My train to Doncaster is going on to Scarborough and, on a sunny spring morning, I rather wish I was staying on it. After all, Scarborough is – on the face of it – much the more obvious place to have a day out.
But no, I’m here in Donny for a tour of some of the attractions that lure two million visitors a year. According to VisitEngland – and this is just as unexpected – it has more day visitors than Bath, Oxford, Cambridge or Stratford-upon-Avon.
The tour is an eye-opener, and a trip down memory lane (or nostalgia cul-de-sac). So much has changed in Doncaster since the late Seventies and early Eighties, when I had my first job in journalism here. I covered factory strikes and had cups of tea and chocolate digestive biscuits with retired miners and their wives as we talked about their golden wedding anniversaries (the secret of a happy marriage was “having a laugh with each other”, most said with straight faces).
I reviewed amateur dramatics at a glorified Nissen hut called the Arts Centre (now demolished) and spent many a Saturday morning waiting outside the register office to write down the names of newlyweds as a photographer posed them. “Big handbag jobs” were a particular speciality, with the bride holding the bag strategically in front of her to conceal any telltale bulges.
And I remember my first visit to the local doctor’s surgery. The waiting room swirled with the smoke of two-dozen Woodbines and echoed with coughing. It made Lowry’s canvases look like riots of good cheer.
Doncaster is a different place today – as Colin Joy’s job testifies. He is Doncaster’s tourism manager, charged with making it, as a poem in the station forecourt (just beyond Costa and before Subway) puts it,
“Much more than a train stop for London King’s Cross,
“Where delegates gather to speak to their boss.”
In my day, Donny tourism would probably have been limited to enthusiasts for railway workshops and pithead baths or people bound for York who got off the train one stop too soon. No longer, and today Colin is going to show me why.
A man of urgent enthusiasm, he doesn’t gloss over uncomfortable truths. “If you asked someone within Yorkshire – never mind outside it – to name ten tourist destinations in Yorkshire, Doncaster probably wouldn’t be among them,” he admits. “I didn’t even know Doncaster was in Yorkshire when I applied for this job six years ago.”
He had an impressive track record in tourism, spending 20 years overseas with the British Tourist Authority and VisitBritain promoting the country in Norway, Sweden, Holland, Germany and Canada. Doncaster, I suggest, must have struck him as a place with marginally less international glamour. What were his first impressions?
“I felt it had fantastic potential,” he says. “It was the architecture and the history that really struck me. But I felt as though its history was hidden away. The town was full of beautiful Georgian buildings, like the V House, which a lot of Doncastrians walk past without noticing.”
The Mansion House is more than five hours ahead of us on the tour, which gets off to a slightly tricky start at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, a “walk-through safari park” on a spacious site on the town’s eastern edge. It has overtaken the racecourse as Doncaster’s major attraction and pulls in more than half a million visitors a year.
Directors Cheryl and Neville Williams drive us round on a buggy, starting at Lion Country, a high-fenced ten-acre reserve housing 13 lions. “We rescued them from a Romanian zoo, where they were kept in terrible conditions,” says Cheryl. “There were five lions in one cage that was just four metres by three metres. It was like a sea of lions pacing round; some of them were incredibly poorly.”
We see leopards and tigers, zebras and giraffes, a solitary polar bear, and a compound called Meerkat and Mongoose Madness. But as we go, Cheryl senses my lack of enthusiasm. I eventually say I don’t enjoy seeing animals in captivity, however worthy the conservation ideals behind it, and I’m doubtful about the ethics of breeding captive animals.
“At the end of the day, all animals should be in the wild,” says Cheryl. “But if they’re in captivity, we want to do the best we can for them. And we want to help change people’s attitude to the environment rather than it just being a case of coming to look at the animals. We get quite a few people who don’t agree with zoos, but like to come here because there’s a lot of care and compassion for the animals.”
From here, Colin drives on to Doncaster Airport, where a hangar houses the Vulcan Experience. It’s on the site of RAF Finningley, where the RAF once flew me to Berlin for lunch, and centres on the world’s last flying Vulcan bomber, the moth-like aircraft that came into service in 1960 at the height of the Cold War. People come from as far as Australia to see it, says volunteer John Fryer.
“We get everyone from four and five-year-olds to 90-year-old ex-Lancaster pilots – and quite a few ladies as well,” he says. “We have a difficult job telling people: ‘I’m sorry, it’s a live aircraft with live ejector seats; you can’t get in.’
“It’s always had a great public following, because it’s a very beautiful aircraft. It’s an awesome sight in the sky, takes your breath away, makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. When the first Vulcan flew over Manchester it stopped the traffic. People thought space aliens were coming.”
Heading out of town to Stop Number Three, Colin offers a bit of tourism philosophy. “I always think that ‘quirky’ sells tourism,” he says. “For instance, have you ever been down here?” We veer left down a road of terrace houses and stop in front of Beautique Unisex Hair Stylists: a prime tourist lure as the heavily made-over Arkwright’s corner shop in Ronnie Barker’s Open All Hours. I once met the comedian here when he was filming, I say, anxious to keep up the nostalgia quotient.
There’s more “quirky” at Conisbrough Castle, which vies with Brodsworth Hall, the magical “time capsule” house a few miles north west of Doncaster, as English Heritage’s most important site in the area. If the castle were in rural Suffolk instead of post-industrial South Yorkshire, it would pull in millions.
Its great cylindrical keep shoots up like a rocket, with new interpretation boards taking, as site manager Gavin Smithies says, “a more family-friendly approach”. Their comic-book style may strike some purists as history-made-easy, but not everyone can tell a bailey from a barbican.
The visitor centre includes a screen showing a cross section of the keep and an animated day in the life of its inhabitants. “The kids watch it for ages because it looks like television,” says Gavin. “But they put their fingers on the screen and try to move people around like they do on their laptops.”
And so, after five hours on the road, back into the centre of Doncaster for the day’s biggest surprise, the hugely impressive new Cast theatre, which bristles with style, class and activity and would have been inconceivable 30 years ago. Did I mention the Nissen hut?
Just down the road is the 18th century Mansion House, with its elegant plasterwork, glittering chandeliers and minstrels’ gallery. “I like to think of this as the jewel in the crown of Doncaster’s buildings,” says Colin. Now used for public events and dinners, and serving afternoon teas, it has been put to far better use than it was in my Donny days, when its enormous dining room hosted council meetings.
They were afternoons of mind-numbing tedium, befugged with cigarette smoke. The press bench faced a full-length mirror which reflected the clock behind the reporters. As we gazed in the mirror, time seemed to be literally going backwards.
And now? Well, it’s an easy pay-off line, but Doncaster does seem to be going forwards.
Did I mention the big handbag jobs?