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Friday, 12 May 2017

Perspective

I am lucky to have two homes in England; one a flat in Wapping with outlook to the Thames just east of Tower Bridge, and the other in the middle of Bakewell, which is one of the nicest little towns in the country.

I moved job, from Sheffield to London - and from academic life to a professional institute - in 1989, and have been in Wapping ever since. In 1986 I acquired a home in the Peak District, just outside Bakewell, and have retained my connection with the area ever since, Both homes are fully equipped, so I travel between the two with only a briefcase.

Both communities, Wapping and Bakewell, have experienced significant demographic change over the past three decades; and I have been privileged to live through the changes in both places. Both have seen a significant breakdown of multi-generational  indigenous British families. In Wapping, as the former warehouses became expensive flats and as more new-build luxury apartments were constructed, so the prices of former council flats that had been sold to private buyers also rose dramatically. The construction of the Canary Wharf complex to the east of Wapping meant that the former London Docks area became a highly desirable base for living [at least on weekdays] equidistant from the City and Canary Wharf. Old dockers [and their wives] who had not moved east to Dagenham or Buckhurst Hill have mostly died. Almost all their children and grandchildren live outside London, even though a very large proportion of them still work in London. In the 'eighties and early 'nineties, an incomer to Wapping [still a relatively rare beast], who used the local shops, pubs and church was quickly accepted into conversations; and I was astonished within a few weeks to encounter people in the street [whom I did not recognise] greeting me with a cheery "'allo, Dave!"
The survivors from among those 'old Wappiners' still greet me, and I able to return the salutation to them, but it is an increasingly rare phenomenon: though it still happens on a daily basis.

While it was possible, before the millennium, to predict with considerable accuracy who would be in each pub  in Wapping, and thus what the conversation would be; and often to look forward to it; that entire scene has changed, One pub has opened - the Captain Kidd, with a wonderful riverside beer garden - and four have closed: the Scots Arms,the China Ship, 'Bullins' aka the Three Swedish Crowns and the Jolly Sailor. Only in two of the surviving pubs is there anything like a traditional bar-room conversation, and that only occasionally. The excellent butchers and bakers shops are at least as busy as ever, but with a new clientele, Most of the pubs thrive on catering and on Wapping becoming something of a 'destination' thanks to the excellent upgrade of the Overground East London Line and to events at Tobacco Dock. Wapping is wealthier and more orderly than at any time in its history: but the docklands character that I was privileged to see [albeit two decades after the docks closed] has entirely gone.

Bakewell has undergone similar changes in the same period. It is much more intensively a residential town, with a large population of reasonably affluent pensioners. Almost all the pupils from the outstanding Lady Manners school who go into further and higher education make their careers outside the Peak. Employment opportunity for other under twenty-fives is limited to the council, the cattle market, the shops and the pubs. Shops and pubs are focused on the millions of visits to the town that are made by the millions of people who live within a day-visit distance of Bakewell in greater Manchester, Sheffield, Chesterfield, Nottinghamshire, Leicester, Derby and Staffordshire. Local residents can use the facilities, at the prices that are set for the tourist market - and many do, within budgetary limits -but they also travel to Chesterfield, Sheffield or Derby for competitive prices. Most of the pubs are now good quality restaurants: though a couple of them still welcome conversing local non-diners. Like Wapping, Bakewell is more affluent and orderly than ever in its past.

Wapping without the docks is a purposeless place where it is good to live; and so is Bakewell. Most of the locals who are to be seen about Bakewell are not farmers or engineers [which were the trades on which the town thrived in past centuries] but employees in the service sector. The place is prettier than ever, but the spirit is infinitely weaker.

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