It began with an accidental day-trip to an intriguingly awful seaside resort on the Thames Estuary and ended 3,812 miles later – one man’s journey through deep-fried, brownfield, poundshop Britain, a crash course in urban blight, deranged civic planning and commercial eccentricity.
“Doncaster was my wife’s personal nomination,” confesses comic travel author Tim Moore midway through his latest novel, You Are Awful (But I Like You), tucked neatly inbetween tales of faded Welsh seaside resort Rhyl and our near South Yorkshire neighbour Sheffield.
Subtitled Travels Through Unloved Britain, a compendium of Britain’s worst loved towns, from Great Yarmouth to Gateshead, Slough to St Helens, Hartlepool to Hull, it won’t come as a surprise to many that our own oft-decried town features within its pages.
Tim admits that his decision to visit came courtesy of his Icelandic wife Birna who had endured “many bleak and hypothermic evenings spent changing trains there en route to York University and whose memory even twenty years on brings out her thousand yard stare.”
As one of the nation’s best-loved and best-selling travel authors, Tim has undertaken all manner of weird and wonderful pursuits for his previous books – he followed in the Arctic footsteps of an eccentric lord for Frost On My Moustache, pulled on his lycra and rode the Tour de France in French Revolutions, and went on a pilgrimage across Europe with a donkey in Spanish Steps. And that’s not to mention trekking round the London Monopoly board or tracking down all the Eurovision Song Contest entrants who scored the dreaded “nul points.”
Now he’s turned his attention to his homeland. Following an itinerary drawn up from surveys, polls, reviews and lazy personal prejudice, Tim visited all the places that nobody wants to go to – the bleakest towns, the shonkiest hotels the scariest pubs. He even visited the grid reference adjudged by the Ordnance Survey to be the least interesting point in Britain (its near Ousefleet if you were wondering).
And eventually, his battered old Austin Maestro (he wanted to experience the country’s worst in one of the nation’s worst cars) brought him to our region.
He told me: “I am always looking for weird and wonderful challenges and this fitted the bill. I thought it would be rather ridiculous to have a good time in these places where people said I wouldn’t, the places that are unfashionable and depressing and where no-one goes anymore, where everything is closing down.”
And so it came to pass that Tim ended up in Doncaster one cold night in December, much like his wife many years previously, tucking into the world’s sweetest and unhealthiest plate of Chinese lemon chicken at a local restaurant.
He said: “It was a truly freezing night and I was prepared to see the town in its worst light.
“But to be honest, I was a bit disappointed because it wasn’t bad at all! I made a pilgrimage to the railway station for my wife and was met with this beautiful building in its original 1930s style – marvellous.”
And it was the same level of disappointment when he checked into his hotel – which, for legal reasons, shall remain nameless – ranked on hotel reviews website Trip Advisor as one of the worst in northern England.
“I find over attentive service and luxury tiring and over-bearing,” he added. “I prefer stopping in the places that no-one else likes. It was quite a disappointment to find that this Doncaster hotel which had been given an unbelievable slagging was actually quite nice and had been given a huge makeover. It was a total contradiction of what I had expected,” he laughed.
He admits to being charmed by the town’s Market Place and also the imposing grandeur of Doncaster Minster – although rued the fact that the church has been cut adrift from the town centre and is now “marooned in the middle of a traffic gyratory.”
“I think Doncaster comes out of it quite well,” he said. “I’d just driven up from Rhyl which was truly depressing. I don’t think there’s anywhere worse than seeing a place built for fun not having fun any more and that was Rhyl. It was very poignant.”
The five week trip around the UK, soundtracked naturally, by the very worst of British music courtesy of a string of novelty hits, began after a planned day out went wrong and Tim ended up in the fog-bound abandoned seaside resort of Leysdown-on-Sea by accident.
“That was the start of it,” he said. “Then it just picked up a peculiar momentum and before long I was visiting all these weird and wonderful places.”
And it was also a voyage of discovery. “I never realised Jeremy Clarkson was from Doncaster. It was quite re-assuring to find out he’s not popular there as well as the rest of the country,” he chuckled.
The biggest shock, he admits, was seeing once thriving industrial towns such as Hull and Middlesbrough slowly dying, reduced to piles of rubble, their best days long behind them. “And people never disagree when somewhere describes their town as c***,” he added. “They just tend to agree.”
He added: “It felt a little like visiting these places and enjoying them before they are gone forever. They might be unfashionable and unloved, but they are part of our heritage and I hope I’ve done my best to celebrate them as such.”
But while Doncaster may have come out of things relatively unscathed, travel just 20 miles up the road to our near neighbour Goole - and Tim admits he has little good to say about the town.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “you’re on a losing battle for a start with a name like that. It sounds appalling.
“I drove through it on a wet, drizzly cold day and it had a half-demolished, post apocalyptic look of industrial wasteland about it. One of the first things I saw was graffiti sprayed on a wall which read “Welcome to Goole - we kill smack dealers” which didn’t bode too well.
“I suppose I am now kissing goodbye to all potential sales in Goole but it was a bona fide ugly town. I am ready for the angry hordes screaming ‘he’s from London, what does he know?’
“But if the mayor of Goole wants to invite me back, I’ll happily come and have a look around.”
* You Are Awful (But I Like You): Travels Through Unloved Britain by Tim Moore is published in paperback and ebook by Random House, priced at £11.99
* This article was originally published in 2012.