Look. I know I live in the countryside now – far from the stuttering flow of newly ‘smart’ motorways, the lung-busting air pollution, the hanging veil of dirt my once-suburban self was accustomed to. But it’s not perfect. We still have our crosses to bear, a level of discomfort.
Sometimes, though – okay rarely, but sometimes – I wonder whether life wasn’t simpler with filthy windows and bumper-to-bumper exhaust fumes and asthma. At least I knew what to expect.
Welcome then to Cockermouth, ‘gem’ town in the magnificently bonkers borough of Allerdale. Which, in turn, is in Cumbria to the north west of England, for readers further afield.
We expect a bit of slurry in our potholes, floodwater gushing from our leaf-blocked drains, the squished remains of furry creatures lodging in our tyre treads. And mud. We definitely expect a certain amount of mud.
When it comes to traffic, our five or six-car hold ups are legendary. Keep you waiting for whole minutes at a time. And tractors, of course, splattering our windscreens with who knows what.
We’re fully acclimatised to masticating sheep too, standing their ground, just round the corner, centre lane. Like they own the place.
Two-way traffic lights? We love a two-way traffic light! Three-way even better, because then – then, we might get to sit through several cycles, as the sensors get themselves in a pickle, meditating on the beauty of Cumbria, breathing that slurried air deep into our bellies. At one with the sod.
Yes, this is Cockermouth, a bustling little town, still struggling back onto its now fully-evolved webbed feet after two floods in quick succession (and a several-hundred-year history of flooding before that), a centre of excellence in many ways, bursting with independent artisan shops, enterprising businesses, excellent restaurants, history, creativity and coffee. We have a lot of coffee.
Sadly, thanks to all that water charging through in 2015, just as things were (sort of) getting back to normal after the previous flood of 2009, many of those independent retailers have had to close, unable to afford the cost, or bear the effort, of picking themselves up from all that silt and shit and starting again.
Those who stayed have seen footfall reduced – for which I assume they mean takings – not least because of road repairs and diversions and skips as far as the eye could see, which kept visitors out of the town for so long, they eventually forgot where we were, preferring the easier option of, I don’t know, maybe somewhere they can reach without too much hassle and park easily and conveniently, at little cost.
So what do they do, the wonks who sit at their desks in council offices, biding their daily time to the end of each working day and ultimate retirement, doggedly digging their heels in on every daft decision they ever make?
They up the ante in their apparent determination to destroy a town which clearly did them wrong in some previous life. That’s what.
First, they hedge us in with multiple building developments around the town, some of which they cleverly build on or around designated flood plain – despite evidence this might not be a good idea – adding another sodden straw to the weary backs of home and business owners downstream, already living their lives with one fearful eye on the barometer and their metaphorical bags packed.
People, say the wonks, need homes. They’re buying them aren’t they? So we must be right.
Well yes. Except the number of long term vacant properties in Allerdale – by definition ‘not new’ – has risen exponentially over the last two years, neck and neck with the new builds.
So maybe people here don’t actually ‘need homes’, they just ‘want’ a new one. Which is fair enough – I love an integrated kitchen diner and a soft close loo seat as much as the next woman – but don’t try to kid us this is growth for a growing population. It’s not. It’s growth at the expense of the sort of properties which give this town its character, make it so aspirational. The very USP those property developers use in their glossy brochures.
Second, as a consequence of all this building activity, they send contractors’ wagons rattling over fragile Victorian bridges and round tight little bends, scattering pedestrians and carving ever deeper booby traps in the already crumbling tarmac.
Eventually, reaching that tipping point when the prospect of getting sued by some bolshy motorist outweighs the need to keep their fingers in their ears and hum, they affect some repairs, chucking a bit of rubble in the holes, topped off with a sliver of tarmac.
Later that same day, Mr Elliott and his road sweeper hisses up and down the kerb, tasked with ‘cleaning up’ the mud, fallen from the wheels of the contractors’ vehicles – also neatly hoovering off the sliver of tarmac. And thus, the circle is complete.
Third, they raise the cost of parking, or add tariffs and limitations where none previously existed, further deterring visitors. Locals, meanwhile, resort to guerrilla tactics, determined to park where the hell they like, when they like, thank you very much. And who can blame them?
Fourth, not content with limiting the number of visitors by other means, they set about destroying what’s left of the town’s independent retail trade through the steady drip drip drip of planning applications from a succession of cheap and cheerful big name retailers. How many bargain basement stores does one small town need for God’s sake? A number without limit it would seem.
I have not yet understood why a borough council which insists on building homes which only executives and well-heeled pensioners can afford – at the expense of ‘affordable homes’ – appears dead set on reducing its retail offering to a series of identikit ‘pound stores’ and questionable food outlets.
One of these proposals, on the edge of town, will inevitably come with free parking, luring shoppers away from the unique diversity of retail, food and drink on offer in the centre, towards a one-stop nirvana of homogeneity not unlike every other shopping ‘shed’ in every other town.
Fifth, they (finally) decide to undertake proper road repairs, entirely closing one of the two main roads into Cockermouth – failing to fully inform residents, some of whom left their homes last Monday morning to find a road closed sign at the bottom of their only route into town – and installing a tortuous five-mile diversion which involves heading in the direction of Keswick, via winding narrow lanes, before turning left onto the A66 at Embleton and entering the town by the other route. All the two and three-way traffic lights must have been in use elsewhere that day.
It’s been fun to note that this particular road closure failed to impress local residents who simply scooted round the barriers and warning triangles to rattle along the scraped highway, dodging raised manhole covers, signage and sandbags, past high vis workers and thrumming plant hire, using the road, regardless.
Over the weekend, one week in, a two-way traffic light appeared. Normality and freedom of access temporarily resumed. By Monday, however, the lights had gone and renegade road users would be hard-pressed to duck past the now double rows of barriers and ‘sentry’ vehicles parked across their exits.
Meanwhile, the response to one resident who dared to complain was that any resident who felt uncomfortable using the alternative routes should speak to the ‘traffic marshals’ on site to ‘be escorted through the site when safe to do so’. Be advised, he warned, this ‘could mean a delay of up to an hour’.
They were trying their best, he said, to be as accommodating as possible without halting the progress of an ‘already tight works schedule’ (due to last four weeks) adding, in the manner of an exasperated parent, that ‘the more we stop to let residents through the closure, the longer the road will be closed’.
Which rather misses the point that in order to get from their homes to the diverted route, local residents have to enter the ‘restricted sector’ anyway.
Or they could simply stay at home for four weeks.
Prior to this, for some weeks now these traffic wizards have also been strangulating the passage of traffic past the site of the soon-to-be Lidl, with a one-way system that even limits access to the emergency vehicles at the fire station and the mountain rescue base – which now have to do an entire circuit of the town, running the gauntlet of sleeping policemen, double yellow parkers, unsuspecting pedestrians, buses, delivery wagons and stray contractors’ vehicles.
And then, coming in at number six, they divert the contractors’ wagons. Easy passage through town now barred, these now take the scenic route through the lanes – a route objected to at the planning application stage of the Strawberry Grange development, due to safety concerns.
This winding, rough-grass verged, barely wider-than-single lane highway is wholly unsuitable for heavy, two-way traffic. In a head-to-head between a domestic vehicle and a thundering wagon, it is invariably the domestic vehicle which is left trembling in the ditch, scraping along the hedgerow, willing itself smaller. I know. I’ve been in it.
Admittedly, this arrangement has one advantage: the inadvertent widening of the lane as the wagons scour their way along the verges, carving new edges.
But then they achieve this by dumping clods of newly-mined mud across the tarmac to their off side, booby traps for smaller vehicles, cyclists and runners. To every silver lining, a cloud.
My worry is that somewhere along the way, during this catalogue of road repairs, traffic chaos and mud, some unsuspecting motorist or cyclist or runner, heading down these once-quiet lanes, will meet head on with a verge-splattering wagon and suffer serious injury.
Quite apart from the difficulties emergency services or recovery vehicles might have accessing such an incident, the cost to any human being hurt in this way could be enormous. Life changing. Possibly final.
Is that what it will take before someone at Wonk HQ finally sees sense and considers the bigger picture? Or looks at a map of the entire area before making these decisions?
Or is this just another volley in the war of attrition against a town which has consistently – with patience, wisdom and the confidence of long experience – spoken out against its planners and chief executives?
It’s almost as though they wish to punish us for daring to oppose them.