Remembering Your Roots


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?

–          Pleasures With Rough Strife

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: 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.

JL Merrow

Writer of (mainly) m/m romance, and fearless killer of bunnies.
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About jlmerrow

JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea. She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again. Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne. She writes across genres, with a preference for contemporary gay romance and the paranormal, and is frequently accused of humour. Find JL Merrow online at:

13 responses »

  1. Well, it really only gets a mention! I actually knew very little about the place before researching it for the sequel. 🙂 I did like bringing back Billy for Iron Gates, and getting a chance to flesh him out just a little.

  2. I’m from Pontefract! It’s my home town. Here’s a fact for you about Pontefract: It used to be in the Guinness boom of records for have the most pubs in a square mile. It was so famous for it that people used to come from all over the place to sample the pub crawl. Needless to say Ponte on a Saturday night could get a but rough. I was a barmaid there during my holidays at uni and there were a few hair raising moments after last orders were called!

    • Oh, fantastic! When I was younger I used to be fascinated by the name of the place – it seemed so exotic (I didn’t get around much!)

      I’m constantly amazed at the number of pubs there used to be in this country. When I look at the history of my village, it seems every other house on the High Street was a pub. I guess that’s what they mean when they say that in the days before television, people made their own entertainment…. 😉

    • I like to think of it as more a sort of pocket dimension, where they can be stored until needed again! 😉
      England has a lot of places with intriguing names, doesn’t it?

  3. Mmm licquorice. There used to be a corner sweetie shop that sold bundles of 5 twigs done up with string. That would last all week. 🙂 Pontefract cakes were fantastic. I haven’t had one for years. Oh the memories!

    • Have you noticed traditional sweetie shops are making a comeback? I’ve seen a few around lately, although you have to buy the sweeties by the gram, not the quarter these days.
      Don’t think they had liquorice twigs on sale, though! 😉

      • I wonder if they will go back to those triangular bags? The last sweetie always used to get stuck in the point. 😀 happy days

        Mind you, I’m in Wales. They charge for bags here.

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