners was slowly eroded by globalisation, lower cost labour and the flight of international capital. Yet, life goes on. It is good to see Bates Mill now being reinvented as an arts venue, incubator space and photographic studio.

It is late afternoon, drizzly and overcast when I exit Bates Mill. I can hear the River Colne nearby and head off for a quick look. Walking through a deserted car park, a corner of graffiti and greenery, topped off by the pedestrian bridge, punches some colour into the monochrome light. Bizarrely, it looks like the wall has been partly rebuilt, with new bricks erasing part of the original graffiti.

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I need to get back to the University where the next event will take place and notice a sign for the Narrow Canal Towpath. How can this be resisted? It feels as if it will take me in the general direction of the University so I enter the narrow opening, casting off the distant traffic sounds with each step as I descend on to the towpath. Looking underneath the arch of the road, which runs overhead, it’s no surprise to see the place has been tagged. The water, a still pool of black ink.

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I’m heading in the opposite direction. It is so quiet and there is barely any movement on the water as the grey blanket of dusk descends. The phone in my pocket starts to ring and I have barely answered when I’m hit by a jolt of blue at the periphery of vision. Surely not. For I second, I wonder if I’ve imagined this, when it happens again, like a razor, scything through the twilight which descends to alight barely 10 feet away on the canal bank. A twitching ball of nervous energy, curious. It appears to pull in all the surrounding light and radiate it back. The illuminated blues of lapis lazuli, golden orange, red flecks. A shape-shifting intensity of colours.

“I’ve just seen a kingfisher, will phone you back”

Of course, it disappeared again as quickly as it had appeared and I was once again left wondering whether I had just imagined this. Up until this day, I had never seen a live kingfisher. I had certainly tried. I had gone to spots along The Water of Leith, in Edinburgh, where there had been sightings and yet they remained elusive. One day I sat on the banks of the Lyne Burn in Fife for hours like a fisherman without a rod, waiting for a glimpse. Anything … Nothing … Funny thing is, I doubt if I would have done this for any other bird. I’m not a birder and have little real knowledge of birds, yet they always captivate and fascinate when I stop to look at them. However, the kingfisher has always exerted a strange magic. The name itself – king – fisher – flitting between land and water with a display of colour that shouldn’t really belong in this world. As if it this small bird has escaped from a cartoon or wandered in from some exotic climate by accident.

Yet here, today, alongside an old industrial canal I had finally seen one. Of course the bird was long gone but this is where it happened:

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Any lingering doubts of having imagined all of this were dispelled when it reappeared one final time. Flying low down the middle of the canal, barely above the water. It almost seemed to be a gesture to confirm its existence. A life enhancing presence in the most unlikely of settings.

Those animistic spirits had clearly been working in my favour.

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Now playing: Lyndsay Cooper – Rags

Reference:

Huddersfield Heritage – Leaflet produced by Huddersfield Local History Society, Huddersfield Civic Society and Kirklees Council.

(1) In town for the fantastic Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. On this particular weekend two of the major events were concerts featuring Christian Wolff and Henry Cow. Christian Wolff is the last surviving member of the composers who came to be called The New York School alongside John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown. Wolff is also the person who gave John Cage his first copy of the I-Ching.  Henry Cow and associated musicians reformed to celebrate the music of composer and multi-instrumentalist Lindsay Cooper (1951 – 2013).

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21 Responses to A Huddersfield Bestiary – with Kingfisher

  1. dianajhale says:

    I like the bestial theme! The kingfisher sighting is a lovely bonus – especially in such an unexpected place. Have never managed to get to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival but I know Huddersfield a bit from many years ago. It always seems a bit of a lost soul to me.

  2. Thanks Diana. Yes seeing the kingfisher was such a surprise and a delight but good to know that the old canal is sustaining a population. Would highly recommend the HCMF. They manage to pack so much in and it’s such a varied mix of performers and musics. The main venues – St Paul’s Hall, Lawrence Batley Theatre and Town Hall are really excellent. The weekend I attended there were also events at The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield including Evan Parker. Huddersfield must have been very impressive in its prime. There is a bit of faded grandeur to it now but still enjoyed wandering around.

  3. Naomi Racz says:

    Lovely post. I too saw my first kingfisher on a rather overcast day on the banks of a scrap of water in the city. I couldn’t believe it either. They do seem too exotic for such surroundings.

  4. aubrey says:

    I saw a kingfisher in Catalina years ago – the blue of its feather almost melting against the early evening sky; during that same walk we saw a blue heron – again a dreaming cobalt in danger of losing itself in the twilight.

    Those griffins lunging forward look like the decorations from the bonnet of a 1930’s sedan, longing to free themselves and escape into the wind.

  5. Our glimpses of kingfishers are nearly always like this: a shape-shifting electric blue flash in the winter gloom.

  6. jan says:

    What a lovely writing. And I know Huddersfield a bit, but this was another side of it. I’ve only seen a kingfisher once; I enjoy going to bird hides and sitting on uncomfy wooden benches looking out at empty stretches of water where no life shows itself! Don’t think of myself as a birder; but every so often, I’ll see something and my heart lifts with the wildness of it. Recently saw 2 jays in the fields near where I live. That was magical; again, that vivid blue flash. Mmmmmm. Thank you.

    • Thanks for the comment Jan. I think you are right, these moments are magical and remain, carried within us. I do manage to see a heron quite regularly. Always a wonderful sight to see it stalking the shoreline.

      • jan says:

        There’s a heron (or more than one?) that stands fishing on the weir on the Calder at Wakefield; right next to the Hepworth. The staff call it/him/them Patrick. After Patrick Heron, the artist. Nice touch! X

      • That is a nice touch. I can visualise the weir as visited the Hepworth when down in Huddersfield. Great place/space.

  7. Great post as ever. I regularly see a kingfisher (not sure if there is a single bird or several) along the urban greenscape of the river Frome which pushes into central Bristol. Heron’s also. The adaptation to, and preference for, urban environments by many birds and other animals is perhaps a phenomenon deserving of greater examination.

    • Thanks Eddie. It’s a good point. The positive aspect is hopefully that our urban waterways and rivers are becoming cleaner and sustaining a food supply but I wonder if research would bear this out.

  8. I had wanted to see a kingfisher for years and finally about 6 months ago I saw one along the Kelvin in Glasgow. It was a genuinely magical moment, and very similar to how you described your encounter. The little fellow popped-up again a couple of months later. Much enjoyed the rest of the article as well. Huddersfield looks an interesting place.

  9. Carringtonia says:

    I loved this tour of the animals of Huddersfield, especially the horses and the Taraxippus. It got me thinking about the use of animals as symbols on buildings – was it a particular feature of the Victorian era? – and reminded me of the owls on buildings in Leeds.

    • Thanks Carringtonia. A good question about the use of animals as symbols. I hadn’t particularly thought about it before Huddersfield. There were many more Lions around including outside the Town Hall. Would be good to look into the owls.

  10. Returning again after my first read of this terrific and evocative post, writing that brings our often unusual (and sometimes unseen) surrounds into view. I think our paths must have nearly crossed as I arrived and departed the north of England on my recent trip via Huddersfield in the week of the Contemporary Music Festival. I know that extravagent railway station facade that you mention having only just been there in November, so I enjoyed a rich seam of serendipity in revisiting the place through your words, heightened by the bright electric blue of a kingfisher in flight. Thanks for the great journey!

    • Thanks Julian. Much appreciated. I have some pics of the station with Harold Wilson striding across St George’s Square in front. A very grand facade. Strange that our paths almost crossed in Huddersfield! The encounter with the kingfisher was a major highlight of 2014. A moment that will linger in memory.

  11. kp says:

    Yes – the magic of your first encounter with a kingfisher. Thanks for sharing it – I saw my first one on a grey Christmas day a few years back – on the river Lune, but, like you, in a semi-urban spot. I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few since on the canal and the river – each sighting gives me that same lift of the heart – that electric blue shiver – and makes the day seem special. Loved all your photos and descriptions of Huddersfield’s beasts – the wild horse being my favourite.
    Kathy

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