My Yorkshire: Acclaimed poet Robert Powell on why Barnsley is one of the most underrated places in Yorkshire

Canadian-born Robert Powell is an acclaimed poet, performer and writer. He is Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He is working on a new novel, is married to Dianne. They have two sons and live in York.

What’s your first Yorkshire memory?

Taking the train from Manchester to Hebden Bridge with my friend, the photographer Martin Parr, in the mid-1970s. We became friends at Manchester Polytechnic. I also discovered Scarborough and Whitby with Martin and remember hearing the band play at the Spa in Scarborough. It felt as if I was listening to and watching the twilight of the British, it was so stuck in time.

What’s your favourite part of the county?

Barnsley town centre (Anouska Kay/Ross Parry)Barnsley town centre (Anouska Kay/Ross Parry)
Barnsley town centre (Anouska Kay/Ross Parry)

It is constantly changing. I love the mysterious smaller valleys around Hebden Bridge and I’m really fond of Barnsley, one of the county's most under-rated places. The town has undergone a renaissance and what they’ve done to the centre is an inspiration and a lesson to other communities. Right now, I'd have to say it's the coast along by Sewerby Hall, Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs. But my favourite will be somewhere different in a couple of months.

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What’s your idea of a perfect day, or a perfect weekend, out in Yorkshire?

Driving north or east from York, turning randomly left or right, avoiding the M62 and A1-M. Don't be afraid of B-roads and see where you end up. You’ll be certain to discover something new, perhaps inspirational – a church in the middle of nowhere, some standing stones, a memorial. Yorkshire is a county full of surprises.

What is your favourite walk?

Robert Powell - photo by Bruce Amos.Robert Powell - photo by Bruce Amos.
Robert Powell - photo by Bruce Amos.

Out of the front door of my house and along the River Ouse in York. I find that rivers articulate history and landscape and nature.

Which Yorkshire sportsperson, past or present, would you like to take for lunch?

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I'm not a great follower of sport but the recent rise of women's football has been a great development. So if any of our Yorkshire women on the England team – Rachel Daly, Beth Mead, Milly Bright – are free for lunch, I hope they'd indulge me.

Which Yorkshire stage or screen star, past or present, would you like to take for dinner?

From the past, the talented and complicated Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester, if she'd come along. From the present day, Sean Bean – famous yet I think under-rated as an actor. And I'd like to ask Michael Palin about how he keeps changing careers and thriving.

If you had to name your Yorkshire “hidden gem” what would it be?

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The Orangery, Wakefield – 18th century buildings and garden tucked out of sight right next to Wakefield Westgate station and shamefully disused. It was once a thriving cultural centre and now, well, it’s disgraceful how it has been allowed to deteriorate.

If you could own, or have access to, one thing in Yorkshire for a single day, what would that object or place be?

The RAF early-warning station at Fylingdales – to observe the increasing amount of space junk circling above our heads. It would be somewhere completely different to take me out of my Taurean earth-bound comfort zone – so that single day would be quite enough, thank you.

What do you think gives Yorkshire its unique identity?

The diversity of its landscapes – moors, valleys, seaside, Wolds, not to forget our urban townscapes – from great cities to small villages. Everything is here and full of poetry and stories. It is an entire country in and of itself.

Do you have a favourite restaurant or pub?

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The Golden Ball, which is a community-owned pub in York. Nice people, great atmosphere, a space to relax and enjoy. And we also love Trinacria, here in York, which is a Sicilian restaurant and serves the most delicious food.

Do you have a favourite food shop?

We always get our veg from Millie’s here on Bishy (Bishopthorpe) Road. Garden-fresh, good quality and run by delightful people.

How do you think Yorkshire has changed, for better or for worse, in the time that you’ve known it?

I don't think our cities are doing very well – starved of resources, constrained by over-centralisation, dominated by poor development and some hideous design. Of course, the rural landscape is there to salve our souls, if we are allowed to get out into it, because public transport services are so appalling – and we could do with much more public access to the vast areas of privatised land.

Who is the Yorkshire person that you most admire?

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In business, Greg Jackson, founder and CEO of Octopus Energy, who was brought up in Halifax. He's trying hard to bring ethics and common sense to capitalism. In politics, it’s Tracy Brabin – a truly assertive spokesperson for the people of West Yorkshire and the North.

Has Yorkshire influenced your work?

Very much so - almost all my poetry has been written here. In particular, the valleys and moors of Calderdale, the rivers and waterways small and large, and the ready accessibility of the past. At the same time, a culture of tough and vivid creativity in writing and music and humour keeps me on my toes.

Name your favourite Yorkshire book/author/artist/CD/performer.

It's a three-cornered fight between Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and Kes, by Barry Hines. Other living authors I relish are Simon Armitage and Sally Wainwright, and the two we have lost, and whose work still gives me great pleasure, are Ted Hughes and Winifred Holtby.

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If a stranger to Yorkshire only had time to visit one place, it would be?

York - lots to see in a small, walkable package, and with walls and two rivers. A favourite place? All Saints church, with its glorious stained glass windows.

Robert’s latest book is Time Town – Some Poems of York (York Civic Trust, £9.95).