Today, the Olympic torch makes its way from Sheffield to the Lincolnshire seaside town of Cleethorpes, passing through my home town of Rotherham en route – though you have to be up nice and early to watch it go past. Rotherham is one of those towns that has become a byword for a lack of glamour among certain writers and broadsheet journalists (Grace Dent, I’m looking at you), because – well, everything Northern is grim and post-industrial, isn’t it?
It didn’t help that the town also achieved a certain notoriety a few years back when the story hit the national news that a couple of mums had been buying fast food for the children at Rawmarsh Comprehensive and passing it through the school gates, since the pupils weren’t allowed out at lunchtime. The story prompted chef Jamie Oliver, a passionate supporter of the concept of nutritious, quality school meals, to set up Jamie’s Ministry of Food in the town centre, with the aim of inspiring Rotherham’s residents not only to learn how to cook, but to pass on what they’d learned to others. Oliver recruited some of the participants for his project at a Rotherham United home game – and it’s a brave man who can stand on the pitch and ask for volunteers while a couple of thousand people chant “You fat bastard” at him. But the project thrives, and now has bases in a number of English towns and cities, spreading the message that eating well is possible for everyone, even with limited time or a low budget.
You’re still probably taking away from this the impression that I come from some post-industrial wasteland with little to recommend it. It’s true that the centre of town no longer rings to the clanging strikes of a rolling mill in action (a sound you’ll also hear at the beginning of Billy Joel’s Allentown, about a town which could, spiritually, be twinned with Rotherham) and there’s almost nothing left in the way of mining throughout South Yorkshire, the area still produces specialist steels, and Sheffield’s society of Cutlers continues to uphold the standards of quality in cutlery and steel (and has recently elected its first ever female Master Cutler – and you have to love anyone with Master in their title, man or woman…).
The centre of the town is currently undergoing extensive regeneration, though it’s always had sites of historic interest to recommend it. Rotherham Minster, still more commonly known to those of us who were brought up there as All Saint’s Church, has stood in its current form since the 15th century and has been described in the Pevsner Architectural Guides as “the best perpendicular church in the country”. Of equal significance is the Chapel of our Lady Bridge, one of only four bridge chapels remaining in England (the others are in Wakefield, Bradford-on-Avon and St Ives in Cambridgeshire).
A little way out of the town centre is Thomas Rotherham College, the former boys’ grammar school, is named to commemorate Thomas de Rotherham, archbishop of York in the 1480s and 90s, and ambassador to France during King Edward IV. The school was founded in 1483, and celebrated its 500th anniversary while I was taking my A-levels there, in a stunt which involved a bunch of us being rounded up and photographed standing on the lawn in front of the college, positioned to form the figures 500. Hey, whoever said the 1980s were sophisticated?
But the newest site of interest in Rotherham is the New York Stadium, the new home of Rotherham United, which the club will be moving back to after spending four years playing at the Don Valley Stadium, a few miles down the road in Attercliffe and the venue where today’s torch relay begins. Though it might seem a pretentious name for a football ground on first hearing, the area in which the stadium is built was historically known as New York. Not only that, but the Guest and Chrimes foundry, which used to occupy the land, was responsible for making some of New York’s iconic fire hydrants. The new season kicks off in August, and I for one can’t wait to step inside the stadium for the first time.
So that covers the town; what about the people? Rotherham’s best known current exports include children’s TV comedy duo the Chuckle Brothers (“To me!” “To you!”), Dean Andrews (Ray Carling in Life on Mars and Ashes To Ashes), top Premier League referee Howard Webb and Muse bassist Chris Wolstenholme – and we can also boast a successful Olympian from the town, Peter Elliott, who won silver in the 1500 metres in Seoul, back in 1988.
So that’s Rotherham in a nutshell – maybe just another Northern town, but one that will always in my heart, however long I spend away from the place. I’ve just used it as the setting for a story, Looking Out For Trouble, which will be appearing in Xcite Books’ forthcoming Bad Boys anthology. The story of a bouncer who finds himself having to play the hero for a cute young man with no immediate sense of personal danger, it’s an attempt to show you can find the right guy even in the least promising surroundings. Here’s a short extract:
Though it’s been a quiet night – Rotherham on a Friday night may never be quite the screaming, puking, knicker-flashing war zone some town centres can become when the drink starts flowing, but the bad weather’s either keeping people at home, or they’ve settled on their favourite club and stayed there, rather than hopping from one venue to the next as they otherwise might. When you’ve spent an hour getting your hair just right and you haven’t bothered with a coat to save on cloakroom charges, you’re not going to ruin your look by stepping out in a rainstorm.
Not that I mind. Some nights, it’s nice not to have to intervene and separate two beered-up lads spoiling for a fight while they wait to get inside, or fend off the attentions of girls who think they can flirt their way to the head of the queue. Sometimes, it’s more than just idle chat: I’ve had more than one phone number pushed into the pocket of my overcoat, or scrawled in eyeliner pencil on the back of my hand, so many promises of a fuck I’ll never forget if only I respond. Gaz and the lads laugh when I tell them, and claim it’s down to this bad boy vibe I give off, with my close-cropped hair, diamond ear stud and stubbled chin. I don’t see it myself, but then I’ve never really been too concerned about the image I present to women.
Checking my watch, I see there’s still more than 40 minutes till I come to the end of my shift. Already people are beginning to stagger out of the club in twos and threes, calling their farewells to each other in slurred voices, louder than they’d usually use, not yet adjusted to the difference between the thumping music inside and the silence on the street out here. Girls’ heels clack in staccato rhythm on the pavement as they dash down the hill in the direction of the nearest minicab office. A lone car drives past, tyres hissing against the wet road surface, pulling to a long, frustrating halt at lights still set to control the flow of daytime traffic. The odd person wishes me goodnight as they leave, but most of them don’t even see me; they ever only notice the door supervisor on their way inside. I can never decide whether or not I like it that way.
Elizabeth Coldwell lives and writes in London (and plans to cheer the torch on when it reaches Newham in July). She can be found at The (Really) Naughty Corner – http://elizabethcoldwell.blogspot.com