Leeman Road demolitions: sentimental version

[a more factual piece to follow, if I can find the energy/time. It’s December, everything’s grim, I’m not being paid for this and frankly I can’t be bothered. But this was from the heart, so do read on … ]

. . . . .

One of the nicest things about having this website for so many years is that people keep in touch and alert me to things I may have missed. Like the demolition taking place on Leeman Road, of the workshops in the yard near where the road bends. It still has a sign at the entrance indicating that the ‘Permanent Way Engineer’ occupies this site, though such a person/department appears to have left long ago, and no doubt by now has a more modern and comparatively soulless job title.

I was in two minds about going down there. I was relying on Darren and Nathan on flickr.com, who had told me about it and were closer and had taken photos already. But then I thought I should go back that way, as those buildings were some of the most interesting I noticed back in 2004, when I was in search of industrial heritage. Back then I would have just called it ‘bits of old industry’, or not ennobled it with any kind of title. But we live and learn.

When I wandered into the yard one afternoon this week I was waiting for someone to ask ‘Can I help you’, though I’ve wandered in before and no one ever has. But now the place is full of activity, as demolition sites generally are. So this time I was asked what I was doing, and I had a bit of a chat with the man who asked me, about what the buildings were used for originally. Our conversation included the word ‘fettling’. A grand word I’d never heard before, and probably won’t hear again in a conversation, as there’s not as much fettling going on these days, and not much chance of future fettling as the fettling workshops are now a pile of bricks.

I didn’t stand there crying at the loss of this industrial heritage. I just took a few photos and toddled off, rather disappointed that I hadn’t managed, then or at an earlier date, to get a better photo of the lovely old wooden signage.

It was only later, when I eventually managed to find the relevant records on the council’s planning pages, that I felt really bad. Those buildings were significant, they were a heritage asset, and there were some very strong statements in the report I read that were really quite depressing.

This is of course a place of work, which has had bits added to it over the years, various 20th century workshops and toilet blocks. But in the middle of it are the 19th century remains. Presumably that part I took all the photos of earlier, with its curved doorways and wooden signs.

These buildings are being demolished because despite being of local significance they weren’t listed. They had no protection at all. I believe the railway historian Bill Fawcett has carried out a recording exercise before demolition. Several urban explorers have also carried out their own. I did my own ‘recording exercise’ of sorts, which now seems inadequate.

As I understand it, these buildings are being taken down not because the land is needed at present for development, but just because they’re inconvenient and apparently ‘unsafe’. As they’re no longer in use they would appear to present no risk, only to people trespassing, who seem unlikely to sue.

But then, what do I know.

I know what I feel, the impression I have. Which is, that York doesn’t value its railway heritage as much as it should. We’ve managed to retain two massive redundant chocolate factory buildings, which will probably remain empty and redundant for a long while yet, presumably presenting the same risk, also being ‘unsafe’ as their fabric deteriorates further. But the planners and movers and shakers like the chocolate thing, it’s a bit ’sexier’.

I don’t have any personal links to that industry. The other important industry – more important than chocolate – was railways.

I realise we can’t keep everything. I also realise it’s silly to take it personally. But I did.

I know we’ve got the grand stuff, the station, the railway office buildings (remodelled and repurposed), some of the carriageworks buildings, but there isn’t that much left that feels connected to the railway history of the ‘ordinary working man’, if you like. I felt like that place did have that connection. Because railways isn’t just stations and trains, it’s all the infrastructure – the ‘permanent way’ and its associated buildings and structures. And signs on walls saying ‘Sawmill’ and ‘Boiler House’.

It’s all connected, to return to a refrain from a previous page. In this case it’s connected, for me, to 1996, when my brother lost his job at ABB (carriageworks), over the other side of this massive piece of railway land, this ‘teardrop’ of land. (Looking at an aerial view on Google maps makes it clear why it’s been called ‘the teardrop site’.) That ended 150 years of a family tradition. My brother had a skilled trade, our earlier railwaymen ancestors were labourers on the Permanent Way.

What’s being eradicated from this city is its working-class history, it seems to me. Other cities with more of an ‘industrial’ identity are proud of their industrial heritage. Not so here. We only keep it if we can sell it to tourists as something attractive to come to visit. We don’t keep it for ourselves. It’s not important.

So, by association, my history isn’t important. That’s how it feels. This city I’ve written about for so long, millions of words, doesn’t value the places I value. Or rather, the decision makers don’t. The people who email me feel as bad as I do.

I guess if I was a more dynamic kind of person I would have done something rather than just taking photos and writing about it. Many important historic buildings are saved by people banding together, lobbying, raising money. So as well as being left with a feeling of alienation from a place I care about so much, I was also left with a sense of personal failure. I should have realised last year, I should have done something … quite what I don’t know. Won the lottery and bought the place from Network Rail and turned it into a very large craft workshop?

I’ve had the benefit of an education, including three years at one of the country’s most highly-regarded universities. But I only have to look at my family tree, where railway platelayers for a few generations led to railway porter, eventually to white collar, West Offices, to know that it was quite impressive I got to Oxford at all. And why people like me maybe don’t end up as the decision makers, but instead end up taking photos, writing, just watching.

What I’ve been watching, since I came back from university, is a place that seemed more akin to Newcastle turning itself into something more akin to Harrogate.

The need for a song, with fettling in it

I’ve realised, while writing (or rather, while out for a walk in the middle of writing), that a traditional response to this feeling of loss is a song. A folk song, I guess. I can’t play an instrument and I can’t sing, but I thought of a few titles. I think the word mentioned earlier, which I fear will become obsolete, should be used. Perhaps:

‘We’ll go no more a-fettling, down Leeman Road’

Not quite right, is it. Leeman Road used to be called Thief Lane, so how about:

‘We’ll go no more a-fettlin’, down old Thief Lane’

As it’s Network Rail (great respecters of railway history, clearly) who applied to demolish these buildings, how about:

‘Network Rail they stole our soul, down by old Thief Lane,
I used to go a fettlin there, will never fettle again
Those metalled ways of the ‘Permanent’ days
When we used to build trains.’

Or something.

About Lisa @YorkStories

Lisa @YorkStories is the creator, administrator, and writer of content on www.yorkstories.co.uk. She can be contacted on this link or via Twitter, @YorkStories
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  1. “Fettling”,the filing of rough brass or cast iron castings,to eliminate sharp obtrusive lumps,and sometimes prepare the metal for paint spraying.
    It was my first year job as apprentice at Cooke,
    Troughton and Simms in 1946,fettling(with steel files),all rough brass castings,ready to paint,and by jove it was hard on my Grammar School hands!Skin worn thro’,and covered in plasters.
    You would have made a good skilled lady at the carriage works,with your ability to hit the ‘nail on the head’.

    Your words laud all that was best in Yorks industrial working past,sometimes forgotten or ignored,by the current powers that be,but thoroughly appreciated by this once ‘Working Class York Lad’.

  2. Memory provoking words… My family were all railway employed, my parents met while both worked for the railway, and they relocated to York as my father pursued his career.

    I remember at 16/17 calling into those yards with my school friend, picking something up from his father, been slightly in awe of the ‘manly’ environment, the metal, grease and oil, vans full of grubby, dirty men returning from a days work on the tracks somewhere, pools of rainwater in the concrete yard, all with a sheen of surface oil…

    and now? now we promote York as a ‘digital city’. An ‘industry’ whose product is ephmeral, often pointless (i know, i work in it…) and leaves no lasting legacy.

    I’d be proud to be creating websites for local industry, to help promote York in a worldwide market, but we don’t value these skills anymore, we don’t promote them, instead we wipe clean the legacy of these industries from our environment, we gentrify the streets for the ‘tourist industry’, we strive to make York a pretty place to visit.

    I’d rather we tried to create product of lasting value, created the opportunity for people to have worthwhile work, work that they could be proud of.

  3. Andy Tuckwell

    Lisa, you’re right and you put it so well. York seems to under-appreciate its C19th heritage so much. The medieval to C18th buildings are astounding and special of course, but the later stuff suffers – it’s as if there is no urgent need to protect any one street or building while there are ‘plenty more like it’ – until there aren’t!
    (A perfect example is the boatyard project – one of those precious, pleasant little corners which doesn’t need tidying up or remodelling.)

  4. YorkStories

    This page I was quite worried about (concerned that it was too sentimental/self-indulgent/personal) has been greatly enhanced and indeed made special by your comments, thank you.

    Great to hear from someone with personal experience of metal fettling – thank you Stephen :)

    Mallory, thanks for your evocative memories of visiting this place. The digital/ephemeral question is something I’ve drafted a page on some time back, in relation to this site, so more on that story later perhaps …

    Andy – interesting that you mention the ‘plenty more like it’ argument. I keep hearing this given as justification for the destruction of buildings which are not of national significance. They are of course often of great significance locally. The Local List (www.yorklocallist.org.uk) was supposed to help protect unlisted heritage assets like these, but hasn’t yet been adopted, and every year more of the buildings on the draft version are demolished.

  5. I was born in York (In Naburn to be accurate) but left aged 10 and have now lived outside the uk for 17 years. It’s sad to hear that those Buildings have been lost. It still makes me mad to see what a mess the NRM made of the loco shed. The building itself was as much an exhibit as the rolling stock in it. Now it looks like a typical out of town shopping centre the wouldn’t look out of place on Clifton Moor. For a city which should know the value of heritage more than most, too much has been allowed to change in my 50 years. The old goods depot opposite the loco is now practically the only building on Leeman road that my grandfather who died in 1969 would recognise.

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