25th August 2016
Back last August while staying with the family in Beverley, a weary 320 miles of monotonous motorway driving from home, we found ourselves with a free day while the family were at work /school.
We have long been curious to visit Scunthorpe across the far side of the Humber estuary from Hull. Long the butt of silly jokes the town must have something going for it surely? For me too, there was the prospect of a ride on the top deck of an East Yorkshire bus across the Humber suspension bridge, that long silver thread of shimmering steel that stretches into the far distance to the Lincolnshire shore of the Humber. Usually when we cross I am driving so for once I cherished the thought of a birds-eye view down onto the ruffled grey waves far below where container ships and continental ferries made their way up from the North Sea to the Port of Hull, or downriver to the North Sea and the ports of Holland and Germany. Back in the 1980s I remember watching “Blue Peter” as the bridge was being constructed. Here the lady presenter swung from ropes at a dizzying height above the water as she struggled in high winds along swaying steel girders to bring the magnificent story of the bridge's construction into the homes of young viewers. The result is quite as magnificent and exciting as expected and I relished the idea of a bus ride over the bridge and along beside the reed beds and marshes on the far side of the estuary until we turned inland to deposit morning shoppers returning from Hull back to the village squares of their picturesque little Lincolnshire villages with their ancient churches, cottage gardens and friendly pubs.
Scunthorpe's bad press is not completely justified. The main industry and source of employment is from the steel works. Perhaps it was here that many of the components of the Hull suspension bridge were cast. Nowadays however the price of steel has dropped as world markets are flooded by cheap Chinese steel and the industry has suffered with consequential job losses. Nine hundred jobs were lost in the town in 2015 alone.
Scunthorpe owes its existence to the development of the industry back in the 19th century in an otherwise sparsely occupied agricultural landscape. Until recently the steel works were managed by “Tata Steel Europe” but now trade as “British Steel plc.” They have the unenviable reputation of being one of the worst environmental polluters in Britain.
By the time we reached Scunthorpe's bus station we realised just what a cosmopolitan town we were visiting. There were some half dozen Polish shops selling pickled cabbage, potato dumplings and even curious freezerbags of what appeared to be curly pigs tails. Street corners had Asian or Chinese supermarkets selling exotic spices and curries, strange vegetables that were quite new to us, sweet sticky cakes, rice, noodles, woks, wooded sieves and so much more.
Later as we explored we were very conscious that all these shops each served their own clientèle and were not quite as multicultural as we thought. Asian shops served Indian customers in saris and sandals while the oriental stores catered for the differing needs of their own customers. Both claimed to be International however and we thoroughly enjoyed pottering amongst the shelves of exotic foodstuffs and exploring the frequently strange and mysterious contents of the deep freezers.
At a crossroads as the bus entered the town there was a Polish community centre on one corner, a mosque on another with a Sikh temple diagonally across from it. Now that surely is cultural integration! I thought it wonderful. First impressions at least were that Scunthorpe seems to have welcomed economic migrants and taken them to its heart.
The centre of Scunthorpe is spotlessly clean if uninspiring. If only the rest of our cities were like it! There were signs asking residents to play their part in keeping the city clean by not feeding the birds. It works! There are no pigeons and consequently no bird poo, lime or filthy feathers. And everyone seems willing not to drop cigarette ends, chewing gum and packaging. It really was refreshing and pleasant walking through the town! The shops in the centre though are largely chain stores and ubiquitous to most British towns.
People appear to get along happily together in public areas such as schools, parks, city centre stores, theatres and cinemas. However, each nationality has its own shops, places of worship, clubs etc. Cafes each seem to cater for their own clientèle. In the town centre the market cafes sell the usual British fare of pasties, pies, and chips with everything, along with baked beans. Fried breakfasts and bacon butties are available in general cafes where the customers are mainly rather corpulent, white and British. Other cafes catered more for the Indian community but for us the real delight was discovering a Polish restaurant selling what we know as Zeppelins. We had these in Lithuania and have never, ever forgotten them. They were the most cholesterol laden meals we have ever, ever eaten! We just had to try them again.
The ambiance in the restaurant was a far cry from the wooden benches crowded with headscarved housewives at the market stall in Vilnius however! In Scunthorpe we were the only customers and there were spotless white table cloths, vases of flowers and velvet padded chairs around the interior with platitudes in verse painted on the walls.
We almost slunk away in mild disappointment but were spotted by a Polish gentleman reading the newspaper. He said something in Polish and disappeared to get their English speaking waitress. She was charming but flustered. She later explained in rather halting and very picturesque English that usually they were busy of an evening when the place was packed with Poles enjoying a taste of home. They normally had very few English customers but use was increasing. We told her of our longing for zeppelins stuffed with pork swimming in cream and served with pickled cabbage, grated raw carrot and sliced cucumber. She told us we were missing one of the wonders of Polish cuisine and should try their gypsy omelette. In the end Ian had zeppelins and I asked for a gypsy omelette. We sort of shared them but we both ended up defeated, unable to finish either the perfect pork dumplings in cream or the thick, heavy, floury omelette filled with beef, red peppers and vegetables, both served with typical East European salads and accompanied by glasses of fizzy chilled water. The cooking was excellent and the price no more than for pasty chips and beans at the self-service café a few doors down.
Such a novelty were we that they asked if they could photograph us for their website on Twitter. We agreed in exchange for us photographing our Polish lunch for our friends to appreciate the amazing diversity to be found in Scunthorpe.
The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the museum, civic centre and the town's social and cultural centre in the redesignated parish church. Amongst the highlights on display here were the seven deadly sins in hammered felt and an Intergalactic Ray-gun Consultancy offering advice on how to repair your weapon! We suspect this latter display was a south Humberside joke but the sins of Gluttony, Lust and friends were part of a workshop showcasing local art.
Late afternoon the rain began and we decided to call it a day. We returned to the bus station for the ride back to Hull alongside the estuary and, ant-like, back along the thread of bright steel suspended high above the Humber, linking Lincolnshire with Yorkshire.
We left Scunthorpe, with its ethnically diverse population behind, feeling full of contentment and heavy Polish Zeppelins. We were indeed “Totally Polished”!