On every road into the village where I'm from, there is a sign. "Denby Dale," it reads. "The Pie Village."
Each generation or so, for exactly 230 years – for reasons that aren't quite clear, and believe me: I have read up on this – my village has baked a massive meat and potato pie. This pastry snack is so vast that Guinness send someone along to take measurements, and then they put it in their book of records. The biggest pie in the world. Official.
Before it gets cut open, they parade it through the streets. The pubs open early and the roads are lined with bunting. It's a carnival of a day: frothy ale and 50p tractor rides, and the local Scouts running a tombola stand.
Twice in my life it's happened. The last one was the summer of 2000, to celebrate the millennium. Fifty-thousand people turned up. They came from across the country, into the four walls of our valley – population 2,143 – and they crowded down the Wakefield Road, just to get a glimpse of this big old pie on the back of an articulated lorry.
And when it passed, everyone fell in behind and followed it up to Farmer Buckley's field, the big one, off Dry Hill Lane, where they sliced it open and served it up, and where there was a stage with local bands playing and a helter skelter slide, and my nana sat all day in the deckchair my dad had carried up for her especially. At night, there were fireworks. It was T-shirt weather even at that hour.
I was a teenager then. It's all a blur now, and probably was even at the time. We were drinking from 10AM, my friends and I, and only seemed to pause to ride dodgem cars or mess about on straw bales or ask an Australian guy if he'd come all this way especially and feel like idiots when he explained, "Nah, lads, I live in the next village along."
I don't remember if the pie was nice. My mum says it was. She bought a commemorative plate and hung it on the kitchen wall.
I mention this nice and early because, in Denby Dale, you're never far from some reference to this eccentricity. The dish from the 1988 pie is on display outside the village school as some kind of, I don't know, tourist attraction? The one from 1964 sits on the main road. It's filled with flowers and slowly rusting. It’s right by the community centre. Which is called The Pie Hall.
There's a Pie Trail and a Pie Company and a shop, opposite the war memorial, that sells pie memorabilia. There's a pie burial ground too, up in Toby Wood. That's from 1887, when someone chucked a bunch of dead foxes into the bake, and when they cut the lid the smell was so bad they had to take it and throw it in quick lime. Then they mourned it with a funeral reading.
How do I know? Because we got taught it all in year four. We did half a term's worth of history on the Denby Dale Pie.
My relationship with my home village is probably pretty cliché.
I spent the first 18 years of my life vaguely bored and wishing to be somewhere else – and leaving as soon as I could – and I've spent ever since slowly coming to realise it might be just the kind of place a kid should grow up: fields and woods and pubs that serve you even if you look about 14, as long as you cause no bother. As long as you keep it fucking down a bit.
Denby Dale is in West Yorkshire, ostensibly in Huddersfield but isolated from the town really, 45 minutes away by bus. It has all the English staples: church, chip shop, cricket field and a permanent issue with parking on the main road. There's a butcher's and a tearoom and an old 19th century mill. The local supermarket is a six aisle Nisa.
The most notable thing about the place – apart from the fact its residents get teary over spoiled pies – is the massive, Grade II listed, 21-arch viaduct. Just look at it:
I'm ashamed to say this photo might capture the exact moment I realised how absolutely magnificent it actually is.
I think when something has always existed in your child world – when you have seen it every day since before you can remember – you don't stop and consider it. It just exists, and it does its job, and it should do, because it always has done. You don't think about it. You just get annoyed because the trains that are supposed to come along it never fucking turn up on time.
But looking at it now, credit where it's due: that is one mighty good-looking railway bridge. Truth be told, I find it astonishing that a group of Victorians, wanting to link nowhere more special than Huddersfield and Barnsley, would look at the logistical nightmare posed by this valley and, instead of going, "Nah, too hard," would build this piece of majesty. Compare that with today. You can't even get a railway line electrified in the north without Grant Shapps cancelling it on cost grounds.
From up the top there, all Denby Dale lies below. Coming in on the once-an-hour rattler from the south, the village suddenly appears, stretched out beneath you, all rooftops and chimney pots. "Look," I bore anyone I'm with, "you can see my parents' house from here."
Denby Dale predates the industrial revolution, but that was probably its golden age. The River Dearne – just a stream, these days – powered textile and cloth mills. It was a working village; never quaint; picturesque only in places; tolerant enough, I think, but not of fools or pretensions. It was hard and, to some extent, still is. In this corner of Yorkshire, an old-timer once told me, men were men, and so were women.
The other thing worth comment is how the place has grown every time I go back. There are always new homes tightly packed on the brown land where, once, we played army tig or rode bikes or, on really good nights, found discarded pornography to have a rifle through. There are now streets and estates where the fields used to start.
It's right it's this way, of course. People need homes and change means renewal. Places in flux are places with futures. But it still feels strange. Some developer built over my childhood hiding spots and racing tracks – they put open-plan kitchens where we had tucked-away dens – and what? They never thought to track me down and mention it?
Along similar lines, I had no idea my old nursery was basically derelict now. Here it is:
I made my first friend in the sandpit round back. I was wearing a builder's hard hat from the dress-up box and so was this other kid, and I figured if we were both being builders we should speak, like men on a building site would. And so, putting on a deep voice and mopping my brow, I repeated to him what I'd constantly heard the blokes working on next door's garage conversion say all that summer. I said: "Must be time for bloody tea."
And this kid, clearly not catching on that I was in character, started telling me about his actual favourite tea. About sausages, beans and chips. And not in a deep voice either, not pretending to be some hairy-arsed brickie. He was just actually talking to me about sausages. I remember thinking, and I'm paraphrasing here, 'This lad's bold, but there's no knocking his taste in food.'
The nursery became prominent in my life again a decade later when, aged 13, my friends and I took to spending Friday nights drinking.
We carried bottles of White Lightning onto the play area there and sat, on the slides and the balance beams, supping in the dark and the cold, partially because we were bored and because there should have been more youth facilities and because rural communities need to engage better with their young people. But mainly, I think, we went there with our cider because we just really liked getting battered.
As someone who's spent part of their adult life working on two regional newspapers, I've read – and written – a lot about how the best way to keep teenagers from hanging on streets is for communities to improve social provisions. But I'm not so sure. I think at that age, the local council could basically have built a replica Shea Stadium, got The Strokes headlining and put bouncy castles and glitter cannons in the wings, and my first question would still have been: how do we smuggle in the Frosty Jack?
I don't know if society can solve an attitude like that.
The contradiction here is I look back and remember having intense amounts of fun, but I regret it too.
What you don't realise is that you have all your life to get shitfaced, but, one day soon, you're going to wake up and be too old to play dob dob anymore. Sometimes I want to grab that kid and tell him: son, play more dob dob while you can.
In any case, we drank everywhere at some point: recs, woods, the cricket field, back gardens, front rooms, under the viaduct, down by the river and up by the church. The latter had a car park round the side, which once – long before cars existed – had been a clay tennis court, so there was a little banking behind it with rough stone steps up to rough stone seats, and you could sit there, and be aimless and wasted as good as anywhere. We climbed up onto the library roof once and drank there. It's only one storey, but still. Nice view. Nice views, boys! You can see the dentist and the Palace Tandoori from up here!
The Palace Tandoori was Denby Dale's first Indian restaurant. When it opened in the mid-90s they said no chance it would last. No chance! The pizza shop and the Chinese are enough. Some cunt smashed its windows after 9-11. But it's expanded constantly: upstairs, out back and into next door both ways. It's a wonderful place. They still do complimentary poppadoms and mint sauce, and you can't ask for more than that.
Perhaps Denby Dale's other headliner, along with the pie and the viaduct, is its cricket field. People are proud of this, even though it's the only cricket field I've ever seen that has slopes on three of its four sides. The outfield is so steep – I'm not making this up – people use it for sledging when it snows.
Safe to say, it requires a big hit to knock a boundary. It's a low scoring pitch, as best I understand
I've never played cricket there, but we often used its only flat part for football. The bit near the bowling green. Never on the wicket. We weren't animals.
I don't know why we chose to play there. There are enough recs with proper goalposts nearby. But the cricket pitch, with its slopes and bumps, and a couple of rucksacks for posts, was where we went. There were always good turn-outs, six or seven a side some nights; games going on until the street lights from Cuckstool Road were flickering on, and down there in the bowl of the outfield you couldn't see anything anymore; the eternal cry going up: "Next goal winner!" Even when the score was 16-0.
Once, we went next door into the bowling green itself and had a game there too. The surface was so rolled and clipped it was like a kick-about at Wembley. That's before we started playing, I mean. Not after. We tore it up pretty bad. I imagine the next week's bowls match would have been an unpredictable affair.
It's late afternoon when the photographer, Chris, and I finish up in The White Hart. It’'s free pool and juke box Tuesday afternoons, so if you're ever around and fancy a frame while listening to some Joshua Tree-era U2, fill your boots.
As I rack up I see Chris looking at black-and-white photos on the wall: Denby Dale Pie Day, 1928. Like I said, the references are never far away.
He asks me if I've learned anything coming back, and I probably don't articulate myself very well, and I'm not sure I'm going to do it any better now, but here’s the thing: what surprises me most is how, despite the fact I left this village almost half a life ago, and despite the fact I come back no more often than would be considered polite by my parents, I could still more or less draw you an exact map of the place. And on that map I could mark out pretty much every road name, friend's home, shop, ginnel, bridal path, bridge, business and even bus stop. If you told me two addresses – old ones, I mean, that existed before I left – I could tell you the quickest way between them by car or by foot. Put Google Maps away, duck. It won’t know about the cut-through off Bank Lane.
Fact is, I still know Denby Dale better than the city I have lived for the last eight years. I know it better than the neighbourhood where I bought my own first home. I will never again live there, and yet I suspect I'll always know it more intimately than any place I ever will.
Because I think, somehow, while you're bored and drunk and longing to be somewhere else, your hometown goes and embeds itself so deep into you that it remains there forever. Without even asking, it becomes an intangible, intractable part of who you are. You can't ever truly leave it. You can change, but not wholly: it's too late for that, and always was.
I explain all this to Chris, sort of, as we play pool at this table that hasn't moved in 20 years, and he listens and he nods, and there's a long pause.
"So," he says after a moment, "when exactly will they next make this giant pie again?"