Breakfasting on the Bridge
1982 started well. I’d just bought a house in Eton Street that was completely knackered, but it was dirt cheap and I fell in love with the location. My plan was to improve it slowly at weekends and during breaks from a comfortably dull job as a further education lecturer in Birmingham. Ultimately, maybe, I’d up sticks, get back to my West Riding roots and become in some vague and leisurely way reborn.
Then 1982 turned nasty. Back home in Leeds, my father began behaving oddly, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and in five ghastly months was dead. Three days later, my mother had a stroke. She recovered, but as a permanent invalid.
All change. I chucked up my job and my Birmingham maisonette and moved full time into Eton Street, to be closer to my mother. The house was still a wreck, and I now faced several months of gutting and renovating it with no money left or coming in and all my possessions in one spectacular heap in the (only) downstairs room. I was single so could rough it, but this was medically hazardous roughing it. A stranger to physical work, I had to get seriously stuck in before my lungs clapped out from old plaster and soot, and the reek of the dog pee that had rotted the attic floorboards.
I was also a stranger to depression, but felt it creeping in my direction. In Leeds my mother’s recuperation was a struggle, while in Hebden Bridge no amount of hard graft seemed to be making my new home any more habitable.
The Old Bridge kept me from cracking up. I got into the habit of breakfasting first on bacon butties and mugs of tea at Barker’s Restaurant, overlooking Bridge Gate. For my second course I would sit on the river wall, relax and swallow whole the bridge and all its centuries. I’d wonder how generations of brassed off, weary blokes like me coped with a three steps forward, two steps back existence. I concluded that they just got on with it, even though many of them had far worse to deal with than would ever come my way. And for an investment of about fifteen minutes each morning, it did the job. It blew away all the dark stuff and fired me up for the rest of the day.
In time I could organise my own breakfast, so spent less time at the bridge. But one day as I crossed it, an epiphany - it dawned that I now had the life I wanted, in a new home town I’d only leave in a box. Many years and three children later, that feeling shows no sign of going away.
And when old friends started passing through, I’d take them in the evening down to the river. We’d sit on that wall, with a pint from the White Swan, and look at that bridge. I’d say, ‘This is what it’s been about.’ And they all got it.