Day 38: Leeds to Sheffield
Today, the Olympic Torch wends its winding way from Leeds to Sheffield. Roughly halfway down, it passes through Pontefract.
Pontefract is a historic market town in the North of England. Its name, first mentioned in documents from 1090, derives from the Latin for broken bridge (it makes you wonder why they didn’t just fix the thing, rather than naming the town after it!)
Coming, as I do, from the deep, deep South (that’s the Isle of Wight, not Alabama!) the first time I ever heard the name was in connection with Pontefract Cakes.
These are not, as you’ll guess, the sort of cake you have with your afternoon tea. They’re sweets—flat, circular liquorice sweets, traditionally hand-stamped with an image of Pontefract Castle. The sandy soil around Pontefract is ideally suited to growing liquorice shrubs, the roots of which produce the juice that’s made into the sweets.
Local children used to chew and suck the roots for a free taste, which was probably a lot better for their teeth! Having once been given a present of a liquorice root as a child, I can tell you the flavour’s milder and it lasts pretty much forever. Also, you feel a bit daft if anyone sees you chewing on a twig.
Although the liquorice fields have now disappeared, the town is still proud of its, ahem, roots. If you’re in the area on Sunday 8th July, why not pop along to the Liquorice Festival?
Fun (and temporarily blackened teeth) for all the family!
When I wrote Pleasures With Rough Strife, an m/m novelette set in the 1920s, I used Pontefract much as the Australian soap Neighbours used to use Melbourne – as a place for people to disappear to!
It was still dead dark in the forest, hardly a scrap of moonlight to find your way by, but Danny knew his way through these woods better than he knew his own face, and he recalled a big old oak tree set in a clearing that had a grand patch of mistletoe growing on it. It hung down from the branches like—well, Danny wasn’t much good with poetic descriptions and the like, but what it reminded him of most was the time he and Billy Wainwright had broken into the abandoned cottage next to the orchard for a lark. They’d crept into the pantry and found a wasp’s nest that was bigger around than both of them put together. They’d stared at it open-mouthed for a moment as the wasps started to swarm angrily on being disturbed. And then they’d both yelled out loud and run like buggery.
Danny grinned at the memory, though regret twisted in his gut just a little. Billy wasn’t around anymore. He’d gone off to Pontefract to train up as a stonemason, and he’d met a local lass there and married her. Two kids already, though he wasn’t but a couple of years older than Danny himself. Of course, the first one had been the reason they’d wed so quick. Danny had been hurt, at first, when he’d heard the news, but it weren’t like Billy could’ve married him, was it now?
Writing the sequel, provisionally titled Iron Gates of Life, I decided the place deserved a bit of page time. I’d give you an excerpt but unfortunately it’s a bit spoilery!
Researching the story, I was indebted to this website: http://www.pontefractus.co.uk/index.htm which contains a wealth of information, chiefly in the form of personal recollections by Pontefract residents. Some of the memories of early poverty in the days before the welfare state are particularly moving.
Stone breaking at Pontefract workhouse, 1920s.
Writer of (mainly) m/m romance, and fearless killer of bunnies.
Find me at: www.jlmerrow.com