It is with some sadness that we are bound by statistics to declare Grimsby bottom of the bill.
What a difference 115.2 miles makes, as we journey from Manchester, the single greatest place to be a man, into the worst. Poor old Grimsby. Even the name makes it sound appalling. I’ll admit that having experienced the luminosity of Greater Manchester the previous day, boarding the TransPennine Express at 7am, fuzzy headed and having missed breakfast, I head into my educational expedition of Grimsby with a slight feeling of dread. And nausea. Although the latter could be last night’s cocktails as much as the unfortunate smell of fish that envelopes the North-East Lincolnshire town.
As with Manchester, the statistics speak volumes for Grimsby. With no cinema nor a single recognisable restaurant to speak of, the town is stuffed into a corner of the country that means passing trade is near impossible. With high levels of drug use, crime and unemployment, it seems you’re either visiting Grimsby for a specific reason, or else you’re not going at all. Most choose the latter.
Grimsby’s tag is the most recent in a long list of PR disasters. Prior to the general election in May, Great Grimsby (its sarcastic-sounding constituency) was flagged as Ukip’s new heartland in the north, whereas last year’s Channel 4 documentary Skint showed jobless residents of the East Marsh estate in a particularly unflattering light. It’s not going to get any better: 2016 sees Sacha Baron Cohen’s film, Grimsby, about a dim-witted football hooligan from the town.
Back in reality, though: is it as grim up here as they make out?
“I don’t think it is – I love living here,” says This Is England star, and Grimsby’s favourite son, Thomas Turgoose. “People are so proud to be from Grimsby, and it’s very hard to find someone who’s not a genuinely good bloke. Yes, it is a sh*thole, but it’s our sh*thole.”
We are sat in Blundell Park, home of non-league Grimsby Town FC. It’s empty, however the 9,000-seater stadium is unlikely to bring much in the way of tourism this season, where glamour ties will be against the likes of Tranmere Rovers and Gateshead. And yet, a deep-rooted sense of community endures. “I used to support [Manchester] United, then I moved in with my dad and he said, ‘I’m not having that,’” Turgoose grins. “So I came to Blundell Park, sat with my dad and grandma, and for the first time I felt passion for the game.”
It’s now time to sample Grimsby’s famous cuisine. Steel’s Cornerhouse, Turgoose’s restaurant of choice, has a line out the door, so instead it’s to Ernie Beckett’s for fried haddock and chips. Once the largest fishing port on the planet, Grimsby’s fishing industry is not what it was. Still, you can’t fault the product – and if you’re going to inhale the stench of fish, you might as well eat some.
I love living here. People are so proud to be from Grimsby. Yes it's a sh*thold, but it's out sh*thole.
Problem is, the seafront in question – as with Blundell Park beforehand and The Nottingham House pub we visit next – is not located in Grimsby. Rather Cleethorpes, a neighbouring town that, should you consider it and Grimsby as one (as locals do), helps the image no end. However, respect the laws of geography, and the insistence to pair with an adjoining town only serves to reinforce Grimsby’s status as bit of a wasteland.
After sipping a Lincolnshire ale at Turgoose’s local – which he worked in between acting jobs until just a few months ago – he leaves for his two-bed, semi-detached home, gleefully admitting that it set him back just £99,000. Call Grimsby the arse-end of nowhere all you like, but you can scarcely get a bedsit in the depths of Hell (sorry, Hull) for that price.
Browsing the Grimsby Telegraph website before arriving, the fashion section’s most recent article (about a girl who returned from Dubai to run a womenswear section in a local shop) dates back four months. Undeterred, a journalist from the paper recommends Abbeygate – a strip of independent outlets favoured by locals – for all my fashion needs. While many units on Grimsby’s Freeman Street lay empty, here the indie stores, to their credit, offer big-city brands at small-town prices. However upon quizzing some locals about what’s great about their town afterwards, I’m not met with the same civic pride as espoused by Thomas Turgoose.
“This place is ruined,” snarls a man, 63, who asked to remain anonymous. “Thieves, vagabonds, beggars, drug dealers, prostitutes, and there’s also been an influx of foreigners. You might think I’m a bigot, but it never was like that 10 years ago. Drugs are the root of all evil, and drugs are available any time you want. I can tell you now, you could score drugs from one of these people walking past.”
Though it seemed like embittered exaggeration at the time, shortly after I do in fact witness a drug deal take place in broad daylight, whereas Turgoose pointed out “the biggest dealer in Grimsby” from the seat in his local.
Amid the darkness, there perhaps lies a chink of light for Grimsby. In an era of wholesale gentrification ripping the heart out of British destinations, perhaps Grimsby’s overt naffness is actually its greatest charm. “It is a bit of a time-warped seaside town, but they’re actually a dying breed,” says Matt Kennard, producer of upcoming thriller, Pleasure Island (out 14 August), set in Grimsby.
I meet him and actors Ian Sharp and Jim Allen at the Comfy Duck restaurant. “Everyone hates a Tesco, and there are whole streets full of Prezzo and Nando’s elsewhere, so, actually, when you come to Grimsby and it’s all independent businesses – what a lovely thing that is.”
The Comfy Duck is one such business. It’s thriving, offering the type of haute cuisine that’d be welcome in any city bistro and deserving its AA Rosette, perhaps even a Michelin star. Nearby there’s even a hipster-friendly cocktail bar: The Bobbin serves jam jar cocktails for the modest price of £3.50.
Of course, these are both in Cleethorpes. A divide accidentally illustrated by the bar’s manager, Carl Hardy – a labourer turned entrepreneur – when he takes great offence at Grimsby’s latest award. “Not a good place to be a man? I’m married, but there’s f*cking loads of fanny in here!”
He pauses, smiles. “OK,” he adds, “maybe not in Grimsby – there are some battleaxes there – but in Cleethorpes…”