When there's just no room at the inn

A JOURNEY AROUND THE WHOLE ISLAND OF GREAT BRITAIN: Day Thirteen buxton to knottingley
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The Independent Online
It was the windows that finished me off. It was, it seemed, the muggiest and most sweltering of the recent hot and humid nights. The hotel room was like a sauna. And bits of roughly-sawn wood had been screwed into the runnels of all the sash windows in the room so that they could not be opened beyond a miserly three inches.

This was not some dive in a seedy red-light district designed to keep the muggers out or the clients in. It was Buxton's poshest, the Palace Hotel, a stately Victorian Gormenghast on the top of the hill overlooking the spa town at the heart of the Derbyshire Peak District. I rang reception.

"Someone seems to have screwed up my windows," I said.

"Ah yes," said the abashed voice at the other end. "It's health and safety. All the windows have been fastened shut for health and safety."

What was the nature of their risk assessment, I wondered. Did I look suicidal? Or a likely victim of vertigo? So far as health and safety were concerned, wasn't it more likely, I suggested, that I would collapse from heat exhaustion? "Can I be moved to another room?" No, said the voice, because it wasn't just the third floor which had been done; the windows had been secured on all floors.

"Just get room service to send up a screwdriver then and I'll do them myself." Sorry, only maintenance could do that and they would not be in until the morning. I harrumphed and, ignoring the notice about the safeguarding of valuables, propped open the bedroom door with a chair, and fell into a fitful sleep.

I was fed up with hotels, I decided the next day, as I descended from the Derbyshire hills to the flat, scarred industrial landscape of South and then West Yorkshire. From now on I would just stay in B&Bs. I was bound for a working-class community in Knottingley and would lodge romantically, as George Orwell had in his pre-war travels among the proletariat on the road to Wigan Pier, with the plain people of England. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

With the change of scenery, a change to the quality to life became apparent. The sign at Castleford may have said "historic Roman settlement" and Pontefract may once have boasted the biggest castle in Yorkshire but they were distinguished now by branches of Netto and Kwiksave. Signs read "Cheques cashed - cheapest rates locally." One hostelry bore the legend "Starving Sam's - mighty meals from pounds 1.55". At one bus-stop a woman was arguing with the driver over the 70p maximum off-peak fare:

"This bus is supposed to go straight through to Knottingley."

"Well, it doesn't. You'll have to change at Cas."

"But then I'll have to pay twice. That'll cost me pounds 1.40."

When I arrived in Knottingley there were no rooms left at the Golden Lion, the pub which had been recommended. So I walked along the canal to a B&B I had been told of. It was full, too. So was the Bay Horse. My bag and computer case were getting heavy now. There was no room at the Sun Inn, either. "There's a big contract on at the power station down Ferrybridge," the landlord said. He rang Jackie at the Anvil. "She can fit you in, but you'll have to share." Sharing! How Orwellian!

Jackie showed me to the room. There were two beds, piled with duvets and soiled clothing. "I'll put a third bed in the corner," she said. Desperate to deposit my bags, I agreed. It was an odd place. The bare floorboards were specked with paint, the wallpaper was torn and the light- bulb bare. But there were dried flowers on the old sewing machine treadle and on the mantelpiece, despite the Chris de Burgh tapes, was AJ Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic, a volume on Krishna and the Bhagavatan and a primer entitled An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion.

It was late when I returned. In the bar a grotesquely fat drunk called Larry - with bristling head, bulging neck and rolling eyes - was losing on the pool table, and to a woman. He cursed with astonishing frequency, not merely between words but between syllables. "Larry, don't call the customers bitches," admonished the barmaid, bizarrely picking on the mildest of his insults. Periodically Larry offered to fight anyone in the room. He leered aggressively up to me and put his nose two inches from mine. Just then, another drunk, who claimed to be the husband of the pool-table woman, intervened.

I had ordered a pint of beer. Where, I wondered, was the safest place to drink it. "Do you mind if I join you?" I said to the two men at the table furthest from the pool table.

"Yes, we do actually," one said. I had already sat down and, hoping that this was what passed for badinage locally, I decided to ignore it. The objector, who was also spectacularly drunk, began to tell me how he was a taxi driver who had just been snapped by a speed camera doing 140mph on the M62. "D'yer think I give a bugger?" he asked. I assured him that I did not.

Deciding that discretion was the better part of Vallely I downed the beer and made my way up the dingy staircase hoping that none of the drinkers would turn out to be my room-mates. I was asleep two hours later when my sleeping companions eventually arrived and flooded the room with light. They were, thankfully, none of the above, but they were rather menacing Welsh labourers who were just as inebriated and almost as aggressive.

"Can we have the radio off, lads," I asked when they finally crashed, belching, into bed and switched off the light.

"No, f--k off," one said.

"That was good beer," burped the other. "And 95p a pint."

"Better than last night's - that was corky, know what I mean, corky?"

When they were asleep I rose apprehensively to turn off their inane late- night phone-in. It was a difficult operation in the dark. I did not know which was the off switch and the owner might easily have woken up and thumped me. Violence, I philosophised, is a part of working-class culture that the middle classes construct edifices of privilege and law to avoid. But if the edifices had crumbled, I reasoned, I had the advantage of being awake and comparatively sober. The Welsh yobs slumbered on.

They were asleep still when, at 6.30am, I rose, dressed and silently left. On the dressing table by the stairs I left the requisite pounds 10 for the sleeping landlady. Hotels, I decided, were not so bad after all.

Tomorrow: Knottingley.

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