From the beer tent, I texted a friend from work: 'I am at a bonfire in Smethwick'. His reply was exactly as I had predicted: 'Where is Smethwick?'. Given that this was the same person who once asked me 'is Brighouse a real place, then', it wasn't a hard prediction to make. (Now, don't get me wrong, Dean is one of my absolutely favourite people, but he would be the first to admit to being a bit, well, southern.)
But how come I had heard of Smethwick? How had the place wormed its way into my consciousness? Was it from history lessons at school? (O level British Social and Economic History 1733-1935, and A level, for some reason reversed, British Economic and Social - perhaps it sounds harder that way round). Was it in the news when I was growing up, either through strikes, or industry closing down, or the notorious utterances of its erstwhile MP? One way or another, I had heard of Smethwick. But it wasn't until I looked up its Wikipedia entry that I realised just how massive a part it had played in the industrial revolution; just how many famous products had been manufactured there. And now? It's the saddest, deadest place - or at least certainly a contender for that title - that you could dread seeing.
We checked out the shops on Friday - a parade of mostly (possibly exclusively) Sikh owned cheap hardware shops, where we were able to meet all Bakewell's mop, broom and bucket type requirements - and if we had wanted cooking pots, why, I have never seen such a selection and at such low prices too. The shops all offered a wonderfully eclectic mix of Indian trinkets and cookware, British essentials and Christmas decorations. A splendly attired matriarch took us to task for selecting an inferior, flimsy bucket, and almost forced us to have a different model. I held firm though. I wanted a blue one. The anglicised second (or even third, maybe) generation directed us to a plumbers merchants (run by their nephew, it turned out) where we were able to buy what we needed to isolate the leaking Paloma, meaning that we could finally turn the water pump on and use the taps.
The following day we went into the town's shopping precinct - this was really sad; more shops shut than open, although there was a rather splendid and apparently thriving Punjabi music shop. There was a Tescos, tho, that provided another new experience. The first aisle, by the door, was dedicated to 'ethnic' foodstuffs. Indian first - massive bags of lentils and rice at a quarter the price of standard packs; 500g bags of spices - cumin, paprika - for £1.59 - the price of a 25g Schwartz jar; tins of unbranded chick peas at 29p... then West Indian - coconut milk for 78p a tin (really thick and creamy too); pepper sauces... then Polish... and maybe more. And the odd thing is, this branch of Tescos was still selling the Schwartz spices, and the little packs of lentils costing the same as the massive ones, in all the other aisles. And presumably people were buying them. We were like kids at Christmas and struggled back to Bakewell laden with tins and packets, which helped to even out the list a bit.
After shopping, we were visited by Madcat (as she is known on CWF) who joined us for a cup of tea, and then we strolled down to the New Main Line so that I could finally see and photograph Halsall. Now, at this stage I should be linking to the latest new entry in the Town Class Sticker Album, but disaster has struck! I have forgotten the password, or more likely the user name, and have a horrible feeling that it is linked to my old work email address which no longer exists. Hopefully it will come back to me, as I have photos of Alton and Aldgate to add, and probably others too. Anyway, Halsall was looking lovely and distinctive in a new green coat, and the cabin was so cosy, I am rethinking Chertsey's austerity look.
As we were half way there, we proceeded across the aqueduct to the beer tent and settled in for the evening. Beers were from the legendary Ma Pardoe's (aka the Old Swan at Netherton) and I must say tasted great from the barrel. I started with Bumblehole but although not extraordinarily strong it is what I call 'heady', volatile, like ESB say, and not my cup of tea, so I switched to Entire, and enjoyed that for the rest of the evening, whilst Jim stuck with Dark Swan mild.
The bonfire was lit at 7.30 and by the time we went outside was going well. We weren't bothered about getting close to the action, and watched the fireworks from the aqueduct. They were rather splendid, and while in the past I've tended to be a bit 'bah, humbug' about fireworks and the costs involved, this time I just gave myself up to the spectacle. The signs in the shops promoting Diwali remind us that there aren't many cultures that don't like a fiery celebration (or two) around this time of year, and it's not hard to see why it feels appropriate.