Travel: What Makes Bad Places *Bad*?
One of the nastiest experiences of my life was having coffee at the Paragon Train Station in Hull.
Sounds like I’ve led a sheltered one, I know. But that’s the thing about bad experiences: they’re entirely relative. And there were circumstances. I was suffering from mild food poisoning. I didn’t know what I was doing with my twenties, other than squandering them. I’d just found a hole in my pocket where a ten pound note had been (which was a lot of money back then), and I’d just that morning worked out that the girl I fancied was after one of my friends instead- which explained her interest in me. And there I was at the train station (this is before it was refurbished), with time to kill and just enough money for a fortifying coffee in the cafe.
At least I think I ordered coffee. Perhaps my memory is dimmed by the years, and I actually asked them for a cup of tepid battery-acid topped with a frothy squirt of Toilet Duck. If so, I owe that coffee house an apology, as I’ve spent years thinking they got my order wrong.
This experience completely wrote Hull off for me for a number of years. “Hull? It’s a dump. Seriously, if you’re on a train to Hull, pull the emergency cord. They’ll understand when you’re in court. Hull is a total s***hole with no redeeming features except the road out of it. In Hull’s case, we should have been cheering the Luftwaffe on. We should have drawn arrows in the landscape for them to follow.”
Now Hull is just a place I’m rude about because it’s funny to be. But I don’t mind Hull. I know it better now. It’s just a large British city. It’s not a slightly-misspelt Netherworld. It’s just a place, like any other.
And it’s given me a fascination for how we label places “bad”.
(But I’m fascinated even more by places that get labelled “bad” by people who have never been to them. That’s really interesting).
So why do places become bad to us?
- They’re ugly. The most obvious and most instantly affecting reason – they’re an eyesore. Aesthetically, they offend. (Except…ugly places are untouristy places. Hey, there’s that “off the beaten track” thing everyone talks about).
- We had a bad experience there. Want to hear my Iraklion story? Here’s my Iraklion story. I get off the ferry, heavily sunburnt shoulders making every movement agony. I’m 2 miles away from my hotel, with a rucksack I can’t carry except in the traditional way. No taxis. Can’t leave my stuff to go find one, and anyway, I’m out of cash. No choice. I drag my arms through the straps and – almost beyond conscious thought with the agony – stride my way through Iraklion’s streets (where I took the above photo). Ten steps – screaming agony – sparkly vision – short rest. After a while it gets easier as my shoulders lose the ability to feel pain, but later I discover they’re stripped raw. In my utterly nondescript hotel at the other end of the town, I lapse into a fever that lasts 24 hours and ends with a truly dreadful complementary breakfast in the rooftop restaurant. Yes, Iraklion – I hate you. It’s not fair, but hey, there it is.
- They’re the end of the line. This one depends on what kinds of experiences you thrive on. Like being in the thick of things, interconnected, all roads leading here? Then you want to be core, not periphery. Find yourself in a remote, sleepy town with one bus service (yes, the bus stop is over the bridge and down the hill opposite the fishing tackle shop, there’s no sign, you just have to know it’s there, oh but it’s doesn’t run today, sorry) and your piqued interest can very easily wane into hatred.
- They’re for passing through. Take Doncaster. Doncaster is a small, unassuming South Yorkshire town that just so happens to be a major point of transit. There’s even a Wikipedia page for “Transport in Doncaster“. Most famously, it has a train station that all British trains seem to go through at some point. All of them. I’ll even bet the Hogwarts Express passes through Doncaster. And for many people, that station is Doncaster: a draughty place you linger while waiting to go somewhere else. Doncaster? What a dump.
- They’re soulless, inauthentic-feeling, have had the character strip-commercialised out of them. “Disneyland”, Rachel suggested to me on Twitter when I asked for examples. Industrial-sized machines designed to process human beings into revenue – sorry, “make dreams come true“.
- Civil rights problems, violence, lawlessness. Well okay then. No arguments. If your sources are reliable, of course.
- Really bad coffee. I’m a big believer in this one. Really, it’s just beans in a cup. Get it right, people.
So, what about you?
What was that last place you visited and took a powerful dislike to?
And is there anywhere you’ve never visited and never want to visit, for similar reasons?