I bought a York City turnstile at auction. It’s the best £300 I’ve spent | Soccer

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An auctioneer marched through the listed items as if he had a train to catch. There was no ceremony or fanfare, just Lot after Lot, his voice like the incessant rhythm of a sewing machine. On a screen 200 miles away, I watched mesmerised. His hammer fell on bids for a brass-bound bucket jardinière, a cast concrete trough, a copper and zinc weathervane, a Victorian terracotta chimney pot and a pair of vintage step ladders. Then he announced Lot 7243, “A cast iron turnstile from York City football ground.”

It was the first of eight such turnstiles on sale, each heaved from the soon-to-be bulldozed Bootham Crescent like particularly obstinate molars. I watched because I cared and because I wanted to write about the process of selling off a beloved ground – who buys the signs and seats, why do they do so, what does the item mean to them and where does it end up? These turnstiles and everything else that was being sold off had belonged to the old ground, and sometimes so had I. Growing up in York, Bootham Crescent had been another home in childhood and through my teenage years, and now it would exist no more. Empty space and then houses would overcome a place where crowds had roared and groaned, tarmac over grass. Her insides were being scattered and there were corners of the world that would be forever York City.

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Bids for Lot 7248 did not gather pace as they had for the previous five of these iron refugees. The first had gone for £320, and then prices had increased with each turnstile – £340, £420, £440 and then £460. But 7248 seemed to linger on £280. She was going once, going twice and in a few split seconds some romantic, foolish instinct struck me. It decreed that £300 would not be so much for something so magical. A few minutes later, I phoned my wife.

“I’ve done something daft.”
“Are you OK?”
“I’ve bought a turnstile.”
“Oh.”

My turnstile obsession began when I was a child and has blossomed in adulthood. Back then, I was enthralled by these great hulking contraptions that were almost impossible to push and that seemed to swallow grown men alive. In more recent times, I have felt a thrill when encountering the majesty of an old model built a century or more ago, still elegant and still working. These ornate, useful antiques are to their modern and loveless electronic equivalents what a steam train is to a driverless car. One possesses inherent beauty and soul, the other is shallow and eerie.

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I love their curves and flourishes, and the way they did not need to be aesthetically delightful, but are. We have lost that ethos in most things we make now, certainly if they have to be functional. I love the hefty ironwork, moulded and chiselled and crafted into something intricate. I love the sound they make, an industrial music of staccato clacks, each note a notch that carries us closer to the match. I love that they are wheels of fortune, tossing you from the street, through a dark portal and into light and possibility. I love that they are historic objects because that possesses an intrinsic value in itself, but also because the turnstile’s past is our past.

In a singsong font, the brass plate etchings on most old turnstiles boast a variation on the same message: “Rush Preventive Turnstile. Sole Makers: W.T. Ellison & Co. Limited. Irlams o’ th’ Height. Salford.” There were other makers – Bailey’s, also of Salford, with their Quick Action Turnstile, for instance – but it is the Ellison product which is still stumbled upon most, from Cornwall to Caithness.

Like so much that is good, they were once to be found mostly at the seaside. During the Victorian mania for building piers, funicular railways and other constructions that existed for pleasure alone, turnstiles were used in resorts to charge entry. Being so robust they did not need replacing, and when seaside hysteria slowed so too did the turnstile industry.

Daniel Gray’s turnstile from Bootham Crescent

Enter football: by the late 19th century, this blooming sport needed to move on from the pay box and the wooden pall, and to manage its growing crowds and make sure they paid for entrance. That latter endeavour was not always successful; though design changes largely curtailed the pursuit of children sidling underneath the turnstile’s ironwork, even a century later, when I started attending matches, we kids were often being “lifted over” (or, given “a squeeze” as it was curiously called at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park home).

Ellison’s claimed that their Rush Preventive model could safely admit up to 4,000 spectators an hour. Its cumbersome brawn made it near impossible to breach. Here was an unyielding, beautiful beast of the industrial age that was about to become mine.

“How will you get it here?”, my wife had asked in that phone call. There was a fortnight’s delay while the auction house found that not many delivery companies wanted to transport this deadweight iron cattle from North Yorkshire to Leith. Then, finally, it was communicated that a van was driving north and would convey the turnstile to its new home. Predictably, I was not in when they arrived three hours early. They dumped this oversized package on a wooden pallet outside our front gate, in the street. “At least they didn’t try and put it in the wheelie bin like Yodel would’ve,” I remarked to my wife later, though I’m not sure she laughed.

Returning home that evening, I rounded the corner and encountered my turnstile under the fuzzy glow of the streetlight, a dark green curio landed from another planet. She was everything I hoped she would be; tall yet sturdy, frilly yet pragmatic, and in possession of a seemingly ancient charisma. Being younger than her Victorian relatives, she had long narrow spindles that whispered of Art Deco days. I fell instantly, uncritically and irrevocably in love. I just had to work out how on earth she was going to fit through the garden gate.

Daylight permitted a closer inspection. Now I could see specks of red and blue paint among the green; previous coats from pre-season renewals of yore. I decided instantly that I would only clean up the turnstile and not paint it in some revitalising shade. These morsels of emulsion were the layers of its past; lines in the stories it wanted to tell and the interesting crow’s feet on an old man’s face. Removing the plate on the turnstile’s top surface, I found a golden brass-cased counter still in place, refined like a piece of nautical equipment on an old ship and paused at the number 26,854.

Daniel Gray’s turnstile from Bootham Crescent – turnstile number and counter

I ran a hand along the turnstile’s other surfaces, something there is never time to do in the rush of entering a ground – this object had always been for shoving, not stroking. Among the soft friction of the curved gate bar, my hand encountered a rough line of tape. Here too could have been the “Once upon a time” beginning of a yarn. A turnstile was designed to fully revolve once for each spectator. Make a mark in chalk or with tape, and a crooked operator could usher forward the next person queuing with his turnstile just halfway through its revolution. Only one of the pair would count in that day’s attendance figure, and only one of their admission fees would make it into club coffers. I would not be peeling off the tape.

The turnstile was heavier than I imagined in the way that an ocean is slightly larger than a puddle. I had no way of measuring its weight but would put it somewhere between a hatchback car and the Principality of Andorra. Summoning strength dormant in me from younger, fitter days, I shoved it partially away from the wall it had been discarded beside. My daughter arrived home from school and questions about how it worked then developed into an experiment now. I would land my foot on the floor pedal and she would attempt to push the turnstile as if entering a stadium only we could see.

Until that moment, it had not even occurred to me that the turnstile might still work, proof that adults don’t dream enough. As such, when it lunged into life upon the jolt she gave it, my joy was enhanced by an element of besotted shock. Then it clacked once, twice, three times, making a sound that danced across the air, a melody crammed with reminiscence and meaning. “Can I go again?” my daughter asked, just as she used to in the park or at the fair, “And can we see if the counting machine works?” We slid away the brass plate, leaned a foot on the pedal again and through she walked. The counter flickered onwards, awoken after years of hibernation, groggy but splendid. Centurions of goosebumps amassed across my arms and back; if this purchase was my midlife crisis, then it was a bloody good one.

The reaction of others was frequently heart-warming and occasionally life-affirming. My wife rejoiced in my child-at-Christmas glee, our daughter enjoyed making a few laps of the turnstile each day before and after school. Neighbours were intrigued rather than irritated; one morning, spotting a man inspecting the turnstile, I doomily imagined I had contravened some planning regulation. I went outside and greeted him. “Is this yours?”, he said, wearing something close to a spellbound expression, “It is absolutely astonishing. What an incredible object.” Later, a man in his fifties from a few doors down came to undertake his own inspection. As I demonstrated it turning, he closed his eyes: “Bloody hell, I’m right back there, Easter Road … that noise. Paying up. Breathing in to get by.”

Detail shots of Daniel Gray’s turnstile from Bootham Crescent.

Twitter posts about the purchase reaped kind words, stories of others who had made similar purchases and an appearance on national radio. One correspondent had worked at Bootham Crescent, and was able to identify, by the “15” daubed on the back of the turnstile, the location of the gate it had come from. Others volunteered turnstile memories – the man who had got stuck in one and missed a goal, the woman who recalled the arduous task of squeezing through when With Child. Ingrained deep in the cast iron were breezy tales and solid memories.

After a few days of measuring and diagram drawing, and a few nights of unsettled and worried sleep, a plan for bringing the turnstile into the garden was conceived. It involved a trip to B&Q for two dolly trolleys and the carpentry skills and strength of one of my dearest friends, Mark. Somehow, we wheeled the beast into the garden and hauled her on to her patio perch. Neighbours hung out from windows on either side of the street and cheered.

The new issue of Nutmeg is out now.
The new issue of Nutmeg is out now.

Now, this slab of Bootham Crescent rests far from home but is cherished more than ever before. Never has it seen such light or been loved in this way; Christ, I even cover her in tarpaulin when it rains. Our cat sleeps where thousands pushed their fivers and tenners and received change from mysterious hands in fingerless gloves. On days of stress or angst, I flatten the pedal, give a push and let the clanking soothe me and take me elsewhere.

All day long, I can look out of my window and see part of a place that so many of us loved. Bootham Crescent has gone, and yet it hasn’t. It is right out there, between the tulips and the money puzzle tree.

This article appeared first in Nutmeg
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