The former mining village which inspired Brassed Off, the hit film fuelled by anger at pit closures under a Conservative government, now faces a deep political dilemma. Voters in Grimethorpe despair at the state of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party but memories of Margaret Thatcher mean many of those who were proud to vote Leave last year still can’t countenance backing the Conservatives. Chris Burn reports.
The rusting gates are padlocked shut, the football pitches beyond overgrown and covered in dandelions, with loose bricks sprawling at the bottom of the crumbling shell of a stand to the side. Two Shetland ponies graze next to a clubhouse with its metal shutters up.
The fate of Grimethorpe Miners Welfare Sports Ground, once home to year-round community activity with football through the winter and cricket in the summer, is a snapshot of the village’s ongoing struggle to move on from its mining heritage, which ended in the 1990s with the closure of the colliery that had provided work for generations of residents.
The sports ground on Cemetery Road, once paid for and run by the miners, stayed open for years after the colliery shut through support from the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation and thousands of pounds were poured into its upkeep.
But the site closed several years ago and now has been seemingly left to go to ruin. Its story is one echoed across the village; considerable attempts have been made to ensure life moves on since the pit closure - but for many residents the reality falls far short of what they hoped for.
While politicians have talked up the transformative effects of £100m worth of investment that has gone into the village since the dark days of the 1990s that saw Grimethorpe named as the poorest village in the country, many people living here feel their families have had little or no share of the supposed success.
The colliery has made way for anonymous factory and warehouse units for companies such as clothing giant ASOS that are at the heart of the economic strategy to give Grimethorpe a sustainable future.
While there are clear outward signs of the return of some prosperity - with swish new housing estates, independent shops on the high street and good road links to the rest of the county, speak to straight-talking residents for just a short time and disillusionment and anger is not far from the surface.
There is a widespread perception that the factory jobs which have replaced those of the colliery are given to “foreigners” who travel in by bus from Sheffield and Leeds rather than going to local people. One man, who asks not to be named (a common theme), says his son was sacked from one of the new companies after complaining to management that none of his co-workers would speak in English to him.
Older residents who have lived in Grimethorpe all their lives talk of how new generations have moved out or even gone abroad to look for work and opportunities rather than stay in the village.
Whatever the outcome of June’s General Election, this proud village full of warm people who care deeply about their community will have a new MP to represent them. It is part of the Barnsley East constituency, whose current MP Michael Dugher - an outspoken critic of leader Jeremy Corbyn - is standing down.
When Mr Dugher announced his decision, he pointedly stated that Labour must be “in touch with working-class people and one that can get into government so we can actually do something to really help people”. The assessment that Labour has lost touch with its core voters met with unanimous agreement in Grimethorpe, even from those still intending to back the party at the polls.
In normal circumstances, Barnsley East would be seen as a safe Labour seat after being held by Mr Dugher with a 12,000 majority from second-placed Ukip in 2015. But in Barnsley, 68.3 per cent of voters backed Leave in last year’s EU referendum.
While it will take a complete electoral disaster for Labour for the party not to hold on to Barnsley East, there was little enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn in Grimethorpe - but Theresa May got similarly short shrift.
Two former pit workers out walking their dogs say they have both now turned their backs on Labour. One says: “Everybody round here always voted Labour. But I’m not voting for Corbyn and I’m not the only one. He doesn’t know what he is on with. I was reading he wants to stop all our nuclear weapons, you can’t do that. I will look on the day who to vote for but it won’t be Labour.”
The other adds: “I’m Ukip now and I have always been Labour all my life.”
Both say they voted for Leave last year because of immigration and feel their families have missed out on jobs and school places to incomers. “We are second in line for everything now, we are the foreigners,” explains one.
Both spent much of their working lives at “Grimey pit”, with the older of the two - now 65 - giving up work once the site closed. The younger man, now aged 56, says he had little luck in the workplace after leaving, being made redundant from several jobs.
While the younger man says he understands why people would consider a vote for the Conservatives, his friend says he will never vote Tory. “It’s simple - because of what Margaret Thatcher did to us. She was a cow. I like Nigel Farage, he always tells the truth and tells the EU what he thinks of them.”
But his friend says attitudes to the Conservatives may be starting to soften. “A lot of people might think ‘Better the devil you know and who can replace her?’”
Both men lament the loss of the local sporting facilities leaving little available for youngsters to do and see it as being tied into the community spirit they believe has been lost.
“In the days of the colliery, everybody knew everybody, you used to leave your doors open and now you can’t. We didn’t know there were drugs in the village when the pits were going, there were things for people to do,” says one.
On Grimethorpe High Street, a husband and wife who have lived in the village their entire lives explain they voted Leave due to similar concerns about immigration but will be supporting Labour. “I don’t think a lot of Jeremy Corbyn but I’m voting for the party. I just think Corbyn has got something missing, he hasn’t got that charisma,” says the man, an 80-year-old former civil engineer.
His wife, a 67-year-old former Barnsley Council worker, adds that despite her misgivings about Jeremy Corbyn, she will “most likely” be voting for Labour - largely thanks to tribal loyalty passed down by her pit worker father.
“I always have because my dad always told me to.”
She says despite her Leave vote - and her anger at what she believes to be a lack of action from the Labour-run Barnsley Council in tackling fly-tipping problems in Grimethorpe, she does not believe voting Conservative is the solution.
“They wouldn’t be any different for this area. They would be for the better-off places like Cawthorne and Silkstone.”
Another problem facing all the parties campaigning in Grimethorpe may be persuading some to vote at all, with many disaffected from politics and believing their choice will make little different to daily life.
Christine Stacey, who is aged 50 and works in Coral’s bookmakers, says: “I can’t say I have ever voted ever. I don’t think a great deal of Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn to be honest. I don’t think whoever gets in will change anything here.”
Like Christine, 45-year-old Wayne Swift, who is unemployed, says he will not be voting. “I never vote, I don’t really listen to politics.”
However, despite Labour’s current woes, it would still take a brave man to bet against Grimethorpe returning a Labour MP again. As one lady, who says she doesn’t properly understand politics but is certain to vote, puts it when asked who she will support: “I won’t be voting for Theresa May, put it that way.”