Northside - Andrew Martin sees too many signs in Preston

Ten thousand baffling signposts in Preston, Lancashire

To Yorkshire and Lancashire for a few days, to research a historical novel. I walked around Halifax with a 1905 Ordnance Survey map in my hands, and became so lulled into an Edwardian mindset that I was nearly killed while stepping on to Church Street. In my head, you see, there were hardly any cars about the place. Later, in a cafe, I was reading my map, boldly labelled "Halifax, 1905", while a waitress looked at me in some concern, deciding whether to speak up: "Your map's a bit out of date, love."

Halifax inhabits the present and the past simultaneously, like a time-travel experiment that's gone slightly wrong. To put it another way, every building in the town used to be something else. Accordingly, during my visit, what used to be the mansion-like main building of the train station - now part of the Eureka Museum - had been given over to the Halifax Children's EcoCity project. And with those two words "eco" and "city", the organisers defied you to object to what had become of the station. But it could have been much worse - it could have been a mobile phone shop. I also noticed that ravers in the Platinum Room are actually occupying the old Theatre Royal.

Platinum Room . . . The name might have been designed specifically to wind up misty-eyed fogeys like myself. But no matter, because Halifax is beautiful: a gold-coloured, 19th-century industrial Bath, surrounded by eternal green hills.

In Preston, too, you never stop being conscious of the countryside around. It seems to be a town built under a very big sky. Unfortunately, however, the council has a bad case of information sign-itis, and in the centre of town are a cluster of signboards directing you to the "Pregnancy Crisis Centre", "Samaritans", "Alcohol Advice" and "Inland Revenue Inquiry Office". They're sited so conveniently close together that within five minutes, you could find out that you were an accidentally pregnant alcoholic with a £10,000 tax bill due immediately.

Blackpool, meanwhile - my third destination - continues its tradition of strangeness. At the St Clement's parish centre on Lytham Road, a poster announced: "The fabulous sounds of 'Mr Tony Blackburn' on keyboards". Was it the "Mr" that discreetly tipped you off that it wasn't the Tony Blackburn, or was it the inverted commas? Or was this actually the DJ and celebrity jungle survivor himself? Over the road at the Royal Oak, a poster advertised two other forthcoming attractions: on Friday, a psychic would be appearing, and on the Saturday "Mr Lovepants". I should add that while I was sitting in a nearby caff, a man popped his head around the door and said to the proprietor: "Jumbo sausage and chips for a hundred and four, right, Bob?" At least I think that's what he said.

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