I hate Preston. I did when I came here as a student to visit my mates. I did when I came last January on a one-day work-related round-trip. And I do tonight when I’m here again on a return work visit, passing under the pigeon crap covered ‘Welcome to Lancashire’ red rose above the station exit. Only this year, I need to stay overnight.
It’s a soulless, bleak town. The wind whistles through the bland, exposed shopping and business area propelled unremittingly down the valleys from featureless surrounding hills. The buildings are unambitious, dull and utilitarian, filled with clone-town-Britain retail outlets and coffee purveyors. There is a lot of infill development conceived in the 60’s and 70’s as part of the Central Lancashire New Town, of which Preston is the hub (in a theoretical sense), granted City status in 2002.
There aren’t many cities and large towns I dislike in their entirety. Manchester, all muscular and assertive civic and commercial architecture comes close. This isn’t an ant-Lanky thing: Wakefield is grim and further south Aylesbury has a lot to answer for. But Preston remains top of the list.
The gaff I’m staying in just about puts the tin hat on it. I plumped for a budget hotel round the corner from my meeting venue tomorrow. It’s positively the last time I try slumming it. The shoe-box room at the top of the house is mon repose this evening. The non-en-suite is two floors below. Lots of potential for stair case embarrassment in the wee small hours!
It’s stifling hot even in the middle of January. So I’ve opened the windows to let in some petrol-soaked air. The boy racers in fat-exhausted Nissan Micras and blacked out Ford Fiestas at the traffic lights below my window are taking on the many and often blue lights and sirens of the emergency services with their engine revs and drum n bass. It’s drowning out my telly and – almost - my neighbours’ too.
Mind you, there’s free wi-fi here. Can’t complain about that. So I’ve cranked up the laptop. But suddenly, I’m getting serious pixilation and sound cut outs on the telly and the egg timer of death on the ‘pooter. Looks like the thin beam of ether power afforded my room is being split between these two greedy applications. Who knows what it’s doing to my neighbours reception.
Maybe I should whisper through the hardboard walls and ask.
Maybe I should cut my losses and turn in. There’s always brekkie to look forward to!
Wake up this morning feeling surprisingly refreshed, despite the cloying mattress and shifting bed frame. Abluting is incident free and I enjoy a pretty good breakfast in an airy dining room with bottles of brown sauce openly on display. Always a hallmark of respect. So, after a successful meeting and in good spirits I think I should turn a more charitable eye to my host city. Give it another chance.
Well I try. The 20 minute walk back to the city centre is depressing enough: Garstang Road quickly becomes a stream of vacuous, anonymous DIY and trade stores. Carpets, tiles, plant, paint, timber, brick, skips. Vast car parks, cheap warehousing, strewn litter, skips (again). A few derelict buildings and disused land to break up the monotonous vista.
The city centre is not going to lift my spirits, I can tell: A concrete bus station surrounded by a temporary 6ft high metal grille, high rise car parks, concrete wasteland offices, vehicle dominated entry and crossing points. The crumbling 70’s guildhall is an eyesore. Even the Victorian statements of civic pride built by subscription on the back of the successful cotton industry are austere and forboding, crammed into narrow streets and pokey squares. The slab-sided granite block museum presents an inaccessible, moss-festooned wall to the front of the square.
I give up and climb aboard a train home. The people are this place’s only redeeming feature. I’ve encountered nothing but charm and friendliness. I also remind myself that it is surrounded by some wonderful countryside. It’s good for a quick getaway, too.