The Last Days of the Bath – Part 05
DAY 09: Last week I travelled to Rochdale in search of Hitler and ended up buttonholing officials in the museum and town hall about the myth of how a young Adolf visited the area, had his head turned by the architecture of the latter, and earmarked it for further Nazi use after the invasion. They wouldn’t allow me in to have a nosey around the impressive building but helpfully pointed out that they did run guided tours on the last Friday of the month… And so I returned.
As with the weather earlier in the week it was still unseasonably hot for the end of September and this time I had the wherewithal to leave my big coat at home and instead take the peaked hat my Mum got me from Colditz to help with the sun. Having worked out that I’m joined to Rochdale by the River Roch I claimed that if I ever did return I’d just jump in a barrel and float downstream. As it was I just got the bus.
The quick hop into Bury turned up a confrontation with the quiet mumble of the dignified foreigner pitted against the might of the northern driver in full flow: “What road… I haven’t a clue mate… Oldham? What bus do you think you’re on? No wonder I’ve never heard of whatever road… That’s bloody miles away.” The driver explained he had to get a bus to Rochdale before another onto his destination. I thought about telling the old gent about the barrel, but sometimes it’s just best to keep your thoughts to yourself.
Popping to the usual Pound Bakery for lunch it turned out I was too early as they’d left anything vegetarian until last on the production line. Remembering there was another shop outside I was thus fortunate to arrive on the high street and find an old man dancing around – ballroom style – to the them tune to The Sound of Music. It’s great how such events can get break down the barriers between strangers and as the pensioner waltzed about with his eyes closed, with the faded memory of a partner long since lost, people exchanged smiles, the staff at the Halifax bank were gleefully waving each other out of the door to come see, and I overheard a man stop a traffic warden and say: “It’s creepy that one… Creepy.” I sat around on a bench eating my cheese baguette, loitering just to get a photo of the ghostly waltzing man who was having a rest, feeling the pressure – self-inflicted by foolishly starting to diarise this fortnight of enforced culture and homelessness – that maybe one day I’d go out and literally nothing would happen. Nothing. But as the man started up again, breaking out freak-syle into the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a Nun and a giant Womble came past collecting for charity and I realised it was going to be one of those days. The journey to Rochdale on the top deck of a double decker is a parade of interesting-looking pubs, mostly derelict, with names such as The Brick House, The Three Terriers, The Wishing Well, and The Tanners whilst at the back I overheard shell-suited youths discussing the weather when he suggested to her that: “It’s like a Summer’s day.”
“Like Summer holidays…” she added wistfully.
This caused him to reiterate: “Yeah, but it’s like a Summer’s day.”
“Well, it is summer,” she said pointing out what she thought was the obvious.
“No, not really, it’s Autumn.”
“Well,” she finally settled on “it is very sunny”, and thus completely misunderstood the art of the simile.
I had considered going somewhere else in the morning, as the town hall tour wasn’t until the afternoon, but with all the effort in returning to Rochdale I was worried that if I got there too late the tour would be sold out. As soon as I arrived I stormed out the bus station, all the way across town, to the reception desk demanding to know if there were any tickets left. They just told me to come back in the afternoon, that I could buy my ticket then, and that the tour doesn’t just “sell out”. All three comments which left me feeling both pretty foolish and with about three hours to kill.
Ambling around Rochdale I discovered I’d missed half of it on my previous visit as it’s all hidden away with a high street that just keeps on folding itself out as you go up a concealed hill. In amongst all the shops I kept spotting signposts for the Pioneer’s Museum which started ringing a bell as I seemed to remember that my friend made an animated short film for them about the history of the Co-op movement.
I found the museum on a preserved corner of ancient Rochdale which contained the old Baum pub, an old woollen warehouse that was the birthplace of the Co-op movement, and the St-Mary-in-the-Baum church set aloft on a grassy mound where some trendy college girls were hanging out. A helpful information board gave details on all the old buildings and set against the dry historical facts it included the bombshell: “The churchyard is said to be haunted by the ghostly white ‘Baum Rabbit’.”
Now living in Britain I’ve heard of my fair share of fabled ghosts, from grey ladies to headless horsemen, but it seemed the best folklore Rochdale could muster munched carrots during its lifetime although, since its passing with the bubonic plague in the fourteenth century, I imagine tales have been somewhat elevated with reports on the local news about the spectre carrying away household pets and perhaps claiming the odd small child. The only similarity in popular culture I could recall was the Rabbit of Caerbannog from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) which the knights eventually had to finish it off with the holy hand grenade.
I’ve seen enough Arthur C. Clarke programmes to know of strange ghostly images appearing on photographs, after they’ve been developed, and so for good measure I went around and papped the churchyard even though there was really nothing to see. I took them around the back of the church, and around the side, but I didn’t chance my arm around the front as if there’s one thing more dangerous than having your throat torn out by phantom Bugs Bunny then I imagine it’s being caught accidentally taking pictures of rampant college girls.The nearby Rochdale Pioneers museum charts the formation and the rise of the international Co-operative movement which went from a group of individuals coming together to buy goods in bulk, and sharing out the profits, to handing out free cupcakes in Manchester earlier in the week. I imagine this is something of a comedown from their lofty origins. I ascertained that my friend’s film wasn’t on show after I’d been around and when I got to the girl on reception there was one question, and one question only, that I had for the: “Tell me about this rabbit. Has there been any recent sightings? Are there any photos?”
With the rest of my time I just wanted to grab a coffee and sit on the grass opposite the town hall waiting for the tour to start. Coffee has been my constant friend throughout this fortnight and so it came as something of a shock when it dawned on me that Rochdale doesn’t have a coffee shop. Not a single one. I staggered around in disbelief looking for someone carrying some sort of hot beverage, but it was like living in the last days of Al Capone as the town was obviously dry.
As I stumbled about like an gasping Englishman in a desert two girls stopped me outside The Regal Moon pub and asked me to take their picture, the way people do, and as a parting shot I asked them if they had a coffee shop. They simultaneously gave me conflicting directions with the only bit I picked up was to go “down the twitch”. I eventually gave up and entered a café which it’d passed several times and after they assured me that they did do takeaway the girls behind the counter began the arduous process of writing down “one cup of coffee” on paper, inputting this order into a till, and then struggling to assemble the coffee machine as if it were new technology.
With the coffee keeping me going I eventually made the tour with thirteen other “grey pound” visitors on what was the town hall’s 142nd birthday. I was keen to grill the guide on the Hitler story and where it came from but I bided my time as he began talking you through the entrance hall Minton tiles.
One of the highlights was the massive organ in the great hall with demonstrations of tunes from around the World which the bells in the original tower used to ring all day every day. Fortunately for the crazed residents – so the official version goes – they just happened to “discover” that the new tower had dry rot and so it was with little surprise when it somehow caught fire and completely burned itself down. When they rebuilt it everyone agreed to just put in some normal chiming bells instead. They must have met with local approval as they’ve survived to this day. The subject of the Hitler story was raised by someone else on the balcony with the four gold lions. The guide ran through the rumours that Hitler planned to ship the building home brick by brick, or maybe just wanted the stained glass windows and, he added, “I only heard last week the one about him ordering the Luftwaffe to avoid it on their bombing runs…” And I thought: that was me! That was me last week haranguing the staff on the desk putting this to them. I’m adding to the myth and muddying the waters. Apparently Rochdale are starting a research programme to investigate the whole story.
At the end of the tour, in the Mayor’s pantry, the guide asked everyone why they’d come on the tour with most people mentioning the local building which they’d never been in, but I had just two words for him, because I was there because of Adolf Hitler. Now that may sound bad, but then as I stood there towering over six foot tall with my blonde hair and my blue eyes then to the casual observer I could’ve been considered every inch the image of the Arian race reborn. What made matters worse was the fact that I was standing there in my green military German peaked cap that I just happened to be wearing.
I previously said that I was aware that Rochdale was “someplace, over there, somewhere”, but as it turned out it’s not over there, but over there, and not downstream but up. So I could’ve just floated home in a barrel, but then I was hardly going to bring it all that way on the bus, was I? When I did get back I checked out the photos and the graveyard ones were all empty, although upon close inspection one did contain a small white blur, possibly the effect of the sun, but zooming in you can clearly see a face… four feet… a big floppy ear… This was the part of the churchyard I didn’t pass, telling myself it was because of college girls on the other side, but was it instead perhaps some part of my reptile brain telling me to keep clear because of the ghostly white Baum Rabbit that was sat there right in front of me?